Social justice

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Protest in solidarity with the Egyptian Revolution of 2011 in Melbourne.
Checking our privilege
Social justice
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Circumstances such as where a person is born, where they live or their gender and ethnicity should never determine their income or their opportunities for quality education, basic healthcare, decent work, adequate shelter, access to drinking water, political participation or living free from threatened, or actual, physical violence.
—Secretary-General of the United Nations Ban Ki-moon, Message for the 2014 World Day of Social Justice

Social justice is a philosophical,[1] political,[2][3] social,[4][5] and legal[6] movement in support of the rights of those who are marginalised, chiefly by poverty, but also (and increasingly) those who lack social privilege at any intersection.[7]

Historically, it is a concept that has existed since ancient times. One of the earliest influential western writings on social justice was penned by Aristotle in Nicomachean Ethics volume V. This work discussed distributive justice (how to distribute scarce resources fairly).[8] The term "social justice" itself was coined by an Italian, Catholic priest named Antonio Rosmini Serbati in 1837.[9] Although the phrase verbatim has religious origins, the phrase has both a religious and secular history at this point (both borrowing from each other). The meaning of the phrase is contentious in both the religious and secular spheres. However, half of the religious origin isn't far off from the common secular usage of the term, particularly as it relates to promoting a reduction of 'brutal predominance of one class of society over another'.

Today, you are more likely to see mentions of the term, outside theology journals, that are secular in nature.[1][2][3][5][6] Both the religious and secular origins of the term have individuals who promote social justice as arising partly with the help of a centralized government. Common secular definitions of the term are often are similar to this definition derived from a United Nations effort:

Social justice involves creating a society based on principles of equality and solidarity, that understands and values human rights, and that recognises the dignity of every human being. At its 2007 World Summit for Social Development, the United Nations proclaimed 20 February as World Day of Social Justice. Governments pledged to promote the equitable distribution of income and greater access to resources through equity and equality and opportunity for all. The day aims to consolidate the efforts of the international community to eradicate poverty, and promote full employment and decent work, gender equity, rights of indigenous peoples and migrants, and access to social well-being and justice for all.[10][11]

Basic concepts[edit]

Levels of analysis is an excellent way of understanding how sociological forces create oppression and privilege. From this viewpoint, society is separated into layers in order to effectively minimise inequality and maximise social justice. Additionally, explaining the concept of many interacting levels helps to combat criticisms of the methods deployed to curb oppression, e.g., positive discrimination, and other interventions,[12] since many critiques are based on misunderstandings of the causes of oppression. In other words, levels of analysis divides culture into, at the bottom, people, and at the top, society, and, perhaps most importantly, clarifies the causal mechanisms behind oppression.

So at the bottom we have internalised oppression, also known as self-hatred. An example of this is hating one's own skin colour, but not necessarily being directly horrible to others with a similar or darker skin colour. This hypothetical self-hating person does not, by definition, engage in racist rants or oppression, they merely have internalised the idea that darker skin is less attractive (because that's how society presents it) and apply it largely to themselves. Variations and intersections of this can exist, of course. Like hating one's own skin colour and sexuality — being in the closet, or not accepting one is LGBTQ+ can be a form of self-hatred in certain cases. There are, for example, self-hating, even homophobic gay priests and gay clergy.[13] Often, internalised self-hatred is completely subconscious,[14] meaning it is largely outside most people's conscious control. By extension, it can be expressed in subtle ways, such as holding oneself to the standards of the privileged oppressor group, having internalised or 'brought on board' said standards.

These ideas are not something people are born with, they are something they consciously and unconsciously absorb from their experiences. Therefore, people are not fully, or even partially, to blame for their internalised biases, especially since such thoughts and associations usually cause them a lot of suffering, e.g., stereotype threat[15][note 1] and impostor syndrome,[16] and even culminating in disorders, e.g., depression. A famous example of internalised misogyny[17] is the thin ideal,[18] which causes eating disorders such as bulimia and anorexia; self-objectification[19] and the patriarchal compromise: a rationalisation of misogynistic forces as "free will".[20] Implicit association tests[14] are one way of determining what higher-level social pressures are acting on people's perceptions of race, gender, etc.[note 2]

On the level above, there is interpersonal bigotry and oppression. Predictably, it is the kind of discrimination that occurs between two (or more) people. This type of oppression is probably the type most people think of when racism, (cis)sexism, homophobia, and their many intersections, are discussed. An example of this is an outright act of sexism, e.g., saying to a woman that women are less good at chess because reasons. Hopefully, very few people would support this form of harassment.

