Social Justice or Kingdom Righteousness? Part 1


What is Social Justice?

My failure to understand social justice begins when I do the logical thing of putting together the two words “social” and “justice” to mean “justice in society.” But when I listen to discussions on social justice I know something is amiss.  Social justice is not about justice in a society. It is a term for a certain view of society. So what does it mean?

Different people understand social justice differently. Yet we can identify certain fundamental concepts in social justice without too much debate.

The first pillar in social justice is the equality of outcome.  Communism stands for the equality of input, and expects the equality of outcome. This has failed miserably for reasons history has already documented. Social justice is more sophisticated in that when the goal is the equality of outcome, it advocates unequal input to arrive at equal outcome.  Thus, social justice is better positioned to reach the goal of equal outcome by advocating unequal input.

Nowhere is this more apparent than “Affirmative Action” in university admissions. A school may decide it has too many successful students of a particular race, and decides that the underrepresented race deserves a leg-up by lowering the admission criteria for the underrepresented race, and conversely, raise the admission criteria for the overrepresented race. By this means, a university is able to admit the exact racial percentages they choose.  Of course, this can be done for graduation too. If not enough students of a certain race is getting a passing grade, they can just lower the passing grade for the underperforming race. That way, the school will get the graduation percentage they want from the races.

The University of Malaysia openly uses race in its admission criteria, ostensibly to give more opportunities to one race. Some other schools do it surreptitiously. A case in point is Harvard University. Experience tells us Harvard sets a much higher bar of admittance for Asians (and there is an ongoing lawsuit to hold them accountable). The same goes with medical schools because they think Asian doctors are overrepresented. Cambridge University does the same thing. A Singapore student with top grades will be rejected in favor of a student from a third world country. If you are in the academic loop, these stories are all too familiar to you.

I will be remiss to omit mention that not all admission restrictions are motivated by social justice. For example, a country has the social responsibility to provide qualified health care professionals, and decide that 95% of the vacancies should go to locals who fill the health care needs of the society.  The action is not motivated by some perceived injustice among people groups, instead it is there to fill a real social need.

Another expression of equality of outcome can be found in the expression “equal work for equal pay.” I have two real life cases that help clarify my thinking.

Many years back, I applied for an employment visa at the US Embassy, and was surprised by the experience of a blind interviewer. It became clear to me that this blind man was extremely competent. It seems to me that this is a strong case to support “equal work for equal pay.”

In another instance, I knew of a handicapped law student, confidently asserting that she did not want charity and she was the equal to any other student. At the same time, friends had to carry her books for her, help her take lecture notes, and even accompany her to the toilet because she had a high risk of falls. When she graduates, she will want equal pay for equal work. She can never do equal work, so should she expect equal pay?

The current peeve of media journalists is the lament over “income inequality” referring to the gap between the rich and the poor of a country (e.g. the Gini index). Hong Kong and Singapore are considered some of the “worst” countries in terms of income gap/inequality. Social justice assumes injustice is involved when the income gap is wide, and justice is found where the gap is narrow. But it does not take a genius to figure out that it is better to be poor in Singapore which has a big income gap than to be poor in Bangladesh which has a narrow income gap. Actual prosperity is clearly more important than the income gap. This obsession with income gap is puzzling to me. Why does concern for income gap take over the concern for quality of life? It takes a better mind than mine to work this out.

The second pillar in social justice is the desire for diversity. This includes concepts related to multiculturalism, and inclusivity.  The argument is that diversity enriches a community or a nation, individuals have a right to maintain their cultural uniqueness, and society needs to create inclusive spaces for the flourishing of diversity, usually without regard to what that diversity may mean.

We can easily see the need for both diversity or homogeneity. Singapore embraced multiculturalism through our official languages, through deliberate governmental efforts in cross-cultural interactions, etc. At the same time, without the homogeneity of a common language of business through which we can communicate with the rest of the world (i.e. English), we will not be able to flourish.  Diversity in social justice is different.  It is commonly used to address the issue of white privilege in America.

White privilege is real. Rich, well-placed white parents open doors for their mediocre children who assume good jobs while higher performing non-whites end up with lower level jobs.  As a tool to rebalance white privilege, social justice advocates diversity as a test. While the goal of moving away from cronyism is good, using diversity as a measure or test of real social justice is foolish. The issue is not race but cronyism. Singapore and China have a tier of social-political elites. The children from this tier compete fiercely for good positions in the best government linked organizations, and for the most part, we can expect them to be at least fairly competent when they secure these positions. The cronyism is not race based, and no measure of diversity will reveal or address the systemic injustice in non-race based cronyism.

While Singapore ranks high in not having corruption as a society, Singapore ranks poorly for cronyism (The Economist, May 7, 2016). Social justice does right in arguing there is a privileged class with access to positions others do not have. But social justice does not do well by incorrectly making racial diversity the measure of justice in society.

I believe social justice uses diversity because their goal is equal outcome. If they advocate true meritocracy rather than diversity, the advocates in America fear what the result will look like. The racial representation they wish to see under the rubric of social justice will not materialize. Even though meritocracy is the obvious instrument of justice in society, it is ignored and race-based diversity is promoted in its place.

The third pillar of social justice is the creation of supportive environments to achieve equal outcome. For instance, ramps are required by law, so those using wheelchairs can access public buildings, restaurants, shops, etc.  The spaces closest to the entrance are reserved for the handicap so they gain easier access. More significant than these conveniences would be supportive environments for people to flourish. The poor may not be able to afford housing, buy food, pay for health care, or utilities, so these are provided for, or heavily subsidized, so they may have an environment that allows them to compete with others in the society. America has done this for decades, but only a small number used these environments to get out of their cycle of poverty. Many have observed that help is not helping the poor move out of poverty.

It is clear the Word of God calls the disciples of Jesus to open our heart and our purse to the poor and the needy. The difference between what Christians do and what social justice does is the execution. Social justice argues the government has the right to tax the rich and give to the poor. The biblical model is for voluntary generosity. There may indeed be a place for both.  We shall presently discuss this. 

 [To continue …]

Pastor Peter Eng


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