A Concept Little-Known Outside Academic Philosophy May Be The Key To Social Justice


We recently observed the 100th anniversary of women gaining the right to vote in the UK. Still today, though, women are fighting to rectify the gender pay gap. History shows us many examples of failures to treat people fairly and equally. For centuries, African human beings were trafficked to enslavement in the Americas. Still today, people of African ancestry (among other non-white peoples) suffer prejudice and discrimination. Homosexuality was a criminal offense in Britain until 1967 and non-heterosexuals still face persecution in many countries.

Why do these and other similar injustices continue to happen? We say it is prejudice but what is prejudice? It is difficult to fight something that we cannot define and one of the important tasks in philosophy is understanding what is behind social phenomena like prejudice. One theory that has garnered attention in philosophy is understanding injustice in terms of recognition. Prejudice or bigotry is fear and ignorance but mostly it is a misrecognition of another human being as worthy of ethical consideration.


What is recognition?

In English, we use the word “recognition” in two ways. One use means to detect and identify, for example, I recognize that is a tree and I recognize you are a human being. The other use means to respect and value, that I recognize you as a person and therefore I treat you as a person ought to be treated. This second meaning has interested some philosophers who note that human societies have extensive rules and expectations about how we should treat other people. Philosophers such as Charles Taylor,[1] Jürgen Habermas,[2] and Axel Honneth[3] have written about the role of recognition in social relations and politics. Honneth has written extensively about the human need to be accepted and valued by others and that being recognized by others is essential for all persons to develop a positive relation to themselves and others.

Even when we aren’t thinking about it, the second meaning of recognition—to value and respect others—is part of our daily lives. Recognition is at the heart of manners. When we are polite to others, we are valuing them and respecting their feelings. When we behave as social etiquette demands, we hope for recognition and acceptance from others. Recognition smoothes social interaction by acknowledging that we are bound together and affect each other. In this way, recognition is integral to morality. The moral “golden rule,” whether expressed as “that which is unfavorable to us, do not do that to others,” or “do unto others as you would have them do to you,” is the recognition of others as people like yourself who deserve to be treated the way you feel you deserve to be treated.

The philosopher Georg Wilhelm Freidrich Hegel believed that all social integration depends on mutual recognition and that we need a stable set of social recognition norms that establish what is expected of us all. More than teaching us abstract moral rights and wrongs, recognition norms teach us what we should value in other people and how we should reward those who behave properly and reprove those who do not. With recognition, moral conduct like honesty, loyalty, hard work becomes more than exercises for their own sake, they become means to orient ourselves in the social world and be successful in our social endeavors. Honneth says[4] that we can become members of society only by becoming aware of our rights and duties through learning our culture’s recognition norms and receiving recognition when we follow them. Many recognition norms are not written down, but through life experience we come to know what expectations we are meant to have of each other. To name a few examples of recognition norms: We learn the appropriate ways to greet people, how to respond to someone who is honest and someone who is dishonest, and how we should respect other people’s property. The largely unspoken social contract is that if we follow the norms we are recognized for doing so.

The role of recognition is most apparent in legal rights. We have rights under the law only when a legal entity recognizes us as having those rights. You have the rights of citizenship only if the law recognizes you as a citizen. If you are a citizen, you can demand legal recognition of your rights because the legal system is obligated under the law to recognize the rights of citizens. Foreign migrants are not entitled to the rights to which citizens are entitled, but because foreigners are human beings, they are still entitled to basic human rights and we should recognize and value them as human beings. Within social interactions, recognizing each others’ legal rights is crucial for social order. People who break laws against theft, for example, are violating another person’s rights and that is a misrecognition, a failure to recognize and respect that other person and their rights. When we respect other people’s legal rights to property, bodily integrity, privacy, and so on, we make life better for everyone.


The negative side of recognition

This is the positive side of recognition—when we recognize others, it helps social interactions and holds society together. Recognition’s positive side sounds good, but it is a bit Polyannish to think that if we all, from the government on down, follow the recognition norms, then everything will be fine. There is also a negative side to recognition about which philosophers like Louis Althusser[5] and Judith Butler[6] have written. These philosophers criticize recognition as systems that determine who in society is valued and, by extension, who is not. Those people excluded from the structures and vocabularies of recognition are also excluded from legal and economic rights. Legal recognition can be positive if the laws are fair and those laws are fairly applied. History records many instances when one of both were not the case. For centuries, Jews were legally excluded from participation in many occupations and activities in most of Europe because Jewish people were not included in who were recognized as full members of society. Women were long restricted and excluded from activities and legal rights in which men were allowed. Women were not only denied the vote until 1918 , women were not allowed to own a bank account in their own name in the UK until 1975. These exclusions resulted from the recognition norm that only men were capable of rational decision making.

What makes these exclusions especially problematic is that they are justified through distorted recognition norms that teach people that these exclusions are proper. The laws that excluded Jewish people and women were enacting society’s disrespectful and discriminatory attitudes that justified that exclusion. South African Apartheid was a legal institution that normalized discrimination against black Africans, but it wasn’t just physical force that buttressed Apartheid. Behind the legal and police force of the Apartheid regime was a set of recognition norms that dictated that black Africans deserved less respect than whites. Those behind the oppression of Apartheid saw it as a system that reflected how things were and should be: blacks were inferior to whites. A white South African woman I knew expressed this recognition norm to me in the early 1990s, when she said she hoped the blacks didn’t become the government because “blacks can’t run things.” She grew up believing this norm about blacks and so in her mind, she was appropriately practicing recognition: whites have management talent, blacks do not. It is easy for us to say that this is discriminatory, but because discriminatory attitudes are recognition norms that are part of the socialization process, people adopt them without thinking. Those oppressed by discrimination are also socialized into the recognition norms and they, as Frantz Fanon[7] wrote, internalize and replicate the norms that discriminate against them. The oppressed are colonized by the norms and they repeat the misrecognition of their oppression.


