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Humanities LibreTexts

11: Social Justice

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  • Social justice is just the idea of goodness as applied to social groups. When asked what it means for a society to be just, most of us will think of things like freedom and equality. But things haven’t always been thus. Valuing liberty and freedom is a pretty recent innovation. We have already noted John Locke as an early advocate of liberal political thinking in the 17th century. Older conceptions of justice were neither egalitarian nor freedom loving. Here we’ll consider Plato’s

    Plato develops his conception of justice in the Republic. Here Plato develops a view of the ideal state as modeled on that of the ideal person. The state is understood as the person writ large. The idea of justice, for Plato, was as much a virtue of the individual person as of the state. Justice was seen as a kind of meta-virtue. The just person is the person who has all the other virtues and has them in the appropriate integrated balance. People have various capacities and abilities and we have various virtues that correspond to those abilities. We can be courageous in facing threats, temperate in managing our appetites, diligent in carrying out our projects, and wise in deliberating about what to do and how. To be a just person is for the various abilities relevant to the various virtues to be playing their proper role. When we turn to the justice of communities, we find different individuals playing the various roles. We want the virtue of wisdom in the ruling class, the virtue of courage in the military class, and the virtues of temperance and diligence in the business class. The just community, in Plato’s view, is the community where the various elements stick to their proper roles and cultivate the virtues appropriate to those roles.

    Though Athens was a democracy, Plato was no fan of democracy. In his dialogues he has Socrates repeatedly lampooning democracy as rule by the least qualified. Plato admired expertise and excellence. His idea of justice is one where the various functions of society are carried out by those who have the expertise and excellence appropriate to the specific role. While Plato places no particular value on equality or freedom, his ideal state is a meritocracy where everyone has equal opportunity to find his or her appropriate place through a vigorous system of public education. There is some debate about whether Plato was primarily concerned about justice as a meta-virtue for states or individuals in the Republic. He might seem a bit less enthusiastic about aristocracy and rule by an elite if he is taken to be mainly concerned with the just person. But the model he develops in the Republic helped to legitimize a long tradition of top-down governance by kings, religious authority, and military might in the West. It’s only in the last few centuries that ideals of equal individual rights and freedoms begin to gain traction.

    We should note at the outset that freedom and equality are both highly ambiguous notions. We can be equal or unequal in a wide variety of different ways. Socialism emphasizes equality of wealth and resources in ways that are liable to frustrate many kinds of freedom. In more liberal traditions, those that emphasize liberty, equality is incorporated in terms of equal liberties, equal treatment before the law, equal opportunity, equal access to public goods, and so forth. Likewise, freedom can be understood in many ways. Freedom can be thought of in negative terms as in being free from the dominance of others or in positive terms as in being free to do what we like with things that are ours. Talk of freedom will refer to freedom from one thing or another or freedom to one thing or another. But there are as many kinds of freedom as there are things we can be free to attain or free from. Economic freedom is one thing, freedom of conscience is another. Then there is freedom of expression, freedom of association, freedom of movement, and so forth. So in order to be clear at all, talk of freedom and equality needs to be fairly specific. Not everyone who claims to love freedom and equality loves the same thing.

    In the rest of this chapter we will focus on liberal political philosophy starting with one of its founders, John Locke. We will then examine the thought of the contemporary philosopher John Rawls. What makes a political philosophy a liberal political philosophy is just that it takes liberty in one form or another to be a fundamental virtue of the just state or society. So liberal political thought stands in contrast to both communism on the left and fascism on the right. Liberalism rejects aristocracy, authoritarianism, totalitarianism, oligarchy, and plutocracy (I’ll leave those fancy words for you to look up). Liberal political philosophy, understood literally as political philosophy that places a high priority on liberty, is a broad category of thought that includes both contemporary “liberal” and “conservative” political thinking. While both liberals and conservatives are both pretty much within the broader tradition of liberal political philosophy, you may find John Locke’s thinking to be more in line with contemporary conservativism and John Rawls thought to be more reflective of contemporary political liberals. We’ll begin with John Locke

    • 11.1: John Locke
      John Locke’s First Treatise on Government was an extended argument against the European system of aristocracy and the alleged divine birth right of rulers. Of course, in a society that had only known government by the rule of kings, this raises an obvious question. If human society is not legitimately organized by the authority of a ruling class, then how is it to be organized? Locke’s answer is that the authority of government is entirely derived from the consent of its free and equal citizens
    • 11.2: John Rawls
    • 11.3: Review and Discussion Questions

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