Social Justice

To one person the term means equality for all, across all distinctions and demographics; to another person, it means being pressed to accept a progressive set of moral positions on the subjects of family and marriage and an expanding role of government in addressing poverty and other forms of inequality

Concepts of social justice reach at least as far back as Plato and Aristotle and are woven through every major religion. Current American usage turns on the right relationship between individuals and society and includes notions of rights, distribution of resources,  and how those are guaranteed and allocated. While there tends to be agreement across political lines that everyone is entitled to the basic rights of free speech, the pursuit of happiness, and participation in the political process, ideas of social justice begin to diverge when focusing on needs and access to resources.

Since social justice activism arises from concerns over inequality in different forms, it is important to note that progressives and conservatives tend to have different attributions for the cause of most inequality or injustice. Progressives tend to blame the social context while conservatives put the blame on the personal attributes (e.g., lower value for education) of the group with less privilege/status/resources.

As a result of these different attributions, some progressives see a vital role for the federal government in ensuring that basic needs are met for food, housing, and health care, while conservatives  cite the negative consequences of what they see as “Federal entitlement programs,” advocating instead for voluntary actions by local, charitable, and religious bodies.

Similar to white privilege, critics of social justice are often labeled by the left as reflecting inherent prejudice or power, rather than holding a different worldview. This can make dialogue difficult.


-How do you explain the source of injustice and inequality?

-What does social justice mean to you?

-Do you know anyone to whom social justice means something different than what it means to you? Do you disagree with them on this completely, or are there some points of agreement between you?

-Can thoughtful people disagree about social justice - or do differences reflect underlying hostility or prejudice?   

-If American society were so perfect that the term “social justice” was meaningless, what would it be like? How would your life be different?

Conversation Catalysts: 

Thyer, B.A. (2010), Social justice: A conservative perspective, Journal of Comparative Social Welfare, 26(2-3), pp.261-274.

Rawls, J. (2005, orig. pub. 1971), A theory of justice. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.



Bob Stains, Mikhail Lyubansky

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