How to define ‘social justice’: It’s all relative

How to define ‘social justice’: It’s all relative

You shall do no unrighteousness in judgment; you shall not respect the person of the poor, nor favor the person of the mighty; but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbor. (Leviticus 19:15)

How did we go from a standard of impartiality, regardless of station, to the concept of “social justice?” Can anyone give me a cogent definition of “social justice?”

The operative word, justice, is subjective, not objective. One person’s justice can be another’s injustice. defines social justice as “Fair and proper administration of laws conforming to the natural law that all persons, irrespective of ethnic origin, gender, possessions, race, religion, etc., are to be treated equally and without prejudice.” This seems to comport with the Leviticus standard, but I don’t think this is what most social justice advocates have in mind.

While social justice is generally associated with progressives and those further to the Left, it is also a central concept of the Third Way/Communitarian movement. Both former President Clinton and former Prime Minister Blair declared themselves to be adherents of the Third Way.

For me, the Third Way is an elitist philosophy based on a sense of moral superiority. It is based on the writings of Louis Kelso, the philosophical father of The Just Third Way, and Mortimer Adler, who taught the Philosophy of Law at the University of Chicago Law School. Here’s Adler’s definition of justice:

Justice, in its most general formulation, imposes the following moral duties or precepts upon men who are associated for the purposes of a common life: (1) to act for the common good of all, not each for his own private interest exclusively; (2) to avoid injuring one another; (3) to render to each man what is rightfully his due; and (4) to deal fairly with one another in the exchange of goods and in the distribution of wealth, position, status, rewards, and punishments.

With the ascendancy of philosophies like deconstructionism, moral equivalence, and moral relativism, it is impossible to get commonly accepted criteria for the subjective terms moral duties, common good, rightfully his due, and deal fairly embedded in Alder’s definition.

We are left to fall back on Justice Potter Stewart’s famous observation regarding hard-core pornography. “I know it when I see it” is hardly an objective standard.

The Center for Economic and Social Justice, a proponent of the “Just Third Way,” provides these comparative definitions:

Capitalism — Materialistic ideology and system which ignores the growing income insecurity of non-owning workers facing displacement by technology or lower-paid workers.

Socialism — Materialistic ideology and system based on and fostering the absolute dependency of all citizens on the state for their income security and well-being.

“Just Third Way” — Moral philosophy and economic system based on the inherent dignity and sovereignty of each person, which fosters the inalienable right of every person to be a worker and a direct owner within a society where spiritual values and the respect for all creation transcend material values.

CESJ defines six types of justice: commutative; distributive; economic; individual; participative; and social. To CESJ, social justice encompasses economic justice.

How do you construct and manage a system to deliver six distinct types of justice? Such a system would seem to violate Occam’s Razor — that entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity and therefore the simplest solution is usually the correct one.

I tried to find a cogent definition of social justice in Judaism. To me, the foremost American-Jewish group in the social justice arena is the Union for Reform Judaism. Its social action website lists 70 different issues, but not one of them is social or economic justice.

However, there was an intriguing entry called “Just Congregations,” a URJ initiative “whose primary goal is to engage and train Reform synagogues in congregation-based community organizing.” Shades of Saul Alinsky. Yet another definition is required:

Congregation-based community organizing is a process in which congregations build deep relationships among their own members and with other institutions across lines of faith, class, and race. Through building relationships, congregations identify deeply and broadly held concerns of injustice and then bring their collective power to successful action to transform their communities.

And I am back to where I started. One person’s injustice can be another person’s justice.

What are the goals of social justice? Are they to create the world of Kurt Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron,” where a Handicapper General, in order to enforce constitutional amendments, penalizes the gifted in order to achieve social equality and so that no one will feel inferior to anyone else? To create dependence and interdependence in the place of self-sufficiency? To redistribute wealth and property, from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs? Is it embodied in Al Sharpton’s statement earlier this month that true social justice requires “everything equal in everybody’s house?” After all, his favorite slogan is “No justice, no peace.”

There is one recurring theme — to empower a disadvantaged group at the expense of a group which is demonized. Us versus Them. Is this social justice?

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