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Social justice in relation to the tradition of justice

Justice as a topic of deep philosophical debate is as old as humanity itself. The common thread running through the history of the Western philosophy of justice is the essentially varied nature of humanity and the appropriate way for justice to be realised on an individual and societal level given this reality. In the West the notion of justice evolved as humanity critically engaged with the tradition and historical-structural developments. Yet, in modern times the classical Western conception of justice is being confronted by the continued push for achieving social justice. In order to evaluate the worth of the relatively modern phenomenon of social justice, it is apt to first look at the Western concept of justice through the ages to arrive at an answer to what true justice entails.

Justice through the ages

Some of the most influential early Western theories of justice can be found in the works of the Ancient Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle. In The republic, Plato wrestled with the problem of achieving justice in a society where people are essentially unequal due to their divergent talents, virtues and abilities. Plato’s solution was to achieve harmonious balance and order between all parts of society. This is achieved by people living out their unique virtues of excellence (aretḗ) to realise their potentials and achieve eudaimonia or the highest state of human good in society.[1]

Plato’s student Aristotle emerged as the next important figure in Greek philosophy. Aristotle, like Plato, also argued that justice rests on virtue (both moral and intellectual) but he placed emphasis on social reciprocity by giving everyone their due based on merit. In other words, Aristotle argued that justice entails people receiving their fair share; not more, not less. Importantly, Aristotle’s view of justice also differed from that of Plato by arguing that achieving justice requires interpersonal participation and relations exhibited in action, whereas Plato emphasised justice as an intrapersonal concept.[2] What remains clear is that the Ancient Greeks regarded the essential differences between people as an inextricable part of humanity. As a solution to this conundrum the Ancient Greeks saw a virtue-based theory of justice as the best way of bringing divergent parts of society together to form a cooperative and ordered whole.

These Ancient Greek notions of justice remained influential within the Western canon and formed the basis of justice in the Early and Medieval Christendom. Notably, the Early Christian thinker Saint Augustine was heavily influenced by Plato in his conception of justice. In basic terms, Augustine regarded justice as the virtue by which all people are given their due, according to their unique virtues. However, he exalted divine laws above civil laws. In doing so, Augustine decoupled the complete authority of the state over matters of justice. It then follows that Augustine could proclaim an unjust law to be an invalid law.[3]

In his Treatise on Law, the Medieval Christian philosopher Thomas Aquinas provided his theory of justice. Showing a distinct Aristotelian influence, Aquinas refered to justice as a balance in the treatment of people according to what they deserve. Thus, Aquinas stated that justice is a virtuous habit to render to each his due with a lasting and constant will.[4] Importantly in the development of Christian thinkers such as Augustine and Aquinas, justice begins to remove itself from the absolute power of the state and manifests itself in the divine power of God as a higher source of authority.

It is the Protestant Reformation, however, which brought about the greatest shift in the perception of justice by breaking with the Roman Catholic Church’s centralised ecclesiastical hegemony over Europe, thereby bringing about a freeing of consciousness in Europe. This gave rise to ideas such as democracy, the separation of powers, religious freedom and the separation of church and state manifesting themselves in the West. In turn, these ideas created the environment in which the Age of Enlightenment could take place. Enlightened perceptions of justice regard human beings as moral and rational agents with inherent self-worth, who can align their individual freedom with the freedom of others through the use of reason.

The German philosopher Immanuel Kant emerged as one of the foremost Enlightenment thinkers. Kant presented a rationality-based deontological theory of justice based on reason (Vernunft) and freedom. Kant argued that justice is achieved by harmonising the freedom of the individual with the freedom of other individuals. This places the onus on the moral and rational individual to act in such a way that the action can be willed to be a universal law applicable to all. This theory therefore highlights the unavoidable responsibility towards others that arises from exercising one’s free will.[5]

The Enlightenment ideas of Kant and other thinkers such as John Mills remain relevant until today. In perhaps the best-known work on justice in the 20th century, A theory of justice, the political philosopher John Rawls formulated a rationality-based theory of justice heavily influenced by Kantianism. Rawls narrowed the question of justice within the so-called “original position” down to the availability of primary social goods all people have a need of. In the original position people would choose for a society in which every person has individual rights of freedom that agree with the freedom rights of others. Secondly, Rawls emphasised equality of opportunity, since he was aware of the fact that people are essentially different, also in terms of their aptitudes. Thus, even though Rawls did express equality as a favourable outcome in society, he argued against eroding individual rights to achieve the collective outcome of equality in society.[6]

