The Redefining Of The Term “Social Justice”

Although the term “social justice” has been used with increasing frequency in the past decade, the term has had a curious evolution from its original use in Catholic theology. Its adoption by left-leaning politicians is not particularly new, and President Franklin Roosevelt used the term as long ago as 1932. The term made a second appearance in President Harry Truman’s 1949 inaugural address before being popularized further by John Rawls in his influential 1971 book A Theory of Justice.

Today, it is used with such frequency that it has become an almost hallmark of Democratic Party campaigning, and college students sometimes use the term to explain their guiding political philosophy. “Social justice,” in its contemporary usage, means something to the effect of redistributing wealth so as to create a society where everyone has a comparable degree of property and opportunity. One group defines the modern term as a “doctrine of egalitarianism.” However, historically, “social justice,” has not carried connotations of government policies advocating the expansive reshuffling of wealth.

The origin of the term can be traced to a few nineteenth century Catholic theologians, who used the phrase to mean something closer to the traditional Roman definition of “justice,” which consists of doing no harm to others and having a respect for what a person owns. When the adjective “social” was first applied, it carried no further connotation than does placing “criminal” in front of justice. There had previously existed only the Christian expectation that those who were more fortunate would provide aid to those who had less. Charity was exclusively voluntary.

“Social justice” is just one of the many terms that have been re-defined for political purposes. The word “liberal,” for example, which historically was associated with free markets and laissez-faire economics, was redefined by President Franklin Roosevelt’s administration to mean favoring a degree of government intervention to promote social goals. As this definition has gained in popularity, the original meaning of liberal is now referred to as “classically liberal.”

One particularly effective strategy of using language for these purposes is to equate a policy with what is moral. The conspicuous use of the world “justice” in “social justice” is a particularly glaring example. In another instance, protesters in North Carolina, who opposed the policies of former Governor Pat McCrory referred to their demonstrations in the state capital as “Moral Mondays.” Proponents of abortion have labeled their position “Reproductive Rights.” And conservatives, just the same, have claimed the term “Value Voters” to equate traditional definitions of marriage with what is virtuous.

In the case of “social justice,” the debate between a respect for property rights and creating a state where everyone has a comparable degree of wealth is worth having, and there are compelling arguments to be made on both sides. Both John Rawls and his libertarian rival Robert Nozick have won many converts to their respective philosophies with their arguments. Debates such as those had been Nozick and Rawls are often considered the ideal for determining how best to organize a society. Two disagreeing groups enter into rigorous discourse until one side can show that its arguments are more compelling and that its proposed policies ought to be prefered. However, tactics of language such as using the term “social justice” as a euphemism for the redistribution of wealth can inhibit this ideal.

When we allow one side to enter the debate already claiming to be on the side of “justice” and that presentation is accepted by the media, the general public, and even those on the opposing side, it can be extremely difficult to engage in productive discourse. Claiming at the outset that one’s position is the ethical one is an example of starting with a conclusion that has not yet been earned: assuming as fact what one still has the burden to prove. This is what those who study philosophy might see as the fallacy of “begging the question.” Claiming that one’s position is the moral course of action can only be earned through persuasively addressing the best arguments of the other side.

The danger of allowing one side to equate its position with morality is perhaps exemplified by the mission statement of the “Center for the Study of Social Justice”: “We engage in social justice work because we feel it’s the right thing do, because—at the risk of circularity—it’s the just thing to do.” Circularity or “begging the question” ought to be recognized for what they are: failures in making proper logical arguments.

There are strong arguments to support the claim actually that “social justice” might consist not in a central government coercively depriving its citizens of a portion of their wealth. For many, “justice,” “social” or otherwise, is as a respect for ownership. Others might argue that “social justice” consists of what takes place as the result of voluntary exchange, what free people choose to consent to rather than what are they required to submit to by bureaucrats and central planners. And in the minds of many, legislating the redistribution of wealth abolishes the virtue of private charity.

The question about whether property rights are always inviolable or whether some degree of redistribution is warranted when people are in dire need is important to answer. However, when one side uses language that assumes the undisputed morality of its position, language that is nothing short of smug in its inability to consider the fallibility of its position, it serves to sidestep the debate entirely. Most importantly, this tactic of language must always be recognized for what it is, and opponents of the extensive redistribution of wealth ought never enter into the debate already hobbled by having allowed the other side to have defined, at the outset, its position as what is necessarily moral.

Erich Prince
the authorErich Prince
Erich J. Prince studies political philosophy at Yale University. His essays have appeared in publications including The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Hartford Courant, and the Orlando Sentinel. He has recently co-taught a class in ethics at the Indian university IISER Pune.

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