Tuesday, February 21, 2006

What is Social Justice.

The term “social justice” is one that causes much comment, seldom neutral. There has been a lot of discussion on this over at Joe Cecil’s In Today's news. So I started wondering just what is Social Justice. It often seems from my reading to be like a sign that was posted at job I once had - “it’s nice to be nice.” You can’t argue with the sentiment but does it mean anything. But I would hope that something that gets this much attention has a little more substance.

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.]

He comments

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
See Also

James Chapter Two: Show No Partiality
Social Justice Posts


Jcecil3 said...


I think Novak is missing the point, and I'm not sure you're getting it either.

From the viewpoint of Church teaching, it seems to me that what the doctrines are saying is that God created us to be equal - really equal.

By equal, I do not mean the same in the sense that men grow mamary glands and women urinate standing up and blacks run combs through their natural hair without a knot while white people naturally twist their hair into braids and we all dress like Franciscan priests and eat the same bland diet every day.

Yet, in saying that equality is not sameness, I think the Church does not imply for a single second that a man can be well off millionaire while another man starves. When that occurs, a social injustice has occured and must be rectified.

It doesn';t matter if the millionaire feels he earned his millions. It doesn't matter if the poor man is a lazy alcoholic. The disparity itself is evil and absolutely must rectified.

And it's not a matter of charity. It's a matter of justice. Whether the rich man is feeling charitable or not, he must give to the poor man. Failure to do so is theft.

I confess that I have been slow coming to see that this is what teh Church teaches, but once one opens one's eyes even to the possibility that this si exactly what the doctrine is saying, it becomes clearer and clearer in reading and re-reading the doctrines that this is exactly what is said.

Further, it also becomes clearer and clearer that this is what the Bible says - and it becomes clerarer and clearer that this what Aquinas and other sources in tradition meant by the "common good".

There is absolutely not a hint or trace of the notion of a meritocracy in Catholic doctrine.

Yes. There are a few doctrines affirming the right to a just reward for labor and the right to own private property and even the right to a fair profit.

Yet, these teachings are always heavily nuanced and caveated with words meant to limit them: FAIR profit, JUST reward, etc....

They are embedded in paragraphs describing the limits of the rights, and the weight of the responsibility that comes with it.

Abd there are very sharp and unequivocal criticisms of free market in an unbridled capitalism.

Much of Novak's critique of the socialist and communist is also part of the social justice teaching and is on target. When any institution assumes so much power that it dehumanizes the persons within it, it fails.

The common good is the good of every individual.

Yet, what is extremely important to remember is that it is the good of every individual regardless of merit and with some presumption of absolute socio-economic-political equity, or as close such can be achieved.

This is not to say that a community cannot enforce laws and deny rights to those who are most counter-productive to society. Yet, the Church teaching is very clearly that every human person has such incomparable dignity that these situations would be reserved to the most offensive (i.e. - violent) offenders agaisnt society.


hank_F_M said...


Thanks for comments, they are pretty good as far as they go but they miss my point and the I think Novak’s point.

Check the Catechism. Justice is a virtue “a habitual disposition.” Social justice as a subcategory of Justice therefore must be a virtue. While there are parts of the Catechism section that could be read meaning social justice is something besides a virtue, that seems to be out of context or supplemental. But first of all it should be a habitual disposition of every one. Of course because they have more opportunity to do good or harm this is more important to for those in authority to treat social justice as a virtue. The millionaire and the starving man both in their respective should act with justice within their ability. But it is their responsibility before God, but before I do any thing I first have the same responsibility before God to act with justice to both of them and to consider the effects on others.

But none of us knows everything; it would seem to me that both justice and Christian charity would require us to give the benefit of the doubt and assume christians at least are just as committed and support different approaches because their good faith understanding of social, economic and political process are different. It would be unjust to accuse them of not supporting justice because their prudential judgement is different than mine.

And the use of the term “social justice” is predominately used outside the church as club to to extort support without having to bother with messy things like establishing a good argument that this might actually work. This is the opposite of justice and even if we like the program being proposed we should stand against this type of extortion because that type of extortion is unjust.

hank_F_M said...


To explain my choice of approach I did read through the Catechism sections on and related to Social Justice and some of the primary documents.

I decided to approach the subject from Novak’ article because that he is pointing to the biggest problem with the concept of “Social Justice”, not the churches teaching but the secular use as a rhetorical device that sometimes creeps into the Church discussions. There is for example quite a difference between Pius XI’s calm discussion and most of the commentary one would readily find with a google search on the term.

Bob said...

Social Justice was a widespread doctrine of the Great Depression and it seems to deal with economic, social, and political issues. It draws the church away from evangelization of souls.

The church should be involved in social issues. Abortion should be made illegal and that is a social justice issue in a general sense because the person is put to death with the approval of the state without an individual due process trial and yet the person having done no crime. Another issue would be the abolition of same-sex marriage as the extension by the government of benefits to people who do not deserve any benefits on the mere basis that they practice sodomy. Nor should they be allowed to adopt children on the basis that they are too unnatural.

Social justice is usually the cry of the religious left, which has rejected the doctrines of Christianity. It is more important to save souls than to fill bellies. A hungry-belly Christian will go to heaven but a full-belly heathen will go to hell.

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