Social Justice is making news with the events in Ferguson, Missouri and New York City. Salon.com carried an interesting article in their December 8, 2014 edition regarding how the criminal justice system is facing problems largely because of social inequalities. In the article, it related how workers in New York City are tying the Grand Jury verdicts in both the Eric Gardner and Michael Brown cases to their Fight for 15 movement, seeking increased minimum wage in the city. This demonstrates a simple, yet complex issue in the nation: What is social justice?
The Trouble with “Justice”
Jackson described a situation related to a question of psychology to illustrate how values play a role in the interpretation of data in the social sciences. Using the example of two researchers collaborating on a study of whether divorce results in harm to children or not, he lays out the imaginary research project then shows how it is possible that the two researchers can either reach the same conclusion or difference conclusions, depending on the outcome of the findings. In his fictional example, the findings showed that the children in certain situations were independent and self-reliant. However, where one researcher determined independence and self-reliance to be good, the other considered these same behaviors as too independent with a “reluctance to attach to others.” Thus, the two interpreted the same data through a prism of their own values.
In reading the argument, one cannot help but see wherein the problem lay. The goal was to determine whether divorce resulted in “harm.” Thus, how “harm” is defined played a key role in the outcome of the study (Jackson, 2011). This shows the importance of determining an exact definition when studying any social issue.
This brings us to “justice.”
The term “justice,” is considered vague by some and relative by others. Indeed, throughout much of history, what exactly constitutes “justice” has been determined by…
- A King or Dictator
- A ruling class
- All of Society
- A Religion
- No one or individuals
Notice that these five arbiters of justice align with ruling concepts. These concepts of rule are
- a Monarchy/Tyranny, which is Greek for a sole ruler
- an Oligarchy, which is Greek for group rule by an elite class
- a Democracy, which is Greek for rule by the masses or all citizens
- a Theocracy, which is Greek for rule by God or a religion
- Anarchy, which is rule by none
This is part of the reason settling on a specific definition of what constitutes “justice” is difficult. Depending on the form of rule in a nation/society and depending on how well that society supports that form of rule, some will define justice in one way while others will define it in an entirely different manner. Thus, what is considered “justice” from one nation to the next, like the two researchers discussed at the outset, will vary depending on values.
So one element of defining what constitutes “justice” is values while another, related, is the form of rule within the nation in question. For sake of this discussion, we will look at “justice” through the prism of the United States because this is, after all, Criminal Justice Law U.S. In other words, how exactly we define justice will be based on the idea that society as a whole, that is, a Democracy, must define justice.
This can be particularly difficult considering that some in society define justice in terms of their religious convictions while others in terms of experience and still others in terms of logic and science. How to mesh all these conflicting ideologies will be discussed in these pages.
We must pause here for clarity. Further in this discussion, we will discuss the definition of justice itself. This is very different from a discussion of what a society deems “just” because while the term itself can be clearly defined, the action involved is relative to socio-political constructs.
It should be stated too that the principles discussed through these pages will just as easily apply to other societies and forms of rule. Also, the purpose of this particular page is not to settle the issue, but rather get debate and dialog started. In order to reach conclusions, common definitions are necessary. We must all “be on the same page” so to speak.
When discussing “social justice,” one of the key problems with most, if not all research is that there is no common definition of what exactly constitutes “social justice.” In fact, there does not appear to be a common definition of even “justice” upon which research and conclusions may be rendered. This is a serious problem because unless we all agree about what constitutes social justice, we will never achieve it.
The Trouble with “Social” Justice
In a related post found also on Salon.com, Cera Byer highlighted the core problem with “social” justice. Penning a plea “to my white male Facebook friends,” Byer struck at the key problem when determining how to define “what is justice?” in social terms. In fact, two key problems are demonstrated in this post, one clearly, the other somewhat hidden and perhaps unintended by the author. Let us begin with the problem which this writer enunciated.
Byer speaks of cognitive dissonance as a reason many fail to see that, despite the enormous strides made in race relations in the United States, there remains much to be done. When problems are pointed out to some, the view that an attack is being made tends to cause a defensive position, which Byer equates to a subtle, hidden form of racism. Is this true?
Perhaps, in some cases, but certainly not in all. As researchers, we must avoid becoming egocentric in our understanding of data, as discussed in the previous segment with the example of the two researchers reaching separate conclusions. Byer is not a researcher, but rather an editorialist, so the convenience of being egocentric is understandable, if not acceptable (or vice-versa).
This thus highlights the second problem with reaching a commonly-agreed-upon definition of “social” justice. Byer strangely sent this message to “white” “male” friends. Why only that segment? Can females not be racist? Can other races not be racist? Does Byer not have friends of other sexes and races? If not, then would that not also be an indication of the subtle racism of which Byer speaks? To be clear about this, Byer explains in the piece that the reason for the post was “disturbing, subtle, insidious, racist comments” seen posted by “white male” friends on Facebook. Thus, the post was directed at them, but in reality, that is assuming that because only that segment of his friend’s network was making such statements, then that is the only racist segment. This, in itself is a form of subtle bigotry, whether Byer recognizes it or not.
