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What do we mean by social justice?

Published in Latest Posts, Social Justice, Theory by on October 31, 2015

Image by Michael Galkovsky

Image by Michael Galkovsky















[please note – this post is part of a collaborative project between Social Theory Applied and the staff and pupils of Hutchesons’ School in Glasgow – but feel free to read and contribute even if you’re not directly involved]

What do we mean by social justice? It’s an important question to ask – the way it’s used as a rallying cry/catch-all phrase (at least on social media) you would think that some level of agreement has been reached regarding its meaning. It hasn’t. That’s the bad news. The good news is that the world can easily accommodate varied and sometimes conflicting definitions of social justice. And so it should, given that conflict is never far away from enactments of social justice – see for examples, the likes of  (a random selection) Black Lives Matter, the struggle for transgender acceptance, anti-gentrification protests.

This conflict over the meaning of social justice also makes sense when you look at the company it keeps. Concepts such as ‘fairness’, ‘equality’ and ‘rights’ are never too far away from discussions of justice in whatever form, and these are all concepts that have seen their fair share of disagreement over the years. These inter-connections and associated disagreements can be witnessed in a variety of approaches to social justice, including the work of one of the major intellectuals in justice theory, John Rawls, whose 1971 book A theory of justice, is considered a cornerstone of the field. In this and subsequent works he developed and revised two principles of justice:

  • Liberty Principle – which establishes equal basic liberties for all citizens

  • Difference principle – The Difference Principle regulates inequalities, only permitting inequalities that work to the advantage of the worst-off.

[You will find a bit more detail on these principles here, or better yet, check out the You Tube video below].

Rawls’ work can appear dry and unengaging to those not familiar with such work, but I would recommend sticking with him as repeated reading brings intellectual reward. He was also happy to revise his theory, for example in Justice as fairness: a restatement. This is always a good sign. It should be noted here that, while Rawls is a key figure in justice theory, he doesn’t have a monopoly on the field. Implied conceptions of justice can be found across the theoretical spectrum, but others who have explicitly devised theories of justice include the likes of Martha Nussbaum, Amartya Sen, Nancy Fraser and Axel Honneth. The question of justice has been a core concern of all these social theorists, who view this question as central to the objectives of theory-driven approaches to understanding society. Most importantly they don’t agree on what social justice means and have their own separate debates to prove it – see the Debate over the capabilities approach (about Sen and Nussbaum) and the Debate over restribution and recognition (about Fraser and Honneth).

What all these different approaches illustrate, including that of Rawls, is that ideas around social justice are there to be debated and argued over, even discarded. The contentious nature of justice is best illustrated by positioning it alongside the notion of freedom (or liberty). Justice and liberty – two of the cornerstones of the French revolution, are not the most comfortable of bedfellows at the best of times, and Max Horkheimer, the founder of the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory was correct when he issued his statement ‘the more justice, the less freedom’ (see this previous blog post). Hence the conflict at the heart of so many social justice movements.

There are other approaches that critique social justice approaches as a category – see for example the arguments around an ethics of care that have been developed by feminist thinkers such as Carol Gilligan. This is well worth checking out also. But hopefully you get the sense that the struggle for justice extends to its own definition.

Questions for discussion:

  • How would you define social justice? What elements would you include in a definition and why?

  • Are there any particular social justice movements you identify with, or value more than others? See if you can explain your reasoning for this.

Suggested reading:

Capeheart, L. And Milovanovic, D. (2007) Social justice: theories, issues and movements (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press).

Gunvald Nilsen, A. And Roy, Srila (eds) New Subaltern politics: reconceptualising hegemony and resistance in contemporary India. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


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About the author /

Mark Murphy

Mark Murphy is a Reader in Education and Public Policy at the University of Glasgow. He previously worked as an academic at King’s College, London, University of Chester, University of Stirling, National University of Ireland, Maynooth, University College Dublin and Northern Illinois University. Mark is an active researcher in the fields of education and public policy. His research interests include educational sociology, critical theory, accountability in higher education, and public sector reform.


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    I don’t want to say too much at this stage but it’s a fascinating question, not least because many of us use the term regularly without taking the time to define it. I suppose that ‘justice’ implies fairness, but I don’t interpret the term in the sense of a purely meritocratic system (i.e. you prosper according to your ability) but more in the sense of applying equal human rights and decent treatment to all (‘decent’ is obviously quite subjective but could include not accepting hunger, homelessness etc).

    Very interested in the Horkheimer quote “‘the more justice, the less freedom”… I think that could be debated. There is some sense in which this must be true (e.g. if we can imprison people then we are applying justice and also restricting freedom) but I don’t think it follows as strictly when it comes to social justice. You can be both unjust and repressive – lots of totalitarian societies worldwide also treat their citizens very unfairly. The quote is very relevant in a socialism v’s capitalism debate…e.g. if a government were to take ownership of all housing and allocate it according to need, that would be less free but would increase social justice. Are there examples of societies (or elements of societies) which are free without harming social justice?

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    One way we might start testing our Rawlsean intuitions is to do his thought experiment: what kind of society would it be rational to choose to live in if you were ignorant about the position that you would have in it?

    Might we want to say something about the notion of ‘rational’ here?


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    One definition of justice is “giving to each what he or she is due.” The problem is knowing what is ‘due’. The ultimate purpose of all the virtues is to elevate the dignity and sovereignty of the human person. This is a question that you could spend all day attempting to answer. Social justice does exist. Take the government, for example, who are sitting in their offices receiving large payments and all sorts of bonuses while others are slaving for a pittance — minimum wage. Just like, Siegfried Sassoon says in, ‘Base Details’:

    “Guzzling and gulping in the best hotel,
    Reading the Roll of Honour.”

