March 14, 2005

What Does "Social Justice" Mean?

An article in today's ProJo on Carol Bennett-Speight, Dean of Rhode Island College's (RIC's) School of Social Work since January, triggered some provocative thoughts.

First of all, Dean Bennett-Speight deserves kudos for her personal and professional successes, which are wonderful accomplishments:

Her parents, Holden and Dorothy Bennett, did not have the chance to go to college. But her father, who was only able to finish fourth grade, pushed his three girls to study hard. Bennett-Speight, who received her bachelor's degree from Penn State, was the first person in her immediate family to attend college.

"I remember him always saying 'I wish I had the opportunity to go to school,' and that always stuck with me," Bennett-Speight said. She went on to receive a master's degree from Rutgers University in New Jersey. She received a doctorate in social work from the University of Pennsylvania, where she worked for several years while maintaining a private practice. Before taking the job at RIC, Bennett-Speight was chairwoman of the social work department at Cabrini College, a Catholic college in Pennsylvania, and under her leadership, the program was accredited.

Yet all is not rosy at RIC. Ed Achorn of the ProJo has previously commented on the "chill wind of intolerance" at RIC. Anchor Rising has also noted the unfortunate academic harassment problems within the School of Social Work in a previous posting here. That is why I was so struck by these words in the newspaper article:

She and her classmates fought to change the name of their all-girls public high school from William Penn High School, named after the colonial governor who founded Pennsylvania, to Angela Davis High School, honoring the controversial civil rights activist. Despite organized protests in front of the Liberty Bell, the students lost their battle. But Bennett-Speight found her passion for fighting for "issues of social justice."

But Angela Davis is not just any "controversial civil rights activist." She had very close personal ties to the leaders of the Black Panther Party. Davis also has been an active member of the Communist Party, serving as the Vice Presidential candidate on the Communist Party presidential ticket in the 1980's.

More information on the Black Panther Party can be found here, including this excerpt:

The Party's ideals and activities were so radical, it was at one time assailed by FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover as "the greatest threat to the internal security of the United States."...It was named, originally, the Black Panther Party for Self Defense. The black panther was used as the symbol because it was a powerful image...The term "self defense" was employed to distinguish the Party's philosophy from the dominant non­violent theme of the civil rights movement.

Here is how the Communist Party of the United States describes itself:

The Communist Party USA is an organization of revolutionaries working to bring about social change in a conscious, progressive direction...building a movement large enough and united enough to create revolutionary change and socialism in the future...We base ourselves on Marxism-Leninism, on the accumulated experience of our Party since our founding in 1919. Our view of the needs of our working class as a whole, and on our vision of Socialism USA is based on those experiences.

Now many of us did interesting things in our youth. For example, I thought (and still think) Nixon was a crook and listened to every day of the House and Senate hearings. As a 16-year-old, I walked the streets for McGovern in 1972, an action that I now cheerfully write off to the blissful ignorance of youth.

On a more serious level, my Presbyterian minister father stood in a pulpit in February 1964 - before even the Civil Rights Act of 1964 had become the law - and boldly told his parishioners that it was the duty of all Christians to support open, non-discriminatory housing. That courageous stand resulted in the departure of one-third of the church's members and numerous indignities to our family.

Yet all of these actions - even if they were minority opinions at the time - were still generally consistent with the core principles of the American Founding.

But the values of the Black Panther Party and the Communist Party have no such connection to the core principles of the American Founding as they have sought only to destroy America. I find it quite unsettling that an adult educator would - at this stage in her life - still refer to honoring an outspoken communist who has supported violence as a positive and defining event in her life. And that then leads naturally to a very interesting and broader question: What does "social justice" mean?

Michael Novak offers a compelling explanation worthy of sharing in detail:

The trouble with "social justice" begins with the very meaning of the term. [Nobel Laureate Friedrich] Hayek points out that whole books and treatises have been written about social justice without ever offering a definition of it...The vagueness seems indispensable. The minute one begins to define social justice, one runs into embarrassing intellectual difficulties. It becomes, most often, a term of art whose operational meaning is, "We need a law against that." In other words, it becomes an instrument of ideological intimidation, for the purpose of gaining the power of legal coercion.

