“The conservative critiques of social justice are, therefore, wrong on two different fronts.”
f one were to rely solely on center-right or conservative media and public intellectuals for social commentary, one could be forgiven for thinking that the greatest threat currently facing “Western Civilization” is “social justice.” At this point, it is almost a starting point for any kind of discussion between the Left and the Right to discuss that some on the Left (the mythical “social justice warriors”) have gone too far in many cases. This, however, has not kept conservatives and libertarians from repeating the problem ad nauseam and publications on the Right are full of examples of this topic. If this were just an issue of conservatives simply repeating a similar point, I do not think it would be relevant. But more than the repetition, I think the social justice discourse perfectly highlights the intellectual poverty of a lot of the criticism of the Left that has been coming from the Right in recent years.
Browsing conservative magazines, it is easy to find various expressions of this phenomenon. The following series of examples is not intended as a specific criticism of one particular outlet, and I think doing the same with any other publication would not be difficult. However, I think that the almost obsessive attention that only one magazine can devote to one issue is telling. A recent article in National Review argues that the future is all but doomed barring “turning the tide” on social justice in higher education. In the same conservative publication, Noah Rothman, author of the 2019 book Unjust: Social Justice and the Unmaking of America, argues that—much like the title of the book suggests—social justice is not about the redressing of historical injustices but is essentially a tool used by the Left to engineer oppressive, redistributive policies. In a similar vein, Jonah Goldberg—another National Review contributor (and now a founding editor at The Dispatch)—explains in a video for PragerU that social justice is little more than a term that the Left uses to signify anything that it finds expedient to further a political agenda at any given moment. Finally, Michael Brendan Dougherty, in a significantly more thoughtful piece than the others, addresses another important trope in the conservative discourse around social justice, namely, victim mentality. Dougherty does acknowledge that the use of victimhood for political purposes is far from exclusive to the Left, and he gives several examples of conservatives using this tactic. However, he does argue that left-wing activists currently engaged in social justice discourse and identity politics have taken this to unprecedented levels. All of this, is predictably (and perhaps correctly in a few cases) traced back to Marxism and other ideologies.
As if self-conscious about giving away the game, Peterson prefaces his confession with “I shouldn’t say this, but I’m going to because it’s just so goddamn funny.”
It is difficult to blame conservatives for hammering the same point. As Jordan Peterson readily admitted in one of his interviews with Joe Rogan, he found a way to monetize social justice warriors. As if self-conscious about giving away the game, Peterson prefaces his confession with “I shouldn’t say this, but I’m going to because it’s just so goddamn funny.” Clearly, it is not just Peterson that has profited from talking about this issue, as the examples above show. However, as I said before, I do not think that repetition on its own necessarily warrants criticism, but the poor level of analysis that produces it does. Now, it might seem unfair—and it probably is—to criticize anything that is acceptable for PragerU, an outlet that barely rises above the level of propaganda. And, after all, figures on the Right have reminded us often that we ought to “steelman” our opponents’ positions before criticizing them. In the interest of fairness, then, I am going to do just that and not use any of the previously cited pieces as examples of the most cogent conservative discourse about social justice.
A much better example of a conservative critique of social justice is Thomas Patrick Burke’s The Concept of Justice: Is Social Justice Just? To be clear, the more recent examples (Burke’s monograph is from 2011) do share the structure of the book’s argument in many ways. While it is difficult to say whether any of the contemporary critics read Burke or were directly influenced by him, it is reasonable to assume that Burke’s ideas slowly permeated from academia to the mainstream, and, in the process, many became little more than tropes. In both cases, we find the core idea that social justice is unjust. As part of the supporting argument, both Burke and his contemporary exponents, cite notions of victim-mentality, the abandonment of the concept of personal responsibility, and the emphasis on the collectivity over the individual. The fact that Burke gives a much more coherent defense of his argument only means that if he is wrong, the same is true for these more recent critics, and—in this latter case—perhaps even more so.
