Social Justice today has a seriously bad rap. Almost every morning, a new essay decrying the pernicious effects and general incoherence of “Social Justice ideology,” “Social Justice activism” or the “institutionalization of Social Justice” pops up on my newsfeed. Indeed, the cadre of progressives who are willing to champion the term Social Justice in public is getting smaller by the day, and not even they would dare self-identify as a Social Justice Warrior. If Social Justice were a brand, few would buy it.
There are good reasons for this. When most people think of Social Justice, they think of PC culture and its excesses, intersectional postmodernism and/or cultural Marxism. They think of what James Lindsay and Mike Nayna (rightfully) argue is a kind of religious faith or “inflexible moral ideology,” which has infiltrated Western public culture and social institutions via its entrenchment in, and dissemination through, universities. On this view, Social Justice (capitalized) entails at least one of the following: equality of outcome in all areas of social, economic and political life; the hypocritical deconstruction and simultaneous political mobilization of various dualisms (i.e. man/woman; gay/straight; black/white; human/non-human); emancipation from oppressive social norms (with most social norms deemed oppressive); moral and cultural relativism; and a state-enforced program of consciousness raising, which teaches individuals how to identify their privilege and make restitution for it. This conception of Social Justice has undeniably found traction among a certain portion of leftist academics and the students they teach. This group tends to wear the Social Justice banner with the most passion and pride, thereby giving the impression that social justice only comes in one form—theirs.
So, while I agree with Nicholas Clairmont of Arc Digital that, generally speaking, this conception of social justice is “shoddy, anti-intellectual, logically incoherent and spreading,” we need to be wary of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. That is not the only kind of social justice out there—not by a long shot.
What is Social Justice?
In A Theory of Justice, John Rawls, one of the foremost liberal political philosophers of the twentieth century, calls justice the “first virtue of social institutions.” For more on Rawls’s theory see James Lindsay and Matthew McManus’s summaries here and here).
According to Rawls, social justice is about determining which principles ought to govern the laws and institutions of a society. Somewhat analogously, if one wished to invent a sport, one would have to think about the kinds of rules and regulations that would make it playable. The point is that social justice pertains not to how individuals ought to treat one another—that would be simply justice—but rather how laws and institutions distribute benefits, burdens, opportunities and responsibilities to individuals in society.
Rawls asks what principles would govern the laws and institutions of a free and democratic society? He concludes—in left-liberal fashion—that a socially just society is one in which institutions treat citizens fairly, according them equal concern and respect.
Let me give some examples. Jim Crow laws were unjust. Why? Because they were inherently discriminatory. They legitimized a system that was biased against American blacks, that did not show them equal concern and respect. Importantly, we can call this social injustice because the injustice pertains to the laws and institutions themselves. A law designed to favor one type of individual over another, when the differences between them are morally arbitrary, is socially unjust. Similarly, Nicholas Grossman observes that in twenty-eight US states it is legal to fire a person for being gay. This is another example of social injustice because your employee’s sexual orientation has no bearing on their ability to perform his or her job—it is morally irrelevant. Therefore, laws that allow companies to fire their employees for being gay make it legal to discriminate. This is a clear example of social injustice.
Debating Social Justice
Rawls argues that a free capitalist society rewards its citizens on the basis of merit, but we need to take into account the fact that most of us do not control (a) the social advantages and disadvantages we are born into or (b) what natural advantages and disadvantages we are born with. In other words, any fair meritocracy needs to consider background conditions. What makes Rawls a liberal egalitarian, or left-liberal, is his insistence that we work hard to distinguish what individuals actually merit from what they have acquired as a result of brute luck. For Rawls, social justice does not require strict equality of outcome, but it does require that we take into account, for instance, the fact that people who were born into poverty clearly had no choice in the matter.
Despite the strength of Rawls’s position, many progressives have challenged his conception of social justice. Theorists such as Bruce Ackerman, Michael Walzer, Ronald Dworkin, Martha Nussbaum and Joseph Raz have offered their own accounts of the term. Even among Rawlsians, there is no consensus regarding which metric we should use to identify advantages and disadvantages. For instance, political philosophers continue to debate the following questions: should we focus on primary goods, welfare or opportunity? Should we seek to remedy both social and natural disadvantages? Should we encourage more cultural diversity or seek to shore up a strong cultural identity to ensure support for the welfare state? What is the most successful means of supporting and empowering society’s most vulnerable? When it comes to implementing social justice, the devil is in the details.
Importantly, the disagreements that divide these progressive theorists have absolutely nothing to do with postmodernism, political correctness or cultural Marxism. They do not share the epistemological presuppositions or ideological commitments of the Social Justice ideology that is currently being defamed online. In short, there is a whole intellectual world concerned with the topic of social justice, of which the worldview of today’s SJWs is only a sliver.
There is no consensus among progressives, even left-liberal ones, on what a socially just society would look like. This is no bad thing. The substance of social justice should always be a matter of debate, sensitive to context and historical contingencies. Yet social justice can retain its coherence amidst this diversity, so long as it remains the quest to identify and implement fair laws and institutions.
Reclaiming and Rebranding Social Justice
The ironic truth is that the vast majority of people in the US today believe in, and support, social justice, in at least a moderate form. As Doug Sanders notes in the Globe and Mail, while people may hate the language of social justice, “social justice, the concept—broad equality and opposition to unfair discrimination—is more popular than ever.” Indeed, while we might not all be Rawlsians, few are interested in resurrecting the racial hierarchies of the nineteenth century, forcing women back into their traditional role as voiceless homemakers or reviving blasphemy laws.
You might think that, since many of us believe in social justice in some form, but simply reject the term, then perhaps there is no reason to worry.
We need words to capture what we stand for. I fear that if progressives allow Social Justice to be co-opted and made a term of derision in the public mind, we lose something important. We lose a foundational concept, a crucial driver of social change, a concept at the core of the progressive agenda. Moreover, in this new climate of social justice bashing, thoughtful and informed social justice agendas—say, liberal egalitarian ones—are being lumped into the same basket as ideological and anti-intellectual ones, and thereby dismissed without a moment’s reflection. I fear we are entering a new cultural phase, in which the worst aspects of the PC left will be used to silence everyone and everything that sits left of center.
James Lindsay frequently says, “I reject Social Justice because I believe in social justice.” In so doing, he distinguishes between the movement and the concept, criticizing the former while championing the latter. I strongly support this tactic. Progressives who believe, like Rawls, that a society’s institutions ought to be governed by the principles of fairness and equal concern and respect need to challenge the Social Justice status quo. It’s time social justice was reclaimed and rebranded.