Social Justice

Zeroing In on “Social Justice”

In an earlier post, I gave the following generic definition of social justice:

Social justice is a moral standard by which some people judge political and economic institutions. Advocates of social justice believe the moral justification of our institutions depends on how well these institutions serve the interests of the poor and least advantaged. The basic institutions of society must sufficiently benefit all, including the least advantaged and most vulnerable members of society.

I doubt we can define the term “social justice” precisely, by necessary and sufficient conditions. Almost no words in the English language can be defined so precisely. Instead, the definition above captures in a broad way what people have in mind when they discuss social justice. There are various possible conceptions of social justice. This definition characterizes most of them. It does so without being empty. Murray Rothbard doesn’t have any concern for social justice, so defined, as far as I can tell.

Note that I am not trying to tell you what I think the true principle of social justice is or how it fits into the correct theory of justice. I am trying instead trying to describe what different theories of social justice have in common. All theorists who advocate social justice believe something like this:

  • If under favorable conditions, an political-economic regime systematically causes many innocent people, through no fault of their own, to live in poverty, without much opportunity, and without much ability to enjoy their freedom, and if there is some alternative regime that, under those same conditions, would eliminate these problems, this provides a strong presumption in favor of that alternative regime.
  • If our basic institutions systematically fail to benefit innocent people, or systematically tend to harm them, then it is unreasonable to ask them to observe those institutions. For instance, if through no fault of my own, some property rights regime causes me to starve, and if this isn’t just a result of bad luck but is a systematic effect of that regime, then the rest of you can’t demand I play along with the regime.

David Friedman and Bryan Caplan both worry that this is all too inexact. People who advocate social justice believe the justification of our institutions depends upon those institutions ability to serve the interests of the poor and least advantaged. But just how strong is this dependency relation? Do utilitarians qualify as having concern for social justice, since utilitarians counts the interests of the poor?

Any particular theory of social justice might give an exact answer. But I am here trying to talk about what the different theories of social justice have in common, and so I cannot give an exact answer. Or, rather, if I give an exact answer, it will be artificial. I’ll exclude some theories that others reasonably think should be included and/or include some theories that others reasonably think should be excluded.

There are clear cases where someone’s commitment to the poor is too weak for him to count as advocating social justice. There are clear cases where the commitment is strong enough to count as a commitment to social justice. And then there are in-between cases where’s it’s not clear. No big deal–most of our language works this way.

The crudest forms of utilitarianism won’t qualify as having a real concern for social justice, because they don’t give the interests of the poor (or any individuals’ interests) the right kind of consideration. Utilitarianism attaches no intrinsic importance to the distribution of utility. Imagine the following situation:

Malevolent Utility Monsters: Suppose the top 1% of people are malevolent utility monsters, with a nearly unlimited ability to feel enjoyment/pleasure/happiness. Suppose these utility monsters enjoy watching other people suffer. If they see or know that a person suffers from X disutility, this causes them to experience X^2 utility. Now, suppose there is an economic system Y that causes the bottom 99% to starve. Suppose that as a result Y causes more overall utility than any other economic system.

If the crudest forms of utilitarianism were true, then we would be morally obligated to instantiate economy system Y under those specified conditions. It would be silly to say that these forms of utilitarianism show a concern for social justice–they “count” the interests of the worst off, but they allow the poor to be exploited and tortured in order to benefit others. That has to be too weak of a dependency relation.

Utilitarianism tells us to treat the poor as potential containers for utility, and it requires us to treat them as mere instruments for producing utility in others if doing so would maximize utility. Crude utilitarianism is too weakly committed to helping the poor to count as a concern for social justice.



  • This goes without saying, of course, but the original utilitarians – the philosophical radicals of the 19th century – were not crude utilitarians in this sense. They weren’t thinking about utility monsters or trolley problems. They were thinking about the social and economic institutions of their time which failed in a crude and obvious way to give equal consideration to the interests of all persons regardless of race, class, or sex.

    And so, even if the strict philosophical logic of their position commits them to illiberal positions in certain hypothetical scenarios, their judgments about the kinds of social and political questions with which they were actually concerned largely converged, I would argue, with those that most non-utilitarian advocates of social justice would have made.

