Teaching and Social Justice

by Harry on June 9, 2006

An interesting report at IHE:

The words “social justice” appear in a glossary of terms that the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education uses as an example of what programs might consider using when evaluating a teaching candidate’s “disposition” and classroom readiness.

Supporters of a traditional curriculum have argued that evaluating students based on their commitment to social justice is an inherently subjective practice with ideological undertones. Late last year, the National Association of Scholars filed a complaint with the Education Department saying the accreditor encourages standards that violate students’ First Amendment rights.

The meeting of the Education Department’s National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity which has the power to extend the council’s authority or set the agenda for changes turns out to have been a bit of a damp squib, because the excellently named President of NCATE declared:

“I categorically deny the assertion that NCATE has a mandatory ’social justice’ standard,” Wise testified. “We don’t endorse political and social ideologies. We endorse academic freedom, and we base our standards on knowledge, skills and professional disposition.”

And then, Wise threw the witnesses a bone, announcing that NCATE had decided to eliminate references to “social justice” from its current glossary because “the term is susceptible to a variety of definitions.”

I’ll put myself on the line here and say that Wise’s decision seems entirely…wise to me. Social justice is an essentially contested concept, and teachers themsleves mean radically different things by it; and it is simply silly to think that an accreditating authority could make reasonable judgments about whether programs adequately prepared their teachers to be socially just in the way they taught (beyond the reasonable judgement that any school that deliberately inculcated explicitly racist or misogynistic attitudes in teachers was not doing so).

That said, of course teachers should have a well-articulated conception of social justice, and Education Schools should help them to formulate one and to think through what it means for their professional life — just as universities should do this for any student. I suspect there are few ed schools that do this well, and, for that matter, few universities. But doing it well requires exposure to, and sympathetic readings of, a much wider range of perspectives than I suspect is normal. In one way of looking at it the rejection of “social justice” as a left-wing conspiracy is silly — right-wingers believe in social justice, they just understand it differently. But seen in another way it is not so silly, if you suspect that a very limited range of conceptions of social justice are being presented, and that students are not being taught how to think things through. Some people are certainly doing it right: for an exemplary question about social justice in education (not because it would require students to read my books, but because it requires them also to read Hayek) see AlternApproach.



Martin James 06.09.06 at 9:44 am

But, curiously, right-wingers understand social justice in such a way that they NEVER say “social justice”.

Really, never.


Scott McLemee 06.09.06 at 11:26 am

“Social Justice” was the name of Father Coughlin’s publication during the 1930s. I always wince a little bit at seeing that expression used in a way that takes its purely left-wing character for granted.


Brett Bellmore 06.09.06 at 11:32 am

“of course teachers should have a well-articulated conception of social justice”

No “of course” about it. Social justice is a pernicious concept, implying as it does that justice is a group rather than an individual affair, divorced from the particulars of the individual’s life history and behavior.

“Justice” means treating individuals according to their own merits and circumstances, not according to what group you assign them to.


harry b 06.09.06 at 11:47 am

Brett — you don’t think that society should be just? Or that governments should hold back from enforcing thoroughly the standards of individual morality that we, as individuals, should hold ourselves to? The adjective “social” doesn’t imply that justice is a group affair, but that what social institutions should legitimately enforce might be different from those that we should, as individuals, hold ourselves to. If you like, justice as it applpies to those affairs that are collectively ours. I’d always taken you to be some sort of libertarian, but I must have been mistaken.


Western Dave 06.09.06 at 11:47 am

While social could mean what you describe it can also mean two individuals with competing claims on a group’s resources. Or even stuff like manners. Social justice for education schools should have a lot more to do with how does one enable kids to resolve their own disputes in the sandbox and get to a decent outcome as opposed to some sort of silliness about teaching kindergarteners about the redistribution of wealth.


John Emerson 06.09.06 at 11:59 am

I doubt that anyone ever understood social justice that way except Brett. “Social” justice is justice to individuals, but it goes beyond criminal justice and property rights.


