A History of Social Justice

In philosophical terms, the concept of social justice has a long and distinguished history.  From the writings of enlightenment philosophers of the 17th and 18th centuries, such as Locke, Rousseau and Kant, the concept of a “Social Contract” enshrining the rights of citizens within a wider social framework emerged.  In this model, the grant of individuals’ rights were balanced by the ceding of wider, overarching rights to the state as a whole.  In the 19th century, writers such as Proudhon developed the idea of a social contract to reflect the changing nature of the state from a paternalistic entity with a single monarch or aristocratic ruling elite to a more modern, egalitarian model.  In Proudhon’s writings, the contract existed between citizens rather than between citizen and state.

The 20th century American philosopher, John Rawls, went further, proposing that social justice cannot be achieved if justice and liberty for one person is allowed to be overridden by the “greater good of others”.

But what does social justice mean for twenty-first century European society?  What role should governments play in promoting justice and equality for its citizens?  Is social justice achievable or merely an aspirational mirage, so impossible to attain in practice that government intervention is likely to do more harm than good?

The rise of equal opportunities and human rights legislation across Europe has put in place a framework within which social justice can properly be promoted.  There are very few who would now argue against legislation outlawing discrimination on the basis of sex, ethnic origin or religion.  The establishment of legislation to protect the rights of employees and the provision of healthcare and education for all are largely taken for granted.

But a recent report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) suggests that, in some respects, social justice is far from a reality in many of the states of Europe and that in terms of one of the key indicators of a fair and just society, things may even be getting worse. The OECD report looked at social justice and equality of opportunity in states across the world. In particular, it considered how access to education affects social mobility, earnings and employment. 

In terms of Social mobility and economic equality in European countries, the OECD study ranked Nordic states such as Finland, Sweden and particularly Denmark highly while Portugal, Italy and the UK did notably badly. 

In the case of the UK, entrenched inequalities in the education system have been identified as a factor which has led to nearly 70% of current senior politicians being educated in private fee paying schools.  Access to higher education suffers from similar asymmetry with privately educated applicants 40% more likely to be accepted into one of the top universities.  This represents a worse performance than that achieved through the 1960’s and 1970’s and suggests that, far from becoming a fairer and more just society, the UK is heading backwards.

Social justice isn’t simply a matter for the individual.  If there are institutional barriers to socio-economic mobility, everyone suffers.  Precious educational resources are misallocated, which in turn can lead to the best talent in society being wasted.  Worse still, the sense of lingering injustice can build to the point of resentment and ultimately to social unrest.  Social justice matters to everyone, and we ignore it at our peril.