What is Social Justice?

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Social justice refers to the idea that people should be treated equally, and that the legal system, market forces, and moral framework may not currently foster such justice.

🤔 Understanding social justice

Social justice is a philosophical concept that deals with equality between social groups. The central tenet is that no person should be denied access to equal opportunities based on their race, gender, social class, or other characteristics of their birth. Likewise, no person should be awarded special privileges because of the situation into which they are born. Activists and advocates of social justice attempt to break down the social structures that allow inequality to exist. According to conflict theory (which argues that the wealthy elite oppress the working poor), this inequality is a natural consequence of capitalism (where individuals own the means of production and use them for personal profit).


In the wake of the recent COVID-19 pandemic, the labor force was significantly disrupted. People around the world were told not to go to work. For some, that meant working from home. For others, that meant losing their income. Whether you were able to work from home or not primarily fell along income lines. Higher-income individuals retained their income, while people working in lower-income jobs were more likely to get laid-off. Social justice would require stepping in to resolve this unequal treatment of people based on income levels. Doing so would mean replacing those lost wages, which is what expanding the unemployment insurance program did.


Social justice is like trying to ensure fair games between sports teams…

Suppose one team has tons more money to spend on equipment and extra coaching compared to other teams. A league could collect money from each team and redistribute it to equalize team budgets. In the same way, social justice advocates generally believe the government should step in to reduce the advantages that some groups have over others.

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What is social justice?

Social justice means that all groups in society should be treated without prejudice and should have equal access to economic opportunities. It asserts that all people have fundamental human rights and civil liberties, which should not be denied based on gender, nationality, race, age, ethnicity, creed, color, or other classification among human beings. Social justice advocates try to break down any social constructs that create or perpetuate social injustice. Some modern issues related to social justice include systemic racism, gender pay gaps, income inequality, and classism. Ideas of social justice tend to overlap with many of the ideas behind socialism (collective ownership) and stand opposed to capitalism (private ownership). Advocates argue that laissez-faire (hands off) economic policies lead to inequitable outcomes and that the distribution of resources is better left to the government.

What are social justice principles?

The overarching principle of social justice is that inequality equals injustice. In other words, social justice is an egalitarian view of the world, which believes that improvements to society result from improving equality. In effect, the 20th century concept of social justice measures the success of a culture on the wellbeing of the poorest among them.

This philosophy is consistent with the Theory of Justice put forward by John Rawls. Rawls imagined placing a person behind a “veil of ignorance” to discover the natural inclinations of humanity. In his thought experiment, he basically had you imagine your spirit would be put into a random body among everyone on earth. Therefore, your sense of self, including your age, gender, nationality, and culture, is unknown to you from behind this veil. He believed that if you could control the social structures of humanity from this perspective, you’d naturally seek equality for everyone. From this mental exercise, Rawls suggested that any acceptance of inequality must stem from the fact that the policy maker is not the subject of that injustice — a selfish and immoral motivation.

A critical distinction in social justice is that it calls for an equitable distribution of resources, not necessarily an equal allocation to everyone. A person born with a disadvantage requires additional assistance relative to others to achieve just outcomes.

What are social justice issues today?

Social justice issues exist wherever groups of people are not treated equally. Injustice primarily occurs when one group is advantaged at the expense of another. However, structural injustice also includes situations where a person or group can be born into privilege or struggle. Additionally, systemic injustice exists when history and culture create prejudice between social groups without being written explicitly into laws and regulations.

Here are a few examples of issues that advocates of social justice argue should be remedied.

Wealth inequality

Probably the most prominent issue relating to social justice today is the high degree of wealth inequality in the developed world. This issue became well-known as part of the Occupy Wall Street movement of 2011. A popular idea that grew out of this movement was the realization that 1% of the United States population controlled a disproportionate share of the wealth. Activists argued that corporate executives and investment bankers earned far more money than the value they contributed to society — Which the Occupy Wall Street participants claimed is unjust. Therefore, they call for distributive justice by redistributing wealth.

Gender pay gap

Another issue is the fact that men and women don’t earn the same amount of money for the same work. According to Pew Research, women earned 64 cents for each dollar earned by a man in 1980. By 2018, that gap had narrowed to 85 cents per dollar. Despite improvement over the years, some people view any difference in pay as an example of unequal treatment in the workforce between genders, which is unjust.

Labor exploitation

Although most of the developed world has worker protection laws in place, labor issues persist as an issue of social justice. The most extreme examples include child labor, slavery, and sweatshops. In many developing countries, people work long hours in unsafe conditions for little pay. To advocates of social justice, that is exploitation and a violation of fundamental human rights.

