|José Ferrer as Cyrano (1950)|
In Edmond Rostand’s “heroic comedy” Cyrano de Bergerac, the Man with the Long Nose and Longer Sword responds to (if memory serves) his friend Le Bret’s question regarding why he, Cyrano, insists on doing things his own way when with a little tact and diplomacy he could easily have fame, friends, and fortune. We may be misquoting, but Cyrano responds with something along the lines of, “But a man does not fight merely to win! No, sometimes better to know one fights in vain!”
That, of course, is all very well when it is your own life at stake, or the issue involves a refusal to compromise on fundamental principles. Of course, Rostand’s Cyrano is never presented with a situation in which mere diplomacy and tact would work. There is always a principle at stake, and Cyrano never budges an inch on principle when he knows he’s right, or in defense of a friend . . . but is equally quick to bend over backwards to correct the situation when he discovers he could be mistaken or to keep a promise.
|Jesus before Pilate|
It is rarely a good thing to “go along to get along,” regardless of the reward. That’s how demagogues stir up mobs. Do you think taken individually and polled privately, one by one, the members of the mob demanding that Pontius Pilate give the order for Jesus’s crucifixion would have answered “Crucify Him!” when put on the spot individually?
No way. The same with internet trolls. As long as people can remain anonymous or figure they’re somehow unaccountable for their personal acts, it’s very easy to be tempted to do something they wouldn’t otherwise do. It requires a very strong will developed over many years of training in virtue to resist a popular movement, especially as it virtually guarantees personal unpopularity — as Cyrano discovered when his enemies, afraid to face either his pen or his sword, have him murdered in a cowardly sneak attack.
|Fr. William J. Ferree|
Fighting in vain on principle may be necessary at times, but not in social justice, in which one (or, more accurately, many ones organized in a group) “fight” only to win. While in social justice “nothing is impossible,” we are not permitted to do something just because it is the right thing for us personally or individually. Rather, we must judge the probable effect of our “acts of social justice” on ourselves, others, and the common good as a whole.
If something will likely not work, it is not socially just. It may be individually virtuous, even heroic, but to put one’s personal or individual wants and needs above those of the common good when organized action would succeed where individual action would fail, it is socially unjust and is wrong — regardless how virtuous something might be in its own order.
And if that is true for individual versus social justice, it is equally true for social justice alone. Acts of social justice must be intended to be effective, or there is no point to them. As Father Ferree explained,
Fifth Characteristic: Effectiveness
|Pope Pius XI|
A kind of corollary of the characteristic of Social Justice which we have just seen — namely, the characteristic that it is never finished — is that one’s work for the Common Good must be effective. It is not enough to do something with “a good intention” for the Common Good, and then to turn one’s back. One must “keep his eye on the ball,” and whenever the ball is not in the best position, one must work to put it there. This means that the final criterion of whether or not Social Justice is being practiced, is whether or not society is good. To put it in Pope Pius XI’s own words, from Paragraph 51 and 52 of the Encyclical Divini Redemptoris:
If Social Justice is satisfied, the result will be an intense activity in economic life as a whole, pursued in tranquility and order. This activity will be proof of the health of the social body, just as the health of the human body is recognized in the undisturbed regularity and perfect efficiency of the whole organism.
But Social Justice cannot be said to have been satisfied as long as workingmen are denied a salary that will enable them to secure proper sustenance for themselves and for their family; as long as they are denied the opportunity of acquiring a modest fortune and forestalling the plague of universal pauperism; as long as they cannot make suitable provision through public or private insurance for old-age, for periods of illness, and for unemployment.