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Social Justice

NASW Code of Ethics


Core value of the profession


social justice involves a call to:

"challenge social injustice."


Injustice can include "issues of poverty, unemployment, and discrimination"


Challenging injustice =

attempt to improve access to resources and opportunities as well as voice in


and raise awareness of and sensitivity to oppressed and cultural minority populations.



Social Justice

nature and role in the profession


Van Soest (1994)

three social justice perspectives:

libertarian, utilitarian, and egalitarian


The libertarian perspective emphasizes human rights, which includes the rights to liberty (freedom to live as they chose but fitting and in harmony with others’ rights to live as they chose), life, and property. Government should be limited to protection of these rights. Laws that require people to help others are opposed.

The utilitarian perspective emphasizes utility, which revolves around the idea of the "greatest good for the greatest number."  Achieve the greatest net balance of satisfaction summed over all the individuals belonging to it. Allows some individual’s freedoms/opportunities to be sacrificed for the sake of others.

The egalitarian perspective emphasizes human needs and asserts that the needs of the "worst-off’ members of society should be placed above other better-off members. Everyone must have an equal opportunity to the bases of income, wealth, etc. The unmet needs of the least well-off people should receive priority and everyone should be entitled to a fair minimum level of those basic social goods to which one is entitled.

Van Soest favors the egalitarian view as the most appropriate form of social justice for the social work profession and extends this view in contending that human beings "deserve the basics (needs) because of their inherent worth and dignity" (which is also a core value of the NASW Code of Ethics)

Libertarian perspective (the problem with this perspective)

if taken to the extreme, this perspective could lead to "blaming the victim"

Utilitarian perspective (the problem with this perspective)

it advocates for the "common good" (who defines the common good??) as opposed to what individuals "deserve"


Wakefield (1988)

Organizing value of professions

"a particular, valued goal of great importance to people’s well-being"

Profession= organizing value + special skills


social work profession is based upon the organizing value of "distributive justice."

economic equality + + + + + +

+ +"minimal distributive justice"


Wakefield (with a little help from Rawls)….

rejection of the utilitarian approach of facilitating the "greatest good for the greatest number."

Wakefield (with a little help from Rawls and Kant)….

favors the respect for individuals and avoidance of inflicting harm to some individuals in effort to ensure the happiness and well-being of the masses

ensuring the happiness of the masses involves oppressing minority groups to the benefit of the majority groups.


Distributive justice:

fair distribution of economic resources and services

+ + + +

non-economically-related benefits, including "opportunity, power, and the social bases of self-respect"

This widens the playing field…..

Gives us a profession "engaged in alleviating deprivation in all its varieties, from economic to the psychological"


Minimal distributive justice:

social work does not take on all injustices but can tackle injustices which involve deprivation in which some "good", whether it be economic goods or simple human respect, "falls below the minimal level consistent with justice"

minimal level= "social minimum", which is the level below which an individual’s pursuit of a happy life is impaired.

It is the social worker’s job is to identify and help raise up those who fall below this minimum


More on Rawls (1971)

Social contract of cooperation--Members of society should equally share in its benefits and burdens.

"Veil of Ignorance" and a just state:

Involves imagining ourselves as a creator of a just state of affairs, without knowledge of our racial, economic, or social position in that society

"Veil of Ignorance"

Given this veil of ignorance, the response of a rational person would be

to ensure 2 principles of justice:


1. basic rights (including right to vote, freedom of movement, freedom of thought, etc.)

2. greatest benefit of the least advantaged and equality of opportunity

The veil of ignorance is designed to ensure that our views on justice are not influenced  by our own interests. "If a man knew that he was wealthy, he might find it rational to advance the principle that various taxes for welfare measures be counted unjust; if he knew that he was poor, he would most likely propose the contrary principle..."


Social Justice

A few definitions


Rawls (1971) "Social justice is the moral basis of a democratic society and thus is the first and most important virtue of social institutions. Social justice is equality" (p.21)

Barker (1991) "An ideal condition in which all members of a society have the same basic rights, protection, opportunities, obligations, and social benefits" (p.219)

Beverly and McSweeney (1987)

"Fairness in the relationships between people as these relate to the possession and/or acquisition of resources based on some kind of valid claim to a share of those resources"  (p.37)

Davis et al. (undated)

"Social justice is a basic value and desired goal in democratic societies and includes equitable and fair access to societal institutions, laws, resources, opportunities, rights, goods, services for all groups and individuals without arbitrary limitations or barriers based on observed or interpretations of the value of differences in age, color, culture, physical or mental disability, education, gender, income, language, national origin, race, religion or sexual orientation" (p. 13)



Barker, R.L. (1991). The social work dictionary (2nd ed.). Washington, DC: NASW Press.

Beverly, D.P., & McSweeney, E.A. (1987). Social welfare and social justice. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Davis, K., Cox, L., & Adler, M. (undated). Defining social justice in social work education. Unpublished manuscript, Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, VA.

National Association of Social Workers (1996). Code of ethics. Washington DC: Author.

Rawls, J. (1971). A theory of justice. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.

Van Soest, D. (1994). Strange bedfellows: A call for reordering national priorities from three social justice perspectives. Social Work,39, 710-717.

Wakefield, J. C. (1988). Psychotherapy, distributive justice, and social work. Social Service Review, 62(2), 187-210.