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What Is Social Justice?

Social justice is the belief that everyone in society deserves equal social, economic, and political rights; equal privileges; and equal opportunities.

The phrase “social justice” pops up a lot today in discussions around human rights issues. While its prevalence today makes it seem like a new idea, it’s an old concept. A Jesuit priest – Luigi Taparelli – is often cited as the originator of the term in the 1800s, but it appears earlier in The Federalist Papers in 1787. Social justice back then doesn’t mean what it means now, however. In this article, we’ll explore the evolution of social justice, what issues fall under social justice, and how social justice is achieved.

Where does social justice come from?

Ideas about justice, fairness, and social justice have evolved for thousands of years. In ancient Greece, Plato described the “perfect” city-state, which in his eyes meant a society ruled by philosopher-kings. In Athens, Greece, which is known as the birthplace of democracy, “rule by the people” only referred to certain people. In fact, the vast majority of Athenian society – including women, slaves, and foreigners – couldn’t participate in democracy. Not every society was so exclusive. According to research, women in Maya cultures often had shifting roles and more rights, such as the right to hold public office, beginning in 600 CE. However, gender equality doesn’t translate directly to social justice. Even societies with fairly progressive views on gender, power, and equality didn’t conceive of social justice the way we do now.

While the term “social justice” appears in the Federalist Papers, it wasn’t fully explored until the early 1840s by Jesuit priest Luigi Taparelli. Even then, he didn’t connect social justice to ideas about fairness or equality. In reviewing summaries from Catholic and conservative sources like Intercollegiate Studies Institute and Ava Maria University, it seems fair to say that Taparelli’s social justice sprouted from his Catholic beliefs and desire to counter liberal frameworks for society. Taparelli did not believe society should be equal; in fact, he believed the opposite. God chooses who has power, so a harmonious society is only possible when those with power rule over everyone else. Clearly, the modern definition of social justice is very different.

What does social justice mean now?

The definition of social justice has changed dramatically, so what do people mean today when they talk about social justice? There are four main principles you’ll see referenced over and over again: human rights, access, participation, and equity.

#1. Human rights

Social justice and human rights are often swapped in and out for each other linguistically, but human rights are technically the foundation of social justice. It’s the bare minimum upon which social justice is built. They need each other: when society respects and protects everyone’s human rights, social justice thrives, and when social justice is achieved, human rights thrive. Their connection is vital because human rights are recognized globally. Activists can use human rights law to hold governments, corporations, and individuals accountable when fighting for social justice.

#2. Access

A society that respects human rights provides necessities like housing, food, medical care, education, and more. However, who gets access to these necessities? How many barriers exist for certain groups based on things like their race, ability, age, gender, and sexuality? It’s not enough to simply provide certain goods and services, they must be easily accessible to everyone.

#3. Participation

Who gets to have a voice in society? Only the elite? Only the wealthy? Social justice wants everyone in society to participate in democratic processes like voting and running for office, as well as social and cultural life. Access is closely tied to participation. No one should mistake silence as a willful opting-out of decision-making. Are people getting access to what they need to participate in society? What can be done to encourage and promote participation?

#4. Equity

Equity is one of the more complex and controversial social justice principles. It focuses on fairness and redistribution. Unlike equality, which treats everyone the same regardless of their backgrounds and needs, equity recognizes that people have different backgrounds, needs, and experiences. This means solutions need to be tailored, while the root causes of inequality – like racism and sexism – need to be addressed. What’s controversial about this? It means resources and opportunities will be unequally distributed. Those who have been historically discriminated against will get more than those who’ve enjoyed a privileged place in society. Critics say this perpetuates inequality, but that’s only true when it comes to the initial redistribution. The final result is still equality because it recalibrates the scales and addresses the unfair head start some in society have received.

What are the biggest social justice issues right now?

The most urgent social justice issues vary depending on where you live, but there are a handful that persist around the world. Here are five examples:

#1. Gender inequality

According to research on areas like political representation, education, and income, it will take around 300 years for the world to achieve gender equality if investments don’t improve. Why so long? COVID-19 stalled (and in some areas even reversed) much of the progress made over the past decades. Women lost around $800 billion in income during the pandemic, while reports of domestic violence against women and girls increased. Gender inequality is a pressing social justice issue as it affects every part of society, including its economic strength, political stability, and even human health and life expectancies.

#2. Unfair impacts of climate change

Climate change threatens us all, but certain people are facing disproportionate threats. As an example, the entire continent of Africa is responsible for less than 4% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, but it experiences the worst climate change effects. As the IPCC warns, “unavoidable increases” in risks to human health and life are on the horizon if global warming reaches 1.5°C in the near term between 2021-2040. Social justice focuses on fairness, which makes the unfair impact of climate change a pressing issue.

#3. Threats to the LGBTQ+ community

While LGBTQ+ rights – specifically marriage equality – have progressed significantly in recent years, serious threats remain. Just this past March in 2023, Uganda’s parliament passed one of the world’s harshest anti-LGBTQ+ bills. It criminalizes the mere act of identifying as LGBTQ+ and makes “aggravated homosexuality” (which includes having sex with someone who has HIV) punishable by death. According to a 2023 BBC article, homosexuality remains a criminal offense in 64 countries, leaving LGBTQ+ individuals vulnerable to prosecution and severe punishments. Attacks have increased in fairly progressive countries, as well, like the United States. The ACLU maps anti-gay bills in the US, and as of April 2023, it was tracking 452 bills.

#4. Systemic racial discrimination

Systemic racism, which leads to racial inequality, exists in various forms around the world. It affects things like education, healthcare access, homeownership, immigration policies, and much more. What can it look like? In the United States, Black men receive longer sentences than white men for committing the same federal crime. Research consistently shows discrimination in the American criminal justice system, which has ripple effects through entire communities and society at large.

#5. Wealth inequality

Around 8% of the world’s population lives on less than $2.15 a day, while just 1% of the world’s richest people got almost ⅔ of all the new wealth created since 2020. 1.7 billion workers are dealing with living costs that rise faster than their wages, which makes it much harder to stay out of poverty. COVID-19 made wealth inequality worse. The World Bank estimates that we lost about 3-4 years of progress toward ending extreme poverty. Making the wealthiest members of society pay their fair share and ensuring good pay for workers are among the two biggest social justice issues today.

How is social justice achieved?

Groups like government agencies, politicians, voters, and grassroots activist groups always struggle with what social justice means and how to achieve it. Some groups even push back on social justice initiatives as they believe they “punish” certain groups. More often than not, debates and criticism come down to disagreements about fairness, equality, and how progressive a society currently is. As an example, while most Americans believe racial discrimination persists in the United States, some believe there are no barriers to opportunity. Social justice education can help illuminate the truth.

Even when there’s agreement on social justice being a good goal, it’s common for solutions to only scratch the surface or unintentionally create more conflict. Society is full of different and specific needs; trying to balance them all while prioritizing the most marginalized is one of the most difficult tasks.

Many believe a human-rights approach is the best guide for successful social justice solutions. Why? Both social justice and human rights share a common goal: equality for all. The human-rights approach also holds governments accountable to the treaties and laws they’ve committed to. The term “social justice” is vague and not present in international law, while “human rights” is much better defined. Though both terms have been around for a while, international law stands on “human rights,” not social justice. A human-rights approach provides a framework of conduct activists can rely on – and expand – when fighting for social justice.

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.

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