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Social justice with a smile

  • 20 February 2014

Some 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