Some years ago Hans Kelsen, regarded as one of the most important legal philosophers of the twentieth century, in his farewell lecture at the University of California, Berkeley addressed the question that had occupied his mind for over half a century: What is Justice?
“No other question has been discussed so passionately, no other question has caused so much precious blood and so many bitter tears to be shed; no other question has been the object of so much intensive thinking by the mosest illustrious thinkers from Plato to Kant; and yet, this question is today as unanswered as it ever was. It seems that it is one of those questions to which the resigned wisdom applies that we cannot find a definitive answer, but can only try to improve the question.”
What is Justice? University of California Press, 1957
To the question: What is Social Justice? The message of Kelsen is even more relevant. For many, social justice is equated with distributive justice. To achieve a more just society, and in particular to achieve a more just economy, it is simply a matter of distributing income and wealth in a manner that is deemed to be equitable, if not just. But this is a limited answer. We must go deeper in our search for social justice.
More current illustrious thinkers have attempted to do so. John Rawls, famous for his seminal book A Theory of Justice (Harvard University Press, 1971 and 1999 revised) stated that social justice requires an equal distribution of social primary goods—liberty and opportunity, income and wealth, and the bases of self-respect—unless an inequal distribution is to the advantage of the least favored. Note: In his 1999 revised definition, he changed “the advantage of the least favored” to “the overall benefit of all.”
Robert Nozick, a colleague of Rawls at the Department of Philosophy at Harvard University, disagreed. He wrote that one must consider the history of actual human behavior in defining social justice. If the distribution of income and wealth, along with all the social primary goods identified by Rawls, are distributed by rules and laws that are judged fair and just regarding freedom of choice, then government acting upon principles of social justice should not redistribute any social primary goods.
Anarchy, State, and Utopia Basic Books, 1974
Thus was set off the debate that continues to this day. Liberals embraced Rawls and conservatives adopted Nozick. The result has been to create tension in the debate over the meaning of social justice. Also, both Nozick and Rawls argue from an intellectual base of enlightenment rational thought and Western social philosophy.
The third major thinker of our age to significantly improve on the question of social justice is Amartya Sen, winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1998. Sen was born in India and studied philosophy as well as economics, particularly Eastern philosophy. Drawing upon Sanskrit literature on ethics and jurisprudence, Sen develops a concept of social justice that is more wholistic than that of either Rawls or Nozick. We must think beyond individualism to unity. We must move broader than enlightenment and Western philosophical thought to recognize the importance of Eastern philosophical thought in defining social justice.
For Sen, social justice involves the attainment of social realization. “Social realizations are assessed in terms of capabilities that people actually have, rather than in terms of their utilities or happiness.” Do all American’s, regardless of their race or sex or religious beliefs, have equal access to the means to realize their full potential as human beings?
Sen expands the debate regarding social justice. “First, human lives are then seen inclusively, taking note of the substantive freedoms that people enjoy.” Those freedoms demand that society end segregation and glass ceilings of all kinds. That racism and white supremacy end. The goal of social justice is to ensure that laws and institutions and public policy actually achieve their intended goals. The focus is on results, not simply intent.
The Idea of Justice Harvard University Press 2009
But Sen goes even further in defining social justice. “There is also a second significant aspect of freedom: it makes us accountable for what we do. Freedom to choose gives us the opportunity to decide what we should do, but with that opportunity comes the responsibility for what we do.”
Clearly, defining social justice is challenging. For those who think social justice is an important value, if not the most important value on which we must build our nation and our society, the search will continue. For those who are engaged in social welfare and social work as a profession, the search is a given. But each of us must define our own understanding of social justice. We must attempt to improve the question of what is social justice in our individual lives, in our professional work, and most important as civic-minded citizens. I have done so in my writing and teaching.
Social justice is the realization of the worth and dignity of the individual human being, living in an inclusive and supportive community, a fair and just economy, and a safe and sustainable environment.
I have built this meaning into the Idea of America Network which I have founded and direct, a nationwide program to advance the debate and discussion of the values that have shaped our nation in the past and will shape our nation in the future. It is embedded into the Premise of the Idea of America Network.
The premise of the Idea of America Network is that America is unique in being founded on enlightenment values that proclaim the inherent equality of all human beings, that values the life and well-being of all human beings, that promotes education and cultivation of individual and civic responsibility as the means by which we as individuals can attain our happiness, and that the source of our unity as a nation is our embracement of these values.
Resource paper attached (click): John Oliver Wilson, “In Search of Social Justice”