What’s the use of social justice?

Barry Knight

Social justice has always functioned as an umbrella for a range of progressive ideas from Aristotle to Marx to Rawls. It has also acted as a magnet for groups seeking radical change in society – from civil rights activists seeking racial equality to first world peoples agitating for land reform to feminists seeking a fair deal for women. But what is social justice? And does it deserve recognition by philanthropists? In this article I try to get to grips with the meaning of the idea and examine its relevance for grantmakers.

Knight’s law states that ‘the longer you study a term like [insert as appropriate … civil society, public benefit, social justice], the less you understand it’. A corollary of the law is that ‘if you assert a proposition – any proposition – someone, somewhere, sometime will disagree with it’.

It’s all eighteenth-century philosopher David Hume’s fault. When he showed that deriving normative ideas from descriptive premises is impossible, he took a hammer to the Enlightenment’s optimism that logical reasoning could produce a definition of social justice. No matter how good the conceptual analysis, someone can always disagree. Social justice will always be contested.

David Miller[1] suggests that, in everyday language, the argument about social justice boils down to the question: ‘How should the good and bad things in life be distributed between members of a society?’ But this deceptively simple question hides many others: How are good and bad things to be assessed? How are decisions to be made? Who decides? What does membership of a society entail? Are some members more deserving than others?

Social justice and society

It is clear that any theory of social justice depends on the theory of society that underpins it. Political theorists from ancient Greece through to present-day multiculturalists have wrestled with theoretical frameworks to capture the complexity and diversity of experience. And some – for example Hayek – would not include social justice in that framework.

Each generation of scholars has addressed the question of social justice differently. Aristotle theorized about the relationship between the individual and the state, calling for the fair distribution of benefits among members of society according to the dictum ‘to each according to his needs’. Liberal social reformers Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill used the ‘utilitarian’ principle of ‘the greatest happiness of the greatest number’. The socialist tradition stresses equality, fraternity and cooperation in addressing squalor and material poverty.

From the different varieties of socialism, Marxism emerged as the most prominent, partly because of its rigour, partly because of its pseudo-scientific basis, partly because of the supposed inevitability of its realization, but mostly because of the superior organization of its proponents. In Europe, Marxism had real influence, not only because of the Russian revolution of 1917 but also because of the efforts to sanitize its communist message – through Bernstein’s revisionism of Marx – into a philosophy for use by social democratic governments.

In the period between 1945 and 1979, most of Europe followed a policy that suggested that the state should bring about social justice for its peoples. That tradition is still very much alive in Scandinavia, France and Germany (though the deep-seated financial crisis in Germany may mean a very different future). One of the big differences between thinking about social justice in Europe and the US is that European thinking about such matters is never far from the socialist tradition, whereas such a perspective has no resonance in the US.

Justice as fairness?

With the publication of John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice in 1971,[2] the debate about social justice was given a much needed lift. Rawls considered the basic structure of society to be the subject matter of social justice – ‘rights and liberties, powers and opportunities, income and wealth’ – these are the ‘primary goods’ which ‘it is supposed a rational man wants whatever else he wants’.

Rawls conceived of ‘social justice as fairness’. He went back to the ‘social contract’ tradition of Hobbes, Locke and Kant, and argued that the test of whether or not social arrangements are fair lies in whether people would sign up to them. To make the test objective, Rawls conceived the idea of a ‘veil of ignorance’ – people entering into a social contract would do so without any prior knowledge of the abilities they might possess, or whether they might be winners or losers. He suggested that under these conditions, anyone asked to sign up for a set of social arrangements would vote for the ‘maximin’, that is ‘they would maximise the minimum payoff from the agreement by voting for arrangements that made the worst-off person as well-off as possible. Fairness required two principles, first that everyone should enjoy as much freedom as was consistent with everyone having as much as anyone else, and second that inequalities are arranged for the benefit of the least favoured.’

Rawls had his critics. Egalitarians complained that his theory did not advocate the independent moral value of closing the gap between rich and poor (since he suggested that the gap between rich and poor doesn’t matter so long as gains produce the best possible outcome for the worst-off), and anti-egalitarians complained that the right of individuals to enrich themselves was ignored.

Others pointed out that Rawls represented the Western liberal view of the world. Islamic notions of social justice, where there is no separation between temporal and spiritual matters, operate from an entirely different set of premises. Feminists such as Nussbaum[3] have explored unjust power relations and unjust divisions of labour, and take the view that most theories of social justice are paternalist and gender blind (Rawls tacitly assumes that men are heads of family units).

It is clear from this brief historical tour that the idea of social justice pulls in all kinds of directions. This kind of conceptual analysis gives little guidance to practical people, such as philanthropists, who wish to use their money to improve the world.

Do we know it when we see it?

I believe a quite different approach is needed. Eminent art historian Kenneth Clark[4] once remarked that, although he couldn’t define civilization, he knew it when he saw it. On this account, social justice is less a matter of analytical procedures (logic) and more a question of direct vision (empiricism). We know social justice when we see it (or perhaps we are more likely to know social injustice when we see it).

To test whether we ‘know social justice when we see it’, I investigated the visions of 25 philanthropists and 18 community developers from different parts of the world. Using a questionnaire, I analysed the results using a principal components analysis – a technique to find underlying trends in the individual opinions offered. I found five common components that accounted for 85 per cent of the variance in what goes to make up their definitions of social justice. The common factors – which the groups labelled themselves – were:

  • addressing basic needs (food, clothing, shelter);
  • redistribution of power;
  • transformation of values in favour of diversity (race, gender, etc);
  • strong community capacity (so that people have the power to act);
  • public participation in decision-making.

These five factors were what people could agree about. There was one factor that people did not agree about. People from Asia, Africa and the Pacific tended to suggest a spiritual dimension to social justice, to the effect that bringing about positive change is part of one’s duty to God, whereas those from North America and Europe did not.

This type of analysis gives an empirical – as opposed to a logical – account of social justice. It reveals what goes on in people’s minds when they use the term. In my view, this approach has most promise since it enables us to see where we agree and disagree in using a term.

If I were to construct a synthetic statement for action based on the five components, it would read something like this:

‘To pursue social justice, we need to ensure that people in the world have their basic needs fulfilled, and that we redistribute resources on that basis. We also need to build strong diverse communities where all people feel equal, so that we can all take part in public decision making.’

On the basis of empirical work I have done, that would be my definition. Actually, it is not really mine, since it is based on the views of 43 people who have more experience of philanthropy and development than I do. It takes account of what they agree about and what they disagree about, yet offers a formula that is ‘good enough’ on the basis of the evidence.

If philanthropists who wish to create social justice could decide on a common definition of the term, the next step is to investigate the ‘theory of change’ that will lead to it. A variety of strategies suggest themselves, but the first crucial step is to decide the end point because, to paraphrase Drucker, if you don’t know where you’re going, any plan will do.

1 D Miller (1999) Principles of Social Justice Harvard University Press.

2 J Rawls (1971) A Theory of Justice Oxford University Press.

3 M Nussbaum and A Sen (eds) (1993) The Quality of Life Oxford University Press.

4 K Clark (1969) Civilisation BBC Books.

Barry Knight is Secretary of CENTRIS. He can be contacted at barryknight@centris.org

In preparing this article, the author is grateful for contributions from his CENTRIS colleagues Janette Kirton Darling and Andrew Milner. CENTRIS wishes to acknowledge a grant from the Ford Foundation to support its work on social justice.

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