Social justice is "justice in terms of the distribution of wealth, opportunities, and privileges within a society".〔New Oxford American Dictionary〕 Classically, "justice" (especially corrective justice or distributive justice) ensured that individuals both fulfilled their societal roles〔Aristotle, ''The Politics'' (ca 350 BC)〕 and received what was their due from society.
Social justice assigns rights and duties in the institutions of society, which enables people to receive the basic benefits and burdens of cooperation.〔John Rawls, ''A Theory of Justice'' (1971) 4, "the principles of social justice: they provide a way of assigning rights and duties in the basic institutions of society and they define the appropriate distribution of benefits and burdens of social co-operation."〕 The relevant institutions can include education, health care, social security, labour rights, as well as a broader system of public services, progressive taxation and regulation of markets, to ensure fair distribution of wealth, equal opportunity and equality of outcome.
While the concept of social justice can be traced through the philosophy of Thomas Paine, the term "social justice" became used explicitly from the 1840s. A Jesuit priest named Luigi Taparelli is typically credited with coining the term,〔J. Zajda, S. Majhanovich, V. Rust, ''Education and Social Justice'', 2006, ISBN 1-4020-4721-5〕 and it spread during the revolutions of 1848 with the work of Antonio Rosmini-Serbati. In the late industrial revolution, progressive American legal scholars began to use the term more, particularly Louis Brandeis and Roscoe Pound. From the early 20th century it was also embedded in international law and institutions; the preamble to establish the International Labour Organization recalled that "universal and lasting peace can be established only if it is based upon social justice."〔The Preamble of ILO Constitution〕 In the later 20th century, social justice was made central to the philosophy of the social contract, primarily by John Rawls in ''A Theory of Justice'' (1971). In 1993, the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action treats social justice as a purpose of the human rights education.〔Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action, Part II, D.〕
The different concepts of justice, as discussed in ancient Western philosophy, were typically centered upon the community. Plato wrote in ''The Republic'' that it would be an ideal state that "every member of the community must be assigned to the class for which he finds himself best fitted."〔Plato, ''The Republic'' (ca 380BC)〕 Aristotle believed rights existed only between free people, and the law should take "account in the first instance of relations of inequality in which individuals are treated in proportion to their worth and only secondarily of relations of equality." Reflecting this time when slavery and subjugation of women was typical, ancient views of justice tended to reflect the rigid class systems that still prevailed. On the other hand, for the privileged groups, strong concepts of fairness and the community existed. Distributive justice was said by Aristotle to require that people were distributed goods and assets according to their merit.〔''Nicomachean Ethics'' V.3〕 Socrates (through Plato's dialogue ''Crito'') is attributed with developing the idea of a social contract, whereby people ought to follow the rules of a society, and accept its burdens because they have accepted its benefits.〔Plato, ''Crito'' (ca 380 BC)〕 During the Middle Ages, religious scholars particularly, such as Thomas Aquinas continued discussion of justice in various ways, but ultimately connected being a good citizen to the purpose of serving God.
After the Renaissance and Reformation, the modern concept of social justice, as developing human potential, began to emerge through the work of a series of authors. Baruch Spinoza in ''On the Improvement of the Understanding'' (1677) contended that the one true aim of life should be to acquire "a human character much more stable than () own", and to achieve this "pitch of perfection... The chief good is that he should arrive, together with other individuals if possible, at the possession of the aforesaid character."〔B Spinoza, ''On the Improvement of the Understanding'' (1677) para 13〕 During the enlightenment and responding to the French and American Revolutions, Thomas Paine similarly wrote in ''The Rights of Man'' (1792) society should give "genius a fair and universal chance" and so "the construction of government ought to be such as to bring forward... all that extent of capacity which never fails to appear in revolutions."〔T Paine, ''Rights of Man'' (1792) 197〕
The first modern usage of the specific term "social justice" is typically attributed to Catholic thinkers from the 1840s, including the Jesuit Luigi Taparelli in ''Civiltà Cattolica'', based on the work of St. Thomas Aquinas. He argued that rival capitalist and socialist theories, based on subjective Cartesian thinking, undermined the unity of society present in Thomistic metaphysics as neither were sufficiently concerned with moral philosophy. Writing in 1861, the influential British philosopher, politician and economist, John Stuart Mill stated in ''Utilitarianism'' his view that "Society should treat all equally well who have deserved equally well of it, that is, who have deserved equally well absolutely. This is the highest abstract standard of social and distributive justice; towards which all institutions, and the efforts of all virtuous citizens, should be made in the utmost degree to converge."〔JS Mill, ''Utilitarianism'' (1863)〕
In the later 19th and early 20th century, social justice became an important theme in American political and legal philosophy, particularly in the work of John Dewey, Roscoe Pound and Louis Brandeis. One of the prime concerns was the ''Lochner era'' decisions of the US Supreme Court to strike down legislation passed by state governments and the Federal government for social and economic improvement, such as the eight hour day or the right to join a trade union. After the First World War, the founding document of the International Labour Organization took up the same terminology in its preamble, stating that "peace can be established only if it is based on social justice". From this point, the discussion of social justice entered into mainstream legal and academic discourse. In the late 20th century, a number of liberal and conservative thinkers, notably Friedrich von Hayek rejected the concept by stating that it did not mean anything, or meant too many things.〔FA Hayek, ''Law, Legislation and Liberty'' (1973) vol II, ch 3〕 However the concept remained highly influential, particularly with its promotion by philosophers such as John Rawls.
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