Social justice refers to the idea of creating social and political institutions that will ensure fair treatment and equal distribution of costs and benefits to all people, irrespective of race, religion, ethnicity and gender. It encompasses the social sphere and defines the sense of worth and respect of human rights that each individual receives within society.
Luigi Taparelli d'Azeglio, a Sicilian priest, first introduced the term social justice in 1840, influenced by the teachings of St. Thomas Aquinas. The concept was further popularized by Antonio Rosmini-Serbati in La Costitutione Civile Secondo la Giustizia Sociale in 1848.
There are two types of justice: procedural and distributive justice. The former describes the technical part of distribution, namely the methods and rules by which resources are allocated throughout society, whereas the latter is concerned with the just outcome of the distribution.
Social justice is a type of distributive justice concerned with the allocation of social goods, known as primary goods, such as basic rights and freedoms, power, status, authority, education and employment opportunities, housing and health care. The distributive process consists of three components which include "the principles for the allocation of goods, the system that governs the application of those allocative principles and the resulting distribution."
In his book, A Theory of Justice, the American philosopher John Rawls (1921to 2002), known as one of the most influential interpreters of social justice, argued that a just society must follow three principles. First, "the principle of greatest equal liberty," which states that each individual is to be provided with the most extensive set of basic liberties which are equal for all. Second, under "the principle of equality of fair opportunity," social positions and employment opportunities are to be accessible and open to every member of the society. Third, "the difference principle," requires that social and economic institutions allocate resources in such a way that they benefit the least advantaged members of society.
These three conditions define not only the social sphere, but also refer to the legal, political and economic structures of society. According to the principle of equality of opportunity individuals should have not only equal chance for a position but also an equal opportunity to become qualified, that is to be given the same chances in educational institutions and elsewhere. Rawls's third principle allows inequalities of income and wealth only if they benefit the worst off which means that benefits have to be continually redistributed from rich to poor. He offered quite a radical theory which is difficult to be applied in any existing society and that is why his book has been highly criticized and discussed.
Austrian philosopher and economist Friedrich Hayek (1899–1992) strongly criticized the notion of social justice. According to him social justice is a virtue that is ascribed to individual actions and habits. An action is unjust if it violates the principles which organize societies as a whole and protect the common good. However, when it comes to resource distribution it cannot be defined as just or unjust because it is not a result of the actions or decisions of a single individual, but determined by millions of different agents, none of whom deliberately aimed at any particular outcome. Hayek's second criticism is against the equal distribution of wealth and income which, if achieved, would destroy economic freedom and lead to a "command society." In his opinion market economy is the most effective way of organizing production and exchange and any alternative would require a significant reduction in living standards in economically developed societies. The historic examples of command economies in communist countries proved his point.
In turn, the most radical interpretation of social justice comes from Marxists and communitarian anarchists who define the notion in terms of equality and need. In line with this view, in a just society individuals contribute according to their abilities, whereas resources are allocated according to need and any surplus is shared equally. This definition of social justice presupposes restructuring of social institutions and the abolishment of the market system and private goods.
In contrast, social justice according to democratic socialists means equal distribution of only certain social benefits such as voting rights and freedom of speech. It requires that a basic social minimum is guaranteed on the basis of need, so that individuals receive decent income and have access to housing, education and health care. However, other resources may be distributed unequally as long as people are provided with equal opportunities to increase their share.