Social justice

Why do people on the left demand “social justice,” and not simply “justice”?

Because the things they want are not just. Therefore they add the word “social” onto “justice,” creating a new concept that bears no relationship to justice, but employs the word “justice” and elicits—from the leftists and their various clients and dupes—the same emotional and moral response as the word “justice.”

Justice, while often difficult to apply in particular situations, at its core has a simple meaning: what is due. It means that people receive what is due to them. Since leftists demand, not justice, but “social justice,” this tells us that the things that are demanded on behalf of the various leftist clients, minorities, and victim groups are not due to them. The left is thus forever calling for and requiring things that are not just. The proof of this is seen in the fact that if these desired things were just, the left would simply ask for justice. But it doesn’t ask for justice, it asks for social justice, proving that its aims are not just.

- end of initial entry -

Thomas Bertonneau writes:

The left deploys an entire vocabulary of qualified terms that are actually obliterated terms. “Social justice” is one; in my field of scholarship and college instruction, ‘critical thinking” is another. The same analysis applies to “critical thinking” (which I get sick of hearing and reading) as applies to “social justice.” The latter isn’t justice and the former isn’t thinking; it’s sloganeering, the reduction of reason to arbitrary and heavily moralistic categories. And then there is “structural racism,” a necessary coinage in the least bigoted society that ever existed, in which white prejudice against blacks has been all but eliminated. The vanished bigotry now comes back in ghostly form, dressing itself in the “structures” that Cultural Marxism endlessly invokes. It’s all a gnostic fantasy, foisted on people largely through so-called education.

Sage McLaughlin writes:

Thank you very much for noting the shady use of the word “social” by leftists with respect to justice. The idea is to pretend that they have discovered a whole new category of justice, in fact the only really important kind of justice, which nevertheless somehow managed to escape the notice of every morally upright person in the whole history of civilization before 20th century radicals came along to tell us about it. This has been a peeve of mine for years. Whenever anyone talks about it in my presence, I often ask him, “What do you mean, ‘social’ justice? Is there any other kind?”

You’re right. Just as with weaselly qualifiers such as “institutional” racism (which means racism that can’t be pointed out, can’t be explained, and doesn’t really exist), “social” justice actually just means the destruction of real justice in favor of a system in which dissimilar things are treated as similarly as possible, which is pretty much the opposite of justice.

Ken Hechtman writes:

It’s a Catholic thing—and not just Liberation Theology/Catholic Worker types either. Right-wing Catholics like Charles Coughlin in the 1930s and the Jesuits a hundred years before that also used the phrase “social justice.” Maybe as priests they needed to make the distinction to show when they weren’t talking about divine justice.

The left would have picked up the term either from the Catholic Workers or else from John Rawls. Probably more from Rawls. In the 1960s (before A Theory of Justice came out) you didn’t hear people talking about social justice as much as you do now.

I never liked “social justice” as a buzzword anyway. It presumes your opponents are demanding and working for INjustice, social or otherwise, and they never are. At least nobody ever thinks of it that way. Everyone in politics believes he’s working for justice as he understands it .

LA replies:

I am aware that the phrase originated among 19th century Catholic thinkers. I’m not sure, but I don’t think that there’s much connection between what they meant by it, and what contemporary leftists mean by it.

Malcolm Pollack writes:

Excellent post.

I know so many liberal academics, and have had so many fruitless conversations with them on social and political topics, that whenever something like this comes up I can bounce the question off a little model of them I carry around in my mind. Were I to ask one of them to clarify the distinction between “justice” and “social justice,” I expect the response would be something like:

“‘Social justice’ refers to the creation of a society that is justly structured, as opposed to a society that merely has an apparatus for meting out ‘justice’ when forced to do so.” (There will of course be that word “structure” in there somewhere; there’s no getting away from it.)

Very soon after that, any further discussion will founder upon the incommensurable axioms that distinguish conservatives from liberals.

It’s always interesting to run these phrases through Google’s NGram Viewer (here).

Doing that for “social justice” shows almost no citations until the 20th century, then a sharp rise until the end of World War I, another sharp rise during the Depression, then a steep and mostly steady rise from about 1960 on.

