Coastal erosion management is primarily based on economic considerations (cost-benefit analysis). From the perspective of social justice (as a particular expression of the wider concept of human rights), however, several arguments can be advanced regarding public intervention in coastal defence management when private property is threatened by coastal erosion. In this paper we examine these arguments at both the short-term local scale and the long-term large spatial scale and consider the merits of inclusion of a social justice dimension in coastal erosion management. The coast provides a range of resources that benefit society as a whole. Coastal residents and property owners face a direct financial loss from coastal erosion but the general public also stands to incur losses other than purely financial if it there is public intervention for the benefit of these property owners. The arguments for public intervention are strongest at the local and short-term scales but they weaken (and even reverse) at geographically larger and longer time scales. At larger scales, the costs to society increase as intergenerational equity, non-coastal residents, climate and sea level change, and the environment are considered. Because of the intensity of interest involved at the local level, we argue that the necessary hard decisions must be made nationally if a sustainable policy is to be adopted. Social justice considerations provide a potential improvement on the traditional economic cost/benefit-based decision-making process of coastal erosion management but they only contribute to sustainability if viewed at the national level. (c) 2007 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.