As part of our research into the area of economic justice, we’ve been reading recently how the Knights of Labor, the nineteenth century labor organization (whether it was ever an actual union seems to be a bone of contention among labor historians) never managed to come together as an organization, and eventually dissolved due to going through what amounted to an identity crisis. Ultimately, no one seemed to know what the organization was, with factions and different leaders pulling it every which way until it finally collapsed.
|"The natural law is discerned by reason guided by faith, not faith alone."|
That’s the thesis of Robert E. Weir in his book, Knights Unhorsed: Internal Conflict in a Gilded Age Social Movement (Detroit, Michigan: Wayne State University Press, 2000), anyway. We won’t know whether or not we agree with Weir’s thesis until we finish the book, but it makes a good intro to the “Second Law of Social Justice”: Cooperation, Not Conflict. First, however, let’s review the basic understanding of social justice we’re using in these discussions.
Social justice is not a virtue that any institution, group, or society as a whole has. Only actual people — individuals — can have virtues, at least in the Aristotelian-Thomist sense of the term (i.e., the sense used by Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas).
The difference between individual virtue and social virtue is the “end” to which the act of the virtue is “directed” — it’s focus, so to speak. In individual virtue, the individual performs a virtuous act for his or her own benefit and that of the other individuals directly dependent on him or her. In social virtue, the individual performs a virtuous act in association with others (in an “organized way”) for the benefit of a specific group, institution, or the whole of the common good.
|Fr. William J. Ferree, S.M., Ph.D.|
Do you see the difference? In both individual and social virtue, individuals are acting — but they are acting (directing their efforts) to different things, depending on the type of virtue they are dealing with. Individual virtue is directed to the good of individuals, while social virtue is directed to the good of institutions, those “social habits” that make up the common good.
Thus, we say that individual virtue is directed to the individual good, while social virtue is directed to the common good. Consequently, social justice is not a replacement or substitute for individual justice or charity, but a “particular” virtue in its own right and with its own focus (“directed object”). That focus is to restructure society’s institutions (it’s “social habits”) to make individual justice and charity possible, not to try and focus on that to which the individual virtues are supposed to be directed.
An important part of all social virtue is organization. In order to carry out acts of social virtue, people cannot act alone on their own initiative. That’s individual virtue, which only has an indirect effect on the common good. No, they must organize in solidarity with one another, which means on the basis of shared understanding and acceptance of the principles that define a group or institution as that particular group or institution and no other.
And that means people must cooperate with one another when engaged in acts of social justice, not dissolve in factionalism or promoting one’s personal interests at the expense of the group. As Father Ferree explained,
|"The unity of human society cannot be founded upon opposition."|
“The unity of human society,” says Pope Pius XI in Paragraph 88 of Quadragesimo Anno, “cannot be founded upon opposition.” The only alternative to building a society upon the Common Good, is to try to build it upon some particular good. But the particular good of each individual is different, and any particular good which is falsely made into an ultimate principle must necessarily be in conflict with every other particular good.
Two kinds of such conflict are possible: free competition, which doesn’t care if others are wiped out; and dictatorship, which makes sure they are wiped out. Free competition as a principle of society can only lead to greater and greater conflicts of interests, until finally the society itself is destroyed. Dictatorship is a refinement of the same system, by which one kills off one’s competitors at the beginning instead of at the end, thus making sure (it is hoped) that one at least will survive.
People who advocate such courses have missed the great law of Social Justice that not conflict in any form, but only co-operation, organization for the Common Good, can make a real society.
The catch, of course, is that the cooperation — to be truly socially just, that is, virtuous — must be free. It cannot be coerced, or (as is the case with all virtue) it is not truly virtuous. Someone may do the right thing because you are holding a gun to his head, but is he being virtuous? No. He is being frightened, not virtuous, and even more likely to revert to unvirtuous behavior the moment you take the gun away than he was to do it in the first place, if only to reassert his dignity that you offended by coercing him.
That is why true solidarity is such an important concept in social virtue. Fundamental principles must be accepted freely, or they haven’t really been accepted at all. If people who are members of a group only do things because they are forced to do them, is there true solidarity, and is there true virtue? Obviously not.
No, and that is why the Second Law of Social Justice is “Cooperation, Not Conflict.”