Friday, January 27, 2012

Promoting social justice

Paul Adams

Trying to navigate the conceptual fog that envelops the concept of social justice, I just came across an interesting article,  "Social Justice, Institutions, and Communities," posted today on the Witherspoon Institute blog, Public Discourse: Ethics, Law and the Common Good by Adam J. MacLeod.  It concludes like this:
The job of the individual in promoting social justice is to act in concert with others in his or her community to serve real needs, both within the community and in other communities. The job of the state is to support and enable free institutions—the church, the family, property ownership, charitable organizations, for-profit businesses, trade groups—to do their good work. This perhaps is not all that social justice requires, but it is a good place to start.
This is close to Michael Novak's definition of social justice in his superb study of Catholic social teaching, The Catholic Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.  There he takes up Hayek's challenge that the concept of social justice is a mirage, incoherently combining two incompatible understandings of the term: 1) social justice as a principle of state regulation, a regulatory principle or ideal of social order; 2) social justice as a virtue.

Novak sees the first sense of the term as problematic.  Characterizing no existing society, it seems like an ideal against which actual institutions are judged.  Behind this lies a view of the authority of the state and its responsibility and capacity that has origins in Aristotle and Aquinas, but which modern developments--precisely the profound social changes and dislocations that popes Leo XIII and Pius XI addressed through their 1891 and 1931 encyclicals--have made untenable.  They and subsequent popes, most fully John Paul in Centesimus Annus (1991) tried to navigate a path through the conceptual fog of 'social justice', in the process denouncing socialism precisely for its suppression or domination of the social space between state and individual.  The social teaching of these encyclicals also rejected a market-oriented dichotomy between state and individual that discounted the "mediating structures" which Berger and Neuhaus emphasized in their monograph, "To Empower People" (1976; reissued with a collection of essays, edited by Berger, Neuhaus, & Novak in 1996).  In seeking to renew civil society (reform institutions and correct morals, as Pius XI put it), they sought a way beyond the individualist-collectivist, state-individual paradigm that still bedevils much discussion of social policy, as well as recent political controversies about conscience and religious freedom (see Vischer, 2009).

In much discussion of Catholic social teaching, though, as well as secular and social work discussions of social justice, the state's responsibility for the common good is taken to require direct state control of the economy (a statist tendency common to nearly all communist, socialist, and social-democratic perspectives as well as fascism) and extensive state provision or funding of social welfare.  It is true that Leo XIII and Pius XI both condemn economic liberalism as individualistic and materialistic, acknowledging the state's responsibility for the common good and for workers and the poor in particular.  But both explicitly condemn statism and emphasize the importance of institutions and associations of civil society, not least free trade unions.

The experience of the last century, with its hypertrophy of the state, the rise and collapse of utopian ideologies that looked to direction of society and economy by bureaucratic elites and experts, urges caution.  We cannot but question an interpretation of the concept of social justice that points to ever-expanding state control and diminution of civil society.  Seeing the solution to social problems in terms of expanding state control over economy and civil society attributes to the modern state both a capacity to ensure the common good and the moral integrity and disinterestedness that has to ignore a mass of counter-evidence.  Developing Hayek's challenge before taking it up, Novak notes: modern societies are so complex that no one authority can can possibly control their manifold outcomes, whether regarding supply and demand, or prices, or the distribution of income.  The failures of socialism (so visible after 1989) make all this plain.  To attribute all social outcomes to someone's personal intention or capacity to control is, therefore, far too simple.  Consequently, say Hayek and other objectors, to claim to be speaking for social justice can only be to advance one's own abstract preferences.  Those who claim to speak for social justice prejudice arguments concerning means and ends by defining their opponents as "unjust."  In brief, use of the term social justice is moral imperialism by the imposition of abstraction.
The term social justice, used like this as it usually is in social work (which defines it as a "core social work value") is a conversation-stopper.  In Catholic social discourse, the Church's "preferential option for the poor" is often taken to imply a preference for government programs, an expansion of the state rather than a renewal of civil society.

