How often have you heard someone from the commentariat say “we should be judged by how we treat the poor/the children/the disadvantaged/he least advantaged/the under-privileged/the differently abled/the at-risk/the insert-favourite-allegedly-downtrodden-class.”
The class being so treated (or mistreated, it’s alleged) generally has the great virtue that it hasn’t asked the commentator to talk for them. (And by “we” this group with the stolen virtue mean everyone who pays taxes, which often excludes themselves. And by “judged” they mean if “we” don’t cough up then we don’t care.)
This, they say, is “social justice.” The adjective is necessary, because it distinguishes their anti-concept from the real thing.
Philosopher Stephen Hicks makes a simple point. Actually, he makes several. (And I paraphrase his points ever-so slightly, since he’s actually talking about some folk most of you have never heard of):
1. As a political-philosophical method: Why start politics by dividing people into groups and granting one group special prior ethical status? In this case, so-called social “justice” divides people into poor and non-poor and holds the poor to have a special moral position in politics-making. That is not the way to ground politics, for two reasons: (a) Politics should start with individuals, not individuals-as-members-of-a-sub-group; and (b) politics should initially treat all individuals as having equal moral status — in my view, as self-responsible, free agents — not as having preferred status by belonging to a sub-group.
2. As a moral justification of liberty: So-called social “justice” says your liberty and mine are justified only if and to the extent that it serves or benefits the interests of others, especially poor others. This means that its moral principle is serving or benefiting others. This is not the way to do the ethics of politics: Liberty as a basic principle means that each individual’s life is his or her own, whether or not the individual’s choices serve or benefit others. Individuals’ political freedom is justified because they need it in order to think and act independently to produce the values their lives need. My liberty to be a philosopher or a poet or an explorer is not morally contingent upon my doing so’s demonstrably serving the interests of others….
3. As a conception of life’s core values: By focusing on the poor, so-called social “justice” seems to make politics essentially or primarily about economics. If political institutions are to be designed by reference to their relative economic impact on the poor and non-poor, then economic wealth is the critical factor. But that is much too narrow a conception of liberty’s scope and the proper purpose of politics. Family, art, sports, religion, and so on, as well as economic pursuits, are parts of life, and the principles of politics should cover them all generally. A narrow conception of so-called social “justice” would seem to imply that one is free to engage in art, religion, or whatever only if that can be shown to be to serve the interests of the poor…. Politicians should not care about the poor any more than they do about men who can’t get a woman to start a family with them — or any more than referees care about short basketball players.
NB: Hicks is not talking directly about social “justice,” “social justice,” or so-called social justice. He’s actually criticising so-called Bleeding Heart Libertarians, who “accept the basic Rawlsian line about the morality of politics, and its advocates seek either (a) to wrest the ‘social justice’ label away from the lefties who use it most by showing that ends of social justice are best achieved by free-market liberalism … or (b) to find common ground with lefties on moral issues.”
Or, perhaps, to find academic lefties who will talk to them. As a commenter at his post suggests, a strategy that’s more than a little naive.