Tim 06.09.06 at 12:09 pm

“right-wingers believe in social justice, they just understand it differently.”

Some right-wingers might believe in social justice, but some don’t. Hayek certainly did not. Harry surely knows this. So I’m confused why he would say this.


Pithlord 06.09.06 at 12:10 pm

I believe Hayek wrote at length about why he hated the term “social justice” (or, really “social” anything).


jet 06.09.06 at 12:13 pm

John Emerson,
Perhaps in spirit, but not in application. It may apply to everyone, but it is applied to categories.

Great post and I loved this proposition “In one way of looking at it the rejection of “social justice” as a left-wing conspiracy is silly—right-wingers believe in social justice, they just understand it differently.”

Perhaps someday we can, indeed, all get along.


Tim 06.09.06 at 12:15 pm

Also, I’d be surprised if Jan Narveson believed in ‘social justice’, given how he talks about liberty. If Hayek or someone else says that social justice is an incoherent and/or pernicious concept because ‘social’ should not modify ‘justice’, what good does it do to say they really do believe in social justice? They are rejecting the concept. I suppose you can say that this rejection is itself inconsistent or incoherent. But surely right-wingers can have inconsistent or incoherent beliefs, just as anyone can. When we’re considering people’s political views, as we are in this context, does it really make sense to ‘correct’ them and say what they ‘really’ believe?


Martin Bento 06.09.06 at 12:20 pm

I always understood the term as Brett describes it. That is why affirmative action is regarded as social justice – it redresses grievances by blacks as a group against whites as a group, without seeking to establish whether the particular whites and blacks affected were involved in the grievance. More conventional courtroom justice – “bourgeois justice” for the Marxist, where I believe this conception originates – has to concern itself with questions of individual culpability. Obviously, Hayek to the extent that he advocates “social justice” must mean something else by it. Coughlin may or may not. He may be pointing to racial grievances that have little or no basis in fact, but I don’t know much about Coughlin, just basically who he was, so I’m just guessing here. If social justice means what I described here, but also covers simple manners, dispute resolution in the sandbox, and, as in the Brighouse link, providing people with the material needed to maximize their autonomy, it seems to me the term is so broad as to be meaningless. Is not the first better described as “manners“, the second as “negotiation“ or “reconciliation“, and the third as a context for self-actualization? Admittedly, the last is a little awkward, and perhaps a specific term is needed for such a thing, but what use is conflating it with all these other concepts?


y81 06.09.06 at 12:28 pm

I’m interested in the thought that racism and misogyny are the only incontestably unjust beliefs. I don’t so much dispute that thought, as note its historically contingent character. What would people 200 years ago have considered incontestably unjust, and what will people 200 years from now consider to be so? (The first question is easier than the second, for sure.)


harry b 06.09.06 at 12:36 pm

Thanks jet!

y81 — that second question is great. I didn’t really mean that they were the only uncontestably unjust beliefs, and probably should have added an “etc…” which would have been suitably vague. And I did say misgynistic, not sexist, because I think there is more agreement about what counts as misgyny and that its wrong (or at least, I thought that till I wrote this sentence, and am now not so sure). But part of the post is about what its reasonable to expect accreditors to be able to monitor — not, in my opinion, much to do with so contexted a term. Interestingly, Brett’s inclination to exclude most libertarian theories of justice from counting as theoris of social justice might make it easier (but he’s wrong! and anyway, if he were right, that would make it wrong to have the social justice ‘requirement’).


Martin James 06.09.06 at 12:37 pm

Harry B,

So under your understanding of “social justice” is it the same justice as in “establish justice” in the preamble to the US Constitution or more like the alternative uses from Wikipedi as cited below?

“…the overall fairness of a society in its divisions and distributions of rewards and burdens and, as such, the phrase has been adopted by political parties with a redistributive agenda.”

