Social Justice

What Is Social Justice?

Social justice is a political and philosophical theory asserting that there are dimensions to the concept of justice beyond those embodied in the principles of civil or criminal law, economic supply and demand, or traditional moral frameworks. Social justice tends to focus more on just relations among groups within society as opposed to the justice of individual conduct or justice for individuals.

Historically and in theory, the idea of social justice is that all people should have equal access to wealth, health, well-being, justice, privileges, and opportunity, regardless of their legal, political, economic, or other circumstances. In modern practice, social justice revolves around favoring or punishing different groups of the population, regardless of any given individual's choices or actions, based on value judgments regarding historical events, current conditions, and group relations. In economic terms, this often means redistribution of wealth, income, and economic opportunities from groups whom social justice advocates consider to be oppressors to those whom they consider to be the oppressed.

Social justice is often associated with identity politics, socialism, and revolutionary communism.

Key Takeaways

  • Social justice is a political philosophical concept originally centered around equality among people along various social dimensions.
  • In economic terms, social justice usually seeks to elevate or degrade the economic status of various groups defined by group identity or demographic characteristics such as race, gender, and religion.
  • In practice, social justice can be pursued through various peaceful or non-peaceful forms of activism or government policy.
  • In socialist economies, social justice forms a foundational principle of economic policy.

Understanding Social Justice

Social justice forms the basis for socialistic economic systems and is also taught in some religious traditions. In general, social justice originated as a broad concept supporting equal rights through various types of initiatives for citizens.

Social justice is closely related to conflict theory and redressing perceived wrongs of past or ongoing conflict among groups of people and parts of society. It often focuses either on favoring the interests of certain groups within a population whom its proponents consider to be oppressed or on undermining the interests of and directly attacking groups that they consider to be in some sense oppressors. 

Efforts to promote social justice usually involve targeting various demographics, either to further their interests in order to counteract perceived oppression or to punish them for perceived past offenses. Broadly, demographic characteristics often the target of social justice attention include race, ethnicity, and nationality; gender and sexual orientation; age; religious affiliation; and disability.

Different types of social justice initiatives may exist to promote equality or redistribute power and status among groups in the areas of wealth, health, well-being, justice, privileges, and economic status. In economic terms, social justice most often amounts to efforts to redistribute wealth, income, or economic opportunities from privileged groups toward underprivileged ones.

Social justice is typically prevalent in socialist and communist economies, although it also has a place in capitalist societies such as the U.S.

Social Justice Methods

Proponents of social justice can seek to achieve their goals through a wide range of peaceful or non-peaceful means, including various government programs, social campaigns, public activism—and. at the far extreme, violent revolution and terrorism.

At the government level, social justice initiatives can be pursued through various types of programs. These can include direct redistribution of wealth and income; protected legal status in employment, government subsidies, and other areas for underprivileged groups; or legalized discrimination against privileged groups up to and including expropriation, collective punishment, and purges.

Socialist and communist systems are more heavily focused on countrywide social justice programs. However, social justice is also important in capitalist societies, such as the U.S., where government funding is allocated to support many social justice efforts.

In capitalist societies, social justice concerns are commonly pursued through activism aimed at changing public policy or directly influencing people's behavior through public rallies and demonstrations, public relations campaigns, targeted investments, and charitable donation and relief efforts. It can also take the form of boycotts, blacklists, and censorship of privileged groups and individuals. At times, direct threats, violence, and destruction of property and infrastructure have been employed under the rubric of social justice.

Politically within the U.S., social justice advocates can be found in the Democratic party, particularly among those who identify as progressives and socialists, as well as in other smaller organizations. Progressives and socialists who are not members of the Democratic party (independents, Greens, and others) also commonly employ the term.

Examples of Social Justice

Examples of social justice can be found throughout all types of societies, government policies, and movements. 

In capitalist societies, governments regularly intervene in the economy in support of social justice. Social justice advocates often push for policy reform in areas such as healthcare, immigration, or the criminal justice system to remedy potential biases toward certain demographic groups.

The civil rights movement beginning in the 1950s and led by Martin Luther King Jr. is one of the most well-known historical examples of social justice in the U.S. Martin Luther King Jr. and his followers advocated for racial equality and to advance the interests of African Americans. The efforts resulted in radical changes to the U.S. economy and society in subsequent decades, including the introduction of the Civil Rights Act, which outlaws businesses from discriminating against legally protected groups.

The labor market, labor policy, and organized labor are usually some of the biggest areas of concern in the private sector. Within the labor market, equal pay and opportunities for all demographics are usually two top points for progressive advocacy. The establishment and spread of labor unions is often framed in terms of social justice—furthering the interests of workers against exploitative employers.  

In socialist economies, social justice forms a foundational principle of economic policy. Historically, communist governments have carried out vast programs of forced redistribution of land, capital, and other assets, such as China's Great Leap Forward, in the name of social justice.

What Is the Goal of Social Justice?

Social justice is about equality. According to this theory, everyone should have equal access to wealth, health, well-being, privileges, and opportunity, regardless of their background.

What Are the Key Principles of Social Justice?

There are four main principles of social justice: Equality, equity, rights, and participation.

Where Did the Theory of Social Justice Originate?

The concept of "social justice" as a term came to the fore in the 19th century when the industrial revolution was underway. During this period, there was a big gap between the rich and the poor, and human rights were mostly not legally established.

Article Sources
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  1. Mona Khechen. “Social Justice: Concepts, Principles, Tools and Challenges,” Pages 4-5. Accessed Jan. 17, 2022.

  2. John Rawls. "A Theory of Justice." Harvard University Press, Sept. 30, 1999.

  3. U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commision. "Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964." Accessed Jan. 17, 2022.

  4. Mona Khechen. “Social Justice: Concepts, Principles, Tools and Challenges,” Page 8. Accessed Jan. 17, 2022.

  5. United Nations. "The International Forum for Social Development: Social Justice in an Open World," Page 11. Accessed Jan. 17, 2022.

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