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  • Writer's pictureCole Feix

The Social Justice Debate

There’s a bright spot in The Coddling of the American Mind. Despite the mountain of negative trends that have brought us to this point, there is one very positive factor: a deep desire for justice. Fo everything in the book so far, the zeal for justice is worth preserving, and it’s worth getting right.

The final chapter of the third section, “The Quest For Justice” could be printed on it’s own, and if there’s one of the six explanations that deserves a wide reading, it’s this one. The authors provide a short expose on justice, historically and presently, and where the modern social justice movement went wrong.

First, let’s define some terms. Most people associate the term justice with fairness, but as we’ll see later, fairness is not the best sibling word for justice. Proportionality is better. Proportionality means the punishment should fit the crime. The person who does the work should reap the reward. Justice means giving each person her due, it did in the time of Plato, and 300 years later when the Lord said through Micah, “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

How does proportional justice function on a large scale? The authors introduce the two most common conceptions of justice; distributive justice, which means giving people what they deserve, and procedural justice, which means ensuring equitable and consistent processes and procedures. These are the two halves of justice. A just society will erect just processes to ensure that everyone can take advantage of the opportunities they have been given, and when people act wrongly, a just society repays people proportionally, according to what they have done.

The trouble, of course, is that no society is perfectly just. It’s impossible to architect a society that exemplifies proportional-procedural justice in every single instance. So groups of people, usually those who are disenfranchised, advocate for change. This is the modern social justice movement. The authors point to the Civil Rights Movement as an example of social reform that led to a more proportionally and procedurally just society. When they embody these qualities, social justice warriors are venerable and necessary.

There is another kind of social justice, though, and it is not as healthy or productive. Lukianoff and Haidt call this second kind equal-outcomes social justice. While these two species of social justice have a common lineage, their methodologies could not be more different. In proportional-procedural social justice, people are working to ensure that everyone has the same opportunities and access. In equal-outcomes social justice, people are making sure that the outcomes are even across the board. Think about the difference between the NFL’s Rooney Rule and corporate quotas.

Let’s remember that the mindset behind some of the equal-opportunity tactics can be really good. It’s naive to think, in the case of jobs, that those who have not had the same education, experience, or social connection can compete for the same jobs. In America, since this dispute often runs down racial lines, which raises the stakes and the vitriol, the only way to provide the same opportunities might appear to be to enact a limit on how many people of a certain group can have certain jobs. The same is true when companies issue requirements like a rule that a certain number of women must sit on a corporate board.

The rationale behind these decisions is easily understandable. But barriers don’t just exist at the entry level. There may not be enough women in the upper echelon of the company or with the requisite experience, so just expanding the opportunity among top performers to advance their careers may not actually fix the problem. It takes time to allow people to have the opportunity to advance in every area of society.

When you step back, though, equal-outcomes social justice is (arguably) a step forward in the short-term and a step backward in the long-term. When you mandate equal outcomes, you never actually change the paradigm, you just change the structure. Equal opportunity is a system based on merit and achievement; the goal is to even the playing field. Equal outcome does the exact opposite; you select people based on things they cannot control and constrain the playing field. If you methodically remove barriers to opportunity, you’re operating on the assumption that given the right circumstances, any person can succeed. When you operate in a system that selects people for advancement based on group qualities they do not control or have any ability to change, you limit the role that earned success can play in your organization for every single person. The free market is more capable of producing just working conditions than quota-imposing demagogues. Equal opportunity, not equal outcome, is the path to justice.

Justice in the Christian World

Social Justice has become a hot topic among Christians in the last few months. Following the publication of the Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel by John MacArthur and others, the evangelical world fractured around whether or not social justice was a gospel issue. While his article was generally helpful, even Kevin DeYoung ultimately offered up the same answer as almost everyone else: it depends. It’s not surprising that the internet didn’t produce a happy consensus, but I do think this issue is solvable.

The people who published the statement believe that social justice is not a gospel issue, and that to equate the two is to add to the gospel by smuggling in non-Christian categories and ideologies. If you read the statement closely, when they say social justice, they’re talking about equal-opportunity social justice. This fits their denunciation of cultural Marxism and other secular categories.

On the other hand, those who are defending social justice as a gospel issue are likely defending a vision of proportional-procedural social justice. Whereas they see it as the duty of every believer to treat people with dignity and to fight against racism, bigotry, and systemic injustice of every kind, they can’t even imagine how anyone could be opposed to their vision of justice.

It’s still a little bit of a stretch to say social justice is a gospel issue, after all, something can be extremely important and required for every Christian without being a gospel issue. DeYoung says, “There is only one thing that can be of first importance, and that, according to Paul in 1 Corinthians 15, is the message that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures and was raised on the third day.” Nevertheless, something can be extremely important and not be a gospel issue; I believe this explains the debate. And never the twain shall meet...

Justice in the Secular World

But what about justice in a secular society? We can’t expect everyone to agree with Christian conceptions of justice. What’s interesting in ancient theories of justice is the close connection between justice and morality.

Plato and Aristotle thought that a just society was one that produced virtuous citizens. They really believed that the government would have a role in creating good people. They clearly didn’t believe the common trope, “you can’t legislate morality.” And they were right. Someone will legislate morality, because every law proceeds from a worldview, every worldview proceeds from a vision of the good life, every vision of the good life is based on a conception of the good. Anyone who accuses others of legislating morality is building a smokescreen to ensure that they get to be the one legislating morality. Secularism is a version of morality, and a very unstable one at that. This is not a contestable point; everyone is legislating morality

The problem is, if you can’t agree on what is good, you don’t have a chance of agreeing on what is just. Go with me here: Imagine if modern American politicians were charged with writing the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution all over again. Could they even agree on a single sentence? There’s no way! One of the reasons is the United States system of justice is rooted in a principle that is completely foreign to our current social discourse. Just a few lines in, the Declaration of Independence lays down a standard of justice; “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” Justice depends on a notion of the origin of rights, and more pointedly, a standard of human dignity. Who guarantees these rights? Not the government - it only secures the rights. Not some pragmatic utility - since the government is held in check by the consent of the governed. Justice is established by the fact that unalienable rights are given by God.

This is where the Christian distinction comes back into play. In the public square, we should unashamedly act like Christians. Tim Keller makes this point clear in Generous Justice. Its the grace and generosity of God that are duplicated in the Christian life that should lead us to be the most just of all people. When you see the world through the lens of God’s kingdom, the struggle for justice makes a lot more sense. The prophets talked almost exclusively about justice, but they did not pretend that there was any such thing as secular justice. A Christian vision of justice is the best thing for society. Only Christians can provide the foundation necessary for justice and human flourishing.

The authors are right, a strong desire to see a better world is one of the most important trends in America right now. As a country, we’re proving every day that we’re unsure about what it means to be just. Christians can lead the way toward creating a just society. We believe every person is dignified and deserves to be treated justly simply because they were created by God. By that, we mean every person should be given proportional-procedural justice, no matter who they are. When there arises a time that someone is not treated justly, we should rally the cause for change.

Don’t underestimate the surge in the desire for justice. This is an opportunity for Christians to bring about the justice of God for every person.

For I the LORD love justice;

I hate robbery and wrong;

I will faithfully give them their recompense,

and I will make an everlasting covenant with them.

Their offspring shall be known among the nations,

and their descendants in the midst of the peoples;

all who see them shall acknowledge them,

that they are an offspring the LORD has blessed. Isaiah 61:8-9

Cole Feix is the founder of So We Speak and a regular writer. Follow him on Twitter, @cfeix7.

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