There is coming a time whereby every church must answer the question, “Are you for or against social justice?’” This is a question from which no one can hide. Every pastor must wrestle with it. Every church must face it.
So, it is helpful to ask, “From where did social justice come from?”
Many want to look at Karl Marx. However, there’s a story behind that story. Marx was nothing but a child of the Enlightenment, and that is where we need to begin.
These philosophical foundations began the modern development of social justice.
David Hume, Jeremy Bentham, and Adam Smith spread the idea that the differences between men are not primarily due to natural endowments. Instead, they attributed these differences to habit, custom, and one’s personal training and education. In other words, we are profoundly made unequal by society. Contrary to the popular narrative, this did not begin with Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
The unequal distribution of “natural talents” Smith wrote, “between a philosopher and a common street porter” is simply a difference in education more than anything else. These men were also the precursors to utilitarianism. For, all of these men believed that the purpose of civilization is to make man happy. Society is the cause of the unhappiness created by inequalities, and society can fix it.
This is summed up by Beccaria when he said that the laws of society are intended to “conduce to the greatest happiness shared among the greater number.”
It was only one more step for Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill to bring utilitarianism into a systematized and popular form. If man can control his environment, and the environment should be controlled for man’s happiness, then why are we not? These philosophical foundations began the modern development of social justice.
The Prussian philosopher, Immanuel Kant, radically changed our understanding of justice. There are two key distinct contributions that Immanuel Kant made, in fact.
First, Kant believed that the value of a person’s life requires the development of his potential. That is, justice demands that humans express themselves by developing their potentiality.
Therefore, it makes sense for the state to provide the material requirements necessary for developing those potentials. Kant thought that it is morally incumbent, required, of us to develop our potentials to the maximum.
Secondly, Kant held that private property is theft. This is because he believes wealth and financial inequality can only exist due to fraud and theft:
Although we may be entirely within our rights, according to the laws of the land and the rules of our social structure, we may nevertheless be participating in general injustice, and in giving to an unfortunate man we do not give him a gratuity only help to return to him that of which the general injustice of our system has deprived him. For if none of us true to himself a greater share of the world’s wealth than his neighbor, would be no rich and poor.
With Kant, we see the idea of a general and vague injustice in the system that creates inequality. He assumes that all inequality is necessarily wrong. And what is more, we see with Kant the idea that personal development is a moral requirement. Therefore, if I don’t have the money to develop my astronaut skills, a real injustice occurs.
Yet, we are still not quite to the modern concept of social justice. At this point in time, much is implicit, and no demands are actually made on the state. Not until the French Revolution with Babeuf.
Francois-Noel Babeuf, Father of Modern Social Justice
An agitator during the French Revolution, Babeuf was the first modern demanding that the state redistribute wealth. Justice demanded that everyone has “an equal right to the enjoyment of all wealth.” Instead of society defending private property, he understood societies purpose to be the defense of this equality.
Thus was born the right to an equal economic status. “The line between pre-social fantasy and political recommendation became more and more blurred, Dr. Fleischacker explains in his book, “A Short History of Distributive Justice, “as the French Revolution pursued its fevered course.”
Fleischacker helpfully points out that future social justice advocates were not so keen on revolution nor absolute equality. Nevertheless, politics has permanently changed. To date, conservatives will be labeled as unloving for their stance against what is actually an injustice. But Conservatives have always been on the side of the poor and the oppressed.
The past 500 years of the development of social justice is fascinating. Whereas before the Enlightenment, the ideas of justice and equality were only applied to political equality. The concern was that justice would not be done because those with political power could not be coerced into being fair and right in their dealings with those without political power. The modern conception does not focus on political equality, or legal equality, but economic equality.
Robert J. McPherson IISee More Essays
Robert J. McPherson II is a graduate of RC Sproul’s Reformation Bible College with an honors degree in theology. He has an MA in Philosophy from the University of Buckingham; conducting research under the guidance of Sir Roger Scruton. His thesis is on personal responsibility and social justice.