Recognition and social justice

Ironically, if not paradoxically, recognition contributes both to social justice and social injustice. How we as a society can maximize positive recognition and minimize negative recognition is the key to social justice. Social norms tell people what to value and recognition reinforces these values so recognition is an important constituent of our society. What qualities should we recognize and cultivate and what qualities do we currently recognize that perhaps we should not? Our social policies and actions already reflect our recognition norms, so it behooves us to think about and discuss them.

In some social issues, the aspect of recognition can be easily seen. Funding for the NHS is a question of recognition—do we as a society recognize that citizens deserve high-equality, efficient healthcare? Excessive ambulance and A&E waits are problems stemming from a lack of recognition of patients’ needs. It connects to larger issues such as whether we recognize people’s suffering, or recognize their right to a quality life, and whether these are qualities we, as a society, should recognize.

Income inequality is another social issue that reflects social recognition norms. A corporate executive gets paid more than a nurse because our society’s recognition norms support this inequality. Andrew Sayer[8] calls this “contributive injustice”—the social misrecognition that restricts what members of social classes are allowed to contribute, particularly in terms of occupations. As Sayer observes, public attitudes support the idea that greater contributions to society deserve greater compensation, but the public associates the value of contributions with social class, underestimating the contributions of blue-collar workers. The problems of distributive injustice stem from this contributive injustice because jobs considered to be less valuable are given lower compensation.


Struggles for recognition

Another key to social justice is understanding that many demands for social justice are struggles for recognition, an idea that Honneth championed. Those who seek justice seek not only material changes but also a change in their place in society. Workers striking for better pay and working conditions are also fighting for recognition of their needs, dignity, and moral right to just compensation for their labor. Women who have fought for the vote, property rights, equal pay, control of their bodies, and similar causes have been seeking a change in society’s recognition norms to include women as full members of society. People can also struggle for the recognition of others who are less able to speak for themselves. The abolitionist movement sought the recognition that those human beings who were enslaved had a right to be free. The abolition of slavery demonstrates that changing the laws is a necessary but insufficient step toward justice because racism persists. The recognition norms behind social attitudes also needs to change for there to be justice.

In the struggle for rights for non-heterosexual people, we see how recognition contributes to both social injustice and social justice. Non-heterosexuals, denied legal rights and basic respect for being who they are, have struggled for many years for basic recognition. The discrimination against and persecution of non-heterosexuals was justified by recognition norms that dictated that only heterosexual relations were natural. When non-heterosexual relationships are devalued as unnatural, it justifies discrimination against people in those relationships. The gay rights movement has been a social and political struggle for recognition of the civil rights of non-heterosexuals as equal citizens. The issue is whether or not we recognize non-heterosexual people as human beings with the same rights as heterosexual people.

This past year, we have seen a series of revelations about sexual harassment and abuse of women by men in powerful positions. The #MeToo movement and Time’s Up campaign are demands that we all acknowledge the injustices that women have been forced to endure and recognize that is is well past time for an end to those injustices. Sexual harassment and abuse is a misrecognition of another person’s bodily integrity. All human beings deserve to be recognized as an autonomous person who has a right to say no to unwanted actions. This is essential to stopping abuse of all kinds.


Recognition and justice

Philosophers Charles Taylor and Axel Honneth ascribe great importance to the struggles for recognition in political dialogue. Outside of philosophy, few people know the  terminology of recognition theory, but they use the concept in their political and non-political social interactions and conversations. I argue that by discussing openly the role of recognition and the importance of recognition norms in the attitudes and actions will benefit us. The first step is to recognize that everyone has a voice in this discussion. Cillian McBride[9} observes that social justice is a struggle over the authority and power to interpret and apply recognition norms. Social justice requires equal participation in social institutions like education and government but also, and importantly, in the social conversation about our values.

Social recognition norms are integral to a society and unavoidable. What and who we value and who we include in and exclude from the rights and privileges of our society define social justice. Thinking of social issues in the context of recognition can humanize complex issues that too often are considered only in the abstract or as political conflicts. To recognize that social and political issues affect people and their lives, and recognize that those effects are important, is an essential ingredient of a just society.


[1] Taylor, Charles. “The Politics of Recognition.” In Multiculturalism, edited by Amy Gutmann,Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994. 25-74.

[2] Habermas, Jürgen, 1994, “Struggles for Recognition in the Democratic Constitutional State.” In Multiculturalism.  edited by Amy Gutmann. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 107–148.

[3] Honneth, Axel. Disrespect. Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2007.

[4] Honneth, Axel. “Grounding Recognition: A Rejoinder to Critical Questions.” Inquiry: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Philosophy 45 (2002): 499-519.

[5] Althusser, Louis. “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses.” reprinted in Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays, trans. B. Brewster. New York: Monthly Press Review, 1971.

[6] Butler, Judith. “Eine Welt, in der Antigone am Leben geblieben wäre,” Deutsche Zeitschrift für Philosophie, 49: 587599. 2001.

[7] Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, trans. Charles Lam Markmann (New York: Grove Press, 1967), 110-113.

[8] McBride, Cillian. Recognition. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2013.

[9] Andrew Sayer, “Contributive Justice and Meaningful Work,” Res Publica 15 (1), 2009, 1-16.

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