How could any decent person be opposed to social justice? Don't we all want to live in a just society? But as Barry Loberfeld points out,
The signature of modern leftist rhetoric is the deployment of terminology that simply cannot fail to command assent. As [George] Orwell himself recognized, even slavery could be sold if labeled "freedom." In this vein, who could ever conscientiously oppose the pursuit of "social justice," -- i.e., a just society?
One of my criticisms of Bill O'Reilly is that he will use the phrase 'social justice' without explaining what it means. He will say something like, 'Obama is for social justice.' The average person who hears that will think, 'Well, what's wrong with that?' This is where the lately lamented (here and here) anti-intellectualism of conservatives comes back to bite them. Too many conservatives fail to realize the importance of defining one's terms before launching into a debate. Of course, I am talking about ordinary conservative folk and their political and talk-show representatives; I am not talking about conservative intellectuals.
Define your terms! This is is such an obvious demand that I feel slightly embarrassed to make it; but given the low level of culture one must make it and make it again.
Walter Block, here, offers a characterization that Mr O'Reilly should be able to wrap his 'no-spin' head around:
First, this concept [social justice] may be defined substantively. Here, it is typically associated with left wing or socialist analyses, policies and prescriptions. For example, poverty is caused by unbridled capitalism; the solution is to heavily regulate markets, or ban them outright. Racism and sexism account for the relative plight of racial minorities and women; laws should be passed prohibiting their exercise. Greater reliance on government is required as the solution of all sorts of social problems. The planet is in great danger from environmental despoliation, due to an unjustified reliance on private property rights. Taxes are too low; they should be raised. Charity is an insult to the poor, who must obtain more revenues by right, not condescension. Diversity is the sine qua non of the fair society. Discrimination is one of the greatest evils to have ever beset mankind. Use of terminology such as "mankind" is sexist, and constitutes hate speech.
Now I refer you to an excellent First Things article by Michael Novak which you should carefully study. Excerpt:
From this line of reasoning it follows that “social justice” would have its natural end in a command economy in which individuals are told what to do, so that it would always be possible to identify those in charge and to hold them responsible. This notion presupposes that people are guided by specific external directions rather than internalized, personal rules of just conduct. It further implies that no individual should be held responsible for his relative position. To assert that he is responsible would be “blaming the victim.” It is the function of “social justice” to blame somebody else, to blame the system, to blame those who (mythically) “control” it. As Leszek Kolakowski wrote in his magisterial history of communism, the fundamental paradigm of Communist ideology is guaranteed to have wide appeal: you suffer; your suffering is caused by powerful others; these oppressors must be destroyed. We need to hold someone accountable, Hayek notes, even when we recognize that such a protest is absurd.
Novak seems to think that there is such a thing as social justice "rightly understood." I am not convinced that right-thinking people should use the term at all. The Left has destroyed it and now they own it. Anyway, what is wrong with plain old 'justice'? How could justice fail to be social? 'Social justice' as currently used carries a load of leftist baggage.
As I have said many times, if you are a conservative, don't talk like a (contemporary) liberal. Don't use question-begging phrases and epithets such as 'social justice,' 'Islamophobe,' and 'homophobe.' Never acquiesce in the Left's acts of linguistic vandalism. If you let them command the terms of the debate, you will lose. Insist on clarity of expression and definition of terms. Language matters.
'Social justice,' then is a term that our side ought to avoid except when criticizing it. Novak, however, thinks that the phrase has a legitimate use:
Social justice rightly understood is a specific habit of justice that is “social” in two senses. First, the skills it requires are those of inspiring, working with, and organizing others to accomplish together a work of justice. These are the elementary skills of civil society, through which free citizens exercise self–government by doing for themselves (that is, without turning to government) what needs to be done. Citizens who take part commonly explain their efforts as attempts to “give back” for all that they have received from the free society, or to meet the obligations of free citizens to think and act for themselves. The fact that this activity is carried out with others is one reason for designating it as a specific type of justice; it requires a broader range of social skills than do acts of individual justice.