The question of how we define and understand social justice and justice more broadly is one that has engaged the minds of scholars for centuries. Although social justice is generally viewed as revolving around the notion of equality, it can be viewed much more broadly. The works of Rawls (1999) and Miller (1999) are perhaps recent foundational conceptions of social justice, but they follow a lineage that dates back to Aristotle and Plato.
If we attempt to incorporate various recent philosophical views (Elster, 1992; Feinberg, 1973; Frankena, 1962; Miller, 1999; Rawls, 1999) into a unifying definition of social justice, we are left with a set of real or ideal circumstances which satisfy three main criteria (Jost and Kay, 2010). This justice-oriented state exists when
(a) benefits and burdens in society are dispersed in accordance with some allocation principle (or set of principles); (b) procedures, norms, and rules that govern political and other forms of decision making preserve the basic rights liberties, and entitlements of individuals and groups; and (c) human beings (and perhaps other species) are treated with dignity and respect not only by authorities but also by other relevant social actors, including fellow citizens” (Jost and Kay, 2010, p.1122).
Although considerable debates over these elements persists (see Campbell, 2001; Miller, 1999), more fundamental questions lie at the heart of the discussion. Which rights and liberties are reasonable in society? What does treating others with respect and dignity actually look like? These fundamental questions form the foundation for current social justice movements as collaborative and opposing groups and individuals attempt to define these parameters.
Throughout history, social justice movements have identified differences in the rights and liberties afforded to individuals, and the manner in which members of society extend respect and dignity to each other. This process of identification has existed as a form of awareness and often led to action on the part of those individuals who identified discrepancies. Activists have repeatedly made it clear that benefits and burdens have not been allocated evenly in our society, and the basic norms and rules that govern our society have, in part, served to preserve those discrepancies. This has led to many members of our society not being treated with basic respect and dignity.
This awareness of social inequity and injustice is the result of a long lineage of scholars and activists making their claims, logically defending them, and challenging others to see their point-of-view. What was once series of independent and sometimes isolated movements has evolved into an intersecting web of social awareness and education. We literally have the knowledge at our fingertips and filling our inboxes and news feeds on a daily basis. There is truly no excuse for not being AWARE of inequity and injustice in this world.
Thus, I believe it’s time that we move past awareness as a goal in social justice work. Awareness should be the status quo. It should be the baseline expectation for those of us who claim to be committed to social justice. For Rawls (1999), social justice is a freely entered into contract to abide by certain regulations for the betterment of society, regardless of individual benefit. He has no expectation that everyone will agree on what action is required for social justice in various situations, but that people will ultimately agree that some action is required, regardless of differing moral, religious, or philosophical beliefs. Furthermore, Miller (1999) argues that “justice fundamentally requires us to treat people as equals; or we should understand justice as what people would agree to in advance of knowing their own stake in the decision to be reached” (p. 87).
The defining element in social justice must then become action. We are past the point where not being aware of the injustices negatively impacting millions of Americans on a regular basis should be an allowable state of being. The information is out there, the voices are loud, and it is everyone’s responsibility to listen. As educators, we must begin to expect awareness as a baseline and insist on engaging in more intentional dialogue about action for social justice. Everyone has the responsibility to decide for themselves what rights and responsibilities are reasonable, and what treating others with respect and dignity looks like, but we also have the responsibility to listen to others. Sometimes that means acting on their behalf, even if we don’t have a stake in the issue. As a democratic society, we all ultimately have a stake in every issue in some way.
So, my invitation to you is to accept awareness as a basic expectation, and continue to educate yourself and others. There will always be folks that need a bit more guidance, and it will always be important to make that information readily available in the spaces where they will be accessed. However, don’t stop there. Have conversations, listen to people, get involved in your community, and work to educate others. Decide to ACT for social justice.
Campbell, T. (2001). Justice (2nd Ed.). New York: St. Martin’s Press.
Elster, J. (1992). Local justice: How institutions allocate scarce goods and necessary burdens. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
Feinberg, J. (1973). Social philosophy. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
Frankena, W. K. (1962). The concept of social justice. In R. B. Brandt (Ed.), Social justice (pp. 1-29). Englewood, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
Jost, J.T., & Kay, A.C. (2010). Social Justice: History, Theory, and Research. In S. T. Fiske (Ed.), Handbook of social psychology (Vol. 3, pp. 1122-1165). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.
Miller, D. (1999). Principles of social justice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Rawls, J. (1999). A theory of justice. Oxford: Oxford University Press.