What is Social Justice?

Matthew Robinson, PhD

Social justice is defined as "... promoting a just society by challenging injustice and valuing diversity." It exists 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 be 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, socioeconomic circumstances, or other characteristic of background or group membership" (Toowoomba Catholic Education, 2006).

Social justice is generally equated with the notion of equality or equal opportunity in society. Although equality is undeniably part of social justice, the meaning of social justice is actually much broader (Scherlen and Robinson, 2008). Further, "equal opportunity" and similar phrases such as "personal responsibility" have been used to diminish the prospective for realizing social justice by justifying enormous inequalities in modern society (Berry, 2005). The most recent theories of and scholarly statements about social justice illustrate the complex nature of the concept.

Two of the most prominent statements about social justice, each of which posits its own theory of social justice, are John Rawls' (2003) Justice as Fairness and David Miller's (2003) Principles of Social Justice. While neither of these theories can be considered an exhaustive treatment of the subject matter, each offers a complex theory of social justice that illustrates its broad meaning. Both conceptions of social justice are similar, so there is significant overlap between the main ideas of the theorists; this is likely due to the fact that they are founded on like principles and based on previously posited theories from significant historical political philosophers (Brighouse, 2005).

Below, I thoroughly summarize the social justice theories of John Rawls and David Miller. By understanding the arguments of these two authors, the purposes of the Center for Social Justice and Human Rights should become clearer.

John Rawls

Goal of the Book

John Rawls posits a theory of social justice commonly referred to as "justice as fairness." Rawls (2003) set out to sketch a theory of social justice that would answer the questions: "once we view a democratic society as a fair system of social cooperation between citizens regarded as free and equal, what principles are most appropriate to it?" and "...which principles are most appropriate for a democratic society that not only professes but wants to take seriously ... that citizens are free and equal, and tries to realize that idea in its main institutions?"[1]

What is Social Justice?

To Rawls, social justice is about assuring the protection of equal access to liberties, rights, and opportunities, as well as taking care of the least advantaged members of society. Thus, whether something is just or unjust depends on whether it promotes or hinders equality of access to civil liberties, human rights, opportunities for healthy and fulfilling lives, as well as whether it allocates a fair share of benefits to the least advantaged members of society.

Rawls' conception of social justice is developed around the idea of a social contract, whereby people freely enter into an agreement to follow certain rules for the betterment of everyone, without considering the implications of these rules for their own selfish gain. Rawls posits that rational, free people will agree to play by the rules under fair conditions and that this agreement is necessary to assure social justice because public support is critical to the acceptance of the rules of the game (Rawls, 2003: 27-28). These rules or principles "specify the basic rights and duties to be assigned by the main political and social institutions, and they regulate the division of benefits arising from social cooperation and allot the burdens necessary to sustain it" (Rawls, 2003: 7).

Rawls does not suggest that everyone will agree with what justice requires in given situations, but rather that his conception of justice as fairness can fit into "conflicting doctrines" because of what he calls "overlapping consensus." That is, people agree enough about the basic principles of justice he offers that even when they disagree about larger moral, religious of philosophical issues they can still agree about issues of social justice (Rawls, 2003: 32-37).

It is important to note that Rawls' theory is one of domestic justice (principles that apply to the basic structures of society) and not of local justice (principles that apply to institutions and associations in society) or global justice (principles applying to international law) (Rawls, 2003: 11-12). Rawls says that global justice is beyond the scope of his theory, although international law is relevant for social justice. Further, the principles of social justice that apply to the structures of society help determine what is just within society's institutions and associations.

Finally, Rawls does not posit an unrealistically utopian vision of what is justice but instead offers a theory of social justice that is "realistically utopian" (Rawls, 2003: 4). Rawls attempts to answer "[w]hat would a just democratic society be like under reasonably favorable by still possible historical conditions, conditions allowed by the laws and tendencies of the social world?"

