What Is Social Justice?

Social justice is a political and philosophical theory which asserts 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 between 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 judgements 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 efforts usually seek to elevate or degrade the economic status of various groups defined by group identity or demographic characteristics like 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 between groups of people and parts of society. This 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 which they consider to be in some sense oppressors. 

Efforts to promote social justice usually target 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 between 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.

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, violent revolution, or even terrorism. At the government level, social justice initiatives can be pursued through various different 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 also has its place in capitalistic societies, such as the U.S., where government funding is allocated to support many social justice efforts. In these types of societies, social justice concerns are commonly also 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 or even direct threats, violence, and destruction of property and infrastructure directed toward them.

Politically within the U.S., social justice advocates are usually found in the Democratic party, particularly in the party's self-identified progressive and socialist wings, as well as other smaller organizations. Progressives and socialists who do not associate with 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 socialist economies, social justice forms a foundational principle of economic policy. Socialist governments commonly carry out vast programs of forced redistribution of land, capital, and other assets, such as the Great Leap Forward and the Holodomor, in the name of social justice.

In capitalistic 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.

Historically in the U.S., the civil rights movement beginning in the 1950s and led by Martin Luther King is one of the most well-known examples of social justice. Martin Luther King 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 justified and framed in terms of social justice in order to further the interests of workers against exploitative employers.