A vision of social justice for the profession

Jeremy Bentham, John Rawls, Robert Nozick and Will Kymlicka

As a profession we must start to debate and form our own vision of social justice, argues David McMenemy, as he looks at how ideas of social justice have evolved over the past decades. The political focus is shifting from individuals to community, and no profession is better placed to help this culture develop. Our profession should place society’s needs at the forefront of its thinking, and not the needs of any single party of government.

One of the key challenges facing every profession is how they navigate the prevailing political winds of the day. From government to government it can seem that priorities change, and the temptation for professional bodies is to try to be all things to all political parties. In this piece, I will try to argue that we need a more holistic approach that is grounded in a deep understanding of the overarching approaches to social justice that inform all the main political parties in the modern era.

Conceptualising social justice 

Firstly, it is important to realise just how much in agreement the main political ­parties actually are with regards the overarching themes of social justice. The political classes in the UK, including many MPs, media figures, and many of the people who run think tanks, are educated in the same understanding of how the world turns, namely the curricula of the Politics, Philosophy and Economics (PPE) degree at Oxford and its variations from other major universities. This combination of concepts results in much of the political class sharing a theoretical playbook that explains society, even when they propose solutions that may seem vastly different. In reality, the variations they then put into practice in politics are essentially tweaks on that worldview.

What political parties present to us as key differences often are not so. Perhaps more importantly for us, the overarching themes they present are distilled from the same or similar philosophical belief systems. In his recent bestselling summary of the themes of social justice, Michael Sandel[1] neatly highlights the three prevailing approaches to social justice that have impacted through the ages:

  • Maximising welfare
  • Protecting individual freedom
  • Promoting virtue.

It is these concepts that those who run government, think tanks etc, are taught in PPE and their variants, and thus it is these themes we must begin to wrestle more deeply with if we are to be effective in our advocacy.

The three themes 

The theme of maximising welfare has had a major impact on the development of ­libraries. Through the application of its main tenet, the Jeremy Bentham-devised concept of utilitarianism, where the ethical duty was to maximise happiness for the largest number, great social programmes were developed throughout the Victoria era and into the 20th century. We saw an expansion of libraries, public museums, parks, healthcare, welfare systems, all introduced to maximise the utility of the majority of citizens. Arguably, utilitarianism helped create our profession as a force, and as a result many within it are still wedded to its tenets, believing that the motif that libraries are a good thing for society is enough in and of itself. Utilitarianism was a neat fit for our profession, but it is the other themes of social justice that have posed larger challenges for us, as we will see below.

The era of utilitarianism had a good innings, but political philosophers began to argue that in maximising welfare, governments were not suitably respectful of individual autonomy.  For instance, taken to its extreme, a utilitarian approach to social justice could allow some in society to have their interests minimalised if it meant that overall utility was the result. An example of this in the area of libraries is the free lending of books at the potential expense of authors and publishers, a debate recently sparked by Terry Deary, author of the Horrible Histories series.


As the focus after the Second World War moved towards individual rights, the tenets of utilitarianism became less palatable for political philosophers, and then by extension, the political classes. Thus we entered a period of history where individual autonomy became the ultimate arbiter of social justice, and the variations on that theme have occupied politics for much of the ­period from the 1960s onwards.  

This was no straightforward battle; individual autonomy can mean anything from the Libertarian-inspired notion that taxes are a form of slavery, as posited by philosopher Robert Nozick, to the notion that individual autonomy means cultural and religious beliefs should no longer be a private interest but a public one, as posited by multiculturalist philosophers like Will Kymlicka.  There is not time in this short piece to explore all of these concepts and their many implications (though those who wish to could consult Parvin and Chambers for an excellent overview) [2] but the key point is that within the debates around what individual autonomy meant in practice, even though the free-market approaches of Hayek and Friedman seemed to win out, as evidenced in the success of Thatcherism, there were more egalitarian elements that could have formed a basis for a modern librarianship. Foremost of these was the work of John Rawls who transformed political philosophy with the publication of A Theory of Justice in 1972.  

