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Social Justice is a concept that has fascinated philosophers ever since Plato in The Republic formalized the argument that an ideal state would rest on four virtues wisdom, courage, moderation, and justice.The addition of the word social is to clearly distinguish Social Justice from the concept of Justice as applied in thelaw- state-administered systems, which label behavior as unacceptable and enforce a formal mechanism of control, may produce results that do not match the philosophical definitions of social justice - and from more informal concepts of justice embedded in systems of public policy and morality and which differ from culture to culture and therefore lack universality.

Social justice is also used to refer to the overall fairness of a society in its divisions and distributions of rewards and burdens and, as such, the phrase has been adopted by political parties with a redistributive agenda. Social Justice derives its authority from the codes of morality prevailing in each culture.

By gathering together into bands and communities, humans seek to gain strength and to address their vulnerabilities which, in turn, creates the potential to develop into more complex and evolving civilisations. If simple survival is to be transformed into long-term security, something more than co-ordinating the contribution of everyone's skills will be required. A social organisation will be needed to resolve disputes and offer physical security against attack. The achievement of community aims will depend upon the co-ordination of many functional specializations (such as farmers for food, soldiers for protection and rulers for resource management) and a willingness of community members to sacrifice some personal freedom for the greater good.

So, would defining or administering justice become one of these specializations and, as such, be the exclusive responsibility of any one class of citizens? People will not accept the surrender of any of their freedoms unless they perceive real benefits flowing from their decisions. The key factor is likely to be the emergence of a consensus that the society is working in a fair way, i.e., both that individuals are allowed as much freedom as possible given the role they have within the society and that the rewards compensate adequately for any loss of freedom. Hence, true social justice is attained only through the harmonious co-operative effort of the citizens who, in their own self-interest, accept the current norms of morality as the price of membership in the community.

The next major impetus for the development of the concept came from Christianity.Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) says, "Justice is a certain rectitude of mind whereby a man does what he ought to do in the circumstances confronting him." As a theologian, Aquinas believed that justice is a form of natural duty owed by one person to another and not enforced by any human-made law. This reflects the Christian view that, before God, all people are equal and must treat each other with respect. Hence, the framework of the argument shifts to require obedience to natural principles of morality to satisfy a duty owed to God, and the outcome of social justice is driven by the tenets of morality embedded in the religion.

John Locke (1632-1704), an early theologist Utilitarain argued that people have innate natural goodness and beauty, and so, in the long run, if individuals rationally pursue their private happiness and pleasure, the interests of the society or the general welfare will be looked after fairly. Locke characterised most of Christianity as utilitarian since believers see utility in rewards in the afterlife for their actions on Earth.

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) believed that actions are morally right if they are motivated by duty without regard to any personal goal, desire, motive, or self-interest. Kant's moral theory is, therefore, deontological and based on the concept of abject selflessness. In his view, the only relevant feature of moral law is its universalisability.

In the latter part of the twentieth century, the concept of Social Justice has largely been associated with the political philosopher John Rawls (1921-2002) who draws on the utilitarian insights of Bentham and Mill, the social contract ideas of Locke, and the categorical imperative ideas of Kant. His first statement of principle was made in A Theory of Justice (1971) where he proposed that, "Each person possesses an inviolability founded on justice that even the welfare of society as a whole cannot override. For this reason justice denies that the loss of freedom for some is made right by a greater good shared by others." His views are definitively restated in Political Liberalism (1993), where society is seen, "as a fair system of co-operation over time, from one generation to the next." All societies have a basic structure of social, economic, and political institutions, both formal and informal. In testing how well these elements fit and work together, Rawls based a key test of legitimacy on the theories of social contract. To determine whether any particular system of collectively enforced social arrangements is legitimate he argued that one must look for agreement by the people who are subject to it. Obviously, not every citizen can be asked to participate in a poll to determine his or her consent to every proposal in which some degree of coercion is involved, so we have to assume that all citizens are reasonable . Rawls constructed an argument for a two-stage process to determine a citizen's hypothetical agreement:

  • the citizen agrees to be represented by X for certain purposes; to that extent, X holds these powers as a trustee for the citizen;
  • X agrees that a use of enforcement in a particular social context is legitimate; the citizen, therefore, is bound by this decision because it is the function of the trustee to represent the citizen in this way.

This applies to one person representing a small group (e.g. to the organiser of a social event setting a dress code) as equally as it does to national governments which are the ultimate trustees, holding representative powers for the benefit of all citizens within their territorial boundaries, and if those governments fail to provide for the welfare of their citizens according to the principles of justice, they are not legitimate. To emphasise the general principle that justice should rise from the people and not be dictated by the law-making powers of governments, Rawls asserted that, "There is . . . a general presumption against imposing legal and other restrictions on conduct without sufficient reason. But this presumption creates no special priority for any particular liberty." This is support for an unranked set of liberties that reasonable citizens in all states should respect and uphold - to some extent, the list proposed by Rawls matches the normative human rights that have international recognition and direct enforcement in some nation states where the citizens need encouragement to act in a more objectively just way.Social Justice as conceived by Rawls is an apolitical philosophical concept

The concept of social justice may hold some or all of the following beliefs:

  • Historical inequities insofar as they affect current injustices should be corrected until the actual inequities no longer exist or have been perceptively "negated".
  • The redistribution of wealth, power and status for the individual, community and societal good.
  • It is government's (or those who hold significant power) responsibility to ensure a basic quality of life for all its citizens.