“Social justice is a concept of fair and just relations between the individual and society. This is measured by the explicit and tacit terms for the distribution of wealth, opportunities for personal activity and social privileges.” Wikipedia

“Social justice is really the capacity to organize with others to accomplish ends that benefit the whole community…what is equitable is often not to give people the same portions, but rather to give what is proportionate to the efforts of each.” Michael Novak/Heritage Foundation

As evident in the above quotations, disagreements about social justice often center on what is fair or equitable. And what one considers fair or equitable is partly based on whether a person's allotment is deserved - that is, earned by virtue of personal qualities and actions.

It's no accident that political arguments about social justice tend to focus on the role of hard work versus luck. For instance, in a recent Pew Research Survey, 73 % of Solid Liberals agreed that “hard work and determination are no guarantee of success for most people”, compared to 4% of Core Conservatives. That's a huge difference. No wonder the partisan divide has turned into a chasm.

While disagreements about the importance of luck versus work are often framed as matters of degree, there is a school of thought that subsumes hard work within the higher-order category of luck - basically reducing the role of work to zero. The argument goes something like this: yeah, some people work really hard to get where they are, but the reason they’re able to work so hard is because they were lucky enough to have been born into privileged circumstances (e.g., parents, neighborhood, schools, connections). In other words, it all boils down to luck. Therefore, no one deserves to have a whole lot more than anyone else.

Those on the other side of the partisan divide may agree that ultimately personal characteristics and behavior are a matter of luck (or the grace of God), but that has little bearing on how to organize society or distribute resources. If we don’t reward hard work more than perfunctory work or no work, the things that hard work engenders will not happen. Things like a functioning economy.

Back to the left side of the equation: “well, that assumes people will only work hard out of self-interest - a capitalist version of human nature. Freed from such illusions, people will work out of a sense of responsibility to their community and society”.

And so our politics and how we think about human nature are connected. A subject for the next post.