Social Justice, Human Rights and Public Policy

McLachlan, Hugh V.
Glasgow: Humming Earth
ISBN 1846220033 (pb)
£ 14.95
pp. 180

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Cover of book This book is a well-written response to Social Justice: Strategies for National Renewal: Strategies for National Renewal The Report of the Commission on Social Justice (Vintage, 1994) or simply the 'Report'. McLachlan considers topics such as income inequality, human rights, health, education, taxation, disability and affirmative action. McLachlan also delivers a sharp critique of postmodernist thought.

McLachlan argues against the Report's use of the concept 'social justice'. McLachlan proposes that there is no straightforward link between justice and public policy. The Report (See: pp 17-22 in the Report or p. 12 in McLachlan 2005.) states that social justice relates to four ideas. (No. 1) All citizens should have equal worth. (No. 2) Every citizen should be entitled to be able to meet their basic needs of income, shelter et cetera. (No. 3) Social justice depends on the distribution and re-distribution of life-chances. (No. 4) Unjust inequalities should be reduced or eliminated but not all inequalities are unjust. These ideas are used in the Report as starting-points for public policies to counter social injustice. One proposition is to transform the social welfare system to help citizens adjust to change not only during temporary hardship but throughout the life-cycle.

McLachlan takes as his starting-point the idea that natural rights spring from the ownership of our physical bodies. He infers that there is little ground for the public policies proposed in response to the examples of social injustice discussed in the Report. McLachlan supports this claim by saying that the examples discussed in the Report often are not correspond to any plausible natural rights. McLachlan differs between rights of action and rights of recipience. The latter type of rights corresponds to concrete duties of other human beings or agencies. Injustice exists only when the rights of a concrete individual has been denied. The act of murder produces injustice by violating the right not to be killed. Rights that do not correspond to duties or to duties which cannot be plausibly performed by an individual, are not really rights.

If the state really is obliged to provide direct or indirect help to enable people to achieve their basic needs (No. 2) then those who are deprived of such assistance are treated unjustly. This is an example of social injustice only if the state carries the obligation to provide such assistance to the citizens. McLachlan argues that the duty to be charitable is difficult to plausibly transfer to a collective agency. It is therefore not easy to imagine the basis of natural rights to the kind of social welfare support that is proposed in the Report.

McLachlan stays within the confines of an entirely philosophical investigation. The analysis of the confusing UN Human Rights' Declaration is interesting but the attempts to say something about social processes are perhaps less convincing.

McLachlan reduces the outcome of social processes to a matter of personal 'good' or 'bad' luck. Being born in a family with little material wealth (empirically correlated with adverse health effects) is bad luck according to McLachlan and therefore not an example of social injustice. Material wealth is linked to opportunities. Relative differences in perceived opportunities is an established cause of stress. It is accepted that stress causes adverse health effects. This mechanism may explain persistent average life-span differences between people in the service and working classes in affluent industrial societies (Marmot 2004). Social processes (rooted in economic inequality) that reproduce health differences are real issues. McLachlan is right to point out that the Report employs the concept of justice in a rather careless way, but is less convincing when he advices us to ignore existing social issues.

The strength of the book is the engaging critique of the Report's basic taxonomy, the UN Human Rights' Declaration and postmodernism. The weakness is the philosophical over stretch into areas that are better explored in dialogue with empirical evidence. I think McLachlan's book will benefit anyone interested in the nature of justice.


Social justice: Strategies for national renewal. The report of the Commission on Social Justice. London: Vintage. 1994.

MARMOT, Michael. The status syndrome. How your social standing directly affects your health and life expectancy. London: Bloomsbury. 2004.

Pär Gustafsson
University of Oxford