Bonfire of the Virtues

Mollie Hemingway’s earlier post about social justice had me thinking about something GK Chesterton wrote in Orthodoxy:

The modern world is not evil; in some ways the modern world is far too good. It is full of wild and wasted virtues. When a religious scheme is shattered (as Christianity was shattered at the Reformation), it is not merely the vices that are let loose. The vices are, indeed, let loose, and they wander and do damage. But the virtues are let loose also; and the virtues wander more wildly, and the virtues do more terrible damage.

As some folks noted in the comment thread to Mollie’s post*, there are political acts that are rightly seen as promoting social justice, in the sense of changing social structures so that countless acts of individual injustice are less likely to occur: the end of slavery in North America, the destruction of fascism, and so on. 

I think the root of conservative unease with the notion of social justice is anticipated by Chesterton. First, a virtue unloosed attaches itself to things for which it is wholly unsuited. I can understand a prophet railing against the injustice caused by systematic racial bigotry caused by unjust laws (e.g. Jim Crow).  It’s harder for me to understand an unequal distribution of income as a marker for social injustice, since only in utopia (or in a Communist hell) is it possible for everyone to be materially equal. Social justice demands, rather, that hard work and ingenuity be rewarded materially more than the opposite, which necessarily leads to material inequality.

Second, an inappropriate zeal for social justice causes a lot of harm. I’ll leave aside the spiritual harm that comes from the self-righteous feeling to which the socially just are particularly vulnerable — that problem is best hashed out by a power much greater than me (beyond my pay grade, if you will). The secular problem is the law of unintended consequences. Unemployment insurance, for instance, serves the cause of social justice by providing material care for families who are facing economic difficulties. At the same time, extended unemployment insurance undercuts incentives among the unemployed to look for work. The language of social justice, as typically employed, is unhelpful here since (in order to to emphasize the benefits) it obscures the costs and thus prevents a mature consideration of the issue.

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* My apologies to Mollie for hijacking her thought-provoking post, but I couldn’t fit these thoughts in a comment box. 

  1. Chris Hurtubise

    Great post, Jay!

    I think Orthodoxy may be one of the most important books of the 20th century. Discovering that each virtue, manipulated and placed in a vacuum, devolves into a ghastly vice is a crucial lesson for our current cultural and political considerations.

  2. Schrodinger

    The problem with social justice’s focus on structures is that it leads to viewing people as groups, not as individuals. The War on Poverty and Affirmative Action programs are the poster children for the dangers of large scale social justice programs. They ignore the individual and look only at ‘classes’ of people. The result has been an ever increasing de-humanization of people as “social justice” is directed at favored ‘classes’.

    Also, to focus on structures is to ignore that it is we, the people, who put the structures into place. To truly change the structures, we must first change the minds and hearts of individuals. That was how slavery and segregation were ended.

    It is the religious institutions, not the government, that can best change the hearts and minds of individuals.

  3. MichaelC19fan

    I cringe when I hear cries for “social justice”. People who cry it want to cut off debate on the unintended, I think sometimes the proponents know exactly the consequences but want to hide them, consequences. Your point on unemployment insurance is a case in point.    

  4. Schrodinger
    The Roots of Violence:

     Wealth without work,

    Pleasure without conscience,

    Knowledge without character,

    Commerce without morality,

    Science without humanity,

    Worship without sacrifice,

    Politics without principles.

     

    Mohandas K. Gandhi

  5. Paul Wilson

    “Social Justice” underlies the inability of many on left side of the spectrum to declare victory and move on. Devotion to an ideal demands undue attention be paid to increasingly trivial issues. There’s always a new cause, such as “environmental justice” that seeks to address the plain fact that some people, by necessity, must live in less-desirable locales.

  6. Dean Murphy

    I still assert that the term “Social Justice” holds no meaning.

    Its a term that clouds peoples’ thinking and allows them to act in morally unjust ways and still feel good about it.

    One cannot modify Justice in any meaningful way.

    Justice is the equal treatment of persons before the law.  If you start treating them as members of aggrieved groups, justice evaporates.

  7. Robert Promm
    Schrodinger’s Cat: The problem with social justice’s focus on structures is that it leads to viewing people as groups, not as individuals. The War on Poverty and Affirmative Action programs are the poster children for the dangers of large scale social justice programs. They ignore the individual and look only at ‘classes’ of people. The result has been an ever increasing de-humanization of people as “social justice” is directed at favored ‘classes’.

    This comes from a fixation with SPSS (Statistical Package for the Social Sciences) — the only math that Social Sciences majors get beyond high school.  When your only tool is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

  8. R. Craigen

    Great points to focus on, Jay.  Thanks for posting this.

    Part of the problem here is the ease with which the concepts of fairness and justice are conflated.  By “social justice” what many mean are things like “economic fairness”.  To give everyone a dollar is fairness. To give those who work harder more dollars and those who don’t work none is justice.  Fairness is a broad term that encompasses many of our notions of justice, but also some clearly unjust notions.

    We also have two easily conflated notions of equality, and again the confusion thus caused lies at the heart of this problem:  equality of opportunity, and equality of outcomes.

    There is a fake notion of “justice” that insists on redress for past wrongs, past perceived wrongs, present wrongs and offences not actually committed, but taken, and feelings of inequality that do not correspond to actual inequality.

    Until these three philosophical canards are thoroughly discredited we will face this problem that “social justice” often actually works against true justice.

    I live in Winnipeg, where a spectacular “Museum of Human Rights” is being built by some well-intended folks.  However, the Orwellian twisting has begun and I fear the outcome.

  9. SParker

    There’s also the idea that charity is a skill worth developing and harder to do than it looks.  Having a proxy do it for you denies you the chance to learn to do it correctly.  

