Is social justice the answer?

Advocates for social justice believe they have the answer to the problems of poverty and marginalization. They believe their approach is an improvement over charitable approaches that characterized efforts to help “the underprivileged” in earlier times. Values about human rights and equality underlie the social justice approach. So does the belief that poverty and marginalization are not the result of individual failings. Rather, they are the outcome of systemic social forces such as racial discrimination and flaws in the free market economic system.

Whereas charitable approaches are grounded in the belief that people with financial means and social position have an obligation to help those less fortunate (who may or may not deserve their fate), social justice approaches assume that everyone has equal rights to certain basic living conditions that should be guaranteed by the state. There are different perspectives on what those rights are. Some make distinctions between legal and civil rights (such as the right to a fair trial, the right to vote, and the right to free speech) and economic, social or cultural rights (such as the right to housing, food, education, health care, and in recent years, the right to access the Internet).

In Canada, answers to the question of what to do about poor and marginalized people started to shift in the aftermath of the Second World War. Before then, it was family, friends, neighbours, and churches that looked after people who had fallen on hard times. Those who had resources to offer and felt motivated by family ties or altruism or a sense of moral or religious obligation provided help as best they could. After the Second World War, the discourse on human rights gathered momentum and at the same time, governments started creating a “social safety net.” Instead of the care of each community’s poor and marginalized being the responsibility of particular local communities, the welfare of “these people” gradually became the responsibility of the state. The social service and health care industries flourished. In the context of the discourse on human rights, being in need of support became less morally charged, less a mark of “badness” or inferiority. Everyone was equal and everyone was entitled to enjoy the fruits of modernity.

I appreciate some elements of the social justice discourse, especially the movement away from blaming individuals for the misfortune they might be experiencing and the highlighting of the role of social systems and institutions in the creation and perpetuation of social problems. But I have reservations about this discourse as it appears in popular culture and academia. Some of these reservations are pragmatic; others are more conceptual.

Pragmatic limitations of the social justice discourse

The social justice discourse encourages a sense of outrage about inequality and injustice but does not offer ways for people to hold their anger in healthy, sustainable ways. Nor does it suggest how to transmute the anger into a force for change that is alert to the potential for unintended harmful consequences. Too often, the moral outrage gets directed at particular adversaries or “the system” in general. The problems are seen as existing out there, among other people who need to be shown the error of their ways. As many social justice advocates know, this is the road to burn-out. It can also be the road to the re-creation of oppressive power dynamics where players simply switch roles. The underlying power dynamics do not change. That is, the system would still be one where there are winners and losers, where some people have power and others do not.

In addition, the social justice discourse calls for “systemic change” to eradicate poverty and marginalization and all the discriminatory “isms” that divide society. But it provides scant detail on how exactly this should be done. What leverage points at what levels of which systems should change agents try to influence? What methods might be effective? What does history teach us about how widespread social change happens or fails to happen? What theories of change might apply? What are the pros and cons of trying to change systems from within or without? The discourse provides few empirical analyses of how social change actually occurs. The large social movements of the 1960s are not the only examples of social change. The discourse talks about the need for change, but by focusing mainly on its resistance to the status quo, it actually reinforces the status quo by reifying it. Further, there is too little attention paid to cultural forces, which have powerful influences on both individual behaviour and institutional structures.

Conceptual limitations of the social justice discourse

Although the social justice discourse no longer views the poor and marginalized as bad, there is still a bad guy: the system, oppressive institutions (e.g., state governments or corporations), or individuals with power and privilege (e.g., white males). Unfortunately, this conceptualization of the situation perpetuates unhealthy and ultimately unproductive power dynamics (the pragmatic issue noted above) and it is a reflection of a simplistic, dualistic analysis that does not go far enough. (See the next article in this section for more on this.)

In addition, too often, social justice proponents emphasize rights over responsibilities. I am not dismissing the importance of the advances in human rights made in the last centuries (no one would argue that the abolition of slavery was a bad idea). But rights and freedoms entail duties and responsibilities. They are two sides of the same coin.

Similarly, there is too much emphasis on the individual and not enough on the collective. The social justice discourse attempts to treat the individual as a universal entity, separate from social and cultural contexts. But we are all embedded in networks of relationships, both empowered and constrained by the institutions in our societies. We are members of communities with responsibilities to each other.

This isolation from context leads to another weakness in the discourse: statements about social justice and human rights focus too much on material conditions and neglect other important domains. I do not object to the idea that everyone should have adequate shelter, food, and water (especially since this is probably an achievable global goal, assuming certain standards of “adequacy”). But what about other aspects of human life? For example, is it a basic human right to grow up in a culture where elders are respected and available to offer advice to young people? Where children are safe from sexual exploitation? Where extended families are strong? Where valued social roles are available for people with disabilities? Some lists of human rights include less materialistic rights (e.g., Oxfam includes the right to be heard and the right to identity in its list) but even these tend to be based in conceptions of a meaningful life that are rooted in mainstream Western culture.

I fear that the social justice discourse has fallen into the trap of using the same external markers of human value that predominate in industrialized societies (e.g., a good job, a decent house, plenty of food, an education, and access to health care) as proxies for experiences that matter more (e.g., respect, dignity, belonging, or spiritual connection). In the developed world, the external conditions of one’s life have come to signify one’s value in society. This is part of the reason why poor people become marginalized. They do not possess accepted symbols of success. It seems that some proponents of social justice think the answer is to ensure that poor people get these symbols. But the goalposts will just keep moving. And there are not enough resources on the planet to give everyone the material standard of living enjoyed in the developed world.

By focusing on material markers of human value, the social justice discourse hits a dead-end. There is not an infinite supply of material resources to satisfy ever-expanding expectations around the living conditions that supposedly everyone is entitled to. Even though many champions of social justice also care about issues like environmental degradation and climate change, I do not hear them calling for the aggressive and immediate redistribution of material resources, including their own. This absence in the discourse points to two serious problems: the social justice discourse is an idealist project rooted in the same assumptions about unlimited growth and well-being that underpin the current global economic system; and proponents of social justice fail to clearly see their own role in the perpetuation of the ills they are fighting against. None of us are outside “the system.”

The realities of being human

The idea that inequality, oppression, poverty, illness and other misfortunes can be eradicated flies in the face of both human history and the human condition. Both history and social science research indicate that when groups of humans get together, it is virtually inevitable that social hierarchies where some people dominate others will develop. Competition for limited resources and social status are inevitable. Further, humans are intensely vulnerable. People get sick, get old, die. This is inevitable. And all kinds of other misfortunes, if not inevitable, are extremely common.

The social justice project tries to deny the fact of social hierarchy and the fact of human vulnerability. It tries to make the case that if we change certain systems and enshrine certain rights, we can control the external circumstances that create misfortune. I believe this project is motivated by a desire to put an end to human suffering. It is guided by laudable ethical principles. But in its current form, it is fundamentally futile. Just as the discourse of the free market economy ignores the limits of the biosphere, the social justice discourse ignores the limits of the human condition.

Although the social justice discourse was originally seen as radical in its identification of social structures and institutions as the underlying cause of inequality and injustice, rather than poor and marginalized individuals being to blame for their misfortune, I believe the social justice perspective is not radical enough. To continue to pursue this idealist project while denying the facts of social hierarchies and human vulnerability is to waste precious time. We need to be more curious about why and how social marginalization happens. We need to redeem altruism and re-think the ways we integrate rights with responsibilities. We need to ask new questions about what gives human life meaning and value. We need to think differently about what we mean by privilege and rights.

For more on the problem of social marginalization see the other articles in Being on the outside, part of the Reflections section.