Calls for “social justice” have a bad habit of appearing in caricature: the throwback hippiedom of Occupy Wall Street, the race-baiting rallies of Al Sharpton and other hucksters, the abortion proponents who think the First Amendment was written to protect their “right” to dress up as genitalia. If ever “social justice” was a content-rich term, it was long ago co-opted by the “progressive” Left to explain an ever-expanding swath of egalitarian ambitions, and now it is the ready excuse even for thinly disguised incitements to violence (Sharpton’s “No justice! No peace!” chant in Florida following the death of Trayvon Martin) or public defecation (as at Zucotti Park during the Occupy golden days). What is there, in such bathos-drenched exhibitions, to take seriously?

But beneath the thick accretions of theatre lie genuine concerns that would resonate with ancient observers: concerns about what a just society should look like. As Russell Kirk observes in his essay, “The Question of Social Justice,” by the time it reaches Plato, even that philosopher’s definition of justice already boasts a long tradition.[1] The question of the just city is a timeless one. In our age, though, it has become an all-consuming concern for liberals, and many conservatives, tired of its partisan manipulation, are not keen to take up the question at all. But, as National Affairs editor Yuval Levin observed earlier this year in his Bradley Prize remarks, “Liberals tend to begin from outrage at what is bad and broken and seek to uproot it…[and] they’re not always wrong.”[2] As the nation faces the prospect that the rising generation may be worse off than its predecessor, and as increasingly specialized interest groups agitate for recognition of their “rights,” conservatives can no longer ignore outrage. But the hard questions of justice will not be answered by anger; a careful examination of our political inheritance, and a thoughtful study of how to apply it, can help conservatives restore an understanding of justice that will be robust enough to uphold our unique polity.

Kirk rightly reasserts the superiority of the classical definition of justice—“To each man, the things that are his own”—to the many distortions offered in our age, and names among the culprits responsible for diminishing the ancient understanding Rousseau, Condorcet, and Marx.[3] Certainly, the radical egalitarianism that those revolutionaries (in the worst sense of that word) put forward has informed the zeitgeist. But we ought not exempt from criticism two other thinkers: in historical order, William of Ockham, whose nominalism, as laid out in Richard Weaver’s Ideas Have Consequences, effectively obliterated transcendentals; and John Locke. About the second, an additional word: Locke’s theory of rights certainly shaped the American founding, but his famous Second Treatise also had its demerits. Locke attributed rights not to multifaceted human persons, but to “individuals,” atomic, undifferentiated automatons. When the Enlightenment’s devotion to autonomy merged with late-nineteenth-century identity concerns, it created a particular monster: Rights claims from individuals who identified themselves based on a single criterion, and so demanded rights based on that same criterion—hence “women’s rights,” “immigrant rights,” “gay rights.” That rights are claimed for specific “identities” gives the lie to liberal chattering about “equal” or “human” rights. When the person was diminished to an “individual,” recourse to “human” rights became impossible—except as a politically expedient catch-all—because “human” became a concept devoid of content.

With the elevation of rights, virtues have diminished. Kirk suggests this distinction without dwelling on it, but we ought to dwell on it. A particularly forceful iteration of an older notion of justice is Josef Pieper’s The Four Cardinal Virtues, in which Pieper, working within the Scholastic tradition, observes that right—the fact of “being due to”—precedes justice. Justice is the act that fulfills the right; it is “the habit,” to quote Aquinas, “whereby a man renders to each one his due with constant and perpetual will.” It follows that, unless man can ground his claim to, in the American founders’ language, “inalienable rights,” justice is nonsense. Those rights spring, for Pieper, from a “human nature” common to each person—“a spiritual being, a whole unto himself, a being that exists for itself and of itself, that wills its own proper perfection”—and his necessary ultimate foundation, a Creator God, the sine qua non for any legitimate “rights talk.”[4] Kirk observes that the traditional concept of justice “took into account the diversity of human needs and wishes,” while its modern replacement “consists in treating every man as if he were an identical cog in a social machine.”[5] The rights with which the modern notion of social justice is concerned are predicated not on the uniqueness of each human person, on his status as a creatura, but on his replaceability on the political assembly line.

