Social Justice And
The Idea of "Capability"

What is social justice, and how can the thought of Amartya Sen help clarify the ethics of conflict?
'Social justice' is often put forward as a guiding principle when it comes to the ethics of conflict, but the concept is vague and sometimes slippery.

How does Nobel-winning economic and ethicist Amartya Sen respond to this, and how does his idea of 'capability' broaden the idea of justice?
"Morality," professor Nalini Ramlakhan starts the lecture by saying, "is grey." But moral and ethical questions are unavoidable when we engage with issues like conflict.

Some issues are more grey than others – for example, the question of what system would lead to the most fair society? Others are less so – most cultures agree that murder is wrong...but in what circumstances is taking a life acceptable? These are questions that many countries (and people) answer differently, and it's important to figure out how plausible these positions are.

Our answers might be different than someone else's, and that's okay. We do need a justification, though, as to why our answer might be different. Looking into these kinds of justifications is what we will be doing throughout this course.

Today, though we'll be looking at the issue of social justice in particular, or at least at how slippery the idea of social justice is. To prepare for today's class, we watched the documentary "Examined Life", which interviews various philosophers and ethicists on their idea of the good life, and we'll finish off by looking at the ideas of one thinker: Nobel-winning economist and moral thinker Amartya Sen.
First off, though, Nalini wants to hear our own ideas on what social justice is and how it applies to ethics. "There's no right or wrong answer," she says.

What is Social Justice?

Student responses edited for clarity.
The first thing that came to mind was how certain crimes still exist in certain third world countries, and it's tied to political, religious or other systems that control them. Social justice tries to challenge these kinds of injustice and helps us concentrate on finding good solutions to them.
Anybody can be specific and obvious. That's always been the easy way. It's not that it's so difficult to be unspecific and less obvious; it's just that there's nothing, absolutely nothing, to be specific and obvious about.
The answer is different from country to country, and even within countries. In the US there's democracy, but social justice focuses more on problems like discrimination. In other countries, though, access to water might be the focus of social justice. Are there Palestinians with less access to water than Israelis?

There are plenty more rights as well – we don't have enough. That means there isn't justice. Unequal distribution in terms of wealth and privileges. We have to look at different groups and see how they work.
For me, social justice is a lot of things. When I looked at the readings and the video, I was struck by the final segment about disabilities. We need to address, or at least understand that not everyone has the same ratio of power. Not everyone has the same circumstances that allow them to live their life on equal footing.
For me it has to do with fairness. But I'm concerned with the consistency of this idea. It's not always applicable – sometimes it is, and sometimes it isn't.
In my opinion, it's about fairness, equality and everyone enjoying the same benefits. As it's already been said, it can be more or less applicable in certain situations, and it's hard to be consistent. But maybe that's why we have something like the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), so people might be able to thrive.

I think that's the body and soul of social justice: everyone enjoying the same rights and benefits. No one is richer, or at least extremely richer. No one suffers. Yeah, I guess that's why we had the Millenium Development Goals (MDG), which didn't work, so we moved on to the SDGs and that's what it is.
I think social justice is a broad thing; it encompases many things that people might not immediately think of. Like global justice, or things on a smaller scale. Something I'm excited to explore is social media and social justice, especially with the way info is spread. How issues are related and translated on social media – hopefully we'll delve into that. With how easy it is to spread information or disinformation.
I'd add that when we're thinking of social justice, or socially just societies, we need to acknowledge that everyone experiences issues and lifestyle determinants in different ways. We're all impacted by COVID-19 restrictions, for example, but not all equally impacted. My experience might be that I'm at home on my computer, but others might not have a job, or might be in a situation with domestic violence. So social justice is acknowledging that people experience things differently and try to grasp those uneven experiences.
I think it's when everyone has the equal chance to enjoy life, employment, economics, every benefit in society. My issue is that it's not something everyone can have. Jobs, good employment, health care. We can't all benefit equally, life itself is not equal. But with the help of establishments, NGOs and other things, people can enjoy more benefits.
My issue is that by putting 'social' in front of 'justice' we put a modifier in front of a perfectly good word. Social is about groups, but justice is about individuals. Justice for a wrong done to a person. So I don't like the way we talk about it, it means too many different things. That's not good to me. When you talk about justice, especially to lawyers, the law has to be specific so that when you go in front of a juste you can say they were wrong in this way, and then you get justice. As soon as you talk about collectives, the individual gets lost. To me, it sounds like you have to grind up the individual in order to get social justice. There are libertarian concerns, for example, about free speech, collective response and cancel culture, and sometimes social justice puts the group against the individual.
We live in a society and think about climate change, abuses of power, racism, MDGs that didn't work, SDGs that are supposed to work in a few years but aren't heading in that direction. It's about looking for balance in wealth distribution, power, privilege and access.
It's all about equality and fairness, but inequality will always be there. There is no way everyone will be equal.
Social justice looks for fairness for the whole of society, but it's also about individuals seeking personal justice. In order to achieve total social justice you have to achieve individual justice.
"That coincides with Amartya Sen's view," Nalini says. She also wants to point out the difference between equality and equity, which she thinks might help sort out some definitions.

