Can social justice be achieved? Bertrand de Jouvenel wondered in his 1954 paper "De la Justice" ["On Justice"]. He answered: "It is impossible to achieve the reign of Justice, if the latter is conceived of as an established, permanently maintained coincidence of social organization and abstract vision. The reign of Justice is achievable if the spirit of justice presides over all decisions that imply sharing."
His analysis is worth being investigated: It includes a prefiguration of spontaneous order theory and precedes Hayek's response to the achievability of social justice. It pays careful attention to the definition of justice by classical philosophers and accounts for the distributive scope of commutative justice. "De la Justice" highlights the filiation from classical philosophers to Hayek.
Our contemporaries' extreme sensitivity to income disparity leads them many a time to dream of the advent of a more just society. There are times when we are jealous of the luck of the happy people in this world or feel profound compunction when confronted with situations of extreme misery. Nor have Christians wanted to fall behind in the definition of the claims of social justice. Not only have they coined the phrase, (1) they also seem to be responsible for its meaning among our fellow scholars, one based on a definition refined on by Mgr. de Solages in 1949: "the obligation to build, complete or transform a just social order." (2)
To proclaim such an obligation implies that it is possible to build the society of our dreams. It is precisely against this argument that Friedrich Hayek raised his voice in the name of history and law: From his point of view it is conceit to believe in the possibility of creating an ideal social order. He also held that social justice is but a mirage. Unsurprisingly, Father Valadier thought that Hayek was "incapable of understanding the nature of morals." Catholics like him state that "our societies, embraced by tradition, are not, as such, all organized [and that] it is part of a human calling to introduce a human order": (3) They presume that what Hayek considered to be nothing but conceit is possible. Can there be a clearer opposition?
Christians concerned with orthodoxy cannot accept this opposition: Is a demonstration that an ideal social order is impossible a sufficient indication that its author cannot understand the nature of morals? Perhaps it means, for instance, understanding morals not as transformation of the world but as soul appeasement. Is social justice truly a mirage? It is undoubtedly desirable that the virtue of justice should preside over a distribution of the assets that family life or profession may bring us. Thus, this point of view does not seem so unbending, and, along with Bertrand de Jouvenel, Christians concerned with orthodoxy may wish to conclude that: "It is impossible to achieve the reign of Justice, if the latter is conceived of as an established, permanently maintained coincidence of social organization and abstract vision. The reign of Justice is achievable if the spirit of justice presides over all decisions that imply sharing." (4)
We propose to expand on these two statements. To do so, it is imperative that we turn to the classical concept of justice and virtue and distinguish commutative from distributive justice. It is upon justice that the whole of Bertrand de Jouvenel's reflection rests, in particular, his least known argument: the distributive dimension of commutative justice. At this stage, we believe that it is useful to underline Hayek's arguments: His typology of the human interaction of various kinds of orders and justice, presiding over respect for rules of conduct, is the crowning touch to Bertrand de Jouvenel's demonstration. It remains to follow this strand of thought.
The Perspective of Classical Philosophers
Let us then start with briefly presenting the classical philosophers' concept of justice, more particularly the originally Aristotelian distinction between corrective and distributive justice. This will allow us to highlight that those who do not understand that these two kinds of justice differ in their techniques, not in their domains, run the risk of negating the distributive dimension of commutative justice as a result of confusing distributive justice with state redistribution.
In the classical perspective, (5) justice is the virtue whereby one regulates one's acquisitive appetite. In other words, it is a disposition, acquired by repetition, deliberately to respect the individual rights of others, their external properties, and ranks and honors, whenever we relate to them. According to Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, quoted by Bertrand de Jouvenel together with Justinian's Institutes and Saint Thomas Aquinas's Summa Theologica, justice is precisely a disposition according to which a just man defines himself as the one who can deliberately choose to do what is just, the one who will, when the distribution of a desired asset has to be made between him and some other man or between two other people, not assign to himself too big a part or assign to his neighbor too small a part but assign to each one the proportionately equal part that he is entitled to and who …