Rescuing Social Justice: Individual Virtue, Association, and Hayek

What is social justice?

For some, it’s an ideal. For others, it’s a dream. For others — perhaps most — it’s a mere marker of ideological orientation.

For Michael Novak, however, the answer is none of the above. As he argues in a recent Bradley Lecture, social justice is a virtue, and if it is not, “its claim to moral standing falls flat. The rest is ideology.”

Watch it here:

Novak spends significant time outlining the misuses of the term (this is sorely needed), but eventually offers his own definition: “Social justice is a virtue of specific characters, skilled in forming associations for the larger purpose of benefitting human beings both near and far.”

(If that sounds familiar, you’re on to something.)

This virtue, Novak argues, is also a protection for society at large. Without it, we become like those French revolutionaries described by Tocqueville — completely detached from our fellow man and utterly dependent on the State:

The virtue of social justice consists in learning new skills of cooperation and association with others in order to accomplish ends that no one individual can achieve on his own. At one pole, this virtue is a protection against atomic individualism…At the other pole, it protects considerable civil space from the direct custodianship of the State.

This clearly doesn’t mesh well with the common progressive depiction(s) of “social justice” we are used to — those associated with distribution, equality and/or some kind of top-down-imposed “common good” (each notion of which Novak duly dismantles). It does, however, mesh with people and their needs, not to mention the Gospel. (Go figure.)

Also notable is Novak’s discussion of economist Friedrich Hayek (44:16), who he describes as the “famous foe of social justice” (and for good reason). Yet according to Novak’s definition, Hayek was actually an “exemplary practitioner of the virtue of social justice.”

Here’s Novak:

[Hayek] took on responsibility for forming associations all around the world, creating institutions that distinguished true freedom from false, that distinguished legislation from law, and that were aimed at building a new world universally of freedom, family improvement, prosperity and progress.

If you’re going to rescue “social justice,” why not rescue Hayek while you’re at it? Good stuff.

Again, I encourage you to watch the lecture in full.

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  • Remnant Culture

    Social justice is a virtue, not an ideal, says Michael Novak. Also, Hayek was an exemplary model of such virtue:

  • Joseph Sunde

    Social justice isn't what you think it is. New blog post: