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Moving away from Social Justice towards Social Wellbeing

Many of us identify part of our activism (be it through writing, community engagement, online, offline, etc.) as part of the broad umbrella of Social Justice. However, most of us (or at least I) do not necessarily devote a lot of time to think of the meaning behind Social Justice and how the whole idea came to be. I did now, and I am about to share with you my findings which are, somewhat problematic and not as fair as one might expect considering the movement is devoted to the idea of fairness to begin with. This questioning of Social Justice as an idea, as a political framework has also led me to try to formulate some ideas so that I can move forward and outside of it because I believe that, in more than one way, Social Justice does not exactly represent the kind of goal I wish to advance towards.

Michael Novak, in Defining Social Justice (a concept he does not necessarily endorse, even though his essay is a good compendium of the origins of the term), elaborates:

The term “social justice” was first used in 1840 by a Sicilian priest, Luigi Taparelli d’Azeglio, and given prominence by Antonio Rosmini–Serbati in La Costitutione Civile Secondo la Giustizia Sociale in 1848. John Stuart Mill gave this anthropomorphic approach to social questions almost canonical status for modern thinkers thirteen years later in Utilitarianism.

This Sicilian priest that Novak refers to was a Jesuit and he was inspired by the teachings of St. Thomas Aquinas. Later on, the idea was further elaborated by the Catholic theologian John A. Ryan. Furthermore, yet another Catholic clergyman, Father Coughlin also used the term in his writings in the 1930s and the 1940s.

Now, let me be clear, I do not wish to bring into question individual Catholics and people of faith. I would, instead, prefer that we move through this discussion from an Institutional perspective, focusing on the political implications of these definitions and their origins.

If one were to read about the Jesuit Order, even Wikipedia articles present it as a progressive branch of the Catholic Church focused on human rights and the poor. What is rarely called into question is the role of the Jesuits in the conversion of Indigenous People in what now constitutes Latin America.

A Jesuit Reduction was a type of settlement for indigenous people in Latin America created by the Jesuit Order during the 17th and 18th centuries. In general, the strategy of the Spanish Empire was to gather native populations into centers called Indian Reductions (reducciones de indios), in order to Christianize, tax, and govern them more efficiently.[…]

The Jesuit reductions present a controversial chapter of the evangelisational history of the Americas, and are variously described as jungle utopias or as theocratic regimes of terror.

As a result of this origin in Catholic doctrine, we have inherited, together with the coinage of the term, this implication that Social Justice is a “gift” or an “allowance” (from God and by transitive relation from “man to mankind”). Even contemporary Catholic scholars define Social Justice as “gifts”.

Cardinal Turkson explained that in the Church’s thinking, social justice involves citizens’ obligations and responsibilities to ensure fairness and opportunity in their communities and societies. While this may include the adoption of specific government policies and programs, the emphasis in Catholic social teaching is on the obligations that flow from citizens’ relationships in societies.

“Respecting, understanding and fulfilling those demands constitute our justice,” he said. “It would be useful if we just observed our sense of justice as our ability to fulfill the demands of the relationships in which we stand.” This is in contrast to socialism, he explained, which is an ideology in which private property and private interests are totally placed in the service of government policies.

What the Pope proposes in “Caritas in Veritate,” said Cardinal Turkson, is “achieving the common good without sacrificing personal, private interests, aspirations and desires.” [He] also said the Council was also surprised that the Pope’s concept of the “gift,” was perceived in some circles as encouraging government welfare handouts.

In “Caritas in Veritate,” Pope Benedict described the concept of “gift” as a way to understand God’s love for men and women in his gift of life and his gift of Jesus.[…] Gift, Cardinal Turkson explained, is “a very basic, deep theological expression of God’s relation or the motivation for whatever God does in the world, and it’s not quite the same as a handout.”

(Incidentally, I am really happy that the Vatican cleared any misunderstandings about the supposed “Socialist” nature of Jesus’ teachings).

Honestly, I have an issue basing my work and goals, my entire belief system on a definition coined by an institution that took until 1965 to openly condemn slavery.