Just above the level of interpersonal is group oppression, which occurs when a person or group of people are isolated from the majority group. E.g., a disabled child is friendless and bullied by the whole class. This is basically what cliques are about in high school to some extent — a semi-implicit way of cutting all ties with the "uncool" kids by creating a space where they are not welcome, but at the same time dispersing the feeling of responsibility ("It wasn't me! They were all doing it!" or "What could I have done? They would have just targetted me!"). This is done largely by making use of standard in-group/out-group dynamics, such as not standing up for somebody when a single bully picks on them. Group oppression can also manifest in older people, not just teenagers, as shunning. Other similar acts of debasing the other person also can be used, which only work if enough members of the dominant group take part, e.g., "slut"-shaming.

Higher further is institutional oppression. This is when a whole organisation is systematically biased against certain people, e.g, the media,[21] hospitals,[22] the Metropolitan police,[23], even universities.[24] This type of bias can easily be diagnosed by comparing the demographic makeup of an institution with that of the larger population it derives its members from.[25] For example, if an organisation is mostly made up of white cisgender straight men, but the social sphere in which it exists is 51% women and 20% non-white ethnic minorities, then clearly something is going on. One may ask, "So what?" The fact is that institutional power is often wielded in ways that have non-trivial consequences for those within its realm of influence. An institution whose members don't reflect the demographics of the greater population is unlikely to be as aware of and responsive to all voices within its community; thus taking measures to ensure even representation can be a powerful antidote to marginalisation. Institutional bigotry and oppression are not necessarily so subtle, however; they also can manifest explicitly, e.g., a racist request by an individual is accepted and carried out by an organisation.[22] Institutions can also uphold norms that are cultural, like strict gender roles, and gender essentialism,[26] which leads us onto...

The topmost level: cultural oppression and marginalisation. This is a set of normative ideas about what people should do in life based on their gender, race, etc. Examples of this are: gender roles, stereotypes, and other such implicit (and explicit) associations between a person's identity and their potential in life, e.g., patriarchy. These last two levels, institutional and cultural bigotry, are usually due to hundreds, even thousands, of years of continuous oppression by privileged groups.[note 3] Discussing bigotry at these topmost levels is what gives rise to definitions of, for example, racism as prejudice plus power.


Catholic origins of the term verbatim[edit]

As first expounded by the Roman Catholics, social justice was an application of Christian moral ideas to the social problems caused by the profound technological and economic changes experienced in Europe after the industrial revolution. The Church argued that both classical liberalism and communism lacked any proper moral foundation and undermined the social fabric. Liberalism was criticized for giving rise to too much interpersonal competition, communism for "setting brother against brother" by preaching "class struggle." A social order based on Christian morals was suggested as an alternative, involving the recognition of rights and duties for both workers and business owners, a living wage for workers, care for the poor, and, of course, a continued large role for the Catholic Church (this wasn't really that radical; see Christian democracy).

Antonio Rosmini Serbati and Taparelli d’Azeglio[edit]

The originators of the term 'social justice' were the Italian, Catholic priests Antonio Rosmini Serbati and Taparelli d’Azeglio, who came up with the term more or less independently of each other. Both Rosmini and Taparelli followed the "Thomistic natural law" philosophical tradition. Rosmini first mentioned the term 'social justice' in 1837 in his work, "Society and Its Purpose". Taparelli later used the term in 1840 in his Theoretical Essay on Natural Right. Rosmini subsequently popularized the term in The Constitution under Social Justice in 1848.[9]

In 1937, Romsini used 'social justice' to partly mean teaching individual citizens justice and religious moral virtues to combat what he saw as the evils of political parties, and to create a foundational social edifice of virtue. He later also used the phrase to advocate for a progressive income tax, and reduce "class domination".[9]

