Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Social Justice, IV: The Characteristics of Social Justice

Yesterday we looked at the "laws" of social justice as articulated by Father Ferree. These are critical, because as any architect (whether for buildings or a social system) knows, "form follows function." If a chair doesn't look like a chair, then people won't know to sit in it. Or even on it. Is that enough, however? Hardly. Not only must a chair look like a chair, it must be a chair.

This sounds obvious, but in our society many people confuse form and substance. They conclude that if something looks the way it should, then it must be the way it should. As we saw in our analysis of Keynesian economics and the Cargo Cults of the South Pacific, however, appearances can be grossly deceiving. Just because you build an airstrip or a landing dock, raise the flag and march around doesn't mean that planes and ships are going to come in bringing Spam and Coke, any more than mandating education, a high wage economy, welfare, Social Security, or anything else establishes and maintains a sound economy.

Social justice is not ensuring that people have enough to eat or a just wage or government benefits or any other thing like that. Those are all matters of individual justice or charity, not social justice. Social justice is the virtue directed not at any individual good, however great or essential, but at the common good, that network of institutions within which humanity as moral beings acquire and develop virtue by exercising our natural rights of life, liberty (freedom of association/contract) and property.

To oversimplify somewhat, social justice is not about having the State provide desired results, but in equalizing opportunity and means for people to achieve the desired results through their own efforts, with the assistance of the State if necessary to pass laws restructuring the institutions of society, but the primary responsibility rests with us. As Leo XIII pointed out, "There is no need to bring in the State. Man precedes the State, and possesses, prior to the formation of any State, the right of providing for the substance of his body." (Rerum Novarum, § 7.)

Understanding that, we can move on to examining the characteristics of social justice.

First Characteristic: Only By Members of Groups

The first mark of social justice is that it cannot be performed by individuals as individuals, but only by individuals as members of groups.

That is extremely important, because virtually everyone misunderstands it. The "efficient cause" (the "actor" or "agent" who carries out the act) of all social virtue is the individual as a member of a group, not an individual on his own ticket. Father Ferree considers this so important that he spends four full pages on getting the idea across.

As a college professor for more than forty years, he found that this was the single largest hurdle to understanding Catholic social teaching. It is not collectivism, nor is it any individual act of virtue carried out with a vague intention to benefit the common good indirectly.

Second Characteristic: It Takes Time

Social justice moves slowly and gradually. It requires organization, consensus building, more organization, solidarity, attention to the principle of subsidiarity — all the troublesome little details of working with actual human beings rather than abstract concepts.

Personally, I have found that this characteristic causes the most frustration to people, particularly those activists who demand immediate results. It is easy to argue that society is unjustly structured, and instant results are not only desired, but absolutely necessary. The temptation in the face of social injustice is to demand that "they" (usually the State or a power elite of any institution) Do Something — and Do It Now!

One problem with this approach is obvious. The activist is absolved from all responsibility! Once he has condemned those in power and everybody else in the immediate vicinity for failing to correct the situation, his job is done. He can go home and comfort himself with a feeling of enormous virtue. He has "raised consciousness," and can leave the dirty, tiresome and frustrating work of actually reforming the system to Somebody Else.

There is another problem. Those in power are comfortable with the operational habits of the status quo, and those not in power are ... powerless. The former have a built in resistance to change, while the latter don't think it can help matters. The problem is that the State (among other forms of government — all "organization" requires governance) is the quasi-efficient cause ("quasi" because the State, as an artificial and not a natural person, cannot be the efficient cause of anything) not of social justice, but of legal justice. Legal justice is not a particular virtue like social justice, and thus is not our direct responsibility. As the State cannot "act" (in a philosophical sense) directly on anything, it's pretty much pure chance whether the desired results will be obtained by passing laws — unless the passage of laws has been preceded by acts of social justice — which is our responsibility, not the State's.

Third Characteristic: Nothing is Impossible

In social justice there is never any such thing as helplessness. As Father Ferree stated, "No problem is ever too big or too complex, no field is ever too vast, for the methods of this social justice. Problems that were agonizing in the past and were simply dodged, even by serious and virtuous people, can now be solved with ease by any school child."

Fourth Characteristic: Eternal Vigilance

The work of social justice is never finished. This is not the same as saying that social justice takes a long time! It refers to what Pius XI called "the radical instability of society." This means that human beings change, conditions change, and our institutions — our human response to the task of being what Aristotle called "political animals" — must be restructured and reformed to meet the new conditions. This change is always happening, therefore the work of social justice is continuous.

Fifth Characteristic: Effectiveness

Work for the common good — the material cause of social justice — must be effective. You can't just do something and hope it works, or go about chanting that it would work if only people weren't human. A mere "good intention" that the common good be benefited is simply not good enough.

Sixth Characteristic: You Can't "Take it or Leave It Alone"

As Father Ferree states, "Another corollary of this characteristic of social justice (that it is never finished) is that it embraces a rigid obligation." That means that each of us is directly and individually responsible for the common good — and we must organize with others for the common good.

Now that we know (or at least have become somewhat acquainted with) the laws and characteristics of social justice — the form and substance of the virtue — our next step is, logically, to ask, "Where do we go from here?" We'll take a look at that tomorrow.