  • “If our basic institutions systematically fail to benefit innocent people, or systematically tend to harm them, then it is unreasonable to ask them to observe those institutions. For instance, if through no fault of my own, some property rights regime causes me to starve, and if this isn’t just a result of bad luck but is a systematic effect of that regime, then the rest of you can’t demand I play along with the regime.”

    I think this may very well be the more important point. And as far as it bears on normal libertarianism, for me it translates thus: it is unreasonable to demand that people respect property rights in contexts in which it goes against their basic interests. And in a world in which property rights systems manifest in ways that do end up having tension with the basic interests of people in lower relative positions of socio-economic power, property rights (in practice, if you will) are effectively *delegitimized* to this extent.

    It is completely unreasonable to put a demand on the poor, the excluded, the systematically coerced, to respect the property rights of “their betters”. This unreasonability includes demanding us to respect the property rights of racists in conditions of institutional racism, demanding us to respect the property rights of landowners in scenarios in which this means extreme suffering or death – and in some ways, which even most BHL’s would struggle with, it includes considering it unreasonable to demand us to respect the property rights of capitalists in conditions of institutional inequality.

  • Unknown

    The above perfectly illustrates why the project championed by this site has no future.

    • In what way are you saying this? That the project of synthesizing libertarianism with conceptions of “social justice” is impossible? I might partly agree with that, to the extent that “libertarianism” is conceptually-linguistically dominated by hardline propertarianism, strong devotion to liberal market economics, crankish conservative social views – and sometimes, even the class interests of its “thinkers”.

      No formulation of libertarianism will pass muster if it doesn’t meaningfully grapple with the problems of liberal capitalism and sufficiently consider power relations in general. So I say all the worse for libertarianism, all the better for “social justice” – even if “social justice” remains pluralistic. If this site has no future, it’s because the libertarian conceptual schemes are pretty broken, counter-intuitive and overly simplistic.  
      For clarity’s sake, I don’t personally consider myself to particularly be part of the project of this site – I’d loosely identify as a social anarchist, although the position I roughly layed out is, in general terms, compatible with multiple kinds of leftist political positions.

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  • Glen Whitman

    The “utility monster” critique may indeed pose a problem for utilitarianism, but its connection to the social justice issue is tangential at best.  A utility monster could pose problems even if his “victims” were nowhere near the bottom of the utility distributions.  For instance, a “middle-class eating utility monster” might gain vast amounts of utility from causing middle-class people to suffer enough to approach — but not reach — the bottom of the distribution.  And this might cause me to question my utilitarianism.  But it’s not really a matter of “social justice,” defined as a special concern with those at the bottom of the distribution. 

    If utility monsters are regarded as a problem, it seems to me they should be a problem regardless of who their victims are.  Modifying utilitarianism to address “social justice” would not eliminate the utility monster problem for everyone — only for those given special weight.  That, to me, is another indictment of the social justice enterprise.

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  • TonyFressola1950

    You say “social justice is a moral standard by which some people judge political and economic institutions”.   It remains unclear to me what the function of the adjective “social” is here.  For those people using it as a moral standard–is “social justice”  something different from “justice” simpliciter?  Can there be “just” institutions which are not “socially just” or vice versa?  Is it that social justice is the justice characteristic of social insitutions as opposed to say individuals or actions?  Or is the adjective used to to specify a particular substantive account of what justice is — as is the case with say egalitiatarian  justice or meritarian justice.

    • j_m_h

      While I think the old criticism of “social justice” that attempted to twist the concept of justice are well founded, I also don’t see any reason that one needs to run away from the term just because of it’s history.

      Can you think of any definition of justice that is not socially bound. The problem I think is that many seem to limit the concept of justice to the individual — an evaluation of their actions and the following results. When applying the any concept of justice to society and the underlying institutions there’s something of a categorical shift in the subject. In that sense using the term “social justice” helps, IMO because the underlying application and subject is different.


