Social Justice

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    In this article, we are going to look at the concept of social justice, the origins of the idea of social justice, who has a role to play to improve society, and some principles to follow to ensure the changes are long-lasting.

    We will also have a look at a few examples of social justice. Perhaps take a moment to think of some other examples of social justice, that you may already be passionate about or involved in.

    Social justice definition

    Social justice is the concept of, and a process toward, a fair and just society. The first social justice definition dates back to Ancient Greece, however, social justice as we understand it today, emerged from the industrial revolution when the level of social inequalities between rich and poor was extreme.

    Justice: from the Latin iustitia meaning righteousness, equity.

    Key thinkers on social justice

    In modern times, one of the main thinkers in the field of social justice is the liberal, moral and political philosopher, John Rawls. In his book "A Theory of Justice", Rawls argues that a moral, logical society is one where the most fortunate help the least fortunate.

    Freedom is demonstrated by individuals' ability to pursue their goals and interests without state interference and without having to consider other people's needs. Freedom is one of the main aims of liberal thinking. Justice is the application of the law and the re-distribution of resources equally among everybody in society through government intervention.

    Justice is one of the main aims of socialist thinking. Freedom and justice are therefore traditionally understood to be incompatible with each other. Rawls proposed the theory of "justice as fairness" as a way of allowing the concepts of freedom and justice to co-exist. For Rawls, "justice as fairness" is embodied by a society where free citizens have basic rights and freedoms and interact cooperatively for the benefit of all.

    Liberalism: the political philosophy based on individuals' ability to pursue their own life, while the state safeguards their rights and freedoms.

    Social Justice Signature of John Rawls StudySmarter Fig. 1 Signature of John Rawls

    To further illustrate this idea, John Rawls presented the thought experiment where people were asked what kind of society they would choose to live in, if they didn't know what social status they would have had. Rawls theorised that, when people are faced with this problem, they would not choose to include unjust policies in their theoretical society as they might be at the receiving end of these.

    Key features of Social Justice

    In action, initially social justice reforms were mainly economic, however, as the ideals of social justice became embedded in national and international law, the steps towards social justice have taken a more legislative shape.

    The ideal of social justice calls for changes and reforms in societies, which can be pursued through the application of four key principles. These are:

    1. human rights,

    2. participation,

    3. equity,

    4. access.

    Human rights

    Human rights are one of the most powerful tools in the pursuit of social justice. When human rights are recognised in law, it enables citizens to hold governments accountable if these human rights are violated.

    In the UK, the 1998 Human Rights Act outlines a number of rights, including the right to education.


    Participation refers to the availability of appropriate channels in society to allow all citizens to express their views on political matters. Participation also implies the need for the tools and the political will to incorporate these views into policymaking to ensure fair, universal representation.

    Examples of participation could include lobbying policymakers or engaging in democratic elections. In doing so, citizens are ensuring their voices are heard by political actors and help to facilitate the process toward social justice.


    Equity differs from equality as it acknowledges the differences between individuals and aims to bridge them by applying different tools to reach an equal playing field. Equality, instead, would give the same tools to different people, but the end result wouldn't be equality.

    Imagine an adult, a child and a person in a wheelchair are trying to paint a fence that is as tall as the adult. An approach based on equality would give them all an equally tall stepladder. This would result in the adult being able to reach beyond the fence, the child being able to reach halfway up the fence, and the person with the wheelchair not being able to do anything with the stepladder. An approach based on equity would give nothing to the adult as they are already tall enough. It would give an appropriately sized stepladder to the child, and a ramp or an extendable paintbrush to the person in the wheelchair. Now they have all been given the necessary tools to complete the job.


    This principle refers to the right to equal access that all members of society, irrespectively of who they are, should have to the services and resources available in their society.

    Political Social Justice

    Social justice is a key principle of a number of political movements such as Liberalism, Progressivism, Social Democracy, and the Labour Movement. They all see the pursuit of social justice as essential in the achievement of harmonious societies.

    However, as government interventions are funded by public money (taxes), reforms based on social justice principles attract criticism from political movements whose supporters do not benefit from the reforms. When implementing reforms, governments have to strike the right balance toward achieving the "harmony" that social justice calls for.

    Progressivism: is a political movement of the left. It believes that societies can improve through progress and, with this, better represent the interests of the worst-off in societies.

    Social democracy: is a political movement that aims to pursue the goals of socialism (including social justice) through the democratic process.

    The Labour Movement: is a political movement that aims to represent the interests of the working class within a capitalist system, hence the strong connections with trade unions.

