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More on Social Justice

Powerline’s Paul Mirengoff has written a dissent from my defense of the term “social justice.” I admire Mirengoff, and his response is intelligent and worth reading. And because the topic is one I find philosophically interesting and arguably of some (marginal) political importance, I want to respond to some of the points made by Mirengoff. 

1. He writes “If justice is an individual-centric concept, then there is no room for the concept of social justice.” Social justice is, I think, different than justice, but not “superfluous.” It is, as a friend of mine said, a softer concept than justice, but certainly not (as Mirengoff seems to argue) antithetical to it.

What I have in mind with the term is what we believe a society owes to others; the belief that living in a human society entitles our fellow human beings to some degree of sympathy and solicitude–and that a failure to grant these things is a failure of social justice.

It’s also worth remembering that society includes entities other than individuals—such as families, the fundamental unit of society, and institutions like churches and civic groups—that can also be treated justly or unjustly. If justice is, as Mirengoff writes, properly understood only as “an individual-centric concept,” then “social justice” concerns itself with these other important social entities. This broader understanding is, I think, consistent with various currents within conservatism.

As I argued in my original post, we all agree that social injustice exists; it make sense, therefore, to believe social justice does as well. Why wouldn’t taking a stand against state-enforced apartheid or Uganda’s harsh anti-gay laws or North Korea’s persecution of Christians qualify as standing up for social justice–that is, insisting that a society’s laws and institutions be more just? When Nelson Mandela fought apartheid in South Africa, he was not only defending individual rights (though he was surely doing that); he was also saying it was a transparent violation of the moral ideals of a just and good society, something that sets socially and culturally pernicious norms and expectations. I certainly don’t see how advocating social justice in these terms takes us further down the road to serfdom.

2. Mirengoff writes, “The pursuit of social justice may also lead to action that is inconsistent with justice.” Agreed. But that’s true of compassion, decency, fairness, equality, the public good, freedom, and even justice itself. Any phrase is subject to abuse; that doesn’t mean the phrase is itself meaningless.

Stephen Douglas used the concept of “popular sovereignty” to defend the expansion of slavery. George Wallace used the concept of “states’ rights” to enforce racial segregation. And the left has appropriated the words “choice” and “liberty” to justify allowing abortions at any point in pregnancy for any reason. Does that mean we should give up on these concepts or cede them to the left? I would say no, that it is better to rescue them.

3. This discussion is reminiscent of the debate about whether conservatives should use the word “compassion” in the context of politics and political philosophy. Some on the right strongly believe that compassion has virtually no role in a conservative governing agenda because it can lead to all sorts of mischief. Others felt like using the phrase “compassionate conservatism” was an insult, since conservatism didn’t need the modifier. And still others believe compassion is what liberals care about, so leave it to them.

My view has long been that conservatives ought to claim the term, since conservatism, in concrete ways, improves the lives of our fellow citizens, including and often especially the poor and most vulnerable members of society. For example, during the welfare debate in the mid-1990s, I argued conservatives should make it clear that our approach was far more compassionate to the poor. (It turned out it was.)

Conservatives, rather than denigrating the ideas of compassion and social justice, should embrace them and show how conservatism properly understood actually advances them.

4. Mirengoff writes, “When [a laudable charitable project] travels under the banner of social justice, it gains extra moral authority that it does not deserve.” But the left already uses the term “social justice” with some effectiveness precisely because it does carry moral authority.

It’s a term that many people are instinctively (and I think correctly) drawn to. Rather than conservatives being seen as the enemies of social justice, I would suggest they be seen as its authentic champions. Why not counteract what Mirengoff calls “false advertising” with true advertising?

The differences Mirengoff and I have are more about semantics than about ends; but in politics and political philosophy, semantics matter. 

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