Toward a useful definition of “social justice”

In common parlance “social justice” = communism or Leftism more generally, meaning for our purposes it can be translated as “injustice”.  We already have plenty of words for labeling general iniquity, and if this were all “social justice” is, we’d have no need for it.  Among Catholics, when “social justice” is used, the speaker is usually dividing up the moral law in his mind into “social” issues that have to do with money and “private” or “moral” issues that have to do with sex.  This use is unfortunate for implying a host of falsehoods:  that our business dealings and treatment of employees are not matters of personal sin and righteousness, that our conjugal relations don’t have enormous social ramifications.

When I use the words “social justice” (as I occasionally have), I’m trying to make different distinctions.  A more fruitful distinguishing factor of social as compared to private justice would be either 1) having to do with the irreducibly common good vs. individual goods or 2) having to do with the duties of large corporate bodies (especially states) entrusted with the common good vs. individual duties.  However one defines it, social justice should in principle deal with the entire moral law, only from the perspective of corporate justice rather than individual righteousness.

That viewing pornography is wicked and should not be indulged is a truth of private/personal morality.  That pornography should be banned is a matter of social justice.

If an employer fails to pay his employees a just wage, this is a personal sin for which he may well be personally damned.  That laws should forbid this and–as far as possible–the economy be devised to make it unprofitable are matters of social justice.

When we say that abortion is a matter of social justice, we mean that the natural law not only forbids women to commit this sin, but that it obligates communities to explicitly and legally renounce it.

What about those areas of morality where laws are counterproductive, such as politeness?  Even here, social justice makes demands, but in terms of what behavior communities commend and how their officials comport themselves.

8 Responses

  1. Good points. I’d agree that we need to “take back” the terminology from those who use it incorrectly.

  2. I fancy the idea of “Social Justice” is based on Aquinas’s distinction between “commutative” and “distributive” justice.

    The concept of “commutative” justice is straightforward enough; it refers to the rights and duties of private citizens in relation to each other – the field covered in most countries by the Civil and Commercial Codes and that takes up the bulk of the Corpus Juris of Justinian.

    “Distributive” justice, by contrast, refers to such matters as the distribution of public burdens, of public offices, honours, privileges, emoluments and the like. So far as it is justiciable at all, it belongs to the field of Public Law and droit adminstratif that governs the relations between the individual citizen and the community.

  3. I’m have to disagree with ArkansasReactionary. Sometimes a term or phrase is incorrigibly tainted by its common usage. Social justice is one such phrase. If we try to “take it back” and use it in a responsible way, this only serves to give a veneer of respectability to all the mendacious usages.

    As Bonald says, “social justice” normally connotes a the claim that some class of humanity has been unjustly deprived of some resource or right, and that their enjoyment of this resource or right ought to be made equal to, or more nearly equal to, that enjoyed by everyone else. The end state (seldom stated) is a “classless society,” which is to say a society in which everyone is perfectly equal and the same. Against this one might argue that “classless society” is a contradiction in terms, since one cannot have a society without parts to that society.

    Bonald proposes to retain the phrase and use it to denote forms of justice that receive official sanction and reinforcement, perhaps in positive law and at the very least in public propaganda. I agree that many forms of justice ought to receive official sanction and reinforcement, but am disinclined to call this “social justice.” As stated above, I think this provides cover for communists. I’d prefer to see it called public or official justice.

  4. @JMSmith

    I’m afraid we’ve got a bit of catch 22. If all orthodox Catholics were to immediately cease using the term, those who use it wrongly could still point to how it was previously used, and thereby accuse us of having changed out position on something. Of course, trying to take it back doesn’t have too good of prospects either, but this at least could theoretically result in success, whereas abandoning the phrase will mean that a phrase we used in the past will permanently be used against us.

  5. Ordinarily, I don’t bother with word retrieval. The thing about “social justice” is that it’s not really a piece of terminology; I’m just pushing for what the words “social” and “justice” in their ordinary meanings put together naturally imply. It’s like if we were to say that we’re so disgusted by what the French Revolution did with Fraternity that we agree that “fraternal love” shall no longer mean love between brothers. But love between brothers is just what “fraternal” and “love” put together mean. All you have to do is ask people to look at the words they’re using. For word combinations like this, I tend to wait longer before giving up.

    It could be argued that when speaking with unbelievers, we should only use “social justice” ironically, like we do with “vibrant”. However, I doubt anybody who doesn’t frequent HBD blogs gets the joke about “vibrant”, and we’d probably be no more successful.

  6. Another good point from Bonald, “social” and “justice” individually both have universal meanings that when combined indicate the correct meaning of “social justice”.

  7. I quite agree that a natural reading of the phrase “social justice” does not yield the meaning: “state coercion to bring about greater or absolute equality.” Also, I agree that the phrase has been, and to some ever-diminishing extent still is, used to mean something other than “state coercion to bring about greater or absolute equality.” But “state coercion to bring about greater or absolute equality” is, today, what C.S. Lewis called the “dangerous sense” of the phrase. In Studies in Words he defines the “dangerous sense” of a word as a sense that has become so dominant as to eclipse all other senses. Readers are so accustomed to taking the word (or phrase) in this one (dangerous) sense, that they invariably assume the word (or phrase) is being used in this (dangerous) sense whenever they encounter it. Many are unaware that the word (or phrase) can be used in a different sense.

    I also sympathize with your desire to exhibit some semantic obstinacy and continue to use words like social and justice in ways they were used up until quite recently, but I nevertheless believe that we must relinquish words that have a dangerous sense when that dangerous sense is a sense that serves our opponents. Consider the word “gay.” If we continue to use the word to mean “blithe and carefree,” we can only succeed in reinforcing the notion that homosexuals are, as they would have us believe, blithe and carefree. I submit that words like social and justice have been similarly lost, and that traditionalists must find new signifiers to denote the meanings these words once conveyed. Public might work as a substitute for social, righteousness might work as a substitute for justice.

    Until reactionaries control at least some of the engines of contemporary discourse, their only option is this sort of tactical linguistic retreat. To recover words, we must first recover at least some of the educational and media institutions that set the dominant, and therefore “dangerous,” senses of those words. There would have to be, for instance, major universities that taught their students that it was vulgar and ignorant to use the phrase “social justice” to mean “state coercion to bring about greater or absolute equality.”

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