Fair enough, one could say that, by now we have all adopted a secular definition of Social Justice, which should clear all controversies, right? Not so, it seems. The secular foundation of Social Justice is entirely based on the work of John Rawls, a Harvard philosopher who redefined the term in the late 20th century and whose inspiration was drawn from Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, John Locke and Immanuel Kant (yeah, I’ll point out the obvious, not a single woman, queer, non Western, non White person in the list of people who laid the foundations of the movement we all supposedly align behind). So, no matter which angle I pick to look at the origins of this whole concept (be it its roots in theology or its late 20th century secular definition), from the get go, this was not something inclusive, holistic and healing of communities and the individuals therein.

Additionally, Social Justice is borne out globalization and it does not account for difference, be it cultural or ideological. This late 20th century, secular conception of Social Justice is rooted on universal principles which are, more often than not, used to push for a uniform kind of globalization, Western style democracies and liberalization of markets for international corporations modeled under capitalist forms of development (see critics of the Millennium Development Goals for an example). The Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action, one of the first institutional bodies to adopt Social Justice as a principle in 1993, makes the ideals behind it quite clear (Part II Paragraph 80):

Human rights education should include peace, democracy, development and social justice, as set forth in international and regional human rights instruments, in order to achieve common understanding and awareness with a view to strengthening universal commitment to human rights.

Now, while I was thinking about all of the above, trying to bring some order into these problematic origins of Social Justice and attempting to situate myself and my politics within these definitions, I came across an interview in an Argentinian newspaper. In this interview, LA based, Uruguayan activist Carolina De Robertis, referred to her work in the US as her “pasion por el bienestar social”. When I read that, I paused and gasped. “Bienestar Social” is, if I was to translate those words in the way academics do, Social Welfare. Such is the widely accepted English language equivalent. However, my cross/multi cultural situation sent me through the rabbit hole of non translations and new conceptual definitions. I am, after all, forever forced to navigate my South American cultural origins (which are a definitive part of my identity) within a Western setting (by virtue of my European residence). In this constant shift that I experience dozens of times every day, mostly because I regularly read and write in several languages, I realized that contained within the category of “Social Welfare”, if I tweaked the translation slightly, another word was made available to me, similar, but at the same time, charged and bursting with a whole new meaning and implications; here was another concept that I wished to explore further, that of Social Wellbeing.

I googled like my life depended on it. Sure others must have written about Social Wellbeing. Sure there must be piles of prior work to draw upon. And it turns that there is some work done on Social Wellbeing, but it is mostly related to the aftermath of conflict in war zones and areas recovering from armed conflict.

So, I started to think of what Social Wellbeing would entail. Now, I know some might argue that my exercise is purely semantic that there is no need for a new category, that Social Justice already defines goals and concepts. Why would we then need to even consider something entirely new? We (collectively) might not. But I surely do. Mostly because my politics involve healing. Healing of communities, of the individuals that make the communities, healing of the harms brought by injustice, of the environment in which we develop ourselves and the relationships we build with one another. Access to Justice is one necessary step towards healing, but certainly not all of it. Without adding health to our social equation, we will continue propagating the same social diseases that lead to oppression and alienation. For me, that’s where Social Wellbeing comes to life.

Social Wellbeing seeks to restore balance, to create a state in which needs are met and where people are allowed to develop through opportunities for advancement. Social Wellbeing should account for difference and local cultures, it should be inclusive of Justice but also of the “aftermath” of Justice. For me, it is not a universally defined idea of progress but one which is defined locally. From the standpoint of my Feminist lens, Social Wellbeing should call intragender oppression into question (i.e. What does it mean to succeed, as a woman, in an environment that oppresses other women, sometimes even at our expense?).

