Is “social justice” justice? : A Thomistic argument for “social persons” as the proper subjects of the virtue of social justice.
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Lee, John R. (Richard), 1981-
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The term “social justice,” as it occurs in the Catholic social encyclical tradition, presents a core, definitional problem. According to Catholic social thought, social justice has social institutions as its subjects. However, in the Thomistic tradition, justice is understood to be a virtue, i.e., a human habit with human persons as subjects. Thus, with its non-personal subjects, social justice would seem not to be a virtue, and thus not to be a true form of justice. We offer a solution to this problem, based on the idea of social personhood. Drawing from the Thomistic understanding of “person” as a being “distinct in a rational nature”, it is argued that certain social institutions—those with a unity of order—are capable of meeting Aquinas’ analogical definition of personhood. Thus, social institutions with a unity of order—i.e., societies—are understood to be “social persons” and thus the proper subjects of virtue, including the virtue of justice. After a review of alternative conceptions, it is argued that “social justice” in the Catholic social encyclical tradition is best understood as general justice (justice directed toward the common good) extended to include not only human persons, but social persons as well. Advantages of this conception are highlighted. Metaphysically, an understanding of social justice as exercised by social persons fits nicely with an understanding of society as non-substantial, but subsistent being. This understanding of societal being supports certain intuitions we have about the nature of societal organization. In regards to social philosophy, an understanding of social justice as general justice exercised by social persons helps to account for the principle of subsidiarity and situate it properly within the domain of just acts. Consequently, the notion of social personhood helps to bring social institutions—considered per se, not as mere summations of individual persons—into the domain of justice.
DepartmentChurch and State.
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