Anyone reading my post attempting to define Social Justice might think political philosophers are impractical. Justice is still a very abstract idea that people have been trying to get their heads around for millennia.
“Justice means fairness” works in many conversations, but even they turn impractical. Issues of impartiality, vested interests, and a lack of consensus on priorities muddy the waters.
Perhaps defining “social injustice” is easier. And let’s be clear from the outset that society comes with imperfections, and both justice and injustice come in degrees. Maybe now we can get on with devising solutions.
This, if I’m getting it right, is the political philosophy of Amartya Sen, a 1998 Nobel Laureate in Economics, who writes books like On Economic Inequality; Poverty and Famines: an Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation; Development as Freedom; and most recently, The Idea of Justice.
By focusing on social injustice, one can compare two different relatively unjust situations and decide on priorities for remediation. Sen says that this is easy enough that even non-philosophers can do. In developing social policy, peoples’ lives and their own experience should be paramount, he also says. And we would add, it’s on those criteria that sound evaluations must be conducted.
To illustrate, in many parts of the world, some ethnic or cultural groups experience very different systems of justice, different educational opportunities, or different stations in life based on their ancestry, birth religion, or other circumstances beyond their control. The consequences of these different systems show up later in negative ways throughout their society. In Sen’s thinking, this illustrates comparative injustice – one group may suffer, but another may suffer even more — for which remedies should be sought that focus on equalizing opportunities or chances for success.
In our own society, even after years of trying to put the shame of racism behind us, there is nearly across-the-board unanimity of studies showing that our public systems and private markets do better for Whites, on average, than for other racial or ethnic groups. These disparities or gaps exist in almost every area of life – education, justice, economic development, even the arts. Remedies should focus on efforts that have the result of Whites taking their collective thumbs off the scales, which would equalize the rules of the game and level the playing fields for equal freedom of participation.
Reasoning how to repair unjust situations, using the resources of philanthropy and the perspective of organizational and community development as well as system reform, is exactly the approach pursued in the earlier work done by Effective Communities Project and posted on JustPhilanthropy.org on the pages Pathways to Progress, which takes disparities as prima facie evidence of injustice.
While serving as a Resident Scholar at the Clinton School of Public Service (Center for Community Philanthropy) at University of Arkansas, I benefited from Sen’s thinking while writing the paper I was given time there for, “Community Philanthropy: Strategies for Impacting Vulnerable Populations.”
As Steven Poole wrote in his review of Sen’s The Concept of Justice, thinkers of all political hues agree that justice means equality of some kind – the question is: equality of what? Sen’s preferred answer appears to be equality of freedom. And he offers a reason to hope: “The general pursuit of justice might be hard to eradicate in human society.”
Instead of simply calling for justice, organizations applying for philanthropic funds might do better, following Sen’s logic, to describe the particular social injustice they’re intending to remedy, and how. It turns the focus towards solutions. Evaluation in this context should focus on how intentions, actions, and actual progress in implementing just solutions are aligned.
Steven E. Mayer, Ph.D. / Effective Communities Project
April 1, 2011 / image added Feb 15, 2021