Social Justice?REV. JAMES V. SCHALL, S.J.
"Social justice" can be a dangerous phrase.
In modern philosophy, social justice derives from Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau. It doesn't have the same meaning found in Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, or Aquinas, for whom justice was a personally acquired habit. It existed only in its practice. In a just polity, citizens freely practiced acquired virtues with respect to others.
Depending on whether its citizenry is just or unjust, a polity designs its political institutions to accomplish the end by which its people choose to live. In an unjust regime, citizens do not practice justice toward others. Aristotle's analysis of regimes accounted for the different institutions that fostered these ends. Because of the difficulty of acquiring virtue, a good regime was unlikely to last.
The origins of social justice lie in Machiavelli's rejection of the possibility of virtue. He lowered moral sights to achieve, as he thought, the most workable regime. He wanted to establish a regime of success, not virtue, a regime free of the "restrictions" of virtue. From Hobbes to Kant, the question was how to erect a just — i.e., successful — regime, one that keeps power, but without the personal practice of virtue. A good regime meant not that individuals are just but that the laws are just. Whatever the laws, if citizens obeyed — usually by force — they would be prosperous, happy, and peaceful. Law was will.
Following Hobbes, citizens of regimes of social justice had no duties, only rights, a word by no means neutral. Citizens were not responsible for doing anything. They were entitled to receive whatever the law granted to them. In practice, the principal virtue of the rights-state is compassion, the virtue capable of overturning each natural law norm. The state defines what right is owed to everyone. If I do not have what I am entitled to by right, I am a victim of society. It is responsible for my condition.
The best modern social-justice states guarantee that I have all my rights, themselves wholly defined by law. I am taken care of, but not by myself or others through virtuous acts, particularly personal acts of justice, friendship, and charity. To conceive justice as an ideal set of institutions waiting to be established so that everyone would be taken care of is a latent form of totalitarianism.
If by the phrase "working for social justice" we mean that we are seeking to erect a regime in which everyone else, especially the poor, will be provided for by our structurally oriented efforts, we will mistake what justice signifies. Justice cannot be automatically acquired outside of ourselves. Its acquisition includes the intellectual and moral virtues in their proper sense. We cannot help others unless we understand what virtue is and how to acquire it. A modern social-justice regime obviates any real relation — be it of justice, charity, or friendship — of one person to another.
Father James V. Schall, S.J. "Social Justice?" Crisis (October 1, 2005).
Reprinted with permission of Crisis Magazine.
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Father James V. Schall, S.J., is emeritus Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown University and the author of many books in the areas of social issues, spirituality and literature including The Mind That Is Catholic: Philosophical & Political Essays, On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs: Teaching, Writing, Playing, Believing, Lecturing, Philosophizing, Singing, Dancing; Roman Catholic Political Philosophy; The Order of Things; The Regensburg Lecture; The Life of the Mind: On the Joys and Travails of Thinking; Schall on Chesterton: Timely Essays on Timeless Paradoxes; Another Sort of Learning, Sum Total Of Human Happiness, and A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning.
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