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  • Nancy Fraser, Iris Marion Young, and the Intersections of Justice:Equality, Recognition, Participation, and Third Wave Feminism
  • Gary Dorrien (bio)

The call to struggle for social justice mobilizes progressive institutions, movements, and traditions that share nothing else. Progressives lacking any other ideological, religious, political, or cultural basis of commonality join together to make gains toward social justice, sometimes registering the historic limitations of this term by renaming it "eco-justice" or eco-social justice. The idea of social justice arose in the socialist and labor union movements of the mid-nineteenth century and was appropriated in Catholic and Protestant social teaching. Essentially it was shorthand for the new meaning of distributive justice that emerged in response to the exploitation and severe inequality of the capitalist system. Formal justice is procedural; retributive justice belongs mostly to criminal law, dealing with the justification of punishment; commutative justice belongs mostly to civil law, dealing with the relationships of members of society to each other; classic distributive justice considers the whole in relation to its parts, dealing principally with the fairness of the distribution of resources. The socialists, unionists, progressives, and Christian social ethicists who embraced the term "social justice" in the late nineteenth century believed that traditional theories of the fair distribution of social goods had to be refashioned to deal with the fantastic power and wreckage of capitalism.

Social justice could be conceived on the basis of rights, as in modern liberal-democratic theories of human rights, or on the basis of a comprehensive concept of right order, as in Catholic moral theology or select forms of socialist theory. It could be in accordance with needs (as in Marxism), or the greatest good for the greatest number (utilitarianism), or the common good (as in much of Christian social ethics). The social gospel movement invented social ethics in the 1880s as an academic field and a tradition of public and ecumenical discourse. Virtually the entire social gospel movement was socialist in the broad sense of supporting cooperatives, speaking the language of economic democracy, and calling for the socialization of natural monopolies, even as only a minority flank explicitly called itself socialist. The socialist undergirding of the social gospel showed through in its rhetoric of social justice. If modernity [End Page 5] was a good thing, it had to have a stage beyond capitalism. The social gospel founders of social ethics took for granted that capitalism is too predatory and selfish to be compatible with social justice.

Reinhold Niebuhr assumed the same thing in the 1930s when he blasted the social gospel for its ethical idealism and rationalism. Niebuhr treated equality as the sole regulative principle of justice, protesting that the social gospel was too idealistic to achieve social justice in power politics. The later Niebuhr added freedom and order as regulative principles of justice, conceiving social justice as right ordering. In England, where the Labour Party socialized one-third of the economy in the late 1940s, Niebuhr would have been a Labour Party socialist. In the U.S. American context, where no progressive coalition party ever got off the ground, Niebuhr settled for welfare state liberalism, taking most of the field of social ethics in his direction.

The third major tradition of Christian social ethics, liberation theology, shares the social gospel concern with just distribution and the Niebuhrian emphasis on power politics, but not the social gospel idealism about the common good or Niebuhr's conservative and U.S. American nationalist tendencies. In liberation theology, social justice has to do with giving voice to oppressed communities and being liberated from structures of oppression and dependency. Oppression is multifaceted, concrete, and particular. It does not reduce to concerns about the fair distribution of things, nor is it best approached or understood within a universal theory of justice. Racism, sexism, exploitation, cultural imperialism, violence, and exclusion involve social structures and relations that include, but also transcend, problems of distributive justice. In liberationist forms of social ethics and social criticism, social justice is fundamentally about overthrowing domination and oppression.

Each of these Christian social ethical discourse traditions features something crucial to my understanding of social justice. I do not give up the Christian socialist emphasis on...


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