Even in the developed countries, social justice activists point to huge disparities between the pay for some forms of labor versus others. Again, advocates claim this relationship between employers and employees is exploitative and unfair. Consequently, they call for higher wages and reduced corporate profits.

Racial profiling

The stop-and-frisk policy in New York is a typical example of a racial profiling policy. Under the stop-and-frisk practice, people point to the disproportionate number of young black men being searched without cause. Social justice advocates proclaim that the policy was racist and unjust. These advocates point to other examples of police shootings and traffic stops, which are more likely to involve members of minority groups, as evidence that the policing system is inherently unjust. They seek criminal justice reform.

Healthcare inaccessibility

In the United States, health care often comes up as a social justice issue — Particularly, situations in which access to lifesaving treatment is only available to people with the means to pay for it. From a social justice perspective, the right to healthcare is a fundamental human right. Denying life-saving treatment based on wealth epitomizes injustice.

Beyond access to life-saving treatments, other social justice issues present themselves in public health — In particular, the quality of health care given to patients. Those without health insurance, or lower-quality plans, might get differing levels of care based on means. Or, some argue, patients without family or others to advocate for them might receive less attention based on age, status, or other uncontrollable factors.

Wealth-based education funding

Some people view the way Americans fund education as a social justice issue. Because most school districts pay for public education through property taxes, schools in more affluent neighborhoods receive more funding. Meanwhile, intercity schools, rural districts, and communities with public housing get far less funding. To the extent that more funding attracts higher-quality teachers and facilitates smaller class sizes, the system promotes unequal access to quality education based on income. This inequity can result in significantly different opportunities in life, including access to higher education. Consequently, a child’s earning potential might be influenced by factors beyond their control.

Climate change

Environmental protection advocates often fall into two categories — Proponents of environmental justice and social justice. While there is a lot of overlap between these groups, their motivations are different. Environmental justice advocates object to humans exploiting the earth for their benefit as a matter of principle. Social justice advocates often view ecological degradation as unjust based on the disproportionate implications the practices have on different groups of people. They point to studies like the Human Impact Report from 2009, which indicates that people in impoverished nations bear the brunt of the adverse side effects of climate change. People in poorer countries are more likely to see droughts, floods, crop failures, rising sea levels, and desertification that stem from climate change. Simultaneously, they are less able to mitigate the hotter temperatures and the increased spread of disease than are residents of wealthier nations. For these reasons, climate change activists may argue from the stance of social justice.

What is social justice reform?

Social justice reform is a conscious effort to align the goals of social justice with the laws and public policies of a country. Often, inherent biases and prejudices within a culture can find their way into a system of laws. A society dedicated to achieving the principles of social justice would ensure their public policy promotes equal outcomes among its people. Advocates of social justice seek ways to correct the structures and social conditions that promote or perpetuate inequality.

The central component of most social justice reform is the redistribution of wealth. Advocates believe that income inequality is fundamentally unjust. They view profiting from someone’s labor as the exploitation of that person’s circumstances. Therefore, social justice reform would redirect those profits to the laborer. That outcome could be achieved in one of a few ways. One option is to tax the gains away from the business owners and redistribute those profits to the working class. A second option is to pass a law that increases the required wage for labor. Or, third, society could demand collective ownership of business interests, which is called socialism.

The Green New Deal is another example of a social justice reform effort led by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a congresswomen representing New York’s 14th congressional district. The plan would transition the United States away from fossil fuels while increasing the minimum wage. It would also create a public sector employment program and levy a carbon tax. She claims that the attempt will improve economic, environmental, and social justice.

Other attempts to reform the status quo in the pursuit of social justice appeared during the Democratic Primaries. These include plans to increase corporate taxes significantly, establish far-reaching government healthcare programs, and even launching a universal basic income program. Activists pursue social justice reform through rallies and protests aimed at preventing resource development, demanding living wages, eliminating the gender pay gap, and calling for the end to racial inequality in policing.

Why is social justice important?

Advocates of social justice believe their cause is essential to correct an unfair and unjust system that benefits the wealthy elite at the expense of the impoverished masses. They view our capitalist society as exploitive and tilted in favor of those born into privilege. These social justice activists think that the current path will lead to unfavorable outcomes, as it destroys the environment and divides the country.

Others see the social justice movement as a drive toward socialism and a threat to American values. They argue that fair treatment originates from keeping the fruits of one’s labor and reaping rewards from the risks they take. Taking from those who find success and giving money to people that choose not to put forth as much effort is viewed as immoral and unjust. Further, they argue that such a system accomplishes nothing more than creating disincentives to work and innovate. For opponents of social justice reform, defending free-market capitalism is necessary to maintain individual liberty and what they perceive to be the American way of life.

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