Social Justice – Whose Responsibility?

Professor Amanda Fulford

There’s an awful lot of talk about social justice that seems to fill our newspapers, airwaves, and social media content. It has become a buzzword, and simultaneously lost its meaning.

Like many such concepts, it is slippery, and difficult to define. When we do try to talk about it, we often articulate it in very broad terms; fair or equal access to wealth, opportunities and privileges within society. As such, we tend to think of the responsibility for social justice as situated within government, and with large institutions responsible for public health, schooling, housing, transport, employment, access to food etc.

We also find it easier to talk about examples of social injustice. We can see how social injustice impacts on our friends, families, colleagues and communities, perhaps because of our proximity, and how we experience living together with others at local and personal levels.

The Covid-19 pandemic brought such injustices very close to home, as we were deeply connected in different ways with the inequities it triggered. And these injustices were profoundly social ones: our elderly relatives were physically prevented from any social contact with us as their care homes locked down, and carers and relatives were locked out. Some of our children struggled to access online education to connect with teachers and peers for lack of suitable technology. And those we loved died alone in hospital

Theories of justice abound, many of which can be traced to broader moral systems. For the English philosopher John Stuart Mill, justice could not be separated from the demands of utility (as expressed in the theory of utilitarianism: the right thing to do is what produces the most good).

In the American political philosopher John Rawls’ Theory of Justice, acting justly is based on decisions about fair distribution: justice is fairness. These theories, together with the social teachings have been influential in the shaping of social policy. However, in thinking about social justice – and where we consider the responsibility for it to lie – we might re-consider what makes justice ‘social’.

Etymologically, the concept of the ‘social’, from the 14th century, is rooted in the idea of being devoted to one’s home life. The emphasis is on the proximity of companionship – a closeness to home. Given this, there is a way that we can understand social justice as being less the responsibility of governments to put policies in place, and to deliver interventions to ‘level up’, and more about our relationships and daily encounters.

At the recent launch of Edge Hill University’s Education for Social Justice Research Network, colleagues came together to consider the place of the ‘social’ in social justice. We looked to understand what is at stake in this concept if we focus our attention towards ourselves, and our immediate relations with others. This has significant implications for thinking about social justice as both constitutive for, and characteristic of, the ways in which we individually conduct ourselves. Social justice is in many ways, self-reflexive; is my responsibility. It places a tremendous onus on us in relation to our actions, but also to our language and to the ways we are in relation to each other. It is in this sense both my obligation, and my gift.

Amanda Fulford is Professor of the Philosophy of Education at Edge Hill University, and co-chair of the Education for Social Justice research network.

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