The origins of social justice

In the 20th century the notion of social justice obtained increasing influence in academic discourse and continues to spark heated debates today. This notion of social justice is heavily influenced by critical theory as well as postmodern and poststructuralist philosophy. Critical theory emerged from the Frankfurt School in the first half of the 20th century. It is aimed at providing an analysis of the bourgeois-capitalist society to expose domination and power mechanisms contained within its ideology, thereby creating a society free of these forms of oppression. In other words, critical theory attempts to consider the totality of social relations and present the theory for changing these relations in terms of what they should be.[7] In addition to critical theory, postmodern and poststructuralist philosophy became influential in the 20th century. These philosophies are characterised by relativism as well as a strong emphasis on power relationships in the “construction” of our world view.[8] Thus, postmodern and poststructuralist philosophy share critical theory’s aversion to any form of hierarchy, traditions or power structures, as well as the idea that inequality is unconscionable in any form or sphere of society. Due to this overlap between critical theory, postmodernism and poststructuralism, these philosophies were grouped together under the term the “New Left” by the British philosopher Roger Scruton.

Why social justice fails

As social justice philosophy argues any form of inequality to be unjust, it promotes an unrelenting egalitarian philosophy to eradicate this inequality. The way to do so is by radically restructuring society so that privilege, hierarchies or any other form of inequality may be overcome. The Austrian economist F.A. Hayek was one of the most prominent intellectuals to criticise the all-encompassing focus on social justice which had manifested in the Western world. He argued social justice to be a “mirage” as the collectivist outcome social justice aims to achieve cannot be realised when the strong emphasis which is placed on liberty in Western civilisations is taken into account. This argument from Hayek, therefore, followed the logic that one cannot achieve absolute equality of outcome in every sphere of society without necessarily encroaching on individual liberties.[9]

Roger Scruton, in his work Fools, frauds and firebrands: Thinkers of the New Left, also pointed out that the New Left’s goals of achieving both liberty and equality are by no means obviously compatible. Hence, if liberty entails the liberation of individual potential, certain people with abilities such as intelligence and ambition will naturally rise above others without these qualities. It is this very contradiction which social justice cannot solve, since it cannot provide a definite answer as to the degree to which liberty should be curtailed in order to achieve equality in every possible sphere.[10]

However, instead of providing concrete answers, social justice theorists make use of an all-encompassing resentment toward all hierarchies and institutions as a tool to mask this insoluble conundrum. This resentment becomes a mechanism through which all acts aimed at achieving the sacrosanct goal of social justice can be justified.[11] Consequently, social justice theorists can also promote discriminatory quota systems and “positive” discrimination on the grounds of identity or race, such as in the wide-ranging identity-based quota systems and race laws of South Africa. This is the example par excellence of where the all-encompassing strive to achieve social justice erodes individual liberties and equal opportunity to the detriment of society as a whole. Social justice, in the way that it is propagated by the New Left, is therefore nothing but a contradictory, empty and deeply unfair notion.


[1]     Plato. 2004. The republic. Hackett Publishing: Indianapolis, pp. 131-135.

[2]     Aristotle. 2000. Nicomachean Ethics 80–90. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, pp. 80-90.

[3]     Saint Augustine. 2022. Augustine: On the free choice of the will, on grace and free choice, and other writings. Cambridge University Press, pp. 9–12, 19.

[4]     Aquinas, T.. 2000. Treatise on law. Hackett Publishing: Indianapolis. pp. 19–21.

[5]     Kant, I. 1991. The Metaphysics of Morals. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 56-65.

[6]     Rawls, J. 1999. A Theory of Justice. Boston: The Belkan Press of Harvard University, pp. 52-54.

[7]     Bronner, S. 2011. Critical Theory: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 1-8.

[8]     Aylesworth, G. 2015. “Postmodernism”. The Stanford encyclopaedia of philosophy. Available at https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2015/entries/postmodernism/>. Accessed on 19 September 2022.

[9]     Hayek, F.A. 1998. Law, legislation and liberty: A new statement of the liberal principles of justice and political economy. London: Routledge, pp. 67–78, 133.

[10]   Scruton, R. 2015. Fools, frauds and firebrands: Thinkers of the New Left. [E-book]. Introduction. London: Bloomsbury.

[11]   Ibid.

Reiner Duvenage | Reiner Duvenage het Filosofie, Duits en Geskiedenis aan die Universiteit van die Vrystaat gestudeer en ’n meestersgraad (cum laude) in politieke filosofie aan die Universiteit van Göttingen en die Universiteit van Krakow voltooi. Hy werk tans as veldtogbeampte vir strategie en inhoud by AfriForum.

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