The Historical and Philosophical Origins of Social Justice

A Course with Thomas Patrick Burke

September 17 to October 22, 2008

“Social justice” has come to play a large role in our society. It produced the labor legislation of the 1930s which is still with us, as well as that of more recent times; it changed the meaning of human rights in the United Nations Declaration on that subject; and it lies at the origin of our civil rights laws and their far-reaching consequences, including homosexual marriage and habeas corpus for prisoners of war.  But what is “social justice,” what does it mean?  And how did it come to be so influential?

The story of this idea, how it emerged and developed from its very different beginnings in 1840, and the various forms and versions it has gone through, is full of interest. It is not only a matter of past history, but provides much help in understanding the present situation of our society, and is also suggestive of possibilities for the future.

In this course, which was based on my original research over several years, we examined the social questions that first gave rise to it, which were in some respects very different from what is generally imagined. We traced the different versions that emerged in different times under the impact of different circumstances, introducing into it a variety of conceptions. And we saw how the modern, expansive concepts of human rights and civil rights developed out of it.