Social Wellbeing is measurable and tangible, not based on subjective notions “allowed” by those in power, but by conditions reflecting the overall health of a community. The kind of Social Wellbeing that I envision is holistic and integrated into our experiences as individuals but also as individuals within a group (our immediate community/the city we live in/ the Nation State/ Family/ etc.). Wellbeing is emancipatory and horizontal, it should also take into account the health of the environment as an indicator of human health. Above all, Social Wellbeing should hold us all accountable for each other’s rights and needs. Personally, I’d rather work towards collective Wellbeing, than towards goals and definitions that were not precisely set to include me.


  1. Brigid wrote:

    I love the idea of social wellbeing. It’s powerful. It’s expansive. It’s positive, placing emphasis on what you want to create, rather than on what you need to fix (for though “justice” is a positive term, I think of it as being about righting wrongs, not making rights). Thanks for sharing!

    Monday, August 15, 2011 at 4:28 pm | Permalink
  2. Jadey wrote:

    Ohh, this is good. This is very good. Not only was I not aware of the history of the term “social justice”, I also hadn’t considered the implication of an ideology that centered justice, but not the “aftermath of justice”, as you put it.

    This changes everything.

    Monday, August 15, 2011 at 5:03 pm | Permalink
  3. Michael wrote:

    Many of the turn of the century arguments in favor of eugenics cited “social well-being” and “social welfare” as their ultimate goal. Further, many modern religious organizations use these terms to define their own problematic programs. While moving toward a more inclusive concept behind radical activism is certainly important, I don’t believe that using present ideals to criticize the past is going to yield anything truly useful.

    Monday, August 15, 2011 at 5:35 pm | Permalink
  4. @Michael, I hope you are not suggesting that we should not criticize the role of the Jesuit Order in the subjugation of Indigenous peoples in Latin America (i.e. your statement that we shouldn’t use present ideals to criticize the past). Because if that’s what you are suggesting, I only have one word for you: NO. Because really, that won’t fly around these parts.

    Monday, August 15, 2011 at 5:40 pm | Permalink
  5. Michael wrote:

    I’m saying that if you’re not going to use the term “social justice” because of its ties to the Jesuits, you shouldn’t use “social well-being” due to its problematic associations.

    Monday, August 15, 2011 at 6:03 pm | Permalink
  6. None of the first 200 google results or the scholarly articles I researched had any reference to these negative implications you mention. Sure, there are perhaps some obscure groups using the concept to advance some arbitrary notion of Social Wellbeing, but I don’t think you can say, in good faith that the dimensions of this negative, marginal use are equal to the already described negative aspects of Social Justice.

    Monday, August 15, 2011 at 6:10 pm | Permalink
  7. Michael wrote:

    While there certainly is a great deal of scholarly work on the term “Social Justice” and its effects, I’m referring to primary sources. “Social welfare” and “social well-being” are phrases that the eugenics advocates themselves used to describe their work. However, perhaps this is far enough in the past that these oppressive ties are a non-issue.

    Monday, August 15, 2011 at 6:30 pm | Permalink
  8. Hayley B wrote:

    While I find the origins of the concept interesting, I don’t think rejecting a word that has come to mean something good because it used to mean something bad is particularly useful. I’m not against the concept of social wellbeing (it’s rather nice), but I feel that a lot of movements started out with decent intentions but a lot of “fuckupery.” Animal rights activists often cite St. Francis of Assissi–I’m completely against catholicism and am sure he did some terrible things in its name, but I’m not going to reject concepts of his that were okay despite that. It’s like the HRC being completely intolerant of trans people–totally not okay, but that doesn’t mean that the idea of “human rights” is not sufficient, if we learn from our mistakes and make up for the wrongs committed against trans folk.
    I don’t know, I guess I’m just trying to say that every movement has its problems? And we’re learning? Except that I’m not as eloquent or erudite as you. I’m normally in awe of your writing, so I don’t want you to think I’m just being petulant–I just thought I’d speak up to say that I consistently find that movements I consider important in the present did terrible things in the past and I’m not sure that changing the name is a solution (but I can’t say I have another one). Just seems like the way of the world, or is that just me acquiescing to the paradigm instead of challenging it??