More to the point, this matter impacts all of us because all have been guilty of such an attitude at some point past, present, and future. You, I, the person to our left and our right, above “our station” or beneath, white, black, orange, green, American, Mexican, Asian, or whatever…we have all and will all at some point react to the injustices and indignities suffered by someone else at worst with indifference and at worse than that, with disdain.
In order to fully grasp why such a claim can be made, we must understand exactly what constitutes justice. Then, and only then can we make an argument about what constitutes social justice. Once we have a definition of social justice, we will have a barometer against which to judge our own reactions and those of others.
What is Justice?
This discussion is important. Justice can be defined and a definition agree upon by all, but when determining what constitutes justice, the issue becomes vague because it is colored by values. Hence we should first determine the precise definition of justice as commonly accepted, but from there, the idea will become vague, as will be discussed shortly. From Merriam-Webster Dictionary, we find the following definition(s) for the term, “justice.”
“: the process or result of using laws to fairly judge and punish crimes and criminals
“: a judge in a court of law
“Justice —used as a title for a judge (such as a judge of the U.S. Supreme Court)
“Full Definition of JUSTICE
“a : the maintenance or administration of what is just especially by the impartial adjustment of conflicting claims or the assignment of merited rewards or punishments
“b : judge
“c : the administration of law; especially : the establishment or determination of rights according to the rules of law or equity
“a : the quality of being just, impartial, or fair
“b (1) : the principle or ideal of just dealing or right action (2) : conformity to this principle or ideal : righteousness
“c : the quality of conforming to law
“: conformity to truth, fact, or reason : correctness”
So, for justice, we find three basic definitions:
- Administration of law (an action)
- Impartiality or fairness (a quality of principle)
- Correctness (being “right” or “wrong”)
Let us break these into concepts which are useful for our purposes of settling on a common and agreed definition.
In the first instance, because law is dependent on society and the form of rule, the first definition cannot be agreed upon in a global context. It can, however, be used for the sake of discussing social justice in America because the nation has a foundation of law.
In the second instance, as a principle of fairness, we should be able to determine a common definition which will transcend national and political boundaries.
In the case of the third instance, however, we are faced with a unique problem. What constitutes “right” or “wrong” is completely subjective. “Justice” in the sense of “right” or “wrong” is far too vague to be of any use in determining social justice because what is right to one person may well be wrong to another.
However, this idea leads us to the issue at hand because part of the reason we are faced with the issue of social justice today is because of differences in values. In the cases of Michael Brown and Eric Gardner, clearly part of society believes that social injustice has occurred but another part believes that justice was served. This conflict is core to the issue and must be dealt with by society, but can only be dealt with in the context of the first two concepts.
To be clear, we find then that in order to determine what is social justice, we must first determine both what the law in the United States defines as justice and compare that to what the principle of justice states. Only by merging the two definitions, only by finding a way to merge the two definitions, can we come to a common definition of social justice. As indicated in the case of the two researchers we opened this argument with, we must as a society, find a way to reach common ground; this hinges on holding common values. In other words, we must find a way to judge values in our society and agree on common values or there will always be social injustice.
How Can Society Determine What Constitutes Social Justice?
As mentioned, to determine “what is social justice,” we must agree first on what constitutes justice. This requires that we examine the values related to our common understanding of justice, or right and wrong in society. But “right” and “wrong” is subjective, so how can we find a common understanding of justice?
This will require finding an objective means of determining the values upon which justice rests. Fortunately, there is a way. There is a scientific means of determining what is best for all, but of course, because humanity is so fragmented, even when we do so, there will always be those who dissent. That is just the nature of our species and must be understood and accepted.
As a foundation, we have to understand that everyone has needs. Famed Psychologist Abraham Maslow developed what he termed the Hierarchy of Needs wherein he suggested that we all have the same fundamental needs, but different people progress in the fulfillment of these needs at different paces. In his hierarchy of needs, he introduced the concept that in order to enjoy life to the fullest, that is, to become a self-actualized human, the lower order needs had to be fulfilled. In fact, Maslow introduced the idea that we meet our needs in an orderly process and that to enjoy any needs which are of a higher order, we must have those lower order needs fulfilled.
To better understand this, look at the illustration of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.
Thus, if a person lacks the basic requirements for life such as food, water, shelter, and sufficient rest, that person cannot feel safe and secure. Then, only a person who feels safe can experience real friendships and relationships, that is, love and belonging. Only after these needs are met can a person progress to self-esteem needs and accomplish personal goals. Once a person has done this, that person can progress to self-actualization, a state of being wherein a person is fulfilled and capable of being of service to others.
Look now at the second illustration. In this one, the addition of a theory by this author is added. This just further simplifies Maslow’s Hierarchy. This new theory of human behavior states that we all have the same needs and these are segregated as Physical, Emotional, Mental, and Transcendent (or Spiritual) needs.