Rawls' Principles of Social Justice: Equal Liberties, Equal Opportunity, and the Difference Principle

Rawls' theory of "justice as fairness," aimed at answering the above questions, can be summarized with two primary principles. They are:

  • Each person has the same indefensible claim to a fully adequate scheme of equal basic liberties, which scheme is compatible with the same scheme of liberties for all[2]; and
  • Social and economic inequalities are to satisfy two conditions: first, they are to be attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity[3]; and second, they are to be to the greatest benefit of the least-advantaged members of society[4] (Rawls, 2003: 42-43).

According to Rawls, these principles are ordered, meaning the first principle (the "equal liberties principle") should be achieved before efforts to achieve the second principle are attempted. Further, the first part of the second principle (the "equal opportunity principle") precedes the second part (the "difference principle").

The ordering of the principles suggests that, to Rawls, equality is the most important element of social justice. Equality means a fair distribution of each of the capacities needed "to be normal and fully cooperating members of society over a complete life" (Rawls, 2003: 18). Rawls explains that the "priority [of equality] means ... that the second principle (which includes the difference principle as one part) is always to be applied within a setting of background institutions that satisfy the requirements of the first principle (including the requirement of securing the fair value of the political liberties) ..." (Rawls, 2003: 46). Background institutions refer to basic structures of society (e.g., family, school, religion, economy, polity), which, when just, can be referred to as "background justice" (Rawls, 2003: 10).

The Scope of the Principles

Not only can Rawls' first principle be differentiated from the second in terms of priority or importance, each also has its own scope. That is, each is meant to have its own unique applications. According to Rawls, the first principle applies to the "constitutional essentials" whereas the second applies to "the background institutions of social and economic justice in the form most appropriate to citizens seen as free and equal" (Rawls, 2003: 47-48).

Rawls explains that the principles of justice as fairness are adopted and applied in a four-stage sequence. The first is the adoption of the principles of justice to regulate a society. Rawls (2003: 15) asserts that these must be adopted behind a "veil of ignorance," which exists when there is a limit on information because "parties are not allowed to know the social positions or the particular comprehensive doctrines of the people they represent. They also do not know persons' race and ethnic group, sex, or various native endowments such as strength and intelligence, all within the normal range."

The second phase is the constitutional convention, which sets forth the institutions and basic processes of governance. The third stage is the legislative stage, where just laws are enacted. Finally, the fourth stage is the application of the rules by administrators, the interpretation of the constitution and laws by the judiciary, and the following of the rules by members of society in the conditions required by justice as fairness.

When are Inequalities Unjust?

Just because Rawls' conception of social justice values equality, this does not mean that equal outcomes will be achieved in society, or that they even can be. In fact, Rawls' second principle asserts that inequalities in society are acceptable as long as they meet two conditions. First, as per the "equal opportunity principle," inequalities are acceptable if every person in society has a reasonable chance of obtaining the positions that lead to the inequalities. An example would be equal opportunity to achieve any job. Rawls (2003: 43) specifies that "fair equality of opportunity" requires "not merely that public offices and social positions open in the formal sense, but that all should have a fair chance to attain them."

Further, Rawls (2003: 44) is very explicit that beyond this, "certain requirements must be imposed on the basic structure beyond those of the system of natural liberty. A free market system must be set within a framework of political and legal institutions that adjust the long-run trend of economic forces so as to prevent excessive concentrations of property and wealth, especially those likely to lead to political domination." Beyond political domination, extreme concentrations of wealth "are likely to undermine fair equality of opportunity [and] the fair value of the political liberties" (Rawls, 2003: 53).

