The term social justice seems to have been first used by a Jesuit priest, Luigi Taparelli d’Azeglio (1793–1862), who was particularly concerned with the social problems arising from the industrial revolution. In 1825, he became convinced that the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas needed to be revived and so applied the methods of Thomism to the social problems of the day in a coherent manner. He saw individuals as being members of various levels of sub-societies, each of which was legitimate and each of which should cooperate with the others. It takes on particular meaning in the legal context as he recognized the problems that arise from the separation of law and morality which is inherent in contemporary understandings of legal positivism. We may not agree with the basis of his argument or the resolution he proposes but we may still share his concern.
The notion of noblesse oblige is embedded in his representation of the responsibilities that attach to the upper levels of society. Loosely translated the term suggests that with nobility comes responsibility. Those with more privilege in society have greater social responsibilities toward those who are less fortunate. Noblesse oblige is one of the earliest expressions of the sentiment of social justice and one very much still in play today. It lies at the foundation of much of what we consider to be charitable activity.
The notion of noblesse oblige and even of charity has detractors who consider the concepts elitist and condescending. They criticize those sorts of sentiments for perpetuating the conditions of inequity that noblesse oblige is meant to address. Canadian, John Ralston Saul, argued in his book Reflections of a Siamese Twin: Canada at the End of the Twentieth Century (Toronto: Penguin Books, 1997), that the concepts are at odds with our responsibilities as citizens.
“Indeed you can usually tell when the concepts of democracy and citizenship are weakening. There is an increase in the role of charity and in the worship of volunteerism. These represent the élite citizen’s imitation of noblesse oblige; that is, of pretending to be aristocrats or oligarchs, as opposed to being citizens.”
In doing so, Saul posits a sharp distinction between obligations arising out of privilege and those arising out of citizenship.
Whatever its origins, the idea of social justice has taken on a life of its own. While its literal use may be tracked to a specific Catholic philosopher, the values that are associated with the term reach back to Aristotle in western philosophy and are present in numerous religions, both Christian and non-Christian. The concept enjoys both religious and secular lives. Nowadays the term tends to be associated with concepts of human rights and equality and to attract schemes for
- economic redistribution, ranging from a minimum wage to guaranteed annual income;
- for promoting equality of opportunity and equality of outcome; and
- for justifying a range of forms of justice including procedural justice, restorative justice, and substantive justice.
Social justice both stands on its own as a moral good and is justified as a necessary condition for achieving peaceful and sustainable societies.
Social justice is a moral proposition having to do with the inherent worth of the individual and attracts the Kantian proposition that individuals are to be seen as ends and not just means to the ends that others have conceived. It is not content with satisfying the minimal conditions necessary to support human life but rather aims to support human flourishing. It recognizes that we exist within communities of various sorts and that our ability to pursue lives we value depends on the health and vitality of those communities. It attaches our commitment to each other to our obligations as members of those communities and to a robust conception of citizenship.