The Problem with ‘Social Justice’

"...social justice is nonsense. Now, when I say 'nonsense,' I mean nonsensical, as in lacking interior logic and definitional rigor." - Jonah Goldberg

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Aaron Blumer's picture

Goldberg's analysis is insightful...

To put it bluntly, historically oppressed or disadvantaged groups want payback in the name of social justice. Rothman calls this “retributive justice.” According to this view — which obviously has more than a little truth to it — whites have historically enjoyed privileges that non-whites did not, and therefore non-whites are owed something, and “white privilege” must be overthrown. The argument follows the same form for males, heterosexuals, etc.

Joel Shaffer's picture

I generally agree with the article, except I would change the title to "the problem with today's social justice, to highlight the stark difference from how the term was used from its inception in the 1840s and through much of the 20th century.  For instance, In 1891, Pope Leo XIII called for Social Justice in his “Rerum Novarum” which supported workers rights, yet fiercely rejected socialism.  A pope (can't remember which one) 40 years later described Social Justice as "the norms of the common good."  One of the pillars of Catholic Social Teaching is Subsidiarity, which means that "Problems within a social organization ought to be solved at the lowest possible level of that social organization."   On a side note, I have had interactions with my RC friends, if Social Justice is opposed to socialism according to Rerum Novarum and Subsidiarity is such a huge aspect of Catholic social teaching, why do you tolerate liberation theology throughout the RC church?

Dr. Carl FH Henry (from the 1950s through the 1980s) spoke of social justice frequently in his writings, yet he utilized the term as the application of God’s moral righteousness to address contemporary social evils and social dilemmas. He was also fiercely opposed to Marxism, Socialism and saw Capitalism (although flawed) as the best economic system that coincides with social justice.   Al Mohler and Russell Moore were mentored by Henry and if you've read much of both of them, you can see Henry's fingerprints in their writings and messages when dealing with contemporary issues such as social and racial justice.  

It was Thomas Rawls in the early 1970s that opened the can of worms because he defined the term social justice primarily as fairness, where it used to be defined more with was is right (due to its Judeo-Christian influence).  One of the reasons that the Philosopher Friedrich Hayek was so against Rawl's definition of Social Justice is because Rawls didn't root "fairness" in any transcendent standard for social justice.  We are seeing the fruits of Rawls in so many contemporary definitions of Social Justice.   So much of Social Justice has been reduced to political activism based on socialistic economic theory.  Or I've heard some syrupy definitions from Cornel West and Tony Campolo such as “social justice is love, made public" and “Social Justice is nothing more than love transformed into social policy” which is essentially an over-reliance on government intervention, which is primarily achieved primarily through a vote for the right candidate that will enact the right legislation.  This is fundamentally different than how most of the public viewed social justice for the first 130 years.   

 

 

Aaron Blumer's picture

Thanks for filling in more background on this, Joel. 

It seems like everything these days is stripped of context.

Joel Shaffer's picture

I generally agree with the article, except I would change the title to "the problem with today's social justice, to highlight the stark difference from how the term was used from its inception in the 1840s and through much of the 20th century.  For instance, In 1891, Pope Leo XIII called for Social Justice in his “Rerum Novarum” which supported workers rights, yet fiercely rejected socialism.  A pope (can't remember which one) 40 years later described Social Justice as "the norms of the common good."  One of the pillars of Catholic Social Teaching is Subsidiarity, which means that "Problems within a social organization ought to be solved at the lowest possible level of that social organization."   On a side note, I have had interactions with my RC friends, if Social Justice is opposed to socialism according to Rerum Novarum and Subsidiarity is such a huge aspect of Catholic social teaching, why do you tolerate liberation theology throughout the RC church?

Dr. Carl FH Henry (from the 1950s through the 1980s) spoke of social justice frequently in his writings, yet he utilized the term as the application of God’s moral righteousness to address contemporary social evils and social dilemmas. He was also fiercely opposed to Marxism, Socialism and saw Capitalism (although flawed) as the best economic system that coincides with social justice.   Al Mohler and Russell Moore were mentored by Henry and if you've read much of both of them, you can see Henry's fingerprints in their writings and messages when dealing with contemporary issues such as social and racial justice.  

