The Meaning of “Social Justice”

meaning of social justice

Some of you have asked the meaning of social justice. “Social justice” is a hot-button term, drawing anger, indignation, and passion.  You already knew that.

Why “social justice” is a hot-button term

“Social justice” gets hot because it goes directly to peoples’ sense of fairness and unfairness.  A personal definition of justice is learned early in life as toddlers at home with brothers and sisters, and as school children on the playground.  And however those incidents turned out for us,  we take away from them a sense of right and wrong, fair and unfair, just and unjust.  Whether this has been demonstrated with formal social science, I don’t know.

When people of political persuasions, left and right, hear “social justice” they quickly go to their hot-button places.  Like, “Social justice is Marxism” (said in either pro- and con- tone of voice), or “Social justice is the Sermon on the Mount,” (“yes it is” vs “no it’s not”) or “Social justice is in the Constitution and the Pledge of Allegiance” (“where?”).

Long story short, the meaning of social justice is shaped by personal experience and bounded by culture.  Everyone has their own comfort zone when it comes to “justice,” whether we like it or not.  People who use the phrase must be ready for hostility.

Original meanings of “social justice”

The values of social justice flow from doctrines of religious faith, as well as law and politics. These two streams are intertwined in different ways, and play out differently in different cultures.  One finds references to social justice or social justice values in writings from the major branches of Christianity, Judaism and Islam, which all hold that, before God, all people are equal and must treat each other with respect.  The term “social justice” is foundational in US law and political theory.  Some examples of how the term “social justice” is used are in a four-page paper we did in 2007.

For me, “social justice” is another way of saying “a just society,” a term that does not seem to push as many buttons as social justice.  It’s an aspirational goal achieved when everyone is treated fairly, without reference to race, creed, or color.  Or gender, or any other way of categorizing individuals in ways for which they are not responsible.

It’s true that googling the term social justice yields many internet sites presenting the case of people who feel the scales of justice are tilted against them.  This shouldn’t be surprising; those favored in the way the dice are rolled are not likely to have reason to complain, or call attention to their favored situation, or even see the situation as unfair.  This makes it all the more important that the victims of injustice have their advocates — the judicial system and faith traditions in particular, and increasingly in organizations supported by philanthropy.

Is it necessary to have a solid definition of “social justice”?

I would say No; it’s too easy to get caught up in wars of definition.  It’s better, IMHO, to be open to ideas and proposals that make a reasonable case for fixing parts of the problem.  Putting reasonable ideas into play and seeing how they turn out can go a long way without getting caught up in a war of words.

Steven E. Mayer / February 16, 2011 / Lightly revised, November 21, 2019