Social justice with a smile


World Day of Social Justice poster features a map of the world in black on whiteSome named days are warm and fuzzy. Think of Mothers Day. Others are hard edged, among them World Day of Social Justice, which we celebrate this week. Social justice has to do with what we owe to others, and not with what we choose to give them. No one likes to think of their debts. So we instinctively paint upon the faces of social justice advocates the hectoring and badgering features of debt collectors.

Being reminded of debts owed to strangers is even more unwelcome. And when the debts are universalised so that they are owed by us as members of society, we do not want to know about them. No wonder that it is more effective to appeal to our individual generosity than to our shared duty, and for religious leaders to be less comfortable speaking about justice than about love.

In our culture it is even more unfashionable to speak about social justice because of the emphasis on individual choice and on material advancement in a competitive economy. Such an outlook leaves little room for mutual responsibility, and even less for a social responsibility to those less fortunate in society. It is more natural to ascribe your good fortune to your own efforts and to accept the misfortune of others as the regrettable but deserved result of personal failure.

Those who canonise individual free choice would not object to people choosing to be charitable and so to help those less fortunate than themselves. That would be their personal choice, seen perhaps as quixotic, perhaps as even worthy of admiration. At all events to praise charity would be legitimate, but not to demand social justice. Mother Theresa may be described as a saint; Dorothy Day must be seen as dangerously misguided.

Precisely because it is unfashionable and embarrassing to honour social justice, it is the more necessary to do so. We cannot negotiate away or soften the claim that human beings make on one another, including strangers. It was not simply a charitable and praiseworthy thing that the Good Samaritan who assisted the man who had been beaten and robbed did. He simply did what he ought to have done as a human being. He was responsible to his fellow human being just as members of society are responsible to their weaker fellows.

The underlying grounds for this claim are that each human being is precious and that the happiness, peace and development of each of us are dependent on others. Our birth, our nurturing, our education, our security, the position we occupy in society, and even the financial system, depend on structured relationships between other human beings which we do not create but inherit. So adulation of the self-made man is self-serving nonsense.

Different religions and philosophies will account for the unique dignity of each human being and our interconnectedness in different ways, but without that conviction society risks becoming a jungle, bereft even of the tribal instincts that prevent animals of the same species from feasting on one another.

Because our happiness and prosperity depend on the happiness and prosperity of others in society, we are responsible to others. We can make a claim on others when in need. Those responsible for the ordering of society, too, have a responsibility not only to ensure that individuals are safe and free to better themselves, but also to ensure that the weakest members of society can live decently and grow. They must enable those of us who are better-off to pay our debt to society by contributing to the disadvantaged.

There are many ways of advocating for social justice. It is not unknown for people to be motivated by hatred and resentment to seek social justice. Indeed these motives can be very effective in forcing change, often to the moral diminishment of the advocate. Dostoevsky and others have explored this pathology in depth. But to understand it we need only to look at the mixture of motives that fuel our own rage when confronted with injustice. So it is natural, if self-serving, for those who hate reference to social justice or human rights to attribute all concern for them exclusively to resentment and displaced anger.

In the longer term if commendation of human rights is to be effective, people's hearts need to be touched by the people who make a claim for justice. That is where love comes in, not as a substitute for justice but as its lubricant. Without love the responsibilities that flow from a shared humanity will remain an abstraction and not a reality that moves us to address injustice. Social justice needs to wear the face of Santa, not the debt collector.

Andrew Hamilton headshotAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

World Day of Social Justice poster from Shutterstock

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, World Day of Social Justice



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Existing comments

To be a genuine social justice advocate who will achieve positive, rather than negative, results, your motivation needs to come from the right place. The Judaeo-Christian-Islamic perspective is that, for those who can afford it, charity is a debt you owe to society. The traditional ban on usury is the other side to this coin because economic exploitation destroys society. In our sort of society the foundation of schools,hospitals and other social welfare institutions was historically often the work of religious orders or pious individuals well before governments took it over. I think governments and economists who ignore the common societal good and concentrate on individual achievement at any cost are doing us a disservice.

Edward F | 20 February 2014  

I like the bit about love as a lubricant of justice.

Jim Jones | 20 February 2014  

Wise words, as usual, from Mr Hamilton. The problem, in this increasingly post-Christian age, is how to decide what is just? The truth of the aphorism, that when someone stops believing in God they'll believe in anything, is increasingly in evidence. Our pre-eminent moral philosopher, now at Princeton, seems to be neither moral nor philosophic, and much exercised by what he is pleased to call 'speciesism'. The young, passionate and progressive as ever, arlikely to privilege the rights of the minke whale over Japanese seamen, or Leadbetter's possum over the homeless. The 'just' view of any particular issue appears to be decided by weight of twitterings.

John Vernau | 20 February 2014  

Thank you Andrew. a tug into reality

AnneN | 20 February 2014  

Thank you Andrew, the best definition of S J I've read anywhere.

Richard Byrne | 21 February 2014  

This article has made me think a bit more deeply about social justice. It's relatively easy to give say, financially, to a charity without really thinking too much about where the money is going. It's harder to become involved on a personal level with those needing our help. It means becoming emotionally involved. Certainly, anger and resentment can fuel motives for social justice, but when our hearts are touched then love finds a way in and we become much more effective.

Pam | 21 February 2014  

Social justice needs to wear the face of Santa 24/7, 365 days a year. Love is like the magic penny, lend it, spend it, give it away, and it comes back to you.

David | 22 February 2014  

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