It was Thomas Rawls in the early 1970s that opened the can of worms because he defined the term social justice primarily as fairness, where it used to be defined more with was is right (due to its Judeo-Christian influence).  One of the reasons that the Philosopher Friedrich Hayek was so against Rawl's definition of Social Justice is because Rawls didn't root "fairness" in any transcendent standard for social justice.  We are seeing the fruits of Rawls in so many contemporary definitions of Social Justice.   So much of Social Justice has been reduced to political activism based on socialistic economic theory.  Or I've heard some syrupy definitions from Cornel West and Tony Campolo such as “social justice is love, made public" and “Social Justice is nothing more than love transformed into social policy” which is essentially an over-reliance on government intervention, which is primarily achieved primarily through a vote for the right candidate that will enact the right legislation.  This is fundamentally different than how most of the public viewed social justice for the first 130 years.   

To add more, I have not read Rawl's Theory of Justice yet.  However, I just finished reading a chapter in Dr. Carl FH Henry's "A Christian Mindset in a Secular Society" and Henry hammers Rawls for suggesting that forced economic distribution would result in social justice.  He also goes after Rawls in other articles and books for favoring forced economic redistribution, but I find it interesting that a conservative evangelical like Henry was critiquing the Socialist/Marxist version of social justice some 35-45 years before it blew up in the distorted version that we see today.    

Aaron Blumer's picture

He was certainly thinking ahead. Sounds like I would enjoy reading Henry on this topic. Unfortunately there doesn't appear to be any of his work at all on Audible, so it's going to take longer to get to it.

M. Osborne's picture

I did slog through John Rawls's A Theory of Justice within the last year. Not a terribly difficult read, but long, because he leaves no stone unturned.

Here's an oversimplified summary:

He has a heuristic scenario called "the veil of ignorance" where everyone is about to enter into a society knowing only the most basic things about human needs. No one knows what station he'll have or role he'll play in that society--whether rich or poor, what religion he'll be, what political persuasions he'll have, what occupations or hobbies he'll pursue, or even when he'll live within that society's historical progress (at the pioneer stage, or in later generations). Given this ignorance, and given that this collection of individuals want to cooperate and mutually benefit from each other, what base-line principles of justice would they establish that everyone would agree to? From this scenario, he urges that you need to consider the principles from the position of the least advantaged within society, because for any of those individuals, "it could be me."

The principles he establishes are pretty straightforward:

  1. Aim for equality wherever possible.
  2. Allow only those inequalities which also benefit the least advantaged. (E.g., if Warren Buffett gains further advantage, it's OK only if it also helps the least advantaged.)

He's actually arguing primarily against utilitarianism, arguing against a society aimed at maximizing collective or average happiness.

Rawls doesn't get heavily into distribution of wealth in A Theory of Justice; he's principally concerned with equality of access, rights, opportunities, etc., and crafting principles of justice with the disadvantaged in mind.

@Joel: regarding the no-transcendent-standard critique, this is probably the biggest problem in Rawls, and Rawls would see it as a feature, not a bug. Because different individuals pursue different goods, Rawls argues that our concept of the "right" (morality, justice, etc.) needs to be established apart from any specific concept of the good (premoral good, concepts of human flourishing, the good life, teleological considerations). The "veil of ignorance" (the initial position) by definition has to leave out those considerations, because Rawls wants to be fair to everyone.

A critical quotation from page 560:

From the start [teleological theories] relate the right and the good in the wrong way. We should not attempt to give form to our life by first looking to the good independently defined. It is not our aims that primarily reveal our nature but rather the principles that we would acknowledge to govern the background conditions under which these aims are to be formed and the manner in which they are to be pursued. For the self is prior to the ends which are affirmed by it…There is no way to get beyond deliberative rationality. We should…view the right as prior [to the good].

I don't know a lot about what happened with Rawls's ideas after that, other than that they've been enormously influential. And I haven't read his later Political Liberalism, and I couldn't trace his ideas to what we're seeing today.

I do know that he was advocating for the thinnest principles of "right" possible, and my take is that he's sneaking in a concept of the good whether he realizes it or not. His concept of the good is the world in which (1) his principles of justice are in place, and (2) everyone is free to pursue what is good in his own eyes.

Michael Osborne
Philadelphia, PA

josh p's picture

M. Osborne,
Thank you for the helpful summary of Rawls book.