The only key difference between the theory by this author and that of Maslow is in the distinctions. It is my belief that within these four forms of needs, we have three facets which provide us with the social constructs within which we fulfill our needs. These facets are Identity, Security, and Stimulus. This will be discussed more fully in later articles but for now we simply need to recognize that all humans, regardless of where they live, in whatever social construct they live, all races, all ages, all economic circles…all have the same needs.
In fact, for anyone who doubts this, consider that marketing agencies have been applying Maslow’s concept for years to make sales and no one will dispute that ad and marketing companies today do a fantastic job selling to the masses. This is because we all have the same needs. Understanding this is key to developing a construct for social justice.
It will also be useful to read, Why We Do What We Do
Note too that it matters not what our definition of justice or social justice is at this point. Simply recognizing that we all have the same needs can start us on the path to knowing how to reach a common definition of justice and social justice. But there is more and this cuts to the core of whether humanity will ever achieve 100% self-actualization.
Can Social Justice be Achieved?
100% self-actualization? Yes. At one time, the goal of many nations was to have 100% literacy and to date, only a handful have achieved this simple goal. These are North Korea, Finland, and the Vatican. Many others, such as the U.K., United States, and mostly EU nations have managed 99% literacy (CIA, 2014). Literacy is an excellent goal for the world, but I believe the world would do far better if we made it a goal for 100% of the global population to reach self-actualization. If this were the goal, rather than being a world of people who could read their rights (and thus know them), we would be a world of people who would not have to worry about rights being suppressed in the first place. In other words, a world or even a nation of self-actualized people would have no need to rise up in protest, no need to call for new laws, and no need to concern themselves with social justice because social justice would be the norm, not the exception.
The only reason we discuss social justice at all is because it is lacking in our society.
So how can social justice be achieved?
It starts with values.
Values are another way of saying beliefs and when people seek to fulfill their needs, they do so based on the values they hold true. If a person believes there is nothing wrong with stealing, that person will have nothing holding them back from robbing a store for food. In fact, they may even find that to be the most expedient way to obtain groceries. A person who believes that stealing is wrong will obtain food in more honest ways. Thus, values shape how we achieve our needs.
Another way to view needs is to call them motivators. Indeed, if a person is hungry, their growling stomach is a strong motivator to obtain food. This same emptiness can be applied to all the needs we hold, which is why we at times see people in need of love acting in very strange and destructive ways in an attempt to secure love. In other words, our needs motivate us to fulfillment and the order in which Maslow described. As we find we can fill lower order needs, higher order needs begin to call to us from within; call to us for satisfaction. We then seek to fulfill these higher order needs on up the hierarchy until we become self-actualized individuals, persons living up to our fullest potential and having the abilty to help others.
Returning to values, the reasons society is failing to achieve social justice is because the values we hold fail to
- ensure that all basic needs are met
- agree about who has the responsibility to fulfill needs
- provide a commonality for acquiring needs
In future pages, each of these will be explored more fully. The simple fact is that social justice can be achieved, but society will first need to agree on certain fundamental constructs including values. Until then, only minor “victories” in social justice, no matter the definition, will be achieved. These minor “victories” will seem like progress, but will in fact only give rise to further problems down the road. In other words, only a fully self-actualized society can achieve social justice, regardless of how society defines the concept.
Exploring Social Justice
At Criminal Justice Law U.S., we believe that the issues related to justice can be resolved. What is required is open and honest dialog, unhindered by attempts to stifle unpopular speech. This includes the speech of those who are racist. This is not an easy thing to accept, but in past decades, society has largely ostracized those who show a racist attitude. This has driven racism underground and according to John Stuart Mill, doing so does not solve the problem, but quite the opposite, it strengthens the problem. Thus, we are today seeing the outcome today of decades of stifling dialog respecting race relations.
In addition, only a self-actualized society can ever achieve social justice so through these pages, we are going to explore not only this concept as the new scientific discipline which is today emerging, but also as it impacts the criminal justice system. Indeed, the two concepts cannot function independently because without social justice, the criminal justice system will continue to become further clogged. For criminal justice students and professionals, understanding how social justice impacts the system is important. Understanding how we individually contribute to social justice or social injustice is vital to creating a better tomorrow.
The issues and more will be explored in future articles in this section.
- Jackson, M. (Feb2011). Psychology and Social Justice. Peace Review. 23 (1) 69.
- Byer, C. (8Dec2014). To my white male Facebook friends. Salon.com. Retrieved 10Dec2014 from: http://www.salon.com/2014/12/09/to_my_white_male_facebook_friends/
- Brinker, L. (8Dec2014). “Basic humanity under assault”: How America’s criminal justice and economic tipping points collided. Salon.com. Retrieved 10Dec2014 from: http://www.salon.com/2014/12/08/basic_humanity_under_assault_how_americas_criminal_justice_economic_tipping_points_collided/
- Merriam-Webster. Justice. Retrieved 11Dec2014 from: http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/justice
- CIA. 2014. Factbook. United States Central Intelligence Agency. Retrieved from: https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/fields/2103.html