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

EditorAdmin

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

EditorAdmin

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

EditorAdmin

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.

Joel Shaffer's picture

Interesting that Milton Friedman, one of the most ardent defenders of 20th century free-market capitalism, even used the term "social justice" positive way in one of his lectures in 1978.  His point was that the free-market capitalism as a system does much more to bring social justice than a government-controlled economic system.  Dr. Joel McDurmon relates this in the current social justice debate both within our nation and within conservative evangelical circles.  

Friedman sums: “Whenever we try to do good using force, the bad moral value of force triumphs over good intentions.” This is true no matter what the good intentions are, including the “fine objectives” of equality and social justice.

The right approach for us, however, is not to demonize “social justice,” but to highlight the disparity between socialistic systems and a biblical free market. The imperative for Christian leaders then becomes teaching how to increase social justice through those biblical means.

Our goal should be to demonstrate the free market principles of the Bible and how, when implemented, those principles lead to an increase of the values held dear by advocates of social justice (among other things, of course). This process will by definition also correct any such values which conflict with biblical principles of the market and freedom.

Unfortunately, it seems too many have chosen to demonize the label rather than the more difficult (and in perhaps more uncomfortable to them, personally) task of demonstrating the biblical way to the “fine objectives” we all should desire.

Many Christian leaders I see slamming “social justice” today would do well to take another piece of sage advice Friedman offers: quit judging people’s motives. Give the benefit of the doubt, praise good intentions, and instead of judging motives, judge the outcomes of the systems and the moral principles at the root of the systems.

(h/t to The Atlas Society for this abbreviated video of Friedman’s lecture.)

 

M. Osborne's picture

When I was reading Rawls and doing various related studies, I came across this article in Forbes.

The gist of the article is that you could accept Rawls's basic starting point and still come to conservative economic conclusions because you have completely different ideas (from liberal economists) about what helps the disadvantaged to flourish. The article also attacks the notion that the only reason someone could hold to conservative economic policies is because he wants to favor the rich and keep the poor down. The article argues that the "veil of ignorance" is a completely useless heuristic device:

There is no conservative equivalent of the veil of ignorance because conservatives understand what perhaps Rawls, and certainly many of his followers, didn't, which is that there are actually honest and morally righteous arguments for the other side.

Interesting tidbits I picked up in A Theory of Justice which are by no means central to its argument, but still very interesting:

  1. Rawls opposed minimum wage. He preferred mechanisms to “[deal] with the claims of need” over “minimum wage standards” (277). So I think he would have balked at the idea that people deserve a living wage (though he'd have supported some kind of social minimum welfare).
  2. The inheritance tax rate would be based not on the size of the estate, but on the tax bracket of the beneficiary. It would encourage estates to be divvied up more evenly to those who need it.

Michael Osborne
Philadelphia, PA

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Agree with the Forbes piece that Rawls' veil seems pointless. Thanks for the link. 

M. Osborne's picture

Glad you liked it, Aaron. I actually thought of you when posting. Smile

Michael Osborne
Philadelphia, PA