Social Justice is Not a Virtue— Mar 29, 2012
Social justice is one of those terms that has always perplexed me. My exposure to it is relatively recent, (within the last six years) but it has been bandied about so frequently within the intervening time that I couldn’t help but try and sort out what is meant by it.
Which is harder than one might think. The term itself seems innocuous enough- after all, justice is (presumably) a good and desirable thing. And attaching the prefix social to it also seems harmless enough- who doesn’t want justice within the social sphere?
Initially I didn’t approach any presentation of social justice with a high degree of critical thinking. It amounted to a term that was simply floated out there with little to no definition or explication, as if it was something self-evident. Given the religious context in which I generally encounter the term, it is often employed alongside appeals to Christian ethics: feeding the poor, clothing the destitute, etc. How this makes the leap from charity to justice (and whatever is meant by social justice) is, in my experience, never sufficiently addressed or reconciled.
Inequities in society seem to be the locus of social justice. These inequities are usually conceived of as arising from systemic injustices, essentially bifurcating the social sphere into those who suffer social injustice and the systemic injustices themselves. (and the nebulous ‘they’ deemed to perpetuate them) In such a scenario, power is the ultimate arbiter of any social structure (or social relationships) since the only means by which one could eradicate systemic injustice and build a truly ‘just’ society would be to remove the freedom that allows injustice to exist. Since ‘society’ as an abstraction does not exist but is concretized in individuals in their social interactions, social justice could thus only be realized by dictating their actions.
From this line of reasoning it follows that “social justice” would have its natural end in a command economy in which individuals are told what to do, so that it would always be possible to identify those in charge and to hold them responsible. This notion presupposes that people are guided by specific external directions rather than internalized, personal rules of just conduct. It further implies that no individual should be held responsible for his relative position. To assert that he is responsible would be “blaming the victim.” It is the function of “social justice” to blame somebody else, to blame the system, to blame those who (mythically) “control” it.1
Inequity is predicated upon independent choice. But that hardly seems to be self-evidently a matter of justice. Rather, it can result from individuals within a society determining value in one thing over against another, in one person’s work over another’s, etc. To buy one item means that another item (or hundreds or thousands or millions of a different item) stays on the shelf, to patronize one artist means another may paint in vain. As these choices are aggregated amongst thousands or millions or billions of individuals, inequality naturally results, as is the consequence of a finite existence.
If Smith is now earning a fortune while Jones is still stuck in that subway, it’s not because of the “class” into which each was born…. They are where they are because of how the common man spends his money. That’s why some writers sell books in the millions, some sell them in the thousands, and still others can’t even get published. It is the choices of the masses… that create the inequalities of fortune and fame — and the only way to correct those “injustices” is to control those choices.2
The question naturally arises- is inequality in this respect naturally a matter of justice, or is it the result of the finitiude of our world? Economic equality, to take one example, is completely undermined by political or legal equality, for if all are equal on the level of the law then economic equality is impossible. The inverse is equally true.
The imperative of economic equality also generates a striking opposition between “social justice” and its liberal rival. The equality of the latter, we’ve noted, is the equality of all individuals in the eyes of the law — the protection of the political rights of each man, irrespective of “class” (or any assigned collective identity, hence the blindfold of Justice personified). However, this political equality, also noted, spawns the difference in “class” between Smith and Jones. All this echoes Nobel laureate F.A. Hayek’s observation that if “we treat them equally [politically], the result must be inequality in their actual [i.e., economic] position.” The irresistable conclusion is that “the only way to place them in an equal [economic] position would be to treat them differently [politically]” — precisely the conclusion that the advocates of “social justice” themselves have always reached.3
Justice as a virtue and injustice as a vice pertain to individuals. Society as an abstraction cannot be the subject of virtue or vice, since virtues (and vices) are the reflective and intentional acts of individual persons. Systemic injustices have no moral content in and of themselves but only as those injustices are perpetuated by individuals. An abstraction, after all, is not capable of deliberation or actualization.
