Concept of Social Justice, The

978-1-58731-132-1
Forthcoming Books
paper $18
168 pages, 6" x 9", paperbound, preface, notes

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Concept of Social Justice, The

Wolfe, Christopher, editor

“Social justice” is a term heard a great deal today, but what does it mean? It does not appear in pre-nineteenth century classic texts on justice. Is it a social agenda inspired by compassion? Is it a particular set of institutional arrangements to achieve justice? What the term means, and – in some quarters – whether it is even a term worth using, is a matter of controversy.

The inspiration for this book comes from the fact that current discussions of “social justice” often deal overwhelmingly with programs that aim to advance certain specific and controversial policies to deal with various social problems. In the process, important theoretical questions about social justice are not even confronted, much less resolved. For example, what does the word “social” add to “justice”? Isn't all justice “social”? What is the relation between “social justice” and more classical Aristotelian terms such as “distributive justice,” “commutative justice,” and “legal justice”? With respect to its current usage, is the term “social justice” applicable only to special policies or programs (e.g., government or nonprofit social welfare programs)? Does it apply only to the provision of material goods and services? Does it play a role in the ordinary everyday world of business and work?

The papers in this book aim, not at identifying some particular set of public policies that allegedly constitute the right content of “social justice,” but at reflection on the meaning of social justice. It is not an exhortation to pursue policies that are “understood,” without discussion, to be the right way to pursue social justice. It is not aimed at stimulating activism, mobilizing people to go out and achieve social justice now. Rather, it aims at building the foundation upon which people can identify general principles of justice, and make reasonable prudential judgments about how to pursue social justice. This theoretical orientation means that it is neither “right-wing” nor “left-wing.” The Concept of Social Justice provides a range of insightful essays on the term and on its various uses and abuses. The authors of these papers are committed to something like “social justice” – they don't believe that it is spurious notion that should be rejected. They may very well disagree about exactly how to pursue social justice. But their primary concern here is to ask, simply, “what is social justice?”

Jean Bethke Elshtain and Michael Novak show various ways in which the term has been misunderstood or narrowed or abused for ideological reasons. Nicholas Wolterstorff’s essay makes careful distinctions necessary to identify the implications of adding “social” to “justice” and fleshes out a valuable notion of the concept. John Finnis locates the origins of social justice in an historical misreading of Thomas Aquinas’ discussion of justice, which narrowed his “general justice” in a way that required a new notion of “social justice.” Joseph Koterksi, S.J., Robert Kennedy, and J. Brian Benestad each elaborate some of the ways in which “social justice” has been used in the Catholic social teaching since Rerum Novarum and in international theological and U.S. episcopal documents.

Readers will come away from this book with a deeper understanding of the origins of social justice, a sensitivity to the frequent abuses of the term, and a recognition of the forms in which it can be a valuable part of today’s political discourse.