Why the Adjective?

What does “social justice” mean? How is it different from justice? And if “social justice” is different than justice, which is the greater goal? If “social justice” is the greater goal, does this make justice less than just?

These are some of the questions that have rolled through my mind for a while now that the term “social justice” has all but replaced the term and idea, “justice”, in our common conversation. Have we picked this newer term because we have discovered something lacking in normal justice? Is it a moral advance?

Listen to any conversation about politics, law, education, or economics right now and see if anyone even uses the term “justice” without adding “social.” It is ubiquitous, but, what does the adjective do?

On a simple semantic level, it is a tautology. Justice is inherently social in that is has to do with the proper and moral interactions between individuals in a society. Though redundant, the phrase has staying power, so it is being used to say something.

The great economist, Frederic Hayek once wrote that “social justice”, “does not belong to the category of error but to that of nonsense.” Thomas Sowell, in is magisterial Intellectuals and Society writes, “Among the many arguments without arguments, none is more pervasive or more powerful than that of what is called ‘social justice.’ Yet it is a term with no real definition, even though it is a term that has been in use for more than a century.”[i]

The influential philosopher John Rawls is probably the spring from which the common usage of “social justice” arises. While he used the term, he arguably did not define it. The lack of clear definition, however, allowed him to use it to mean whatever he wanted it to mean. Again, Sowell writes, “Rawls employed the euphemistic and question-begging term ‘social’ to refer to what only government would have the power to do.”[ii]

Using a word like this allows an individual to alter the noun as much as they like in service to the adjective. Justice is a definable and enduring term. But if you are not satisfied with any of the traditional definitions, you can add the adjective “social” and sneak in any idea you like. The adjective is an ideological Trojan Horse.

The adjective, “social” in “social justice”, is an ideological Trojan Horse.

Have you ever wondered why government mandated access to abortion is “social justice”? Or why taxpayer funded gender reassignment surgery is advocated as “social justice”? Even more, reparations, living wage arguments, and prohibitive top tax rates are all considered to be just by using the term, “social justice”. In every case, and certainly more, a bizarre or even socially destructive idea has been treated as something necessary if we are to be a just and fair society by smuggling it in under the adjective, “social”. It is an infinitely flexible word, which makes the term nearly useless. Or, as Hayek put it, “nonsense”.

In addition, as a Christian, I am struck by how “social justice” interacts with the theological concept of justice. God is, in his very person, perfectly just. God’s people are called to be people of justice because they follow a just God and are to grow into his life and character. Nowhere does Scripture speak of “social justice” because the adjective is not needed. So, should a Christian begin to use the term “social justice” as a substantive part of their stance on social issues?

Now I’m back to some of my original questions. Theologically, I have no need for the adjective. I believe I can elucidate a robust and socially beneficial notion of justice, based on the character of God, without smuggling in any kind of political soup de jour. In fact, avoiding the word “social” can help keep my understanding of justice, the character of God, and my intended character, free from unbiblical and unjust notions of justice. There is no world in which it is just to force taxpayers to pay for gender reassignment surgery, or to call the rampant destruction of property and assault of innocent people “social justice”. I can avoid bad and destructive uses of the term by refusing to use the adjective.

Even though an idea has become common place, or sets heads nodding in assent when it is spoken, does not mean it is right, or good, or even sensical. The Christian can take a close look at something like “social justice”, ask some questions and come to a conclusion that may not be in the majority. But that is OK. When what is labeled “social justice” agrees with biblical justice, we can whole-heartedly agree. When it does not, we are free to disagree for good reason.

[i] Sowell, T., 2012. Intellectuals And Society. New York: Basic Books, p.159.

[ii] Ibid. p. 164

One thought on “Why the Adjective?

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  1. This is a very good article. I could take issue with the Christian perspective as being a relevant point, but too small a point to find fault with the overall thrust of your post. I too am an admirer of Hayek and agree that the term is nonsensical, and perhaps even dangerous.


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