justice, social

Arguments about justice feature not only in sociology, but also in philosophy , political science , social policy , psychology , and of course law itself. Justice is a central moral standard in social life, is generally held to have a prominent role in social theory and social action, and so it is perhaps not surprising that all the social sciences have examined the concept at some length. (The best multi-disciplinary overview is R. L. Cohen's edited collection entitled Justice: Views from the Social Sciences, 1986).
It is conventional to distinguish ‘formal justice’ (the law) and material justice (morality and politics), although some theorists of justice treat the two concepts as parallel or overlapping, and argue that since legal or criminal justice concerns the distribution of penalties to the guilty, it has much in common with social justice, which deals with the allocation of scarce goods (and ‘bads’) to a population: both are premissed on the ideas of due process, impartiality, and distribution according to appropriate criteria. In older literature, a distinction is usually drawn between social (or as it is frequently termed ‘distributive’) justice, and retributive justice. The latter holds that the guilty should be punished simply because wrongdoing as such ought to be punished, regardless of the consequences of doing so in terms of deterring further misdemeanours, or making any other contribution to social utility. Retributivism is, therefore, only one theory of criminal justice. In the psychological literature, a fivefold distinction is sometimes made (following, Justice: Its Determinants in Social Interaction, 1974) between equity, or fair exchange, where equity is defined as the equivalence of the output to input ratios of all parties involved in an exchange; distributive justice, or fair allocation, involving the one-way distribution of resources, rights , obligations, or whatever across a category of recipients; procedural justice, or fair procedures and mechanisms, recognizing that an agreed and fair procedure might nevertheless result in a distribution of outcomes that some would define as unjust; retributive justice, or just compensation, dealing with fairness in the allocation of punishments or level of compensation for victimization; and, finally, justice as equality-which may be equality of opportunity, equality of objective outcome, subjective equality (equality of outcomes taking into account need or desert), rank-order equality (in which the allocation of rewards follows normative expectations in order to avoid felt injustice), or equity (equality relative to individual contributions). As will be evident by now this is a subject replete with typologies and codification.
A wide variety of principles are available to regulate social and economic inequalities and so the concept of social justice is the subject of great dispute. Different political ideologies yield different principles of justice. Among the variety of concepts and theories advanced in this way, those of desert, merit, entitlement, equality of outcome, equality of opportunity, need, and functional inequality would seem to be most relevant to sociologists.
Most academic debate about the concept of justice starts with John Rawls's famous ‘difference principle’, which asserts that inequalities in the distribution of scarce goods (power, money, access to healthcare, or whatever) are justified only if they serve to increase the advantage of the least favoured groups in society (see his A Theory of Justice, 1972). What makes this a principle of justice is the idea that justice consists in considering society from an impartial standpoint, in Rawls's case from an imagined ‘original position’ in which agreement is reached by hypothetical rational self-interested people deprived of information about their talents and attributes, choosing behind a ‘veil of ignorance’. According to Rawls, people constrained in this way to choose impartially would be concerned to maximize the well-being of the least advantaged members of society lest they themselves fall into that group, so they will agree to permit inequalities only if these contribute to the welfare of the poor. This proposition then forms part of Rawls's theory of ‘justice as fairness’, which rests on three principles, which because they may sometimes conflict are ordered in lexical priority as follows: the principle of greatest equal liberty (each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive system of equal basic liberties compatible with a similar system of liberty for all); which takes absolute priority over the principle of equality of fair opportunity (positions are to be open to all under conditions in which persons of similar abilities have equal access to office); which, in turn, takes absolute priority over the difference principle itself, which (as we have seen) requires social and economic institutions to be arranged so as to benefit maximally the worst-off. Note that there is no suggestion anywhere in this theory that people in any sense deserve their advantages.
Theories of justice which demand that people be rewarded according to their differential desert or merit are probably more familiar to sociologists. If justice consists in giving people their due, and those dues are different, then justice seems clearly to require unequal outcomes. However, this approach to justice does then raise the question of what it is that constitutes the bases of desert or merit, and which qualities of individuals it is just to reward. For example, one can make a distinction between those attributes for which an individual can claim responsibility, and those which are his or hers merely by chance. It is by no means clear that justice is served by rewarding the latter. Against the theory of justice as desert, Rawls has argued that even a quality such as ability to work hard is itself a chance attribute, and thus an improper basis for reward.
