The Difference Between Social Responsibility and Social Justice

My recent post on why the Green Party is not truly a left-wing party  provoked a lot of debate and was timely given the popular speculation in the wake of the 2014 general election that the time has come for a blue-green party. I’m not sure that a separate blue-green party is the way forward at this point in time – although that may change in years to come and there is much to be said for the Blue Greens advisory group’s influence within the National Party. But a red-green party is also problematic and alienates most New Zealand voters while facing the current challenge of its preferred coalition partner being very weak and also not placing ecological concern at the centre of its thinking.

The Green Party of Aotearoa New Zealand is commonly perceived as a red-green party. Indeed, some Green MPs refer to themselves as being ‘lefties’ and the Party’s framing in mainstream media is certainly on the Left.

But what kind of Left? The party’s persistently poor results in the three big South Auckland electorates (Manukau East, Mangere, Manurewa) over the last five elections suggest that although the party is concerned about the poor, it does not resonate in lower socio-economic areas. It must be said that this is not for a lack of good social policy but there are obviously other more significant factors keeping these areas loyal to Labour. The Greens’ strongest electorates are in the wealthier, urban centres and despite an overall drop in the party vote in the 2014 general election the party vote in Rongotai and Wellington Central improved slightly with a 3.4% lift in Mt Albert putting the vote over 20% in that seat.

Social Responsibility and Social Justice: Ecocentrism and Anthropocentrism

Many commenters continued to use the terms ‘social justice’ and ‘social responsibility’ interchangeably so I set out in this post to make the distinction between social justice and social responsibility more clear. Or, more precisely, to point out that social justice intersects with social responsibility not as a competing idea but one that can sit comfortably alongside the wider conception of social responsibility.

I want to emphasise that I would be deeply disturbed by any movement to change Green Party policy away from its current concern for vulnerable and marginalised people and that is certainly not what I am advocating for. I have said very clearly that I am not nominating core policies or values to be changed or abandoned but I am saying that their origins in social sustainability should be acknowledged and celebrated. An unequal society is inherently unsustainable, a left ideology is not required to acknowledge and deal with this.

There is a large area of overlap between social justice and social responsibility in practice. I suggest that the main distinction between them is that social justice is anthropocentric (human-centred) and social responsibility is ecocentric (ecosystem-centred).

Social Justice

Justice in terms of the distribution of wealth, opportunities, and privileges among people within a society.

Social justice as a concept has its origins in the Catholic church. The phrase was coined by a Jesuit priest, Luigi Taparelli (1793-1862), in the 1840s. Taparelli’s view was that the moral philosophy of St Thomas Aquinas was an antidote to the secular, Cartesian thinking common to both laissez-faire liberal capitalist and socialist thought which he felt had removed morality from political thinking. Social justice has since come to have a much wider meaning and has become largely secular. It was incorporated into legal and political philosophy in America by Louis Brandeis and Roscoe Pound during the late industrial revolution and has become part of international legal instruments such as the Treaty of Versailles (1919), the constitution of the International Labour Organisation (1919) and the UN Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action (1993). The concept has expanded to cover many and diverse areas covering responses to racism, sexism, ageism, heterosexism, heteronormativity, ableism, poverty, civil rights, access to justice, climate injustice, to name a few.

There are broadly two streams of thought in the broader category of social justice: Liberal Democratic or Socialist/Social Democratic (ironic considering Taparelli’s original project). Of course, scholars of political philosophy will find these to be drastic over-simplifications but I believe that they are also reasonably complete categories. In the interests of getting to the point they will have to suffice for now.

Contractarian Liberal Democratic

The pre-eminent modern statement of liberal democratic social justice is that of John Rawls  (1921–2002) who proposed a contractarian approach in A Theory of Justice (1971) whereby rational people in a hypothetical ‘original position’, setting aside their individual preferences and capacities under a ‘veil of ignorance’, would agree to certain general principles of justice and legal organization. This process of reasoning led Rawls to the following values: 

  • Freedom of thought;
  • Liberty of conscience as it affects social relationships on the grounds of religion, philosophy, and morality;
  • Political liberties (e.g. representative democratic institutions, freedom of speech and the press, and freedom of assembly);
  • Freedom of association;
  • Freedoms necessary for the liberty and integrity of the person (such as freedom from slavery, freedom of movement and a reasonable degree of freedom to choose one’s occupation); and
  • Rights and liberties covered by the rule of law.

