Note to self: Be careful how you sell yourself lest someone’s actually buying. Case in point? Fellow blogger Andrew Roman, may his tribe increase, has asked me to draw the distinction, if there is one, between justice and social justice. Don’t you just hate it when someone makes you think about something you haven’t thought about but now have to? But okay, Andrew, here’s a first pass. Just don’t hold me to it.

Strictly speaking, the expression ‘social justice’ is redundant because justice is already a social concept. As Hobbes puts it, “Justice and injustice are none of the faculties neither of the body nor mind. If they were, they might be in a man that were alone in the world, as well as his senses and passions. They are qualities that relate to men in society, not in solitude.” So given that there can be no justice in the absence of society, what’s left for social justice to be?

Clearly what’s called for here is an exercise in (what’s called) ‘ordinary language philosophy’, by which is meant inducing the meaning of a term from the ways in which it’s actually employed. Accordingly, I conjecture that by an injustice we mean a one-off, whereas by social justice we mean a pattern of injustices. So, for example, it’s an injustice if someone is wrongly convicted only because he’s Black. But it’s a social injustice if Blacks are regularly wrongly convicted only because they’re Black. Hence racism and sexism, in their myriad forms, are clearly social justice issues. But it’s only arguable that ageism or ablism or homophobia are. Why? Because even if discrimination on the basis of age or ability or sexual orientation is systemic, it’s not beyond dispute that that discrimination is unjust.

It would seem, then, that to count something as a social justice issue is to reveal a substantive political judgment, both about the systematicity of that something, and about its injustice. Fair enough. But it also seems to involve a nod to whether there is or is not a consensus on whether these two conditions are satisfied. For example, a pro-Choicer holds that restrictions on a woman’s right to choose is both systemic and unjust, and a  pro-Lifer  no doubt holds that abortion is both systematic and unjust. But whereas the pro-Choicer will refer to abortion as a social justice issue, the pro-Lifer will not. Or if she does, only as a rhetorical flourish. Why is this? I think it’s because there’s a widespread consensus on whether a woman is a rights-bearer, whereas there’s no such consensus on whether the foetus is. And, judging by her not referring to abortion as a social justice issue, the pro-Lifer acknowledges that.

As I say, this is just a first attempt to answer Andrew’s question, so I’m hoping he’ll cut me some slack here.

Categories: Social and Political Philosophy

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