Friday, August 7, 2015

The line from noblesse oblige to social justice to privilege theory

The Oxford English Dictionary offers this as the first appearance of noblesse oblige:

1837   F. A. Kemble Let. 1 Aug. in Rec. Later Life (1882) I. 86   To be sure, if ‘noblesse oblige’, royalty must do so still more.

That use has this definition: "Noble ancestry constrains one (to honourable behaviour); privilege entails responsibility. Also in extended use."

For "social justice", there's this:

1824   W. Thompson Inq. Princ. Distrib. Wealth iv. 314   The first principle of social justice, that ‘the sole object of all institutions and laws ought to be to promote the happiness of the whole of the community, or..that the happiness of the greater number should be always preferred to that of the lesser’.

But the social justice movement began later. From Social justice - Wikipedia: "The first modern usage of the specific term "social justice" is typically attributed to Catholic thinkers from the 1840s, including the Jesuit Luigi Taparelli in Civiltà Cattolica, based on the work of St. Thomas Aquinas. He argued that rival capitalist and socialist theories, based on subjective Cartesian thinking, undermined the unity of society present in Thomistic metaphysics as neither were sufficiently concerned with moral philosophy."

Taparelli saw the revolutions of 1848 coming, and he wanted a solution that would preserve the existing social order. His approach was essentially to endorse noblesse oblige: rich people should be nice to poor people by treating them with respect and indulging in philanthropy when they felt like it.

"Social justice" spread to other religions. The civil rights movement had little use for it—the term appears in King's theological writing, but I don't believe it shows up in his speeches. But it was a source of inspiration for Critical Race Theory by members of the black bourgeoisie in the 1970s and 1980s. I've periodically wondered why the civil rights movement's focus on equal rights was replaced by the identitarian focus on privilege. Like the earlier promoters of noblesse oblige and social justice, privilege theorists don't want to end privilege. They merely want a world in which the rest of us will be convinced their privilege is just.

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