Social justice enables individuals in their respective society fully utilize their potential. This means that individuals can perform their roles in that society and be rewarded their deserved dues. Social justice is a concept that is often used in ordinary terms. Though social justice was originally a philosophical discourse, the term is widely used in other subjects like social science (Walzer, 1983).
The concept of social justice has a vague definition, but by looking at the elements of various philosophical backgrounds, according to Elster (1992) and Feinberg (1973), it is more likely to come up with a simple definition of the term. Social justice can be a state of affairs that can benefit or be a burden to the society. This concept can also be the rules, norms, and legislation that help to govern the various forms of decision making platforms in order to protect human rights, liberties, and entitlements of the society and its people. This is to ensure that every human being is treated in accordance with their dignity as humans by authorities, social organizations and individuals.
In order for a social justice theory to be relevant, it must address three different issues: distributive justice, interactional justice and procedural justice. It is not mandatory for a social justice theory to address all three of these aspects, but it is important that it addresses at least one or two.
A social system that is just is to be contrasted with other systems that foster unnecessary suffering or arbitrary, exploitation and degradation, social abuse, prejudice, aristocracy and discrimination.
What should be considered as a fair and just distribution of the benefits and burdens in the society in a social justice system has eluded the minds of many scholars. The questions that arise in the subject of social justice are difficult, but that does not mean that there are no answers. These questions have been tackled by some of the greatest minds in civilization, including Plato, Aristotle, Max, Kent and Hegel.
Theoretical Perspective on Social Justice
It never took long before the subject of social justice was at the forefront in terms of theoretical and empirical research and inquiry in social psychology. Kurt Lewin, the father of modern social psychology, promoted the subject among other things as a means to foster democracy, prevention of aristocracy, prevention of discrimination and oppression. Kurt Lewin never tutored social justice as a single subject, but some of his applied research programs in defeating social abnormalities like prejudice, out-group hostility and self-hatred among some ethnic groups like the Jews is a reflection of what social justice stands for. The psychologist was a scathing critic of authoritarianism ideologies and fascism.
Gordon was another social psychologist who observed that humanitarian motives and ideologies have always played a significant role. His work along with other pioneers Levinson and Sanford (1950) sought to seek methods or social systems that can fight and defeat social injustices like aristocracy, dictatorship, discrimination, prejudice and other barriers to a just social system.
Liberal-Progressive Point of View
The concept of social justice was more readily accepted by liberals and progressives partly due to the skepticism of Carl Marx, compared to the socialist perspective. Some of the major western traditions that are responsible for interest of social justice both in practical and theory, are the utilitarianism theory and deontological theory.
This is a social justice concept that is based on a consequentialist theory of justice. This theory assumes the position that the most just procedure or outcome is to be based on the greatness of the numbers and the greatest degree of satisfaction. Although most of the philosophers who support this notion may not agree as to what is the absolute gauge of “happiness” and other related concepts as “well being”, “the public interest” and “greater good”; nevertheless, they support redistribution of resources to those that are worst of in a manner that does not remove an equal amount of suffering from those that are better off as a just social system. This is known as the welfare state (Walker, 2007).
Although this social justice system is obviously based on the normative theory of the behavior of the people, descriptive research in other fields suggests that people show high sensitivity in the sense of consequences of an action when evaluating the morality of the action in question. This requires people to make morally upright decisions and choices (Walzer, 1983).
This approach supports the theory that the degree of right and wrong does not only depend on the consequences of an action, but also what others consider it as so. This also includes the justice system (Wegner, 2002).
One of the most prominent supporters of this theory in approach to justice, Immanuel Kent (1785-1993), suggested that there is the existence of a “categorical imperative” to the maxim. This in simple terms means that justice warrants us to do only the actions that can be conventional and universally accepted. For instance, when everyone lies to gain personal advantage, it would be impossible to maintain trust and cooperation in society. The categorical imperative for this is that one should not lie.
Critique of the Theory
Most philosophical concepts of social justice that put emphasis on welfare or the need based system principles were developed by liberals who were critical of the traditional socialist arrangements of the economy and politics. For example, stating that the social justice has always been, and must always be a critical idea that can challenge the reforms on institutions and behavior in the name of the greater good. This shows that the theory is meant to vindicate and paralyze traditional socialist institutions and norms that they regard as indefensible or inefficient (Walzer, 1983).
Socialist Theories and Evidence
Theory of Equity
This theory and concept is arguably the most broadly influential theory to the theoretical and empirical study and practice of social justice. A famous philosopher, Aristotle (384-322 BC), tried to establish the need of proportionality when exercising justice. He came up with the term “equality of ratios.” This provided an insight and a starting point to the concept and theory of equity as developed by others like Homans (1961), Adams (1965), Blau (1968), and Walster (1973).
The theory is more based on distributive justice. It states that when exercising justice in terms of distribution, the social justice system should try to seek the relationship in terms of proportion. There should be a relationship between the input in terms of effort, ability, and training, and that of the outcome received in terms of award, salary, punishment and rewards (Wegner, 2002). If an individual tries to evaluate input and output and finds that they are disproportionate, physiological distress is to ensure a feeling of injustice.
Theory of Equality and Need
A number of philosophers and psychologists have tried to prove that equity is not the only answer when it comes to the principle of distributive justice (e.g. Clerk & Mills, 1979; Deutsch, 1975; Feinberg, 1973). These psychologists use what is sometimes referred to as a “multidimensional Method” to approach the justice norms and conventional behavior. Lerner (1975) observed that the conceptions of people of a justice system can be of different forms. Different situations call for different justice principles. Considering this principle and example, the idea of giving children in a household food in accordance to their performance in school, regardless of the age, size, and appetite are out rightly unjust.
Critic of the Socialist Principle
Although socialists have amassed considerable evidence in support of equity and equality, it comes with several limitations of its own. Even in its own existence, there is a considerable amount of individuals who equity over the other allocation principle of equality and so on. As compared to liberals’ theories, the socialist social justice system tends to preserve and protect social harmony in terms of subjective means rather than an objective way. Other social standards cannot be gauged in terms of input and output like friendship and siblings (Wegner, 2002).