Forget everything you think you know about social justice. The fact is that quite a few things are sold these days as social justice — everything from soup kitchens to the latest nutty economic theory. As a result, “social justice” has become as meaningless in social theory as the hackneyed phrase “new and improved” in advertising.
|CESJ co-founder Father William J. Ferree, S.M., Ph.D.|
Few people, however, seem to realize that social justice is not a substitute for charity or individual justice, whether commutative or distributive, or anything else, for that matter. It is something unique, what philosophers call a “particular virtue” in its own right. It’s not just a new name for the same old thing, but a new name for the discovery of something that has been around unacknowledged, often not even recognized, since the dawn of time.
Social justice is rooted in the fact that human beings are (as Aristotle put it) “political animals.” People are both individual and social, best realizing their personal humanity within an institutional (social) setting: the pólis (hence “political”). According to Aristotle, people realize their humanity by becoming more fully human, and they become more fully human by acquiring and developing human-ness — virtue (for that is what “virtue” signifies).
Because people are political, then, they ordinarily require institutions — social habits — in order to acquire and develop virtue. And that means institutions have to be structured properly, i.e., be “structures of virtue” — and that tells us the unique role of social justice:
Social justice encompasses economic justice. Social justice is the virtue which guides us in creating those organized human interactions we call institutions. In turn, social institutions, when justly organized, provide us with access to what is good for the person, both individually and in our associations with others. Social justice also imposes on each of us a personal responsibility to work with others, at whatever level of the “Common Good” in which we participate, to design and continually perfect our institutions as tools for personal and social development.
|Pope Pius XI, a completed social doctrine.|
Obviously, then, social justice is not directly concerned with individual goods such as food, clothing, shelter, income, ownership, or any of those things — not directly, that is. As Pope Pius XI explained in § 76 in Quadragesimo Anno, which presented key elements of his social doctrine built around the act of social justice,
What We have thus far stated regarding an equitable distribution of property and regarding just wages concerns individual persons and only indirectly touches social order, to the restoration of which according to the principles of sound philosophy and to its perfection according to the sublime precepts of the law of the Gospel, Our Predecessor, Leo XIII, devoted all his thought and care.
Social justice is not, therefore, any provision (however essential the good or desperate the need) for individual goods. Rather, social justice is concerned with making it possible for people to have individual goods, chiefly virtue of course, but also material and social wants and needs. Ideally, people organize and structure institutions through acts of social justice to enable them to provide their own individual goods through their own efforts (virtue, after all, cannot be imposed, but only freely chosen), but as an expedient in an emergency, say a famine, to make it possible for assistance to be given.
Note that even in an emergency, however, social justice does not consist of meeting individual needs directly, but in making it possible for those needs to be met. For example, during the Great Hunger in Ireland in the 1840s, the British government prohibited import of emergency food supplies and refused to close the ports to the export of food. The rationale was that any such step would interfere with the free market.
|Only known contemporary photograph of the Great Hunger.|
Setting aside the question as to whether someone freely choosing to donate food to the hungry is interfering in the free market (!?!?), the emergency situation clearly justified closing the ports to exports of food. Social justice during the Great Hunger would have meant permitting people to import and distribute relief supplies without restriction (which, ironically, is more free market oriented than prohibiting people from doing so) and closed the ports to export of food. Individual justice and charity would have been selling food at a fair price and distributing relief supplies.
Social justice is not, however, a vague intention to make individual justice and charity possible, i.e., a rather nebulous goodwill to benefit humanity by doing good individually. Instead, it is a “particular virtue,” a clear and defined thing in its own right, with laws and characteristics governing its application. As CESJ co-founder Father William Ferree, S.M., Ph.D., noted, “In Paragraph 57 of Quadragesimo Anno, Pope Pius XI speaks of ‘Laws of Social Justice’.” As Ferree explained,
Throughout the Encyclical, he has set forth certain of these laws. Without trying to be exhaustive in the matter, let us pick out a few of them for comment. It will be necessary sometime to make a complete analysis; but for an introductory pamphlet like this a mere selection will do; for the ones chosen will give us a good idea of what the others might be.
Over the next few weeks, then, we will review the laws and characteristics of social justice. Mostly this will be in Father Ferree’s own words, lifted directly from his pamphlet, Introduction to Social Justice (1948), but with occasional commentary and examples from us.