The Difference between ‘Social Justice’ and ‘Societal Justice’
echoes of Nozick’s critique of Rawls’s approach to justice
“Societal justice” is a term I use a lot in writing about justice. Many people do not distinguish between that term and “social justice.” There is actually a big, meaningful difference between the two terms.
Social justice is a term that is used to refer to outcomes for people in society, particularly outcomes associated with the economy. Specifically, it conveys the sense that all members of society should have ‘enough’. So poverty is the central issue of social justice, with its attendant issues of sufficient food, decent housing, proper health care, adequate education, etc. for all.
“Societal justice,” at least as I use that term, refers to applying a specific ethic of justice to the governance of society. That ethic applies to individuals, the political process, and the economy. Outcomes are beside the point. Justice is not determined by them, but creates outcomes that are just, whatever they might be.
In 1971 John Rawls published A Theory of Justice. He made the case that, while liberty is the ultimate value for a just society to realize in the structure and sanctioned functioning of its “basic institutions” (which comprise the political and economic systems of a society), justice requires that all members of the society have a material sufficiency. He sought to accomplish that through what he called the “difference principle:” those with a higher level of material well-being could have it increase only if those who were worse off also had their material well-being increase. In a nutshell, the ‘richest’ could only (justly) get more if the ‘poorest’ also got more.
Robert Nozick published a book in response, Anarchy, State, and Utopia, in 1974. To my mind, it was mostly just a wordy restatement of John Locke’s approach to justice in his Two Treatises of Government back in 1689.
Nozick did develop in it, though, a general criticism that could be applied to any approach to justice. He referred to (what we are calling here) ‘social justice’ as an example of “end-state” approaches to it: the justness of a society is judged by outcomes. For Nozick, any selection of outcomes to define justice (especially when it comes down to specifying what counts as ‘enough’ of anything) is necessarily arbitrary, and as Locke asserted, arbitrariness makes any approach to justice inherently unjust.
I was not impressed by Nozick’s book, but it eventually dawned on me that I agreed with him about end-state approaches to justice. Nozick sought a form of what I am calling ‘societal justice’. In his case, liberty would not only be the ultimate value for society, but (ideally) the only recognized value pertaining to justice. Any form of social justice — end-state justice — is, according to Nozick, intrinsically detrimental to maximizing liberty.
The problem for Nozick’s approach to justice is that his choice of an ultimate value for society is every bit as arbitrary as any selected criteria for an end-state approach to justice would be. That’s because it is based on a belief he happens to hold, and all beliefs of all people are completely arbitrary from the point of view of all other people.
On the other hand, equality, which is the foundational value for all appeals to social justice, is also a belief. So a person might argue that at a liberty-based approach to societal justice at least has only one level of arbitrariness — asserting liberty as the value for governing the governance of society — whereas an equality-based end-state approach to justice doubles down on arbitrariness.
Still, Locke was correct in his assertion that arbitrariness anywhere in human relations is an injustice. For the foundational value of society to be arbitrary, whatever that value might be, is to place arbitrariness at the core of society. Ergo, the only truly just society would be one in which societal justice would be realized via a non-arbitrary ethic of justice — as in “Beyond Liberalism” (here in Medium).