    Monday, August 15, 2011 at 6:44 pm | Permalink
  9. Hayley, it was Audre Lorde who said “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House”. Those words resonate a lot with me in the context of Social Justice and how/ who created the idea and the tools for this struggle. I am not suggesting anyone should follow my line of thought, but to me, there are no ideas or frameworks worth keeping because, eh, this is the best we can do. We can and SHOULD do better. Whether it is within or outside the framework of Social Justice is not up to me to decide for others. However, as someone fully invested in dismantling kyriarchical structures of gender oppression, I personally find it quite alarming that we all align behind a movement that had no women in its inception (or no non White people, for that matter) and this, was a mere 20 years ago. Had this movement been created in another century, sure, I’d understand the gender imbalance. However, reading the history of the movement (again, very recent history), I am quite suspicious of how it is both a male Harvard Scholar and the UN (not the most critical, anti kyriarchy institution out there, no?) creating these definitions. Moreover, I left this out of my post not to divert from the core of the issue at hand, but John Rawles also claimed that violations of human rights can legitimize military intervention in the violating states (it’s in the wiki biography I linked in the post). So, the answer to human rights violations is US militarism? Eh… Additionally, he also defined what he called “the decent people” as liberals. Which, yeah, with my never ending questioning of capitalism I get all kinds of red lights at such idea.

    Monday, August 15, 2011 at 7:05 pm | Permalink
  10. Hayley B wrote:

    Flavia, thanks for the reply.

    That’s true, I’m not normally “eh, the best we can do” type. Not sure why I felt it on this post. I guess I personally oscillate (more with environmentalism than feminist/queer/”peopley” issues) as to whether working within the system is better than from the outside. Which is sort of the same issue as “Master’s House?” It feels like the same vein–using terms people know, using existing legislative structure or governmental infrastructure to create change, rather than removing oneself from commonly-known jargon and current legal practices. I think another issue for me might be that I am relatively new to some of these movements, and it takes time to realize the depths of these things. Twenty years ago is a long time to me, who was not much of a feminist three years ago. So the fact that the current state of things includes ladies but didn’t used to doesn’t seem so disturbing considering that it didn’t used to include ME but does now. (A very self-centered view, I know.) When I find out that something is not inclusive of nonwhite people or trans people (something that keeps happening at recent feminist events I’ve attended [see also: Slutwalk Seattle’s ridiculous discounting of trans experience]) I am definitely critical and usually a bit disbelieving that they haven’t figured that out yet. It doesn’t make me want to dissociate from feminism though.. It makes me want to make it better. And prove that a feminist CAN make herself, her ideas, and her life open to trans and nonwhite experiences. Unlike the “feminist” on stage doing the opposite.

    Anyway, I completely agree to the whole last bit of your reply, and I see where you’re coming from. I think my views arise from (as stated) being relatively new to some of the movements, not to mention the fact that your post is about social justice, not feminism in particular–and the umbrella of social justice is not as familiar to me as some of the more specific issues.

    Monday, August 15, 2011 at 7:52 pm | Permalink
  11. alanna wrote:

    Flavia, thank you for such a thought-provoking essay. For me, I find the idea of “Social Wellbeing” as opposed to “Social Justice” compelling because it helps to reframe the issue. “Justice” – and I’m speaking from a US perspective here – seems to carry a connotation of retribution and punishment – that a crime was committed and that you can point to the person(s) at fault. But many of the problems we face are systemic. You can’t point to a person or group or organization and say, “poverty in [x] community is your fault,” for example.

    “Wellbeing,” on the other hand, has connotations of healing and health, as you mentioned in your essay. Maybe this is a more productive way to look at some of these problems. You can’t really “blame” anyone when you get sick – it’s the virus’s “fault” – but you can ameliorate the symptoms and/or find a cure. And of course the idea of “Wellbeing” means more than simply curing an illness – it means ensuring that the body functions optimally. I’d like to think that “Social Wellbeing” would lead us to do more than simply redress a lengthy list of wrongs.

