On World Justice Day, Miklós Zala shares his thoughts on justice and the role of citizens.

Eleven years ago, the United Nations General Assembly declared 20th of February as the World Day of Social Justice, “recognizing the need to promote efforts to tackle issues such as poverty, exclusion and unemployment”. The relevance of this day is obvious for every country, because if there is something we can be certain about, it is that our societies are burdened by social injustices. Of course, the extent to which our societies are unjust varies, but it is clear that every society must do more to eradicate poverty and want, to bring about gender and racial equality, and to promote equality of opportunity for all, including the opportunity for decent employment.

An important question, however, is: Who should take on the important tasks of eradicating poverty and creating an inclusive society? One answer to this question is that these are duties of the state and its institutions. The legendary American philosopher, John Rawls imagined a just society this way: in his famous formulation, “justice is the first virtue of social institutions”.

The alternative view is that individuals too have duties to further social justice. According to one prominent representative of this view, the philosopher G. A. Cohen, just institutions are not enough in themselves; a just society is impossible without an ethos, that is, a characteristic spirit of a community that motivates people to act according to the requirements of justice.

Whereas it is undeniably the duty of the state and state institutions to work to make the world more just, there are some clear examples that show that it is not enough to confine the purview of justice to institutions only. Take the case of the #MeToo movement that recently shocked and shook the world. One of the shocking features of the #MeToo phenomenon is that some types of interactions of everyday life, often accepted as normal within a society, can be part of a wider system of injustice and oppression. The problem of gender inequality and injustice cannot be solved without changes in all-too-frequent personal interactions between men and women.

Another case in point is the problem of social segregation. Many disadvantages that residents of racially segregated neighborhoods must endure are the result of individual interactions. For social integration requires the cooperation of racial groups on terms of equality. While antidiscrimination laws are certainly fundamental for racial equality, they cannot guarantee that members of an advantaged racial group will not discriminate in their choices of friends or neighbors – and research shows that these “private discriminations” strongly contribute to the already existing social disadvantages of racial minorities. Having ties to members of a socially advantaged group enhances one’s social capital: in a racially segregated society, having white friends can be more crucial in finding a job than the presence of state sponsored unemployment programs.

This leads us back to the importance of the World Day of Social Justice: while actions of states are necessary for eradicating poverty and for bringing about social inclusion, citizens also have an indispensable role in realizing social justice in their private choices and interactions. If a social justice ethos among citizens is essential to a just society, then citizens need to become aware of injustices in their communities, and to reflect on how to make decisions that further social justice. The World Day of Social Justice is a good day, then, to reflect on social justice and to celebrate and nurture a social justice ethos.


Miklós Zala, Post-doctoral Researcher, Central European University