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Why Social Justice Matters (Themes for the 21st Century Series) [Paperback]

Brian Barry
3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
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Book Description

1 Jan 2005 Themes for the 21st Century Series
In the past twenty years, social injustice has increased enormously in Britain and the United States, regardless of the party in power. At the same time, the idea of social justice itself has been subverted, as the mantras of personal responsibility and equal opportunity have been employed as an excuse for doing nothing about the enrichment of the few at the expense of the many and for making ever harsher demands on the poor and vulnerable. With grace and wit, Brian Barry exposes the shoddy logic and distortion of reality that underpins this ideology. Once we understand the role of the social structure in limiting options, we have to recognize that really putting into practice ideas such as equal opportunity and personal responsibility would require a fundamental transformation of almost all existing institutions. Barry argues that only if inequalities of wealth and income are kept within a narrow range can equal prospects for education, health and autonomy be realized. He proposes a number of policies to achieve a more equal society and argues that they are economically feasible. But are they politically possible? The apparent stability of the status quo is delusory, he responds: radical changes in our way of life are unavoidable. Whether these changes are for better or for worse depends partly on the availability of a coherent set of principles and a programme flowing from them that is capable of mobilizing the growing discontent with business as usual. That is, ultimately, why social justice matters.

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Product details

  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Polity Press (1 Jan 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0745629938
  • ISBN-13: 978-0745629933
  • Product Dimensions: 22.9 x 15.5 x 2.4 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 507,165 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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Review

“A brilliant polemic against inequality.” Roy Hattersley, The Guardian “Barry′s pugnacious defence of a robust social democracy deserves to find a wide readership ... for disillusioned social democrats, Why Social Justice Matters stands as a refreshingly staunch and intelligent manifesto.” New Statesman “Barry′s writing is extremely engaging. His arguments are supported by a wide range of examples and illustrations and an impressive breadth of scholarship.” Ethics and Social Welfare “This book is a powerful argument against the utter inequity of the current political and economic system in the UK and against the way in which a discourse of ‘equal opportunities’ is used to maintain what Barry describes as the ‘machinery of injustice’. In this extraordinarily simple and lucid book, Barry weaves striking threads of supporting evidence, anecdotes, quotations and statistics together to encourage us to insist that another (just) world is not only possible but that an unjust world cannot endure.” British Journal of Sociology “Barry persuasively argues that differentials in positional goods allow the rich to have better personal health due to higher self–esteem, better access to more fulfilling jobs due to a wealth of social connections, and greater ability to capture the government and use it to secure their own interests.” Utilitas

From the Back Cover

In the past twenty years, social injustice has increased enormously in Britain and the United States, regardless of the party in power. At the same time, the idea of social justice itself has been subverted, as the mantras of personal responsibility and equal opportunity have been employed as an excuse for doing nothing about the enrichment of the few at the expense of the many and for making ever harsher demands on the poor and vulnerable. With grace and wit, Brian Barry exposes the shoddy logic and distortion of reality that underpins this ideology. Once we understand the role of the social structure in limiting options, we have to recognize that really putting into practice ideas such as equal opportunity and personal responsibility would require a fundamental transformation of almost all existing institutions. Barry argues that only if inequalities of wealth and income are kept within a narrow range can equal prospects for education, health and autonomy be realized. He proposes a number of policies to achieve a more equal society and argues that they are economically feasible. But are they politically possible? The apparent stability of the status quo is delusory, he responds: radical changes in our way of life are unavoidable. Whether these changes are for better or for worse depends partly on the availability of a coherent set of principles and a programme flowing from them that is capable of mobilizing the growing discontent with business as usual′. That is, ultimately, why social justice matters.

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Customer Reviews

3.8 out of 5 stars
3.8 out of 5 stars
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Review: Barry (2005) Why Social Justice Matters. 31 Mar 2010
By PenName
Format:Paperback
I shan't go into great detail, but the claims of the reviewer above (Nuenke) fail to adhere to the first rule of assessing another's argument; we should put it in the strongest form possible and then try to knock it down rather than assault a straw man. I would therefore recommend that the reviewer consult some of Barry's other work, principally Justice as Impartiality, to gain an understanding of Barry's conception of justice and approach this work in a more open-minded manner. In light of this work, the criticism that a theory of social justice is like a scientific hypothesis - something to be empirically tested - is is an unfounded criticism.

