As we noted in the previous posting in this series, social justice — often cited by today’s Chestertonians to justify the very redistribution to meet individual needs that Chesterton opposed — is not, in reality, directed to individual goods at all. Rather, social justice is directed to the common good, a specifically social thing.
Social justice, properly understood, is not directed to the good of persons, that of individual human beings, but to the good of the system. Specifically, social justice is directed to the vast network of institutions that make up the common good within which humanity ordinarily carries out the business of becoming more fully human, i.e., acquires and develops virtue.
If the social order is flawed, so that meeting individual wants and needs — “individual goods” — becomes difficult or impossible, it is the task of individual charity or (in extreme cases, Rerum Novarum, § 22) distributive justice in the form of a special or extraordinary tax levy by the State to meet those needs in the short-term as an expedient on an emergency basis. Nevertheless, even if distress is widespread or long-term, ameliorative measures remain individual, not social virtue (whether justice or charity), because meeting human needs directly is an individual good.
It is important to note that, even in extreme cases, redistribution only comes under distributive justice by default as an expedient. This is due to the fact that the State, which is the proper agency to carry out redistribution in extreme cases, operates on the basis of distributive justice.
In the mid- to long-term, however, the response is not merely to continue individual assistance. Relief must be continued as long as necessary, of course, but it should not be considered a solution to social problems. Neither should relief be allowed to become the normal or ordinary way of doing things. The proper response in social justice is not to provide people’s needs directly, but to organize and reform the institutions of the social order that are causing the distress, so that individuals can once again meet their own needs through their own efforts.
Thus, social justice acts directly on social goods (the institutions of the social order), but only indirectly on individual goods, i.e., the wants and needs of human persons. Acts of social justice do not provide directly for the individual wants and needs of human persons. Instead, they enable human persons to meet their own wants and needs through their own efforts — a very different thing.
Thanks largely to the efforts of Msgr. Ryan in muddying the waters and undermining critical principles of reason and concepts of Aristotelian-Thomist philosophy, the distinction between social justice and distributive justice, and between distributive justice and coerced pseudo charity, is the source of massive confusion today. This confusion probably explains why socialists/collectivists of all types label everything they promote “social justice,” while capitalists/individualists tend to view the term as an obscenity.
This is rooted in the fact that both the capitalists and the socialists fail to understand Aristotle’s dictum that “man is by nature a political animal” [emphasis added]. That is, humanity has built into it both an individual and a social nature, neither of which excludes the other, but which are complementary. The human person only realizes his or her individual rights within a social setting — the “pólis,” an organized, that is, political group.
That brings us back once again to one of the main problems in society today: what are rights, who has them, and where did those who have them get them?
What is a right? The power to do, or not do, some act or acts in relation to others. As Black’s Law Dictionary explains it (emphasis in the original),
“As a noun, and taken in a concrete sense, a power, privilege, faculty, or demand, inherent in one person and incident upon another. ‘Rights’ are defined generally as ‘powers of free action.’ And the primal rights pertaining to men are undoubtedly enjoyed by human beings purely as such, being grounded in personality, and existing antecedently to their recognition by positive law.”
Restricting our discussion exclusively to natural rights, in plain English, a “right” is the power to act freely that is “built in” to the human condition. If you have rights, you’re a human person. If you don’t have rights, you’re not a human person. Since natural rights are “inherent” and exist prior to their recognition by the State, human “personality” (the condition of having rights or having the status of person) cannot be separated from human “being” (the condition of existing).
“Power” is “the ability for doing.” A right isn’t really a right unless you can exercise it, and that necessarily implies the power to “do” — and, because as Daniel Webster said, “[p]ower naturally and necessarily follows property,” that necessarily implies the social necessity of widespread capital ownership.
In my opinion, many of today’s political problems and divisive situations would disappear virtually overnight if people understood that rights are not given or granted to human beings as an afterthought, but are a part of human nature itself. The problem is that both sides in many of the debates are fighting the wrong battle. They think it’s a question as to whether God or the State is supreme in human affairs.
The answer is that it’s neither. Fighting over whether rights come from the State or from God resolves nothing. Rights come immediately from neither God nor the State, but from the human person. The human person is therefore supreme in human affairs, not (as Pius XI reminded us) society in any form (Divini Redemptoris, § 29).
God does not “give” rights to man, at least, not in the sense that most people would understand a gift. God as Creator is the mediate, not the immediate source of rights. He built rights into human nature at the moment of creation as an act of Intellect (reason). He did not grant them later as an act of Will (faith). Rights are thus discernible by reason, not accepted or received as an act of faith. You aren’t a human being or person without rights. Contrary to what the U.S. Supreme Court declares, personality and being cannot be separated.
Thus, the issue in politics today is not what so many people are wasting their time contesting, i.e., whether God or the State is supreme. Rather, the real issue is whether the State or the human person is supreme. Right now the State is on top. As Fulton Sheen pointed out in Freedom Under God, only widespread capital ownership will vest people with the power they need to take back the life and liberty that is theirs by right.
The question in social justice becomes how problems can be corrected without violating fundamental human rights — whether by abolishing them outright or redefining them out of existence — while at the same time respecting human dignity and the demands of the common good. How people can do this through acts of social justice is the subject of the next posting in this series.