If notions of desert are allied to the principle of equality of opportunity, then matters become yet more complex, since the latter is open to a variety of interpretations. Does it demand that, however unequal their abilities, people should be equally empowered to achieve their goals? This would imply that the unmusical individual who wants to be a concert pianist should receive more training than the child prodigy. Should people have equal resources to devote to their life-plans, irrespective of ability; or, less drastically, does this principle merely require that people with the same abilities should have equal opportunities to achieve their desired goals (an interpretation which is consistent with the idea that the talented should have more opportunities than the untalented).
The idea that unequal rewards might be just because people are entitled to unequal resources can be distinguished from arguments based on principles of desert or merit because it is possible to argue that people are entitled to certain goods without in any sense deserving them. Robert Nozick (Anarchy, State and Utopia, 1974) maintains that, even if one accepts that each individual's natural assets are arbitrary such that they cannot be said to deserve them, people are still entitled to the fruits of these assets and to whatever else other people choose freely to give them. Desert-based conceptions of justice are, in Nozick's terms, ‘patterned’ and necessarily conflict with those free exchanges and just transfers which justify an individual's entitlement to resources. Nozick's libertarian emphasis on property rights and freedom of choice leads to a conception of justice as entitlement which is quite different from the idea that people should get what they deserve.
Friedrich Hayek (The Mirage of Social Justice, 1976) has argued that one cannot justify market outcomes as reflecting merit or desert since luck plays too large a part in determining who gets what. However, in his view, the fact that market outcomes are unintended and unforeseen aggregate consequences means that they are not the kind of thing which it is appropriate to regard as just or unjust. Indeed, the whole idea of social justice is for Hayek a mirage, since it requires us to make the mistake of seeing society as an agent. Interestingly, Hayek concedes that the defence of market outcomes at the level of the general public rests upon the erroneous belief that such outcomes reward merit, and he suggests that such a belief is necessary if people are to tolerate the inequalities that the market produces. However, his own justification of the market mechanism is quite different, and points instead to its alleged efficiency because it directs scarce resources to where they bring the greatest return, so that even in an unequal distribution the poor are better off than under any other distributive system, since increased productivity works also to the advantage of those who have least. This argument has obvious parallels with functionalist theories of stratification.
It will be clear from this brief résumé of only a few of the philosophical arguments about justice that the concept is itself contested; that discussions of justice tend to spill over into disputes about cognate concepts (such as ‘efficiency’ and ‘equality’); and that this is an area in which it is wise to eschew labels in attaching particular views of justice to particular political ideologies. For example, while it is well known that socialists tend to place emphasis on justice as need and equality of outcome, it is perhaps less well known that Karl Marx considered the desert-oriented distributive principle ‘to each according to his labour’ as appropriate to the first or lower stage of socialism , to be superseded by the maxim ‘to each according to his need’ only in a second or higher stage. Similarly, liberals tend to endorse the value of equality of opportunity, with inequalities of outcome deemed legitimate if they reflect differences in merit, but then cannot agree either about the conditions that are necessary to ensure equality of opportunity or about what constitutes merit. Some liberals hold a more extreme libertarian position (often confused in popular terminology with conservatism ), and argue both that people are entitled to do as they choose with whatever resources they have acquired legitimately, and that this is more important than equality of opportunity. Contemporary thinkers on the New Right tend to conflate the principles of entitlement and desert. For example, it is often argued that the market is to be praised because people get out what they put in (with entrepreneurship and hard work being rewarded), and because markets are the most efficient mechanism for creating wealth which can then trickle down to the poor. Here, unequal outcomes are justified simultaneously on the grounds that they are needed to give people incentives, and so contribute to social justice by helping the poor, and because they give individuals what they deserve. Old-style conservatives, by contrast, tend simply to regard hierarchy as a good thing, either because inequality is a necessary prerequisite of culture and civilized values, or because they respect tradition and inequality is traditional. From this point of view all talk of the principles of social justice, and perhaps even the notion of social justice itself, is inappropriately rationalist in tenor.