Second, as per the "difference principle," inequalities in society must be organized so that they are to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged members of society. After explaining that today's economic inequalities are simply not acceptable, Rawls (2003: 59-60) explains the difference principle this way: "To say that inequalities in income and wealth are to be arranged for the greatest benefit of the least advantaged simply means that we are to compare schemes of cooperation by seeing how well off the least advantaged are under each scheme, and then to select the scheme under which the least advantaged are better off than they are under any other scheme." With two competing arrangements of incomes in a society, the fairer of the two -- and therefore the more just of the two -- is the one that is to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged. For example, if in one arrangement, the most well off class (e.g., chief financial officers) received compensation in the amount of ten million dollars per year while the least well off (e.g., average workers) were paid a salary of $14,000, and in another the most well off received compensation in the amount of three million dollars per year while the least off were paid a salary of $30,000, the second arrangement would be to the greatest advantage of the least advantaged and thus the most just.

By the least advantaged, Rawls is referring to those who lack what he calls "primary goods" (Rawls, 2003: 53). Primary goods, according to Rawls, include "things needed and required by persons seen in the light of the political conception of persons, as citizens who are fully cooperating members of society, and not merely as human beings apart from any normative conception. These goods are things citizens need as free and equal persons living a complete life; they are not things it is simply rational to want or desire, or to prefer or even to crave" (Rawls, 2003: 58). Such goods include:

  • The basic rights and liberties: freedom of thought and liberty of conscience, and the rest;
  • Freedom of movement and free choice of occupation against a background of diverse opportunities, which opportunities allow the pursuit of a variety of ends and give effect to decisions to revise and alter them;
  • Powers and prerogatives of office and position of authority and responsibility;
  • Income and wealth, understood as all-purpose means (having an exchange value) generally needed to achieve a wide range of ends whatever they may be; and
  • The social bases of self-respect, understood as those aspects of basic institutions normally essential if citizens are to have a lively sense of their worth as persons and to be able to advance their ends with self-confidence (Rawls, 2003: 58-59).

The Relevance of Human Rights

It should also be noted that Rawls (2003: 13) acknowledges the importance of "human rights" as well. He writes: "A just world order is perhaps best seen as a society of peoples, each people maintaining a well-ordered and decent political (domestic) regime, not necessarily democratic but fully respecting basic human rights." Human rights are expansive and include rights in the following areas: general freedom; dignity; life; liberty; security; equality before the law; fair and public hearings by independent and impartial tribunals; presumption of innocence until proven guilty; freedom of movement and residence; right to seek and gain asylum from persecution; right to a nationality; the right to marry and have a family; right to own property; freedom of thought, conscience and religion; freedom of opinion and expression; freedom of peaceful assembly and association; the right to participate in government; the right to social security; the right to work by free choice and to have protection against unemployment; the right to equal pay for equal work; the right to rest and leisure; the right to an adequate standard of living, including "food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age ..."; the right to education; the right to participate in the community and "to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits"; the right to the "protection of the moral and material interests resulting from any scientific, literary or artistic production of which [one] is the author." Additionally, people enjoy freedom from slavery or servitude; torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment; discrimination; arbitrary arrest, detention, or exile; arbitrary interference with privacy; among many others.[5]

How to Use Rawls' Theory

We can use Rawls' theory of "justice as fairness" to determine if any process or outcome is consistent with social justice. When a process or outcome does not comport with any of Rawls' principles, we can conclude that it is not consistent with social justice. That is, something is not consistent with Rawls' conception of social justice if it interferes with any person's indefensible claims to equal basic liberties (the "equal liberties principle"); or if inequalities in society are not attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity (the "equal opportunity principle"); or if inequalities in society are not arranged to the greatest benefit of the least-advantaged members of society (the "difference principle").

This theory can be used to assess any government policy or social condition to determine if it is consistent or inconsistent with this theory of social justice. Thus, any government policy or social condition can be judged as consistent or inconsistent with social justice based on whether it is consistent or inconsistent with Rawls' principles of social justice.

David Miller

Goal of the Book

David Miller posits a pluralistic and circumstantial theory of social justice that is built around those principles of justice that people actually hold.[6] The theory can be considered pluralistic or circumstantial because different parts of his conception of social justice are more or less relevant depending on the circumstances (Miller, 2003: 62-63). That is, social justice depends on the context of given situations.

