When I wrote my thesis in 1999, I documented the roots of public legal education in the War on Poverty in the United States and in similar initiatives in Canada. I took the aims of anti-poverty activists and equality-seekers to be more or less synonymous with the aims of social justice. In any event, it was I term I did not explicitly explore in that work. In this effort to revisit the social justice mission of PLE and give it contemporary meaning, I now feel compelled to take the term seriously. What does it actually mean?
Because our PLE colleagues in the United Kingdom have sought to ground their work in Amartya Sen’s capabilities approach to social justice, I began my search by reading his book, The Idea of Justice (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard Press, 2009). However, that book is largely a reflection on and reaction to the work of moral philosopher, John Rawls, so I picked up his A Theory of Justice (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard Press, 1999) and started the difficult task of understanding his notion of justice as fairness. Rawls takes maximizing liberty as the priority value (rather than, maximizing happiness or equality as some other philosophers have).
As luck would have it, a colleague of mine was simultaneously looking at Sen’s capabilities approach in the context of health promotion, and the result of our discussions was an invitation to lead a class on social justice in the course she was teaching to graduate students. So to equip myself for that challenge, I quickly read a few more articles including Capabilities as Fundamental Entitlements: Sen and Social Justice (Feminist Economics 9 (2-3), 2003, 33-59), by Martha Nussbaum (who I think is brilliant). Nussbaum is frustrated with Sen’s lack of specificity as to what capabilities are actually necessary if individuals are to realize freedom in any meaningful way. So she offers up a list. While I don’t agree completely with everything on her list (which she says she is continuing to revise), it does provide a very helpful point of departure.
Because I was meeting with folks from the health sector, I also took a serious look at the social determinants of health. For those of us not in the know, the World Health Organization says “the social determinants of health are the conditions in which people are born, grow, live, work and age, including the health system. These circumstances are shaped by the distribution of money, power and resources at global, national and local levels. The social determinants of health are mostly responsible for health inequities – the unfair and avoidable differences in health status seen within and between countries.” In 2005, WHO established the Commission on Social Determinants of Health (CSDH to provide advice on how to reduce social inequities. The Commission’s final report which was launched in August 2008, contained three overarching recommendations:
- Improve daily living conditions
- Tackle the inequitable distribution of power, money, and resources
- Measure and understand the problem and assess the impact of action
(If you click through on these, you’ll find an exciting agenda for social action.)
When I began to link all these pieces, they seemed to create at least a framework for considering the necessary individual and social conditions necessary to promote social justice.
But I’m getting ahead of myself…
The term social justice gets bandied about a great deal by people who wish to advance certain values with respect to relations with others who are less fortunate than themselves. The term itself is seems to have been coined by a Jesuit priest, Luigi Taparelli d’Azeglio (1793–1862), who was particularly concerned with the social problems arising from the industrial revolution and the positivism that was a feature of enlightenment thinking. 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. What we see in his work is a recognition of the problem of separating law and morality which I believe still haunts us today. We may not agree with the basis of his argument or the resolution he proposes but we may still share his concern.
We also see the notion of noblesse oblige 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 including obligations 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. However, the notion of noblesse oblige and even of charity has detractors, who consider the concepts elitist and condescending and who criticize those sorts of sentiments for perpetuating the conditions of inequity that they respond to. 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 weaking. 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, and 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 and 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.
But for my purposes…
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.
In subsequent blog entries, I will start to tackle the bigger project of linking Rawls, Sen, Nassbaum, and the social determinants of health to see what that framework would look like, suggest the roles that various sectors of society should play in advancing social justice, explore various conceptions of citizenship, and finally consider what, if anything, all this offers us in PLE. These blogs will not be polished works so much as musings as I stumble through the relevant literature and contemplate their implications for what PLE might do and become.
Please feel free to join me on any of this journey.