“…the policies of the political Left, presented in a positive light in comparison to the policies of the political Right. Consequently, its use in partisan politics and manichean stance (its antithesis being “social injustice”), makes it a loaded term.”


harry b 06.09.06 at 12:40 pm

Oh, and I completely ignored martin bento’s comment. Its starting to occur to me that my idiolect might be off-center, but when political theorists talk about social justice they certainly don’t restrict it to “group-based” complaints, and even many theorists who support affirmative action do so not on group-based grounds but on a complex sort of individualist ground. I’m starting to think there is more going on here than I thought, so I’l stop…


P-Brane 06.09.06 at 12:51 pm

Thanks for starting the discussion, H.B. There is always “more going on here than [we] thought”, but that’s not reason to stop…it’s reason to continue!


micah 06.09.06 at 1:03 pm

David Bernestein had a post at Volokh not too far back related to the definition of social justice. Bernstein said he was “appalled” that his alma mater, Brandeis University, would include a commitment to social justice as part of its mission. In response, some of the commentors made the point that I take Wise (and Harry) to be making above.


Martin Bento 06.09.06 at 1:15 pm

Harry, could you give a concise definition of “social justice” as you use the term? Giving people tools for maximum autonomy seems far from what people usually mean. By that definition, affirmative action is arguably socially unjust. It takes choice away from (for example) an employer, and redistributes social resources in a way that on its face would appear zero-sum (I realize the zero-sum character could be contested in couple of ways, but a successful such challenge would rely, I think, on a fairly large set of contestable-in-turn premises, on which AA’s character as socially just would then be contingent).


Dan Simon 06.09.06 at 1:20 pm

In one way of looking at it the rejection of “social justice” as a left-wing conspiracy is silly—right-wingers believe in social justice, they just understand it differently. But seen in another way it is not so silly, if you suspect that a very limited range of conceptions of social justice are being presented, and that students are not being taught how to think things through.

Quite right–and if the phrase in question were, say, “right to life”, rather than “social justice”, I doubt anyone reading here would disagree.


Sebastian Holsclaw 06.09.06 at 1:41 pm

I think this is the “Eurocentric” problem all over again. Yes the term “social justice” has a meaning which in theory could be applied to concepts about the interaction of justice and society from the left, right or other perspectives. In practice, when a group like the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education talks about ensuring that schools teach social justice they aren’t using it in whatever that neutral definition might be.

As for the definition itself, I’m resistant to the idea that “social justice” means “justice”. I would normally expect that the adjective actually modifies the noun in some way. I’m not sure it is strictly a group idea, but it definitely seems to stand in opposition to the idea of a more individual justice (and indeed often seems to conflict with it).


harry b 06.09.06 at 1:50 pm

I find it easier to respond to sebastian (the substance of whose point I agree with, btw) than to martin bento, but hope that the answer to one makes clear the answer to the other. I agree that social justice doesn’t mean justice. Justice is the fundamental concept. “Social” is not opposed to “individual” but to “personal” — a theory of social justice is a theory of how social institutions ought to behave, what rights they ought to grant to individuals and what duties they ought to impose. A theory of personal justice is a theory of how individuals ought to behave in their relationships with one another (a theory of the “just person”) which will usually include some theory of how they should relate to social institutions (which will be a complex theory when the given social institutions are unjust). So, libertarians do (typically) have a theory of social justice; a different one, to be sure, from the one I hold, but a theory of the same thing. Does that help, martin?


JR 06.09.06 at 2:11 pm

“Building a just social and civil order, wherein each person receives what is his or her due, is an essential task which every generation must take up anew.”

–Encyclical Letter Deus Caritas Est, Pope Benedict XVI, 25 December 2006


Martin Bento 06.09.06 at 4:19 pm

Thanks, Harry, yes, it does, although it seems to me to come pretty close to just meaning “justice” when that term is used in a legal or political sense, i.e., as applied to the proper activity of the political institutions of society. By this definition, isn’t everyone other than anarchists in favor of some idea of social justice? But “social justice” per se is often used as justification for particular policies. Under this definition, I think “social justice” would call only for having some sort of government with some sort of claim to legitimacy with some theory of justice with respect to individual rights and duties. Someone who says “I’m for social justice” is not saying much – it’s almost like saying I’m for politics – and probably really means “I’m for a particular conception of social justice”. However, in my experience the term is usually invoked to justify specific policies.