Millers' (2003: ix) goal was to discover those principles people actually use when judging whether parts of society are just or unjust. Miller created his theory from public opinion polls and studies of public opinion with regard to different elements of justice. He does this in part because, while social justice must be "critical" in nature so that changes toward more fairness in society can be achieved, it must not be utopian. That is, it must be supported by citizens and can realistically be achieved.

It is important to note that Miller finds that people's views of justice are actually pluralistic in that they are determined by the context of a situation (Miller, 2003: 62-63). This suggests that whether something is judged as just or unjust depends not only on the principles of justice that people hold but also in part on the nature of the situation. For example, individuals at work might generally be motivated by recognition for their own contributions (merit), in group situations there is usually more of a focus on recognition for everyone on the team, especially when the group is made up of a close-knit group of individuals (equality) (Miller, 2003: 64-65).

What is Social Justice?

To Miller, social justice deals with the distribution of good (advantages) and bad (disadvantages) in society, and more specifically with how these things should be distributed within society. Further, social justice is concerned with the ways that resources are allocated to people by social institutions (Miller, 2003: 11). Some of the advantages relevant for social justice include money, property, jobs, education, medical care, child care, care for the elderly, honors and prizes, personal security, housing, transportation, and opportunities for leisure. Some of the disadvantages include military service, dangerous work, and other hardships. Keep in mind that Miller's theory applies to both public goods as well as private commodities (Miller, 2003: 10).

Whether something is just or unjust thus depends on whether advantages and disadvantages are distributed appropriately in society. Miller (2003: 1) explains that when "we attack some policy or some state of affairs as socially unjust, we are claiming that a person, or more usually a category of persons, enjoys fewer advantages than that person or group of persons ought to enjoy (or bears more of the burdens than they ought to bear), given how other members of the society in question are fairing."

Miller clearly points out that, when considering policies to allocate advantages and disadvantages, we must not judge them based on how they benefit us personally: "Justice is about assigning benefits whose values are established by their worth to the relevant population taken as a whole, and it must be blind to personal preferences (Miller, 2003: 8, emphasis added). Further, Miller (2003: 22) says that "justice fundamentally requires us to treat people as equals; or we should understand justice as what people would agree to in advance of knowing their own stake in the decision to be reached." Social justice efforts can not merely be rationalizations of self-interest (Miller, 2003: 87).

To Miller, social justice is a social virtue that pertains to what you are due or owed, as well as what you owe others (Miller, 2003: 21, 33). It requires that everyone agrees to treat others as equals in a manner that is not egocentric or selfish. This does not mean that everyone has to agree on all procedures to bring about justice, for people generally agree on what justice demands (this is called the stability of justice) (Miller, 2003: 24).

Clearly, Miller holds that social justice is much broader than distributive justice (Miller, 2003: 2) as well as retributive justice or a justice of punishments (Miller, 2003: 3). In terms of criminal justice then, Miller is talking about something much bigger than the practices of police, courts, and corrections. The theory does depend on the state, however, for the state is the primary agency capable of bringing about reform. Further, it is the state that is capable of using force to make sure people are complying with social justice requirements (Miller, 2003: 19). Some mechanisms used by the state to assure justice or injustice include property laws, taxes, health care, criminal punishment, etc. (Miller, 2003: 11). The theory also can be used to judged the state, for not only must individuals comply with it but so too must the institutions within society. That is, there must be a culture of social justice (Miller, 2003: 12-13).

Miller's Three Elements of Social Justice: Need, Desert, and Equality

Miller's theory focuses on the concepts of need, desert, and equality. Need is a claim that one is lacking is basic necessities and is being harmed or is in danger of being harmed and/or that one's capacity to function is being impeded (Miller, 2003: 207, 210). Desert is a claim that one has earned reward based on performance, that superior performance should attract superior recognition (Miller, 2003: 134, 141). Equality refers to the social ideal that society regards and treats its citizens as equals, and that benefits such as certain rights should be distributed equally (Miller, 2003: 232).

