Acton Institute Powerblog

Rethinking Social Justice

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Some years ago, I was engaged in a conversation at a religious communicators convention with a liberal/progressive activist who was having trouble understanding how the market could actually be a force for good. Finally, he defaulted to the question that — to him at least — would settle the matter. “So,” he asked, “does the Acton Institute work for social justice?” My response, of course, was, “You bet we do.”

The problem with this brief exchange was that we obviously didn’t understand social justice in the same terms. It was a failure to communicate at the communicators convention. And truth be told, there are probably fewer phrases that are thrown around so loosely, that are so heavily freighted with ideological baggage. Liberal/progressives use social justice as a shibboleth that offers affiliation with the tribe of those who advocate statist solutions, whatever else it might mean to them. Conservatives tend merely to shun its use.

A lot of that confusion promises to be cleared up with the release of an outstanding new resource called Seek Social Justice: Transforming Lives In Need from the Heritage Foundation. This resource includes a DVD and companion study guide (available free of charge) and can also be viewed on the Web site. You’ll recognize a lot of the names in this series from their association with Acton over the years as staff members, scholars, speakers at conferences, and policy experts. People like Anthony Bradley, an Acton Research Fellow, Marvin Olasky, Rudy Carrasco, Chuck Colson, Jay Richards, and Robert L. Woodson Jr.

The video for the first chapter — Rethinking Social Justice: Getting to the Root of the Problem — sets the framework for the entire series of lessons. The question: What are the “real roots of poverty and social breakdown.”

On the Web site, Heritage has also posted bonus interview footage from experts featured in Seek Social Justice that is really well done.

Here’s an excerpt from the study guide (download here).

Regrettably, ideas offered in the name of social justice have sometimes misdiagnosed the problem and had unintended consequences that hurt the very people they intended to help. That’s because they have assessed poverty primarily as a material problem.

Programs based on this assumption have kept those willing to help at arm’s length from those in need, often looking first to government and substituting impersonal handouts for personal care and real transformation. Jumping into action without thoughtful consideration has led to damaging results.

Somehow in the urgency to dedicate our lives—or even a few hours or dollars—to a good cause, we’re missing something. We’re missing something about who we are at our core as human beings; we’re missing something about the complex and relational nature of poverty. Though motivated by good intentions, we need a better framework for understanding and engaging the issues surrounding human need and social breakdown.

When it comes to translating good intentions into actions that really make a difference, we need to understand the nature and context of the problem. That begins with correctly diagnosing the suffering we see around us. In the United States, poverty and social breakdown are often rooted in problems that are deeper than a lack of money or material possessions. The poor in America typically suffer in different ways than the poor
in developing countries, where corrupt governments, the missing rule of law, unstable financial systems, food shortages due to famine, and the absence of basic health care systems exacerbate extreme material deprivation. Unique conditions call for a different approach in developing nations.

The lessons are equipped with readings, which will take the student deeper into the subject matter. This is from Michael Novak’s “Defining Social Justice” (First Things, December 2000):

The virtue of social justice allows for people of good will to reach different—even opposing—practical judgments about the material content of the common good (ends) and how to get there (means). Such differences are the stuff of politics.

We must rule out any use of “social justice” that does not attach to the habits (that is, virtues) of individuals. Social justice is a virtue, an attribute of individuals, or it is a fraud. And if Tocqueville is right that “the principle of association is the first law of democracy,” then social justice is the first virtue of democracy, for it is the habit of putting the principle of association into daily practice.

Kudos to the Heritage Foundation, lead writer Ryan Messmore, and all of the contributors and editors behind Seek Social Justice.

John Couretas John Couretas is Director of Communications, responsible for print and online communications at the Acton Institute. He has more than 20 years of experience in news and publishing fields. He has worked as a staff writer on newspapers and magazines, covering business and government. John holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in the Humanities from Michigan State University and a Master of Science Degree in Journalism from Northwestern University.


  • Roger McKinney

    It’s good that this is coming out, but I doubt it will have much impact on the Christian left. I have been debating some of the social justice crowd at the Sojourners web site and elsewhere for a couple of months and have come to realize that language is the main obstacle to communicating with the left. They have different definitions for every word related to economics. Markets, justice, fairness, capitalism, profits, self-interest, selfishness and many other words mean just the opposite of their traditional meanings and what free marketeers mean by them.

