To some people the term "social justice" means equality for all, across all distinctions and demographics. It means an equal playing field, where everyone has access to resources like housing and healthcare. It can mean rectifying injustices of the past by providing resources or reparations to certain marginalized groups.
To others, 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. It means limitations on freedom or the forced acceptance of some groups (whom the government picks based on current politics, even if it does not apply fairly to individuals) as being more equal than others.
Concepts of social justice reach at least as far back as Plato and Aristotle and are woven through every major religion. Current American usage considers the relationship between individuals and society and includes notions of rights, distribution of resources, and whether those are earned, guaranteed, or 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 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 — believing that certain individuals are oppressed by historical occurrences, or current societal forces beyond their control. On the other hand, conservatives tend to point to personal responsibility — the belief that in a free country, people can help themselves and improve their situation no matter the obstacles they face.
As a result of these different attributions, some progressives believe the federal government should ensure that basic needs are met for food, housing, and health care. Progressives believe that government has a duty to ensure the basic needs of citizens are met so that they can thrive. Conservatives cite the negative consequences of “entitlement programs,” and believe that when individuals are handed things for free, they have less incentive to learn how to work and care for themselves. They also express concern that federal programs become bloated, overly administrative, bureaucratic, and ineffective, and doubt that decision-makers in Washington know what is best for local communities. They advocate instead for local charities, nonprofits, and religious institutions to provide resources to those in need.
The left often labels critics of social justice initiatives as reflecting inherent prejudice, bigotry or desire for power, rather than holding a different worldview. This can make dialogue difficult.
QUESTIONS TO PLAY WITH:
-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?
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.
Julie Mastrine, Bob Stains, Mikhail Lyubansky
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