Taparelli used the term sort of differently, and small government conservatives are keen to credit him as a coiner of the term, even though Romsini did before him. Taparelli emphasized social justice as "social nature" that he says flourishes in decentralized systems of power, and did not focus on a centralized state as a source of justice.[9]


"We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice." - Dr. Martin Luther King

The same sort of ideas were taken up by Protestants in modified form. Particularly subscribing to them were the evangelicals of the day, such as the Methodists, who believed that if Christians would knock it off with all the sin, a Golden Age would come about. This formulation became soundly post-millennial (thus anticipating the eschatology of the Dominionists) and eventually became known as the Social Gospel. Among the policies of this movement were compulsory public education, aggressive inculcation of "good morals" in the young, and prohibition of liquor.

Religious exclusivity[edit]

Of course, this being based on religious morality, "social justice" meant that it was only "just" that "social standing" belong to people who didn't practice the wrong religion, have loose morals, or just happen to be the wrong demographic. One of the more popular proponents of this early social justice was Father Coughlin, who is pretty much the opposite of what comes to mind when you hear the term nowadays. Or perhaps almost exactly what you picture when you hear the term. Father Coughlin's fan club was called the "National Union for Social Justice"; unsurprisingly, its newsletter bore the title Social Justice. The Social Gospel reached its peak in the early 20th century and from that point increasingly secularized until it had very little to distinguish it from other forms of socialism, with the exception that Social Gospel promoters occasionally tack a "God is" in front of the usual talking points, or a "because that's what Jesus said" behind them. This lends them a holier-than-thou ring, not altogether dissimilar to what the Religious Right did with Ronald Reagan's economic policies, except that the Social Gospel promoters do not usually take such an hysterical tone, since Jesus actually did say many of the things in question.


The writings of Marx likely inspired or influenced more social justice movements than any other writings to date. Religious-based social justice is frequently an exception, but even some of them have Marxist influence. [27] Marx's followers saw a powerful justice-based criticism of capitalism, and this criticism is echoed in many social justice movements today, even feminism.[28]

More recently, the Catholic ideas have been worked over into the Catholic variant of Marxism, liberation theology, which intensifies the criticisms of capitalism and mutes the criticisms of communism.

Contemporary social justice movements[edit]

The aftermath of the Great Depression and World War II created a cold war that divided the most powerful nations of the world into two hostile camps. Most of Western Europe and, to a controversial, limited extent the United States,[29] had accepted some form of social democracy that included socialist reforms piecemeal, with 'social safety nets' such as disability and old age pensions, various government sponsored kinds of medical care, and unemployment insurance. Trade unions were generally accepted. Opposed to this was the expanding empire of the Communist Soviet Union, which seemed to be making remarkable gains in Eastern Europe, Asia, and Cuba.

A Theory of Justice - first American hardcover edition

The philosopher John Rawls[30] attempted to capture the postwar social-democratic consensus in his 1971 Theory of Justice. According to Rawls, a just society was founded on two principles. The first was equality of political rights: "Each person has the same indefeasible claim to a fully adequate scheme of equal basic liberties, which scheme is compatible with the same scheme of liberties for all." The second, equality of opportunity: social inequalities must both "be attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity", and also "be to the greatest benefit of the least-advantaged members of society", the "difference principle."[31]


Religious social justice movements[edit]

Social justice in its traditional definition is much criticized as a religious notion with no basis in reality. Even from the religious standpoint, some conservative Christians would claim the Christians who treat poverty as a "social injustice" to be eliminated are arguably rather at odds with Jesus, who said, "For the poor always ye have with you."[32] The argument against is that Jesus explicitly preached about helping the poor, one point on which the Roman Catholic Church in particular breaks with other conservative denominations.

Others, while perhaps not objecting to the abstract concept of social justice, object to the way in which the term is currently employed by those who insist that social justice must be implemented by the advancement of a certain political program. Besides the use by fascists and communists, for example, social justice is a plank in Green Parties the world over. Still others, Libertarians in particular (as well as some of their heroes like Ayn Rand and Friedrich von Hayek), consider the entire effort of social justice to be a waste of time, directing resources towards people they perceive to be unworthy.