Burke’s central claim is ambitious. In his view, any framework that accepts the contemporary version of social justice as just is essentially throwing a few millennia of moral philosophy out the window. The classical notion of justice—the one that has been built over many centuries of Western philosophy since the Greeks—is based upon the idea that acts are the basic source of justice and injustice. States of affairs as a whole cannot be inherently just or unjust. That does not mean that we cannot ever judge a state of affairs. It only means that to know if one is truly unjust, we must know what were the individual actions that brought it about. An implication of this—and one that might make the point clearer—is that the same state of affairs could be judged either way depending on the circumstances that brought it about. This is a view of justice, says Burke, that allows us to criticize obviously unjust states of affairs such as slavery or exploitation, as long as we can point to specific individual agents responsible, thereby saving the all-important notion of personal responsibility. On the other hand, the paradigm of social justice goes against all established philosophical canons because it judges states of affairs in themselves and throws away any notion of individual agency. Under this paradigm, then, any unequal state of affairs is judged to be unjust, and individual actions are attributed to circumstances. So, for example, a criminal can no longer be held responsible because it is his social and economic circumstances that moved him or her to act in such a way.
But is this an accurate characterization of what advocates of social justice believe? Of course, if conservatives were given the benefit of exposition by an academic philosopher, the same should be done for the side of social justice. One obvious choice here is Nancy Fraser. Not only is she a strong advocate for social justice, she is also a critical theorist, a Marxist, and a feminist. In other words, she is exactly the kind of academic that conservatives and libertarians have been warning us about as the current greatest threat to Western Civilization. In “Social Justice in the Age of Identity Politics: Redistribution, Recognition, and Participation,” Fraser explores the two basic paradigms of social justice, namely, redistribution and recognition. The first of these she traces back to the traditions of socialism and social democracy—and particularly to philosophers such as John Rawls (something she shares with Burke). The latter, she identifies with identity politics. The point of this article is to show how redistribution and recognition, even though they are often posed as opposites, are not so. Each is meant to address different forms of injustice. Redistribution addresses the familiar cases of unjust distributions, for example, between the Global North and the Global South—or between owners and workers. Recognition, on the other hand, is needed in those cases in which economic inequality is not the source of injustice, such as those in which cultural norms affect groups of people not defined by economic status. This might include sexual minorities.
Nothing in “Social Justice in the Age of Identity Politics” really contradicts Burke’s arguments about social justice. But nothing confirms his arguments either. It is true that only states of affairs are described as unjust, which is exactly what Burke criticizes about the concept of social justice. But even Burke admits that we can say that a state of affairs is unjust, provided it came about through unjust means in which we can identify individual agency. Nothing that Fraser argues here suggests that that is not the case or that these states of affairs are unjust in themselves. In the article, different forms of injustice are described, and different ways to apply justice to them are discussed; however, nothing is said about the sources of either justice or injustice. Fortunately, we have an answer to these questions, which Fraser addresses in another article, entitled simply “On Justice.” Here, Fraser analyzes Kazuo Ishiguro’s dystopian science fiction novel Never Let Me Go. It depicts a world in which clones are created for the sole purpose of harvesting organs for the people from whom they were created. For Fraser, this is a clearly unjust state of affairs. Here, however, she does explain what makes it unjust: In short, it is exploitation. Now, exploitation is a specific action (or set of actions) that can be directly attributed to individual people. In the case of Never Let Me Go, Fraser says that those in charge of the clones are engaging in exploitation. So, to say that social justice cannot establish specific causes of injustice is at least misleading, if not downright wrong.
Burke explains that, as soon as the concept lost its strict attachment to Catholic social teaching, distinct conceptions of social justice were adopted by different ideological groups. The result of this was that, for a long time, there existed a conservative, a liberal, and a socialist conception of social justice.