Daniel O. writes:

There is in fact quite a relationship between the Jesuit idea of social justice and the modern liberal idea of social justice. The first relationship is that Catholic thinkers, in particular Jesuits, already had a worldly conception of social justice. The Jesuit mission in Paraguay created, perhaps for the first and only time in the history of mankind, a real Christian theocracy in the world, which lasted from the 17th to the 18th century (160 years in total). The second relationship is that European kingdoms on one side and the Church on the other (being pressured by these kingdoms) had betrayed the Jesuit initiatives in Paraguay, leaving the South American Jesuit villages (called “reducciones”) to be pillaged by secular slave traders. This has resulted in a Jesuit move against the status quo and towards revolutionary thought. The third relationship is that nearly all French revolutionary thinkers had been educated by Jesuits, because nearly the entire pre-revolutionary French education system had been controlled by Jesuits. People such as Montesuieu and d’Alembert had been very inspired by the Paraguay mission. Hence, at least historically, there is quite a relationship. Clearly, the substance of “social justice” has changed, since leftists no longer believe in a Christian mission, but much of their revolutionary thought originates from disgruntled Jesuits.

LA replies:

This is interesting, but it doesn’t tell us what Jesuit “social justice” consisted of, and what it has in common with the modern leftist idea of social justice.

Thomas Bertonneau writes:

You might recall—and we would all profit by recalling—that in The New Science of Politics, or perhaps it is in one of the volumes of Order and History, Eric Voegelin argues that one of the dubious achievements of modernity is the destruction of at least half of the precise philosophical vocabulary developed by Plato and Aristotle (chiefly) in their analysis of politics. One example: The term philodoxer, a “lover of opinions,” is an important term in Plato, where it describes the people that modern commentary tends to call sophists. (Some of the sophists in Plato are, in fact, notorious philodoxers.) Philodoxer stands in contrast to philosopher, a “lover of wisdom.” Voegelin says that philodoxers, who are numerous, benefit by the destruction of the term that designates them, since now philosopher expands to embrace the genuine “lovers of wisdom” and the “lovers of opinions,” indiscriminately. Thus Jacques Derrida, during my years of graduate studies, was held by the Marxisant professors to be a philosopher, even though his entire project was anti-philosophical and in reality nothing more than a project of epistemological nihilism.

Al Capone, incidentally, was a great advocate of “social justice.” His henchmen called it “protection money.” It was a transfer of wealth from productive people under coercive threat.

LA replies:

Just before reading your comment, I happened by pure chance to open up Milton’s Areopagitica, and came upon this (which I’ve now posted in a separate entry):

Where there is much desire to learn, there of necessity will be much arguing, much writing, many opinions; for opinion in good men is but knowledge in the making.

It’s not your point, but perhaps it’s a complement to it. Opinion is not just falsity, but (in good men who desire truth) an indispensable path toward truth.

Philip M. writes from England:

With regards to the “social justice” thread. In Marxist-speak, “social” usually means “state-enforced” to give us phrases such as “social worker” and “social security” and “socialism.” Justice on the other hand is more flexible and often seems to either mean “list of demands” (a union asking for “social justice” in the form of a pay raise, for example) or is a call for revenge (blacks in South Africa jumping up and down and brandishing machetes whilst thinking of doing some “social justice” to some random wrong-place-at-the-wrong-time white people, for example). So “social justice” would mean either “state-enforced revenge” or “state-enforced demands.” Looking at the Wikipedia article for this subject, I see that it says:

Social justice is based on the concepts of human rights and equality and involves a greater degree of economic egalitarianism through progressive taxation, income redistribution, or even property redistribution.

Sounds like state-enforced revenge to me.

Hey, maybe when whites get beaten up in America the media could call it “social justice gone wrong”?

Randy writes:

Simply stated, they want something for nothing. Parasites who want to live at the expense of their gullible and arrogant hosts. That is, liberals and other assorted idiots who actually do useful and productive work but support leftists politicians. Leftist politicians will steal from them (and the rest of us) and redistribute the fruits of our productive labor to the parasites who voted them in.

