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What is Social Justice?

Like many of philosophical concepts, the concept of social justice is difficult to define precisely. The Alan Dawley Center for the Study of Social Justice has employed different concepts of social justice over time in order to organize its work and select speakers and design programs.

In some cases we have focused on issues that fall under the concept of distributive justice, for instance, fair access to health care or food. In other cases we have examined restorative justice, for instance, by looking at transitional justice and accountability for past crimes and environmental justice. We have also organized programs dealing with issues such as gender, identity, democracy, corporate social responsibility, and imperialism. What if anything do all of these different topics and issues have in common? What makes them all “social justice” issues?

The beginning of clarity on this question comes when one realizes that there may be no single definition in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions that makes an issue a social justice concern. The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein argued that many of our most useful concepts are not defined in this way, but rather by means of a system of overlapping family resemblances —  like members of an extended family, no one looks exactly like any other member of the family (barring identical twins) but by comparing family pictures one can nevertheless spot resemblances that connect different individuals as members of the same of the family.

This family resemblance approach to defining social justice has been explored by Albert Ruesga on a blog post he authored dealing with social justice philanthropy called: White Courtesy Telephone – What’s Your Favorite Shade of Pinko? Ruesga asked a group of social justice grant-makers how they defined the concept of social justice and observed that there were a wide range of answers. He analyzed the responses and boiled them down into nine frameworks for thinking about social justice:

1. Human Rights
2. Social Contract
3. Structural Injustice
4. Shared Values
5. Cultural Relativism
6. Empowerment
7. Distributive Justice
8. Legalism
9. Creative Capitalism

What do all of these conceptual frameworks have in common? Perhaps nothing. But perhaps, as Ruesga suggests, a common element is an affective or motivational one: people who employ these frameworks for thinking about social issues care about other people. As he writes,

We engage in social justice work because we feel it’s the right thing do, because—at the risk of circularity—it’s the just thing to do. To a greater or lesser degree, we sympathize, empathize, or even identify with members of the community we’re trying to serve. In the world of social justice grant-making, we recognize our fellow travelers more perhaps by their affective and moral qualities than by their philosophies of social change.

People who care and who are motivated to create positive changes in society may adopt one or more of these conceptual frameworks in order to understand what it is they are trying to accomplish. The frameworks do not so much define what is meant by “social justice” as they indicate various strategies for  obtaining or advancing it.

At TCNJ’s Alan Dawley Center for the Study of Social Justice we believe that developing a better understanding of social justice issues and strategies can serve as means of advancing social justice in the world. To this end we continue to explore alternative conceptions of social justice and strategies for social change as means to actions that can create changes in the world that promote social justice and redress social injustice.