Last night I told a group of Brandeis undergraduates that they should work on deepening the conversation about social justice on our campus, but that they did not need to hasten to “define” the term.

But today I’m inclined to disregard (partially) my own advice, if for no other reason than working descriptions can be helpful in starting conversations.

On my way home last night, I challenged myself to describe social justice in a way that was clear, accessible, and provided some boundaries.  There’s a litany of philosophical and historical literature on the meaning of social justice.  I don’t mean to enter that terrain.  Instead, I’m interested in some basic language that can help our campus community think more clearly, deepen its engagement, and work together more productively.

This means that I am more interested at the moment in social justice as a process than as an outcome.  In campus communities, this is generally how we use the term, to describe a certain form of activism, and attitudes that accompany it.  In other words, those engaged in the process of social justice may have different ideas about what constitutes a just society.  Those working under the banner of social justice may well argue vociferously about where they are going, while agreeing that they are all working within a certain mode of action.

To my mind, a working description of social justice should be simple and inclusive, while at the same time helping to clarify the boundaries.  It shouldn’t settle all disputes, but it should provide a clearer basis for argument.

So here’s a working description of social justice that might provide such a starting point for discussion:


Social justice:  Working with the disadvantaged to change society for the benefit of all.


This phrase encompasses a pretty broad range of endeavors, but it also poses four simple tests for whether some activity falls under the social justice banner:

1)   Are you “working with” others?

2)   Does your collective action involve “the disadvantaged”?

3)   Is your work designed to “change society”?

4)   Will your changes be “for the benefit of all”?


Let me elaborate on each of these.  I believe that these questions may draw some helpful lines that distinguish social justice from other worthy and important human endeavors (as well as distinguishing social justice from some unworthy activities).


  1. “Working with.”  Social justice is not a solitary activity.  If you sit in the library and write a powerful diatribe against political corruption, that may inspire others to undertake social justice work, but the writing itself not an act of social justice.  Social justice begins when you put your efforts alongside other efforts, when you talk with others, when you put yourself side-by-side with other people.


Furthermore, “working with” suggests a particular form of collaborative activity.  It suggests activity on a basis of equality and mutual respect.  Contrast “working with” with three alternatives:  “working for,” “fighting for,” and “standing with.”   If you are “working for” or on behalf of others, you may be detaching yourself from their struggle, as opposed to being a part of it.  Social justice may indeed sometimes involve “fighting for” others, but it is not always pugilistic.  Similarly, one may “stand with” others in a social justice activity, but “standing” is too passive a word to embrace the whole of social justice action.  “Working with” may be the best way to express the sense of collaborative action on the basis of equality and respect.


2. “The disadvantaged.”   It matters who your allies are.  You can work with others to change society for the better, and you may achieve great things.  But if you and your partners are exclusively members of a powerful elite, then social justice isn’t really the right description for your work.

Of course, “the disadvantaged” is quite a broad category.  It includes those who may lack advantages because of their economic status, their gender, their race, their sexual orientation, their health, or any other number of reasons.

I’m a little worried that “disadvantaged” doesn’t fully capture the tone of mutual respect that social justice entails.  But I haven’t yet come up with a better word.   Some people would doubtless prefer “the oppressed,” and it’s obviously true that in many cases the disadvantaged are indeed oppressed.  But I would hate to see umbrella of social justice limited to those cases of explicit oppression.  Similarly,  one could use  “the disempowered.”  But power dynamics shift very quickly, and part of the point of social justice is that those who lack certain advantages may acquire power through collective action (while still living with the consequences of their disadvantage).

In any case, it seems clear that you can work for many important social ends without including the disadvantaged in your efforts.  For example, a group of wealthy women and men could team up to save a particular tract of virgin forest from a timber company.   I would argue that we could give that kind of work many laudatory names, but that we might not call it social justice.


3. “To change society.”    This phrase may seem innocuous, but I think that including it in this working description may actually make a lot of people unhappy.  Some will find it too mild:  “change” doesn’t necessarily imply the kind of radical transformation that many people who align themselves with social justice hope to achieve.  On the other hand, including this phrase draws a deliberate line between social justice and other important work, because it suggests that to “count” under the social justice rubric, your work must have a broader political purpose.

So one distinction here would be between “social justice” and “service.”   It’s obviously hugely important to meet the specific needs of individual men, women and children.  And one can and should be able to help people and address their needs without getting involved in social change.  So I would say that service without that broader political purpose is vital, but we may not want to insist that it falls under the rubric of social justice.

In other words, if you work in a soup kitchen preparing food for the hungry, you are performing a vital and valuable service.  If you work in a soup kitchen and also work alongside homeless people to improve city services, or to change laws that criminalize vagrancy, we might term that both service and social justice.

I realize that some people balk at this distinction.  Perhaps there is a better way to phrase it or talk about it.  But one way or another, I think that social justice has to involve change beyond its impact on individual lives.


4. “For the benefit of all.”  This is another seemingly innocuous phrase whose implications may raise hackles.   What I’m getting at here is that “change” doesn’t say quite enough – social justice involves change whose benefits are widely distributed.  For one thing, it means taking into account the unintended consequences of specific changes, so that promoting benefit for one group of people does not advertently or inadvertently cause undue harm to others.

For example, imagine that you waged a successful fight for costly but necessary services for a small group of people suffering from a debilitating rare disease.  If the powers-that-be funded this program by slashing preventive care health services to a large group of others, it would at least raise questions about whether this “change” really was “for the benefit of all.”

I recognize that this will become quickly controversial, and it starts to climb into the thickets of the different branches of ethics.  The point is not that the phrase “for the benefit of all” settles any particular question, but that it puts the question of broader effects onto the table.

The phrase “for the benefit of all” leaves deliberately open the question of what “the benefit of all” looks like.  It can encompass a wide variety of political ends and visions of the just society.   I prefer this approach, because I would like to see the “social justice” umbrella cover a broad ideological spectrum.  But others would doubtless prefer language that specifies more precisely what a better world would look like.

By the way, one helpful implication of this innocuous phrase is that it helps keep social justice separate from certain forms of extremism.  For example, a suicide bomber who kills civilians on behalf of an oppressed people might argue that he is “working with the disadvantaged to change society,” but it is obvious that his actions are not “for the benefit of all.”


All of this is intended just as a starting point for discussion.  I could poke plenty of holes in this myself.  But I offer it as a way to get the ball rolling as we at Brandeis try to bring more coherence, energy, inclusiveness, and effectiveness to the social justice dimension of the campus.