The Intellectual Incoherence of Social Justice

Here are some preliminary thoughts on social justice for your reflection. But, first Jonah Goldberg gives his view of Social Justice in this video from Prager University:

Fundamental human rights (e.g., Life and Liberty) are not something people grant to themselves. They exist outside of humanity’s control and, as such, are correctly viewed as transcendent. Because they are transcendent such rights apply to everyone, everywhere and at all times. Further, fundamental human rights are not under human control and their existence is correctly viewed as inalienable.

In Western civilization, largely based on the ethics of the Judeo-Christian tradition, human rights are viewed as granted by a higher authority, God. This is important because, under Western moral institutions, men may not deny one another rights granted by God and still maintain justice (except when  properly delegated, see Romans 13). For example, an injustice occurs when a  black man is denied the freedom to vote, or a suspect is executed without the benefit of an open trial. In other words, while tyrants may deny the freedoms inherent in these rights, to do so constitutes injustice. The essence of injustice, then, is the denial of inalienable human rights.

The term “social justice”1)Or economic justice, racial justice, etc., – as understood by the Pope (and much of the Catholic Church both lay and ordained) and lefty Christian traditions such as much of contemporary mainline Protestantism – is intellectually incoherent.  Mr. Goldberg’s excellent video notwithstanding, a simple thought experiment will reveal why.

Suppose there existed a fundamental human right to a “living wage”, “adequate housing”, food, “affordable medical care”, and so forth. If these rights are “fundamental”, then to deny a person any of these rights would be objectively unjust. But, here’s the problem: when circumstances (e.g., war, natural disaster) arise that preclude a nation from providing these rights, how is that nation to be judged as anything other than unjust when, no matter how kind, decent, and well-intentioned their citizens, one or more of these rights are withheld?  Since it is always and everywhere unjust to deny a fundamental human right – no matter what the intention nor what the rationale – such nations are unjust.

Where social justice advocates are confused is in their conception of what fundamental means. To be fundamental a right must also and everywhere be a negative right. By that I mean a just government need do nothing in order for its citizens to enjoy their fundamental human rights. By contrast, a positive right requires the government to do (or provide) something. A positive human right cannot exist in the absence of resources or the will to fulfill the right and therefore can never, ever be fundamental.

From a purely practical matter, social justice advocates almost always seek to ameliorate some form of inequality. F.A. Hayek neatly encapsulates the incoherence of this kind of social justice thinking in this famous quote:

“From the fact that people are very different it follows that, if we treat them equally, the result must be inequality in their actual position, and that the only way to place them in an equal position would be to treat them differently. Equality before the law and material equality are therefore not only different but are in conflict with each other; and we can achieve either one or the other, but not both at the same time”
Friedrich Hayek, The Constitution Of Liberty

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