However, it can’t be overlooked that Rawls considered that social contractarian theory can only possibly apply to the relations between humans. Quoting from his seminal work, A Theory of Justice, Belknap Press, Cambridge, 1971 (p. 17):

The theory of justice as fairness fails to embrace all moral relationships, since it would seem to include only our relations with other persons and to leave out of account how we are to conduct ourselves toward animals and the rest of nature. I do not contend that the contract notion offers a way to approach these questions which are certainly of the first importance; and I shall have to put them aside. We must recognise the limited scope of justice as fairness and of the general type of view that it exemplifies.

Only ‘moral persons’ are considered in the scheme. Moral persons have two characteristics; first, they have a conception of the good ‘as expressed by a rational plan of life’; second, they have acquired (or are at least capable of having) a sense of justice. This excludes all non-human animals and certainly cannot be taken to consider ecosystems. Rawls expresses doubt that there is any requirement that justice be done to non-humans within his scheme but concedes that (p. 512):

Certainly it is wrong to be cruel to animals and the destruction of a whole species can be a great evil. The capacity for feelings of pleasure and pain and for the forms of life of which all animals are capable clearly imposes duties of compassion and humanity in their case. I shall not attempt to explain these considered beliefs. They are outside the scope of the theory of justice, and it does not seem possible to extend the contract doctrine so as to include them in a natural way.

So, an interesting and useful framework but one that is incomplete from the perspective of an eco-centric political theory.

Social Democratic / Democratic Socialist

Social democracy, the brand of socialism traditionally advanced by the Labour Party of New Zealand and the democratic socialism of The Alliance is a combination of the international revolutionary socialism of Marx and Engels and the reformist socialism of Ferdinand Lassalle. Many former members of Labour, disillusioned with the neoliberal re-invention of the party in 1984-1990 and the ‘third-way’ politics of the Clark administration have joined the Green Party. It is only natural that they have brought the language of the liberal left, such as ‘social justice’, with them and assumed that it is synonymous with social responsibility. The NZ Labour constitution enshrines the ‘democratic socialist’ values of:

  • the people as the democratic source of political authority
  • the management of New Zealand’s natural resources for “the benefit of all, including future generations”
  • “equal access to all social, economic, cultural, political and legal spheres, regardless of wealth or social position”
  • co-operation as the main governing factor in economic relations, with a view to the increase and just distribution of wealth
  • universal rights to dignity, self-respect and the opportunity to work
  • the right to wealth and property, subject to the provisos of regarding people as always more important than property and the obligations of the state to ensure a just distribution of wealth
  • Te Tiriti o Waitangi/The Treaty of Waitangi as the founding document of New Zealand, and its honouring in the Party, government, society and the whanau
  • the promotion of peace and social justice throughout the world by international co-operation and mutual respect
  • equality in human rights regardless of race, sex, marital status, sexual orientation, gender identity, age, religious faith, political belief or disability

This a fine statement of values and should be fully supported but, once again, there is a lack of recognition of even the ecological dimension of human existence, let alone an ecocentric conception of how human and non-human nature interact.


Eco-socialism attempts to infuse Marxist socialist thought with an ecological sensibility. Scathingly described by Paul Kingsnorth as ‘a conflation of concepts that pretty much guarantees the instant hostility of 95% of the population’, eco-socialism nonetheless has a firm purchase within the Green Party of Aotearoa New Zealand. A significant portion of the traditional socialist membership of the Greens came from The Alliance after its collapse in the early 2000s. Past MPs of the party such as Sue Bradford and Keith Locke (both of whom have done great work in Parliament and are deserving of the utmost respect), as well as some current MPs, have a strong orientation to the Left. A ‘Green Left’ network was launched at the 2013 AGM in Christchurch, modeled on the Green Left eco-socialist group established in 2005 within the Green Party of England and Wales.

