Social justice is a concept of fair and just relations between the individual and society, as measured by the distribution of wealth, opportunities for personal activity, and social privileges. In Western as well as in older Asian cultures, the concept of social justice has often referred to the process of ensuring that individuals fulfill their societal roles and receive what was their due from society. In the current global grassroots movements for social justice, the emphasis has been on the breaking of barriers for social mobility, the creation of safety nets and economic justice.
Social justice assigns rights and duties in the institutions of society, which enables people to receive the basic benefits and burdens of cooperation. The relevant institutions often include taxation, social insurance, public health, public school, public services, labor law and regulation of markets, to ensure fair distribution of wealth, and equal opportunity.
Interpretations that relate justice to a reciprocal relationship to society are mediated by differences in cultural traditions, some of which emphasize the individual responsibility toward society and others the equilibrium between access to power and its responsible use. Hence, social justice is invoked today while reinterpreting historical figures such as Bartolomé de las Casas, in philosophical debates about differences among human beings, in efforts for gender, ethnic, and social equality, for advocating justice for migrants, prisoners, the environment, and the physically and developmentally disabled.
While the concept of social justice can be traced through the theology of Augustine of Hippo and the philosophy of Thomas Paine, the term “social justice” became used explicitly in the 1780s. A Jesuit priest named Luigi Taparelli is typically credited with coining the term, and it spread during the revolutions of 1848 with the work of Antonio Rosmini-Serbati. However, recent research has proved that the use of the expression “social justice” is older (even before the 19th century). For example, in Anglo-America, the term appears in The Federalist Papers, No. 7: “We have observed the disposition to retaliation excited in Connecticut in consequence of the enormities perpetrated by the Legislature of Rhode Island; and we reasonably infer that, in similar cases, under other circumstances, a war, not of parchment, but of the sword, would chastise such atrocious breaches of moral obligation and social justice.”
In the late industrial revolution, progressive American legal scholars began to use the term more, particularly Louis Brandeis and Roscoe Pound. From the early 20th century it was also embedded in international law and institutions; the preamble to establish the International Labour Organization recalled that “universal and lasting peace can be established only if it is based upon social justice.” In the later 20th century, social justice was made central to the philosophy of the social contract, primarily by John Rawls in A Theory of Justice (1971). In 1993, the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action treats social justice as a purpose of human rights education.
Some authors such as Friedrich Hayek criticize the concept of social justice, arguing the lack of objective, accepted moral standard; and that while there is a legal definition of what is just and equitable “there is no test of what is socially unjust”, and further that social justice is often used for the reallocation of resources based on an arbitrary standard which may in fact be inequitable or unjust.