I do see why you might go in that direction and focus upon the empirical; because Barry does discuss several scientific questions, such as the nature of persons and their influence by genes and society when they are invoked to defend the moral argument of the 'Conservatives'. Importantly, I do not read 'the empirical' as fundamental to his theory of justice. Engagement with the science is, as I have alluded, principally part of a refutation of the 'right wing' ideal of personal responsibility that is brought out to shut down those on the 'left'. The moral is what is of most importance to Barry, he is after all a moral philosopher. To reduce this to a "personal worldview", however, is an impoverished understanding of moral argument and to this extent I would recommend further reading.

With this in mind, taking the book as a whole, Barry is beginning from several philosophical notions, such as the moral equality of persons and fair equality of opportunity.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Brian Barry- Why social justice matters 26 April 2009
Format:Paperback
Inspirational! I almost cried when I learned that Brian Barry died two weeks ago. This book is incredible. Brian Barry put into words what is honourable and caring and oh so 'right'. I would have given a great deal to have attended one of his lectures. The man was fired with such enthusiasm and truth! Also not difficult to read. Would reccommend it whole heartedly!
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
By beans
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I bought this book to prepare me for my first essay in my social work degree. I found it really hard to read, the style of writing is a bit wafflesome and wordy and at even inconsistent. I would only manage to read a paragraph at a time. However the context is good a provides an interesting bmview on the subject matter. It changed my way of thinking in some areas. I managed to reference a couple of times so it served its purpose. Just doesn't make good bedtime reading
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2 of 15 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Terrible 13 May 2009
By Viewer
Format:Paperback
Review by Nuenke:

Social Justice is a Social Construct

I have never read any academic research where the interaction between nature and nurture is not taken into consideration in determining the high heritability of intelligence. In behavior genetic studies, very complex nature/nurture interactions are studied and factored into the final results in determining if intelligence is primarily genetic or environmental. It is in fact the Left that refuses to take into account genes when doing research on ways to improve educational attainment for instance-they simply ignore genes and just assume an environmental determinist theory for variation between people and races-making the research highly flawed. Environmental explanations have been so unsuccessful at showing any lasting importance in mental ability that much of the Left's program has turned to simple narrative explanations for why some races do poorly and others succeed. And there is no limit on the number of stories they can produce that inevitably are shown by others, using more scientific methods, to be without any validity.

Barry claims, "I am not aware of a single political philosopher (and I have read a lot of them) who discusses issues involving equal opportunity without assuming that it makes sense to ascribe to each person some measure of 'native ability' or 'native talent', understood as cognitive ability or talent. Some may have doubts about our chances of actually assigning scores for this innate ability, and some think that it is morally insignificant anyway. But they all take it for granted that it is there somewhere. The popular conception of equal opportunity as equal educational inputs to children with the same 'native ability' clearly presupposes the existence of such a thing.
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Amazon.com: 3.3 out of 5 stars  6 reviews
13 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Wonderful 11 Mar 2009
By Harry Brighouse - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Bit surprised to see no review for this book here. Why Social Justice Matters was Barry's final book. It is a rare work of political theory, deeply enmeshed in the real world, and palpably, and rather wonderfully, angry. He picks up the idea of meritocracy, so much used by New Labour, and so valued by the US elites, and demonstrates that if you really take the value seriously you would demand very stringent limits to inequality, rather than celebrating it. He is angry with the loose thinking and/or hypocrisy he sees from leading politicians who embrace meritocracy, and shows them up. I think he regarded it as a political intervention more than a philosophical one, and he is certainly very polemical, and is not always as careful with the empirical side of things as he probably should have been. But just about everyone should read it. I wish we'd had just one more book from him. But then, if we had, I'd still be wishing we;'d had just one more than that.
7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Essential reading on social justice 8 Mar 2010
By Thomas Atwater - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This is a timely, well-informed, logically rigorous, and highly readable defense of a social democratic conception of social justice, the core of which is encapsulated in the slogan, "people before profits." Barry focuses on Britain and the USA but also discusses social justice in the global arena.

Building on the idea of equal opportunity and critiques of meritocracy and personal responsibility, Barry challenges the assumptions that whatever distribution of opportunities and resources issues from the operation of the free market is necessarily just, and that any departure from the inequalities thus generated must depend on the charity of the beneficiaries. The implications of equal opportunity are drawn out with special reference to education, health, and criminal justice. The critique of meritocracy points to the mismatch between huge material rewards and merit, and to the abuse of science behind defenses of meritocracy based on supposed genetic differences. The "cult of personal responsibility" is exposed as largely a "reeking hypocrisy" according to which those who have the greatest rights to make decisions affecting others are virtually immune from personal responsibility for the consequences of their actions.

