Old Essays: The Innocuous Generality of "Social Justice" and How Conservatives Should Reclaim It

Written in April, 2009:

An episode of Faith & Culture on EWTN last night finally crystallized for me why phrases like “human rights” and “social justice” make me wince: the people who usually fling these terms around define them in a manner completely at odds with my understanding of the intrinsic dignity of the human person. The left has hijacked the language of “social justice”; it’s time we take it back.

Human beings have dignity solely because they belong to the species homo sapiens sapiens. There is no other formulation that can be logically, consistently and, most importantly of all, morally defended. Human beings do not have dignity because they’re intelligent; there are animals that are intelligent in their way and human beings who are profoundly disabled, but most people would be (rightly) horrified if we were to openly prefer a dolphin to a severely autistic child. Human beings do not have dignity because of their autonomy; we come into this world utterly dependent upon other human beings for our most basic needs, but most people, unless they’re philosophers at Princeton, stop short of concluding that small children have no dignity. And human beings do not have dignity because they have been given capital or power; to claim, as many on the left do, that what people need to be dignified is an equal share of the world’s purely material wealth is to get it exactly backwards. Education, liberty, and charity must flow from a presumption that a human being has dignity; dignity cannot be state-bestowed by application of the former.

Social justice comes when we recognize the intrinsic worth of every human being – whether he be smart or dumb, rich or poor, healthy or ill, strong or vulnerable – and act, as individuals, according to that recognition. Social justice does not come from abdicating our personal responsibility and handing it over to the State; history has taught us this time and time again. How is it just, for example, that millions more impoverished American children are now living in fatherless homes, consigned to school systems that cost upwards of $10,000 per child to run and yet still consistently fail?

I have been in a welfare office before. In 2006, after a long illness that required repeated hospitalizations, I was without health insurance and facing a $30,000-plus medical debt that I would not have been able to pay even if I had cut out every single luxury from my budget. What I remember most about the experience was the austerity of the waiting room – the rows of uncomfortable plastic chairs – and the human isolation. We didn’t talk to each other; there was no sense of human solidarity in suffering. I understand that a welfare office must exist to handle certain contingencies, but I will never understand why some people consider such a place to be preferable to a private and/or religious charity. The latter presumes that you are a human being with dignity and treats you as such; charity workers ask you about your family, may share a meal with you, and are, on the whole, more willing to go the extra mile for you because they are there voluntarily. A government social worker, on the other hand, may be a caring and compassionate person in his or her everyday life, but he or she is also frequently overworked and laboring under a bureaucratic machinery that, by its very nature, doesn’t presume your dignity simply because the sheer size of the caseload prohibits such interaction. To put it another way, to the government, you are a series of numbers (income, debts, bills, etc.).

Conservatives need to work even harder to articulate the principle of subsidiarity as an avenue to greater social justice. I understand being leery of faith-based initiatives because with government aid comes the government’s ability to control (as we have learned throughout this bailout fiasco); on the other hand, we can certainly avoid penalizing charities, especially those that are religious in nature, and can even reward people for their willingness to assist and/or act to form voluntary charitable associations.

We also need to be even more vocal in our rejection of the left-wing belief that human dignity flows from material wealth and moral license. I feel this especially keenly when it comes to women’s issues. I know there are people out there who are fighting the good fight against mainstream feminism, but I think we have to be even more blunt about the alternatives. On the one hand, we have a popular culture that is training a generation of young women to chemically and/or surgically suppress their female-hood so that they may devote more time to impressing men – to be the ultimate consumers and, in the end, to be consumed; on the other, we have a religious counter-culture that dares to impose “patriarchal” notions of modesty and character – a counter-culture that believes there is a positive content to womanhood. Which women are happier?

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