January 31

Sam writes:

I would like to say that your original point stands, even though Mr. Hechtman’s mention of John Rawls is relevant. The Rawlsian concept of “justice” perverts and distorts the term as it was used by classical philosophers like Plato and Aristotle. In classical philosophy, justice means “giving to each his due” and this is an inherently inegalitarian notion. It means that not everyone will be “given to” equally because not everyone is “due” equally. In a healthy society, this refers not just to economic output but to one’s moral and spiritual status or one’s virtue. This means that justice demands that we do not treat all desires as equal, all lifestyles as equal, all beliefs as equal.

The ideal of “social justice” defended by most liberals is closer in meaning to a form of “distributive justice.” Rawls, famously, thought that a just society is one where basic goods are distributed equally, and where inequality can be justified only if those who are worst off benefit from the inequality. No mention of desert, no mention of virtue or entitlement. In Rawls’s scheme, the simple fact that somebody somewhere has more than somebody else is prima facie unjust and grounds for redistribution.

Rawls arrives at his conception of “justice” by asking what sort of society people would choose to create if none of them had any knowledge of their particular personal characteristics. All they can know is that they will exist as a mere rational agent of some sort. He then concludes that the collective preferences of these abstract pseudo-agents are determinative of a just society. This is a truly stunning assertion, because in Rawls’s calculus all of the things which are relevant to justice have been dismissed as morally irrelevant: one’s history, family, sex, abilities, propensities for virtue, motivation, intelligence, not to mention one’s work and accomplishments. None of that can be morally relevant in determining what you are “due” in the Rawlsian system. And so what we get is something that is just the opposite of justice: a society where the only relevant consideration is egalitarian “fairness.” This notion of fairness implies that “justice” demands equality of outcome no matter how the inequalities come about.

Rawls’s political philosophy is perfect for liberal gnostics who refuse to dignify the particulars of human existence with any meaning.

Steve R. writes:

Dennis Prager is good on this subject. His principle is that whenever an adjective precedes an important value-based noun, the adjective essentially annihilates the noun to further an agenda. Economic / social / environmental justice are the examples he cites most often.

Jim Kalb writes:

One aspect of “social justice” I don’t think anyone has mentioned is that it’s the technocratic version of justice. It has to do with the modern preference for simple schemes that control a situation effectively and comprehensively. If that’s what you think makes sense then you’re going to ignore subtleties, particularities, and qualitative distinctions, and mostly just look at the overall pattern you want and the most effective means of getting there. That’s not the aspect people get idealistic about, but I think it’s one that gives it a lot of its practical force.

LA replies:

Interesting. But is “technocratic justice,” as you suggest, another name for “social justice,” or a different type of justice (i.e., another version of justice with an adjective added)? When leftists demand, say, that blacks should be proportionally represented with whites in all important areas of society, or that a criminal illegal alien serving time in the penitentiary should have his sex change operation subsidized by the state, is that “technocratic” justice, or just the left’s idea of “fairness,” i.e., of social justice?

I’m not clear on this, because, on a first approach, it seems to me that the idea of technocracy—of “controlling things effectively and comprehensively”—is distinct from, or at least not identical to, the left’s demand for “fairness” and equality of outcome.

Jim Kalb replies:

To my mind the two are the same, or at least convergent. Social justice is strong because it’s basically the same as technocracy, and technocracy seems humanly tolerable and even appealing because it basically says the same as social justice.

Technocracy takes technology—the rational use of resources to bring about arbitrarily-chosen goals—as the model for rational action in the social and political sphere as elsewhere.

Since it views the rational goal of action as satisfaction of arbitrary preference, it tries to establish a system that treats all preferences, and those whose preferences they are, equally, and that realizes them as much and as equally as possible.

With that in mind, it tries to fit everything into a simple effective scheme that’s transparent to those in charge so it can be understood and properly monitored and controlled. It therefore prefers uniformity, for the same reason factories prefer uniformity, and tries to get rid of qualitative and subtle distinctions.