Many churches still use the term in a (relatively) apolitical way. This caused a bit of a furor when Glenn Beck, displaying his usual powers of perception and confusing this usage with Coughlin's and the Marxists, warned his audience to run from any church using the term, such churches obviously being Communist, Nazi dens of heresy that should be reported to the authorities. Beck caught significant heat from Christians for his statement.[33]

The online social justice community[edit]

"Social justice" is one of those warm-and-fuzzy terms, like "family values," that people are loath to criticize. Hence, in the present day, the term is heavily employed as a political buzzword, so that it is sometimes rather difficult to determine what someone actually means when they say it. As a general rule, when you see the term used outside of the Internet, it's usually being used, as mentioned above, to describe an overall movement in support of the rights of minorities and otherwise unprivileged people. Online, however, with the rise of "social justice warrior", it may vary depending on the website you are visiting.

Something that characterizes social justice is that alliance cannot be self-proclaimed, but instead be demonstrated. Because of the highly diverse nature of different social justice activists (due to their different intersections with privilege), a voice for one demographic may not be a voice for another, and there are very few trusted figureheads or "idols" that are commonly taken (rightly so or otherwise) to represent the whole community a la Dawkins or Hitchens with New Atheism. Thus, even prominent figures can be widely criticized and subjected to close and even sometimes aggressive scrutiny, despite the pretense of being an "ally" (see Laci Green's vlog hiatus in 2012). However, there's an equal emphasis on listening, owning one's problematic statements, and that mistakes will be inevitable for anyone due to internalized oppression or due to speaking while not noting that one may be in a position of privilege that others do not experience.

See also[edit]



  1. One of the many ways of combating stereotype threat is by instilling pride in one's (oppressed) social class, e.g., Black Teens With Racial Pride Do Better in School.
  2. See here for a long list of science papers on implicit associations.
  3. If you are having trouble getting why white people are a privileged class, watch this as a fun introduction.


  1. 1.0 1.1 Beliefs about Social Justice in English Education
  2. 2.0 2.1 Changing perspectives on early childhood: theory, research and policy
  3. 3.0 3.1 Courage and Social Justice: History Students Engage New York's Immigrant and Refugee Communities
  4. Doctoral of Education (Ed.D.) in Social Justice Education
  5. 5.0 5.1 Journal for Social Action in Counseling and Psychology
  6. 6.0 6.1 Human Rights & Social Justice at the University of Texas
  7. Critical Theory & Social Justice
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 9.3 Kraynak, R. P. (2018). The Origins of “Social Justice” in the Natural Law Philosophy of Antonio Rosmini. The Review of Politics, 80(01), 3–29. doi:10.1017/s0034670517000754
  10. Social Justice: What Has Health Psychology Contributed?
  11. World Day of Social Justice, 20th February
  13. Sacked gay priest Krzysztof Charamsa says there are a number of self-hating homosexuals inside Vatican
  14. 14.0 14.1 Project Implicit
  15. Steele, Claude M.; Aronson, Joshua (1995). "Stereotype threat and the intellectual test performance of African Americans". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 69 (5): 797–811. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.69.5.797. ISSN 0022-3514. PMID 7473032.
  16. Impostor Syndrome
  17. Internalized Misogyny: "I'm Not Like Most Girls!"
  18. Low, K. G.; Charanasomboon, S.; Brown, C.; Hiltunen, G.; Long, K.; Reinhalter, K.; Jones, H. (2003). "Internalization of the Thin Ideal, Weight and Body Image Concerns". Social Behavior and Personality: an international journal 31: 81–89. doi:10.2224/sbp.2003.31.1.81
  19. “Oh, You Sexy Geek!”: “Geek Girls” and the Problem of Self-Objectification
  21. Met chief accuses media of racism
  23. The Stephen Lawrence Inquiry, in which the Met branded itself institutionally racist.
  24. Why isn’t my professor black?
  25. Proving and Quantifying Sexism
  27. Social Justice History Theory and Research
  29. Social Democracy in America?
  30. John Rawls, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
  31. Rawls, John, Justice as Fairness: A Restatement (Harvard, 2001), pp. 42-43.
  32. John 12:8.
  33. Outraged by Glenn Beck’s Salvo, Christians Fire Back