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I’ve been thinking a great deal about social justice in recent months.  It’s a term that gets thrown around quite a bit.  But I bet that if you went and surveyed a 100 people to define it, you’d end up with almost 100 different answers.

As I mentioned, I’ve been thinking about this a lot.  Mostly because I haven’t come with a good conclusion on this up to this point.  So this is a long post and I quote from one article quite a bit.  But I welcome your insights as well.  So let’s begin.

Social justice is one of those terms that a lot of people use, but are either unwilling or unable to define.  Some might say that they know it when they see it.  Others might define it through specific policy objectives.  But I’m not sure that’s really defining it.  I’ve heard other people say that social justice is righting a wrong in society.  That’s pretty broad in scope and goes beyond what I think most people would say social justice is.

In America today, social justice is often considered just a word to describe left-leaning political ideas.  Politics has a way of using words to make it seem like anyone who doesn’t support the idea should have their heads examined.  That’s because politics isn’t interested in debate, but rather winning.

I have found that understanding some history helps when dealing with abstract ideas.  Mostly because ideas come from somewhere and someone, so if we look at the origins, we might gain some insight in what an idea started out as.

There is an article by Michael Novak written in Dec. 2009 on the topic of social justice posted on the Heritage Foundation website.  Here’s the danger with posting this.  There are already some of you who are going to dismiss anything that is said from here forward because you disagree with what Heritage stands for – a more conservative political outlook.  I challenge you to stay with me here.  I’m skipping the modern discussion about social justice (If you read the article and don’t want to open your mind to hearing someone you might disagree with, then skip down about halfway to the section titled “What did Social Justice Mean Originally?”)

I found the history that Novak writes about to be quite enlightening.

The term social justice was first coined by an Italian priest, Luigi Taparelli D’Azeglio, who wrote about it in the mid-1800’s.  He was trying to revive and update Aquinas’ works to deal with problems of his day.

Social justice really came into prominence thanks for Pope Leo XIII in 1891, when he issued an encyclical, Rerum Novarum, which addressed the changes going on in society – people moving from agrarian ways of live.  Novak gives more details on this, but here’s why a Pope would write about this – this change was affecting families and the Church was concerned about what this meant for Christianity.

According to Novak:

The threat the Pope sees is socialism, the theory of giving the state total power.

Novak cites paragragh 26 of the encyclical to show this.  Here’s a modern translation that he cites.

It must be first of all recognized that the condition of things inherent in human affairs must be borne with, for it is impossible to reduce civil society to one dead level. Socialists may in that intent do their utmost, but all striving against nature is in vain. There naturally exist among mankind manifold differences of the most important kind; people differ in capacity, skill, health, strength; and unequal fortune is a necessary result of unequal condition.

And he continues with this:

Such inequality is far from being disadvantageous either to individuals or to the community. Social and public life can only be maintained by means of various kinds of capacity for business and the playing of many parts; and each man, as a rule, chooses the part which suits his own peculiar domestic condition.

That’s the origins of social justice.

Novak offers some further analysis relating to the topic – his interpretation of what this all means.  I’m going to quote a few sections and then offer my own ideas.

First, Novak:

Thus, Leo XIII did not mean by “social justice” equality. On the contrary, Leo held that it’s good that there’s an unequal society. Some people are fitted for different kinds of work, and it’s wonderful to be able to find the work that fits your talents.

This stems from an old debate – what does equality mean?  Equal outcomes or equal opportunities.  Those who are more politically left typically argue for equal outcomes and those on the right argue for equal opportunities.

Novak clearly comes down on one side here:

So Rerum Novarum addresses the evil of equality. Equality is against nature and against the whole range of human gifts. Human gifts make us necessarily unequal in some sense.

In a sense what he is saying is that it is impossible to have equal outcomes.  Even if you were able to have an equal outcome, as soon as you had it, it would be gone because people are not robots and have creativity and do unique things.

Another way of looking at this – is creation moving towards sameness or differentiation.  Do things become more complex and varied or more similar by nature.  Novak and those that agree with him would probably argue that differentiation is the norm.

