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Social Justice - What Does it Mean?

Updated on October 10, 2014

Is There Such a Thing as Social Justice?

This article is about the correct use of language. The idea that justice has to do with the word fairness is a modern concept, a western one. In ancient times justice had nothing to do with the idea of fairness. Justice was what the king, the emperor or the pharaoh said it was. In strict religious communities justice has less to do with thoughts of fairness, and more to do with stringent adherence to a religious doctrine.

Every time I do a book signing I ask the people in attendance what they think justice is. I ask for a one word thought. The word fairness is always shouted out. I am convinced that the linking of the concept of justice with the concept of fairness is baked into the cake of western society. I have written in these pages and in my book about a question: "What is Justice?"

This article questions whether it makes sense to expand the idea of justice beyond the notion of justice that is interwoven with our legal system. Our system of justice, or legal system, is concerned about enforcing laws or contracts, and about meting out punishment or making compensation under one set of circumstances: A, a wrongdoer has violated an objective law and/or has done something to B, a victim.

Our System of Justice Requires Remedies to Right Specific Wrongs

To get clear in our thinking about justice requires that we get clear about the word. I pose the simple proposition that for an injustice to occur there must a violation of a specific law or there must be a wrongdoer (or wrongdoers) and a victim of the wrongdoing. A "wrong" must have been committed. A wrong can be a breach of contract, a violation of a statute, a violation of a patent right or a murder. The victim may not always be readily identifiable. When a cop hands you a speeding ticket, we can argue that there is no specific victim, but there is an objective violation of an objective law, in this case excessive speed in violation of a Vehicle and Traffic Law and a posted speed limit. The specificity of the violation is the critical point of departure. The cop had no power to hand you the ticket unless you violated a specific law, not the cop's opinion that you did something that he believed to be wrong.

What's Your Opinion of the Phrase Social Justice?

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Social Justice - A Concept Turned Loose from Language

Social justice is a concept that has become so popular it no longer surprises us when we hear it. Like motherhood, it is a concept that we are loathe to dispute. But is the concept workable, one that we can use to make for a more "just society" ? To answer this question we need to take a look at a few of the underlying realities. First, "society" is a loose term that we use to apply to all of those laws, customs and ways that people use to interact with one another. Another term that is becoming fanatically popular is "environmental justice." It is as meaningless as it is popular.

It's important to note that "society" has no elected or appointed officers. It has no board of directors and its members don't get to vote. Society, unlike a person, a corporation or a government, is not an entity. It doesn't exist, except as a concept for trying to organize our thinking. Because society is not an entity, it can't do anything wrong. It can't do anything right either. Society can't do anything at all, because it doesn't exist except in our minds. This s why it's a terrible idea to use words like social justice, because it is a concept looking for reality.

The Civil Rights Movement of the mid 20th Century is a great example of how people act to right wrongs. Notice that I say people - they're real, they are entities. I do not say society because it isn't an entity. You can't look up a phone number for society, but you can look up the phone number for the Selma, Alabama City Hall. The Civil Rights Movement was a reaction of people against decades of discriminatory treatment of black people. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was a legislative response put together by people who chose to no longer allow the wrongs to exist. It was an act of congress, in response to numerous actions of brave individuals and groups. It was not an act of society.

Clarity of Language Leads to Clarity of Laws

When we hear demands for "social justice" what we really hear are demands from individuals and groups to correct things that they perceive to be wrong. The philosopher Immanuel Kant said: “Man is free if he needs to obey no person but solely the laws.” Man cannot be free if he must obey demands from Occupy Wall Street or some other rag tag group with a confused agenda or no agenda at all. Laws should be objective and clear. If they are not we have a court system that struggles, in a sometimes messy way, to clarify things. In the United States, we would never expect to see a statute that provided for punishment for "actions that demean the state." That phrase is a popular law in many a dictatorial regime. Here, we have a Constitution that would require a court to strike down such a law as being "overbroad or vague." As Edmund Burke put it, “bad laws are the worst sort of tyranny.” To avoid that sort of tyranny we must opt for clarity of language.

The author of this article is also the author of the book Justice in America: How it Works - How it Fails, Coddington Press, 2011


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    • profile image

      eddie witcher 2 years ago

      In my experience , justice usually means .... Just-us !

