What is social justice?


Category : Medical Rants

I wrote a bit about social justice last week in the great retainer medicine debates. Panda Bear and Graham took the baton and continued the debate later in the week. Unfortunately, Panda’s blog is unobtainable this morning, but I can link to Graham –  Panda doesn’t understand me or social justice.

So we have two very bright bloggers debating this issue, but I believe they are not really debating the issue, but rather debating a definition. Social justice as a term brings differing thoughts to readers. I will try to contrast the concepts.

For a social welfare perspective, social justice implies the society will provide for all. Social welfare advocates might debate the level of provision, but clearly they believe that we should provide food, shelter, public education and usually medical care. They believe that society (i.e. government) has an obligation to provide – with room for arguing what minimal provision means.

Libertarians believe that social justice means that everyone has the right and opportunity to achieve. This philosophy assumes that challenging each person to earn their subsistence leads to a better overall society.

The disagreement is almost a religious one. At the risk of starting a religious controversy, I will contrast the commonly used Christian Golden Rule, “Do unto other as you would have them do unto you” with the Jewish concept – “What is hateful to you, do not to your fellow man. This is the law: all the rest is commentary.” This interesting web site categorizes the Golden Rule in many religions – Shared belief in the “Golden Rule”

How much do the producers owe the non-producers? Now clearly every society has downtrodden and unfortunate. Most societies have helped these people with charity. The form of charity differs across cultures, but generally we try to help the destitute.

As a libertarian, I worry about the social welfare approach, because it provides subtle incentives to avoid responsibility. The social welfare approach can lead to a form of laziness in some members of society, potentially dragging down the entire society.

As a physician I have seen those who could work, but prefer not to work. I see those people “shop” for disability, going from physician to physician trying to have one of us fill out a form to provide them with an income. Some of these patients are truly disabled, and I gladly fill out the forms. Others are looking for a way to “beat the system.”

We have immigrants flocking to this country, legally and illegally. They come because of the libertarian nature of our social justice. We do not put major barriers to success born of hard work and persistence.

Thus, we have a major philosophical and religious difference in our responsibilities. I fear the insidious externalities of a welfare state. The social welfare advocates want to end suffering. Is either position better or worse than the other? Each reader must decide how to view this issue, but please respect the other side. We cannot really debate an issue that is so fundamental to domestic policy, when our views depend on a major philosophic difference.

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Comments (4)

My concern is again that we punish the lower-class producers when we punish the non-producers. The non-producers cause a lot of headaches and make us all very angry, and are very visible, but they’re the loud but very small minority. Most of us don’t see the producers, or our cognitive biases make us remember the non-producers much easier than the producers.


Thanks for this post. The definition of “social justice,” as you point out, is indeed the crux of the matter. I have addressed this elsewhere, but to me, defining social justice boils down to this: Does social justice mean attempting to achieve equal opportunity, or equal outcomes?

America’s founders answered this question explicitly by calling for equal opportunity under the law. The founders would have been aghast at the notion that the goal of society should be equal outcomes.

This, simply, is because achieving equal outcomes necessarily requires a supreme central authority to forcibly redistribute wealth (and any other commodity required for the homogenation of outcomes). Avoiding an all-powerful central authority is explicitly what the founders were fighting to do. The wisdom of the founders ought to be plain to anyone examining the kind of “social justice” finally achieved by the great totalitarian experiments of the 20th century.

Equating “social justice” with equal outcomes has always been, and will always be, a call for just such an all-powerful central authority. Those who advocate for this kind of social justice without owning up to what that implies are either extraordinarily misinformed (i.e., the product of what now passes for American public education), or extraordinarily devious.


[…] interesting commentary on social justice from Robert Center and James Gaulte. Nurse K has some additional […]

A generally accepted definition of “social justice” does not include equality of outcome but, instead focuses on the minimum level of resources needed to preserve individual human dignity. For example, if it is accepted that every human being is entitled to shelter and that human beings who do not have shelter lack essential dignity, then the argument turns to the resources needed by individual human beings to attain the minimum level of shelter in their particular society. Thus, a demand that someone who is not in paid employment to receive shelter at a luxury hotel would be regarded as exceeding the requirements of social justice. Similarly provision of shelter in the form of a cardboard box would be regarded as falling below the requirement of social justice. Once an acceptable minimum level of entitlement of a essential good is established, the focus then turns to the proper funding of the entitlement. If a person can obtain their own shelter above the acceptable minimum by the use of their own resources, then society need not concern itself with that person’s need for shelter because it has been met. If a person cannot obtain shelter at the acceptable minimum by the use of their own resources, then everyone else is collectively responsible for helping the person obtain shelter at the acceptable minimum level. The levels and mechanisms of assistance may vary among different communities, but I think focusing on human dignity as the primary value is the key to resolving these types of problems.

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