Today we come to the sixth characteristic of social justice, and the final installment in our series on the laws and characteristics of social justice. Appropriately, this characteristic is that you cannot simply refuse to participate in social justice; you cannot take your ball and go home. That might sound harsh, especially given what most people think of as “social justice” these days, but it’s a necessary aspect of what it means for human beings to be (as Aristotle called us) “political animals.”
The fact is, social justice has no place for anarchists, individualists, collectivists, or totalitarians. This is not simply because anarchists don’t recognize any law greater than themselves (might makes right), individualists don’t recognize anything greater than themselves (might makes right), collectivists don’t recognize anything greater than the abstraction of the collective (might makes right), and totalitarians don’t recognize anything greater than the State (might makes right) . . . although that is a big part of it.
|Everyone has the same natural rights.|
Being political means recognizing that every human being has inalienable rights that define him or her as a “person.” That does not mean that I have rights and you have none just because I do, or that you don’t have any because you are inferior and I am superior in some way. That’s just another way of saying might makes right.
No, being “political” means that you and I both have rights absolutely, but the fact that we both have rights absolutely automatically means that neither of us can exercise his or her rights absolutely. The exercise of even absolute rights necessarily implies that they must be limited, or my exercise could easily result in your lack of exercise.
That means the exercise of rights or the functioning of any social tool whatsoever must be defined in such a way that results in the optimal benefit being received by the right holder, and the minimal detriment on whomever the duty is imposed — and it goes both ways. Others may not exercise their rights in any way that imposes on me a duty greater than that which is imposed on them by my exercise of the same right, nor confer greater benefit on them than what I enjoy by the exercise of the same right.
That makes every law and institution in society a matter of personal concern to every single human being on earth — and thus social justice is something that is of immediate concern to everyone. When institutions are flawed, it becomes everybody’s business to fix them so that they function justly once again. Thus, as Father Ferree explained,
Sixth Characteristic: You Can’t “Take It Or Leave It Alone”
Another corollary of this characteristic of Social Justice (that it is never finished) is that it embraces a rigid obligation. In the past when it was not seen very clearly how the duty of reform would fall upon the individual conscience, the idea became widespread that reform was a kind of special vocation, like that to the priesthood, or the religious life. It was all very good for those people who liked that sort of thing, but if one did not like that sort of thing, he left it alone.
All that is changed! Since we know that everyone, even the weakest and youngest of human beings, can work directly on the Common Good at the level where he lives, and since each one “has the duty” to reorganize his own natural medium of life whenever it makes the practice of individual virtue difficult or impossible, then every single person must face the direct and strict obligation of reorganizing his life and the life around him, so that the individual perfection both of himself and of his immediate neighbors will become possible. This idea should not be taken alone, it should be held only in conjunction with the characteristics we have already seen, namely, that one cannot practice Social Justice alone as an individual, but only with others; and that the realization of Social Justice takes time.
This concludes our brief series on the laws and characteristics of social justice. It does not, however, conclude all possible discussion of social justice. All this is just a start; it guides us in the right direction and gives us a handle on understanding social justice, not the sum total of everything that can be known about it.
Nor is it anything particularly new, as Father Ferree pointed out. As he ended his pamphlet, Introduction to Social Justice,
The theory of Social Justice which has been outlined in this pamphlet is tremendously important and far-reaching. No mere pamphlet could hope to outline the whole theory or to explore all its consequences. That is why this pamphlet is called only an introduction to Social Justice.
|Pope Pius XI|
The completed doctrine of Social Justice places in our hands instruments of such power as to be inconceivable to former generations.
But let us be clear about what is new and what is old. None of the elements of this theory are new. Institutions, and institutional action, the idea of the Common Good, the relationship of individual to Common Good — all these things are as old as the human race itself. There is nothing more new in those things than in the school boy’s discovery that what he has been speaking is prose; nor must we ever believe that God made man a two-legged creature, and then waited for Aristotle to make him rational. Moreover, much of the actual application of these principles to practical life is to be found in older writers under the heading “political prudence.”
When all that is admitted, there is still something tremendously new and tremendously important in this work of Pope Pius XI. The power that we have now to change any institution of life, the grip that we have on the social order as a whole, was always there but we did not know it and we did not know how to use it.
Now we know.
That is the difference.