It is important to note that need, desert, and equality all refer to outcomes. That is, this theory is not one of procedural justice, which is separate and distinct (Miller 2003: 94). Miller claims that procedural justice is important (and it is for criminal justice processes), but also points out that just procedures will not necessarily produce just outcomes (Miller, 2003: 96). The good news is there are four procedures we can follow to increase the odds of a just outcome -- formal equality, accuracy, publicity, and dignity (Miller, 2003: 99-102).

Miller's (2003: 25) theory asserts that whether need, desert, or equality takes precedence depends on which "mode of human relationship" is being considered. This is because "we can best understand which demands of justice someone can make of us by looking first at the particular nature of relationship." A mode of human relationship refers to the different kinds of relationships that people have with one another.

Modes of Human Relationships: Solidaristic Community, Instrumental Associations, and Citizenship

Miller (2003: 26) specifies three basic modes of human relationships, including the solidaristic community, instrumental associations, and citizenship. A solidaristic community "exists when people share a common identity as members of a relatively stable group with a common ethos" (e.g., family relations). In this mode of human relationships, the principle of distribution according to need is most relevant: "Each member is expected to contribute to relieving the needs of others in proportion to ability, the extent of liability depending upon how close the ties of community are in each case ... Needs will be understood in terms of the general ethos of the community. Each community embodies, implicitly or explicitly, a sense of the standards that an adequate human life must meet, and it is in terms of this benchmark that the much-contested distinction between needs, which are matters of justice, and mere wants is drawn" (Miller, 2003: 27). Miller is clear to differentiate needs (meeting what is minimally necessary to avoid harm) versus wants or preferences (Miller, 2003: 203, 207, 211). Needs are also held to be community-specific rather than individual-specific and thus can vary across places (Miller, 2003: 210, 212).

Instrumental associations exist when "people relate to one another in a utilitarian manner; each has aims and purposes that can best be realized by collaboration with others" (e.g., economic relations). In this mode of human relationships, the principle of distribution according to desert is most relevant: "Each person comes to the association as a free agent with a set of skills and talents that he deploys to advance its goals. Justice is done when he receives back by way of reward an equivalent to the contribution he makes. A person's deserts, in other words, are fixed by the aims and purposes of the association to which she belongs; these provide the measuring rod in terms of which relative contributions can be judged" (Miller, 2003: 28). Desert is measured based on actual performance rather than efforts or attributes (Miller, 2003: 134, 137). It assumes that superior performance (not superior talents) should attract superior reward (Miller, 2003: 141. 146). Desert lies at the heart of a meritocratic system (Miller, 2003: 177).

Finally, citizenship refers to "members of a political society" in "modern liberal democracies" who "are related not just through their communities and their instrumental associations but also as fellow citizens. Anyone who is a full member of such a society is understood to be the bearer of a set of rights and obligations that together define the status of citizen." In this mode of human relationship, the principle of distribution according to equality is most relevant because everyone in the society is deemed equal in terms of certain rights (Miller, 2003: 30). Here, every citizen deserves certain equal rights (Miller, 2003: 237).

The Relevance of Human Rights

Because of the citizenship mode, human rights play a significant role in Miller's theory of social justice. Miller (2003:13) explains that "a central element in any theory of justice will be an account of the basic rights of citizens, which will include rights to various concrete liberties, such as freedom of movement and freedom of speech ... an extensive sphere of basic liberty is built into the requirements of social justice itself." As introduced earlier, human rights are expansive and include rights in many areas.

Competing Demands for Need, Desert, and Equality

Miller does not build a theory of social justice that requires one to emphasize either need, desert, or equality over the others; rather, he presents a theory whereby the three are in balance with one another. Because people's views about justice are pluralistic and "very often people decide what a fair distribution consists of by balancing claims of one kind against claims of another," it follows that "the social context in which the distribution has to be made -- or more precisely how that context is perceived by those making the judgment -- will determine which principle stands out as the relevant principle of justice" (Miller, 2003: 63).

