Social Responsibility and Social Justice

Reflecting the belief associated with a liberal/progressive perspective that individual citizens/persons living in our society have obligations not only to themselves and their families and whoever/whatever group is in their personal zone of care, but also to the larger society of people they do not know personally but with whom they share the social connection of co-citizen/co-member. For progressives, this relates to social justice - the idea that people who lack certain rights/opportunities/status/ etc or who are victims of injustice are owed remedy/restoration by the larger society. The obligation is not necessarily one that needs to be personally acted out but may be a collective one to which people contribute through taxes, contributions, and support for policies.  The concept can apply to corporations seen as community/society members owing duties of concern to their “neighbors” or society – hence the growth of “corporate responsibility” efforts aimed at local charities, social investments, environmental efforts (not legally mandated) etc.   

Like the word social justice, others see social responsibility as another code word for progressive attempts to remake America’s social contract with more central emphasis on government itself.  Similar to how compassion is sometimes used to describe only progressive attempts at relieving poverty or reaching out to minorities, conservatives point out that there are multiple ways to act in a socially responsible way - not all of which center on government sponsored assistance. Many conservatives are more comfortable with religion and civil efforts to enact social responsibility towards the poor, the sick, etc. Others express concerns that social responsibility can impinge on individual liberty - and that one’s zone of care should be up to each individual – rather than an external entity (whether religious or governmental) dictating it with no obligation or moral imperative that demands it.

There are a growing movement of “Bleeding Heart Libertarians” who are also inspired by social justice arguments (including the philosopher John Rawls) but who believe that much of government activity serves to diminish social justice rather than increase it.  As a consequence, they argue for reductions in government on the grounds of social justice.  Examples include eliminating subsidies for big business, banking and finance; reducing occupational licensing which disproportionately reduces opportunities for the poor and marginalized; school choice initiatives which often disproportionately benefit the poor and marginalized; and addressing mass incarceration which disproportionately impacts minorities.


-What does social responsibility mean to you?  

-In your view, does the term social responsibility a conservative or liberal agenda?  Does it imply a specific mechanism (government or religious or otherwise) by which the social responsibility is enacted?

-How can we determine whether or not government action is a net benefit or a net harm to the least privileged members of society?


Michael Strong, Jacob Hess

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