Patrick S. O'Donnell 06.09.06 at 5:41 pm

The notion of ‘social justice’ is in many respects a thoroughly modern notion and thus it is important to keep the adjective ‘social’ to distinguish it from prior conceptions, for example, rational or philosophical justice, natural justice, theological or divine justice, ethical justice, legal justice, etc. Now any or all of the above may be relevant to social justice, but the latter is clearly distinct from the former insofar as earlier conceptions were conspicuous for their focus on the virtue(s) of individuals (cf. the classical Greek notion of sophrosyne). Thus understood, and perhaps with a few important exceptions, such conceptions took for granted the basic socio-economic, political and legal institutions of the society (e.g., commercial contracts or non-democratic modes of governance).

In the pre-modern period, therefore, we could safely make the assumption that parties entering a bargaining scenario are roughly equal by definition, hence, writes Brian Barry, ‘perhaps the closest approach to the contemporary concept of social justice was the medieval notion of the “just price,” since this probed into the justice of a bargain that was not contaminated by force or fraud but entered into voluntarily by both parties. However, its scope was relatively narrow: its main concern was to condemn exploitation by sellers who took advantage of temporary scarcity or particular need. But such invocations of justice operate only at the margins of a system taken as given.’

Barry proceeds to explain how ‘the modern concept of social justice emerged out of the throes of early industrialization in France and Britain in the 1840s. The potentially revolutionary idea underlying the concept of social justice was that the justice of society’s institutions could be challenged not merely at the margins but at the core. What this meant in practice was that a challenge could be mounted to the power of the owners of capital, and to the dominance of the entire market system with which capitalism was embedded. The justice of the unequal relations between employers and employees could be called into question, as could be the distribution of income and wealth arising from the operation of capitalist institutions and the part played in people’s lives by money.’

Fortunately, I’ll spare you further quotations, summary or paraphrase except to note that social justice is often understood to deal directly with issues of distributive justice (hence widespread and substantial entrenchment of civil and political liberties are assumed), to questions that focus on the equalization of opportunities. Indeed, as Barry elsewhere makes plain, social justice concerns inequalities of all kinds. Finally, let me suggest everyone pick up Barry’s timely, passionate and well-argued book, Why Social Justice Matters (Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2005).

If anyone is interested in a compilation I’ve put together (a ‘transdisciplinary bibliography’) of titles that treat ‘the ethics, economics, and politics of global distributive justice,’ you can e-mail me: patrickseamus ‘at’ hotmail.com An earlier draft can be downloaded at Leiter Reports.


Keith Ellis 06.09.06 at 9:28 pm

“But, curiously, right-wingers understand social justice in such a way that they NEVER say ‘social justice’.

Really, never.”

That’s not true. My sister is a cultural conservative and an evangelical minister. And her primary interest is in “social justice” and she frequently uses that term.

Although I may be being slightly disingenuous here, as I think that this behavior indicates what are her essentially leftist impulses.


r4d20 06.09.06 at 10:11 pm

I met a woman who was quite offended when I described ‘social justice’ as a way of taking one idea of what justice is and dressing it up as something bigger.

Throughout history philosophers have asked ‘what is just’ and been forced to admit that its hard to pin down past the vague notion of ‘people getting what they deserve’ – which begs the question of who deserves what and what criteria is used to determine this.

There is an apocryphal story about how the Celts who sacked Rome responded to the entreaties of the Roman envoys by saying “To the strongest belong all things” and how

“Quintus Sulpicius conferred with the Gallic chieftain Brennus and together they agreed upon the price, one thousand pounds’ weight of gold. Insult was added to what was already sufficiently disgraceful, for the weights which the Gauls brought for weighing the metal were heavier than standard, and when the Roman commander objected the insolent barbarian flung his sword into the scale, saying ‘Vae Victis– ‘Woe to the vanquished!”

