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  • On the (im)possibility of social justice in South Africa
  • David Marshall Smith (bio)

Justice is a name for certain classes of moral rules, which concern the essentials of human well-being more nearly, and are therefore of more absolute obligation than any other rules for the guidance of life. John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism



Justice is widely regarded as an important virtue of both individuals and societies. Indeed, to act justly has long been considered a defining feature of human civilisation. The notion of justice invokes equity or fairness, with persons treated as they deserve to be: advantage bestowed by some measure of entitlement and penalty according to the magnitude of the offence. To the imperative of balanced judgement, symbolised by the scales of justice, is added the value of impartiality, reflected in the image of justice blind to all but morally relevant circumstances. In short, justice is a matter for very careful consideration, to match the strength of its moral obligation.

The concept of social justice is of more recent origin than that of justice itself, and has a variety of meanings. The term social justice is sometimes used to distinguish 'distributive' from 'retributive' justice. It can distinguish distributional outcomes from the fairness of the process involved, or 'procedural' justice. It may signal concern with a range of 'social' conditions, distinguished from others regarded as 'economic' or 'political'. But the most comprehensive and useful meaning of social justice is to identify justice in any sense as social, as something happening in society. To say that social justice is a social construct is to capture both the social character of justice in general and how justice is actually practised in different societal contexts. This is to distinguish social justice from 'natural' justice as a universal feature of the fabric of the world, if such a property is conceivable. [End Page 45]

The purpose of this paper is to explore the meaning of social justice, in general and within the particular context of South Africa. It draws freely on a number of my previous publications (listed in the references and not cited individually in the text). The intention here is to make more explicit a position stated obliquely in the conclusions of some of my recent writings: that it is difficult if not impossible to imagine social justice in South Africa. The argument is based on problems with the concept of social justice, and on the reality of South Africa emerging from apartheid.

Background: theories of social justice

The notion of justice as a virtue of the good life can be traced back to the ancient Greeks. Agnes Heller (1987) has explained how the ethical and political aspects of this traditional concept of justice were separated during the 18th and 19th centuries. The former came to constitute the modern field of ethics or moral philosophy while the latter became concerned with institutional arrangements. The question of the best social world became largely a matter of the just distribution, or what is now commonly referred to as social justice. The elaboration of social justice has itself subsequently attracted a diversity of theoretical perspectives, further to complicate its meaning.

From the rise of modern liberalism well into the 20th century, the dominant perspective was that of utilitarianism. Embedded in the abstract formalism of neoclassical economics, social justice became a matter of maximising society's 'welfare' as the sum total of 'utility' enjoyed by individuals. Despite the egalitarian implications of the assumption of decreasing marginal utility (whereby aggregate welfare is increased by transferring resources from rich to the poor who can gain more from them), a defence of unequal societies was provided by the Pareto criterion (whereby increases in aggregate welfare require there to be no losers). Thus, utilitarianism failed definitively to resolve the question of the just distribution.

The virtual hegemony of utilitarianism was eventually challenged by John Rawls (1971). He proposed a deontological rather than teleological perspective, arguing for justice as what is right rather than concerned with some ultimate good. He took the natural attributes and social-environmental circumstances from which personal advantage tends to arise as beyond individual responsibility, and thus morally arbitrary. While this might...


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