If you’ve been anywhere near social media anytime in the past couple of decades or so, you have probably came across the term “Social Justice Warrior,” or “SJW.” Surprisingly (or perhaps not), being a social justice warrior has nothing whatsoever to do with social justice! It is a pejorative term coined to describe someone with what is euphemistically described as “socially progressive views,” which (again, not surprising) bear little if any resemblance to what “progressive” originally meant — but that is a subject for another day.
Yet even then a SJW is concerned more with “personal validation” than with promoting “progressive” views or goals. While some of what SJRs advocate is acceptable, a modicum even necessary, there is no real sense of commitment to the cause. Rather, the devotion is to one’s own ego — as demonstrated by the fact that SJW demands usually take the form of expecting somebody else to do what needs to be done.
And that makes it highly unlikely that a SJW will listen to a truly socially just proposal, especially if it turns out to require any effort on the part of the SJW. If someone (else) proposes something that will gain the desired end, possibly even better and more efficiently than what the SJW proposes, it cannot be accepted because it will do nothing to gratify the ego or enhance the reputation of the SJW.
Ego is irrelevant in true social justice, because ego, which glorifies the “me,” and the “me” (without the glorification) is the object of individual justice. The group or institution (a social tool) is the object of social justice . . . and to paraphrase the old sports cliché, there is no “me” in group or institution.
The great problem of social justice is related to the fact that individual acts affect only individual good directly, and the common good only indirectly. If institutions are flawed or not working right, individuals are frequently helpless to do anything about it.
Does that mean that the individual is unimportant compared with the needs of the group? By no means. It only means that individual justice and social justice have different objectives.
Briefly, individual justice (in common with all the individual virtues) is directed — obviously — to individual good. Social justice (like all social virtue) is directed to the common good, that vast network of institutions within which individuals acquire and develop virtue and become better people, that is, carry out the business of living; social justice deals with maintaining the environment within which individual justice operates.
Individual justice and social justice are therefore equally important, just in different ways. Separating them is like separating a locomotive from its tracks. Rails are unimportant, even meaningless without the locomotive, while the locomotive is useless without the rails.
The great problem of social justice through the ages, however, is related to the fact that individual acts affect only individual good directly, and the common good only indirectly. If institutions are flawed or not working right, individuals are frequently helpless to do anything about it.
That is, individuals are frequently helpless . . . as individuals. As Aristotle noted 2,500 years ago, however, we are “political animals.” That is, we are a possibly unique combination in nature of individual creatures that consciously organize with others of our kind to create the social environment, the pólis, that meets our particular wants and needs, and within which we live out our individual lives. Human beings are individuals who live socially.
Since we shape our institutional environment by organizing with others, then the “socially just” response when the institutions of the social order are inadequate or flawed is to organize with others and fix the problem by restructuring out institutions. That is the real act of social justice, a way of meeting the moral requirement every individual has to care for the common good — and to be effective in doing it.
That was one of the points Rev. William J. Ferree, S.M., Ph.D., made in his Introduction to Social Justice (1948). As he explained,
“In Social Justice there is never any such thing as helplessness. No problem is ever too big or too complex, no field is ever too vast, for the methods of this Social Justice. Problems that were agonizing in the past and were simply dodged, even by serious and virtuous people, can now be solved with ease by any school child.”
You aren’t socially just when all you do is point out someone else’s flaws and demand that somebody else do something. No, you’re socially just when you organize with others and work to empower everybody.
Michael D. Greaney is Director of Research at the Centre for Economic and Social Justice