Social justice can be defined as a) Historical inequities that affect present problems should be fixed until the real inequities no longer exist or have been addressed; b) the idea that wealth, power, and status should be re-distributed for the sake of the individual, the community, and society as a whole; or c) the responsibility of the government (or those who hold significant power) to ensure an essential quality of life for all its citizens. All of these relate directly to a country’s historical values and economy, and have a dramatic effect on minorities and those not in power.
However, there are distinct differences between the three definitions as well. For instance, there are ideologies that maintain that wealth and power redistribution is immoral, as those who would receive it would be effectively ‘taking’ it from those who worked for it. There are also those who may be unrepentant about prior historical inequities, or feel that they should not be negated through power and wealth redistribution. Furthermore, some may not believe that it is the responsibility of the government to redistribute wealth, or that the ‘basic quality of life’ for all citizens should not be executed through wealth redistribution. These definitions involve achieving justice in different ways, and some are predicated on the idea that historical inequalities have to be corrected in order to achieve justice.
When weighing the subject of social injustices, the question of one’s obligation to them becomes a pressing one. Provided a social injustice is identified and acknowledged, should one accept it as a necessary evil of the society in which we live, or should an alternative be found? Thoreau, in Civil Disobedience, states that “That government is best which governs least” (1849). Thoreau’s overall thesis is that the government will never be truly incorruptible, nor will it be able to act in the best interests of all. It does not govern in an efficient manner, and rarely does the will of the people it governs. As a result, when a social injustice occurs, it is often the result of the government’s own self-interest.
King, while maintaining a more active role in the change of policy in government and society, still eschews violence as a means of persuasion or victory. “I have tried to say that this normal and healthy discontent can be channeled into the creative outlet of nonviolent direct action” (King, 1964). In creating his movement, King noticed the two forces who were already operating on the issue of racial segregation and injustice; one side are the complacent, who either are used to segregation or do nothing to change it, and the other side is extremely violent and bitter, wishing to eliminate the white man for being a “devil” who oppressed them. King saw that this was no way to solve the problem; the oppressed African-American race was becoming fed up, and if King did not channel their frustrations into a nonviolent setting, violence would occur: “The Negro has many pent up resentments and latent frustrations, and he must release them. So let him march; let him make prayer pilgrimages to the city hall; let him go on freedom rides -and try to understand why he must do so” (King, 1963).
King Jr., M.L. (1963). Letter from Birmingham Jail. American Friends Service Communication.
Novak, M. (Dec. 2000). Defining Social Justice. First Things. Retrieved from http://www.firstthings.com/article/2007/01/defining-social-justice-29.
Rawls, J. (1971). A Theory of Justice, Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
Thoreau, H.D. (1849). Civil Disobedience. Hayes Barton Press.