The issue of social justice has occupied the minds of many scholars in the society for a long time. Scholars and philosophers such as St. Augustine, Plato and John Locke among others have all tried to define what social justice is and how a society can benefit from it.
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According to Zafirovski (2005), social justice can be conceptualized in terms of equality and human rights. To this end, this scholar defines this concept as a situation where a society or an institution operates on the basis of equality solidarity (Zafirovski, 2005). For a society or an institution to be regarded as an entity operating on social justice, it must uphold human rights and the dignity of each and every individual in such a society or institution.
But where did the concept of social justice originate from in contemporary philosophical and political discourse? According to Benhabib (2004), the concept of social justice can be traced back to the writings of Luigi Taparelli in the mid 19th century. Taparelli was analyzing the teachings of Thomas Aquinas when he came up with this concept.
Antonio Rosmini-Serbati later on built on the works of Taparelli to further define social justice in contemporary society (Zafirovski, 2005). Other scholars associated with social justice in contemporary social and political discourse include John Ryan, Coughlin and Kant among others.
According to Benhabib (2004), social justice cannot be separated from human rights and equality in the society. This is given the fact that if the rights of the individual are abused, such an individual will not be in a position to partake in social justice.
On the other hand, a society full of economic, social and political inequalities cannot be regarded as having embraced social justice principles. Social justice is also related to economic egalitarianism (Garrett, 2005). A society which is characterized by economic inequalities as indicated above cannot be regarded as operating on the principles of social justice.
But is social justice the same as political egalitarianism? This is the question that is likely to arise when one is analyzing social justice in the context of political developments in the society. This paper is going to look at whether social justice is similar to political egalitarianism.
The author will first provide a brief background on both social justice and political egalitarianism. The author will then try to analyze how the two are related and whether they are one and the same thing. The paper will be based on social justice theory as envisaged by scholars such as John Rawls, Kant and John Locke.
Wardell (2011) justice as a concept has been addressed in various legal, political, philosophical and religious discourses. According to him, this concept involves the treatment of the poor and marginalized individuals in the society on an equal basis with those who are privileged. Wardell’s definition of social justice might appear simplistic on the eyes of social justice theorists, but it provides a significant perspective to the social justice concept. This is the aspect of treating the marginalized and the disadvantaged members of the society equally with the privileged. A society that draws a line between the so called ‘common man’ and the ‘elite’ is not just at all. This is the reason why scholars such as Locke and Kant were concerned with the social stratification in early societies that treated members of the royal family as superior citizens while the rest of the society was left to grapple with poverty and starvation.
Like any other concept in contemporary society, many schools of thought on social justice have been formed over the years. The different schools of thought advocate different strategies in addressing the issue of social justice in the society. Most of the arguments advocated by the different schools of thought are based on the principles of social justice that are to be found in John Rawl’s theory of justice.
Social Justice Theory
Rawls’ Theory of Justice
Several scholars have made contributions to the justice theories depending on their academic orientation and their beliefs in this concept. These scholars include John Rawls, John Locke and Kant among others.
In the year 1971, John Rawls wrote a book titled Theory of Justice in which he provided his views on several aspects of justice such as social justice and political egalitarianism. In this book, the scholar gives his views of a liberal egalitarian society built on the principles of human rights and equality (Wardell, 2011).
Rawls borrowed heavily from Immanuel Kant, a German philosopher who is also regarded as a father figure in social justice discourses (Wardell, 2011). Kant was of the view that “people are individuals first (and not) the means to another individual’s ends” (as cited in Wardell, 2011: p. 2). Building on this concept, Rawls (1985) asserts that individuals in the society must work in tandem to establish equality for all regardless of their social or class status.
In his theory, Rawls is of the view that a society operating on social justice principles is characterized by freedom of speech (Benhabib, 2004), equality in the eyes of the law and freedom of assembly (Solway, 2006). The members of such a society must also enjoy equal access to education, employment and other social facilities such as health cover. Contemporary scholars subscribing to Rawls’ school of thought cites the central theme in his theory in their writings.
