The concept of social justice has come under withering criticism since the great economist Friedrich Hayek called it a mirage in his classic 1976 study. Yet it survives as an ideological term, even as a “core value” in a “helping profession” like social work.
Can it be justified in some way or should it be jettisoned, as most critics maintain, as hopelessly incoherent, vacuous, and partisan?
One problem is that social justice is too easy to use as an all-purpose justification for any policy or program.
If you don’t support my program, says the social justice advocate—typically a program giving more power and money to the state while restricting economic or political freedom or freedom of religion or speech—you don’t support social justice. You support social injustice.
But no one, in their own eyes, supports social injustice. We all want to see a reduction in poverty—and unprecedented reductions have occurred worldwide under capitalism.
But if you support capitalism, says the social justice activist, and reject my program, as failing to achieve its stated purpose or as making matters worse, you are supporting social injustice.
We all, I suppose, think the present gap between CEOs of large companies and their line workers is too high in some sense, but it is not enough to say we should all support your program for increasing equality, say by heavily redistributive taxation, simply because you appeal to the value of social justice.
Your program may reduce economic activity and make us all poorer; it may decrease incentives for productive work and investment; and may increase dependency.
These are questions to be examined and debated. It will not do to make a blanket appeal to social justice and think that you have thereby made an argument.
Another problem with social justice as commonly understood is that it is utopian. It sets up a nonexistent ideal against which to measure existing reality. Put differently, if this current policy or program or arrangement does not come up to your standards, it should be removed in the name of social justice and replaced by something more to your liking.
The approach sets up your ideal (socialism, let’s say, but the ideal kind, not as it has actually existed in, for example, Venezuela or China) against the reality of actually existing capitalism. It measures my reality against your ideal. It sets the lived reality of generations against the ideas and ideals of a revolutionary elite that relies on its own reason.
Whatever the virtues of such utopian elitism, humility is not among them.
In recent years, “social justice warrior” (SJW) has evolved as a pejorative term to denote the function of social justice as self-validation, a way for activists to claim moral superiority to those with different views.
It is a cost-free way of weaponizing compassion to attack others without having to argue one’s own views. It is, in that other modern term, a potent form of “virtue signaling”—the conspicuous display of moral values.
A similar critique has long been made of socialists, before identity politics, modern feminism, sexual liberalism, and multiculturalism emerged in their present forms. Socialist class politics, in that older view, is a form of rationalized envy and resentment, masking itself in a cloak of compassion and moral superiority.
There is a sharper form of critique that does not depend on ascribing psychological motivations to those who advocate for social justice. It argues, rather, that social justice is simply and inherently unjust.
Putting the word “social” in front of “justice” renders the term not just vacuous but turns our ordinary and classical sense of justice on its head.
Justice, argues Thomas Patrick Burke in his 2011 book “The Concept of Justice,” depends on desert—being treated as one deserves. It is unjust to deprive people of property or livelihood or education because some working out of social forces results in disparate outcomes that have nothing to do with the actions or intentions of those deprived.
It is unjust to punish people for an outcome where no crime has been committed, where there is no wrongful intent. Yet such injustice is perpetrated by governments and the institutions they control all the time—in the name of social justice.
As one of many examples, Burke cites the 2010 case of the Swiss pharmaceutical company Novartis. In a class action sexual discrimination lawsuit, the New York court declared Novartis fully liable and fined it the extraordinary sum of $3.3 million in compensatory damages and $250 million in punitive damages.
The women who brought the suit, argues Burke, “suffered no injury; were not robbed or swindled; they did not lose anything. … The company had no obligation to employ any of them and did them the favor of offering each of them a job, which they knowingly and willingly applied for.”
There was no evidence of evil intent, but much reliance on a statistical survey to find disparate treatment and disparate outcomes. In short, this was not a case of ordinary justice as understood for millennia, not a matter of desert or intent, but of the use of state power aimed at imposing equality in society.
So does the concept of social justice have any redeeming use or value? Used to denote a state of affairs desired by the speaker, or as a form of virtue signaling, or as a device for subverting justice in the name of justice, I think not.
But, acknowledging these critiques of social justice as widely understood both by those who embrace the concept, so defined, as well as those who reject it, is there nevertheless not a strong case for social justice, rightly understood in its original sense, as a virtue, not a state of affairs?
I take up that question, answer it affirmatively, and show the need for social justice, rightly understood, in my next article.
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.