Social Justice: Addressing the Ambiguity

Article excerpt

SOCIAL JUSTICE IS A CONCEPT used widely but with different meanings for different users. Fifty years ago Raymond Jancauskas observed that the concept is "vague and ill-defined." (1) Thirty years later William Waters added that it is "a very helpful but ambiguous term." (2) Twenty years after Waters's comment, Rupert Ederer stated that social justice has been reduced to "simply a slogan." (3)

In addition to the different meanings applied to the term, two other sources of ambiguity exist. First, social justice is referred to under at least three other labels: constructive justice, (4) legal justice, (5) and general justice. (6) Second, some ambiguity originates in careless scholarly work. Two examples illustrate this point.

In the first instance, Pope Pius XI in his 1937 encyclical Divini redemptoris demonstrates the connection between social justice and the common good. The Vatican website renders that connection in the English version of the encyclical as follows. "Now it is of the very essence of social justice to demand for each individual all that is necessary for the common good" (emphasis added). (7)

However, carefully translating the Latin version from the same website into English produces the following: "Now it is of the very essence of social justice to demand from each individual all that is necessary for the common good" (emphasis added). (8) This latter rendering is found in The Encyclicals of a Century, (9) where the full text and footnotes of Divini redemptoris are printed, and twice in Bernard Dempsey's influential The Functional Economy. (10) Clearly, "for" indicates a right of the individual whereas "from" signifies a duty.

In the second instance, Dempsey attributes the latter rendering correctly to Divini redemptoris in one place, (11) but incorrectly to Quadragesimo anno in another. (12) Further, Waters in citing Arnold McKee refers to social justice "in the broad sense" and "in the narrow sense" and recommends McKee to the reader for "an excellent introduction to the subject." (13) McKee, however, refers to justice--not social justice--"in a narrow sense" and "a wide sense." (14)

The line between social justice and social charity is confused and adds to the ambiguity when solidarity is substituted for social charity. Further documenting the various sources of confusion and ambiguity does nothing more than add to these problems. For that reason it makes much more sense to begin with a clear definition of justice and how it applies to economic affairs through three principles--commutative justice, distributive justice, and contributive justice. A clear understanding of these three principles will help remove the ambiguity associated with social justice because, as I intend to demonstrate, all three are necessary for practicing social justice and attaining the common good because they promote the trust required of human beings in the conduct of everyday economic activities. I will then further clarify charity, social charity, and solidarity.


Justice is the virtue or good habit of rendering to another that which is owed. This definition closely parallels the version recommended by Aquinas, underscores justice as an obligation or duty, and provides additional support for translating the sentence referenced above from Divini redemptoris as "from each individual." (15)

Having said that, we do well to acknowledge that every duty has a corresponding right. (16) To illustrate, if the buyer has a duty to pay for what he wants or needs, he has a right to that for which he has paid. If the worker has a duty to put in a full day's work, she has a right to a full day's pay. Given that the individual has a duty to contribute all that is necessary for the common good and that the common good is served only through such individual contributions, it follows that the individual also has a right to whatever goods are necessary to live in common. …


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