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Social Justice 101: Meaning, Principles, Facts and Examples

“Social justice” has been a popular buzzword for many years. It seems to appear everywhere from corporate press releases to grassroots activists’ speeches. In the United States, the recent surge in book bans has targeted teaching on social justice. What does social justice mean and why has it become such a hot-button phrase? In this article, we’ll explore the history and principles of social justice, important facts, and three key examples.

Social justice examines the fairness of a society’s wealth distribution, as well as the distribution of privileges and opportunities. Discrimination based on traits like race or gender goes against the principles of social justice, which include human rights, access, participation, and equity.

What are the origins of social justice?

The origins of social justice date back to ancient Greece and the philosopher Plato. Plato saw harmony and balance as essential to justice within the human soul and within the city-state. In the soul, there’s reason, spirit, and appetite. Reason must lead the soul, while spirit and appetite should be kept under control. In Plato’s ideal city-state, there are guardians, auxiliaries (soldiers), and producers, such as farmers. In Plato’s view, philosopher-kings are the best guardians because they represent reason. They are therefore the best at making decisions that serve the common good. Harmony depends on everyone knowing their place. This doesn’t sound like social justice as we know it today. While Plato’s hypothetical philosopher-kings made decisions based on what’s best for everyone, the lack of democratic processes wouldn’t fit with today’s values.

The phrase “social justice” wasn’t coined until the 19th century. Luigi Taparell d’Azeglio, who was a Jesuit priest, based this new term on his Catholic beliefs. His social justice meant using religious values to determine what’s best for society. Like Plato, hierarchies were important to d’Azeglio. As the Industrial Revolution began, social justice morphed into an economic term, and then eventually a term that meant everyone should work for the common good.

What does social justice mean today?

In the 1970s, American philosopher John Rawls played a big role in defining what social justice means today. He developed the concept of “justice as fairness.” In this concept, justice is tied to inequality and how social goods are distributed. In Rawls’ view, all social goods should be distributed equally unless an inequality benefits everyone, but especially those who have the least. This is based on the understanding that everyone is equal.

Today, social justice is about the distribution of wealth, opportunities, and privileges in society. Social injustice exists when discrimination and inequalities lead to negative outcomes.

What are the principles of social justice?

You’ll see several principles of social justice depending on where you look, but we’ve found four common ones:

Human rights

Social justice states that everyone is equal and deserving of human rights. This is why discussions about human rights and social justice are so intertwined. Many use the phrases almost interchangeably, although they have a few key differences. “Human rights” often refer to the absolute bare minimum: right to life, food, education, safe housing, decent work, etc. They’re based on international laws and treaties like the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Social justice is less clearly defined and often asks deeper questions about fairness and distribution.


A socially-just society gives everyone equal access to wealth, opportunities, and privileges. If someone’s access to things like healthcare or education is restricted because of gender, race, ethnicity, class, age, or ability, they’re being discriminated against. A society that enables or allows discrimination cannot be just. It creates hierarchies of inequality. As a social justice principle, access is about breaking down hierarchies, increasing access, and making sure no one faces discrimination.


When it comes to ending poverty, racism, sexism, and every other social problem, those most affected by problems are uniquely qualified to solve them. As a principle, participation is all about making space for and empowering those who have been silenced. Participation is a principle of democracy, too, which is essential to achieving equality, freedom, and accountability.


People are always debating what equity means and what it looks like in practice, but long story short, equity is a way to achieve equality while recognizing existing inequalities. As an example, let’s say you have a company with two employees. One is a white man and the other is a Black woman. Because of historical inequality, the white man makes more money despite doing a similar job. When it comes time to give raises, equality would look like giving two employees the same amount of money. That’s fair, right? Not really. The Black woman still makes less despite doing the same job. Equity, on the other hand, means giving her a larger raise so her salary finally matches that of the white male employee. This is technically an unequal distribution, but as John Rawls would point out, unequal distributions are acceptable when they benefit the person who is at a disadvantage. The white employee may be getting a smaller raise, but he’s not harmed.

