The Philosophy of Justice: Examining the Ethics and Challenges of Achieving Social Justice


Justice, like art, defies an all-encompassing definition. There is no single facet that holistically captures the different interpretations and applications of justice. It is said, therefore, that reflecting on justice is an exercise in abstract thinking – an activity that requires constant revision, adaptive thinking and a keen eye for context. The philosophy of justice is a diverse and complex terrain, intersecting with different economic, cultural and social forces that shape our perceptions of what is just, fair and morally right. This article examines the ethics and challenges of achieving social justice in society, drawing on the different philosophical perspectives on justice.

What is Justice?

Justice can be described as a moral virtue that embodies the principle of fairness or impartiality in the distribution of goods, services, and opportunities in a society. The distribution can be of political and social rewards, as well as the recognition of people’s rights within a community. John Rawls, a prominent political philosopher, defines justice as fairness, which requires that every person in society has an equal right to their basic liberties that can restrict other people’s rights.

The different traditions of justice suggest that there are four perspectives in understanding the nature of justice: distributive justice, corrective justice, retributive justice, and transformative justice.

Distributive Justice

Distributive justice concerns the distribution of goods, services, and material resources in a society, and it emphasizes the fair allocation of these resources. A fair distribution of goods and opportunities is the highest form of justice, as all members of society have a right to access these resources regardless of their social status, religion, or ethnicity.

John Rawls developed his theory of justice as fairness that emphasizes the equitable distribution of economic and social benefits in a society. Rawls proposes that, in order to determine an equitable distribution of resources, a society must adhere to principles of justice that ensure all members of a society receive basic protections and benefits, no matter what their status is in society.

Additionally, Rawls argues that a society must create a system of incentives that promote social productivity and economic growth while protecting the well-being of vulnerable members of society. This concept of justice aims to ensure that all persons, no matter their social status, receive equal opportunities and start off on a roughly equal footing, with the same chances afforded to them to succeed.

Corrective Justice

Corrective justice is concerned with remedying a wrong done to an individual or a group in a society. The wrong can be in the form of an act of harm, such as theft or assault, or a breach of a previously agreed contractual term. In such a case, corrective justice seeks to ensure that justice is served by restoring the status quo to ensure that harm is compensated for, and the interests of the victim are protected.

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Retributive justice

Retributive justice concerns the punishment of persons for a wrongful action, who deserve retribution, often in the form of punishment, for their engaging in such an action. Retributive justice requires that punishment be proportionate to the offence committed. This form of justice aims to balance the rights of victims with the civil liberties of perpetrators.

Transformative Justice

Transformative justice approaches the issue of justice from a more holistic perspective that aims to transform the social and cultural structures of society towards a more restorative justice system. Transformative justice aims to address the root causes of injustices, such as the dominant social norms, systemic discrimination, and inequalities in our society, through social change initiatives.

Challenges to Achieving Social Justice

Despite the different theoretical frameworks that have been developed to achieve social justice, systemic exclusion and oppression continue to plague many societies today. These challenges to achieving social justice include structural inequality, systemic discrimination, and institutional power.

Structural inequality refers to the unequal distribution of resources and opportunities that exist within a society. Structural inequalities can become self-perpetuating over time, as they serve to entrench existing patterns of unequal distribution of wealth, social status, and power. For instance, economic inequality can serve to perpetuate poverty cycles as those who are disadvantaged lack the resources necessary to break the vicious circle of poverty and social exclusion.

Systemic discrimination can also act as a barrier to achieving social justice. Systemic discrimination refers to the social structures, policies and practices, and the cultural norms and attitudes that contribute to perpetuating unfair treatment and marginalization of certain groups within a society. Such discrimination can manifest in many forms, such as racial and gender bias or ageism.

Institutional power is another challenge to achieving social justice. Institutions such as governments, the legal system, and corporations hold significant power and influence over society, and their actions can either promote or hinder social justice. Institutions can be corrupted by special interests, patronage and favoritism or arbitrary decision-making, and this can negatively impact the achievement of social justice.


Q. What is the role of law in achieving social justice?

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Law plays a critical role in achieving social justice by providing a framework for regulating behavior in a society. By establishing legal parameters and enforcing sanctions for violations of those parameters, the law can act as a powerful tool for promoting social justice. This is particularly true if the law is designed in a manner that is impartial, equal and fair, and is applied uniformly. Moreover, the law can empower individuals, particularly those who are vulnerable or marginalized, to enforce their rights and seek redress for harm done to them.

Q. How can society address structural inequalities that perpetuate poverty?

Structural inequalities that perpetuate poverty require a multifaceted approach that addresses both the symptoms and root causes of poverty. Such an approach should include implementing policies aimed at promoting equal access to education, healthcare, and employment opportunities, and programs aimed at empowering low-income households with the necessary tools and resources to improve their social and economic status. Additionally, it is vital to work towards minimalizing direct and indirect discrimination, particularly in hiring practices and access to services, which may perpetuate the poverty cycle in marginalized communities.

Q. Can restorative justice be used to address past injustices?

Yes, restorative justice can be used to address past injustices. Restorative justice is a more holistic approach to justice that recognizes the complexity of the root causes of injustices, particularly systemic discrimination, and aims to transform social structures and norms to redress those wrongs. Restorative justice can provide a space for dialogue and collaboration between affected parties, promoting more empathic dialogues and resulting in healing and reconciliation.


The philosophy of justice is a diverse and complex topic that intersects with many societal structures and power dynamics. Achieving social justice remains an ongoing challenge, particularly in societies where there exist structural inequalities, systemic discrimination, and institutional power. Through understanding the different theoretical frameworks of justice and implementing strategies aimed at addressing the root causes of these societal ills, we may hope to build a society that is more equitable, balanced, and just for all.