Equality: everyone gets the same things, or has the same set of resources to begin with (even if they do different things with those resources).

Equity: the acknowledgement that there might be individual circumstances that may require accommodations.

There can be a tension between the two, as some say that the accommodations generated by equity give more benefits to people seen as underprivileged. For some, this is unfair. For others, this is the most fair situation.

An example is the money spent on making buildings more accessible. That money is spent with certain populations in mind, but these populations (if you have arthritis, or if you use a wheelchair) would be at a severe disadvantage without it. For some, social justice is about building-in the flexibility needed for expressing individuality in the context of a collective. Trying to balance equality with equity.

You could look at the COVID-19 benefits in Canada as another example. One solution was to give everyone $2000 a month – this would be equality. But some say that this isn't enough, because some people might need it more, some need it less.

Some might not be able to use the $2000 to meet their needs. If someone needs child care, for example, then no money will help them during a total lockdown because the service they need is temporarily suspended. They're given money, but that money won't help them. And if public transportation is cancelled, the people who require it might not be able to get to work, or to pick up necessary medication.

If a system doesn't serve all the needs of its members, is it a just system?
One thing I think about with social justice is that there are competing visions for what it is. And one's idea of social justice might be seen as injustice to someone else. So I wonder about whether any one definition is ever going to be totally inclusive, and what kinds of discourse we use to delegitimize other (often threatening) expressions of justice.
Peter Singer, in "Examined Life," used an example of a shop and it was interesting to me. We might spend $1000 on a wedding ring, and it might seem okay in one context, but a utilitarian might think that it's more moral to spend the money on something else.

But it's hard to think about things like that. When we think about social justice, we often think about the things that are close to us. And we think about the things that are further from us in very different ways, just on a physiological level. At a genetic level. So it's hard to think about larger groups, and we have to make structures to help us. A legal system and its laws is one example of a structure that helps make these issues more concrete. Because it can be so abstract. So we can think about how we can make abstract issues of justice more concrete.
"That," says Nalini, "is a good transition to Amartya Sen."

Amartya Sen

One criticism of Sen's thought is that he can be abstract. In fact, he responds to the idea that we need to work on the practical, on what an be accomplished now, with an insistence that we need to be idealistic with our moral vision. Idealistic at least in the sense that just because something is not practical now it doesn't mean that it is not a valid goal.

Aspirational goals are valid. Reaching towards a vision of radical equity is valid. When he helped design the MDGs two decades ago he was ready to suggest goals that wouldn't be met in a short span of years. Creating a high standard for justice might help us get ready to work toward it.

Sen is more about equity than strict equality – but while many philosophers use these terms to describe how resources or opportunities are distributed, Sen instead talks about our capabilities.

He uses a story from his childhood to elaborate. While growing up in India, he saw a man arrive in his neighbourhood one day looking for work. This mane was a Muslim entering a dominantly Hindu area, and during a time of deep division. He was forced to come out of desperation, and he was eventually killed by local Hindus in an act of ethnic hatred. For Sen, this started a series of questions: what would this man have needed in order to not have died?

He thought about this again during a major famine. He wasn't terribly affected in the community he lived in, but in rural areas the situation escalated until it reached the level of mass starvation.

In both cases, he felt that a focus on resources didn't go far enough. You can give someone food or a livelihood, but they're useless unless someone is actually able to use or take advantage of them. The focus here is on your capability to use the resources at hand.
The shift of focus, between what you have and what you are, is central to Sen's idea of justice. If you don't have the ability to find work in a less dangerous place, you might be forced to leave and get killed in a time of ethnic strife. If you aren't able to feed your family, they die in a famine. The conditions for justice would be the ones that allow people to have the capabilities to live a good life.

