Adapted from an introduction to the Center for Cultural Leadership‘s 2014 West Coast symposium on “Social Justice: A Christian View” in Saratoga, California, October 25

We’re talking today about social justice. “Social justice” has become ubiquitous in sociopolitical discourse. It’s what I like to term “Jell-O nomenclature”: its meaning is obvious until you actually have to nail it down. I’m reminded of what the Western church father Augustine said about the concept of time: “When nobody asks me, I know what it is. But when somebody asks me what it is, I do not know.” We tend to have a vague sense of what social justice is, and in the end it can mean all sorts of things or, perhaps, really nothing at all.

Rather than define it, however, we probably can accurately describe what most people mean when they use or hear it. Social justice is basically the idea that there are unwholesome inequalities among humans in the world, and deeply caring people should use the state (that is, political means) in order to eliminate, or at least seriously reduce, these inequalities. By “human inequalities,” I mean things like income inequalities, inequalities among the sexes, inequalities among religions and races, inequalities between the young and the old, between children and parents, between rich nations and poor nations, and such. By “political means,” I denote using the coercive power of the state in order to force greater equality. Both of these factors are important in understanding social justice. Getting rid of inequality is not enough. How you get rid of it is just as important.

For example, a business entrepreneur who starts a new company in order to provide jobs and income for young people in poverty isn’t an example of social justice. Federal law raising the minimum wage for some of these same young people is an example of social justice.

A university that establishes a policy of hiring the most qualified faculty, whether men or women, is not an instance of social justice. Federally mandated hiring quotas requiring universities to enlist a specific number of women faculty is an example of social justice.

A Roman Catholic hospital that provides designated healthcare funds for its employees to spend as they wish is not an example of social justice. A state requirement that the same hospital provide abortifacients to its employees is an instance of social justice.

In other words, you don’t get to call an action that reduces inequalities social justice unless the state forces you to do it.

The expression “social justice” is Jell-O nomenclature for another reason. As Thomas Sowell once said, all justice is social. After all, if you were alone on a desert island, there’d be no need for justice. Justice is necessary when you have a society, not when you have an individual. So “social justice” is a redundancy.

That’s why it’s much better simply to refer to “justice.” That’s the language in Christian revelation. In the Bible, our English word “justice” is often a translation of the word meaning “righteousness.” To act justly is to act in the right.[1] There’s a right way to treat people, and a wrong way to treat people, and if you treat them rightly, you treat them justly.

In considering social justice, we’re really addressing  justice.


[1] James D. G. Dunn, “The Justice of God,” in The Justice of God, James D. G. Dunn and Alan Suggate, eds. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), 31–42.