What does it mean for a society to be just? Philosophers, politicians, and everyday people have wrestled with this question for as long as society has existed. The term “social justice” first applied only to economic resources. Over time, it has become aligned with human rights. The distribution of resources, how people are treated, and access to services and opportunities all play a role in social justice. Because society is complex, social justice is complex as well. At its most basic, it breaks down into four principles.
The four principles of social justice
As a term, “social justice” is vague and often misunderstood. To become a reality in every part of society – healthcare, education, employment, etc – social justice needs clearly-defined goals. With clear goals, solutions for change and progress are possible. A definition must consider four principles: access, equity, participation, and human rights.
To serve the people, a healthy society must offer services and resources. These include education, healthcare, shelter, and food. However, in many societies, there’s unequal access. Education is a prime example of the consequences. When only people from a certain class can afford good schools, those with lower-paying jobs have to settle for less. This leads to those kids growing up and being unable to access certain jobs. In an unjust society, somebody’s race and sexuality can also limit services and opportunities. When everyone gets equal access, it helps even out the playing field.
Equity is different than equality. If social justice was only concerned with equality, it wouldn’t lead to a just society. As an example, let’s say two people need a health insurance plan. The benefits are identical and equal in every way, but one of the people has a chronic illness. In this case, “equality” can cause significant harm to the person who is ill. The two people with the same healthcare plan end up in very different places. Equitable healthcare considers the differences between the two people, adjusting to benefit the person who needs the most help. While “unequal” according to a strict definition, equity leads to a society with reduced inequalities.
The fourth principle for social justice is participation. Society must allow everyone to voice their concerns and take part in making decisions. If something affects a person’s life, that person needs to be a part of the process. If there’s only a select group calling the shots with others silenced through discrimination, that’s social injustice. This is where access and equity come into play again. Within most societies, participation is reserved for only a few. To increase access, society must remove barriers to participation. For equity, historically-undermined groups should be encouraged to speak.
Human rights and social justice are two sides of the same coin. They can’t exist apart from each other. For a society to be just, it must ensure the protection of everyone’s civil, political, economic, cultural, and social rights. These rights include the right to life, the right to free speech, the right to vote, the right to a fair trial, and so on. Governments must be held accountable when they violate these rights or fail to protect them. Human rights might be the most powerful principle for social justice because they’re recognized internationally and enshrined in many treaties.
Where do the four principles apply?
Social justice is an umbrella term that covers a variety of issues within society. Access, equity, participation, and human rights apply to all issues such as:
- Reproductive rights
- Access to healthcare services
- Access to good education
- Employment discrimination
- Voting discrimination
- Disability discrimination
The best way to implement the four principles depends on the issue. One principle – such as participation – may need to take priority for a time so a clearer picture of the situation can be drawn. No principle can be ignored, however. They all work together to bring about social justice.
Why does social justice matter?
Each of the four principles of social justice comes with challenges. Oftentimes, definitions for essential concepts like “fairness” and “equality” can create rifts within communities. It’s also common to trigger a backlash from societal groups that benefit from the status quo. Even though social justice is good for everyone, it can shake the foundations of long-standing systems. These types of issues make it hard to put real change into action. When solutions are finally selected and undertaken, progress is usually slow. It can seem like social justice will always be an unattainable dream.
It’s important to know that the vision of perfect social justice will most likely never be realized. There’s no finish line to cross, but when society values the four principles, things do get better. With each victory – big or small – inequalities are reduced and people’s lives improve.