Barry delineates the harmful consequences of economic inequality, focusing on those which have nothing to do with poverty. He argues that most paid employment is a form of servitude and that those who undertake it are driven into it by sheer economic necessity. Thus, if we want social justice, we must reduce the importance of having paid employment.

Barry is careful throughout to advance positive policy proposals for advancing social justice, including universal provision of public services, especially with respect to education and health, and a basic income. He carefully considers the objection that we cannot afford social justice, addresses political obstacles to moving in the direction of greater social justice, and concludes by tying his argument to the threats of resource depletion, overpopulation, and global warming. He argues that policies needed to address these threats can advance the cause of social justice.

It should be noted that in this book Barry does not presuppose his earlier, more abstract work, Justice as Impartiality. He claims though, that the principles appealed to in the present book could be readily shown to satisfy the "reasonable rejectability" test advanced in Justice as Impartiality.

Why Social Justice matters is an extremely important book which should be read closely by anyone concerned about social justice.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Needed for a project. 6 Feb 2014
By John Smith - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This book should be read by people who don't understand the teachings about how to treat "the least of these". They will be uncomfortable but it might be a catalyst for changing them.
6 of 15 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Promising start, impractical ending 17 April 2009
By KJM - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Barry does a good job in the first part of the book laying a theoretical, fact-based case for the fight against social injustice. In spite of using an arrogant, superior tone, he organizes the topic into digestible chunks including poverty and equal access to education and job opportunities. But the last half of the book disappointingly launches into a full-out, frontal assault on the underpinnings of capitalism that is ultimately totally untenable. Overall a missed opportunity to make a gentle, sensitive appeal for social justice followed by practical solutions that might actually drive action. Buy it anyway for the first half of the book.
9 of 32 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Barry's personal worldview. 13 May 2009
By Viewer - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
I have never read any academic research where the interaction between nature and nurture is not taken into consideration in determining the high heritability of intelligence. In behavior genetic studies, very complex nature/nurture interactions are studied and factored into the final results in determining if intelligence is primarily genetic or environmental. It is in fact the Left that refuses to take into account genes when doing research on ways to improve educational attainment for instance-they simply ignore genes and just assume an environmental determinist theory for variation between people and races-making the research highly flawed. Environmental explanations have been so unsuccessful at showing any lasting importance in mental ability that much of the Left's program has turned to simple narrative explanations for why some races do poorly and others succeed. And there is no limit on the number of stories they can produce that inevitably are shown by others, using more scientific methods, to be without any validity.

Barry claims, "I am not aware of a single political philosopher (and I have read a lot of them) who discusses issues involving equal opportunity without assuming that it makes sense to ascribe to each person some measure of 'native ability' or 'native talent', understood as cognitive ability or talent. Some may have doubts about our chances of actually assigning scores for this innate ability, and some think that it is morally insignificant anyway. But they all take it for granted that it is there somewhere. The popular conception of equal opportunity as equal educational inputs to children with the same 'native ability' clearly presupposes the existence of such a thing."

The above is a very confused paragraph, but scientific philosophers HAVE addressed the issue of intelligence, genes, equality, etc. The most thorough denunciation of the Left's position of cognitive equality based on philosophical arguments against psychometricians' methodologies is by Neven Sesardic, where you can find his articles on the Internet or more thoroughly covered in his book Making Sense of Heritability, 2005.

Barry repeats several times that "Anyone who starts with the methodological principle that any differences in ability that cannot be attributed to the environment must be genetic in origin is bound to conclude that the lion's share of the differences arise from genes, simply because we know so little about what features of the environment are relevant and have no way of measuring most of those that we do surmise to be relevant. Genetic determinism, in other words, is simply an expression of ignorance."

Let's break this convoluted and highly specious paragraph down so it is more intelligible. First, any scientist that is either a genetic determinist or an environmental determinist is expressing an ignorance of the scientific method-the statement is propaganda. Second, the components of genes versus environment are always studied together-there is no simplistic "if not E then it must be H" assumption when it comes to assigning variation to genes or environment. Finally, Barry's assertion that environmental variables are too numerous and too difficult to study is baseless. Science is all about testing hypothesis as best one can and repeating those tests to see if they can be sustained. It is part of the research project to find ways to test the various environmental influences that could impact mental ability. After all, the Jensenist theory of a substantial genetic component underlying mental ability has been a 100 year project of successes, but the task was extremely difficult requiring all kinds of new mathematics, disciplines, modeling and creative input to establish the robust results. It is up to the Jensenist detractors to either show why the research is flawed, or produce their own research to challenge the successes in psychometrics in understanding the genetic versus environmental components in mental ability.

