Social Justice Isn't What You Think It Is.

Author:Chartier, Gary
Position:Book review

Social Justice Isn't What You Think It Is

By Michael Novak and Paul Adams (with Elizabeth Shaw)

New York: Encounter Books, 2015.

Pp. vii, 312. $27.99 paperback.

In Social Justice Isn't What You Think It Is, philosopher and theologian Michael Novak and social work professor Paul Adams, writing with Elizabeth Shaw, seek to recapture an awareness of justice, and so of social justice, as a virtue in the ordinary sense--as a habit or disposition of the moral agent.

The book focuses on a broad range of topics, paying significant attention not only to the idea of social justice but also to the way it has played out over generations of Catholic social teaching and to its significance for social work practice. My emphasis here is on their book's approach to general issues in ethics and political theory.

For Novak and Adams, social justice is the virtue of appropriate engagement by moral actors in the lives of their societies. Social justice is social because it involves the aim of benefiting one's communities and because it involves projects undertaken in concert with others. It is, among other things, the virtue needed to form those intermediary associations that serve as bulwarks between the person and the state. State bureaucracies are inefficient and disempowering; embodying the virtue of social justice means addressing the challenges those bureaucracies seek clumsily to meet--but on a genuinely human scale, flexibly, creatively, drawing on the generative power of free association. It also means embracing an approach to social problems less likely than state-based approaches to fall victim to politicians' collusion with the wealthy and well connected.

Although social justice is often seen as a matter of sustaining "the common good," there is considerable disagreement over the proper usage of this expression. The notion of the common good is best understood, for Novak and Adams, as a matter of the institutional preconditions for individual flourishing rather than as, say, some sort of (impossible) aggregate of individuals' utilities. Thus, in the first segment of the book (each author was responsible for a separate portion), Novak quotes the relevant document from Vatican II that defines the common good as "die sum of those conditions of social life which allow social groups and their individual members relatively thorough and ready access to their own fulfillment" (qtd. on p. 31). The common good may thus be seen as the legal, institutional, and cultural framework within which people's lives can go well--especially in virtue of their own responsible, creative initiative.

Friedrich Hayek's criticism of much talk about social justice as vacuous is on target, equivocating as it does between a virtue and a class of states of affairs. Too many self-described advocates of "social justice" seem to treat it as "a term of art, whose operational meaning is 'we need a law against that'" (p...

To continue reading