I’ve joked with friends (who know my ancient history fetish) that “I agree with those who want a return to traditional value, but they want to go back to 1950 while I want to go back to 1950 BC.”.

” The ever−slaying, bold and furious Indra, the bright bolt’s Lord, infinite, strong and mighty,
Who slayeth Vrtra and acquireth booty, giver of blessings, Maghavan the bounteous:
Alone renowned as Maghavan in battles, he frighteneth away assembled armies.
He bringeth us the booty that he winneth may we, well−loved, continue in his friendship. “
– Rig Veda

“Each of us must await the end of this world in turn. Let him who may win glory while he can. That is best for the warrior after he is gone from life”. – Beowulf


Martin Bento 06.09.06 at 11:07 pm

Patrick, thanks for the information. For me, it raises questions as well as answering them. It does seem a little odd to me to retain a modifier to distinguish a concept from outmoded competitors. We don’t say “genetic heredity” to distinguish from previous theories of heredity, I would think the distinction would be for other conceptions of justice likely to come up in the same context.

The quote from Barry leaves me head-scratchin’. Were there no pre-modern critiques of society generally that invoked notions of “justice” – no revolutions fought or advocated in the name of justice, that sort of thing? It does seem to me that Barry supports the idea I’d had that social justice has a Marxist, or at least anti-capitalist, lineage, and, if it is distributional, I think it is in realistic terms defined in terms of groups. I can’t imagine an effective critique of modern society on the basis that the distribution of resources is not fair to ole Joe here, unless Ole Joe is considered representative of some group. A band/village society of 150 people is where I could see a common individual possibly having such importance.
I’m saying this as an attack on the notion you put forth here, only that I think what you are advocating is closer to what I understood social justice to mean than what Harry seems to be getting at.


Brandon Berg 06.10.06 at 1:41 am

I don’t know about right-wingers, but speaking for myself, I get suspicious whenever I see any modifier attached to the word “justice.” In my experience, it usually signals an attempt to advance an agenda which cannot be justified by appeal to traditional concepts of justice, and which frequently directly conflicts with them.


Tim Worstall 06.10.06 at 7:06 am

“Pope Benedict XVI, 25 December 2006”

The plot of the next Dan Brown? A time machine in The Vatican?


r4d20 06.10.06 at 8:29 pm

Zarathustra/Zoroaster can be seen as an early social reformer as well as a religious one.
His religious message is intertwined with a social one – Worshipping God is nothing more than doing good and his condemnation of “Daeva-Worshippers” is entirely based on their actions.

He was reacting to the dominant religious culture of the time, similar to the type exhibited in the Rig Veda, which was dominated by a warrior caste that constantly raided each others feilds & pastures, with the peasants caught in the middle. A polytheistic people, the warrior caste directed their worship towards often violent nature gods (called “Daevas”), such as Indra – the storm god and the foremost warrior god in the RV.

“He it is that destroys, who declares that the Ox and the Sun are the worst things to behold
with the eyes, and hath made the pious into liars, and desolates the pastures and lifts his
weapon against the righteous man.

It is they, the liars, who destroy life, who are mightily determined to deprive matron and
master of the enjoyment of their heritage, in that they would prevent the righteous, O
Mazda, from the Best Thought.” – Yasna 32

“Have the Daevas ever exercised good dominion? And I ask of those who see how for the
Daevas’ sake the Karapan and the Usij give cattle to violence, and how the Kavi made
them continually to mourn, instead of taking care that they make the pastures prosper
through Right.” – Yasna 44


cw 06.10.06 at 9:53 pm

Think about it from the perspective of someone teaching children. In many cases you are going to be teaching children who are at the bottom of the economic ladder. Children whose have inherited 600 years of racisim. This is the ocntext in which the term “social justice” should be examined. The commitment to social justice in this context could be as simple as being an advocate for these children. You try to educate them while keeping in mind the injustices that they were born into. If you are going to do a good job there is no way you can treat them as a blank slate, as just another student. They are the result of a culture that is the result of a long history of injustice.


