Michael Novak, wrote an article on Defining Social Justice in the December 2000 issue of First Things. [HT: Christopher Blosser's The Church and The Liberal Tradition]
I have read very little of his work except for a few columns, but whether I agreed or disagreed he always makes a positive contribution to the topic. Hopefully this can give us a good place start to understand what we should mean by “social justice”.
The occasion for Novak’s article is the 100th anniversary of the birth of Frederick Hayak, who is known for his strident opposition to what many call “social justice”. Novak sees this as an irony since “[Hayek] in his own intellectual life, exemplified the virtue whose common misuse he so deplored.”
Novak summarizes Hayek:
“The trouble with “social justice” begins with the very meaning of the term. Hayek points out that whole books and treatises have been written about social justice without ever offering a definition of it. . . . It becomes, most often, a term of art whose operational meaning is, “We need a law against that.” In other words, it becomes an instrument of ideological intimidation, for the purpose of gaining the power of legal coercion. . . . Most authors assert that they use it to designate a virtue (a moral virtue, by their account). But most of the descriptions they attach to it appertain to impersonal states of affairs, “high unemployment” or “inequality of incomes” or “lack of a living wage” are cited as instances ’. Hayek goes to the heart of the matter: social justice is either a virtue or it is not.”
In the mid nineteenth century John Stewart Mills gave what Novak describes as the canonical meaning of Social Justice:
Society should treat all equally well who have deserved equally well of it, that is, who have deserved equally well absolutely. This is the highest abstract standard of social and distributive justice; towards which all institutions, and the efforts of all virtuous citizens, should be made in the utmost degree to converge [Emphasis added.]
Mills imagines that societies can be virtuous in the same way that individuals can be. Perhaps in highly personalized societies of the ancient type, such a usage might make sense—under kings, tyrants, or tribal chiefs, for example, where one person made all the crucial social decisions. Curiously, however, the demand for the term “social justice” did not arise until modern times, in which more complex societies operate by impersonal rules applied with equal force to all under “the rule of law.”
For me a central problem with Mills definition is who is doing “social justice”. “Society” is a thing. Actions are done by persons. To generically say the “society does something” is to say that it is the cumulative effect of everyone’s actions, made for proximate purposes, mostly with no concept of final result. Mills says that institutions and virtuous persons “should be made in the utmost degree to converge.” But who is making them converge? It like that sign “it’s nice to be nice”, it sounds pretty, but in concrete terms who does what to whom?
Novak goes on to show that with the lessening importance of faith and the increased power of the state this meaning became more and more a program for a command economy. He describes Hayak’s objections to this development as:
(N)o one individual (and certainly no politburo or congressional committee or political party) can design rules that would treat each person according to his
merit or even his need. No one has sufficient knowledge of all relevant personal details, and as Kant writes, no general rule has a grip fine enough to grasp
Which is to say that Mill’s definition calls for something that is unworkable at best, and possibly harmful. Thus
(T)he “social” in “social justice” refers to something that emerges not organically and spontaneously from the rule–abiding behavior of free individuals, but rather from an abstract ideal imposed from above
Which would require a level of coercion that would violate human dignity in an attempt to achieve unworkable goals.
So why does Novak assert that he himself [Hayak] was a practitioner of social justice—even if one adds, as one must, “social justice rightly understood.”
Novak’s answer is that “social justice rightly understood” consists of to features that he found exemplified Hayak’s life.
First, the skills it requires are those of inspiring, working with, and organizing others to accomplish together a work of justice. These are the elementary skills of civil society, through which free citizens exercise self–government by doing for themselves (that is, without turning to government) what needs to be done
The second characteristic of “social justice rightly understood” is that it aims at the good of the city, not at the good of one agent only.
I think Novak’s “social justice rightly understood” provides a more operationally useful definition than Mills. In the first point the actor is “free citizens” using the “elementary skills of civil society.” It is clear who is doing the acting. Everyone has his role, and it is a role that is with in the ability of everyone. The second point “the good of the city” provides a focus for individual action. Since this is done “without turning to government” the chance of descending to totalitarianism is trivial.
I think the biggest thing missing in discussion of “social justice” is a sense of charity to the other side of the discussion. Prayer, discussion , study, and charity to our neighbors should always be perquisite of any discussion of “social Justice.
This is why the distinction between social justice as virtue and a state of affairs is important.
Often in a secular context it seems the argument is that X is required for Social Justice, and any one who opposes X has cooties. There is little or no cogent argument that the proposed action will (or even can) accomplish the desired goal, and asking for a cogent argument is likely to get one accused of being a fascist or some such. From my, mostly secular, reading it seems that “social justice” is usually a “term of art” to support achieving the authors desired “state of affairs”. A polemical club that avoids the necessity to make a cogent argument and respond to reasonable criticism. It seldom means encouraging a virtue. Sometimes I get the impression that supporting a “state of affairs” allows some to ignore being personally virtuous, while claiming the moral high ground.
The Church teaches certain principles for applying the virtue of Social Justice. Someone who has a general Catholic formation will usually agree with these even if they have no formal education in the Church's Social teaching. But in the area of prudential judgment there is often wide disagreement among committed Catholics. This is because there are different understandings of how economic, political, and social processes work and subsequently different and often mutually exclusive understandings of how to practice the virtue of social justice. But many people cannot identify in their own mind where the Church teaching ends and prudent judgment begins. As these issues often carry a good amount of emotion it is easy to accuse another rejecting the social justice teaching when in fact they are rejecting poor economics.
It is not uncommon for Jack to believe that a course of action is objectively evil, while Jill thinks it is the greatest thing since sliced bread, and the other way around. They both believe that to follow the others suggestion would be to commit an objectively evil act with full knowledge and consent. If one is in authority (especially pastoral authorty) he should be careful that he is not using his office to suggest or require his subordinates to commit what the subordinate considers to be an objectively evil act with full knowledge and consent. In discussions we should take care to be sure the other person understands that though we they disagree with them we would not expect them to support what they think is objectively evil end, with knowledge and consent, even so that good can come of it.
The items that constitute prudent judgement can have a wide variety of interpretations. If we see social justice as a virtue, then different people can discuss these with charity, learn form each other and from mistakes, and eventually come to better ways to achieve a just world. If we see social justice as a “state of affairs” then who ever defined the “state of affairs” has begged the question. It supposes we uncritically follow the designated route, to heck with the consequences.
Social Justice is a virtue!
Update: 6 Sepember 2009
James Chapter Two: Show No Partiality
Social Justice Posts