Magazine article Modern Age

The Origins of Social Justice: Taparelli d'Azeglio

Magazine article Modern Age

The Origins of Social Justice: Taparelli d'Azeglio

Article excerpt

"Social justice" has been, mainly a religious conception, in the sense that it originated in religious circles, underwent a large part of its conceptual development in official statements of religious authorities, and has been adopted most enthusiastically by the members of religious organizations. Since 1931 it has been part of the official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church. Philosophers seem to have come to it late: only since the publication of John Rawls's A Theory of Justice in 1971 does it appear to have received much explicit attention from them. (2) Rawls's theory, which describes itself as a theory of social justice, though it has occupied the center of the philosophical stage since that time, represents only one, idiosyncratic version of the idea. The idea has had a history, which has led it through numerous permutations of meaning.

Originally, when the idea of "social justice" was first developed in the 1840s, it was a formal concept rather than a material one. By this I mean the term was taken to signify simply a branch of the ordinary concept of justice, analogous to "commutative justice" or "criminal justice," and did not imply any particular content, philosophy, or view of the world. There could be, and was, a conservative conception of social justice, a liberal conception of it, and a socialist conception of it, all equally entitled to call themselves "social justice." In other words, the concept of social justice was initially an extension of the existing, traditional idea of justice into a new area, that of society as a whole, so that it did not require developing any content new to the idea, but just new conditions for its application. This is what we find with the earliest users of the idea: Luigi Taparelli d'Azeglio, the conservative who inaugurated it, Antonio Rosmini, the classical liberal who publicized it, and the English Christian Socialists. Since the Second World War, however, "social justice" has come to mean something very different. The socialist conception of it won out over its rivals and gained solitary possession of the field. The term now stands for a very particular view of what is right and wrong in society. It has become a material concept rather than a formal one. My aim in these pages is to begin to describe the process by which the concept itself originally came about. First it will be helpful to say something about the historical circumstances out of which it arose.

"Social justice" owes its origin as a distinct concept (3) (giustizia sociale) to the Italian Risorgimento of the nineteenth century. It was first used, to our knowledge, by the Jesuit philosopher Luigi Taparelli d'Azeglio in 1843 (4) in the debates over the beginnings of the Risorgimento's effort to unify the Italian peninsula politically. (5)Despite its many dialects the peninsula had long been recognized as a cultural unity, a fact attested to, among other things, by the 1523 founding of the Accademia della Crusca in Florence, whose mission was to study the vocabulary of the entire peninsula. But in 1840 the territory was divided between a number of different powers, including Austria, which held the north, Piedmont in the northwest, the Papal States across the middle, and the kingdom of Naples. Napoleon, however, had occupied the entire mainland, and, although he divided it up into a number of republics, which he subsequently converted into "kingdoms," he named one of them the "Kingdom of Italy" and treated the peninsula in some respects as an administrative unity. For example, the Code Napoleon was introduced everywhere. After Napoleon's fall, the Congress of Vienna in 1815 largely restored the earlier political entities that had preceded Napoleon. But Napoleon had left behind him the vision of a unified Italy, which in the wave of romantic nationalism that swept Europe in the nineteenth century possessed great inspirational power, especially for the educated and liberal middle classes. It was not long before agitation began with the aim of bringing about unification. …

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