In yesterday’s posting we might have given the impression of a vision of social justice not connected with actual people. That is, we might have given that impression if the posting wasn’t read in context as part of a series on the “laws and characteristics of social justice” as analyzed by CESJ co-founder Father William J. Ferree, S.M., Ph.D. In particular it is essential to keep in mind the fourth “law” of social justice, that every individual is directly responsible not only for his or her own personal welfare, but for the common good as a whole, i.e., to acquire the "virtue" or habit of being just in his or her interactions with other persons but also to acquire the social virtue of how to address injustices effectively in his or her institutions or "social habits or tools" when they fail to perform more justly for the benefit of every one of their members, i.e., the "common good".
|Father William J. Ferree, S.M., Ph.D.|
Of course, we also have to keep in mind that “the common good” is not (as many suppose) the aggregate of individual goods (not "things" but "moral satisfactions" that result from good "personal habits" i.e., virtues), but that vast network of institutions — social habits — within which every child, woman, and man acquires and develops virtue, thereby becoming a more fully developed human.
And that’s what social justice is all about. When our institutions are flawed, it is a duty imposed on everyone individually to organize effectively with others and work to repair our institutions so that they function for everybody’s benefit, not just a few. And that is why the first characteristic of social justice Father Ferree looked at in his pamphlet, Introduction to Social Justice (1948) was that social justice can only be “done” by people when they are organized and acting as members of a group:
First Characteristics: Only By Members of Groups
It might be good in order to make the notion of Social Justice clearer, to compare its characteristics with those of individual justice which are already well-known. The first great mark of Social Justice is that it cannot be performed by individuals as individuals, but only by individuals as members of groups. Let us give an example. When John Jones pays a debt to Bill Smith he is acting as an individual. He contracted the debt and he is paying it. We would be tempted to say it is nobody else’s business.
Example of Indirect or “Commanded” Act of Social Justice
|Pope Pius XI|
But there is more to it than that. When he pays his debt, he is continuing a laudable tradition in his society, that debts are paid when they come due. By paying it promptly he contributes to the conviction which is prevalent in his society, that debts are to be repaid promptly. He not only furnishes a payment for his private debt, which is whatever sum of money he happens to owe, but he also contributes payment of a debt which he owes to his society, namely, support of the principle that at the proper time debts are to be paid. Moreover, when Bill Smith gets paid, he is in a position to pay his own debts to somebody else; and thus the healthy tradition of debt paying is still further strengthened. Moreover, the confidence which men have in each other’s integrity, a confidence upon which all our social living together is built, is certainly promoted by the fact that both men discharged their obligations when those obligations became due.
Now this “tradition,” this “confidence” are social things, marks of the society as a whole, which set off that society of honest men from other societies of thieves or cheats or confidence men. These acts then, insofar as they contribute to the health of that society, are indirect acts of Social Justice (promoting the Common Good) although they are directly acts of individual justice. Now notice that the individual justice is done as an individual. It is John Jones or Bill Smith who pays the debt of John Jones or Bill Smith. But when by their action they contributed to the health of the whole society, it was not merely as John Jones or Bill Smith that they acted but as members of that society.
Example of Direct Act of Social Justice
This is even more clear if we were to describe not an indirect act of Social Justice but a direct one. Suppose for instance, that John Jones’ and Bill Smith’s society have a long tradition of not paying debts. As a result of this fact that nobody ever pays debts, everybody is suspicious of everybody else, and no one will let out money or goods even in an emergency of his neighbor.
Emergencies, however, have a habit of coming up, and people suffer. Likewise, all jobs that are too big financially for one person, go undone, because no one will trust another sufficiently to go into partnership. The consequence is that the economic life of the community as a whole is suffering more and more; and the people are gradually being reduced to destitution.
We will suppose that John Jones notices this condition, and sees what the cause of it is: the whole group is not honest. He sets out, then, to change the group — to reorganize it into an honest community.
The Wrong Way: Individualistic
The question is: What can John Jones do as an individual? He might, for instance, decide to give the community “a good example” of honesty. That is, he might lend out all his money to others, thus showing that he trusts them, and undertake always to pay his debts exactly on time. It sounds good; but, remembering that what is wrong with that community is that everyone considers it normal to be dishonest, we might readily calculate the chances that John Jones’ heroic honesty and trust would have of reforming the community. When he starts handing out his money freely, it is rather obvious that most of his neighbors will try to grab off as much of it as they can while the grabbing is good. When he is finally reduced to poverty, it is unlikely that his example will attract many followers.
His mistake was to attack a social evil with only individual means.
That covers the wrong way to go about “doing” social justice. Next week we’ll look at the right way.