Last week we looked into the real understanding of social justice: the virtue that reforms institutions to make individual virtue possible once again, but does not replace individual virtue. What do we do, however, when social justice is the very institution that needs reform?
Social justice does not magically appear when it is needed, any more than human dignity automatically defends itself. Acts of social charity are an essential prerequisite to, and fulfillment of, acts of social justice, just as acts of individual charity are a requirement for, and completion of, individual justice.
|Chesterton: "My mother, drunk or sober"?|
In order to restructure their social habits, people must do the same thing they do when reforming their individual habits. Just as the great commandment for individuals is to love their neighbors as they love themselves — an act of individual charity — the act of social charity is that they must love their institutions as they love themselves.
Social charity is not a mindless adoration of an institution that ignores flaws, any more than individual charity thoughtlessly overlooks individual faults in the beloved — however useful that might be to the individual or institution resisting reform. As G.K. Chesterton once said, “My country, right or wrong,” is a thing that no patriot would think of saying except in a desperate case. It is like saying, ‘My mother, drunk or sober’.” (G.K. Chesterton, “The Defendant,” 1901.)
Social charity, the soul of social justice just as individual charity is the soul of individual justice, removes the need for saying such a thing even in a presumably desperate case. Charity in either instance, individual or social, guides and completes, but does not replace, justice. It motivates individuals to bring mothers to sobriety, and groups to reestablish structures (institutions) supporting truth and justice.
It is important to note that the act of any social virtue can only be carried out by an individual as a member of a group, not on his or her own initiative. Only as a member of a group can anyone effect necessary changes in institutions: social habits.
Those outside the group may assist, guide, and cooperate. The final responsibility for effective change, however, rests with the members of the group itself.
This is the principle of “subsidiarity.” Only those who “subsist” within the group have the essential link to the group, with the best and most effective link being private property.
An essential aspect of all forms of charity is to learn about the object of charity. Without that learning, what would seem on the surface to be a supremely selfless or compassionate act could end up doing irrevocable harm, whether individually or socially.
For example, giving food to a starving man can kill him. Food must be introduced slowly, or the shock will be too much for a weakened system. Similarly, giving someone the wrong medicine or too much or too little medicine can kill just as effectively as poison administered deliberately.
|Smith: working within the system promotes good.|
On the institutional level, circumventing the system, even with the best of intentions, can similarly do more harm than good. This is the sense of Adam Smith’s often-misunderstood “invisible hand” argument in both The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) and The Wealth of Nations (1776). As Smith explained in the latter work,
[E]very individual who employs his capital in the support of domestic industry, necessarily endeavours so to direct that industry, that its produce may be of the greatest possible value.
The produce of industry is what it adds to the subject or materials upon which it is employed. In proportion as the value of this produce is great or small, so will likewise be the profits of the employer. But it is only for the sake of profit that any man employs a capital in the support of industry; and he will always, therefore, endeavour to employ it in the support of that industry of which the produce is likely to be of the greatest value, or to exchange for the greatest quantity either of money or of other goods.
But the annual revenue of every society is always precisely equal to the exchangeable value of the whole annual produce of its industry, or rather is precisely the same thing with that exchangeable value. As every individual, therefore, endeavours as much as he can, both to employ his capital in the support of domestic industry, and so to direct that industry that its produce maybe of the greatest value; every individual necessarily labours to render the annual revenue of the society as great as he can. He generally, indeed, neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it. By preferring the support of domestic to that of foreign industry, he intends only his own security; and by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain; and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for the society that it was no part of it. By pursuing his own interest, he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it. I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good. It is an affectation, indeed, not very common among merchants, and very few words need be employed in dissuading them from it. (Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations, IV.2.vii-ix.)
Thus, knowing what to do is usually just as important as doing it. Yes, it is sometimes possible to gain a desired end or result by doing something — anything — (and sometimes by doing nothing), but that is an act of desperation or thoughtlessness. Social charity is directed in part to ensuring that adequate preparation is made to avoid either desperation or thoughtlessness when carrying out acts of social justice.
Another part of social charity is learning about social justice itself, correctly identifying not only the problem, but the solution. This is especially important these days when there is that massive confusion between social justice and individual charity, called variously socialism, communism, modernism, New Age, and (most damagingly) Catholic social teaching.
|Ferree: social justice demands institutional changes.|
Father Ferree examined this confusion in his pamphlet, Introduction to Social Justice (1948). He took as his example what Pope Pius XI said in § 71 of Quadragesimo Anno:
Every effort must therefore be made that fathers of families receive a wage large enough to meet common domestic needs adequately. But if this cannot always be done under existing circumstances, Social Justice demands that changes be introduced into the system as soon as possible, whereby such a wage will be assured to every adult workingman.
Continuing, Father Ferree said, “Now if we were to hand this quotation to a number of people, and ask each one of them what Social Justice demands in it, almost every one of them would answer, ‘A family wage’.” (Ferree, Introduction to Social Justice, op. cit., 11.) Overthrowing decades of theorizing about social justice, however, he then pointed out,
They would all be wrong! Look again at the syntax of the sentence: the direct object of the predicate “demands” is the clause “that changes be introduced into the system.” The Pope’s teaching on the family wage is that it is due in commutative or strict justice (With the assistance of charity to fulfill what is lacking in strict justice, cf. Quadragesimo Anno, §§ 47, 110) to the individual worker; — what Social Justice demands is something specifically social: the reorganization of the system. For it is the whole system which is badly organized (“socially unjust”) when it withholds from the human beings whose lives are bound up in it, the power to “meet common domestic needs adequately.” (Ferree, Introduction to Social Justice, op. cit., 11.)