A critique of eco-socialism deserves (and will get) a separate blog post so I will be brief with my concerns here: Eco-socialism is a gloss on socialism. It tends not to engage with immediate solutions and avoids current political realities focusing on long-term societal transformation. Until this revolutionary shift happens, eco-socialists are relegated to an outsider status as critics of capitalist society and the hierarchy of our Westminster political system. Eco-socialists blame capitalism for ecological harm but cannot answer the observation that environmental destruction and species loss pre-dates capitalist society by millennia. There is also a tendency in eco-socialist thought to avoid the challenges inherent in making large-scale societies work and ignore other very real threats such as population pressure. Even more sophisticated iterations that incorporate commons theory don’t deal satisfactorily with intensified living in cities which is less environmentally wasteful than the traditional green idyll of rural living. The primary focus of eco-socialism, as in any other form of socialism, is on human political and economic organization, viewing non-human nature as a vessel for this activity rather than its having an intrinsic value. It thus remains essentially anthropocentric.

I don’t intend to be dismissive of eco-socialists as they are fellow travellers in the broader green movement but eco-socialism within the Green Party of Aotearoa New Zealand represents to me a failure to move beyond left and right. To quote Claire Browning in Beyond Today: a Values story (p. 76):

Politics is not two dimensional any longer, and insistence on classing Greens as a radical version of the left is inaccurate, and damaging to the party.

It denies the Greens the chance of talking to constituents who want to talk about something else.

It is not radical at all: it accepts the shackles of the old frame, rather than breaking free.

By definition, the characterisation of the Greens as hard left, on an axis that runs only from left to right, implies that anything else abandons the party’s principled stance, by stepping to the centre (mainstream) or the right.

Some of the Green Party’s best activists and most skilled politicians come from a Left position and I am at pains not to minimise or dismiss their contribution. But it is also important that a party founded on a paramount principle of ecological wisdom identifies the anthropocentric origins and emphasis of the political ideologies that have preceded and infuse it.

Social Responsibility

Social responsibility, on the other hand, is inherently ecocentric. It flows from the Green Charter Principle of Ecological Wisdom (‘The basis of ecological wisdom is that human beings are part of the natural world. This world is finite, therefore unlimited material growth is impossible. Ecological sustainability is paramount’) and reads as follows:

Social Responsibility: Unlimited material growth is impossible. Therefore the key to social responsibility is the just distribution of social and natural resources, both locally and globally.

As a matter of interpretation, Social Responsibility must be read as flowing from the ‘paramount’ principle of ecological sustainability. Note the repeated phrase linking the two: ‘unlimited material growth is impossible.’ This clearly demands a move beyond neoliberal ‘business as usual’ in pursuit of an endless-growth economy but it does not necessarily mean an immediate rejection of capitalism either. The market remains a most efficient form of material exchange and it is a useful servant but a terrible master. A re-prioritisation of values would demand that the economy be brought into the service of society in a way that is socially responsible while securing ecological integrity. This will require a move in the longer-term to a steady-state economy and the further development of a green economics based in sustainable development tailored to Aotearoa New Zealand. Ultimately, the matter of whether a capitalist economic system can be steady-state will have to be addressed but in the near-term it is neither necessary nor viable to explicitly reject capitalism altogether.

A significant difference between social justice and social responsibility is that reasoning from a position of social responsibility would not view ecological integrity as a value that can be traded off for positive social outcomes. The ‘red before green’ view of a great deal of social justice-oriented political thought has been used to justify mining in ecologically-sensitive areas, over-fishing and the continuation of a primary resource-based economy. This is better than doing these things only for private profit taking but is still some way short of a morally-complete or sustainable way of acting.

Intergenerational equity is a major factor in social responsibility. This is made clear in the 1987 Brundtland (United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development) definition of Sustainable Development: ‘Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.’ This is an ethical expansion beyond individuals or collectives in the present and must include not only human but non-human interests, and not only present but future considerations.

The politics of the 19th and 20th centuries were centred on a contest of ideas between individual freedoms, the ‘freedoms from’, and collectivism. It is fair to say the liberal democratic idea of individual freedom, and more recently its virulent variant of neoliberalism, have triumphed in the First World democracies. Social justice has found form within both of these ideologies and while it has dealt extensively with human rights and entitlements it has never satisfactorily incorporated non-human nature into its thinking. Within social justice conceptions, nature is valued for its instrumental value to humans, not for its intrinsic worth. Some philosophies have tried harder than others to incorporate non-human nature into their thinking but ultimately these are glosses on existing theories of human relations which will tend to default back to their anthropocentric origins when challenging scenarios emerge.