Novak continues by throwing some theology into the mix:

Naturally, God is not impressed by the talents of any human being. No matter how great anybody’s talents are, they don’t come anywhere close to God, who created all beauty and all power and all energy and all ability. In that sense, in the eyes of God, we’re all equal. Relative to God, the differences between us aren’t important in the way God sees us. But in terms of looking at each of us realistically in our social roles, we are very different, and that’s what makes society work. Not everybody has to be slotted to be a cog in a machine.

In a way, this almost takes on a Lutheran understanding.  Which is surprising since Novak is Catholic.  Luther essentially argued that there is a priesthood of all believers – all are equal before God, outside of our works.  When it comes to salvation, humanity can’t do anything – it’s all up to God.  But in temporal matters, we have freedom to do as we wish.

Taking this to a practical level, Novak comes to some conclusions regarding how social justice has been working in the world:

…if you don’t want the state to run everything, what are you going to need? You’re going to need people who are able to cooperate and associate among themselves, to solve problems on their own level by themselves. If you want a playground for your children, you’ve got to cooperate with others in the neighborhood to build it. If you want to keep its equipment up, you’ve got to cooperate to paint it. If your village well is inefficient, you’ve got to organize together to dig a deeper one. This is still happening all over the world.

And it doesn’t require political/governmental activity.  Instead social justice looks more like a virtue to be lived out. It requires people to take responsibility for what happens around them, not handing over responsibility to others to do the job for them.

Again from Novak:

The Popes, [Friedrich] Hayek noted, had described social justice as a virtue. Now, a virtue is a habit, a set of skills. Imagine a simple set of skills, such as driving a car. The social habit of association and cooperation for attending to public needs is an important, newly learned habit widely practiced, especially in America. Social justice is learning how to form small bands of brothers who are outside the family who, for certain purposes, volunteer to give time and effort to accomplishing something. If there are a lot of kids who aren’t learning how to read, you volunteer for tutoring.

In the end the argument is that social justice isn’t a political agenda that supports an established political party.

Finally, it’s important to note that this notion of social justice is ideologically neutral. It’s as common to people on the Left to organize and form associations, to cooperate in many social projects, as it is to people on the Right. This is not a loaded political definition, but it does avoid the pitfall (on the Left) of thinking that social justice means distribution, égalité, the common good only as determined by state authority, and so forth. It also avoids the pitfall (on the Right) of thinking of the individual as unencumbered, closed-up, self-contained, self-sufficient.

I have not read the entire encyclical, but I’m certainly intrigued by it.  I’ll be doing more reading on the subject.

My conclusion is that Novak’s arguments make a great deal of sense.  If you have read any of my posts regarding politics you’ll know I don’t hold a high view of politics.  Politics is about power, not helping people.  I don’t support either American political party – or rather I don’t identify with either one and I don’t buy into the rhetoric leaders of these parties offer in order to get people to vote for them.

I believe we each have a responsibility to correct wrongs within our reach.  I like the idea of association to do this.  I agree that social justice isn’t and shouldn’t be just a term used by the left in politics to push their own political agenda.  It should be a way of living life outside of politics.

I will offer this – sometimes governmental action is the best way to approach a wrong in society.  Some things just go beyond what a voluntary association can handle.  And that’s ok.  But governmental action is not the magic bullet.  One size does not fit all.  Sometimes the worst thing that could be done is governmental action.  It depends on the situation, it depends on the municipality, it depends on who is involved.  It depends on a lot of things.  If a government is clearly corrupt or not functioning well, then having government add anything to its plate is a recipe for disaster and will probably make matters worse.

The point is this – I believe that social justice is a virtue to be lived out, not a government or political agenda.  Too often we turn to government first before looking at other options that could be done faster, with less resources, less cost, and could directly overcome whatever wrong needs corrected.  That’s because it’s so much easier to just pay someone else to do something.  But we have a responsibility and a calling.  It is because of what God has done for us that we are empowered with responsibility and called to right the wrongs that are around us.

That is where I am right now when it comes to social justice.  What are you thoughts about social justice.  I’d really like to hear your insights.