    Tuesday, August 16, 2011 at 10:10 am | Permalink
  12. Catherine wrote:

    We social-justice religious types have been using phrases like “the wellbeing of all” in our liturgies and social policies for quite a while now, so to me “wellbeing” invokes on a small gradient of meaning. (We’ve been even bigger on the use of the phrase “wellbeing of the churches of God,” to the extent that reading the word “wellbeing” over and over has caused to inadvertently start humming the liturgy. I probably don’t represent the general populace here.)

    Not long ago, this blog was talking about indigenous women’s movements and was at least neutral on the liberation theologians, so I think that this discussion should at least include the Jesuits among them. I’m not saying that the bad parts of Jesuit history should be discounted, I’m just saying, Jesuit history is a really, really big topic. (I mean, even on the negative side you left out male only.)

    But I was a little confused about the point being made about “gifts.” Of course secular people are not going to have the same view that a sense of justice stems from God, but it seems kind of circular to criticize Catholics for being Catholic. I’m not sure if that was the point being made, but, like I said, I was not understanding that part very well.

    Tuesday, August 16, 2011 at 3:24 pm | Permalink
  13. Catherine, I also wrote the piece you refer to about indigenous women. The fact that individual priests did/ do something positive within a community does not invalidate the fact that an institution might be oppressive. I do not wish to enter a debate about the role of the Catholic Church in Latin America because it would probably lead us nowhere. Suffice to say, I will continue being critical of the role of the institution in the part of the world where I was born and raised because a critical eye to all institutions is fundamental in order to move forward in non oppressive ways.

    Tuesday, August 16, 2011 at 4:07 pm | Permalink
  14. alanna wrote:

    (On a lighter note, I have just remembered an old MST3K episode in which the line, “I’m very concerned for your well-being,” delivered by a heavily-accented actress, elicits the response, “His wallaby?” Anyone for a new Social Wallaby movement?)

    Tuesday, August 16, 2011 at 4:40 pm | Permalink
  15. Catherine wrote:

    Flavia, certainly nor do I wish to debate over 500 years’ history of half the world. Even if I were capable of it, it’s not going to fit into the comments thread of a blog post.

    I think that what I am feeling and responding to is that Jesuit history really is huge. I can’t blame you for saying that on the whole you have decided it is oppressive, but that because the topic is so huge, trying to squeeze it into a blog post leaves out what to me would the relevant portion–not that all these people called themselves Jesuit, but how specifically Jesuit theology may continue to engender oppression. I didn’t mean to imply anything simple like “Oh, but some Jesuits were good!” but rather to question whether Jesuitism itself creates good actions or bad actions or whether it is so broad that we cannot say whether any actions are specifically, unavoidably driven by Jesuit theology. Or, if we can say that some are, which ones. (I am not saying that I know the answer to that–I don’t–or that you have the wrong answer. I am just saying that the argument did not feel thoroughly distilled to me. You don’t need to tell me that you will continue to criticize, but I’m glad you will.)

    Tuesday, August 16, 2011 at 4:46 pm | Permalink
  16. Finnegan wrote:

    I honestly don’t think that I like “social wellbeing” very much; everything that I find convincingly problematic about “social justice” remains- it is still something which is received, rather than experienced- but lacking even the progressive agency implied by “justice”. Why not instead push for something more radical, something with an even greater stress on this agency, something like “social liberation”? That, to me, seems to be far more in the tradition of the great progressive mass movements of modern history, from the labour movement to the women’s movement, than appeals to some future “wellbeing”.

    Wednesday, August 17, 2011 at 1:11 am | Permalink
  17. Are you basing your critique of Rawls of his work or his Wikipedia entry? I’m not a fan of Rawls, but I don’t think your criticisms of his work are fair. We can certainly question his use of (primarily, not exclusively) white males in his work, but at the same time I wonder which other authors you’d like to see cited on the topic he’s discussing.