    This in some sense “seconds” TonyF’s comment. A popular definition of “justice” by philosophers is the idea that everyone should get what they deserve. Obviously, this definition operates at the highest level of generality and leaves plenty of room to argue about what constitutes “desert,” just as does your definition of “social justice” with respect to what constitutes the appropriate “moral standard.” The definition of “justice” just offered would apply of course, to the worst-off group in society. Clearly, it might if instantiated result in different members of this group getting distinct treatment, if they deserve it.

    Do you reject the idea that everyone should get what they deserve? If yes, why? If not, why do we need a new term, instead of an argument that justice with respect to the needy requires x, y, and z? Like Tony, it seems to me that “social justice” is simply the expression of a particular view regarding what the advocate believes is “just.” If the proponent is correct, then “social justice” simply is “justice.” It is not clear to me that “social justice” refers to something different than  “justice,”  and is thus an empty vessel. But, perhaps I am confused on this.


    Permit me to try a different approach. You and some other BHLs are committed to social justice. I believe you are also committed to the idea of stringent, although not absolute, property rights. Do you therefore also subscribe to “property justice”? I suspect you also endorse the idea that all persons are entitled to equal respect. Are you therefore in favor of “equal respect justice”? I could go on, but you get the point. Are there really a whole bunch of “justices,” or is there just “justice,” which is multi-dimensional and really hard to formulate and describe?

    • good_in_theory

      What hinges on ‘social justice’ being a compound noun (social justice as substantively different from justice simpliciter) versus social justice being a noun and an adjective (social justice picking out a dimension, or set of dimensions, within the single substantive justice – ‘justice in the key of society’) versus justice being a family which contains a bunch of species beneath it (social justice, property justice, justice erectus, Cro Magnon justice, justice sapiens, legal justice)?

      I can see the stakes when differentiating ‘Bizarro Superman’ from ‘bizarre Superman’ (which is just normal Superman rolling on X) from bizarre Supermen (which would include Bizarro Superman and bizarre Superman but not Superman simpliciter) with respect to ‘Superman.’  I don’t really see the stakes when talking about an artifact concept like justice.

      Is social justice a sub-species, a separate species, or a single species in a certain set of circumstances?  Who cares, whichever you’d like.

      If you want to split them up, you’re still going to have to find what it is that holds them together.

    • I like the term “property justice” much better than “social justice” because while helping the poor often means wealth redistribution derived from acquiring tax jurisdiction over the more fortunate or talented (Constitutionally, of course), at other times it can simply mean letting the poor working stiff keep all his/her wages as personal property, and not treat it as taxable income.

      It’s both unjust to deny basic Lockean property-right status to the labor of the working poor for whom it would benefit and for those who would claim it, but also unjust to allow those who profit from the labor of others to keep too much of their (lower-ranked) property.

    • Andrew Cohen

      Mark-Not speaking for Jason, I’ll say I think your point is basically right.  I’ve always had a harm time understanding why some libertarians were afraid to talk of “social justice.”  To me, the word ‘social’ didn’t add anything–it was a qualifier without meaning.  But for lots of people it indicates something more specific–and BHLs believe that that something matters, though in the same way that all issues of justice matter, I think.


        Thanks Andrew. At the risk of sounding more snarky than I actually mean to be, I agree that people who use “social justice” mean a certain thing, and I believe that I know, more or less, what they mean–just as when people refer to “unicorns.” But I don’t believe in unicorns and I don’t believe that there is something called “social justice” that exists independently of “justice.” Everyone: rich, poor, and in the middle, should get justice–now let’s figure out what that is.

  • TracyW

    If our basic institutions systematically fail to benefit innocent people, or systematically tend to harm them, then it is unreasonable to ask them to observe those institutions.

    What do you mean by harm here? For example,  I consider it quite plausible that my grandmother was deeply emotionally hurt by the atheism of her sons. Is it unreasonable therefore to expect her to observe religious tolerance? 

    Or, one of the basic institutions of our society, is that people can chose their jobs, and can chose not to work if they find some legitimate way of financing their not-working (such as from their savings, or from a working spouse).  This systematically fails to benefit innocent people who can’t work, as the total income available for taxation falls, and it harms innocent people who chose to work as their tax burden goes up. Is it unreasonable to ask innocent people harmed by this system to observe their fellow citizens’ rights not to work? 

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