Justice versus “Social Justice”

Justice is among the oldest ideals in Western thought. Although philosophers have long debated its meaning and application, they have usually agreed that justice deals with individual merit or individual actions. The perennial question has been: by what standard should someone’s actions be praised or blamed, rewarded or punished? not: whom should society provide with unearned, undeserved gifts at the expense of others?

Yet recent decades have seen the rise of a new concept—”social justice”—that denies a necessary connection between what one does and what one is due. According to theories of “social justice,” someone may be entitled to income, opportunities, or power—and others may be compelled to provide those amenities—simply because some people possess them in relative abundance whereas others do not.

The development and validity of the idea of “social justice” are examined in a noteworthy article by Tulane University sociology professor Carl L. Bankston III in the fall issue of The Independent Review.

“The most troubling assumption in both the perspective and the theory of social justice involves power,” writes Bankston. It is troubling, he argues, because a redistribution of power in order to implement “social justice” would require ceaseless efforts to radically restructure society. “This goal,” Bankston continues, “is implicitly totalitarian, although it certainly does not necessarily lead to totalitarianism because of the many real-world barriers to translating moral goals into political action.”

“Social Justice: Cultural Origins of a Perspective and a Theory,” by Carl L. Bankston III (The Independent Review, Fall 2010)

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[This item first appeared in the October 12, 2010, issue of The Lighthouse, the Independent Institute’s weekly newsletter. For a free subscription, enter your email address here.]

Carl Close is Research Fellow and Senior Editor for The Independent Institute and Assistant Editor of The Independent Review and editor of The Lighthouse, The Independent Institute’s weekly e-mail newsletter.
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