This omission is all the more glaring because a part of Burke’s book is dedicated to tracing the origin and transformation of social justice. This section of Burke’s book does an excellent job of describing how the concept transformed from being a traditionalist idea predicated on preserving the established order, originally conceived by Italian Jesuit priest Luigi Taparelli, into what it is today. Burke explains that, as soon as the concept lost its strict attachment to Catholic social teaching, distinct conceptions of social justice were adopted by different ideological groups. The result of this was that, for a long time, there existed a conservative, a liberal, and a socialist conception of social justice. This last one is the one that Burke identifies as the closest to what he views as the modern conception of social justice. However, he argues that even this one was still just ordinary justice—meaning, the kind that can be attributed to individual actions—but applied to social issues. He attributes the socialist meaning of social justice to the English Christian socialists of the latter half of the 19th century, whose main concern was exploitation, defined by them as wages which they considered proportionally meager compared to the kind and amount of work that factory employees undertook. This, he says, is still simply justice applied to social issues, just like criminal justice is justice applied to violations of rights by other people. The reason is that it is still possible to specifically signal factory owners as the responsible party.
This is all very strange, of course because Fraser specifically mentions exploitation. So, in a way, it almost seems like a willing refusal to acknowledge what advocates of social justice, as defined today, say their own beliefs are. And it is not just a matter of taking them at their word. It is entirely possible that their beliefs could be inconsistent in a way that undermined the claim that exploitation is the source of injustice. However, in this instance, it is easy to see that that is clearly not the case. All one needs to do is look at some of the situations in which claims about social injustice are made. Two that Fraser mentions are the unjust distribution between owners and workers, and that between the Global North and the Global South. The first of these is essentially the same that the English socialists, whom Burke admits still had an appropriate definition of justice, were concerned about. The second one could seem closer to a state of affairs being judged as inherently wrong based on the fact that one set of nations has more economic resources than the others. But this argument falls apart with minimal scrutiny. There is a reason that the specific Global North-Global South division is made, even though there are large inequalities between countries that belong to the same group. The reason is that—in general—there is a specific relationship between the two sets of countries based on the colonial past, which was largely carried out by countries in the North against countries in the South. Now, of course, the United States was a colony of Great Britain, as India was; however, in the former case, the bulk of those that constituted the new nation were the colonizing population whereas in the later, it was the colonized.
Evidently, colonialism was comprised of a set of actions carried that can be traced back to particular individuals acting on their will. To say, then, that social justice does not adhere to the traditional conception of justice, as Burke defines it, which necessitates assigning responsibility to people, is simply not true. Moreover, the failure to identify this seems like a glaring omission. Not only are these arguments about why certain states of affairs are unjust very straightforward, it is even possible to make the same argument from a right-libertarian point of view. In Anarchy, State, and Utopia, Robert Nozick makes a very similar argument. Nozick famously argues that inequality is not unjust, provided that an unequal distribution was achieved only through voluntary transactions between consenting parties. But consistent with this, he also states that the only legitimate case for state-backed redistribution is when the present distribution is the result of acquisition through violence, coercion, collusion, fraud, or other illegitimate means, all of which can be attributed to individual actors. It should be evident that the anti-colonialist argument is fundamentally the same. It should be, of course, possible to contest the specifics social justice claims. What is not a valid criticism, however, is to say that social justice somehow throws out all classical notions of justice.
There is one last issue that illustrates this contrast between Fraser and Burke. There is one other way in which we could interpret advocates of social justice as judging states of affairs in themselves, as opposed to doing so based upon how they came about. Burke argues that the modern conception of social justice is mainly owed to John Rawls and his conception of justice as fairness. Nancy Fraser actually agrees with this. While she does not agree with all of Rawls’s conclusions, in “On Justice,” she accepts Rawls’s to basic starting points: namely, that justice is the first virtue of social institutions and that the primary object of justice is the basic structure of society. It could be argued that this proves Burke correct, but this is still not the case. Let us go back to the case that Fraser analyzes in said article. Of course, as I laid out before, Fraser does argue that the people in charge of the clones act unjustly; so, if one wanted to limit the scope of justice to individual acts of will, this should be enough to lay any concerns to rest. However, she takes the argument further. In accordance with her Rawlsian framework, she says that, ultimately, the caretakers act like they do because society is structured in such a way that sets them up to do so.
