We all have heard the phrase ‘social justice’ and seen questions about this phrase quite a bit these past few weeks, particularly in terms of the migration ordeal playing out from the Middle East to Europe, and certainly during the Pope Francis visit to Cuba and the USA. So, it would be expected that someone like myself, who has written a book entitled Social Justice and Deep Participation would be able and willing to state an immediate answer to the question, “what is social justice”. Well, the problem is, I can think of several definitions that I like, but none that totally describe what I believe social justice is, and what it has the potential to become. As a result, in the introductory chapter of my book I suggest it is “a statement of mutual direction” and that, as such, it deserves a process of “collective learning” on our part.

So, why is this question, “what is social justice” so difficult to answer?

What is Social JusticeI believe there is one particular reason. It is political, and it is being engulfed in the fast-moving social change that is currently surrounding us all. Initially, the political aspect of what is social justice seems to be particularly important. Further exploration reveals that to be true, but not in the way that most of us believe.

Background and history of social justice are important here. The social connotations of justice have been discussed by philosophers for several millennia, but the phrase ‘social justice’ itself is a relative newcomer. From the 17th through 18th centuries, as the rights of the individual began to be defined and clarified during the Enlightenment period, new philosophies evolved. The most influential, by several proponents of the Enlightenment trend was the notion of ‘utilitarianism’—“the greatest good for the greatest number”. But in this situation, what about that unfortunate minority? A difficult question, so awareness and demand for human rights continued.

The term ‘social justice’, evidently first used in the 1840s, continued to expand these perspectives. A critical component of social justice’s conceptual recognition was introduced during this same time period by the philosophy of Karl Marx with his introduction of the historic role played by the working class. Continuing on, various initiatives centered on the social justice perspective. In the early 20th century, for example, Mahatma Gandhi started a South African social movement of civil disobedience against the injustice of apartheid, and by the early 1920’s, numerous groups—including the International Labor Union (ILO) —used the term to push for worker’s rights. In other words, the recognition of ‘social justice’ as a term and concept was inter-dependent with the rise of the individual, the often disputed emergence of democracy, and new perceptions concerning human rights.

For many of us non-historians, however, this era can be summarized by France’s classical triplet of liberty, equality, and fraternity. But there was a prior triplet which is not nearly as well known, but is equally important. It is: liberty, equality, and property. Samir Amin, the well known political economist and author of Eurocentrism, tells us that this slogan, initially utilized in the English United Provinces Revolution of 1688, was subsequently “adopted more systematically by the American Revolution, and then by the French Revolution in its first phase”.

However, even during this revolutionary period, the multiple conflicts of between this original triplet’s words—‘property’ and ‘equality’—proved unsolvable. As a result, the term ‘fraternity’ was ultimately substituted for ‘property’. As Samir Amin suggests, while this term might imply at least some method of equal holding or sharing of properties, it did not offer, “the access to the conditions of an equality worthy of the name”. Its substitute, ‘fraternity’ simply meant individuals sharing in the property of citizenship.[1]

As a result of this history, we begin to understand that the ability to explain ‘what is social justice’ is even more difficult than initially anticipated. That difficulty continues today and is reflected in recent 21th century current political stand-offs. For example, in the USA we have the libertarian right which holds that individual ‘liberty’ trumps all other concerns, including ‘equality’ which is not recognized. In the middle we have the neo-liberals which depend upon a much attenuated version of John Rawls definition of social justice. And on the so-called left, we have numerous specific ‘conceptualizations’ (as John Rawls would define them) of social justice action for peoples and the planet, but no particular agreements as to how social justice can be constituted for an entire society. And these political groupings, under different labels, are to be found in most democratic countries around the world.

Because of this constant, competitive, and coercive political discourse we understand that the question—‘what is social justice’— is of importance. However, what we don’t understand is that, at this point in time, this question cannot be actually solved politically. To illustrate this situation let’s review a definition of social justice that I think is quite good, so that we can briefly explore why political definitions and solutions are no longer sufficient.

“Social justice is defined as…promoting a just society by challenging injustice and valuing diversity”. It exist when “all people share a common humanity and therefore have a right to equitable treatment, support for their human rights, and a fair allocation of community resources”. In conditions of social justice, people are “not discriminated against, nor their welfare and well-being constrained or prejudiced on the basis of gender, sexuality, religion, political affiliations, age, race, belief, disability, location, social class, socio-economic circumstances, or other characteristics of background or group membership.[2]

There are two basic reasons why defining ‘what is social justice’ and then effectively practicing it, are outside of the political realm’s capacity as defined above. The first is that governments in almost every democratic country now use neutrality, and sometimes avoidance, in their implementation of existing laws dealing with social justice, because it is viewed as so highly divisive. Second, politics as currently practiced in many countries do not allow for further consideration of social justice. For example, if we look at the centrist view of John Rawl’s ‘liberal egalitarian perspective’ mentioned earlier, on which the above definition is based, immediate difficulties can be recognized. Overall, while Rawls defines an elegant and ethical theory of social justice, the theory itself also offers ways to effectively defer and circumvent social justice implementation. Sadly, most of the proponents of this middle-of-the road social justice definition can attest to the illustrations of deferral and circumvention which often accompany it.

This deferral and circumvention usually happens when efforts are made to sustain social justice for the long-term, after initial implementation of a particular law. Here the ‘right’ continues to undercut the law’s legitimacy with repeated efforts to ‘roll it back’. One USA historical example is the civil rights decision of 1956. Other more recent attempts include affirmative action, fair housing regulations, and voter rights legislation. Centrists continue to celebrate a law’s initial implementation while disregarding current difficulties. At the same time, those to the left bemoan the lack of real impact in terms of substantive and enduring social justice, but do not have the where-with-all to sustain a political push-back. So, while we cannot lose sight of the fact that there have been major successes, we also need to recognize the facts as they exist today

The result of all this? If we rely on its normal political context, the question ‘what is social justice’ cannot be answered in any responsible fashion. But there are other avenues that can deepen and substantively anchor this important democracy factor. One of these avenues is a greater understanding the term equality and its implications. We will discuss this issue and others in the next Blog, “What Is Social Justice: Part II”.


[1] Samir Amin, (2009) Eurocentrism, Monthly Review Press, 2nd Ed., New York, pp. 15-23.

[2] Toowoomba Catholic Education (2006), as quoted by Mathew Robinson, Dept of Government & Justice Studies,   Appalachian State University website.