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Social justice

By Don Aitkin - posted Wednesday, 17 May 2017

‘Social justice’ is a term that trips easily from the mouths of politicians and of others on what would be seen as the left in our society. It is one of those things, like motherhood, that you can’t be opposed to. More widely, it is a favourite term of those in the United Nations who see the disparities in wealth and development across the world as inherently unjust. It is generally agreed to be a term coined by a Catholic philosopher in the 1840s, and owed its growing popularity to the conditions for people in the expanding towns and cities of the Industrial Revolution. The novels of Charles Dickens never mention the term, but are imbued with its sentiment. The Methodists and others of the time who worked to end or at least regulate child labour, abolish slavery and deal with prostitution and alcoholism were filled with ideas of social justice, even if they did not use the term (John Wesley talked of ‘social holiness’). More recently John Rawls built it in to some aspects of his Theory of Justice. Friedrich Hayek dismissed it as a nonsense term.

What are we to make of it in contemporary Australia? What does it mean, what should it mean? If you search for meanings on line you will find, I think, an emphasis on equality, egalitarianism, and fairness. But of course that doesn’t get you very far. These are not the only things human beings desire. How much equality do you want? In what areas of life? How much liberty would you trade for how much equality? If we wish to be free to do what we like, following John Stuart Mill, we must allow others an equal freedom to do what they would like. What if I want to earn a whole lot of money, and I can do so being a first-class tennis player? And what if I were successful? Wouldn’t that make us unequal? I wrestled with some of that in my last essay.

Nation-states are large communities, and they all possess, to a great or lesser degree, a felt obligation that the society should look after the old, the frail and the vulnerable. The rest of society is expected to work and look after those for whom they have responsibility. All, except the desperately poor, have safety nets of various kinds at various levels. The one I’m used to is the Australian one, and by and large it seems to me to work pretty well. Yes, one can always tweak the net, and how it’s paid for. When could we say that a given society had reached the desired ‘socially just’ level? I have no idea. If it ever occurred it would be an inhuman society, since we human beings are self-centred as well as altruistic. My children are more important to me that other children. But I would look after a vulnerable child were I to encounter one. It’s a question of balance, of trading, of compromise.


It seems to me that ‘social justice’ is best seen as an aspiration, and that we will never achieve it, for reasons set out above. Pushed hard, I would probably say I value freedom more, because of my academic career in political science (a forbidden subject in many countries), and because I have written as a kind of ‘public intellectual’ for fifty years. Since I have mentioned (and value) John Rawls’s thought, I can set out what he thought of as the basic needed freedoms for any civilised society.

First, freedom of thought, and with it freedom of conscience, as one deals with social relationships: how should I behave in good conscience in areas of religion, philosophy and morality — freedom of opinion and behaviour, on good grounds.

Second, the political freedoms, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, all familiar to me in my working life as a teacher and commentator.

Third, the freedoms he thought were necessary for the liberty and integrity of the person: no slavery, freedom of movement, freedom (within obvious bounds) to choose one’s occupation.

Fourth, the freedoms provided by the existence of a rule of law in a representative democracy, and the rights and liberties conferred on us through legislation.

All of these freedoms together, if they are allowed, constrain each of us in what we do, for they apply not just to us but to everyone else too — Mill again.


Within all that, ‘social justice’ is a kind of valued social co-operation such that the most disadvantaged are assisted. We cannot make them equal, but we can help them be less unequal in some respects important to them.

What I hear most of the time, however, is a slogan that carries little meaning. ‘What do we want? Social Justice! When do we want it? Now!’ It is connected to envy and jealousy and dislike. As I argued last time, if equality is important to you, then you need to be able to explain what kind of equality it is that you want, and how you would propose the society secure it. If you are asking for it under the banner of ‘social justice’, you also need to explain how it is that what is currently the case (that which you want to change) is ‘unjust’. I would not find any of this easy, if I were the person chanting, and I think that is why we hear the slogans a lot but we never hear them developed into an argument. In my experience, when I hear cries for ‘social justice’,  it isn’t long before I hear that the money tree can provide it, if only we tax those rich people.

One of my own goals, when accepting a new responsibility, has been that I wish to leave whatever-it-is in better shape than when I was given charge of it. With a single organisation, like a university, or a research-funding body, it is relatively easy to pick a couple of measures (what we now call ‘Key Performance Indicators’), and see what has happened over time. But when we are talking about a whole society there is no single bottom line. Those interested in anything to do with money will point to GDP per capita. If that is rising over time, then things must be better. Aha! a critic will say, you need a measure of dispersion as well. All the increased wealth could be going to a few people. You can find a candidate or two for that measure. Others will want to add even more criteria.

But what about longevity? What about proportions going on to higher education? What about obesity? What about the number of single-parent families? I’m just picking measures at random. If these measures show a positive trend, is social justice more evident? What if some trends are going up and others are going down?

In short, ‘social justice’ is best avoided unless you are chanting. Find something more precise to worry about.

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This article was first published on Don Aitkin.

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About the Author

Don Aitkin has been an academic and vice-chancellor. His latest book, Hugh Flavus, Knight was published in 2020.

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