Nothing in Fraser’s argument takes personal responsibility away from the caretakers, as the novel does show instances of the characters having internal conflicts. So, the notion that personal responsibility is ignored is completely false. But it is hard to see the denial of the role that the social structure has in such situation as anything more than willful ignorance. The society in which the clones live is entirely built around the system of clones as spare parts for the originals. So, while individuals can sometimes see that there is something wrong with the system—for example, when they are able to recognize that the clones are individuals in their own right with their own subjective experiences—each individual, including the clones, is still acting according to their social duty. If social duties require us to act unjustly, it is even irresponsible not to judge the structure of society to be unjust. And if anyone remains so narrowly committed to the idea that justice is solely a quality of individual actions, it is, of course, always true that social structures never emerge spontaneously. They are always the result of aggregated individual acts of will.
Finally, I believe there is another reason to be skeptical of this conception of justice defended by Burke. By this, I do not mean that it is flawed—but only that it is incomplete. As I have explained, what Burke refers to as the modern concept of social justice can be described entirely within his own narrow concept of justice. But the claim that the Western tradition has never attributed justice to states of affair in themselves is at least suspect. A review of Aristotle’s Politics and Nicomachean Ethics (or of Cicero’s writings) shows that judging states of affairs in themselves is perfectly within the bounds of the Western philosophical canon—at least to the extent that Rawls and Fraser do it. Both Aristotle and Cicero dedicate much of their writing in Politics and De Republica ,respectively, to comparing different forms of political organization as wholes. They both conclude that the best one is what Cicero calls republic and Aristotle, πολιτεία (politeia) or constitutional government. While the term “just” is never explicitly used to describe them, it is worth noting particularly what Aristotle says about πολιτεία and comparing it to what he says about justice and equality in his Nicomachean Ethics. For him, πολιτεία is the best form of government because it is a fusion of democracy (in the classical sense) and oligarchy. Therefore, it represents moderation as a mean between the two extremes. Neither the rich nor the poor have control over the government. But this is analogous to the way Aristotle describes justice, equality, and fairness in the Nicomachean Ethics, as he even admits in his discussion of constitutions.
In the Ethics, in Book V, Aristotle describes two kinds of justice: that which is based on proportionality and that which is rectificatory. The latter of these can be identified with Burke’s own concept of justice. Justice requires reversing an action that resulted, for example, in an illegitimate acquisition of property through violence or fraud. But the former kind, Aristotle describes as “that which is manifested in distributions of honor or money or the other things that fall to be divided among those who have a share in the constitution.” About this one, Aristotle says that there is a certain proportional distribution which is just, and deviations resulting in some having too much and others too little of what is good are unjust. This, of course, is very similar to the kind of concept of justice that Burke describes as a judgement of states of affairs in themselves that go against centuries of Western philosophy. Yet, it is exactly what one of the founding fathers of Western philosophy advocated. This does not mean that because Aristotle said it, it must be true. But we now have two different reasons to be skeptical of the argument that the classical concept of justice can never judge states of affairs.
The conservative critiques of social justice are, therefore, wrong on two different fronts. Puzzlingly, it is two that are fairly easy to identify: social justice, as advocated by its adherents, does not dispense with personal responsibility. Furthermore, its judgements about states of affairs are done in a way that can always be traced to acts of will, and that perfectly falls within the bounds of the Western philosophical tradition. Now, it is possible that all these conservative critiques of social justice might only be directed at the less sophisticated and more extreme of its proponents, such as the mythical campus social justice warrior. If that were the case, however, these critiques would not only be at least slightly intellectually dishonest, but, also, I would argue, fairly irrelevant. But if that is indeed what the Right aims to criticize, it might be time that the Left starts treating PragerU videos and Turning Point USA graphics as the ultimate expressions of conservative thought.
Néstor de Buen holds an M.A. in social sciences from The University of Chicago. He has previously written at Quillette.