What Are Some of the Notable Differences Between Classical and Contemporary Theories of Social Justice? What Are Some Notable Similarities?

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The notable differences between classical and contemporary theories of social justice are the way the issue is explored. Differences also occur in the emphasis placed on different aspects of social justice and how to achieve it. The notable similarities seem to be that there is a need for social justice and that to achieve social justice many changes need to occur. Another similarity is the debate that social justice is not an easily achievable outcome.

In classical theories about social justice it is looked at from the view of the whole community. In the more contemporary theories social justice is explored from an individual perspective. The classical theories mostly take place during the time of the hierarchical societies. Where “men are arranged vertically in social strata, each stratum having a definite rank in the hierarchy” (Miller, 1976:254). They are based on the changes from Primitive societies to the hierarchical societies. They take into account mainly what is best for the whole community and do not explore social justice for each individual person. The contemporary theories have been developed during the current capitalist society and they focus mainly on individual justice and how it can be achieved for all. They do disagree on how this can be done and many would question if it is possible at all, as Isbister (2001:40) states, “Capitalism left to its own devices fails to produce social justice. It does not give us equality, freedom or efficiency”. These are seen as essential aspects of social justice in contemporary theories.

The classical theories do not explore the aspects of equality or freedom. They largely based their social justice theories on efficiency. Hierarchical societies were largely based on lord and serf or similar relationships. It was based on “a contract between superior and inferior, in which the inferior party offered to perform certain specified services for the other in return for protection and the opportunity to make a living” (Miller. 1976: 272). These contracts if the case of the serf continued on through the generations without “renewing the agreement” (Miller. 1976:273). This removed the freedom aspect from the theories. The hierarchical society worked towards efficiency as a form of social justice, the lord protected the serf and allowed him to farm a share of the estate to provide for his family. The serf performed tasks for the lord in return for these benefits

The way the lord and the serf ‘work’ together shows the need for social justice and this can be seen in the theories. Both the classical theories and contemporary theories discuss social justice as a requirement for society to continue. From Socrates onwards most theorists agree that “justice is giving and getting one’s due” (quoted in Solomon & Murphy, 1990:3). Other theorists mention ‘just desert’ and ‘getting what one deserves’. One of the most contested arguments is how to go about achieving social justice.

In the current capitalist society, Isbister (2001:4) argues that “social justice has three components: equality, freedom and efficiency. People deserve to be treated as equals, they deserve to be free, and they deserve to get the best that they can…” The problem with having all three of these components as an aspect of social justice is that having too much of one of these aspects can negate or influence the workings of the others. By having the freedom to do whatever one wants can interfere with the efficiency of an individual and can influence how equally each person is seen by society. This in turn can have an effect on successive generations. As property ownership and other forms of wealth are passed on from generation to generation society becomes more and more ‘unjust’. Contemporary theorists’ debate over ways to increase equality, whilst not taking away freedoms and reducing the efficiency of society

The different contemporary theories, monolithic, pluralistic, rights based, meritorian,...
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