Social Responsibility requires us to make individual choices that benefit a collective expanded beyond people in the present but also to future generations and all nature. This is a way of thinking that requires a new sensibility. It extends to considering whether we drive a car or ride a bike and take public transport; whether we will have children and how many; whether we can keep eating meat and dairy in full knowledge of the huge environmental impacts; whether we can keep eating meat and dairy in full knowledge of the horrendous suffering living, sentient beings endure at our hands; whether we can continue to justify taking jet planes for brief overseas holidays; whether we will continue to allow our suburbs to sprawl and consume prime soils and destroy habitats or whether we will accept denser, more vibrant urban forms. We will need to seriously challenge our ongoing reliance on non-renewable sources of energy and whether we can continue to be complicit in the mass destruction required for their extraction. What is really required is a thorough-going examination of our relationship with nature. Are we being responsible or reckless? By almost any analysis, we will be found wanting.

These are the big, hard choices that actually require us to change the way we live. But this shouldn’t be a totalitarian vision imposed from above; that would not accord with the Charter principles of Appropriate Decision Making and Non-Violence and would inevitably lead to rejection and a perverse incentive to do the opposite. These changes will only be durable if they are individual choices made in the collective interest as a result of internalised values.

Social justice intersects with social responsibility but it is not adequate to meet the challenges of the coming century without the understanding that we live within biophysical limits implicit in absorbing the principal value of ecological wisdom and sustainability. I know that those involved in, for instance, the Climate Justice movement will argue that they are adapting the old thinking to new circumstances but I would respond that these ideas would be more ethically clear if they came from an ecocentric perspective. In practice, social policy developed from a position of social responsibility may appear to be traditionally Left social justice but that will increasingly be like assuming that the tip of an iceberg is the whole.

None of this is to say that social justice is not important. It is. But to use the term in place of the uniquely green value of social responsibility is a failure to understand a fundamental intellectual move that has been made toward a green politics for the 21st century and beyond.

About Vernon Tava

Barrister. Lives in Auckland, New Zealand.
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11 Responses to The Difference Between Social Responsibility and Social Justice

  1. Paul Bailey says:

    Reblogged this on Hawkes Bay Greenie and commented:
    Am essay on the differences between social justice and social responsibility. Geeting to the heart of what it means to be Green

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  4. Dennis Frank says:

    Another excellent essay, Vernon! So rare to encounter another who sees through to the essence of issues and can articulate them with clear, comprehensive reasoning. I’ve read it through again after first discovering it in the new year – thought it merited some feedback from my perspective.

    First, you overstate the case somewhat in suggesting that the GP presenting itself as red-green “alienates most NZ voters” but you’re right inasmuch as the GP leftist alignment stops it representing the green movement on an authentic basis, and does alienate a substantial number of potential green voters accordingly. I bet the GP has failed to do the research necessary to discover the extent of this problem! I have voted green 9 elections in a row despite being disgusted with them since I left the GP in ’95, but other greenies I’ve long known either don’t bother to vote or vote tactically for Labour or NZFirst because the GP presents as too lame.

    Those who gave you feedback that a centrist political stance lacks policy content are morons. It’s an insult to all of us in the political centre who reject the policy packages of the left & right because they are antique and fail to provide what we need in the new millennium. We’ve been advocating a better way since the late 1960s, it’s why we adopted the green brand in the early 1980s to distinguish ourselves from the red left and blue right. They obviously haven’t been paying attention to what’s going on in the world. Such people can’t make a helpful contribution to the political process if they remain that ignorant.

    Re your claim that an unequal society is unsustainable. It may seem valid in principle, but the history of humanity reveals human societies that have been unequal since the dawn of agriculture ten millennia ago. Those that have civilised have become more unequal. Some primitive tribes have less hierarchy than others, but the findings of anthropologists from the 19th into the early 20th centuries are of a general tendency of chiefs to monopolise power & wealth to the extent that their tribal sharing context allows them.

    I agree that the best way to frame social responsibility is upon an ecocentric basis. However, I’ve never been satisfied with the minimalist reference in the Green Charter. It omits vital dimensions of the concept, of which the most important is merely implied: stewardship. Then there’s ethical conduct, traditional morality, custom & convention, duty & obligations, honour & conscience, consideration of the needs of others, leadership as guidance, etc. You are correct to cite intergenerational equity: the fact that it is missing from our Charter is sufficient evidence on its own that the Charter is overdue for revision. Equity is also the root principle of socialism (the socialists, of course, remain too stupid to figure that out), so I consider it essential to social responsibility even without the intergenerational imperative.

