Update: Acton now has a PDF of this article available. You can download a color or black and white copy of it here:
There seems to be a great deal of confusion about “social justice” and what that term actually means. In order to provide some clarity, and precision, to better understand the concept, Acton Director of Research Samuel Gregg, wrote an essay for Library of Law and Liberty , published today.
He begins by looking at justice generally:
Natural law ethics has identified justice as one of the cardinal virtues ever since Aristotle commenced his treatment of justice with the general notion of “legal justice” (the terms “legal” and “general” being more-or-less interchangeable). By this, he meant comprehensive virtue with regard to relationships with other persons. Justice-as-a-virtue was henceforth understood in this tradition as having a uniquely social dimension in the sense that one of its key elements is other-directedness.
As a virtue, general justice properly understood involves one’s general willingness to promote the common good of the communities to which one belongs. Here the common good should be understood as the conditions that promote the all-round integral flourishing of individuals and communities. Another element of justice which presents itself very early in the tradition is that of duty in the sense of what we owe to others. This is closely associated with a third element: equality. This should not be understood in the sense of everyone somehow being entitled to precisely the same, regardless of factors such as need or merit. Instead it means fairness as expressed in the Golden Rule. Injustice can after all involve doing things to people that entail no violation of any prior undertaking. Robbing someone, for instance, involves no breaking of any freely-entered-into agreement with the person from whom I steal. But does anyone doubt that an injustice has been done?
These three elements—other-directedness, duty (or what might be called rights today), and the Golden Rule—are closely linked and substantially overlap with each other. But attention to all three elements underscores that the same common good which is the end of general justice requires more than simply a broad inclination on the part of individuals and groups to promote the flourishing of others and themselves. On one level, as Aquinas specifies, it is a special concern of the rulers since they have a certain responsibility to promote the common good. But Aquinas also notes that it is a concern of every citizen: that is, those who participate in some way with the ruling of the community.
Gregg goes on to explain the difference between the “modes” or types of justice.
The distinction between general and particular justice, for instance, can be somewhat obscure. As John Finnis notes, when Aquinas refers to promoting the well-being of the individuals in a group, he believes that in doing so one is also acting for the good of that group. Likewise consideration of what commutative justice demands in seeking to determine what two or more people owe each other in a set of mutually agreed-upon arrangements, often involves reflection upon the criteria associated with distributive justice.
In Aquinas’s thought, all these modes of justice appear to flow from legal/general justice insofar as they are all derived from everyone’s responsibility to the common good. It is arguable, however, that efforts to lend stability to these different “parts” of justice caused, over the long term, the tradition to lose sight of this point. This is apparent in the attempt by neo-scholastic thinkers such as Cardinal Cajetan and Dominic Soto to clarify the relationship between general, commutative and distributive justice. Cajetan, for instance, specified that:
There are three species of justice, as there are three types of relationship between any “whole:” the relations of the parts among themselves, the relation of the whole to the parts, and the relations of the part to the whole. And likewise there are three justices: legal, distributive and commutative. For legal justice orientates the parts to the whole, distributive the whole to the parts while commutative orients the parts one to another.
After giving a thorough explanation of the types of “justice,” Gregg goes on to give the history of the term “social justice:”
As demonstrated in a series of articles written in the 1960s by the French Dominican Paul Dominique Dognin, the term social justice was employed in Catholic social teaching in the 1930s to restore general justice to its central place in the tradition’s treatment of justice. Though the phrase was used as early as the 1830s by Thomist scholars, Pope Pius XI provided it with particularly concrete definition in his 1937 encyclical condemning Communism, Divini Redemptoris:
In reality, besides commutative justice, there is also social justice with its own set obligations, from which neither employers nor workingmen can escape. Now it is of the very essence of social justice to demand for each individual all that is necessary for the common good. But just as in the living organism it is impossible to provide for the good of the whole unless each single part and each individual member is given what it needs for the exercise of its proper functions, so it is impossible to care for the social organism and the good of society as a unit unless each single part and each individual member—that is to say, each individual man in the dignity of his human personality—is supplied with all that is necessary for the exercise of his social functions
Gregg describes the Roman Catholic teaching on “social justice:”
Since the time of Pius XI, this linkage of social justice with the common good has been made in a number of official Catholic teachings, though not always, it may be said, with great precision. Such criticism cannot, however, be made of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. “Society,” it states, “ensures social justice when it provides the conditions that allow associations or individuals to obtain what is their due, according to their nature and their vocation. Social justice is linked to the common good and the exercise of authority.”
Here social justice is clearly concerned with describing our obligations to the common good, with the emphasis being upon people receiving what they are owed. Obviously the state has a role in this—hence the reference to authority. Equally significant, however, is the emphasis upon society pursuing this end. It follows that social justice is not and cannot be the government’s exclusive concern. The common good is everyone’s concern. Hence, not every or even most actions that seek to contribute to its realization should necessarily come from the state.
Gregg concludes the article with this final note:
None of the preceding commentary should be understood as suggesting that we necessarily need to rescue the expression “social justice” from those who characteristically associate it with any number of causes customarily identified as “left-wing” or “progressive.” For many such individuals and groups, social justice seems to be equated with efforts to realize ever-greater sameness of starting point and/or end-point—something that, as illustrated, is quite foreign to the classical natural law’s understanding of equality. Many of the same individuals and groups seem quite disinterested in and/or hostile to the substantive or thick accounts of human flourishing which are central to natural law reasoning about social justice and the common good.
Read the entire article here.