Hayek points out another defect of twentieth–century theories of social justice. Most authors assert that they use it to designate a virtue (a moral virtue, by their account). But most of the descriptions they attach to it appertain to impersonal states of affairs—"high unemployment" or "inequality of incomes" or "lack of a living wage" are cited as instances of "social injustice." Hayek goes to the heart of the matter: social justice is either a virtue or it is not. If it is, it can properly be ascribed only to the reflective and deliberate acts of individual persons. Most who use the term, however, ascribe it not to individuals but to social systems. They use "social justice" to denote a regulative principle of order; again, their focus is not virtue but power...

Curiously, however, the demand for the term "social justice" did not arise until modern times, in which more complex societies operate by impersonal rules applied with equal force to all under "the rule of law."

The birth of the concept of social justice coincided with two other shifts in human consciousness: the "death of God" and the rise of the ideal of the command economy. When God "died," people began to trust a conceit of reason and its inflated ambition to do what even God had not deigned to do: construct a just social order. The divinization of reason found its extension in the command economy; reason (that is, science) would command and humankind would collectively follow. The death of God, the rise of science, and the command economy yielded "scientific socialism." Where reason would rule, the intellectuals would rule. (Or so some thought. Actually, the lovers of power would rule.)

From this line of reasoning it follows that "social justice" would have its natural end in a command economy in which individuals are told what to do, so that it would always be possible to identify those in charge and to hold them responsible. This notion presupposes that people are guided by specific external directions rather than internalized, personal rules of just conduct. It further implies that no individual should be held responsible for his relative position. To assert that he is responsible would be "blaming the victim." It is the function of "social justice" to blame somebody else, to blame the system, to blame those who (mythically) "control" it. As Leszek Kolakowski wrote in his magisterial history of communism, the fundamental paradigm of Communist ideology is guaranteed to have wide appeal: you suffer; your suffering is caused by powerful others; these oppressors must be destroyed...

We are not wrong, Hayek concedes, in perceiving that the effects of the individual choices and open processes of a free society are not distributed according to a recognizable principle of justice. The meritorious are sometimes tragically unlucky; the evil prosper; good ideas don’t pan out, and sometimes those who backed them, however noble their vision, lose their shirts. But a system that values both trial–and–error and free choice is in no position to guarantee outcomes in advance. Furthermore, no one individual (and certainly no politburo or congressional committee or political party) can design rules that would treat each person according to his merit or even his need. No one has sufficient knowledge of all relevant personal details, and as Kant writes, no general rule has a grip fine enough to grasp them.

Hayek made a sharp distinction, however, between those failures of justice that involve breaking agreed–upon rules of fairness and those that consist in results that no one designed, foresaw, or commanded. The first sort of failure earned his severe moral condemnation. No one should break the rules; freedom imposes high moral responsibilities. The second, insofar as it springs from no willful or deliberate act, seemed to him not a moral matter but an inescapable feature of all societies and of nature itself. When labeling unfortunate results as "social injustices" leads to an attack upon the free society, with the aim of moving it toward a command society, Hayek strenuously opposes the term. The historical records of the command economies of Nazism and communism justify his revulsion at that way of thinking...

Careless thinkers forget that justice is by definition social. Such carelessness becomes positively destructive when the term "social" no longer describes the product of the virtuous actions of many individuals, but rather the utopian goal toward which all institutions and all individuals are "made in the utmost degree to converge" by coercion. In that case, the "social" in "social justice" refers to something that emerges not organically and spontaneously from the rule–abiding behavior of free individuals, but rather from an abstract ideal imposed from above...

Intolerance and intellectual harassment of dissenting viewpoints; use of methods of intimidation and coercion; eventually even justifying violence and the spectre of communism. No reasonable person would connect these actions with the virtue of justice. Yet these often are the implicit and/or explicit behaviors of many people pursuing "social justice."

There has to be a better way, a deeper and more proper way to think about social justice that is consistent with the great principles of the American Founding. Michael Novak goes on to develop such a definition of social justice:

Social justice rightly understood is a specific habit of justice that is "social" in two senses. First, the skills it requires are those of inspiring, working with, and organizing others to accomplish together a work of justice. These are the elementary skills of civil society, through which free citizens exercise self–government by doing for themselves (that is, without turning to government) what needs to be done. Citizens who take part commonly explain their efforts as attempts to "give back" for all that they have received from the free society, or to meet the obligations of free citizens to think and act for themselves. The fact that this activity is carried out with others is one reason for designating it as a specific type of justice; it requires a broader range of social skills than do acts of individual justice.

