Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

What Do We Mean When We Talk About Social Justice

By Noelle Lopez


Engagement with "social justice" manifests in many ways at Santa Clara University. For example, I count myself among the SCU students past, present, and future who have participated in community-based learning and immersion trips in order to experience issues related to "social justice" firsthand. I too have had the opportunity to work with student organizations and clubs that hold "social justice" central to their mission. Business decisions, sustainability initiatives, theatre productions, art exhibits, committees and coalitions on campus also incorporate "social justice" in some way or another. However, while social justice is clearly a central theme in the university's mission and in Jesuit education, the term "social justice" at SCU can also seem rather unclear: its many invocations commonly come without definition or critical discussion.

The five questions that follow stem from work I did during the 2008-09 academic year with the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics as a Hackworth Fellow. My intentions as a Hackworth Fellow were to get clear on what we mean when we talk about "social justice" at SCU. I chose these questions because they've helped me engage critically with "social justice" as a moral concept, and I believe they can help us all start thinking and talking about social justice more clearly. If we ever hope to engage in effective discussion and seek cooperative action with those who understand justice differently, we must first understand what we mean by social justice and why.

I see these questions as a first step. My hope is that they'll stimulate and challenge in ways ultimately edifying to you as well as to the communities of which you are a member. My hope is that they'll help us all be just a little better.

Fashioning a More Humane and Just World 1

Five Questions Every SCU Student Should Ask About Social Justice

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  1. What do you think the common understanding of "social justice" is at SCU? (NOTE: Not what should be the common understanding but rather, as a matter of your experience, what is this understanding?)
  2. What experiences have shaped your personal understanding of social justice? How have these experiences influenced, if at all, how you view the social good(s) you think are most important to a just society (e.g. membership in a community, power, knowledge, love, wealth, food, shelter, etc.)?
  3. Often conflict over the meaning of "social justice" arises because of the question whether social justice applies to institutions, to individuals, or to both. For instance, theologian David Hollenbach, S.J., has defined social justice as a principle which orders institutional activities "in a way which is suitable for the production and protection of the common good."2 Catholic philosopher Michael Novak has said social justice is not a principle applying to institutions, but rather a habit of justice applying to individuals: "Social justice is a virtue, an attribute of individuals, or it is a fraud."3 How do you understand social justice as a moral concept relevant to institutions? How as a moral concept relevant to individuals?
  4. In 2000, during a conference on the Commitment to Justice in Catholic Higher Education, Rev. Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, then Superior General of the Jesuits, spoke of the "promotion of justice" as a specifically faith-based notion4. Do you identify with the idea of justice as deeply intertwined with faith? If so, how do you understand the two as relating? If not, in what do you root your work for social justice?
  5. What have been your most profound experiences of compassion and what does compassion mean to you? What is the role of sympathy and compassion in how social justice is understood at SCU and by you personally? In what ways do you see sympathy and compassion as either motivating or replacing work for social justice?

Noelle Lopez was a 2009-10 Hackworth Fellow at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

September 2009


1. Santa Clara University mission statement.
2. David Hollenbach, S.J., Claims in Conflict: Retrieving and Renewing the Catholic Human Rights Tradition, (New York: Paulist), 152.
3. Michael Novak, "Defining Social Justice," First Things 108 (Dec. 2000), 11-13. Rev. Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, S.J. "The Service of Faith and the Promotion of Justice in American Jesuit Higher Education".


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