    Classic liberalism's Vs Modern liberalism's view on social justice:

    While classic liberalism focuses primarily on individual independence and the right to self-actualisation, in modern liberalism this focus shifts toward the importance of interdependence between individuals. This shift is based on the moral principle that individual happiness comes not only by fulfilling our own needs and self-interest, but also through altruism and fulfilling the needs of our community.

    Classic liberalism sees the role of the state as a more passive, yet watchful actor. Modern liberalism, instead, calls for an "enabling state", one that has responsibility for, and therefore intervenes, to create a more level playing field between its citizens. These interventions are usually grouped under the umbrella of "welfare": interventions aimed at ensuring that the poorest in society have their basic needs met. In modern liberalism, citizens are still left to pursue self-actualisation, however, given the interventions of the state, society is fairer and more equal.

    Government inclusion in social justice

    Although government inclusion is essential in the pursuit of social justice, it cannot work independently of civil society. With "civil society" we mean groups in society that represent and promote the interests of the public, for example, pressure or interest groups and charities. If we think of the four principles above, the dynamics between civil society and the government for the achievement of social justice become clearer.

    Civil society groups, for example, Amnesty International and Liberty, hold the governments accountable when there are violations, or risks of violations, of human rights.

    Civil society groups can also offer means of citizens' participation and government lobby, raise issues of access (or lack of) and inequality.

    In the UK alone there are thousands of civil society organisations that defend and promote the rights of marginalised, discriminated, underprivileged and minority groups and ensure that they are represented in policymaking.

    Can you think of examples for any of these groups?

    Government role in social justice

    So, what is the government's role in attaining social justice?

    In very general terms, the government's role is to consider the interests of all the citizens, understand where there are gaps in "justice", draw legislation, and implement practical procedures to fairly bridge these gaps. Lastly, and crucially, these steps have to be followed by a feedback system to ensure that the objectives have been reached, or get policymakers back to the drawing board.

    These changes can take the form of, for example, equal opportunity legislation, positive discrimination policies, housing schemes, and the creation of an up-to-date benefits system.

    Social justice examples

    Practical examples of social justice can be seen whenever we consider some of the biggest social justice issues affecting society such as racial injustice, wealth disparity, and climate justice. So, let's look at some examples more closely.

    The first example is the civil rights movement that originated in the 1950s in the United States. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, was a key piece of legislation because it outlawed discrimination based on race, sex, religion, or national origin. Ending racial discrimination presents the opportunity to create fairer and more equal societies, and therefore, continues to be an important social justice issue.

    Another key example of social justice was the creation of the NHS, the national health system in the UK. It was founded in 1948 by the British Labour government, and it was revolutionary as it was one of the first free-at-the-point-of-use healthcare systems that anyone in the country could benefit from. The NHS is funded by taxation and replaced systems that were either paid for when needed or funded by charities.

    A much more recent example of social justice is the #MeToo movement. It started in 2006 to empower individuals who had been victims of sexual abuse to speak out against their perpetrators. It has since gained international momentum and led to changes in legislation to protect whistleblowers and increase protection in work roles where sexual abuse could be institutionalised.

    Social Justice A poster held up in the MeToo Movement March where there is and her too and him too written all over it StudySmarterFig. 2 #MeToo March on Washington DC 2019

    Social Justice - Key takeaways

    • Social justice refers to the idea of equal and equitable societies through a just distribution of wealth and resources.
    • The four principles for the achievement of social justice are human rights, participation, equity, and access.
    • Social justice is an integral part of other political movements such as modern liberalism, progressivism, social democracy, and the labour movement.
    • Government and civil society work in tandem to identify and bridge gaps in social justice.
    • Examples of social justice are the founding of the NHS and The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the #MeToo Movement

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    1. John Rawls A Theory of Justice 1971
    2. Fig. 2 #MeToo Movement March on Washington, DC 2019 ( by Cyndy Sims Parr ( licenced by CC-BY-SA-2.0 ( on Wikimedia Commons
    Frequently Asked Questions about Social Justice

    What does social justice mean?

    Social justice is the concept of, and a process toward, a fair and just society. 

    How can we promote social justice?

    We can promote social justice by joining civil society groups to raise the profile of social justice issues with the public and with the government so that they can be addressed. 

    Why is social justice important?

    Social justice is important for all citizens to have an even playing field in the attainment of self-actualisation, and in turn for the realisation of a fair, harmonious society.

    What is social justice examples?

    Examples of social justice are the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the creation of the NHS, and the #MeToo Movement.

    What are the 4 principles of social justice?

    The four principles of social justice are Human rights, participation, equity, and access.

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