The 'good life', and how to live it, is a major theme of any ethics course, and focusing particularly on conflict narrows the question to how events like war or violence limit our options to fulfill ourselves and live our vision of the good.

Traditional perspectives in conflict studies look at how situations of war or direct violence can impact these choices, but our program has expanded this to include the effects of structural violence as well (check out the lecture on structural violence here). Social justice can be described as working towards a just society through the elimination of structural violence, and so is equally concerned with questions of racism and discrimination as it is by access to water or conscription.

Sen's focus on capabilities, arguably, gives a more comprehensive response to issues of both direct and structural violence or oppression. Nalini describes how women had less opportunities to work in higher education fifty years ago, and her capability to function in this role would have been limited by a number of factors. One student from Egypt agrees, saying that sometimes, while women are legally allowed on the street, social and cultural factors (like harassment) prevent them from doing so in peace or safety. The resource (legal freedom) is there, but there are still other structural issues that prevent certain women from using freedom of movement (the capability to move). The difference seems subtle in some cases, but it's important.

In this understanding of social justice, we need to better understand the nature of disadvantage (and how people are disadvantaged) in order to understand how this can be remedied.

Some of the limits to our capabilities are noticeable at all times (people with limited mobility using cities designed for able-bodied people), while others only become visible in times of crisis (COVID-19 lockdowns preventing people with HIV from getting their medication promptly).
These advantages or disadvantages don't rise from our resources so much as from our ability to be the person we can be – our best self, so to speak. Political philosopher Martha Nussbaum agrees, describing the main question as being not only "about the person's satisfaction with what she does, but about what she does, and what she's in a position to do."

The example of the $2000 a month given out by the Canadian government during heavy COVID-19 restrictions is illuminating. Resources were given out to everyone, but it's not necessarily resources that help us be capable of living a fulfilling life. Without the ability to physically move to get one's HIV medication, for example, it doesn't matter how much money you have. Your immune system (and thus energy levels, concentration, ability to resist other infections) could potentially become (at least temporarily) compromised.

Since this is an approach based on equity, the accommodations or special circumstances involved are front and central. But so is freedom – you need to give people the freedom to use their capacities. Which can bring us back into the greyer areas of morality (what happens when two expressions of freedom clash?) but nevertheless still function as a worthwhile goal.

The activities that we can be free to do (in part due to our capabilities) are what Sen calls functionings. These include being able to live life to a reasonable length, not having to die in the process of finding work, access to health care, nourishment, bodily health, food. Meeting basic needs.

As an aspirational thinker, he also includes freedom of movement, the understanding of one's body as sovereign, respect from others. Being able to express aesthetic choices, religious choices, lifestyle choices without being restricted. He notes the need for emotional health, the ability to be attached to things or people outside of ourselves, not to have our development stunted by overwhelming fear, anxiety or traumatic events.

Then there's being able to live by your own values, to reflect on your life, to give and receive affection, to play, to hold property, to participate freely in political activities, to live in harmony with nature, to form meaningful relationships.

We're not asked to agree with all of Sen's ideas of what it means to life a good life, or that we have a moral obligation to provide for all of these needs, and Nalini reminds us that this is just one way of thinking about justice and what we may need to take into account when thinking about how conflicts impact human flourishing. Some of us may be more practical or now-focused rather than sharing Sen's idealism or vision of the future.

This is a lens we're left with, a way to evaluate the limitations placed on us: do we have what we need to live a good life? Do they? Do we feel like any of our functionings are limited to any extent? If not, was there a time when we felt our functionings were limited, and how did this change over time?

If Sen's perspective resonates with us, then we might be prompted to imagine interventions aimed at restoring a vision of human capability that is indeed very, very broad.
Nalini Ramlakhan is contract instructor at St. Paul University; her research interests include ethics, philosophy and cognitive science.

Josh Nadeau is a freelance writer and dialogue practitioner.
He studied conflict and ethics at St. Paul University in 2020.
Be the first to hear about new content!
Peace research, activism, facilitation - it's all coming.
Sign up to receive an email whenever new Summerpax content becomes available.