Barry asserts, "Defenders of inequality are therefore still faced with the challenge: if people are born equal, how can we justify the enormous inequalities that are common in capitalist countries? The answer is to accept that people are in principle equal in potential, but to attribute inequalities to unequal merits. The rich owe their wealth to hard work, enterprise and frugality, while the poor have a bad moral character, which leads to laziness, fecklessness and the kind of behavior that is liable to land them in prison."

What he is addressing here is the very successful indoctrination of Western societies that people all have equal genetic potential, but there are still inequalities. Conservatives, not being very scientific minded, have generally relied on moral arguments for inequality. However, this position is a political position that does not have any adherents in the scientific fields that study equality. A person's SES, mental ability, personality traits, and some luck all factor into outcomes.

Barry makes some outlandish statements about Herrnstein and Murray's The Bell Curve (1994): "Murray's next foray, The Bell Curve, completed the job and made racism itself respectable, if we take racism to consist in a belief in the genetic inferiority of blacks. This was equally well promoted, equally flawed, refuted with equal thoroughness and - for the same reasons as before - just as successful." I personally read, I believe, all of the books trying to refute the book, and found nothing other than personal attacks on motive, old arguments for equality, etc. The fact is, there was one statistical error that Murray agreed was overlooked, but made no difference on the book's conclusions. But The Bell Curve was not a peer-reviewed academic book in the full sense of the word (though the research articles cited were recognized as reviewed and valid).

What is really egregious about Barry's use of two books by Murray is that he ignores all of the other books that subsequently substantiate what Murray and Herrnstein assert in The Bell Curve. Or he should have cited the primary journal on mental ability-INTELLIGENCE. He just dismisses all of the publications between 1994 and 2005.

He then goes into a sophomoric rage: "The left has one enormous advantage over the right: the case for radical change of the kind advocated in this book can be shown to flow from widely accepted premises without any need to indulge in obfuscation or lies. All that has to be done is to clarify the logical implications of the principles that people maintain they espouse and relate them to the facts. In contrast, the only honest case that can be made for the agenda of the right is that it suits the people who benefit from it very nicely. The left's advantage is offset, however, by the relative sophistication of its ideas [?]. It is not only that they demand institutions that are more complex than those supported by crude pro-marketeers. More significantly in the present context, they also require a more complex understanding of society than do the [untested remedies] of the right. Any fool can comprehend the notion that the rich are rich because of their personal merits, while the poor are poor because of their lack of merit. Of course, only a fool would believe it, but the truth of the matter cannot be conveyed without invoking the concept of a basic structure of society imposing strong constraints on the choices of people located in different positions within it. The power of the ideology that I depicted in the previous chapter cannot be denied. But no more can the inexorable forces that make the continuation of 'business as usual' totally impossible. Scarcely anybody denies the existence of resource depletion, population growth and global warming. But nowhere near so many people are aware of the size of threat they pose or of the scale and rapidity of the response that will be required to prevent the human race from reaching the point of no return. I shall lay out the facts, as I have come to understand them, in the next chapter. These are the basis for well-founded fears, and those who belittle them are liars. But in the chapter that follows, which concludes the book, I shall argue that they provide some reason for hope."

Barry conveniently attacks the conservative right instead of the academic right-those who accept racial and individual inequality in mental ability, etc. Notice also that he claims above, "More significantly [the Left] ... also require a more complex understanding of society...." And yet earlier he claimed that understanding how the environment can increase mental ability was just too complex and that is why the academic Right has stolen the show when it comes to explaining intelligence in terms of genes and development.

In the end, Barry never does produce a theory of social justice that can be empirically tested. It seems the best he could come up with was that people who are less well off feel terribly bad about their situations, and therefore we should make them feel better by redistributing the wealth. In essence, the book is a rambling plea for socialism but never makes a case (nor could it) for its assertions. But that is as it must be, because whether society should adopt egalitarianism or inegalitarianism cannot be answered empirically-it is a personal worldview.
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