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November 30, 2017

Senate Matters

An Argument for Social Justice as a Core Institutional Principle of the University

What is the meaning of social justice as I conceive it for our university? Recent work in the Senate has caused me to revisit this concept. I gained a new appreciation for the application of this concept having learned that my own discipline, public health, has been famously defined by Beauchamp as “doing social justice.” However, I ground my argument primarily on the elegant ethical analysis and justification of the nature and role of justice in the democratic form of government presented in John Rawls’ major work, “A Theory of Justice.” In the most reduced form, Rawls frames social justice as the institutional arrangements that allow for and promote fairness, i.e., providing all members of the polity the opportunity to apply reason and their native capacities to pursue the good as each individual defines it, while not denying or abridging the same opportunities for others. Rawls rejects the classic utilitarian conception that society achieves goodness by allocating resources in whatever manner that achieves the greatest utility to the society. In doing so he ignores, if not rejects, the equality of every individual in terms of moral worth.

Rawls’ argument then is grounded in the Kantian assumption that morality entails viewing each individual as an end in herself/himself and not as a means for manipulation by a dominant elite to further its position nor as a resource to be sacrificed to achieve an alternative, utopian vision of society. Rawls identifies as primary social goods those resources necessary for each individual to pursue her/his plan for the good life. These include basic political liberties, e.g., freedom of conscience and of association, the autonomy to choose one’s life work, provision of an adequate income and the requisites for maintaining one’s self-respect. Rawls contends that society must insure the opportunity to access these primary goods in order for members of the society to act as free and equal human beings in the pursuit of their life goals. In Percy Lehnings’ overview of Rawls magnum opus, “John Rawls: An Introduction,” he summarizes Rawls, stating that society’s basic function and structure is to insure fairness in the allocation of these primary goods and that “the aim of Rawls’ theory of justice is to answer how this is done in a way that is fair” that it “formulates the principles of how institutions … that influence the life prospects of individuals, distribute primary goods in a fair way.” This summary outline of Rawls’ work provides foundation blocks for developing an operational definition for social justice as a core moral value for a democratic political system and the public institutions in which social cooperation is achieved.

As an extension of the Faculty Assembly’s review of a statement of core values or principles that has been developed by a University Senate task group initially established to formulate a statement endorsing the University’s commitment to diversity and inclusion and its implications, Senate leadership held the first of a series of open meetings of faculty, staff and students to discuss the substance of the working paper. The core values or principles that are addressed in this statement are academic freedom, pursuit of knowledge, diversity and inclusion, public service and shared governance. Although I might place different emphasis in the wording of the statements describing and justifying these values, I have no major issues with these values as being fundamental, operating principles of the public university. My major disagreement is the subordination of the value of social justice to a bullet point under the diversity and inclusion label. It is my view that the omission of social justice as a core and coequal principle is not only inappropriate but represents a lost opportunity for the University of Pittsburgh to speak out with a prophetic voice at a time when many of the core values of our polity are under assault, including those enumerated above. A commitment to social justice is consistent with and complements the value of celebrating diversity and inclusion as full participation in public life of all, including those who are considered to be most vulnerable due to economic disparity, prejudice and historic sociocultural patterns of repression, isolation and alienation.

As one of our premier societal institutions, the public university has a role to play in advocating for both the moral worth of each individual in our society and the conception of fairness as the grounds for social justice. Research can be employed to better understand the economic, sociocultural and political processes and forces that either sustain or impede fairness in the distribution of primary social goods. The teaching function in the appropriate disciplines should provide a forum for encouraging informed discussion and analysis of these processes and the associated moral entailments and for challenging preconceptions and unexamined prejudices. Finally, the service component of the University’s mission should provide venues for evidence-based advocacy and focused interventions to address obstacles in providing fair treatment and allocation of resources to ameliorate disparities in access to the resources and opportunities necessary for each individual to pursue her/his life plan while protecting the rights of all to do the same. On these grounds, I argue for social justice to be considered as an appropriate, indeed an essential, core value or principle of the University in the face of the current assaults upon the worth of the university’s mission, the grounds of truth and the value of its pursuit.

Wes Rohrer is an associate professor of health policy and management and chair of the budget policies committee of Senate Council.


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