The RTS Professor Against Social Justice

Dr. Ronald Nash spent much of his academic career assessing and critiquing social justice. After years of research he offers three arguments against the growing cancer: 1. It is reductionistic and far too simplistic in its formula 2. It invariably chokes freedom and life from society and 3. Social justice inevitably gives power and money to the political class, at the expense of all others. 

Social Justice is Reductionistic

“Many people think that justice and equality are equivalent. Contemporary Liberals view equality as an unqualified good.”[1] This view is undoubtedly a mistake, according to the late Reformed Theological Seminary (RTS) professor. The errors readily become apparent when considering more ancient perspectives on justice.

Ronald Nash was a contemporary of RC Sproul at the RTS-Orlando campus, both teaching apologetics and worldview. Nash’s book, Freedom, Justice and the State, expounds a more robust and living view of justice than that found in liberalism. 

Social justice, Nash shows us, cannot make sense of our lived experiences.

From Aristotle to around the Enlightenment, Western culture held that justice entails giving a man what he is owed (that to which he has a right to). However, this is as far as we can go with a single, all-encompassing definition of justice. “The reason why a person may be due something varies with the situation,” Nash illuminates. He asks us to consider the following cases:

1. If Jones does better work than any other student in the class, he is due the best grade.

2. If Jones (presumably, in this case, Ms. Jones) is the prettiest contestant in a beauty contest, she is due first prize.

3. If Jones is the first to finish the race, he is due the prize.

4. If Jones is promised something by Smith, Jones is due the fulfillment of the promise.

5. If Jones’ property is stolen or damaged by Smith, Jones is due whatever reparation is required to restore what he lost.[2]

Clear as day from this list is the fact that what is merited and why cannot be reduced to one and the same thing. No simple formula will do; this is the problem with social justice. For it tries to squeeze all applications of justice into Karl Marx’s formula of, “From each, according to his…to each according to his….” Time and again, we try words like “need,” “effort,” “achievement,” and so on. But these criteria “would fit some situations and not others.”[3] What is owed to each man changes with different circumstances. With work and his boss, a man is owed based on the contracted wages determined and the hours put in; at home, he deserves an equal slice of his mother’s homemade Thanksgiving pie.  

Social Justice Destroys Freedom

Social justice, Nash shows us, cannot make sense of our lived experiences. Yet, there is more. Social justice feeds on freedom as it metastasizes. 

To understand Nash on this point, we must understand the concept of pattern-based and non-pattern-based justice. 

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Pattern-based, or results-based justice, can be seen in the example: All contestants are allowed to run the race, but the race is only just and fair if all contestants win. This result seems bizarre because it is. Yet, it is very close to reality.[4]

Pattern-based justice determines the results beforehand. For example, a pattern-based view of justice in the Olympics would see all countries earn, or merit, and thus be owed an equal distribution of rewards–this is a just distribution on a hypothetical pattern-based view. If any countries cheat, the judges redistribute the rewards for a more fair pattern. By contrast, non-pattern-based concepts of justice are open-ended. There is no pattern of “just distribution.”[5] 

A statist solution is the only way in which “social justice” can be achieved. Due to being a pattern-based approach to justice, it “is possible only in a society that is controlled from the top down.” Nash explains the anti-freedom pathology of this tumor in its goal for redistributing wealth for the sake of equality:

There must be a central agency with the power to force people to accept the first [allegedly equal and just] pattern of distribution. And because people’s normal desires will lead them to exchanges that will upset [this] pattern, the pattern can only be preserved by continuous interference with the lives of its citizens. If social justice is to have any meaning, any factors that might contribute to spontaneous deviations from the desired pattern must be eliminated.[6]

Naturally, Nash concurs with, and in fact quotes, Friedrich Hayek that social justice is “the Trojan horse through which totalitarianism has entered many societies in the world.”[7]

Social justice confuses different conceptions of justice and merit, and chases after an undeserved and jealous-based equality that never leads to equality, but only tyranny.

Social Justice Rewards Only The Political Class

In Social Justice and the Christian Church, Nash makes what might be his most important assessment.

First, he addresses a critical attack on the concept of merit.[8] The socialist desire to “apply moral principles to economic activities leads to a confusion of moral and economic desert.” Social justice proponents thus replace work value in a supply and demand context with moral merit. Jealousy and dissatisfaction will be the result: 

It is not difficult to organize dissatisfaction with the actual distribution of the market. It is natural to feel moral outrage at the prosperity of the wicked; it is easy to fill in the prosperity of the righteous. As long as some have more than others, it is natural for discontentment to arise among those with less.[9]

Even more pointedly, those who want to redistribute wealth believe that the “state’s interference with the market will guarantee the primacy of moral merit” are remarkably mistaken. For once significant economic power is placed in the hands of the state, we find that “moral merit will…be reduced to second place” while the bulk of economic distribution goes to “political merit, which is exactly what one finds in Marxist states.”[10]

The problem with social justice is that “Instead of being rewarded for economic contributions or for moral merit, a person [instead] will be rewarded for service to the state.” Social justice, then, confuses different conceptions of justice, of merit, and chases after an undeserved and jealous-based equality that never leads to equality, but only tyranny. 

Faithful Christians must remove this cancer before it grows beyond any remedy. 

Citations & References [1] Ronald H. Nash, Freedom, Justice and the State (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1980), 38.
[2] Nash, Freedom, Justice and the State, 37.
[3] Nash, Freedom, Justice and the State, 37.
[4] Cory Turner, “The NPR Ed Mailbag: The Participation Trophy,” (NPR, August 14, 2014), https://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2014/08/14/339822646/the-npr-ed-mailbag-the-participation-trophy.
[5] It doesn’t follow that there is no just distribution, just no pattern.
[6] Nash, Freedom, Justice and the State, 52.
[7] Nash, Freedom, Justice and the State, 52.
[8] This is most prominently attacked today by Michael J. Sandel in The Tyrrany of Merit. Nash’s distinction between moral merit and economic merit is precisely the kind of distinction that Sandel glosses over.
[9] Ronald H. Nash, Social Justice and the Christian Church (Milford, MI: Mott Media, 1983), 57-58.
[10] Nash, Social Justice and the Christian Church, 57-58.
[11] Nash, Social Justice and the Christian Church, 57-58.

Robert J. McPherson II

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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.

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