Social justice is justice in terms of the distribution of wealth, opportunities, and privileges within a society.[1] In Western and Asian cultures, the concept of social justice has often referred to the process of ensuring that individuals fulfill their societal roles and receive their due from society.[2][3][4] In the current movements for social justice, the emphasis has been on the breaking of barriers for social mobility, the creation of safety nets, and economic justice.[5][6][7][8][9][excessive citations] Social justice assigns rights and duties in the institutions of society, which enables people to receive the basic benefits and burdens of cooperation. The relevant institutions often include taxation, social insurance, public health, public school, public services, labor law and regulation of markets, to ensure distribution of wealth, and equal opportunity.[10]

Interpretations that relate justice to a reciprocal relationship to society are mediated by differences in cultural traditions, some of which emphasize the individual responsibility toward society and others the equilibrium between access to power and its responsible use.[11] Hence, social justice is invoked today while reinterpreting historical figures such as Bartolomé de las Casas, in philosophical debates about differences among human beings, in efforts for gender, ethnic, and social equality, for advocating justice for migrants, prisoners, the environment, and the physically and developmentally disabled.[12][13][14]

While concepts of social justice can be found in classical and Christian philosophical sources, from Plato and Aristotle to Augustine of Hippo and Thomas Aquinas, the term social justice finds its earliest uses in the late 18th century, albeit with unclear theoretical or practical meanings.[15][16][17] The use of the term was early on subject to accusations of redundancy and of rhetorical flourish, perhaps but not necessarily related to amplifying one view of distributive justice.[18] In the coining and definition of the term in the natural law social scientific treatise of Luigi Taparelli, in the early 1840s,[19] Taparelli established the natural law principle that corresponded to the evangelical principle of brotherly love—i.e. social justice reflects the duty one has to one’s other self in the interdependent abstract unity of the human person in society.[20] After the Revolutions of 1848 the term was popularized generically through the writings of Antonio Rosmini-Serbati.[21][22]

In the late industrial revolution, Progressive Era American legal scholars began to use the term more, particularly Louis Brandeis and Roscoe Pound. From the early 20th century it was also embedded in international law and institutions; the preamble to establish the International Labour Organization recalled that "universal and lasting peace can be established only if it is based upon social justice." In the later 20th century, social justice was made central to the philosophy of the social contract, primarily by John Rawls in A Theory of Justice (1971). In 1993, the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action treats social justice as a purpose of human rights education.[23][24]