JR 06.10.06 at 11:38 pm

Tim Worstall-
Funny. Look, what no one on this thread seems to know is that the very term “social justice” was coined by a Jesuit priest. The Catechism of the Catholic Church – the Church’s official doctrine – has an entire section titled “social justice.”

Among other things, it states:

“Society ensures social justice when it provides the conditions that allow associations or individuals to obtain what is their due, according to their nature and their vocation. Social justice is linked to the common good and the exercise of authority.”


“Excessive economic and social disparity between individuals and peoples of the one human race is a source of scandal and militates against social justice, equity, human dignity, as well as social and international peace.”


“The principle of solidarity, also articulated in terms of “friendship” or “social charity,” is a direct demand of human and Christian brotherhood.”


“Socio-economic problems can be resolved only with the help of all the forms of solidarity: solidarity of the poor among themselves, between rich and poor, of workers among themselves, between employers and employees in a business, solidarity among nations and peoples. International solidarity is a requirement of the moral order; world peace depends in part upon this.”


“The equal dignity of human persons requires the effort to reduce excessive social and economic inequalities. It gives urgency to the elimination of sinful inequalities.”

Social justice is a part of Catholic dogma. Yet all the scholars and academics who post here seem to be completely unaware of its origin and continuing vitality in the Catholic Church. And when someone points it out, the response is a lame joke about Dan Brown.


Martin James 06.11.06 at 12:32 am

I’d like to revisit what Harry said about social justice.

I’m curious if others hold his position and if so, why.

To recap, Harry holds.

1. Social justice means different things to different people.
2. Social justice is contested.
3. Both left and right have a version of social justice and want it implemented.
4. Teachers should have a well-articulated conception of social justice.

I would argue that Harry is advising that teachers make “Pascal’s wager” with social justice replacing God.

In other words, we can’t know for certain which notion of social justice is the best, but since we all want social justice, we should go on ahead and make a stand, place a bet and articulate a concpetion of social justice.

I’m as conflicted about Harry’s reasoning as I am about Pascal’s. In makes sense and feels good, but really only works for people who already have a God or a conception of social justice picked out independent of the widely varying perspectives they learned about in philosophy class.

Why wouldn’t this exposure to differing perspectives on social justice lead us to the conclusion that its a contested concept because its a an ideology or wishful thinking or make believe.

How to we know Harry is not advocating that teachers pretend they know what they don’t – the meaning of social justice.

Won’t the best among them articulate what Socrates did – that they know nothing. Which is OK if you are ging to teach philosophy but seems optional for teaching just about everything else.


Farrold 06.11.06 at 2:28 am


You describe a situation in which students have suffered the consequences of generations of injustice, and urge that a teacher respond by serving as an advocates for them and by trying to educate them while keeping in mind the injustices that they were born into.

I might call this response compassionate, wise, and benevolent. I don’t, however, see how applying the term “social justice” helps us understand an instance of a teacher trying to help students.


Martin Bento 06.11.06 at 2:45 am

That’s very interesting, but I’m not sure how it relates to what I said. Is it a response to the query I posed Patrick about whether there were pre-modern comprehensive critiques of society in terms of justice?

That’s a useful bit of info. When did the Catholic notion originate? Before the Leftist one? If so, did it influence the leftist one, to your knowledge? Or is the reverse true?

I’m not sure defining a concept is best done by asking how it would apply to a specific task, as that does not constitute a definition, nor does it make clear how one would generalize whatever insights emerge from the application. Keeping in mind when teaching black children that they come from a background of historical oppression may be a good idea, but is social justice then merely an attitude?

