Anyone reading my post attempting to define Social Justice might think political philosophers could spend their lives defining the ideal of a perfectly just society without coming to any practical understanding of how to create one. Justice is still a very abstract idea that people have been trying to get their heads around for millennia.
“Justice as fairness” works in many conversations, but turns impractical because of issues of impartiality, vested interests, and a lack of consensus on the importance of different principles that people bring to bear in judging fairness.
Perhaps defining “injustice” is easier; and rather than noodle about how to characterize a perfectly just society, let’s recognize that society comes with imperfections, and injustice comes in degrees, so 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.
An advantage of focusing first on injustice is that one can compare two different relatively unjust situations and decide on priorities for remediation, tasks that non-philosopher humans are perfectly capable of, Sen says. In developing social policy, peoples’ lives, experience, and realizations should be paramount, he also says, and it’s on those criteria that sound evaluations must be conducted, we add.
To illustrate, in many parts of the world, some ethnic or cultural groups are subjected to very different justice systems, different educational opportunities, or different stations in life based on their ancestry, religion, or circumstances beyond their control. These gaps or disparities in opportunity show up later in negative consequences felt 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.
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 injustice they’re intending to remedy, and to specify how the steps they’re taking feed into a larger process of remediation. In turn, funders would do well to recognize that unjust disparities riddle all the arenas they’ve staked out in their mission statements, and be open to funding remedies. Evaluation in this context should focus on how intentions, actions, and actual progress are aligned.