Much of the philosophical literature and political theory of justice has been predominantly normative in character. Like Rawls, most writers have been concerned mainly to identify particular rules which can be used to assess the rightness of an act or institution, in order thereby to encourage specific social arrangements that will promote procedural fairness, just allocation, or equality. However, among sociologists and social psychologists, the discussion has been empirical and descriptive rather than moral and prescriptive.
Psychologists have devised a panoply of imaginative studies (mainly laboratory experiments) in an attempt to arbitrate between the exchange theories of distributive justice suggested by George Homans and Stacy Adams, the status-value or status-attribution alternative proposed by Joseph Berger and his colleagues, and the various cost-benefit explanations proffered by certain theorists of social conflict. The framework of equity theory, with which the names of Homans and Adams are associated, rests on a contributions rule, which proposes that justice judgements among individuals reflect the relative ratio of one's contributions (or inputs) to one's receipts (or outcomes) from any transaction, so that justice is achieved when this ratio appears equal for all the parties to any exchange. Subsidiary propositions state that people try to maximize their outcomes, and that perceptions of inequity cause psychological distress, resulting in sustained efforts to restore equity. The status-value perspective, by contrast, argues that distributive justice issues arise only with regard to a stable frame of reference, and that justice evaluations are made with reference to generalized others (see self ) rather than specific individuals. Berger has argued that through social exchange , individuals develop normative expectations about the levels of rewards typically associated with general classes of individuals, and that when people perceive themselves to be part of that general class they come to have expectations of similar rewards. In other words, as a consequence of generalized beliefs about the actual distribution of rewards, normative expectations are formed about what constitutes a just distribution.
Many of these studies have tried to discover a single rule of distributive justice that might even be expressed in the form of an algebraic formula. Their authors have sailed self-consciously for big prizes: the equity programme pursued by Homans and Adams, for example, is nothing less than a bid for a unified theory of human interaction, embracing central propositions from the theories of reinforcement, cognitive consistency, psychoanalysis, and social exchange. The literature here is now voluminous and has been the subject of numerous overviews and reappraisals (see, for example,, Equity: Theory and Research, 1978).
Sociological studies of social justice are much more diffuse and embrace research in the areas of (among others) welfarism, the family, education, and earnings. (For a concise summary see, ‘Empirical Studies of Distributive Justice’, Ethics, 1982.) For example, Wayne Alves and Peter Rossi have fielded surveys in order to explore the nature of fairness judgements about the distribution of earnings in the United States, and conclude that individuals disagree both about how various principles of justice are to be applied in practice, and about the merits of particular cases, seeming only to concur that the rules themselves involve balancing both merit and performance considerations alongside those of need (see’Who Should Get What?’, American Journal of Sociology, 1978). Similarly, Jennifer Hochschild's intensive-interview research (reported in What's Fair? American Beliefs about Distributive Justice, 1981) suggests (to quote her conclusions) ‘that people generally use norms that derive from a principle of equality in the socialising and political domains, and generally use norms that derive from a principle of differentiation in the economic domain … Thus individuals begin from an assumption they are equal to all others in their home life, school, community, political rights, and policy interests; however, they begin from an assumption that they are either better or worse than-at any rate, not necessarily equal to-all others in their economic and social worth’.
Nevertheless, few people are either consistently egalitarian or differentiating, even within particular domains. In short, ordinary citizens (like academics and politicians) tend to combine principles of social justice that conflict analytically, tend to resolve justice dilemmas by fiat, and to switch from one norm to another without acknowledgement.
Recent years have seen the emergence of a developing consensus that research into social justice issues could most profitably be pursued within an interdisciplinary framework (see, for example,, Justice: Interdisciplinary Perspectives, 1992). This has been attempted empirically by (among others), Against the Odds? (1997). See also measurement by fiat.

Dictionary of sociology. 2013.

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