Too obviously, it is not liberalism that atomizes an entity (a concrete), but “social justice” that reifies an aggregate (an abstraction). And exactly what injustice is Society responsible for? Of course: the economic inequality between Smith and Jones — and Johnson and Brown and all others. But there is no personified Society who planned and perpetrated this alleged inequity, only a society of persons acting upon the many choices made by their individual minds. Eventually, though, everyone recognizes that this Ideal of Society doesn’t exist in the real world — leaving two options. One is to cease holding society accountable as a legal entity, a moral agent. The other is to conclude that the only practicable way to hold society accountable for “its” actions is to police the every action of every individual.4
As virtue is the purview of individuals, social justice as it is commonly employed is clearly not a virtue. It also causes one to wonder why ‘justice’ in and of itself is not a sufficient term. Justice by its very nature is social, as the relation of individuals within society to each other in regards to justice cannot fail to have a social dimension. (e.g., it is a matter of justice that I as an individual have the right to be alive, it follows that other individuals also have this right.) The term ‘social justice’ thus seems to be more related to the use of power and coercion by the State in regards to what is not within the purview of justice (e.g., equality in economic outcomes) rather than relating to the rendering to others what they are due as is delineated by ‘justice.’ (e.g., the right to life) Some are inclined to try and salvage social justice as a term, but since any such salvage operation would necessarily be replete with caveats, I would be inclined to drop it altogether. (And since what is often advanced as ‘social justice’ doesn’t necessarily correspond to ‘justice,’ it additionally serves to dilute ‘justice’ as a term.)
The experience of human society is that individuals within societies and the communities and governments they form consistently fail to live up to the ideal of justice. As such, injustice is a far too common feature of our race. From a Christian perspective, the propensity of humans to sin guarantees that a just society can never be realized within this world, as it could only be effected at the expense of freedom, (an injustice in and of itself) which would efface the meaning of humanity. This freedom, of course, is not absolute in that we are at liberty to do anything- this, after all, is actually not freedom. Justice makes demands of our freedom and limits it in that individual liberty may not transgress the rights of others. The role of government is to uphold justice, which limits even its power.
Some limits liberate. Human beings enter the world utterly dependent, and they require for their security and development the authoritative and sometimes coercive direction of parents, teachers, police, soldiers, and judges… Outside the bounds set by natural right, however, coercion is tyranny. It has been the greatest achievement of Western civilization to recognize the basic human needs, interests, and inclinations that make coercive associations necessary, to carve out their rightful scope and limits, and to bring them under the discipline of reason and the rule of law.5
In the face of injustice and the myriad ways in which it is perpetuated by individuals within society, how do we respond? While power is attractive in its seeming efficaciousness, charity overturns the logic of power, offering its own ways of combatting injustice. Theologically, charity (caritas) is not merely a hand-out or giving to the needy; rather, it embodies the gift of self to another as an act of love. It recognizes that I do not simply exist for myself, I am not meant to retreat into myself. Rather, my existence is a shared one; I am meant to give of myself to others. After all, St. John tells us that God is caritas, and in an analogical way as God’s image we are meant to live into the reality of the self-giving in the divine life of the Trinity.
Within this broken world, charity is a corollary of justice in that it offers forgiveness, compassion, help and healing when it is not deserved or even desired. Charity and justice would be a singular act within a perfect universe, but inside a sinful reality charity betokens the love and long-suffering of divine love while still respecting the freedom of individuals to make bad choices and reject justice. It recognizes that this world is messed up- sometimes evil prospers, wickedness is rewarded, the good suffer and terrible and unfortunate things happen. All humans share this brokenness, thus charity will never cease to be needed, since man’s most basic need is to be loved.
As charity is a virtue, it can only be actualized by individuals. In doing so, we are taken beyond ourselves, forced to move past the ‘I’ which kicks and screams for what it wants and to have its rights. This act opens up a new horizon of being, for this expansive vista becomes the field of action in which transformation occurs. The temptation is to make the power play, to mold the world into how we would want it to be. Sadly, our race’s brief history amply demonstrates the utter failure of this approach.
Charity repudiates the lure of power, opting instead to open itself up to vulnerability, for giving of oneself is to let down the defenses and take a risk of rejection, risk of failure or worse- seeming ineffectuality. But in this action at least one heart is opened to a world of possibilities, and in that space love has a chance to grow and spread its seeds abroad.