New Thinking in Political Economy series
Edited by José Casas Pardo and Pedro Schwartz
Chapter 2: Social Justice Examined: With a Little Help from Adam Smith
Anthony de Jasay 1 INTRODUCTION We shall not go far wrong if we think of justice as a quality that members of groups who habitually congregate together would wish their relations to have – at least most of the time. Justice, then, is intrinsically ‘social’. It would have no meaning with respect to an isolated individual. If so, it is hard to see what the word ‘social’ is doing in the phrase ‘social justice’. It looks very much like a harmless pleonasm – though it may be suspected that expressions loaded with superﬂuous words are seldom quite harmless. It goes with ‘social justice’ as with ‘distributive justice’, and the two are frequently treated as synonymous. All justice is distributive, either because beneﬁts and burdens accruing to persons are generated in obedience to the rules of justice (notably those relating to property and contract), or because they are generated in violation of them and attract redress and retribution. However, while ‘distributive’ may be a redundant word, it has an empirical content that is not too hard to understand. The ‘social’ in ‘social justice’ has no discernible meaning apart from its being a term of approbation; ‘social’ is something good, and its immense strength comes in large part from its inchoate vagueness. If social justice is not a harmless pleonasm, what is it? I think we come closest if we treat it as a password that, once uttered, validates claims for altering the distributional status quo. Its name carries the tacit suggestion...
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