If “social justice” is such a vague, ideological concept, providing cover for a progressive agenda that calls for more state control of the economy and social life, why not junk it altogether as many recommend? Already, conservatives and libertarians tend to use it dismissively, with scare quotes around it.
But, accepting all the criticisms of considering social justice to be an ideal state of affairs, do we still need the concept in its original sense, as a personal virtue?
When the conservative Italian Jesuit scholar Fr. Luigi Taparelli coined the term, he meant it to refer to a personal virtue. It was not about equality or the redistribution of wealth by the state. Social justice was part of the cardinal virtue of justice, by which, as a matter of habit and will, we give others what is due them.
In Michael Novak’s last book (which I co-authored), “Social Justice Isn’t What You Think It Is,” Novak explored the theory and history of social justice, rightly understood, and we fleshed out its practical application to issues of conscience, marriage, poverty, charity, and helping professions such as social work.
The Common Good
Social justice can be defined as the virtue that inclines individuals to work with others for the common good. It is “justice” in directing the virtues to giving others their due, and it is “social” in a double sense.
First, it aims at the common good rather than what is due to another individual, like the money I owe my plumber for services rendered.
Second, it involves joining with others to achieve a common purpose that individuals cannot achieve on their own. It is the virtue that French diplomat and political thinker Alexis de Tocqueville admired so much in the America he found in the first half of the 19th century.
It is the virtue of association, the virtue par excellence of civil society. Tocqueville contrasted the way Americans, needing a bridge or church in their town, would join together to build one, whereas the French would look to the state to perform the task.
In this understanding, social justice is not a matter of making claims on the state, for money, goods, and services, though none of that is excluded. Nor is social justice a matter of making demands on the state to act against civil society or families, enforcing individual claims on parents or one’s employer or school.
It is the virtue required by citizens in a republican democracy as opposed to the more passive duty of subjects of a lord or sovereign.
As Novak said of his serf forebears on a feudal estate in what is now Slovakia: “My ancestors were taught to accept their lot. Their moral duties were fairly simple: pray, pay, and obey.”
Once in America, all that changed. Now they were citizens, not subjects. They were responsible, in new ways, for their own future. They needed to be active and creative in working together to meet common needs and to deal with problems and crises.
Novak gives a wonderful account of a whole community coming together, that of his hometown, Johnstown, Pennsylvania, where the dam burst several times and flooded the town, claiming many lives. He describes how the community organized in response, depending on and building the virtue of social justice.
“The widespread habits of self-organization, insight into what to do next and in what order, and agreeable cooperation in dire need—such social capital, such a fund of social virtues—helped Johnstown to come back from three major floods: in 1889, 1936, and 1977,” Novak wrote.
Like other virtues, social justice grows through practice and weakens through disuse or when the state, which has expanded enormously since the 1880s, takes over. The danger then is of ignoring or stifling the creativity and energy of people closest to the situation.
Sometimes the state’s proper role is to get out of the way.
In child protection cases, where the professionals may be most inclined to ultimatism—do this if you want your child back—a family group conference mobilizes extended families to work out a plan to keep the children safe. It draws on indigenous, ancient traditions of problem-solving and restorative justice, but is part of the legal structure of the modern bureaucratic-professional state.
The outcome of the decision-making process is not predetermined and the eventual plan, worked out by the family and proposed at the end of the meeting to the professional(s) responsible for child protection, could be to move the children to a relative, have the abusing parent leave the home or go into residential treatment for drug or alcohol abuse, or in the most intractable cases to move to terminating the rights of the parent.
The state does not abandon its legal duty to protect children, if necessary, from their parents, but widens the circle of responsibility to include extended family members who care about the children and may have resources or ideas for keeping them safe.
Even in such cases, where the coercive power of the state is never far from anyone’s mind, it is possible to find scope for bringing people together for the common good, to build on and strengthen the capacity of families and communities to practice the virtue of social justice.
The first resort of many activists in addressing such problems is to call on the state for a new law or stricter enforcement. The state is often necessary, but it can all too easily substitute for the love and caring capacity, the wisdom and creativity, of those closest to the problem.
The question instead should be, did this intervention leave the family and community stronger and better able to meet its own obligations to its vulnerable members? That is, did it strengthen the virtue of social justice in those who participated, or did it weaken it?
Paul Adams is a professor emeritus of social work at the University of Hawai‘i and was a professor and associate dean of academic affairs at Case Western Reserve University. He is the co-author of “Social Justice Isn’t What You Think It Is” and has written extensively on social welfare policy and professional and virtue ethics.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.