    Rawls’ entire project is based around inclusivity – he’s interested in creating a conception of the state acceptable to all persons, not merely those associated with liberalism. Saying that Rawls is inspired by Bentham and Mill is technically true, but only in a very roundabout way. Rawls explicitly rejects utilitarianism on the grounds that it devalues individual persons in an unacceptable way. His view of social justice is, at least to my eyes, not based in globalisation. His fundamental question is about the nature of the state and of justice (which he conceives of as being grounded in fairness), not in globalised views of the world.

    As to your idea of ‘social wellbeing’ – I wonder how exactly you’re cashing in this idea. While the specific phrase may have few direct references, the ideas of ‘wellbeing’ and ‘welfare’ most certainly do have understood meanings, most of which are closely tied to utilitarianism. It doesn’t seem like your conception is utilitarian, but your terminology associates you with that ideology. If you’re concerned about those sort of associations, you should be aware of that.

    Finally, regarding your last paragraph, I’m not sure precisely what you mean. Everything you say sounds appealing but I’m not sure what it means in practice. In what sense is social wellbeing “measurable and tangible”? What are the measurable and tangible criteria? Describing social wellbeing as holistic and balancing individual value with the value of community is great, but how exactly do you intend to do this? The tension between individual and communitarian values has concerned academics for a long time and I haven’t seen any simple answers to that problem, so I’m interested in your solution.

    As to welfare being emancipatory, I’m not sure precisely what you mean. Likewise for using environmental health as an indicator of human health. And I wonder what is entailed by the idea of holding persons accountable for the rights and needs of each other – do you mean this in an ethical sense? A legislative sense? Some other sense?

    Wednesday, August 17, 2011 at 10:43 am | Permalink
  18. Ursula wrote:

    I think that a lot of the pushback on this post is coming from a certain feeling of moral inflexibility that the post contains. As progressives, we spend a lot of time copping to the fact that no movement has been entirely free of oppressive facets. That said, we do ourselves an immense disservice as thinking human beings if we discard every term, method, or rubric that has any unfavorable historical association. I also find it immensely difficult to reconcile a modern progressivism that recoins itself every few years with the eternal struggle of peoples all over the world to throw off oppression.

    Wednesday, August 17, 2011 at 11:28 am | Permalink
  19. Catherine wrote:

    “In what sense is social wellbeing “measurable and tangible”?”

    Eggs: Well, there is work being done on social wellbeing in the fields of mental health and economics (more visible from searching bibliographic databases than from searching the Web), and surely those doing studies are developing criteria. So that could be a start from which to draw, though I am not sure whether both fields are using similar definitions–economics even seems to prefer a no-hyphen spelling, while health prefers a hyphen–and in mental health, it does appear to be a subjective measure, based on self-reporting. But perhaps a philosophy more rooted in economic theory than in theology is one avenue for exploration? That seems to be one of the tensions evident in the Catholic News Agency article that Flavia linked to, that the RC Church leadership is concerned about social justices’ being conflated with any one economic theory, especially socialism.

    Wednesday, August 17, 2011 at 1:10 pm | Permalink
  20. samanthab wrote:

    This notion of Social Well-being makes incredible sense to me. The word “healing” on the other hand makes me squirmy, probably in part because I live in a community with a lot of “healers.” It’s a term generally used with an intrinsic power dynamic, i.e. you seek out someone to “fix” your mental and emotional health. And, as someone with a mental illness, I object to the way it’s often used to suggest that what I should aim for is an eradication of my intensely painful experiences. For one thing, that’s easily a luxury I don’t have. It’s perfectly possible that moments of suicidal depression are just going to fucking be part of my life no matter what. Secondly, I’m not very interested in having those experiences erased, as the word “healing” is often used to suggest. They taught me a fuckload, and I’ll hold onto those scars as badges if I goddamned well please.(That’s not directed at Flavia, but rather the many bullshit artists intent on financially and emotionally exploiting suffering.)Thirdly, “healing” suggests a closure and a stasis. I think well-being is actually a constant battle, or it is in my experience, at any rate.
    So as much as I like the notion of Social Well-being, the notion of “healing” just doesn’t work for me. I get that this may speak to context, but that’s my context.

    Wednesday, August 17, 2011 at 3:29 pm | Permalink