Pascal’s wager, eh? I’d be interested whether Harry would agree with that, but it seemed to me that he simply meant that having some considered concept of social justice was a measure of intellectual and moral seriousness regarding political issues, and that such seriousness should be required or at least encouraged in teachers. Given how problematic the definition seems to have become in this very discussion, I’m not sure there is even any consensus on what a “theory of social justice” means, and perhaps seriousness on the issue is rarer than one would have thought. While some Right Wingers may have a theory of social, I’m not at all sure some types of Social Darwinists, fascists, or religious types do. Indeed, in this discussion, social justice seems to oscillate between a simple area of discussion – any conception of the basic justice of social institutions – and particular positions – the injustice of great or arbitrary (e.g., racial) inequality.


Patrick S. O'Donnell 06.11.06 at 9:43 am

Martin Bento,

There are of course pre-modern critiques of the social order that invoke an element of ‘justice’ (e.g., Plato’s Republic; again, justice is typically tied to personal virtues, as Harry has noted) but I am not aware of any that use the modern-like conception of ‘social justice’ as an organizing principle or basis of the critique lacking, as they do, our modern democratic sensibilities and commitments. Such critiques usually fall under the heading of ‘utopian thought’ (I don’t mean to use this in a pejorative way), and often involve conceptions of ‘the good’ in an expansive sense, which takes us beyond justice qua justice. The best place to start for an interesting historical examination of such critiques remains the Manuels’ volume, Utopian Thought in the Western World (1979).

However invaluable Rawls’ work on justice is (and it certainly was a much-needed stimulus for political philosophy in ‘the West,’), it is profoundly ‘Eurocentric’ (a liability that should not detract from appreciating the genius of his work). As Bhikhu Parekh has written, Rawls’ work sidesteps the fact that ‘every culture embodies a particular conception of the human person and the concomitant view of the good,’ nor does he seem aware of the contested nature of the claim ‘that the democratic public culture represents a Kantian conception of the person.’ More tellingly, Rawls’ political liberalism ‘is free-standing in the sense that it does not presuppose, and is presented and defended independently of, a comprehensive doctrine including comprehensive liberalism. It is autonomous in the sense that all its relevant categories and principles are derived from within it. It does not talk of human beings but of citizens, not of human reason but of public reason or reason of citizens, not of human person but of a political conception of the person, not of human powers but powers of the citizen. It cherishes political autonomy but limits its exercise to the political realm.’ Etc., Etc.

Now I don’t want to engage in a debate about the importance and merits of Rawls’ work, which I happen to believe are substantial and many. I simply want to point out one glaring limitation of a Rawlsian approach to justice insofar as it does not directly engage with existing worldviews ‘out there,’ such as that found enunciated in Catholic doctrine above. The irony of course is that with the global consolidation of capitalism by way of the Washington consensus and the neoliberal economic order, ‘social justice’ critiques carry ever-greater weight outside the framework of affluent northern hemisphere nation-states. And of course insofar as we make the claim that our principles of social justice are generalizable or universifiable, we are committed to their relevance and application across the globe (which does not mean, as Onora O’Neill would be quick to remind us, that their application would everywhere be the same, that the principles would be realized in exactly the same way for, as she explains in a discussion of stock objections to Kantian ethics, ‘universal principles need not mandate uniform treatment; indeed, they may mandate differentiated treatment,’ and ‘the application of principles to cases involves judgement and deliberation,’ they are ‘side-constraints (not algorithms) and can only guide (not make) decisions’).

That said, however urgent its possible admonitions and prescriptions, social justice does not exhaust or capture the myriad meanings of ‘justice’ (say, in classical Greek traditions, in religious worldviews like Confucianism or Islam) nor the content of ‘the Good.’ Arguably, as Parekh has also written, ‘Justice is not the first virtue of society because it presupposes and is embedded in a cluster of other virtues and because it is only one of several preconditions of social and political stability.’

