Over the last couple of years, the protest movement has gathered so much steam that there seems to be an organized protest over nearly everything. One California company has even gone as far as to offer their employees paid time off to participate in protests as a form of social justice. The fact that these “social justice” protests result in destruction of property, violence and any number of offenses against justice shows that these protest movements are actually counter-productive at best. They are based on a cart before the horse principle in which the participants and organizers (assuming at least some good will on their part) assume that once “just” social structures are in place, then the people will act justly. Until this happens, they may need to “make a mess,” to borrow a phrase from the liberal manifesto Rules for Radicals to grab people’s attention, but that should eventually settle down. But the cart of social justice can only be pulled by the horses of just individuals. That the protestors are unjust while screaming for justice shows just how convoluted our thinking about justice has become and how necessary it is to develop a more complete understanding of justice.
Justice is the firm and habitual disposition to give to each person his or her rightful due. Or, put more succinctly, justice is the habit of giving to each what is owed to them. In short, to “owe” another person means that we are giving, or more accurately restoring, to them something that they already own. Those more classically schooled will recognize in the “firm and habitual disposition” the definition of a virtue. Justice is one of the four virtues (along with prudence, temperance and fortitude) on which all the other virtues depend.
The Interiority of Justice
It merits a reminder as well that because justice is a virtue, this means that it is primarily something interior to the person and not exterior. Just as the person who habitually lies is a liar, so too the person who habitually acts justly is just. The “environment” helps us to be more or less just, but it is the individual man who is just. When a critical mass of individuals are just, a social justice follows. Men without the virtue of justice, no matter how just the social structure, will always tend to destroy that structure. That is precisely what we see in the protest movement—injustice committed in the name of justice. While this might be a glaring example, the same can happen when the leaders are not just men either.
As the definition suggests, justice is meant to govern relationships and so to speak of “social justice” is a bit of a tautology. This is why it remains a fuzzy concept for many of us and often just ends up being a mask for a political movement. The Church has always viewed it as the cooperation of just men who form, maintain, or re-form social institutions that serve the common good. Justice rules (i.e. social justice) a community when three fundamental structures of communal life are in proper order—individuals one to another (commutative), society to individuals (distributive) and individual to society (legal justice). In his book on Justice, Josef Pieper has a helpful diagram to keep these straight.
The first form of justice is called commutative justice. Commutative justice is usually what we think of when we speak of justice. It governs the relationship between two people and assumes a certain level of equality between the two. Being equals, they must equally bear the burden of any social exchange. A person needs a pair of shoes from a cobbler and exchanges a just price, say $10, for the shoes. Anything less than that then the buyer would be guilty of an offense against commutative justice. Anything more and it would be the cobbler who violates commutative justice (As an aside, I will post on the Church’s teaching on just price, so for now just assume that $10 is a just price). It is also commutative justice governs the duty of restitution. If a person steals from another, then they violate commutative justice and the guilty party must make some restitution to restore to the victim that which is owed.
Because many people think only in terms of commutative justice, many injustices occur because groups of men have obligations towards individuals. In truth, while commutative justice is based on a principle of equality, men are not equal in all ways. This is why the Church also speaks of distributive justice. Distributive justice is not based on equality, but based on proportion, according to need, merit, circumstance, etc. What properly belongs to man through distributive justice is a proportionate share in what is common to everyone, that is, to each man must be given a proportionate (not equal) share of the common good.
A classic example helps us to see how these first two forms of justice work. Suppose there are two brothers, ages 2 and 16, and they approach their parents because they want candy. There is only a single bag of M&Ms left and so the parents must divide the bag between the two. Rather than counting the M&Ms and splitting them evenly, the parents give the 16 year old 2/3 of the bag and the 2 year old, 1/3. They give unequal distribution because of their ages and amount of candy they should eat. This is distributive justice.
Just as in the example the parents, who govern the good of the family, chose the allotment of M&Ms, it is the custodian of the common good in society then that determines the proper proportion. For society as a whole this would be the State, or more properly understood, an individual that has the power to determine the allotment. So, it is not the State that is just or unjust, but individuals holding power within the State that act justly or unjustly. This simply reiterates the point about when the emphasis is on just structures and not just men, justice is almost never achieved.
Social justice is often equated with distributive justice because it is viewed mainly as a problem of distribution and the focus mainly remains on this dimension. However, those who desire social justice ought to focus more on the relationship between the individual and society that St. Thomas calls legal justice. In short it is the individual, not focusing so much on his rights, but on his duties to society that creates social justice. It is, to borrow from JFK’s famous speech, to “ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” If each man were to focus on contributing to the common good and not just his own private goods then social justice would reign.
What all of this brings to the forefront is that the protest movements as they are practiced now are truly protesting against social justice. In attempting to raise the awareness of injustices, they do harm to the common good. Anyone who reads Martin Luther King Jr’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, can’t help but be struck by his thoughtful reflection upon what is just. It was only because he had spent time thinking about justice that he was able to envision what it would look like. He and his fellow co-founders of the Civil Rights Movement refused to counter injustice with more injustice. Instead they kept their eyes focused on the common good (the focal point of his I Have a Dream speech) and how a more just society could be formed. Destroying property, trampling on the good of the free speech of others, and destroying public order all creates less social justice not more, no matter how many days of paid leave they are given to protest.