Social justice is the frequently professed ideal of the academic left, progressivism, and postmodern multiculturalism in America. Its core concept, while often amorphous, is the redistribution of resources and advantages to the disadvantaged to achieve social and economic equality. This article initiates a series discussing various aspects of social justice in the academy, society, and the economy. We begin with the idea about human nature—social constructionism—on which academic social justice is based.
Over the twentieth century, the doctrine of social constructionism evolved within American universities—human nature has no innate traits and is socially constructed by culture and the state—replaced the Western concept of human nature that began with the Greeks and the Bible. Our founding order was rooted in the Western idea that man has a common human nature with a mix of innate but unequal traits (such as a moral sense, but sinfulness, and a capacity to reason) and potentialities to be actualized through nurture from childhood by self, family, education, religion, and culture. Through their inherent nature and such nurture, individuals largely determine their own fate.
The founders established an order of government and civil society shaped by that perception of human nature. The baser traits of a mixed human nature must be constrained by moral and ethical traditions, religious mores and limited government, through processes that also encourage intrinsic virtues and fulfillment of individual potentialities and societal ideals. Throughout the nineteenth century, America retained and built upon that founding order.
But in our European-inspired universities of the late-nineteenth century, the new belief—human nature is a blank slate to be socially constructed—took root and grew into an article of faith in American academic sociology, cultural anthropology, and psychology. The “superorganic” or group mind, instead of the individual mind, became a basic tenet of academic social science.
In the early twentieth century, a new political science—progressivism, also based on social constructionism—was formulated to overcome the limits on government of the founding order. Rather than continuing the Founders’ emphasis on individual opportunity and responsibility, over the century progressivism increasingly emphasized equality—the achievement of equal social outcomes through construction of the self by expanding the scope of government. Visionary political elites uncovered and determined a “will” of the whole people, which a democratic administrative state then implemented to transform human nature by granting entitlement rights to social justice and redistributed wealth.
In our universities of the late-twentieth century, once again inspired by European ideas, postmodern multiculturalism and cultural Marxism magnified the theory that differences among individuals are group-based and sought social reconstruction of the undeserved status of privileged groups in favor of historically-oppressed groups. Rights to “social justice” are reckoned according to group affiliation rather than derived from those features of human nature that individuals share.
Let’s further examine how Europe influenced the turn to social constructionism and social justice in America. The concept that human nature is born innocent and blank, to be shaped and perfected by a “general will” of society to produce social justice through the state and liberation from the inequality of private property, was first propounded by Rousseau in the eighteenth century and subsequently nurtured by Kant and nineteenth-century German Idealists, especially in Hegel’s historicism and state theory. This doctrine became the basis for the ascendant socialism and Marxism that has replaced the older wisdom of Western civilization and the Founders’ Constitution in the American academy.
After reading Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859), Karl Marx declared that it furnished a “basis in natural science for the class struggle in history,” noted Vernon Venable in Human Nature: The Marxian View (1984). Darwin rejected that notion and saw the social struggle as a “natural” expression of human competition. Marx was averse to any notion of genetic inheritance and equally hostile to the idea of a human nature rooted in biology. He was adamant that human nature has no enduring properties. It consists only in the interactions of groups of people with their material environments, and constantly changes as people change their environment and are simultaneously changed by it. The mind therefore has no innate structure but emerges from the dialectical processes of history and social interaction. Capitalism, industrialism, and at the earliest, private enterprise and the profits derived from it, had corrupted man. Historical—not biological—evolution would liberate and create a New Man.
Darwin’s ideas about evolution were also distorted by Herbert Spencer, who coined the term “survival of the fittest” in Principles of Biology (1867). He argued that human progress resulted from the triumph of superior individuals and cultures over their inferior competitors; poverty was evidence of inferiority. Spencer’s political theory came to be called “social Darwinism” and was used by some to argue for unrestrained economic competition and against aid to the unfit poor.
Near the end of the nineteenth century in America (the Gilded Age), despite industrialization, the nation was mired in prolonged economic depression, with human suffering afflicting many unemployed and angry workers. The contrast between the extremes of society was stark: a few powerful, super rich, arrogant, and ostentatious industrialists—Tocqueville’s anticipated “manufacturing aristocracy”—a few thousand new millionaires and a vast number of urban, largely immigrant, poor.
Social Darwinism was seen to reintroduce the idea that unequal innate qualities of human nature predetermined an individual’s station in a social hierarchy. In this case, it was the innate abilities and economic achievements of “superior individuals,” contrasted with the fortunes of individuals with the least abilities and opportunities, which were seen to be bringing back the inequality of class.
Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker argues in The Blank Slate (2003) that an opposite view of human nature began to be developed with a view to establishing a social order in which immutable forces of biology—genes and unequal traits—play no role in accounting for the behavior of individuals and social groups. Reformers would accordingly be able to overcome rule by superior white (Nordic) individuals over oppressed groups by refashioning theories of mind to make classism, racism, or sexism as untenable as possible—culture over nature.
Ironically, the Social Gospel movement both introduced use of the European Roman Catholic term “social justice” in America and completed the foundation for the turn to making individuals the entirely innocent victims of social factors rather than having a sometimes sinful and corrupt human nature, as Christian theology had taught over Western history. That concept of innocence would evolve to rejection of the belief in a fixed human nature.
Thus, John Dewey argued that human beings have no nature, which he saw as the basis for progressivism and progressive education:
They are born as empty vessels, as nothing in themselves. As such, the individual becomes a product of a historical context…social arrangements, laws, institutions…are means of creating individuals…Individuality in a social and moral sense is something to be wrought out….There is nothing of any value that human beings possess by nature…Society, not the individual, makes the mind….
Neither nature nor God makes man. Man makes himself, collectively, through “social conditions.” Reality is socially constructed….[Since] human beings are “nothing in themselves”; it follows that they can do nothing on their own….Intelligence, talents, and virtues, as well as rights—all the things the Founders said humans were born with or acquired through the exercise of their natural talents—are produced by the social order.
(Thomas G. West, in The Progressive Revolution in Politics and Political Science (2005))
A Theory of Justice (1971) by Harvard professor John Rawls later became the philosophical basis for progressivism in the American academy. Rawls effectively applied social constructionism in defining social justice. While he recognized inequalities of birth and natural endowment, they are designated as “undeserved” and are to be offset in the name of fairness to produce genuine equality of opportunity and social justice.
Our founding principle of personal responsibility has been displaced by the idea that human nature, rather than being innate and common, is socially constructed in the individual by culture and preferences from the state to achieve social justice.
The next article will review how the concept of social justice permeates many aspects of education and the academy.
This is one of a series of occasional articles applying the lessons of Western civilization to contemporary issues relevant to the academy.
The Honorable William H. Young was appointed by President George H. W. Bush to be Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy and served in that position from November 1989 to January 1993. He is the author of Ordering America: Fulfilling the Ideals of Western Civilization (2010) and Centering America: Resurrecting the Local Progressive Ideal (2002).
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