What are three key facts about social justice?

Social justice is complex, but here are the three relevant facts everyone should know:

#1. Interest in social justice has been increasing

Social justice is not a new term, but interest has been increasing. According to Google Trends, the term “social justice” has been searched more and more. In worldwide data from 2004 to the present, there was a huge spike in searches in September 2020. Why that date? There were global protests against police brutality, racism, and inequality during the summer and fall of 2020. Since then, global searches for “social justice” have remained high.

#2. Corporations use the language of social justice to attract customers

Google searches aren’t the only sign of social justice’s increasing popularity. Corporations have noticed and are co-opting social justice language. Why? Consumers want the businesses they support to embrace social justice values. According to one survey, 70% of consumers wanted to know what brands are doing to address social and environmental issues. 46% said they pay “close attention” to a brand’s social responsibility. The 2020 article “We’re Entering the Age of Corporate Social Justice” states that companies with effective Corporate Social Responsibility programs do better than those that don’t. Efforts often don’t go beyond marketing, however. Too many companies whitewash their social justice and human rights records with slick PR. Customers who truly care about social justice need to be wary.

#3. “Social justice warrior” is an insult

Many terms with politically-progressive origins get twisted into insults. There’s no clearer example than the phrase “social justice warrior.” According to Daily Dot, the term (which is abbreviated as “SJW”) came from the once-massive microblogging website Tumblr. It was initially used as a positive term – social justice is good, so those who fight for it are good – but it soon birthed a cottage industry of anti-SJW memes. They weren’t all coming from racists or sexists; many anti-SJW posters simply felt the warriors were going “too far.” This can muddy the waters around an issue because it’s often unclear what exactly people are opposed to. Do they have a problem with social justice itself or merely the tone/method an alleged “SJW” is using? On the other hand, is criticism of the tone/method actually a smokescreen for a more insidious opinion? Arguing about who is or isn’t an SJW often distracts from real issues. It’s hard to be productive when insults enter the mix.

What are three examples of social justice issues?

There are many social justice issues facing the world today. Here are three of the most important ones:

Income inequality

Income inequality has been an issue for years, and in many ways, it’s getting worse. According to the 2022 World Inequality Database report, income gaps within countries are increasing. The gap between the average incomes of the bottom 50% and the top 10% has almost doubled in twenty years. Globally, the world’s richest 1% grabbed $42 trillion of the new wealth created between December 2019-December 2021, while just $16 trillion was distributed among the rest of the world. Social justice is about fairness. This type of income inequality is clearly unfair.

The gender pay gap

Sexism plays a big role in inequality. According to the 2022 Women, Business, and the Law report from the World Bank, about 2.4 billion women of working age didn’t get equal economic opportunities. 95 countries don’t guarantee equal pay for equal work. Within countries, there are even more inequalities. In the United States, women earn on average about $.82 for every dollar a man earns, but Black women earn $.63. Hispanic and Latina women earn just $.58 for every dollar a white man makes. The work sector also matters; in non-profits and government agencies, women earn $.85 for every man’s dollar. This is better than what women earn in private, for-profit companies ($.78 for every dollar), but that’s weak praise.

Climate change

According to a recent UN report, global greenhouse gas emissions need to be cut in half by 2030. If this goal isn’t reached, irreversible damages are extremely likely. Climate change is one of the most urgent social justice issues today. It affects billions of people and worsens existing social justice issues like food insecurity, gender inequality, children’s rights, poor health, and more. To make things even more unfair, the countries that pollute the least are the most vulnerable to climate change’s effects. These countries (many in Africa) keep emissions low, but climate change doesn’t care about borders.

About the author

Emmaline Soken-Huberty

Emmaline Soken-Huberty is a freelance writer based in Portland, Oregon. She started to become interested in human rights while attending college, eventually getting a concentration in human rights and humanitarianism. LGBTQ+ rights, women’s rights, and climate change are of special concern to her. In her spare time, she can be found reading or enjoying Oregon’s natural beauty with her husband and dog.