This is the second entry in a series of posts in which I answer questions posed by readers. See more about the series, or ask your own question, here.
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This question was posed via Ask.fm:
What’s the best definition of social justice that is generally accepted among its advocates? Further what is the reason why the concept of social justice specifically is needed, as opposed to just calling it “justice”? Thanks.
Here’s a case where Google can get us most of the way home. I typed in “what does social justice mean” and Google’s built-in dictionary spit back this:
Justice in terms of the distribution of wealth, opportunities, and privileges within a society.
“individuality gives way to the struggle for social justice”
Pretty good, it seems to me. And that was before I even clicked on anything.
I hope this doesn’t come off as snotty, by the way; I’m definitely not chastising you for asking the question instead of Googling it yourself. I invited questions, and I’m happy to get them. And it’s definitely true that just Googling won’t always work out this well — if I’d Googled “what does racism mean” I would have gotten an answer that a lot of lefties wouldn’t have liked at all.
But when I was thinking about how to answer this question, Google was my own first stop. No need to re-invent the wheel writing my own definition if I could find a good one, and I generally try to do a bit of research before spouting off, whatever the topic. Poking around online is also a great way of diving into a subject that you’re nervous about broaching with someone else, particularly if you can figure out how to find an answer that’s tailored to the context you’re interested in.
As for the second part of the question — why “social justice” instead of just “justice” — the quote that follows Google’s definition points toward an answer. Justice, in isolation, is usually defined in relation to the individual, and social justice looks at the problem from a societal perspective, usually with particular attention to issues of diversity and inequality. (The Center for Social Justice and Human Rights at Appalachian State University has a lengthy essay up exploring these issues from a legal/philosophical perspective.)
Though the concept of social justice and the phrase itself have a long history, the term has gained a new prominence in recent years, particularly among activists and those who mock them. I’m not going to try to summarize all that right now, but I’m happy to take follow-up questions in comments if anyone has them.