    • rfmoran profile image

      Russ Moran 5 years ago from Long Island, New York

      Thanks for your input jim

    • James A Watkins profile image

      James A Watkins 5 years ago from Chicago

      Excellent article. I agree with your analysis. Thank you for a good read.


    • rfmoran profile image

      Russ Moran 5 years ago from Long Island, New York

      billybuc , Tom Koecke, and The Frog Prince. My major thesis, and perhaps I wasn't clear enough, is that it is a mistake to conflate issues involving our system of justice with thoughts about what should be just. We can petition city hall and legislatures if we perceive something to be unjust, and then it will become unjust because of our civilized way of making it so - The Law. My problem with "social justice" not to mention environmental justice, reproductive justice, and lately, animal justice is that these concepts are just that, concepts, and are too mushy to perceive as policy, not to mention law.

    • The Frog Prince profile image

      The Frog Prince 5 years ago from Arlington, TX

      Western in thought indeed. Social Jusatice is being over worked. Somehow it has also been linked to "fairness." Taking from one to give to another isn't social justice. It is legalized theft. Social justice has always been a part of this nation in reality. This is still the land of opportunity where an individual is free to succeed o fail based upon themselves and their own efforts. That is still present.

      The other side of the societal coin lies in having bred the entitlement mentality into literally generations who think others filling their hands and wallets is a right. That's the problem. There is no free lunch. Someone is picking up the tab.

      Up and 3 stars.

      The Frog

    • Tom Koecke profile image

      Tom Koecke 5 years ago from Tacoma, Washington

      billybuc is such a nice person. However, Hayek agrees with your conclusion, so I feel it my duty to try to poke a hole in your argument, even though I greatly admire you for writing on such a philosophical concept.

      I accept that society exists inasmuch as it is merely a set of norms, customs, and rules for the people that comprise the society. I will limit my argument thusly.

      Juan Valdez picks coffee beans. He is not enslaved to do so, and will face no criminal prosecution if he works. or does not work, picking coffee beans. If he does not pick coffee beans, though, there is no other work for him. His pay, however, is not sufficient for him and his family to live upon. The beans are sold by the owner through several middle men, and result in a lower priced coffee for consumers. For the sake of the example, we'll say that a cup of coffee made from those beans costs forty cents. If, however, consumers would pay forty-two cents for the cup of coffee, the difference of two cents would enable Juan to be paid a wage on which he and his family could live.

      No crimes have been committed at any point. The argument that it is socially unjust for consumers to save two cents at the expense of Juan's slowed starvation can be countered by the social injustice suffered by those who can afford a forty cent cup of coffee, but cannot afford a forty-two cent cup of coffee.

      Juan accepts this as reality, but the nature he has as a human precludes him starving his family.

      In order to feed his family, he not only picks the coffee beans, but he also goes through the trash bins of wealthier people to scrounge that which they feel is garbage but that he can use to feed and clothe his family. It disgusts the wealthy people to not only have to look at this decrepit person in their neighborhood, but to have him go through their garbage for what his family considers essential to live.

      The wealthy people garner enough support to make it a crime for a person to "steal garbage," and he will now face "justice" if he does what is necessary to feed his family.

      Are the wealthy people victims of a criminal because Juan's actions disgusted them sufficiently to make what he did a crime? Will society suffer if Juan resorts to committing that crime, or perhaps escalated crime? Will society benefit if Juan obediently does away with that part of feeding his family and dies a slow death of starvation?

      If, in any way, the law for which Juan will face justice is unjust, then Juan is truly the victim of social injustice. If, in any way, it is possible for social injustice to be conceived, then the correction of that social injustice would be social justice.

      That said, I'm not totally certain I agree with myself. I just had to try to poke a hole in Hayek's certainty that there cannot be any other acceptable conclusion except his own.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 5 years ago from Olympia, WA

      You have done a wonderful job of explaining your views on this subject. I was all set to jump into the fray, but then realized it was going to require much more thought than I was willing to give on this Saturday. :)

      Let me just say this: I agree with your premise in this fact, the more I think about it the more I agree with it. I started out with a knee jerk reaction and then allowed my logic to settle in.

      Great food for thought!