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