The result is social justice. Everybody gets as much as possible of the same thing without regard to traditional concepts of desert. That applies to blacks who want positions of respect and to illegal aliens who’d like to change sex just as much as to other people who want other things.

Jim Kalb continues:
Another aspect of the situation that’s worth noting: since social justice means technocracy, it means that the people at the top run everything. The EU for example is a union of the people who run things. Its basic function is to make such people independent of the populace and answerable only to each other. Social justice ideology fits into that scheme quite well.

Bruce B. writes:

One of the things that always bothers me about Jim Kalb’s ideas (I don’t think they’re wrong) is that they make the left-liberal system and (presumably) its adherents seem so rational as opposed to emotional. His summaries always seems to miss that so much of left-liberalism is based on emotive terminology/ideas and their effect on real people. “Social justice” is a perfect example of this. It’s a tear-jerker, a heart-string plucker and it seems account for a lot of the appeal of leftism on a practical level.

I guess our differences in experience affect what we see. Maybe he’s seeing how the elite work (rational and technocratic) whereas my lower social class means that I’ve only had the opportunity to see the average left-liberal at work. The kind who’s heart goes pitter-patter when they hear the phrase “social justice.”

Thomas Bertonneau replies to LA’s previous reply to him:

On Opinion and Truth:

In Plato’s analysis there are two ways of addressing opinion (doxa). The philodoxer is an indiscriminating connoisseur of opinions, fascinated now with this one and now with that one, for whom, however, all opinions are more or less equal. (Newt!) The philodoxer has no interest in truth and never feels its pull. He who feels that pull will undoubtedly begin in the realm of opinions, but experiences dissatisfaction with the contradictions inherent in the contest of them, all against all. He therefore seeks what Diotima, in her great speech in The Symposium, calls right opinion, and being in possession of right opinion puts him on the path to philosophy proper. Right opinion, Diotima says, is the midway stage between ignorance and knowledge.

LA replies:

Cool. :-)

Irv P. writes:

I want to add to your terrific thread on “social justice,” that whenever I hear someone use that phrase I immediately reach for my wallet and hold it conspicuously in my hand while the person using the phrase is in my presence.

Hopefully the person will notice what I’ve done and either shut up or ask why I’ve done this. [LA replies: And how has the person reacted the times when you’ve done this?]

Those who want “social justice” want to put their hands right into your pockets and take what you have earned. Why do they desire to do this? It makes them feel “good.” And, of course, as people, they are so much better than you. It’s that emotion that motivates the liberals’ zealotry in all areas of their enterprise.

LA replies:

Irv’s strategy could be seen as a variation on the slogan, “When I hear the word ‘compassion,’ I reach for my revolver.”

Bruce B. writes:

I’ve pointed this out to you before, but the 1928 Book of Common Prayer has a prayer for social justice:

For Social Justice.

ALMIGHTY God, who hast created man in thine own image; Grant us grace fearlessly to contend against evil, and to make no peace with oppression; and, that we may reverently use our freedom, help us to employ it in the maintenance of justice among men and nations, to the glory of thy holy Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

This doesn’t sound like a particularly leftist form of “social justice” to me and doesn’t seem to preclude the traditional meaning and “justice” that you mention in your post. What do you think?

LA replies:

The first thing I notice is that the prayer speaks of “justice,” not “social justice.”

Bruce replies:

I agree that it’s significant that social justice is only in the title of the prayer and not in the body. The prayer includes “oppression” which is another leftist favorite although I’m sure there were conditions in the 19th and early 20th century that were genuinely “oppressive.”

LA replies:

Not only that, but it asks God to “Grant us grace … to make no peace with oppression.” A decidedly non-Anglican note! I had never noticed this prayer in my copy of the 1928 prayer book, or heard it said in church.

I don’t know what to think of it. The idea of asking grace to fight oppression doesn’t even make sense. Unless it is interpreted as, “Grant us grace, even as we fight oppression, to remain in communion with you.” But it doesn’t say that.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at January 30, 2012 04:42 PM | Send

Email entry

Email this entry to:

Your email address:

Message (optional):