The second characteristic of "social justice rightly understood" is that it aims at the good of the city, not at the good of one agent only. Citizens may band together, as in pioneer days, to put up a school or build a bridge. They may get together in the modern city to hold a bake sale for some charitable cause, to repair a playground, to clean up the environment, or for a million other purposes that their social imaginations might lead them to. Hence the second sense in which this habit of justice is "social": its object, as well as its form, primarily involves the good of others.

One happy characteristic of this definition of the virtue of social justice is that it is ideologically neutral. It is as open to people on the left as on the right or in the center. Its field of activity may be literary, scientific, religious, political, economic, cultural, athletic, and so on, across the whole spectrum of human social activities. The virtue of social justice allows for people of good will to reach different—even opposing—practical judgments about the material content of the common good (ends) and how to get there (means). Such differences are the stuff of politics.

We must rule out any use of "social justice" that does not attach to the habits (that is, virtues) of individuals. Social justice is a virtue, an attribute of individuals, or it is a fraud. And if Tocqueville is right that "the principle of association is the first law of democracy," then social justice is the first virtue of democracy, for it is the habit of putting the principle of association into daily practice. Neglect of it, Hayek wrote, has moral consequences:

It is one of the greatest weaknesses of our time that we lack the patience and faith to build up voluntary organizations for purposes which we value highly, and immediately ask the government to bring about by coercion (or with means raised by coercion) anything that appears as desirable to large numbers. Yet nothing can have a more deadening effect on real participation by the citizens than if government, instead of merely providing the essential framework of spontaneous growth, becomes monolithic and takes charge of the provision for all needs, which can be provided for only by the common effort of many.

The quality of the civic debate in America would be greatly improved if we paid more attention to the meaning and consequences of our words and actions. Hayek and Novak have offered us some profound insights. May their wisdom guide us as we seek to make the American Dream come true for all Americans.


Justin has an excellent posting about comments from a RIC School of Social Work student's letter to the ProJo. I am connecting it to this posting because it is important for people to realize that most proponents of "social justice" are left-wing zealots with a dangerous political agenda. But, after reading Novak's comments above, that should come as no surprise to any thoughtful lover of freedom.

Comments, although monitored, are not necessarily representative of the views Anchor Rising's contributors or approved by them. We reserve the right to delete or modify comments for any reason.

An excellent, informative post. Hayek shows us how Utopian quests are doomed to implode.

It's most disturbing that Ms. Bennett-Speight even whispers about her youthful attempt to honor Angela Davis. Surely by this point in her life she must know that the communist Davis supplied weapons to a Panther cell that attempted to free her murderer boyfriend George Jackson from prison. During the attempt, the Panthers murdered a California judge.

Ms. Davis has never abandoned her quest to overthrow the very system responsible for her charmed life and the fat professor's salary she collects courtesy of California's taxpayers.

The "social justice" movement is one that is dear to my heart, but only in terms of exposing it for what it truly is. Reduced to its essence it is simply the promotion of two mutually inclusive ideas: anti-capitalism and a forced equality of result across all spheres of human activity. If sucessfully mainstreamed it will be as unjust and as bloodthirsty as Soviet-style communism.

A final thought on Ms. Bennet-Speight's choice of childhood hero: About a year ago, I entered into an editorial sparring match with a local self-professed "red diaper baby" who is a member of the Social Sciences dept. at another local university. This person is also a musician and occasionally performs in public on what I call the "social justice" circuit. One of the songs she performs is titled, "Love Song to the Rosenbergs." (Julius and Ethel)

Consider what that means. Here's a person, who teaches at a college and thinks it perfectly fine to sing a song of admiration for two proven Soviet spys. (After the fall of the Soviet Union, it was conclusively proven that Julius had passed over 50 drawings to his Soviet handlers. He also passed them a trigger mechanism for the A-bomb.) One could view this sort of misplaced admiration for two enemies of the U.S. as an isolated act by a loopy individual. Unfortunately, home-grown admiration for America's enemies is far from rare--it's quite common in U.S. colleges.

Humanities Departments in the U.S. are inundated with "teachers" who base their world views on Marx and work to "burn the sucker (the U.S.) down." They're intolerant, they're organized and they're deadly serious about promoting and implementing their agendas.

Posted by: Rocco DiPippo at March 15, 2005 1:22 AM