Justice understood as the virtue corresponding to Pieper’s robust “right” resists the modern leveling mindset. If rights are possessed and invoked by persons, and what is due to the rights-bearer is rendered by persons, and if, as Kirk points out, the traditional concept of justice provides for the variety of things a person may be due well beyond material return,[6] then the judgment that determines the proper recompense, given the diversity of the human person, is only possible at the personal level, face to face. Thus we need to keep in mind Pieper’s observation that “justice can be discussed meaningfully and fruitfully only if it is regarded in the context of a complete moral doctrine. It is one feature in the sevenfold image of man; the part becomes fully intelligible only within the whole” (italics original).[7] The liberal notion of justice tolerates no such constraints—and for that reason it is in theory meaningless, and in practice crushing.

How well defined that moral doctrine need be is an open question. Alasdair MacIntyre, in After Virtue, suggests that the modern political order has no way of deciding rationally among “all too many disparate and rival moral concepts,” and so “modern politics cannot be a matter of genuine moral consensus.”[8] Kirk, though, seems to suggest that “the Judaic and Christian faith in a just God, and the teachings of classical philosophy,” the two sources of the definition of justice he proposes, remain sufficiently lively in our culture to permit that definition’s taking hold—at least circa 1989.[9] And yet he might be suggesting something more provocative: That the classical notion of justice follows from that old bugbear human nature, which, modern political order or no, eventually reasserts itself; that men in their secret hearts recognize justice; that men know what is their due, and when they have, or have not, received it.

This conviction underpins American Enterprise Institute president Arthur Brooks’s formulation, “earned success”: “When your success is achieved through hard work and your personal achievement, you create satisfaction that cannot be otherwise replicated.”[10] That we cannot replicate by other means the satisfaction of the paycheck earned by a hard day’s labor, or of the praise rendered on account of good works, suggests that we have an instinct for justice and injustice. Of course, instincts go wrong, so our problem is rightly discriminating between what is earned and what is unearned. Making that determination returns us to the problem of virtue.

In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle defines the activity of virtue this way: Virtue “discovers and chooses the mean,” the mean being that point perfectly situated between the vice of deficiency, on one side, and the vice of excess, on the other.[11] Goldilocks is an Aristotelian: not too hot, not too cold—just right. The virtues, among which justice is one, work in tandem to discover and choose the mean, taking into account not abstract buzzwords—Liberty! Equality! Fraternity!—but the particularities of the situation at hand. The virtue of justice, then, like every virtue, is dictated by the details. Hence the necessity of thinking of justice as a problem of persons; it must take account of the fullness of the situation.

Yet the question on hand is that of the just society—social justice. How can we say whether or not justice prevails in a community? Back to Pieper: “Justice rules in a community or state whenever the three basic relations, the three fundamental structures of communal life, are disposed in their proper order: firstly, the relations of individuals to one another; secondly, the relations of the social whole to individuals; thirdly, the relations of individuals to the social whole.”[12] As Pieper observes, this Thomistic account rejects the simplistic opposition of “individual” and “society,” our modern Manichaeism. Justice in the community is, in fact, trinitarian.

That word gets us to the heart of the sense of justice conservatives should seek to restore. The trinity: Coequal relations existing in perfect harmony. There is no place for harmony in the liberal social order.

Consider a musical analogy: A symphony is the layering of many voices playing lines of single notes. Each voice—the violin, the oboe, the French horn—must have a line that is pleasant to the ear, neither too soft nor too loud, played with a fitting timbre, etc. A whole range of concerns accompanies every note. The musical line that results is, ideally, that voice’s “mean.” Whether each voice’s notes are pleasant to the ear, though, and how loudly each instrument should play, and with what timbre, depends on the voice’s relation to the whole; the most beautiful melody in the key of C-sharp will grate if the symphony is in the key of D. At the same time, the whole is its parts; the symphony is an elaboration of that one simple tune that popped unbidden into Beethoven’s mind on a jaunt through the woods outside Vienna. There is a threefold relation: of voice to voice, of each voice to the whole composition, and of the composition to each voice. And neither a single voice nor the whole composition can be reduced to a mathematical account; it is too complex, too rich.

