A Niebuhr In the Saddle

One last entry on social justice (and lessons from international relations), and then I think I will have it out of my system. Honest. I suppose at long last it is time to get to the heart of the matter, with apologies to Don Henley.

In The Twenty Years’ Crisis, E.H. Carr quotes Reinhold Niebuhr from a 1927 Atlantic Monthly article: “There is an increasing tendency among modern men to imagine themselves ethical because they have delegated their vices to larger and larger groups.”

My mind immediately flashed to a quote from a co-worker here at Belmont. The quote appeared in an article when he was hired, and I have tried in vain to find that article to be sure I correctly quoted him. Instead, I must repeat it to the best of my recollection: We spend too much time focusing on individual sin rather than the great systematic evils in the world.

Now, as a methodologist, my first reaction is to point out that this is nonsense.  There is no great systematic evil apart from a whole bunch of individual sinning. That is, great systematic evil is simply the aggregation of individual acts; it cannot exist apart from them. It is easy to talk about the Holocaust in the abstract, but it consisted of millions of concrete individual acts; had those individual sins not occurred, there would have been no Holocaust.

The only reason to point to the abstraction is to lessen that culpability. To look at a great systematic evil and come to terms with my individual contribution is frightening, uncomfortable; it means admitting to failure, to a debt. No one likes looking at their portrait of Dorian Gray. It is much more comfortable to point to the flaws in other people’s portraits, to ignore the beam in our eye in favor of the speck in someone else’s.

Yet the experience of the two Germanies after World War II points to the importance of looking that portrait full in the face. Western occupiers, especially the U.S., encouraged public discussion that led eventually to catharsis. It led to repentance, and an understanding of how to and why to fight it in the future. One sees the same principle in Truth and Reconciliation Committees in South Africa and Chile.

To Soviet occupiers, however, Nazi atrocities were something Hitler and his cronies and foisted upon the German people, and the Soviet Union had liberated them from that nightmare. Note that this leaves the massive and invasive state apparatus unchallenged—the problem was not the power of the state, but the people who controlled it. They were the criminals, it was they who sinned. But it also absolves the individual of responsibility in that great systematic evil. Those devils made me do it—I am no longer their co-conspirator, but their victim.

And that is the great attraction of social justice. It allows adherents to remove their focus from their own shortcomings, to feel better about themselves. And not just themselves—the system creates the evil, not other individuals. Faith becomes an outcome, not a process. Moreover, since the problem is abstract, the solutions to it can also be abstract. Not only may we omit the painful process of coming to know ourselves, but we can skip the long, hard work of getting personally involved. We can raise awareness. We can advocate.

We may also, then, substitute government action for individual involvement. In fact, we must; because we must address the entire system, we must use a tool of similar scope. We lose something important, however, when we lose the connection that direct personal involvement brings. As Tocqueville points out, encouraging that connection to our fellow man is vital to the continued success of democracy. Increasing equality increasingly alienates us from each other, and abstract interaction through government—the one not knowing whom they help, the other not knowing who helps them—cannot create the necessary fellow-feeling.

As a result, government fiat must replace personal relationships. We come to relate to each other solely through government. Bureaucracies administer welfare programs, courts must settle even the most trivial questions. Only the government can make you a better person, improve your life, solve your problems. Only the government can take care of you. Only government cares for you. Like a big brother.
But then, what is social justice if not progressive?