Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Why I Don't Use the Term "Social Justice"

[We have a new major on campus: social justice.  Here's a post from a couple years ago.]

Why would anyone be opposed to social justice?  Who doesn't want to live in a just society?  I certainly do.  It's not that I oppose social justice--or justice for that matter--it's that (a) it's not clear to me what "social justice" means and (b) I'm leery of adopting a phrase which now is significantly owned by the left.

To understand social justice we must first have a handle on justice simpliciter.  So what is justice?

It's typically a relation between persons.  It's a relation of rendering or being rendered what is due between persons, or between anything which can render or be rendered what is due. From the side of who is to be rendered justice it consists of rights; from the side of who is to render justice it consists of duties.  As such all justice is social.  Absent persons there is no justice.  (What would a Platonic Form of Justice be?  What would it mean to say that there could be justice but no persons?)

Social justice is presumably meant to be a species of justice.  But if all justice is social then it's unhelpful to refer to this species of justice as "social" justice.  What is the opposite of social justice?  Unsocial justice?  Social injustice?  What are we talking about here?

Which brings us to (b) and the co-option of the term by the left.  A hallmark of leftist rhetoric is the use of terminology that either cannot fail to demand assent, cannot fail to demand outright repulsion, or euphemistically obscures controversial issues.
Some examples:
  • "Raising the minimum wage is an issue of social justice."  Who would oppose that?  Count me in!
  • "You're a homophobe."  No I'm not. Not me! I don't know what that means but I am NOT that!  No irrational fears of homosexuals here!"
  • "You just said "guy" when referring to a group which includes girls.  You're being sexist."  What?  I'm a sexist?  I never thought I was. It's "y'all" from now on!
  • "I'm not an antiquarian, I'm a progressive."  Shoot.  I'm for progress too!
  • "She terminated her pregnancy."  Been there, done that.  I had to fire someone at the office just the other day.  I terminated his employment (but not him, of course).
  • "He's an undocumented worker."  Man, I hope the guy finds his documents.  (Wait.  Are we talking about a citizen who has lost his documents or an illegal alien who never had any documents to begin with?  If the latter, I know a guy who can easily forge documents.)  
  • "We need more diversity in college."  I agree. So you're saying we need more conservatives, Nascar fans, midgets, and belly dancers?
  • "Chris underwent a medical operation for gender reassignment."  Wow, I hope she gets well.  (Hold on.  Do you mean that Chris had a sex change?!)
As Orwell recognized, even slavery can be passed off as just if it is called "freedom"; even falsehood can be accepted if it is called "truth."

This isn't to say that Conservatives never engage in the same bit of semantic sophistry now and again; nonetheless, it is against the spirit of Conservativism's stance that the ends do not justify the means.  Best, instead, to define our terms and defend our ideas with arguments if we mean them to be taken seriously by the civilly minded.  (Reserve rhetoric, sophistry, and Socratic irony for the uncivilly minded).  Moreover, Conservatives should resist embracing the "Newspeak Dictionary" lest they lose the debate from the start.

Is there an acceptable definition of "social justice"?  F.A. Hayek, no intellectual slouch, thought not.  To his mind the term had been stretched beyond any useful meaning quite some time ago:

Against Hayek, Michael Novak writing for First Things believes there is an acceptable definition:

Social justice rightly understood is a specific habit of justice that is “social” in two senses. 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. Citizens who take part commonly explain their efforts as attempts to “give back” for all that they have received from the free society, or to meet the obligations of free citizens to think and act for themselves. The fact that this activity is carried out with others is one reason for designating it as a specific type of justice; it requires a broader range of social skills than do acts of individual justice. 
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. Citizens may band together, as in pioneer days, to put up a school or build a bridge. They may get together in the modern city to hold a bake sale for some charitable cause, to repair a playground, to clean up the environment, or for a million other purposes that their social imaginations might lead them to. Hence the second sense in which this habit of justice is “social”: its object, as well as its form, primarily involves the good of others. 

Novak's understanding of social justice "rightly understood" perhaps has something to offer.  However, I do not think that that understanding is widely held in the minds of those who talk about social justice.  And until it is, or until some clearly articulated use of the term is put forward, I will continue only to speak of justice--distributive, commutative, rectifying, retributive, and the like.


  1. Novak is mistaken...on both counts. I would say that I'll have time to explain why later, but that would likely be a lie. So you'll just have to trust me, Tullius, that Hayek is closer to correct than is Novak. "Social justice" is incoherent. If you'd like, I can pass along his written material on it, as well as recent defenders (including our friend, Edward Feser).

  2. I have Hayek's piece on the issue but I haven't given it the close study which it probably deserves. On a quick inspection, I guess I recall agreeing with Hayek's conclusion even if not his argument in all its details.

    You will note that I choose my words carefully:"perhaps has something to offer" especially if we take this as a stipulative definition. But then read my next sentence starting with "However..." I don't see that we're disagreeing.

    Do us all a favor and post a link to what Ed says on the matter in another comment.

  3. I look forward to Monash posting that material.

    One thing that I don't like about Novak's definition is that it distinguishes what's good for the city from what's good for the individual. I'm currently inclined to think those two don't come apart when we rightly understood goodness.

  4. "What Ed says on the matter" is in a journal article...two in fact. So I'd have to send them your way. And if I'm not mistaken, Hayek talks about "social justice" in several places; admittedly, some of his arguments are better than others...

    More later...(maybe!)