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Are we losing sight of social justice?

June 12, 2014
by Ron Manderscheid
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Do we actually value all people equally? Or, do we only give lip service to this principle? Or, do we ignore it entirely?

In the future, our society will be remembered with great accolades or deep disdain according to how well we have cared for our children, our elders, and our people with disabilities. This judgment will be rendered through the lens of a fundamental social justice principle: Do we actually value all people equally? Or, do we only give lip service to this principle? Or, do we ignore it entirely?

Typically, we only apply this principle to our actions toward other people or groups, i.e., do we value one person or group more or less than another? However, the principle also encompasses another basic personal calculus, i.e., how much do we value other people relative to how much we value ourselves? We must ask this question to assure that we have not permitted self-interest to displace other-interest. In American society, a great risk exists that “me” and “mine” will take precedence over “we” and “ours” (see This shift to self-interest many be subtle, and it may be gradual, but a clear propensity exists for it to occur.

This shift to self-interest can occur in one of several ways—personally, through our organizations, or through our professions. Each represents a classic example of goal displacement: the replacement of a goal promoting a social good with a goal promoting a personal, organizational, or professional good.

Personal Displacement. Here, the broader goal of promoting social justice has been replace with narrower personal career or financial goals. In other words, we have confused our own personal goals with social justice goals. We readily recognize such characteristics in others, i.e., the “organizational climber”; we rarely recognize them in ourselves. 

Organizational Displacement. In this context, the well being of our own organization has supplanted the goal of promoting social justice. Organizational growth, power, and control become paramount concerns; organizations rarely, if ever, cede them. Typically, the success of my organization is mistaken for success in promoting social justice.

Professional Displacement. At this level, the goals of a profession have replaced social justice goals. Thus, market share, financial resources, human resources, and national influence become predominant. And, over time, a supportive culture and ideology develop to justify and support these goals of a profession. Frequently, this culture will even ignore and resist objective evidence that dramatic change in direction is needed.

As we go forward to implement the Affordable Care Act (ACA), we are being presented with a once-in-ever opportunity to seek and to achieve social justice for people with mental health, substance use, and intellectual/developmental disability conditions. We have the exceptional opportunity to reduce the dramatic health, access, and care disparities these people experience every day.  We must guard carefully against personal, organizational, and professional goal displacement, each of which will undermine dramatically our capacity to achieve what now is possible and is necessary.

Every day, we should ask ourselves the following questions:




This commentary is so timely. The author has identified the core problem with our society. Our healthcare has become sick care for the sake of personal, organizational, and professional goals. it's time we stop talking "goals" and attend to "objectives" - bringing health back into our care. Improving 'the bottom line' does not promote person-centeredness but business-centeredness. When we work towards health of our clients, we basically are 'putting ourselves out of business,' a wonderful objective. Thanks for this pointed article remanding us to ask the three questions, and then look in the mirror as we answer them. Will we be honest with ourselves?


Ron Manderscheid

Exec. Dir., NACBHDD and NARMH

Ron Manderscheid


Ron Manderscheid, Ph.D., serves as the Executive Director of the National Association of County...

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