    I hope you will proceed to expand on your ecosocialist critique sometime soon. Have they integrated the concept of the steady-state economy? If not, another bunch of slow learners. More than four decades have gone by since folks like Goldsmith the ecologist & Daly the economist first advanced the concept on the global stage. Your point about ecocide predating capitalism was well-made in Clive Ponting’s superb A Green History of the World about a quarter of a century ago.

    Finally, on behalf of the SpiritGreens, I must point out that the ecocentric view has been, through history, derived from a widely-felt spiritual relation to nature. Reference to the sacred grove (in literature), is found not only in celtic culture (the druids) but paganism generally. Tolkein’s elves revived the ancient notion of tree spirits, and the bestseller by Paul Hawken (The Magic of Findhorn) in the counter-culture era alerted us to the apparent existence of devas nowadays! Deeper and more ancient even than the Greek god Pan, a universal nature spirit, is Gaia, who the British called Mother Earth. James Lovelock’s scientific hypothesis of the same name has been extensively validated by other earth scientists since the early ’80s. That gives us all a sound basis for connecting our experiential connection to the home planet (via the mind/body interface, temporal rhythms, etc) to systems science and our spiritual feeling about nature.

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  6. Did I miss something, because I haven’t heard an explanation as to why nature has intrinsic value. What’s wrong with using non-sentient plant life and minerals to our own ends? It’s also not necessarily inconsistent with principles of ecological wisdom if it is done factoring in the fact that we exist within an eco-system. The value of it however can merely be in the way it contributes to the well-being of sentient creatures.

    • Dennis Frank says:

      For most people who support conservation of nature, it’s a gut feeling – goes right across the political spectrum. That’s why the national parks were created a century ago.

      So they recognise the intrinsic value of nature without feeling any need (usually) to articulate why. For some of us, the feeling is so strong we even get to identify it as spiritual. I got it as a child in the ’50s. The pagans were rooted in nature similarly, the christians embraced dominion over nature in order to exploit it, civilisation is evermore a blight upon it. As Vernon suggests, an ecocentric view that recognises the intrinsic right of ecosystem species to co-evolve naturally is what we require for the future.

      And you’re wrong that we live in an ecosystem. We live in Gaia. The ecosystem of our locality was exterminated when our town or city was created!

      • You just used the term ecosystem species and then said we don’t live in an ecosystem Dennis. What is wrong with seeing a non-sentient world as a resource?

      • Dennis Frank says:

        I did indeed, & meant every word of it! Perhaps there’s something here that you don’t understand? I’m a physics grad, not an ecologist, but I got my head around the ecosystem view back in the ’80s no problem. We evolved as an integral part of the ecosystem in Africa long ago, but we shed the view that we are part of nature a few centuries back.

        I don’t see anything wrong with human use of natural resources – because that is our evolutionary tradition. What is wrong is an economy based on ecosystem destruction. The Greens have always advised moving to an economy which sustains ecosystems and minimises use of natural resources where possible while maintaining our quality of life. So we oppose the mindless exploitation processes that the capitalists & socialists cling to. Greed is bad.

  7. Sam Buchanan says:

    “An unequal society is inherently unsustainable, a left ideology is not required to acknowledge and deal with this.”

    Actually, it is. Championing a more equal society against accepting whatever inequality results from an economic and political framework is virtually the definition of the divide between left and right. This is why he right can never deal with sustainability and the left sometimes can.

    • Dennis Frank says:

      Good luck with redefining the left, Sam! ; )
      Historically the left has been as voracious a consumer of nature as the right. The limits to growth notion & the steady-state economy concept date from 1972. Advocates of both may consider themselves leftists but the fact remains that the primary political parties of the left have refused to accept either thesis in all western countries.
      That’s basically why the green movement had to go political originally. It triangulated the old binary political frame in doing so. It had to specifically reject both the political left and the political right because both dinosaurs were adamant in continuing their addiction to economic growth.
      A sustainable future for humanity can only come from those who wean themselves off the continual need for another hit of growth. Thus we created a new path to the future for non-addicts.
      No, I’ve been watching for nigh-on half a century and I’ve yet to see the left “deal with sustainability”, as you put it. They’re still hooked!

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