Saturday, May 28, 2016

What is Social Justice?

In late 2015, I was working on a paper for one of my undergraduate courses, Western Religions in Society and Culture, and the topic I had chosen was the relationship between Christianity and social justice. The very first order of business I intended to tackle was laying a foundation for the meaning of social justice. I thought it would be a laughably easy task, and with a sly grin on my face I headed on over to Dictionary.com where I came across this result: "the distribution of advantages and disadvantages within a society" (n.d.). After I had read this, I was surprised to say the least. What is fascinating is that the definition suggests that social justice is multi-directional. It infers that both a fullness and lack of advantages make up social justice, that it is an entity that cannot exist without both components. I had expected that the definition would mention some utopian result, and perhaps, the process that reaches said utopian result. The definition does not render something so specific and remains quite general.

Somewhat recently, I visited the Wikipedia page for social justice. What resonated with me most was the criticism section, which, like the Dictionary.com definition, emphasized the ambiguity of the term. This quote from Polish libertarian conservative politician and writer, Janusz Korwin-Mikke, in particular, stood out to me: "Either 'social justice' has the same meaning as 'justice' – or not. If so – why use the additional word 'social?' We lose time, we destroy trees to obtain paper necessary to print this word. If not, if 'social justice' means something different from 'justice' – then 'something different from justice' is by definition 'injustice'" (Wikipedia contributors, 2016).


It's a noteworthy observation in light of the trendiness of the term, and I applaud Korwin-Mikke for his rhetoric. What the confusion boils down to is this: it is not clear what social justice refers to. As American Catholic philosopher, Michael Novak, says in his essay Defining Social Justice: "The minute one begins to define social justice, one runs into embarrassing intellectual difficulties" (2000).

Personally, I don't think this indicates that justice (or social justice - I've decided to use the two terms interchangeably) is not an objective entity. As a Christian, I believe that there are absolute moral values, and so it follows that I also believe that justice is something objective rather than subjective. Justice is moral rightness, specifically, moral rightness which is brought to situations of moral wrongness. This, however, is rather abstract. Again, what exactly is justice or moral rightness? And what is injustice or moral wrongness? Proper answers to these questions require further study.


Of course, theory alone is not sufficient because social justice transcends thought-worlds ipso facto. If justice is social that means it involves being performed in response to something other than the self or group that is initiating the justice (especially the ideas of the self or group). There is the opportunity that theory might lead to praxis. Those who are more in tune with feeling than thinking might even insinuate that mere theorizing about the matter is a classic case of wasting time in the ivory tower. I cannot blame the imagined critics for such a response, as I am apparently more inclined to act on feeling than thinking (which I always find surprising whenever I'm theorizing - which has been a lot lately - but that's not something I want to write about anymore here...).

That said, all individuals and groups seeking to engage in justice are faced with yet another problem, it seems: the responsibility they have in conveying justice. For a Christian, some initial questions might include the following: does God expect everyone to convey the same amount of justice? Does God expect the individual or group to directly search for injustice or to simply bring justice when they indirectly find themselves in the appropriate circumstances? Whether this is innocuous confusion or sinful inquiry is debatable. Perhaps this confusion begins with a question that German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, warns against in The Cost of Discipleship, that question being, who is my neighbor (1995:77)? Regarding Bonhoeffer's statement, I leave it open to consideration rather than taking the time to comment on it.

As far as I'm aware, there are no easy answers to the questions I've brought forth. And though they mean something (it's not theory for the sake of theory), the hazy nature of social justice makes proper fruition a rather arduous task, that is, for any individual or group interested in participating in this activity - whatever that activity may actually be.

Works Cited

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. The Cost of Discipleship. New York: Touchstone, 1995. 77. Book.


Dictionary.com. "social-justice." n.d. Dictionary.com's 21st Century Lexicon. Web. http://www.dictionary.com/browse/social-justice

Novak, Michael. "Defining Social Justice." 2000. First Things. Web. http://www.firstthings.com/article/2000/12/defining-social-justice

Wikipedia contributors. "Social justice." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 25 May. 2016. Web. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_justice

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