social justice should not be a cliché

We should strive for social justice. But what is it?

I fear that the phrase can be used to mean: “All the things that we’d like to see in a society.” In that case, anyone who doesn’t commit to pursue “social justice” (by that name) must be against at least some of these good things; and anyone who doesn’t agree with us about what’s good must be against social justice. Then it’s us versus them: the people who care about social justice against those who don’t. The result can be a warm feeling of righteousness and solidarity, perhaps admixed with some regret that our actions don’t live up to our words.

But ask yourself: What are the things you’d like to see in a society? They are likely to be heterogeneous. For instance, equality comes in many forms, all of which may be attractive even though some are in tension (equality of opportunity, of outcomes, of status, of rights; equality for members of a community, for all adults, for all human beings, etc.). And equality won’t suffice, because no one wants to see a society in which everyone is equally miserable and oppressed. So even strong egalitarians also want some combination of liberty, peace, solidarity or community, human flourishing, excellence, and/or sustainability, for all those equal people. But liberty and equality-of-outcomes trade off, as do liberty and solidarity. In some cases, the means to achieve valuable ends are bad or they undermine the ends. For instance, I’d like to see everyone be able to work, but I worry that any policy that guaranteed employment would also undermine the value and dignity of the labor.

Once you spell out what you value with due attention to priorities, means, costs, and tradeoffs, it’s likely that your own view will be unique, or at least unusual. That chips away at the us-versus-them framework. You may begin to see other people’s views as attractive even as you continue to endorse your own. There are certainly selfish and foolish people in the world, but now it begins to seem that many of our fellow citizens also favor “social justice.” They just disagree about what it is, because that’s a profoundly hard question.

See also: we are for social justice, but what is it?on the moral peril of cliché and what to do about iton the moral dangers of cliché; and .

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.