Is there a way to recover a use of the term that addresses both the need for social reorganization (with special reference to the needs of the poor and oppressed) and at the same time--acknowledging that justice is one of the four cardinal virtues--situates the concept of social justice within the philosophical and theological frame of virtue ethics?  That is, can Hayek's challenge about the incompatible social and personal aspects of social justice, be met?  Or must one aspect of social justice, the virtue (or value) aspect, be abandoned in favor of a conversation-stopping rhetorical move to promote a political program while condemning anyone who disagrees as unjust.  Such a move is unhelpful, not least because it prevents examination of alternative means, for example to reduce poverty and inequality.

Novak answers the challenge with the following definition:

Social justice is a specific modern form of the ancient virtue of justice (pp.77-78).
 He continues:
Men and women exercise this specific social habit when they (a) join with others (b) to change the institutions of society.  The practice of social justice means activism; it means organizing; it means trying to make the system better (p. 78).
This approach is congruent with the way the NASW Code of Ethics translates the core value of social justice into an ethical principle calling  for activism:

Social workers pursue social change, particularly with and on behalf of vulnerable and oppressed individuals and groups of people. Social workers’ social change efforts are focused primarily on issues of poverty, unemployment, discrimination, and other forms of social injustice.
Here, however, the Code is addressing the responsibility of social workers as professionals to act in certain ways with and on behalf of the poor and oppressed.  Novak is talking of a key virtue of individuals in a free society, a moral virtue that social policy and professional practice may encourage, suppress, or undermine.  Continuing his definition in a way compatible with empowerment, asset-based, family- and community-strengthening approaches to social work and social policy, but (except as a last resort) not to top-down interventions that seek to rescue individuals from their families, communities, churches, or other non-state associations.
[The practice of social justice] does not necessarily mean enlarging the state; on the contrary, it means enlarging civil society (p. 78). 
In this definition, personal virtue and political aim are not separated, as if they related respectively to micro and macro levels of practice.  As a virtue, social justice remains a conscious habit, a dispositional tendency of individuals' behavior and character.  But like other virtues, it applies to all levels of practice and to all individuals, whether professionals, clients, or citizens.  It sees the common good as a shared responsibility of society, not solely the business of the state.  Social justice rests on the habit of association so important to a free society and so threatening to totalitarian states, but it is not reducible to it.
The habit of social justice has as its aim the improvement of some feature of the common good--possibly of the social system in whole or in part (the welfare system, say), but possibly as well of some nonofficial feature (putting up a statue in a public park, organizing a dramatic society in a college, etc.).  To tutor a disadvantaged person in the inner city could be a work of social justice; to organize to protect workers' rights; to organize a referendum to prevent the building of a nightclub on a residential street might be another. To build a factory in a poor area; to organize a pro life or prochoice group--all these and other analogous activities are prima facie instances of the exercise of social justice (p. 79).
The example of a prochoice group reminds one of what Novak immediately acknowledges, that "[n]ot all those who claim to be acting for social justice may actually be furthering the work of justice."
In order to be just, an act must be correct in every aspect--manner, timing, motive, accuracy of perception, and all the other qualities of action; otherwise it is defective.  Thus, to show someone that what he or she claims to be a virtue falls short of either some or all of the demands of virtue is to affirm the ideal of social justice as a standard of moral judgment" (p.79).
To claim to give priority to the interests of the poor as a matter of social justice--as liberation theology did--does not exempt one from criticism on the grounds that one has a false analysis of reality or of the dynamics of social change, lacks practical judgment (prudence, phronesis) in assessing the likely outcomes of one's activity.  The virtues are interdependent and "talk to each other" as Deirdre McCloskey puts it.  "One need not accept uncritically [liberation theology's - or any other] claim to be practicing social justice" (Novak, p. 79).

Social justice in this definition does not stop conversation or assume a particular political program.  It is a moral virtue but not a regulatory principle of the state or its bureaucratic-professional agents.  It is nevertheless clearly visible in its absence, say in a low-income disorganized neighborhood; or a southern Italian community where no-one trusts anyone beyond the family or takes any civic responsibility or initiative; or a communist or fascist state where non-state associations are tightly controlled or suppressed by the state.  The key strategy of East European democratic reformers like the Civic Forum in Czechoslavakia, was precisely the reawakening of civil society.  The movement, which led to the collapse of the Communist regime in 1989, was for the freedom and social space to exercise the virtue of social justice.

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