Social Justice

I recently introduced a panel on social justice. When I was asked to introduce that discussion, I realized that I had never really thought very carefully or systematically about the meaning of the terms “justice” or “social justice,” and I certainly hadn’t considered the ways in which social justice might differ from simple “justice.”

Many of us, of course, take our definitions of social justice from our respective religions: The word “justice” is a recurring theme in Judaism, for example. When I was growing up, I often heard biblical and Talmudic admonitions like “Justice, justice shalt thou pursue,” and “Do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with the Lord.”  I later learned that the concept of social justice is a foundational aspect of Catholic theology, and that virtually every religious tradition addresses both the nature of justice, and our ethical obligations to the people with whom we share this planet.

But social justice isn’t simply a religious concept. Our constitutional system also incorporates a particular approach to justice issues, and as a recovering lawyer, I have usually tended to view justice issues through the Constitution’s “due process” lens: justice is fundamental fairness. (I do realize that “fairness” is like “pornography”–one of those “I know it when I see it” words.) In the legal system, we approach justice as a matter to be decided by looking at the facts of an individual case—did person A take unfair advantage of person B, and if so, what must person A do to set things right? What does fundamental fairness require?

Social justice also begins with the concept of fundamental fairness, but social justice is concerned less with how individuals behave and more with how society is structured. Social justice is aspirational, and its elements are subject to debate, but at its heart, the concept is concerned with mutual obligation and the common good. In its broadest outlines, a just society is one that meets the basic human needs of its members, without regard to their identities or social status—a society that does not draw invidious distinctions between male and female, black and white, gay and straight, religious and atheist, Republican and Democrat, or any of the other categories into which we like to sort our fellow humans. It is a society that recognizes and respects the inherent dignity and value of each person.

A country that exhibits social justice is one in which there is respect for human rights, recognition of human dignity, and an equitable distribution of social goods. (What is equitable, of course, is a matter of considerable debate: right now, many of us believe that social justice would require higher tax rates for the wealthiest Americans; others believe that “taxing success,” as they put it, is decidedly inequitable.)

Why does social justice matter? Why should we try to make our neighborhoods, our city, and our country more just?  Let me suggest a couple of reasons why a more equitable society is in the best interests of even those people who don’t care about other people’s poverty, who don’t feel any obligation to feed hungry children or find jobs for ex-offenders or educate the children of undocumented immigrants.

First, of course, is the resource argument that most of us have heard. In order to remain competitive in the global economy, America needs to make use of all its talent. Social injustices that prevent people from contributing those talents cost all of us in lost opportunities and unrealized promise.

It’s obvious that many Americans don’t much care about this waste of resources, but the second argument is harder to dismiss. History makes a pretty compelling case that democracies require stability in order to survive. In countries where there are great gaps between the rich and poor, in countries where some groups of people go through their lives being marginalized or despised while others enjoy privileges and respect, in countries where some people are exploited while others benefit—that stability is hard to come by. A wealthy friend of mine once put it this way: “I’d rather pay more in taxes than spend my days worrying about angry mobs rioting in the streets or desperate people kidnapping my children.”

If that sounds more like social blackmail than social justice, it isn’t. It’s recognition of human nature. At the end of the day, after all, we are all in this thing we call a political community together, and we each benefit from the efforts of others. Elizabeth Warren, the Harvard professor and architect of the new federal consumer protection agency, who is running for Senate from Massachusetts, recently said it best.

“There is nobody in this country that got rich on his own. Nobody. You built a factory? Good for you. But I want to be clear. You moved your goods to market on roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory…Now look. You built a factory and it turned into something terrific or you had a great idea—God bless! Keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is that you take a hunk of that and you pay it forward for the next kid who comes along.”

That statement conveys the essence of social justice. Warren recognizes—as far too many of us do not—that even in highly individualistic America, no one succeeds solely by his own efforts. There is a social and physical infrastructure supporting and enabling entrepreneurship and wealth creation, and we taxpayers have built and maintained that infrastructure. And that’s fine. That’s what it’s for. We all benefit when someone builds that better mousetrap, or improves on the other guy’s widget. But social justice means we should also support those for whom the existing infrastructure just isn’t sufficient or accessible.

There’s a credit card commercial that says “Membership has its privileges.” Membership in society should have its privileges as well. That’s not an argument for socialism, or for massive redistribution of wealth. It’s an argument for fundamental fairness, an argument that recognizes that we all benefit when our social structures operate in the interests of all of our members.

From time to time, greed and fear obscure the reality of our human interdependence. Unfortunately, we seem to be living in one of those times–an era characterized by an intentional refusal to recognize that there is such a thing as the common good, and a willful ignorance of the importance of mutual social obligation.

Addressing that willful ignorance is what social justice requires.