“Social justice is a political philosophy that values equality and solidarity”.[1] This seemingly simple definition of “what is social justice?” gives us critical insights into how the question is more complex, and also more important than anticipated.   As this definition points out, it is a political philosophy; but its two components—equality and solidarity—demand much more than either political discourse or political action. As discussed in the previous blog (#8), avoidance tactics, deferrals and circumventions are utilized by most democratic governments in their attempts to implement social justice laws and regulations. Clearly, this situation makes it apparent that something is wrong in our approach. Evidently, an effective and true response to the question of “what is social justice?” demands a greater comprehension of its complexity, and how social justice actually works.

The definition’s two elements—equality and solidarity—-indicate how to begin understanding this complexity. In brief, both of these components stand outside, not inside the political and economic processes through which they are supposedly attained. As described in an earlier blog (#2), deep participation dynamics—social in nature, inclusive, collective, and featuring collaborative critical thought— is where elements such as these must initially be considered. When successful, deep participation dynamics can then create an enduring social integrative power, giving a bedrock social legitimacy to change elements such as equality, solidarity and social justice.

This is the critical complexity nexus for defining social justice. It is only when change elements such as these are recognized and conferred with social legitimacy through the internalized dynamics of deep participation that enduring societal change becomes a possibility. Equally important, it is at this point that the underlying social institutions which shape our shared values, beliefs, and worldviews, can themselves be changed. Recognition of this process allows us to understand that finding an initial answer to the question “what is social justice?” opens up an entire new perspective.

So, what happens when the concept of social justice does not have this bedrock social legitimacy—when social justice is rooted only within the economic and political power processes? The element of equality makes a good illustration. Equality, and its converse inequality, is one of those matched terms that we think we know quite a bit about. One of the most prevalent opinions in our world today is that it is the poor who will primarily benefit from increases in equality; and it is the rich who will be required to shoulder the burden of these increases, thus losing some of their money, and valued liberty, in the process. As a result, these decisions become a political football with the left and right on opposing teams.

If we back up for a moment, and actually assess the element of equality using facts and reliable data, it turns out that what we think we know is not really true at all. The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, gives a fact-based picture of equality that is at odds with most of our opinions. For the purposes of this discussion I want to briefly discuss two of their game-changing concepts.[2]

The first is the level of positive difference that greater equality creates for multiple societies. The authors’ documentation shows that greater equality is aligned with many fewer social and health problems, while inequality is similarly, but conversely, aligned with extraordinary expansion of these same problems. These problems include: (i) community life and social relations; (ii) mental health and drug use; (iii) physical health and life expectancy; (iv) obesity; (v)educational performance; (vi) teenage births (vii) violence;      (viii) imprisonment and punishment; (ix) social mobility; and (x) social mobility.

As Wilkinson and Pickett point out, high levels of equality have similar positive effects on all of these problems, not just one or two. And conversely, high levels of inequality are documented to have intensely negative effects across the board.[3] It is interesting to note here that in the book’s graphs, the USA, with Portugal and Saudi Arabia placed just below, are all located on the high end of inequality with consequent high levels of health and social problems. In contrast, among countries with high levels of equality, we find Japan and the Scandinavian countries with low levels of social and health problems

The second game-changing concept is the widespread harm caused by greater inequality. Contrary to expectations, the vast majority of a country’s population suffers—not just the poor. In the author’s words, “the effects of inequality are not confined to just the least well-off: instead, they affect the majority of the population”.[4] For example, in both age and health comparisons, the USA, which has extremely high rates of inequality, has substantially poorer averages for all population groups (including richer and middle-class categories of white Americans) than the populations (including their poorer groups) of most other developed countries with lower rates of inequality. Given this assessment, it is clear that equality clearly deserves recognition as an important component when responding to the question of “what is social justice?”

So, what is going on here? Clearly, rational assessments indicate that policies and practice of equality do substantively increase a population’s well-being, and at the same time decreases the probability of injustice. But for those that strongly object to laws and policies that will increase equality, that is not the problem. Instead, the real issue goes back to what is perceived as legitimate. Although the consideration and discussion about equality and expansion of social justice is taking place within the political process, the deeper and more profound consideration has already been undertaken within the underlying and belief-shaping social institutions, perhaps several generations back. Or perhaps these beliefs have more recently been adopted, as a critical motif of a group in which membership is desired.

Whatever the case, decisions to vehemently block, or ardently support equality comes from those more profound collective and social institutions which shape our diverse individualities rather than any rational appraisal of what equality itself can accomplish. It is these same social institutions, as discussed earlier (#1), that give to our working institutions, through conferring legitimacy, the license to operate. But while economic and political institutions are able to maintain legitimacy, they are not able to create it. And when groups and societies are so divided on what constitutes legitimate belief, policy, and action, the feasible possibility of political compromise no longer exists. As a result, democratic decision-making is stalled.

Thus, understanding “what is social justice?” and actually making it work will necessitate stepping beyond these political and economic processes and powers. To do so however, will also require acknowledging and learning how to work within that second element of ‘solidarity’, which along with equality, creates and defines social justice. In the next blog we will discuss how solidarity—particularly sustainable solidarity—is a critical element for success—and how it substantively changes how we approach social justice problems.


[1]Wikipedia definition.

[2] Richard Wilkinson & Kate Pickett (2010) The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger, Bloomsbury Press, NY.

[3] See Wilkinson and Pickett, Section two: The Costs of Inequality, chapters 4-12

[4] Wilkinson and Pickett, p.176