A Critical Reexamination of Social Justice

Ashley Thorne

“Give back? What did I steal that you want me to give back?” asked sociology professor Anne Wortham. 

She addressed the 49th national meeting of the Philadelphia Society, which had convened in Indianapolis April 5-7 to render “a critical reexamination of social justice.” 

NAS president Peter Wood and I were participants in the weekend, which had special relevance to us because the National Association of Scholars is currently conducting a major research project to develop the first comprehensive picture of “social justice” in American higher education. 

The conference kicked off with a dinner keynote by Samuel Gregg, director of research for the Acton Institute, a think tank that promotes “integrating Judeo-Christian truths with free market principles.” Gregg, who is from Australia, studied under John Finnis at Oxford University. In his talk, he indicated that justice today is not about equal dignity but about equal outcomes, because the Rawlsian and Rousseauian conceptions of it are regnant. He suggested that we take our cue from the host organization’s name and “return to Philadelphia,” looking to the lives of the United States founders (especially Charles Carroll) for inspiring examples of what life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are all about. Liberty’s ends, he said, are virtue, truth, and human flourishing, but today we have fallen into vice, error, and mediocrity. Philadelphia Society audience members gave him a standing ovation. 

On the whole the tone of the conference was reflective. Some of the questions in the air were “What does ‘social justice’ mean today?” “How is it different from regular justice?” and “How should conservatives respond to this idea?” 

Thomas Patrick Burke, author of The Concept of Justice: Is Social Justice Just?, offered a crisp distinction between ordinary justice and social justice: the former is about actions and the latter is about states of affairs. He argued that there can be no unjust state of affairs without an unjust action, and that there must be an evil intention, mens rea, to have an unjust action. He also spoke about discrimination in the workplace. Employment, Dr. Burke said, belongs to the employer, not the employee, nor the government, nor society. 

Joseph Johnston, an attorney, provided philosophical context and brought in Aristotle’s classifications of corrective justice—in cases where one party has wrongfully harmed another—and distributive justice—in cases where there are things of value (such as business profits) to be distributed based on merit. The question is, however, what is merit and who decides? Johnston said that Aristotle warned that if justice is determined by the will of the majority, they will unjustly seize the wealth of the minority. Johnston described social justice as being, in the eyes of the public today, an attitude of compassion for the poor. “But it is compassion,” he said, “using other people’s money, and with fines and imprisonment as the alternative.” 

Anne Wortham captivated the room when she shared personal stories from when she was a young person during the Civil Rights movement. She felt something wasn’t right, she said, when the black people around her assumed a hostility toward all white people. “I was supposed to agree that they were guilty just because they were born white, but I can only judge individuals.” 

She went on to speak about “intersubjectivity,” (a term from sociology) which “feeds the collapse of the boundary between citizen and state.” It is a mentality of empathy for one’s group, a “we’re all in this together” and “we are the means to one another’s ends” attitude. Wortham said Vice President Biden was invoking intersubjectivity when he intimated that the one percent “don’t get who we are.” 

Some examples of intersubjective behavior she gave were “talking about your nanny as if she is your own personal friend,” downplaying your achievements, self-abasing to escape reproach, embracing a cause greater than yourself (such as social responsibility), evading individual distinctions, and denying that a person’s character, performance, and achievement really matter. 

Peter Wood gave the luncheon address on social justice and the curriculum. The campus social justice movement, he said, is oceanic in its proportion and in its tendency to be all-encompassing. Dr. Wood challenged the audience: “Think of the phrase social media—what kind of media is not social? What kind of justice is not social?” 

He gave examples of social justice degree requirements, accreditation qualifications, conduct codes, scholarships, campus centers, and courses. Social justice, Dr. Wood said, is really magic justice, a kind of pathology that elevates social divisiveness to a good and relies first of all on group affiliation. 

The two best speakers that afternoon were Brian Lee Crowley, managing director of the Canada-based public policy think tank the Macdonald-Laurier Institute; and Ted McAllister, public policy professor at Pepperdine University. Crowley presented the views of Friedrich Hayek, focusing on ignorance and progress. There is a tension between progress, which upends cherished patterns, and social justice, for which outcomes must be arranged. Progress moves forward by the discovery of new knowledge; Crowley used the discovery of glass as an example. His conclusion: the more we know the better equipped we are to outwit government agencies. 

McAllister gave five recommendations to counteract the alienation from traditional institutions that has resulted from the government’s use of the language of social justice: 

  1. Remind people that they belong to both the past and the future.
  2. Support local government.
  3. Defend the power, liberty, and functionality of institutions such as the family.
  4. Navigate universal moral claims carefully.
  5. Fight the battle against abstract vocabulary. 

The Philadelphia Society meeting was highly stimulating and helpful in framing the key issues related to an extremely amorphous concept. I found Burke, Wortham, Wood, and Crowley’s presentations to be especially lucid in laying out a picture of social justice and its consequences. Countering ideas defending social justice, which would have had value for the sake of contrast and broader discussion, were missing from the event. But this was not meant to be a debate, which will have its place another time; in fact, the National Association of Scholars’ social justice project aims to hold such debates on campuses. This conference laid a solid foundation for further exploration, which we at NAS look forward to continuing in the coming months.

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