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.

Wednesday, October 19, 2022

Social Justice and Liberal Democracy

A popular meme floating around social media shows actor Mandy Patinkin as Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride, “You keep using that word.  I do not think it means what you think it means.”  The problem was bad enough with a single word in a work of fiction.  It gets much worse when it is many words in real life.


Take for example, the loaded words “social justice” and “liberal democracy.”  Most people think they know what the words mean . . . and for the most part they are wrong, whether they support a particular understanding or oppose it.

As a result, any discussion about social justice or liberal democracy is highly likely to be completely meaningless, immediately going to ad hominem attacks with no evidence that anyone knows what he or she is talking about.

To see if we can correct that little difficulty and turn discussions to something of substance rather than an opponent’s personal character or lack thereof, today let’s look at social justice.

Social justice as a term first appeared in the early 1830s and seems to have meant pretty much whatever someone wanted it to mean.  This included fair administration of the criminal justice system, a society in which people were treated “justly,” whatever that meant, and so on.  As the decade wore on, however, the “New Christians” (a.k.a. socialists) started using the term to mean distribution based on need, i.e., forced charity . . . which isn’t either charity or justice of any kind, however much someone wants it to mean one or the other.

Luigi Aloysius Taparelli d’Azeglio, S.J.


In the mid-1830s, a Catholic priest by the name of Luigi Aloysius Taparelli d’Azeglio, S.J. (meaning he was a Jesuit) came across the term and started working on it.  In the late 1830s he published the first edition of his Theoretical Essay on Natural Law (some translate that “Natural Right,” but “Natural Law is a better translation, although “Natural Right” is the transliteration), and presented a rigorous definition of social justice.  And that was . . . what?

It gets a little deep here but bear with us.  Aristotle categorized the classic temporal virtues as temperance, fortitude, prudence, and — above all — justice.  He then described something that wasn’t exactly a virtue, but he called it one, anyway: legal justice.  According to Aristotle, “legal justice” is the indirect effect that the practice of individual, “particular” virtues has on the whole of society.  Most often this was the result of the State passing good laws and people obeying them, hence, legal justice.

To explain, as far as Aristotle was concerned, there are particular virtues and general virtues.  Particular virtues have a direct effect on their objects, while general virtues don’t have an object; they describe the indirect effect the practice of particular virtues have on others, sort of a “virtue fallout.”  Strictly speaking, then, a general virtue isn’t precisely a virtue at all, at least in the clearly definable sense.  A general virtue should more accurately be called a principle instead of a virtue, but Aristotle called it a virtue, so there.



What Taparelli did was take a look at the new term, social justice, and realize that it was being used in a way even more vague than that used by Aristotle for legal justice.  As the socialists were using the term, it seemed to be either forced charity or voluntary justice . . . actually more of a faith-based religious doctrine of socialism as “the New Christianity” than an objective, reason-based principle or virtue.

Taparelli decided that social justice was a good term, but not as the socialists were using it.  Instead of defining social justice as a religious doctrine as the socialists did (and do), however, Taparelli started with Aristotle’s legal justice, a reason-based foundation, and then added a religious feature that, nevertheless, was consistent with reason, i.e., did not contradict any virtue or anything else based on reason.

Taparelli’s definition of social justice was a form of legal justice — reason-based — guided and directed by the faith-based teachings of the Catholic Church.  His idea was that where Aristotle’s legal justice indirectly affected the formation of a just society, social justice (at least as he defined it) indirectly affected the formation of a Christian society.


This did not mean the establishment of a theocracy or a union of Church and State.  Instead, Taparelli’s idea was that human positive law (particular justice) would be in conformity with the precepts of the natural law (reason-based), but generally guided and consistent with — or at least does not contradict — the faith-based teachings of the Catholic Church, so that the Catholic Church had no direct effect of the rest of society, but a voluntary, indirect effect.

This actually works pretty well . . . as long as human positive law is consistent with a concept of natural law based on reason.  When human positive law is based on a different, faith-based concept of natural law, or rejects the whole concept of natural law altogether, then we get the sort of mess we have in the world today . . . and something else is needed, which is where we’ll begin when we take up this subject again.