Social Justice and Economic Order According to Natural Law

By Solari, Stefano; Corrado, Daniele | Journal of Markets & Morality, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

Social Justice and Economic Order According to Natural Law


Solari, Stefano, Corrado, Daniele, Journal of Markets & Morality


Social Justice: A Controversial Concept

The term social justice, as reported by Vallin, (1) became widely used in political debates in the middle of the nineteenth century when the "social question" demanded a new balance of economic forces in society. An interesting issue is why the term social was (and is) added to justice and how it was related to political economy. Vallin noted that social was opposed to individual to contrast the perspective of liberal individualism. (2) In the case of social Catholicism, it was mainly opposed to the term political to denote the reference to civil society as opposed to the state. However, this idea, mixing the principles of utility and justice, presents some theoretical difficulties due to different concepts of the law supporting the notion of justice.

Modern works on economic justice totally neglect the first theorizations of social justice and almost totally exclude the most historically relevant and influential ideas from their theoretical treatments. In general, in contemporary economic literature, we note a noncritical adoption of contemporary positive-analytical theories and, in particular, of Rawls' approach, (3) while the classic natural-law school is underrepresented.

In this article, we aim to present the first ideas of social justice as they emerged in the middle of the nineteenth century from an application of Thomistic natural-law principles to social economics. In order to highlight the singularity of this approach and the difficulty of its correct application in economics, in the next section, we will propose a brief survey of different views of the law. Then, after presenting the neo-Thomistic origins of social justice, we will discuss the difficulties of its application due to the differences in understanding the law, even among proponents of social Catholicism.

The Changing Idea of Justice

Justice and utility represent the two main principles acting as the reference point for the development of economic and political theories. The idea of justice maintained a privileged position in social thought until the modern age when utility emerged as a new reference and replaced it. (4) The principle of justice as a criterion for judging social results reemerged in the middle of the nineteenth century directly related to the development of the social question. Since that time, it has constantly been adopted by "dissenting" economists as a principle, at least complementary to utility, useful for evaluating the legitimacy and desirability of economic outcomes.

The introduction of the notion of justice in economics implies a reference to the principles defining rights and the law. However, there are many theoretical frameworks for understanding rights and the law. A double distinction concerning the notion of right (law) assumes extreme importance. First, we can distinguish the perspectives of natural law (classical or modern) from legal positivism. Second, the different traditions of natural law--the classic-scholastic and the modern tradition--produce relevant differences in the interpretation of this notion. In this work, we mainly focus on the distinction between classic natural law versus modern natural law, which also entails the medieval versus modern perspective and that assigned a prevalence to the ethical versus the economic-utilitarian judgment. (5) The former affirms the inseparability of ethics and economics, while the latter is in fact based on the separability of these matters. (6)

Among the many theorizations developed by classical philosophers, Aristotle's principles of justice--as exposed in the fifth section of Nicomachean Ethics (7)--remain the cornerstone of all definitions of this notion. (8) Aristotle distinguished between a general justice (a comprehensive virtue) and three specific forms: distributive, corrective, and reciprocity based. Distributive justice concerned honors and goods to be divided among the participants in some form of collective action in proportion to their merit. …

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