What Is Social Justice without Personal Virtue?

By Donald DeMarco

Social justice, personal virtue, the many faces of virtue, donald demarco
Photo Credit: Branislav Belko

The expression “social justice” has been particularly well marketed. Everyone, it seems, is a champion of social justice. Groups may disagree with each other on nearly every moral issue but, when it comes to social justice, they all stand up and salute.  

It is only too clear that social justice means different things to different people. One essential point that distinguishes the Catholic Church’s notion of social justice from its secular counterpart has to do with the concept of personal virtue. The Church’s great social encyclicals, from Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum to John Paul II’s Centesimus Annus, emphasize again and again that there can be no separation of social justice from personal virtue, as there can be no divorce between the sphere of social responsibility and that of personal responsibility.  

The secular world compartmentalizes the personal and the social, holding that what one does in his personal life—whether as a private citizen or as the president of a nation—has little or no relevance to what he does on a social level. The Church understands social justice as a continuity of the personal and the social, the secular world does not.  

“I am personally opposed, but cannot impose my private values on the public” is a catch phrase that appears only too often on the lips of a secular politician. The truth about anything, however, is not the kind of thing that literally imposes itself. The Second Vatican Council has put the matter this way: “The truth cannot impose itself except by virtue of its own truth, as it wins over the mind with both gentleness and power.”  

The Church maintains that, in order to have social justice, we must first have virtuous people. The secular world maintains that social justice does not require virtuous people, only good programs. For the Church, social justice is a personal virtue; for the secular world, it is a political accomplishment. The Church believes that good people make good social programs; the secular world believes that good social programs make good people. Concerning social justice, the Church and the secular world have very little in common.  

Philosophy professor Christina Sommers provides an illuminating as well as amusing example of the folly of waiting for good programs before one can be a good person. She relates an incident involving a colleague who adamantly held that social justice had nothing to do with personal virtue. The colleague said to her: “You are not going to have moral people until you have moral institutions. You will not have moral citizens until you have moral government.” She emphasized her point by berating Professor Sommers for wasting her time and even harming her students by promoting bourgeois morality and bourgeois virtues instead of getting them to do something about the oppression of women, corruption in big business, and the evil of multinational corporations.  

But a curious thing happened at the end of the semester. More than half of this colleague’s students cheated on their social justice take-home exams. “What are you going to do?” Professor Sommers asked her distraught associate. “I’d like to borrow a copy of that article you wrote on ethics without virtue,” she replied, with a self-mocking smile.  

There is no ethics without virtue any more than the combustion engine operates without fuel or sailboats are driven without wind. Without personal virtue there can be social reform through legislation, power, and coercion, but such impersonal and unvirtuous acts do not produce a condition of social justice in the truest sense of the term. There is no social justice without a civil society, and a civil society cannot exist without personal virtue. Getting good marks on a social justice examination by plagiarizing hardly makes the student a more ethical person. Consider an example illustrating an approach that is consistent with Church teaching.

On February 26, 1997, members of Christendom College in Front Royal, Virginia, raised $1,107.40 for a local pregnancy center by donating blood. In all, fifty-six people, representing faculty, staff, and student body, gave blood. The number of participants that day was particularly substantial for the relatively small, liberal arts college; one student had to wait four hours before he could finally make his contribution.  

There can be little doubt that this collective act of giving blood is an act of social justice. And a particularly instructive one as well, inasmuch as the unselfishness implied by giving blood, together with the additional significance of transferring blood from one person to another, beautifully illustrates how generously and profoundly people can participate in each other’s lives as they work together for the common good.

We must be both the benefactors and the agents of social justice. By severing personal virtue from social reform, we hope for the impossible: to reap the harvest of a crop that was never planted. 


Donald DeMarco is professor of philosophy at St. Jerome’s University in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, and a member of the American Bioethics Advisory Commission. He is the author of numerous articles and books, including The Many Faces of Virtue.