Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Reflections on Social Justice p.2 - A Brief Philosophical Reflection

One of the goals of students in philosophy is acquire the ability to think accurately and precisely.  For example, when we speak about 'liberty' and 'freedom', what exactly do we mean? Is freedom merely to choose what brand of cereal you want to eat for breakfast? Does freedom mean to do anything you want to do? Etc.  

As I mentioned on Saturday's post, one of the terms you hear often if you attend Jesuit institutions is 'social justice.'  Sometimes, though, I wonder if we throw out that word without a real, or perhaps a shared, understanding of what exactly we mean by 'social justice.' The word 'justice' carries its own challenges of understanding, and it is typically used more often than not in the context of law.  One who talks of 'justice' may be talking about fairness in actions, another may use it to really mean 'revenge'--the 'eye-for-an-eye' option.  

What, then, do we mean by 'social justice'?  

The all-knowing website, wikipedia, defines it thusly:
"Social justice, sometimes called civil justice, refers to the concept of a society in which justice is achieved in every aspect of society, rather than merely the administration of law.
Look, already, how difficult it is to define.  This website defines the term using 'justice', which brings us back to asking what 'justice' means.  The same site, then, defines justice in this way
"Justice is the concept of moral rightness based on ethicsrationalitylawnatural lawfairness and equity."
Now, look at all of these terms we have just introduced--moral, ethics, rationality, law, natural law, fairness, and equity.  What do these mean???  I'm sure you can see, then, why philosophy can sometimes be quite frustrating. But, that is because philosophy demands being precise--it seeks to attain clarity of thought.  Let us then, not, think it too much trouble to ask the question of what 'social justice' means.  Rather, in asking the question, we may at least get a better understanding of what we mean, at least in Jesuit institutions.  

I think what is inherent in our dialogue of 'social justice' is the understanding that there are stark inequalities that exist in our world.  We do not live in a world in which all share equal benefits. And, human beings must fulfill a number of basic necessities in order to live.   
  1. Access to food and drink
  2. Proper shelter and clothing to shield from the elements
  3. Since we live in a communal society and not in the wilderness, access to work through which our earnings give us the ability to fulfill the first two needs.  
  4. Access to education to properly fulfill all of these
Now, perhaps there are other basic necessities that we have, but the first two, at least it seems to me, are absolutely minimum. I'm sure there are others, such as the need to be safe from harm or the social dimensions to being human. That many people around the world struggle to fulfill these basic requirements is unjust.  Their ability merely to live is highly compromised--human beings are relegated to the status of surviving animals.  

Is this due to laziness? Maybe these human beings just aren't working hard enough? Yet, what do you say to children who, through no fault of their own, are born in these circumstances? How much are we available to supporting all the newborns in this world? 

Now, clearly I do not have the ability to definitively define 'social justice' in one sitting. I'm sure one can write an entire book and then some about it. What I think is important for us to keep in mind, especially at Jesuit institutions, is to know what we mean when we say 'Social Justice'. Let us not use it as some nebulous term. And let us not assume that our audience knows what it means either.  

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