    This shows the higher you rank the more detached you become, the more power you hold when you rise and the more blasé you become – this is not aimed at all members of Parliament but this is the way I feel about the majority.

    They are cutting down police forces all over the country, closing schools, merging hospitals so people now have to travel further for treatment some cancer treatments are now being refused as they are too expensive, which to me, is a disgrace since they are now giving child benefits and child tax credits to people in the EU. Furthermore, they join the EU and flood the country with incomers knowing that they can’t afford to keep the British people in housing, jobs or even schools. This benefit is paid for by the British people who have worked all their lives; not much social justice here!

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      Cristina Costa

      Hi Sammie,

      Thank you for kick starting the conversation.

      Your comment is a rather passionate view on the topic. And passion for their research topics is something sociologists are known for. This reminds me of a well known statement by the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu: “Si le monde social m’est supportable, c’est parce que je peux m’indigner”. Yet, when engaging with the issues of society it is important we question our assumptions, and this is more effectively done by both exploring what current research says about the issue at hand and learning what insights social theory can add to the debate.

      For example, your definition of social justice is rather cryptic and one that focuses mainly on the economic aspect of social justice. Although an important element, this is not the only aspect that defines social justice. For example, Rawls understands the concept of justice from two perspectives: freedom and equality. In a very succinct way, a person’s freedom depends on other people’s capacity for a sense of justice; “…a willingness to act in relation to others” (Rawls, 1993, p.19) and a sense of ‘goodness’, i.e., what is valuable in (human) life. In this sense social justice can be regarded as a state of affairs in which benefits and burdens co-exist in society and where people (and you can also argue animals and other forms of life) are treated with dignity and respect independently of their background. In short, through the concept of social justice the importance of human rights is acknowledged (see link:

      Another important theorist in this field is David Miller who posits that social justice has to do with how advantages and disadvantages are distributed amongst people and in society. This is probably where your indignation on current policies comes from. Yet, Miller also claims that justice has little to do with self-interest, personal views or preferences. Justice, he says, “ …requires us to treat people as equals …. we should understand justice as what people would agree to in advance of knowing their own stake in the decision to be reached.” (Miller, 2001, p. 87).
      It is very easy for us to feel indignation about things (or people) that disrupt the order of a world familiar to us (or one that we feel entitled to) and popular media is very good at feeding off such feelings and interpretations of the social world. Yet, this is where social theory becomes most useful, because it teach us to exercise reflexivity, i.e., the make the familiar unfamiliar.

      In relation to the topic of migration then, we need to evaluate the anecdotal and populist information provided by popular media with reliable resources. In accordance with research conducted by the Migration observatory at the University of Oxford, immigration has little impact on unemployment in the UK, and creates new jobs. [see:
      UCL researchers have also demystified the popular belief that the fiscal contribution of immigration is negative. Research reports that immigrants make a positive contribution to the public finances [see paper: .

      Now, if we are talking about refugees, who by their very status of refugees cannot work and contribute to the country which accepts them, then we need to revisit our understanding of the ‘social contract’ and of human rights, independently of how it will affects us or not (which brings us back to Miller’s understanding of social justice as depicted above).

      And then we may also find useful to invert the debate, and explore emigration from the UK, which according to national statistics has increased since 2007, with British citizens accounted for 42% of emigrants in the year ending September 2014 (137,000).–Emigration-from-the-UK

      Miller, D. (2001). Principles of Social Justice (New Ed edition). Harvard University Press.
      Rawls, J. (1993). Political Liberalism (Expanded Edition edition). New York: Columbia University Press.

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        “In relation to the topic of migration then, we need to evaluate the anecdotal and populist information provided by popular media with reliable resources…” >> So true… Was just talking with Harris this afternoon about how popular ideas on certain issues are often very out of step with reality. It is very helpful to consider the agenda of media outlets on all sides of a debate, and to find the hard facts behind the headlines. Thanks for sharing those useful sources!

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      Sammie, for me your comment raises two important issues. The first is the perceived injustice of politicians or others in society who are comfortably well while others work for the minimum wage. I guess you could broaden this out and ask whether anyone should be wealthy while others are poor, worker or not. At one end of the scale of reactions to that proble, we could consider whether everyone could or should somehow get the same, or at least of some form of guaranteed minimum, a “citizen’s income” (see At the opposite extreme, it could be argued that wealth/income should be based just on ‘merit’ i.e. value to society regardless of need… But that perhaps leads to a psychological debate of where abilities and social values come from, and there is perhaps a deeper inequality in terms of how children are raised – not just a lack of ‘cutural capital’ but also about where socially valued abilities such as intelligence and creativity come from as a child develops.

      The second issue concerns the how we draw the boundaries of who social justice applies to – one local authority? Scotland? The UK? Europe? Or the whole world? Should taxpayers be more content for their money to be spent on other British people than on, for example, Greek people? What if I say hey, I don’t want my money being spent on British people, I want it all to be spent on Niger, as it’s the world’s poorest country?…. We should perhaps question why we use these historical and essentially arbitrary political boundaries to decide who we want to help and who we don’t, which links to Cristina’s David Miller quote, that justice ‘requires us to treat people as equals’. In this case, isn’t everyone an equal?

      To take that last point a bit further in the context of the current immigration and refugee issue, are we more entitled to a good life because we happen to have been born in a 1st world country which happens to not be (for now) a war zone like Syria is?

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    Sarah Smith

    This topic is fascinating and I’ve always been a little unclear about social justice. Thanks for the information about how the meaning of social justice conflicts. Maybe I can find a podcast or something to listen to so that I can understand this issue better.

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