Monday, July 26, 2010

Problems with Social Justice Theory

In A Theory of Justice, John Rawls (1921-2002) argues from a goal-oriented or narrative ethic for an egalitarian form of liberty, in which individuals are guaranteed the greatest liberty compatible with the liberty of others, and also in which inequality is justified to help the poor and disadvantaged, which under the rule of fairness, ought to be established for all. According to David Miller, Rawls’ theory, known as “Justice as Fairness,” argues that the “Parties in the original position are supposed to be  guided not only by a rational desire to promote their interests but also constrained by norms of reasonableness to ensure that they do not propose principles that some will be unable to accept” (David Miller, Principles of Social Justice [Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999], 57). 

There are problems with Rawls' approach. Rawls cannot base his notion in any objective standard, but only in raw subjectivity. Perhaps more importantly, Vacek notes of systems such as Rawls’ that society often confuses justice with love. He says, “Respect for ‘humanity’ is mistaken for ‘real, personal love’” (E. C. Vacek, op. cit. 161). What motivated the Good Samaritan was not social justice, but love for God and neighbor. Under the constraints of social justice theory, as espoused by Rawls, the neighbor is to be turned into a stranger when Jesus says to turn the stranger into a neighbor. Modern advocates for social justice would have us treat our neighbor with a universal impartiality that places him on the same level as someone we do not personally know or feel affection for.  

We are reminded of the many instances in which nations that partition biblical principles become egalitarian. They want to help everyone by promoting for the general welfare and too often look to forms of socialism as the tool. Such powers are like an electric fence. An electric fence affects everyone who backs into it equally. What is the upshot? Governments seek to enforce the redistribution of wealth even in the face of widespread resistance to the idea. But the fence is an impersonal force, incapable of heart-felt love or real discernment. Justice as fairness, especially as state-mandated policy, dulls society’s sense of personal charity and replaces individual compassion with abstract equity. 

Let us consider this alternative. What the world calls social justice, God calls loving our neighbor as ourselves. We are in fact commanded to love God and neighbor. But love of others ought not to be interpreted as "barren duty." In redemption, we are changed to love God and others as ourselves; from the heart, such that the life of Jesus is now manifest in our mortal bodies. Just as Jesus laid down his life for his friends, he sends us to do the same. He said, "Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends" (John 15:13). The "least of these" ought to be front and center in our love-mission (Matt. 25:33-40).

The cross is the standard for our mission. At the cross God simultaneously loved those whom deserved justice and he met the demands of his justice by love. Distinct from humanity's tendency to confuse respect for people with love, at the cross God brought love and justice together in a single act of atonement. By bearing our own crosses before a sin-sick world the same rare combination of love and justice is displayed to the world in palpable ways that have a transforming effect on the culture.

We can look at this idea differently. To be "one" with Christ includes more than mystical union with him. It means that the intercessory nature of Jesus’ earthly ministry is ours as well. By loving in this Christ-centered way the Church not merely finds its place among the advocates of social justice, but defines it. Indeed, redefines it! All other secular answers are effete by comparison. People are not as Rawls would have us believe: abstract concepts in need of universal impartiality. People are our neighbors in need of real and heart-felt compassion. This compassion is not secularized "tolerance." It is always according to the law of Christ. If we are to think in terms of “social justice” let us start here.  


  1. Great post!

  2. The society that looks to put all people on the same level elevates no one. Whereas the love of Christ exercised by the believer for others elevates that person to "equal to or greater than ourselves." I've seen this in Mongolia where social justice platforms in politics hope to bring equality be essentially help very few. So much for communism, and democratic socialism.