And to jr above: I always thought Catholic ‘social teaching’ was thoroughly ‘modern’ as well, going back to Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical, Rerum Novarum, on labor. The Church was responding to modern issues and problems (of course not unrelated to timeless questions regarding justice, poverty, etc.) using the intellectual resources of Catholic dogma, although I doubt it can be given credit for the origins of the thorougly secular conceptions of ‘social justice’ found in political thought today. Of course the writings of Phillip Berryman and (the late) Penny Lernoux may prompt us to wonder about the sincerity and depth of commitment the hierarchy of the Church has to doctrines you cite above. Before he gained the papacy, Ratzinger was principally responsible for the Church squashing Liberation Theology and the social movement of ‘base communities’ inspired therefrom (it perseveres in some quarters), perhaps the most inspired, eloquent expression of Catholic doctrine on ‘social justice’ in the twentieth century. Moreover, the Catholicism represented by a Michael Novak makes plain the Church has strong currents within its lay ranks with very attenuated and troubling conceptions of what ‘social justice’ entails.

I should like to say more about some other comments above, but outstanding tasks and obligations preclude me from spending any more time on this subject.


Clancy 06.11.06 at 9:55 am

Social justice has really become an institutionalized concept, with curricular manifestations; several universities have minor programs in social justice: the University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh, the University of Missouri-Columbia, and the University of Minnesota. I’ve been wanting to hear what academic bloggers have to say about these programs — how they’re defining social justice, the fact that they don’t seem to be covering conservatively-oriented definitions of social justice, etc. If some of you at CT have already posted about those programs, I must have missed it, but if not, I thought I’d use this thread to prompt you.


Martin James 06.11.06 at 1:29 pm

There is another tension in the NCATE statement that I’d like to explore and that is academic freedom as it relates to professional disposition.

How far does academic freedom carry over from knowledge into skills and professional disposition?

Commonly acdemic freedom is addressed in terms of ideas, research and free speech. As if if the practice of education and teaching were magically exempt from the content of the ideas.

In many ways, freedom for the instructor is unfreedom for the student. The teacher/administration determines the content of the courses, the preferred behavioural standards, the dispositon of rewards or praise.

It seems to me that this is part of the reason that attempting to “professionalize” disposition is political. Both people with political power and consumers of education want to retain control of the teachers dispositional standards rather than giving that power to professionals.

Let’s take competition for example.

Some may want to limit the use of competition in dispostion as contrary to promoting learning or to social justice. Others may promote it as appropriate acculturation into a competitive society. (Think of the stories of Spartan children being taught to be stealthy and steal food.)

Who gets control of preferred professional disposition?

Harry in some ways seemed to interpret the proposed NCATE standard as the school setting the standards of disposition and then being required to judge how well students carried out the school’s standards. It seems to me even this minimal level of dispositional standards may limit the diversity of dispositon approaches practiced by teachers. What is left unstandardized( even if just at the school level) should show more variation than what is not treated at all. Standards tend to move power to those setting the standards.

One paradigmatic case of this dispositional conflict always seems evident in sports. In the good old days of cold war olympic competition, the Americans would grumble about the cold disciplinarian ways of the Russian and East European teams that took kids at a young age and worked them long hours under tough coaches.

In contrast, the Americans were seen as individuals maximizing their personal growth, by hard work and dedication under skilled and caring instruction.

Like social justice, the best approach is still contested.

Not knowing much about the details graduate study in education I’m curious as to how the dispositon of teachers that used methods typical of some sports coaching styles: yelling, withholding rewards, excessive workloads, humiliation, etc. would be treated.

What standards would be used to judge when social considerations or the risk of harming the welfare of the students would outweigh professional dispositonal judgment?

Not to get too far afield but, friend of mine doing research on class size, told me its actually quite astounding how few educational studies meet the standards of say a double blind clinical trial for a drug and actually how underspecified the theory of educaiton and skill development actually is.


r4d20 06.11.06 at 3:41 pm

I just saw you ask for ancient view of “social justice” and I gave one that I thought matched up in substance. Of course, for most of history the ideas of God and Justice have been intertwined, so most old “social justice” movements have been religious movements.

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