5.2.3 The concept of social justice

Back to 5.2.2

Unit 5 Contents



In reading from MM, you have encountered not only ‘solidarity’ but also ‘social justice’.  As I noted above, (5.2.1), ‘social justice’ is used several times in Quadregesimo Anno too.  We now turn to this.



From study earlier in the module (in Unit 1 and Unit 3), can you recall:

* the difference between ‘distributive justice’ and ‘retributive justice’

* the difference between ‘distributive justice’ and ‘commutative justice’?

According to Catholic teaching, where does responsibility for both distributive justice and retributive justice especially lie?

Who is responsible for commutative justice?


If you could not easily answer those questions, re-read the relevant pages.


Optional re-reading (9pp)

VPlater Module B, 1.3.1: ‘Justice’ (4pp)

VPlater Module B, 3.1.4: ‘Distributive justice’ (5pp)


I said (in 1.3.1) that ‘distributive justice’ and ‘social justice’ are very similar in meaning.  Here is one of the passages in QA in which ‘social justice’ is used (twice).  Clearly its meaning is to do with justice in distribution of goods.

[T]he riches that economic-social developments constantly increase ought to be so distributed among individual persons and classes that the common advantage of all… will be safeguarded; in other words, that the common good of all society will be kept inviolate. By this law of social justice, one class is forbidden to exclude the other from sharing in the benefits. (#57)

What ‘social justice’ seems to mean here is, straightforwardly, the justice in distribution across a society that is a prerequisite of the common good.  If justice is denied to any group in society, or even to any one person, there is social injustice. The common good cannot exist or at least is severely impaired.

With reference to the social classes of property owners and workers, which were then still quite sharply distinct in some European societies, Pius XI continued:

Hence the class of the wealthy violates this law no less, when, as if free from care on account of its wealth, it thinks it the right order of things for it to get everything and the worker nothing, than does the non-owning working class when, angered deeply at outraged justice and too ready to assert wrongly the one right it is conscious of, it demands for itself everything as if produced by its own hands, and attacks and seeks to abolish, therefore, all property and returns or incomes… (#57)

That sentence may be long and involved – but it presents rather precisely CST’s conception of ‘social justice’ as profoundly different both from laissez-faire capitalism and from socialism.

QA then continues:

And in this connection We must not pass over the unwarranted and unmerited appeal made by some to the Apostle [St Paul] when he said: “If any man will not work neither let him eat.” (II Thess. 3:10). For the Apostle is passing judgment on those who are unwilling to work, although they can and ought to, and he admonishes us that we ought diligently to use our time and energies of body, and mind and not be a burden to others when we can provide for ourselves…

To each, therefore, must be given his own share of goods, and the distribution of created goods, which, as every discerning person knows, is labouring today under the gravest evils due to the huge disparity between the few exceedingly rich and the unnumbered propertyless, [and] must be effectively called back to and brought into conformity with the norms of the common good, that is, social justice. (#58)

Again, the common good means that each person has to receive “his own share” in “the distribution of created goods”. This is “social justice”.

I have included in the quotation the passage about St Paul’s admonition that, “Anyone unwilling to work should not eat” (NRSV), in order to put across that CST’s advocacy of social justice does not at all mean that it downplays each person’s responsibility to provide economically for themselves and their family. On the contrary, this is emphasised.  We shall see a very strong expression of this emphasis when we look at Populorum Progressio later in this unit.

However the force of the appeal to ‘social justice’ is that it demands that anything that prevents some people from providing adequately for themselves through work – most obviously low wages – must be addressed and overcome.

Is there a difference of meaning, then, between distributive and social justice?  The short answer is, hardly.  Anyone would struggle to come up with a substantial and robust distinction between them.

Nevertheless, we can clarify the meaning of ‘social justice’ further by recognizing that there is a partial contrast between it and ‘distributive justice’ that relates simply to the most appropriate context in which to use each of them.  Unit 1 said this:

‘Distributive justice’ is about who has what and how much.  It is to do with the distribution of goods among people and among groups.  The term can apply both to a small number of people (say, you and your siblings) and to a large society (say, the various employers and groups of workers that make up a country’s economy). (1.3.1)

In some contrast, ‘social justice’ assumes that a whole society is in mind (even if this might be a fairly small one, such as a small town).  It would be odd, however, to speak of social justice within a sub-group of a society, for example, a family or a company, while it could make good sense to speak about distributive justice in relation to these.  But when a whole society is in view, it is hard to identify a significant difference in what the two terms mean.

To sum up, ‘social justice’ is the justice in distribution across a society, among both individual persons and groups, that is a prerequisite of the common good.



Is that a clear explanation of the meaning of social justice?

Who would you say is responsible for social justice?  We have only touched on this question on this screen.


Since the 1930s, social justice has become a very prominent concept in political discourse, so much so that the United Nations (UN) states that “the pursuit of social justice for all is at the core of our global mission to promote development and human dignity”.1. In 2007 the UN established an annual World Day of Social Justice, which is 20th February.  Reflecting the extent to which working conditions are vital for establishing social justice, this was largely an initiative of the International Labour Organization (ILO), the UN agency that deals with such issues. You may like to spend 10 minutes looking at the website of the World Day of Social Justice.


Optional reading (4pp)

Website of World Day of Social Justice, 20th February


This screen has focused on the what the term ‘social justice’ exactly means, which may seem an abstract issue.  But over the past 50 years it has been at the centre of a pivotally important controversy in political and economic thought and practice.  No discussion of social justice in CST would be adequate if it did did not examine that.  This is the topic of the next two screens.


End of 5.2.3

Go to 5.2.4 Hayek’s critique of social justice


Module B outline


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  1. Website of World Day of Social Justice, http://www.un.org/en/events/socialjusticeday/index.shtml, accessed 20 February 2016