Exploring (Social) Justice: A Brief Overview

Authors: Dr Johannes J Knecht & Simon E Unteregger 


Social Justice is, in many ways, in vogue. Both within and outside of religious institutions, the question of how our behaviour affects those around us, near and far, is discussed frequently. To an increasing extent, we wonder about the question of what a just society looks like: does it primarily focus on creating the space for people to achieve similar goals or does it try to encourage a level of parity across a variety of geographical, social, economic, and cultural strata? Especially when it becomes progressively clear that we would, theoretically, have the capacity to address many shapes and forms of injustice, the question remains: how do we do it?  

However, as with every pressing question that confronts us in the public sphere, it is important first to think about the question itself: what does it mean for something to be just? When we throw the term ‘Social Justice’ around, what determines the content of that idea? Are we merely talking about a legal sense of justice: adhering to those provisions in a particular area (laws and customs) that aim to govern and guide a particular sense of justice? If this holds true, how then do we account for the activity of so many charities and NGOs aiming to improve, to give an example, the living standards of factory workers in the developing world? Or is there another ideal, another source, another approach to life more generally that leads us to value something as ‘just’ and thus encourages Social Justice?   

In this short paper we hope to show that questions of justice were multivalent and complex throughout history: there is no clear, timeless consensus of what it looks like or how it should be understood. Each period, as we shall see, emphasised something else and argued from a distinct place: be it the community, the individual, or the state, just to mention a few.  

We must be honest that this paper does not answer all those questions in one go. It is, though, the beginning of an exploration into the dynamics of the discussions around Social Justice in our day and age. Our aim is not to provide a working definition (yet) of Justice or more specifically Social Justice. Rather, our wish is to show that we ought to think about this concept deeply and avoid assuming it speaks for itself, because, most definitely, it does not. It is very much possible that we use the term in conversation or maybe even organisations without indicating the same idea.  

This is the first of three opening publications on this topic. The current piece outlines some of the historical and philosophical concepts that have filled our understanding of justice and thus the way it could be viewed and understood. Immediately below this brief paper, you will find the larger research paper attached, which will go into much more detail about the ideas summarised here. The next publication looks more specifically at the processes used today to measure and evaluate Social Justice. The last paper will show how the concept of Social Justice can be understood from a Christian perspective: what are its Biblical and theological bases and what makes it distinct? This last paper will also suggest a working definition.  

1. Justice from the Ancients till 1650 

The earliest societies already thought about justice and, arguably, in very meaningful ways. In the so-called Ancient Near East (ANE), we have evidence of legal codes which were primarily aimed at ensuring a level of reciprocity: an eye for an eye. An assumption for these types of legal provision is that there is a level of social parity. 

In the later Greek philosophical traditions, this idea was further deepened and worked out, first by Plato. He connected the balance of the city with the harmony present in the inner being of an individual: a balanced person contributes to the harmonious society and vice-versa. However, for Plato, that society is strongly hierarchical, including a reigning class, an enforcing class, and a producing class. Justice, in Plato’s ideas, is maintained if people stay in their respective class, fulfil the tasks that belong to their class, and honour the place and activity of people in the other classes.  

Aristotle, on the other hand argues that justice is ”the virtue that is exhibited by human beings in their relations with others insofar as these interactions promote a good life and lead to happiness for the members of the political community as a whole.“ At a societal level, and this has been the primary focus of research into Aristotle’s concept of justice, he distinguishes two main types of justice:  

  • Distributive Justice: which concerns the distribution of goods, rights, and opportunities in a society. He argues that distribution should follow a principle of proportionality, meaning that individuals should be rewarded according to their merit or contribution to society. Those who contribute more should receive a greater share. 
  • Corrective Justice: which comes into play when injustice occurs, or contracts are breached. It involves restoring balance through appropriate punishments or compensations. He emphasizes that the punishment should be proportional to the wrongdoing to be just. 

It is these two forms of justice and Aristotle’s utilisation and explanation of them that have been hugely influential: justice concerns the restoring of an unjust situation, and it concerns distribution. 

2. 1651 till Now 

Jumping about two millennia of history, the later Renaissance and Enlightenment philosophers and thinkers emphasised the centrality of the individual: societies are made up of solitary persons who engage one another and interact in order to gain the greatest level of personal benefit. It is in this philosophical milieu that theories of social contracts resolved some of the tension arising from the question of how the State is to be understood in such a society. Partially concurrently, theoretical approaches are arising which, with a practical mindset, focus on the common good and inquire about which systems and laws are advantageous for the greatest number of people. Justice is thereby replaced by well-being. John Rawls summarises the period as follows: for these utilitarian thinkers, “[a society] is rightly ordered, and therefore just, when its major institutions are arranged so as to achieve the greatest net balance of satisfaction summed over all the individuals belonging to it.“ In other words, justice is greatest when the personal needs of the most amount of individuals are met. This, to spell out the obvious, still has a highly individualistic starting point.  

Rawls himself alters the Enlightenment ideas and concludes that, if one were to assume a neutral starting point in society with regards to societal status and privileges, the following assumptions would be considered just and fair:  

  • “Each person has an equal right to a fully adequate scheme of equal basic liberties which is compatible with a similar scheme of liberties for all. 
  • Social and economic inequalities are to satisfy two conditions. First, they must be attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity; and second, they must be to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged members of society.” 

In this, the first principle “must be fully satisfied before the second comes into play.“ Next to these basic principles of justice as fairness, a society should aim to cultivate a set of attributes in its citizens, meaning that all members of the society should be able to fully understand and apply those principles (what he calls ”the attributes of moral personality“).  

Finally, we can recap that Rawls envisions a just society where fundamental rights and liberties are protected, and social and economic inequalities are arranged to benefit the least advantaged. His concepts of a “original position“ and a “veil of ignorance“ underscore the idea of unbiased decision-making, ensuring fairness for all members of society. 


The history of European philosophical thinking has spent a lot of ink aiming to clarify what is meant when something is said to be ‘just’, both in individual and corporate contexts. Important to note in all of this is that ‘justice’ is defined, to some extent, as a way to define equality and possibility. How can, for instance, the imbalance be rectified when one individual is born into an affluent family, possibly with many individuals holding academic degrees, while another individual is born into precarious social circumstances? Can our societal systems provide a remedy for this imbalance, or do they rather exacerbate and solidify these differences? 

As has become clear so far, there is no clear, unified definition of justice to be found in the philosophical tradition: the answers are varied and sometimes even diffuse. Hence, when any of us uses the term ‘Social Justice’ they first must recognise that the terminology itself requires clarification: what does this person mean? What are their assumptions about reality built on, and how do they fill their concept of justice?  

If you would like to see the longer research paper that formed the basis for this brief overview, please download the pdf below. There, you will also find the references and bibliographical information for the material quoted here.  

Download Paper (printable PDF):

About the Authors:

Jasper Knecht completed his BA in Theology and Biblical Studies at the Evangelische Theologische Faculteit (Belgium). He completed his MPhil and PhD in Systematic and Historical Theology at the University of St Andrews (UK). Besides his work with the Quo Vadis Institute, Jasper also teaches Christian doctrine at WTC Theology (UK).

Simon Elias Unteregger has a background in German studies, biology, and philosophy. He is currently pursuing a Master’s Degree in German studies at the University of Salzburg

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