A significant issue, though, is which should take precedence when there are conflicting demands and expectations for processes that aim to accommodate need, desert, and equality, as well as for outcomes that satisfy need, desert, and equality. Miller prioritizes need above desert, and desert above equality (Miller, 2003: 247), although he also points out that at times desert can take precedence over need (as in the case where the needy are not seen as deserving) (Miller, 2003: 76-78). Although Miller spends most of his time discussing desert or merit (in part because it is likely the most complicated), he is careful to point out that "[m]erit of any sort should only be allowed to govern the distribution of a certain range of goods and services, and in particular not those goods and services that people regard as necessities, such as health care" (Miller, 2003: 200, emphasis added).

When are Inequalities Unjust?

Miller holds that inequalities in society are at times just. There are at least two reasons for this. First, economic inequalities that motivate people to strive for more can sometimes be justified. Second, inequalities may result from differential claims on merit. That is, those individuals who are more meritorious because of their performances deserve more than those who are less meritorious because of their education, skills, and performances (Miller, 2003: 68-70). Yet, Miller (2003: 70) notes that today's economic disparities are not acceptable. Further, he asserts that citizens believe: 1) the gap between the rich and the poor today is too large; 2) the bottom wage is not a living wage; and 3) the amount of money being paid to those at the top have not earned it (Miller, 2003: 71).

To call for a living wage is not to embrace a form of communism or socialism, rather it is based on the recognition that everyone who is working -- regardless of job -- deserves a salary to provide for basic necessities. Salaries can still be based on education level, skill level, degree of responsibility associated with the job, dangers faced, and so forth (Miller, 2003: 78, 83). This means social justice is not inconsistent with a market economy (Miller, 2003: 109).

How to Use Miller's Theory

We can use Miller's pluralistic theory of social justice to determine if any process or outcome is consistent with social justice. When a process or outcome does not comport with any of Millers' principles, we can conclude that it is not consistent with social justice. That is, something is not consistent with Miller's conception of social justice if it interferes with one's necessities or hurts one's capacity to function, if it interferes with claims based on desert, or if it impedes equal opportunity or treatment.

This theory can be used to assess any government policy or social condition to determine if it is consistent or inconsistent with this theory of social justice. Thus, any government policy or social condition can be judged as consistent or inconsistent with social justice based on whether it is consistent or inconsistent with Miller's three principles of social justice.

  1. Rawls (2003: 5-6) develops his theory for a democratic system of government, and he assumes that society is comprised of a fair system of social cooperation between free and equal citizens. He also assumes that society is well-organized and regulated by a public perception of justice. Further, he assumes that society is guided by rules and procedures that are publicly recognized and agreed to, that the rules specify fair terms of cooperation and are rooted in the notion of reciprocity or mutuality so that each person has a chance to promote his or her own advantage or good. Thus, his theory is aimed at determining the "political conception of justice for specifying the fair terms of cooperation between citizens regarded as fair and equal and as both reasonable and rational ... (Rawls, 2003: 7-8).
  2. This can be called the "equal liberties principle."
  3. This can be called the "equal opportunity principle."
  4. Rawls calls this the "difference principle."
  5. For other examples, see the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, and other similar documents. "A Summary of Agreements on Human Rights." Retrieved from http://www.hrweb.org/legal/undocs.html
  6. Miller (2003: 4-6) develops his theory for a democratic system of government, and he assumes that society is a living organism comprised of individuals, groups, and so forth who believe in social justice because it specifies the institutional arrangements that allow for full contributions by and well-being of members of the society. Further, his theory assumes a bounded society with members; that there are specific institutions to which the principles of social justice apply; and that the state is the agency capable of changing structures when necessary.