Justice is the same. The liberal notion of “justice” calls for an orchestra in which every voice blasts the same note. That is not harmony. That is, in Kirk’s words, “the changeless expanse of uniformity: and precisely that is the most conspicuous feature of Hell.”[13] Determining the mean and developing harmony is an art. Justice is artful.

Over the past several decades conservatives have ceded much ground to a worldview based on numbers, among which are Kirk’s “economic dogmata, expressed in the dry vocabulary of Efficiency and Success.”[14] But, increasingly, conservatism is opening itself up to a new imaginativeness, a new attention to, in Kirk’s words, “the graces and beauties of life,”[15] so elegantly expressed in the writings of Wendell Berry or Marilynne Robinson, or the paintings of Makoto Fujimura. If, with Alasdair MacIntyre, we accept that we cannot come rationally to moral consensus,[16] it may still be possible to school men’s hearts because justice, in the sense we have tried to articulate, is not simply a matter of transactions, of quantifiable equals for equals, of needing a cosmic lawnmower to level the field. It is a matter of protecting the things that are a man’s own, not as a member of this or that group but as a person, and, in doing so, of ensuring that he is given the means rightfully his to strive after his own perfection. Thus justice cannot be rendered administratively, top-down. It is not a poncho; one size does not fit all. It is a matter of Me and You—and that is, for conservatives, an opportunity. For liberalism, like its kin Communism and fascism, is imposed and propagandized; it thrills at the movements of masses; it is interested in you as woman or worker or minority. But conservatism is evangelized; it requires the conversion of one heart, and another, and another; it is interested in you, full stop.

The justice we have tried to articulate here is not simply ancient and esteemed; it is commonsensical and human—and to be found, at a glance, all along the tradition we struggle to conserve. It may be, then, not that conservatives have failed to rightly understand justice (though we have, at times, distorted and confused it, to be sure), but that we no longer have the tools to communicate it. With Kirk, then, in the spirit of salvaging good things lost, it may be time for a return to the careful study of rhetoric, to studying not just what to say but how to say it. We can start there too, with Plato and Aristotle, Cicero and Scripture. And, given the right words, we can start pointing to life’s graces and beauties and articulating how a robust sense of justice—justice rendered to persons by persons—is a bulwark against the disappearance of those things that enliven and elevate the soul. As Mark Helprin writes in his novel Winter’s Tale, “For what can be imagined more beautiful than the sight of a perfectly just city rejoicing in justice alone.”[17] It is the promise of justice, indeed, that makes life livable—and worth living.

Republished with gracious permission from The Intercollegiate Review (March 2014).

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[1] Russell Kirk, “The Question of Social Justice,” from Prospects for Conservatives (1989), 2-3. [Page numbers correspond to PDF version available from ISI.]

[2] Yuval Levin, “Yuval Levin’s Bradley Prize Remarks,” June 12, 2013. Ethics & Public Policy Center.

[3] Kirk, 4-6.

[4] Josef Pieper, The Four Cardinal Virtues (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1966), 45-52

[5] Kirk, 5.

[6] Ibid., 7.

[7] Pieper, 53.

[8] Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, 2d ed. (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984), 252-253.

[9] Kirk, 2.

[10] “Earned Success.” 2012. American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research.

[11] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, trans. Joe Sachs (Newburyport, MA: Focus, 2002), 29.

[12] Pieper, 71.

[13] Kirk, 9.

[14] Ibid., 1.

[15] Ibid., 9.

[16] MacIntyre, 252.

[17] Mark Helprin, Winter’s Tale (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983), 248.

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