What “Social Justice” Really Means
By Rev. James V. Schall, S.J.
For much of my academic life, I considered the terms, “values,” “rights,” and “social justice,” to have equivocal meanings. When these terms were used without clarification, they disrupted any fair social order. Each of the phrases had two or more meanings that usually meant the direct opposite of each other. Conversations and legislation in which these terms were used almost always ended in incoherence. One group used a term one way; the next group used it in an opposite way. Both usages were found in the language with various explanations of how they came into common usage. Each usage had its own philosophical presuppositions.
“Value” was a term from Max Weber or Nietzsche that denied any grounding to our ethical lives. Whatever we chose as our purpose or end was all right. The term admitted no rational scrutiny, only arbitrary choice. “Science,” in this sense, dealt exclusively with the means whereby we might achieve our selected end or purpose, whatever it might be. To say “this is my ‘value’” meant simply that I “opt” for this or that desire. I have no intrinsic reason why one choice is better or worse than another. The word “value” was thus a function of relativism. To “guarantee” values, or agree on them, merely meant accepting whatever we willed, not understanding and being held to what is right or wrong, true or false.
The word “rights” caused even more confusion. Especially in Catholic social thought where it was equated with some objective duty. But the modern usage of the word comes from Hobbes. It means that no objective goods can be rationally comprehended. A “right” was whatever I thought that I needed to avoid violent death. A “right” was the intrinsic power to obtain it and keep what I decided.
The Leviathan state was contractually empowered to guarantee these “rights.” This guarantee meant, in effect, the state defined the “rights” that were allowed to exist. The “right” to life confronted a “right” to abortion. When people insisted on their “rights,” they were accused of denying the “rights” of others. Battle after battle to defend the “right” to life was lost because it was seen as a denial of a “right” to abortion. The rhetoric of “rights” was independent of the rhetoric of truth.
“Social justice” was purportedly a new addition to the classical legal, distributive, and commutative justice ideas found in Aristotle. It was rather connected with the Leviathan state. Social justice was based on the idea that what is “due” to people for their flourishing is what decides their good. It was not personal virtue that was at the center of moral and political life. Social and political “structures” determined virtue and vice.
So the “vocation” to “social justice” derived its nobility from “service” to the poor and down-trodden through promises to “re-structure” the state or economy. Oftentimes this renovation of society was promoted in revolutionary terms, because state and social “structures” determined the meaning of virtue and vice. “Social justice” always hovered in the shadow of totalitarianism. The state became the center of all human life. Social Justice received its self-justification from what it distributed to everyone.