    Doing it yourself, even just the act of deciding who to write a check to,  also gets you to look at the world around  you rather than pretending to know it and its problems.  Mitt Romney’s acts of charity aren’t so much admirable for the amount of money he gives, but the amount of time he’s given to his fellow man (and do Mormons still say “fellow” in that special Mormon way?)  He maybe learned something.  At least he gave himself the chance to.

    Someone or other has proposed a kind of secular tithing to replace social welfare spending.  The state still puts you on the hook for some amount, but you decide how to spend it.  I think that the above mutterings are the base of that.

  10. gnarlydad

    Equality, like security, is a carefully constructed illusion: we want so badly to believe it achievable that we refuse to admit it simply is not so. The promise of an imaginary world, constructed and maintained by the state where all are equal and secure, guarantees a market for the state’s largess and thus the need for ever increasing streams of revenue.

    Mundane things like birth defects and fatal trafic accidents would teach us otherwise if we would listen. Perhaps that is why a good and wise God allows them.

    They exhort us to pay attention. They call us to see to it that our virtues are attached to appropriate causes.

  11. Indaba
    Schrodinger’s Cat: 

    Also, to focus on structures is to ignore that it is we, the people, who put the structures into place. To truly change the structures, we must first change the minds and hearts of individuals. 

    It is the religious institutions, not the government, that can best change the hearts and minds of individuals. · 3 hours ago

    Religious institutions have such a positive role but have stumbled in the past few decades over equality and poverty. 

    Do Conservatives favour using hearts and minds approach on the social issues of today, focusing on you ought not to do that than putting in laws to say you shall nit do that? 

  12. Keith

    I see justice as being of two types that I think of as proactive justice and reactive justice. Proactive justice is what I would term social justice, it has to do with leveling the playing field in matters of law or property disputes, especially for the poor. It is proactive in the sense that we try to set law and policy to make sure that wrongs won’t be committed. Reactive justice is what we normally think of as justice, having to do with righting wrongs and restitution for loss of property or life. 

    What is commonly called “Social Justice” in society appears to be some kind of Religion, caring for poor and widows, etc. but they take it to some kind of extreme where they want to make everyone poor so they can take care of everyone.

  13. Dean Murphy
    Keith Bruzelius: Proactive justice is what I would term social justice, it has to do with leveling the playing field in matters of law or property disputes, especially for the poor.

    If we have real justice, how is it that the poor are not served by it?  If one man steals from another, no matter what their monetary standing, should not the thief get punishment and the victim restitution?  And how do you prevent the theft in the first place with more laws than just the simple “don’t take what is not yours”?

  14. Keith
    Dean Murphy

    Keith Bruzelius:

    If we have real justice, how is it that the poor are not served by it?  If one man steals from another, no matter what their monetary standing, should not the thief get punishment and the victim restitution?  And how do you prevent the theft in the first place with more laws than just the simple “don’t take what is not yours”? · 4 hours ago

    Until you have “Thought Police” you can’t prevent theft. So reactive justice (consequences) is a part of proactive justice.

    My thoughts are how I understand justice from a Biblical viewpoint. Obviously what I term social justice and what society terms “Social Justice” are different, in my opinion, but protecting the weak from the strong, and the poor from the rich, is a part of both.

    It is a hard thing, that’s why the comments are so interesting. Peace.
  15. Dean Murphy
    Keith Bruzelius

    Dean Murphy

    Keith Bruzelius:

    Until you have “Thought Police” you can’t prevent theft. So reactive justice (consequences) is a part of proactive justice.

    My thoughts are how I understand justice from a Biblical viewpoint. Obviously what I term social justice and what society terms “Social Justice” are different, in my opinion, but protecting the weak from the strong, and the poor from the rich, is a part of both.

    It is a hard thing, that’s why the comments are so interesting. Peace. · 0 minutes ago

    Its not so hard if you leave the prejudgements of “rich” and “poor” out of the equation.  There is a wrongdoer and one who is wronged.  That’s why justice is supposed to be blind.

    Leviticus 19:15 “‘Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly.”
  16. Jay Bhattacharya
    C
    Owl of Minerva: I’ll just leave this here. · October 23, 2012 at 3:46pm

    Thanks for link, Owl:  a brilliant romp through the law of unintended consequences.  Thanks also to everyone else who commented.  I’m still mulling over some of the issues raised. 

  17. Keith
    Dean Murphy

    Keith Bruzelius

    Dean Murphy

    Keith Bruzelius:

    Until you have “Thought Police” you can’t prevent theft. So reactive justice (consequences) is a part of proactive justice.

    My thoughts are how I understand justice from a Biblical viewpoint. Obviously what I term social justice and what society terms “Social Justice” are different, in my opinion, but protecting the weak from the strong, and the poor from the rich, is a part of both.

    It is a hard thing, that’s why the comments are so interesting. Peace. · 0 minutes ago

    Its not so hard if you leave the prejudgements of “rich” and “poor” out of the equation.  There is a wrongdoer and one who is wronged.  That’s why justice is supposed to be blind.

    Leviticus 19:15 “‘Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly.” · 4 hours ago

    I’m not prejudging rich or poor. You have the quote before you. God knows we are not capable of fairness in judgements without law. It is only common sense that the rich naturally have the advantage when justice is meted out.

  18. Dean Murphy

    Keith Bruzelius, what are you doing when you assert that justice must take into account protection of the poor from the rich or the weak from the strong but classifying or judging who is which before rendering “justice”?

    I’m not saying that poor people are not ever taken advantage of by the rich, or the weak by the strong; but that Justice must only stand on the merits of each case, without consideration for past “class” actions not involving the present parties.

    Otherwise, “justice” just becomes redistribution of spoils to whichever group is popular at the time.