Social Justice - What Does it Mean?
Is There Such a Thing as Social Justice?
This article is about the correct use of language. The idea that justice has to do with the word fairness is a modern concept, a western one. In ancient times justice had nothing to do with the idea of fairness. Justice was what the king, the emperor or the pharaoh said it was. In strict religious communities justice has less to do with thoughts of fairness, and more to do with stringent adherence to a religious doctrine.
Every time I do a book signing I ask the people in attendance what they think justice is. I ask for a one word thought. The word fairness is always shouted out. I am convinced that the linking of the concept of justice with the concept of fairness is baked into the cake of western society. I have written in these pages and in my book about a question: "What is Justice?"
This article questions whether it makes sense to expand the idea of justice beyond the notion of justice that is interwoven with our legal system. Our system of justice, or legal system, is concerned about enforcing laws or contracts, and about meting out punishment or making compensation under one set of circumstances: A, a wrongdoer has violated an objective law and/or has done something to B, a victim.
Our System of Justice Requires Remedies to Right Specific Wrongs
To get clear in our thinking about justice requires that we get clear about the word. I pose the simple proposition that for an injustice to occur there must a violation of a specific law or there must be a wrongdoer (or wrongdoers) and a victim of the wrongdoing. A "wrong" must have been committed. A wrong can be a breach of contract, a violation of a statute, a violation of a patent right or a murder. The victim may not always be readily identifiable. When a cop hands you a speeding ticket, we can argue that there is no specific victim, but there is an objective violation of an objective law, in this case excessive speed in violation of a Vehicle and Traffic Law and a posted speed limit. The specificity of the violation is the critical point of departure. The cop had no power to hand you the ticket unless you violated a specific law, not the cop's opinion that you did something that he believed to be wrong.
What's Your Opinion of the Phrase Social Justice?
Social Justice - A Concept Turned Loose from Language
Social justice is a concept that has become so popular it no longer surprises us when we hear it. Like motherhood, it is a concept that we are loathe to dispute. But is the concept workable, one that we can use to make for a more "just society" ? To answer this question we need to take a look at a few of the underlying realities. First, "society" is a loose term that we use to apply to all of those laws, customs and ways that people use to interact with one another. Another term that is becoming fanatically popular is "environmental justice." It is as meaningless as it is popular.
It's important to note that "society" has no elected or appointed officers. It has no board of directors and its members don't get to vote. Society, unlike a person, a corporation or a government, is not an entity. It doesn't exist, except as a concept for trying to organize our thinking. Because society is not an entity, it can't do anything wrong. It can't do anything right either. Society can't do anything at all, because it doesn't exist except in our minds. This s why it's a terrible idea to use words like social justice, because it is a concept looking for reality.
The Civil Rights Movement of the mid 20th Century is a great example of how people act to right wrongs. Notice that I say people - they're real, they are entities. I do not say society because it isn't an entity. You can't look up a phone number for society, but you can look up the phone number for the Selma, Alabama City Hall. The Civil Rights Movement was a reaction of people against decades of discriminatory treatment of black people. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was a legislative response put together by people who chose to no longer allow the wrongs to exist. It was an act of congress, in response to numerous actions of brave individuals and groups. It was not an act of society.
Clarity of Language Leads to Clarity of Laws
When we hear demands for "social justice" what we really hear are demands from individuals and groups to correct things that they perceive to be wrong. The philosopher Immanuel Kant said: “Man is free if he needs to obey no person but solely the laws.” Man cannot be free if he must obey demands from Occupy Wall Street or some other rag tag group with a confused agenda or no agenda at all. Laws should be objective and clear. If they are not we have a court system that struggles, in a sometimes messy way, to clarify things. In the United States, we would never expect to see a statute that provided for punishment for "actions that demean the state." That phrase is a popular law in many a dictatorial regime. Here, we have a Constitution that would require a court to strike down such a law as being "overbroad or vague." As Edmund Burke put it, “bad laws are the worst sort of tyranny.” To avoid that sort of tyranny we must opt for clarity of language.
The author of this article is also the author of the book Justice in America: How it Works - How it Fails, Coddington Press, 2011