THE Global Justice Movement Website

THE Global Justice Movement Website
This is the "Global Justice Movement" (dot org) we refer to in the title of this blog.

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Can Social Justice Be Defined?

As we have stated more than once on this blog, we like to get questions or criticisms . . . questions or criticisms that we can answer, that is.  Okay, polite questions or criticisms that we can answer. . . . like this one, from someone we had sent some links to recent blog postings:

I am the man for philosophy.
I look forward to my immersion in your work. In the meantime, as you can see from these links, be aware that I have developed a strong position against social justice.  
My criticism starts with the fact that no one, as you will see, has been able to define social justice yet. And no one ever will, it is my conclusion, because social justice is a replacement for the old word “politics.”
Here is our edited response, composed after we looked over the material our correspondent sent:
Thank you for the positive comments about our work.  We agree with you that, considered within the current academic and political paradigm (which is overwhelmingly Platonic), no one has defined the term social justice in any meaningful sense.  A friend of ours who teaches Aristotelian-Thomist philosophy (and the need to specify “Aristotelian-Thomism” is a sad commentary on modern Academia) at Canisius College in Buffalo amused himself last year by sending us a long list of what can charitably be described as confused definitions of the term used by otherwise respectable (more or less) individuals and institutions.  And yes, we agree with you that the soundest understanding of social justice is actually the Aristotelian concept of the general virtue of legal justice, or (as you pointed out), politics.
That you are, in my books.
Frankly, our research over the past several years reveals where “social justice” managed to take a wrong turn in the 1830s and 1840s, being transformed from a vague catch-all term into what you and others quite properly call a socialist romantic fantasy.  By the time of the revolutions of 1848, social justice was a blanket term applied to measures intended to implement the program of Henri de Saint-Simon’s “New Christianity,” the first principle of socialism, that the whole of society, construed as exclusively economic in nature, should be devoted to material improvement, with special emphasis on uplifting the poor.
Specifically, “socialist social justice” is divided into two forms of redistribution, one voluntary, the other involuntary.  Voluntary redistribution is philanthropy, while involuntary redistribution is distributive justice.  Needless to say, philanthropy and distributive justice have legitimate, non-socialist meanings that differ from these.  In addition, the socialist understanding of social justice, while called a definition, obviously does not meet the standards of a defined virtue.
In reaction against socialism and the other “new things” of modernism and New Age thought, Pope Gregory XVI issued the first social encyclicals (Mirari Vos in 1832 and Singulari Nos in 1834).  He also sponsored the Thomist revival.
I stand on the principle of social justice.
One of the leaders in the revival was Monsignor Luigi Aloysius Taparelli d’Azeglio, S.J., who developed a principle of social justice to correct the errors of the socialists.  In 1840 he published Saggio Teoretico di Dritto Naturale (“Essay on a Theory of Natural Law”) to explain his principle.
Taparelli’s work was intended specifically to counter the socialist concept of social justice that all things, including the natural law, are subordinate to whatever is desired, especially the amelioration of social conditions.  His principle of social justice was that all things, even (or especially) social improvement and the general welfare, must be subordinate to the natural law as understood in Aristotelian-Thomism, i.e., to God.
This, however, was not a true social ethics or a defined virtue in the strict philosophical sense.  Rather, it was individual ethics with a good intention toward the common good — sound guidance for the life of the citizen in the State, as Aristotle explained in the Nichomachean Ethics and the Politics.
I stand on the virtue of social justice.
Most (if not all) of the confusion that you note with respect to social justice and, we think, your stand that there can never be a definition of the term, results from generations of scholars and advocates attempting to resolve the socialist and the Taparelli versions of social justice and synthesize a consistent definition.  Obviously, a theory of social justice that says the natural law is subordinate to the will of the people (socialism), and one that says the will of the people is subordinate to the natural law (Taparelli) can never be reconciled.  Any attempt to do so, or even define it in any meaningful way, can only result in contradictory nonsense, as you hint.
This is where CESJ co-founder Father William J. Ferree, S.M., Ph.D., comes in.  Here is a link to Father Ferree’s pamphlet, Introduction to Social Justice that summarizes his analysis of Pius XI’s breakthrough in defining social justice as a particular virtue.  (Father Ferree’s full argument is found in his doctoral thesis, The Act of Social Justice.)
As you can see, according to Father Ferree, Pius XI built on Taparelli’s principle and was able to define social justice.  Before anything else, of course, he rejected the socialist theory of social justice completely, especially the fundamental principle that puts sovereignty into the collective instead of into the human person (Divini Redemptoris, § 29), calling it a “concept of society . . . utterly foreign to Christian truth.” (Quadragesimo Anno, § 117.)
The bottom line here is that we agree with you about social justice as commonly construed.  It is at best wishful thinking and at worst incoherent gibberish.  If you read through Father Ferree’s pamphlet, however, especially in light of the two different concepts of social justice that preceded the work of Pius XI, you may be persuaded not only that a definition is possible, but that it has been developed.