Faculty of Arts


Social Justice


The question: “What is justice?” is one of the oldest in the western tradition of political philosophy. Classical political thinkers answered it by drawing analogies between the just society and the ethical person; since the liberal revolution of the seventeenth century, however, political philosophers have tended to emphasise distributive justice – the rules by which a society distributes those resources it considers valuable. Today we tend to think of these as material resources or outcomes, but they might also include intangibles such as self-respect and rights.

In this course we focus on contemporary debates surrounding social – particularly distributive – justice. These originate in early modern ideas about the relationship between private property and social organisation, and reflect some of the most important debates within liberal philosophy – particularly between libertarianism and liberal egalitarianism. 

In the first half of the course, we examine the ideas of John Rawls and Robert Nozick as key thinkers in these traditions, and then focus on the question of equality, which has since the 1980s preoccupied liberal philosophers thinking about distributive justice. 

In the second half of the course, we move away from liberal debates to examine theoretical perspectives critical of the basic assumptions of liberal theories of justice. We begin by exploring socialist critiques of the market, and then consider feminist arguments that gender inequalities underlie even the “just” liberal society. We examine the significance of the public/private split fundamental to liberal political theory. We then discuss identity politics more broadly, and the implications of cultural pluralism for theories of justice. Finally, we examine justice in the global context.

This course should appeal to all students of politics who are interested in the ethical dimensions and philosophical justifications of public policy. It will be of particular interest to Law and Criminology students, and to those who have taken lower level courses in political or social thought, philosophy, international relations theory, political economy or gender studies.


Coursework + exam

View the course syllabus

Availability 2020

Semester 2


Coordinator(s) Associate Professor Katherine Smits


Coursework + Exam


POLITICS 320: 15.0 points


30 points at Stage II in Political Studies or Politics and International Relations or Philosophy, or POLITICS 106 and 30 points at Stage II in Global Politics and Human Rights

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