A Theory of Justice set the agenda for political philosophy for the next generation.  It finally put to bed utilitarianism as a viable political philosophy by focusing on an egalitarian approach that guaranteed each citizen a core set of rights that empowered them in society.  Rawls emphasised positive rights, i.e. rights the citizen could expect to be provided by the state to enable them. For the library profession, this is a concept we could have engaged with more fully, proposing access to information and knowledge as a positive right to enable citizens to achieve their potential. Largely however, the era of individualism is one where the ­library profession in the UK allowed itself to be led by government priorities and ­focus on a more commercialised approach to service delivery, where individualism was interpreted in a reductive, market-oriented way rather than one based around autonomy as a means of empowerment. This was a strategic error in my view.


The key debates in political philosophy from the 80s onwards have been related to community and were largely a response to Rawls. Philosophers such as Michael Sandel, Alasdair MacIntyre and Michael Walzer dubbed with the label of communitarians, argued that the focus on individual autonomy meant that citizens were viewed as atomised individuals, all involved in maximising their own position in opposition to others. The communitarians believed that this was a ­reductive way of looking at ­human beings and it ignored major influences such as family, community, and country that were a major part of their identity. Importantly for communitarian philosophers, the Aristotelian concept of virtue was inherent in a more community-focused approach to social justice.  The idea was that forming the good citizen to be a part of a strong and functioning community was a vital component of social justice.

This approach began to have influence in the mid to late 90s in the UK, firstly with some elements of Blairism, but in the most recent past we have seen communitarian philosophy majorly influence both Conservative and Labour politics through the movements around The Big Society and Blue Labour.  Increasingly we are seeing the political focus switch to community rather than individuals, and we need to be more ready to react to this new era.

Navigating the claims of community 

Like the other ethical approaches discussed above, the philosophies of community and virtue when applied to social justice pose both potentially progressive and regressive dimensions. For instance, there are clear dangers to intellectual freedom in a situation where religious organisations can organise and manage public libraries and their collections. We need to be equally mindful of the potential of non-religious community groups to impose their own values on library collections where these values may be regressive or discrimina­tory. Among the many arguments for local authorities to manage libraries is that they did so impartially on behalf of the entire community. We need to guard against that important value being lost in any rush to community solutions.

Nevertheless it is the claims of community and virtue that will loom large over our professional practice for the foreseeable ­future. We must seek to understand how this new era differs from the preceding one that focused on individual freedom if we are to be effective in managing its opportunities and dangers. We got much of that former period of history largely wrong, focusing too much on being more ‘business’ like and transforming citizen and societal needs into customer wants, and in doing so we weakened our profession by limiting our social mission. The era of community equally offers challenges to the profession, but also opportunities.

In the realpolitik of the 21st century, communitarian-inspired politics has seen policies that seek to reduce state solutions and make communities the ultimate arbiters of what services they seek to provide locally. We must begin to see even the handing over of public libraries to be managed by communities in this context if we are to understand and manage the process. While some might argue it is simply a right-wing, market-oriented government shrinking the state, the communitarian angle to it means that there is a prima facie link to social justice that is also driving it. We need to address both elements of this if we are to successfully advocate for the importance of both libraries and librarians.

The needs of society

On the positive side, the era of community arguably calls even more for a profession that can navigate ideas and public discourse, and help citizens become informed. As Sandel argues: ‘the hollowing out of the public realm makes it difficult to cultivate the solidarity and sense of community on which democratic citizenship depends’.[3]  No profession is better placed to help this culture develop, and it is community libraries and community librarianship that can help it do so.

We must start to robustly debate and form our own vision of social justice from within the parameters we will be working in, not from any specific political bent, but focused solely on the needs of society in an ­ever-confusing age. We need to gather ­robust evidence on how communities benefit from having libraries and librarians, and not just oppose community solutions but provide strong examples of good practice supported by our values. Our advocacy, then, needs to be grounded in the ethics of political philosophy.  While being mindful of the demands and obsessions of each ­individual government, our profession needs to steer for a longer journey; one that places society’s needs at the forefront of its thinking and not the needs of any single party of government. 


Will Kymlicka picture credit: Serena Corio

[1] Sandel, Michael. Justice: what’s the right thing to do?  London: Allen Lane, 2009.

[2] Parvin, P. and Chambers, C. Political Philosophy – A Complete Introduction: Teach Yourself. London: Teach Yourself, 2012.

[3] Rawls, J. A Theory of Justice, revised edn. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 1972: 1999.

Update Magazine

Update Magazine

This article was originally published in CILIP Update Magazine, November 2015 (pp. 27-29).

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