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This is the fact that the disadvantaged and marginalized members of the society should be assisted to enable them succeed in the society and live at par with the privileged individuals (Zafirovski, 2005). According to Rawls, all nation states in the world should put social justice at the forefront given the fact that all other policies formulated by the state rest on it. This is for example social and legal policies that are formulated by the state to improve the wellbeing of the citizens (Fernandez & Nicolas, 2006).
Rawls’ Two Principles of Justice
Rawls’ social justice theory identifies what he calls two principles of justice (Wardell, 2011).
The First Principle
The first principle as identified by this scholar has already been referred to earlier in this paper. It involves the basic liberties of any member of the society. These include political liberty which involves the freedom to participate in democratic elections, freedom of speech and the freedom to accumulate and own property among others (Solway, 2006).
To support this position, Rawls is of the view that “….first, each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive basic liberty compatible with a similar liberty for others” (Rawls 1971 p.53 as cited in Wardell, 2011 p.34). This means that the individual should be treated equally with other members of the society regardless of their social and class status.
The Second Principle
According to Garrett (2005), the second principle in Rawls’ theory is concerned with social and economic inequalities. According to Rawls, the two inequalities should exist in a state of balance that meets two conditions. The first condition is the fact that the inequalities should be beneficial to the marginalized and less-privileged individuals in the society or social institution (Garrett, 2005). The second condition is the fact that offices and positions in the society (or within the social institution under consideration) should be accessible to all members of the society. This means that a society operating on social justice principles should not discriminate when it comes to appointments and democratic elections.
Having looked at social justice in the section above, it is now imperative to address political egalitarianism at this juncture. Fernandez & Nicolas (2006) conceptualize political egalitarianism in terms of political power and political influence in the society.
They regard it as a situation where individuals in the society or within a social institution are equal in terms of the political power and influence that they wield. Wardell (2011) is of the view that political egalitarianism is the foundation on which many democracies are built. It is synonymous with moral reciprocity or legal equality in the society (Solway, 2006).
Some scholars such as Fernandez & Nicolas (2006) have regarded political egalitarianism in significantly different terms. They are of the view that its reductionist and erroneous to limit the concept of political egalitarianism to equality within the political domain. Instead, they view this concept from John Rawls justice theory perspective.
To this end, they refer to it as the “egalitarian distributive justice” (Zafirovski, 2005: p.23) that is in operation in a heterogeneous society. When political egalitarianism is regarded as such, it assumes political tones that are similar to Rawls’ political liberalism (Zafirovski, 2005).
But what exactly is egalitarianism? According to Wardell (2011), egalitarianism is a school of thought that advocates for various forms of equalities among individuals in the society. Those who advocates for egalitarianism are of the view that equality leads to equity and improved quality of life among the members of the society. Egalitarianism advocates for equal treatment of all individuals in the society regardless of their social class.
Egalitarianism recognizes the fact that the society is heterogeneous and it is made up of individuals from different backgrounds. The members of the society differ in their gender, their race, religious and sexual orientation among others. However, egalitarianism recognizes that in spite of these differences, each member of the society possesses similar intrinsic qualities that make them equal in all aspects (Fernandez & Nicolas, 2006).
Egalitarian principles recognize the fact that all members of the society are equal when it comes to the value they add into the society as a whole and the social status that they occupy. There are various forms of egalitarianism, and political egalitarianism that was discussed earlier in this paper is one such form. The others include economic, religious and philosophical egalitarianism among others.
It is important to highlight the various forms of egalitarianism at this juncture. The highlight will help the reader to relate the various forms of egalitarianism to political egalitarianism which is the central focus of this section.
According to Solway (2006), economic egalitarianism can be regarded as the equal participation of all members of the society in the economic processes of the society. Economic egalitarianism ensures that all individuals in the society share equally in the economic activities of the society. This is where the aspect of price fixing by the government comes into play. Price fixing ensures that each member of the society is able to access the economic products and services at the same price as their counterparts in the society.
Religious egalitarianism on its part is the situation whereby all members of the society are regarded as being equal before the eyes of God. For example, Christianity teaches that each and every one of us is equal before the eyes of God. This is regardless of our sex, gender, economic status, race and cultural background among others.
