What does “social justice” mean? To the extent that it is about justice – outputs being aligned with inputs; effect being aligned with cause; reaping reward and punishment in right proportion; proper alignment between humans in regards to what is owed and what is not – it is a wonderful thing. But then it’s justice, and needn’t be modified with the word “social”.
Though I’m not entirely sure what the term means, it is often used in reference to creating more material equality among people. It implies that material relations between people are unjust, and to bring justice to them requires rewarding some at the expense of others. It aims to make the poor richer by making the rich poorer.
In other words, it is not really justice at all, as justice is about humans being in right relation to an objective standard of right and wrong that is the same applied to all persons. Social justice is quite the opposite of justice, as it is about a desired relation between individuals against the subjective standard of other individuals. It is not about “where am I in relation to right”, but about “where am I in relation to you”. (Most people don’t put themselves in the equation when talking about social justice. Instead they think, “Where is one group of persons in relation to another group of persons”).
Not only is social justice the opposite of justice as properly understood, it is also a purely material concept. Justice is a moral or spiritual concept, which can have material consequences: you have violated a moral law by stealing, so to right yourself with that law you must pay restitution. Social justice is a material concept, which can have moral or spiritual consequences: this person has fewer possessions than that person; therefore we should feel outrage and redistribute goods. In this regard, social justice is a type of human and material idolatry. It makes other humans the standard against which to measure, and material possessions the unit of measurement.
Still, we wish to help those who need help. If material inequality causes unhappiness for the poor (though I sometimes believe it causes unhappiness for the rich as well through guilt and shame), there are two ways we can attempt to alleviate the unhappiness. The first is to try to reduce the amount of material inequality in the world. I address why such attempts fail in another post. The second way is to help people stop measuring their happiness against others.
Instead of putting it in terms of others, let’s start with you.
You are not free as long as your happiness is contingent upon the relative happiness of those around you. Rather than submit to this covetous instinct and try to raise yourself to their level or bring them down to yours, make the covetousness submit to you. Subdue it, overcome it, conquer it and be free. It is deeply destructive to you and society to allow covetousness to go unchecked – indeed to feed it and condone it with attempts at making everyone more materially equal.
Do not be mistaken, behind the desire for material equality is the desire to be as good as or better than your neighbor. Those who feel the world is not right so long as some people have more things than others are not far from wishing ill upon the “haves” because they incorrectly assume this will bring good to the “have nots”. For your own happiness to be contingent upon the unhappiness of others – the rich, the talented, the beautiful, the undeserving – is a spiritual sickness. Covetousness may be tolerated and even praised if it is cloaked in the language of “social justice”, but it is covetousness still.
Advocates for material equality sometimes claim that fighting against the sin of greed is the motivation for their meddling with and redistributing the possessions of the rich. It is doubtful taking from someone will help them conquer their greed. Nonetheless, even if the rich are greedy of their possessions, it is better to remove the plank of covetousness from your own eye before removing the sliver of greed from your rich neighbor.
The desire for social justice is really not about society at all. Nor is it about the rich, nor is it about the poor. It is about you. You must win your internal battle. You must overcome the tendency to make your own fulfillment contingent upon the wealth and poverty of others.
We all have the impulse to wish ill upon our neighbors as a way of making us feel better about ourselves. It is destructive, but difficult to overcome. I am ashamed to say I often cheer when a great sports team loses. It makes me feel better about the teams I love to see the teams I don’t lose. This is the same impulse behind activism for social justice, but at least in the arena of sports my desire is harming only my own spirit. I am not acting on that desire and seeking to pass legislation to take the trophies and salaries of the winners and give them to my teams.
How much more destructive when this covetousness leads us to condone and even take joy in the breaking up of a large business or the forcible extraction of money from our rich neighbor. These actions are meant to bring one down ostensibly to bring another up. We enjoy these actions when our heart does not find fulfillment in an objective standard of right, but in comparison to those around us.
I do not mean to imply that any desire for improvement – material or otherwise – is bad or that ambition is bad. Indeed the desire for progress is natural and God-given and if we ever lose the desire to move and grow it will cause an unhealthy stagnation. The key is to know yourself and discover what it is that you need to seek to be fulfilled. Discover the standard, the direction in which you need to move and channel your ambition and desire for progress toward that. The moment we become seduced by those around us or the standards they have set for themselves we lose sight of our true self and what makes us free and fulfilled.
Do not be a slave to the position of others. Take joy in the success of others and sympathize with their failures. Seek to be free from covetousness, and when you are, others will be drawn to that freedom in you and begin to realize it in themselves.
Political agitation for social justice treats the problem as the remedy. It focuses on making us more materially equal and encourages us to look not within ourselves or a fixed standard of right to find fulfillment, but to our position relative to those around us. It draws more attention to our material positions relative to each other, and distracts from our spiritual position relative to God.
It is good to help those who are suffering, but not by making them more like others, but more like themselves. There is no virtue in trying to make people more materially equal; there is great virtue and freedom in finding fulfillment despite material inequality.