    If we could ever come to an agreement on definitions for those terms, we might make some progress. But that’s not likely to happen. Take justice, for example. Traditionally, outcomes have been considered just if the process is just. But for the left, the process is irrelevant. Only outcomes matter. Outcomes are either just or injust. In other words, justice requires an equal distribution of wealth. Until the left can see that they are being dishonest with their definitions, nothing will change their minds. And they will never consider the traditional meanings of words because if they did, they would be forced to give up their socialist dreams of utopia.

  • Eric

    Thomas Sowell’s essay, The Quest for Cosmic Justice is also a good penetration into problems with the concept of “social justice.”

  • Stan

    In Law Legislation and Liberty Friedrich Hayak writes, speaking of the phrase “social justice,” “… the people who habitually employ the phrase simply do not know themselves what they mean by it…”
    I admire the Heritage Foundation for taking on this abused phrase.

  • Steve

    As an independent with conservative tendencies, I have been hoping that something like this was out there. As I begin my MA in Social Justice, I hope all views of social Justice will be respected, But the texts I have been required to purchase thus far, seem to be preaching the statist, or Liberal, perspective only.

  • Patrick

    How does Social Justice differs from other forms of justice?

    I don’t think I can politely articulate the degree of disgust I feel for the opinions of those who invoke social justice as a Christian obligation. I believe Social Justice is moral quackery.

    There is a distinction between social moverments for equal rights, such as articulated by MLK,Jr; and the objectively verifiable immorality of the collusion between government and financial institutions, to help the poor own homes, that has led much of the current economic woes. Not that I believe for a moment that certain members of the House and Senate have the least concern, about Social Justice. Rather, the Social Justice types provided justification and a “moral cover” for government intrusion into the free market.

    I hope that the Heritage Foundation is successful, but I believe that there is so much money involved, along with unions (freedom of associations), that virtue doesn’t stand much of a chance.

  • Ken

    Social justice not founded on the liberty of the individual under God is no justice at all, but is intended for the benefit of those claiming to speak for (and exercise authorized aggressive violence on behalf of) “society.”

  • Neal Lang

    “They have different definitions for every word related to economics. Markets, justice, fairness, capitalism, profits, self-interest, selfishness and many other words mean just the opposite of their traditional meanings and what free marketeers mean by them.”

    I think that it was Orwell who first recognized that problem in his great critique of Statism, “1984.” If I not mistaken he called it “Newspeak.” Of course, inorder to be an effective “Newspeaker” one must be capable of practicing “double think,” which is:

    1. “The power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.”
    2. “To tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient, and then, when it becomes necessary again, to draw it back from oblivion for just so long as it is needed.”
    3. “To deny objective reality and all the while to take account of the reality which one denies.”

  • Neal Lang

    Part of the problem in defining “social justice” is the natural tension between the individual and the collective (commonwealth). The question is whether or not justice, especially social justice is defined as an individual or a “collective right.” This tension is well described in Ayn Rand’s “Fountainhead.” Just what is justice, when someone’s individual rights are pitted against society’s wants and needs. A good example of this tension is the authority of Homeland Security in protecting society from the potential harm of terrorists and the individual’s so-called “right of privacy.” Does my family’s “right” to be secure from harm at the hands of terrorist trump the individual’s “right to privacy” and to not be profiled?

    Does an individual process the “right” to own their own home? If so, does that “right” extend to forcing me or others to provide that home for them?

  • Neal Lang

    “Social Justice” seems to be more predicated on “outcome” and less on “opportunity.” The very idea of “Social Justice,” as it is being defined is egalitarians – is that all goods should be distributed equally. In otherwords, goods (wealth, respect, opportunity, etc.) — must be distributed equally between —individuals, families, nations, races, and even species. Unfortunately, egalitarism goes beyond “equality of opportunity” and insists on “equality of outcome.” They claim any system that fails to achieve this “equality of outcome” lacks “social justice.”

  • Roger McKinney

    Neal, you’re exactly right. The left’s definitions all have to do with outcomes, whereas traditionally, and for the right, the definitions have to do with process. If the process is just and fair, then the outcome is just and fair. The left could not care less about process. Their total focus is on outcomes, and the outcomes must be what they decide they should be. The have no respect for principle whatsoever. They want to revert to the arbitrary rule of man as opposed to the brilliant Christian and Western concept of the rule of law.