On the other hand, legal egalitarianism is the process whereby all members of the society are regarded as equal before the law (Garrett, 2005). This involves the application of similar legal standards to all members of the society regardless of their social or class status. For example, a criminal from a poor background should not be treated harshly by the law while a criminal from an affluent background is let scot-free.
So Is Social Justice the Same Thing as Political Egalitarianism?
It is a fact beyond doubt that social justice and political egalitarianism are inextricably intertwined. The two concepts are closely related and they share some qualities that might make them similar before the eyes of an undiscerning individual.
However, the analysis of social justice and political egalitarianism provided above reveals that the two are not the same thing. This is in spite of the various similarities between them. In this case, similarities between social justice and political egalitarianism do not make the two concepts one and the same thing.
Social justice is broader than political egalitarianism. Political egalitarianism confines itself more to the political domain of the society. The arguments given by Fernandez & Nicolas (2006) and other scholars who argue that political egalitarianism is synonymous to social justice fail to eliminate the line that demarcates the two.
Social justice leads to political egalitarianism. In other words, political egalitarianism is one of the various products of social justice. Political egalitarianism is one of the aspects that characterize social justice in a society or within a social institution.
Zafirovski (2005) is of the view that social justice is one of the key pillars of a liberal democracy. This view brings to fore the interconnectedness between social justice and political egalitarianism. This is given the fact that political egalitarianism is one element of liberal democracy.
Zafirovski (2005) goes further to argue that “integral political equality (is the foundation on which) justice in a liberal democracy is built” (p. 411). In essence, a political system that is devoid of egalitarianism is regarded as being unfair and unjust to the citizens. In other words, it lacks in social justice.
Political inequality and inequity (all aspects of lack of political egalitarianism) leads to stress and conflict in the society. This is the reason why contemporary democracies shun anti-liberalism movements in the society.
Anti-liberalism movements advocates for what Popper referred to as anti-equalitarianism in 1973 (as cited in Zafirovski, 2005; p. 413). Anti-equalitarianism is synonymous to exclusion of some individuals in politics and other spheres of the society. It extends beyond politics to include exclusion in economy and culture (Solway, 2006).
So how exactly is liberal democracy related to social justice and in extension political egalitarianism? According to Wardell (2011), a liberal democracy is one of the most just and equitable democracies in the world. This is given the fact that it is essentially egalitarian as far as political and social equality are concerned. A liberal democracy advocates for inclusion in all aspects of the society.
Some scholars such as Garrett (2005) provide a new perspective to the relationship between social justice and political egalitarianism. They are of the view that when political egalitarianism occurs in the absence of social justice, it creates a condition within which social justice is able to thrive. In other words, political egalitarianism can also lead to social justice.
The scholars are of the view that “political egalitarianism (brings to fore) justice and fairness in a (contemporary) liberal democracy). On the other hand, political anti-egalitarianism (which is lack of political egalitarianism) leads to crime and injustice in the society (Wardell, 2011).
This paper tried to analyze whether social justice and political egalitarianism are one and the same thing. An analysis of social justice (including Rawls’ justice theory) and political egalitarianism was conducted. The author came to the conclusion that social justice and political egalitarianism are inextricably intertwined but they are not one and the same thing. In other words, social justice is not the same thing as political egalitarianism according to this author.
Benhabib, S. (2004). The rights of others: Aliens, residents and citizens. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Fernandez, G. M., & Nicolas, A. D. (2006). Egalitarian envy: The foundations of social justice. New York: Free Press.
Garrett, J. (2005). Rawls’ mature theory of social justice: An introduction for students. Retrieved from: http://people.wku.edu/jan.garrett/ethics/matrawls.htm
Rawls, J. (1985). Justice as fairness: Political not metaphysical. Philosophy and Public Affairs, 14(3): 223-251.
Solway, J. (2006). The politics of egalitarianism: Theory and practice. New York: Berghahn Books.
Wardell, A. (2011). Social justice theory. Web.
Zafirovski, M. (2005). Liberal modernity and its adversaries: Freedom, liberalism and anti-liberalism in the 21st century. Leiden: Koninklijke Brill NV.