Column: Social justice is different from charity


The Maroon



At Loyola, most of you may have noticed the perennial call for social justice. Various calls from all corners compete for different agendas. Most times, these causes do not conflict. Occasionally though, they do. It seems to have become this ambiguous term used to propel one’s cause into the mainstream.

Social justice has come a long way since the origins of its use. It originally designated a just arrangement of social interactions, especially between employers and employed. It now encompasses death penalty sentencing, civil rights, environmental conservation – in addition to the right to unionize, fair wages, treatment of workers, etc.

It is not my intention to take issue with these. In principle, these movements are neither wrong nor go against what social justice more widely encompasses. The methodology of some movements, though, sometimes loses sight of what social justice is actually about.

My version of social justice takes issue with the “us vs. them” mentality that is so ingrained within society. It is a critique of not only capitalism, but also communism, which in its harshest forms supposes that the correct response to violence is violence.

Competition and conflict seek to be eradicated by cooperation. It is what differentiates the Salt March or the Montgomery Bus Boycott from recent demonstrations in South Africa for housing and social security. It is the reason employees are more devoted to companies that treat them with respect rather than as a simple utility to be disposed of when the time comes.

Social justice is a call to look at the world differently; it calls us to look at the world not filled with inevitable conflict. Rather, look at the world as it is: a possibility. A possibility to attend to those forgotten. To be with those abandoned. To work with those different and who disagree with you. The Republican must work with the Democrat. The unions must find common ground with the employers.

This is different from what is known as commutative justice, which seeks to understand how people should interact with each other. Most of the time someone uses social justice, that person means commutative justice. The phrase lacks a certain charismatic effect to it though. Social justice envelops it.

More controversially, though, is my belief that charity is not the same as social justice.

Giving to the homeless person on the corner is charity, not justice. To visit cancer patients in the hospital is charity, and not justice. These people need these things, so it may seem like social justice.

Children in New Orleans need quality education with teachers who are concerned that the students succeed. What are the differences between these needs? Love. Love motivates charity, and love is a relationship between people. Social justice encourages cooperation between groups, but charity encourages love between one person and another.

The takeaway should be this: social justice is not just what whatever anyone wants it to mean. Rather it is a discussion of how groups should act towards other groups in society. How people should treat each other, though related, is not quite the same.

Christopher Backes is a philosophy junior and may be reached at [email protected]