Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Social Justice, II: Terminology and Tasks


As we saw yesterday, Aquinas gave the same name — “legal justice” — to the general virtue Aristotle described, and to the particular virtue that he, Aquinas, mentioned in passing.  Obviously this is a little confusing.  Having one name for two different things tends to lead to errors, e.g., using the word “man” to mean both a human being and the human race, or “property” to mean both the right to be an owner and the bundle of rights that define how an owner may exercise his or her ownership.

Pius XI: Change is in order.
Socialism, in fact, relies on this kind of “fallacy of equivocation” — which was probably one of the reasons Pope Pius XI decided a change was in order.  It is, after all, pretty hard to talk about something new when people are absolutely convinced you’re talking about something old.
Pius XI therefore restricted the “general” type of legal justice to Aristotle’s meaning.  He then gave “particular” legal justice a new name — “social justice.”  The term social justice had been around for a while, but it didn’t have a philosophical definition.  It seems to have been used to describe acts of individual charity on a wide scale, and to justify socialist redistribution by changing the definition of charity (a voluntary act) to justice (which can be coerced).
As for the common good, Pius XI clarified Aquinas’s thought by pointing out that, as “political animals” (in Aristotle’s phrase), in the ordinary course of events, human beings by nature acquire and develop virtue in a social context.  We do not, however, lose our individual identities.  We become instead “more ourselves” as we were truly meant to be.  As human beings we have a kind of binary existence — we are both individuals as individuals, and individuals as members of groups, or social units or “institutions” within the pólis.
The common good therefore manifests itself concretely as the network of institutions — formal groups — within which human beings as social creatures acquire and develop virtue.  Social justice is the “particular virtue” that has the job of making certain that our institutions actually do this within a reasonable degree of tolerance.  If an institution needs reform, social justice (as the virtue concerned with the just ordering of the common good) commands that we reform that institution.
Other things are involved as well.  The principle of subsidiarity (you knew we’d get back to that eventually), for instance, dictates that the most appropriate persons at any level of the common good — those “closest” to a situation — are primarily responsible for it.  If they need help, they go to the next highest level of the common good . . . but only after they have tried to solve their own problems through their own efforts.
Solidarity, a characteristic of groups as groups, is another critical concept.  Solidarity consists of the understanding and internalization of whatever principles define a group as that particular group and no other.
The Reconciliation
Aristotle: man is by nature a political animal.
The whole discussion on social justice is, in essence, the effort to reconcile two universal principles of moral philosophy that are among the foundations of the proper and appropriate application of the precepts of the natural law.  These are that “Man is by nature a political animal,” and, “Only man, the human person, and not society in any form is endowed with reason and a morally free will.” (Pius XI, Divini Redemptoris, § 29.)
Inevitably, however, commentators and other experts with odd combinations of individualism and collectivism reject one or both of these principles.  The individualist rejects the notion that our social nature is truly part of our nature.  The collectivist insists that our social nature is our only nature, and that free will and individual sovereignty are a myth.  Understanding social virtue, particularly social justice, is the only way to reconcile these two seemingly contradictory principles.
For any social activity, action must proceed according to the “laws” of social justice.  Social justice is the “particular” virtue that has the common good as its directed object (or, as philosophers would say, “material cause”).  The “common good” includes — but is not limited to — “general welfare.”
The common good is not collectivism.  By far the greater and more important part of the common good is the complex network of institutions within which the human person interacts with others and carries out daily life — those vast milieux within which the human person acquires and develops individual virtue.
#30#

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