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'Social justice': Utopian fantasy or foundation of prosperity?

By James Franklin - posted Tuesday, 22 January 2008


Calls for “social justice” normally do not arouse much opposition, much like party leaders’ calls for unity or the Pope’s annual call for peace. That’s good news: it suggests that most of the political spectrum finds social justice theory not too offensive. The bad news is the reason for that: no one can keep straight for five minutes with what Christian social justice theory actually says.

In late 2007 Tony Abbott gave a speech to an Institute of Public Affairs/Quadrant dinner on the misuse (as he thought) of the concept “social justice”, especially in its Catholic understanding. What he had to say is summarised in a single sentence in his speech. “On examination, what’s called social justice usually turns out to be socialism masquerading as justice.”

Now, it may well be that some wet-behind-the-ears bishops with little understanding of economics do use the term “social justice” to give a colour of moral dignity to views that are a touch socialist. But what was missing in Abbott’s speech was any sign of examination, in the sense of explaining what social justice theory actually says, before hoeing into it.

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There has been no more understanding of the concept from the left, either. There’s a story that whenever Andrew Theophanous (the Victorian Labor member and author of a book on social justice) had to consider the latest amendments to dairy industry regulations, or whatever, his left-wing colleagues would ask him with heavy-handed humour: “What are the social justice implications, bruvver?”

From the point of view of the hard left, social justice theory is just Catholics being weak-minded, but if they’ve got the numbers, you have to humour them.

Now, admittedly, social justice theory has not presented itself very well. It’s neither left nor right, nor is it another flabby “third way” (more like a zeroth way, really, since the basics of it go back quite some time). Nor is it naïve or utopian. The point of the new book Life to the Full: Rights and Social Justice in Australia is to explain in straightforward terms what it says, why, and with what implications.

What social justice theory says is summed up in five propositions:

Ethics is objective, founded on the intrinsic worth of persons.

The first chapter of the book is on the right to life, because that’s where ethics starts. When you see the victims of the Srebrenica massacre dug up, you know something objectively terrible happened to those people; it could have been you, and you know your own worth. Christians express the worth of persons by saying “humans are made in the image of God”, but you don’t have to believe in God to have a solid sense of why the death of a human is a tragedy.

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Because humans have a certain nature, they have certain rights.

For example: they have an intellectual nature, and so a right to education (violated in a narrow education in a madrassah, for example); and a spiritual nature, and therefore a right to pursue God as they reasonably see fit. Several chapters of Life to the Full deal with rights of that sort - to education, to choose whether to be married or not, to change jobs, and so on. It is important that “social justice” theory is not just about politics and economics but is continuous with a complete theory of how humans should live.

As humans are social and political animals, how society is organised is subject to the same ethics as personal morality and rights.

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About the Author

James Franklin is Professor in the School of Mathematics and Statistics, at the University of New South Wales. He is the author of Corrupting the Youth: A History of Philosophy in Australia and Catholic Values and Australian Realities. The author's website is here. James Franklin is the author of Life to the Full: Rights and Social Justice in Australia.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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