Thomas Patrick Burke on ‘Traditional Justice vs. Social Justice’: A review by Stephane Kouassi

Professor Patrick Burke, founder of the Wynnewood institute, conducted the […]

Professor Patrick Burke, founder of the Wynnewood institute, conducted the very heterogenic audience during around two hours through an intensive and rich journey in the real meaning of Justice. He distinguishes between what he calls traditional justice and social justice, considered as euphemism of Justice. Traditional Justice is linked to different levels of Human action ranging from anthropology, sociology, history, Theology, to moral philosophy, law and politics. Professor Burke has mastered these areas.

The logical foundation of Burke´s argumentation is based on the difference that he makes between action and situation. An action can lead to or be causal to a situation. In that sense it is difficult to judge on the moral and ethical aspects of a situation and qualify it as injustice because only situation caused by actions resulting from the free will of an individual could be judged on their ethical content. Events, situations could due to this logic not be given any moral and ethical consideration. Consequently, Poverty, Natural catastrophes could be considered as injustice only if it is proven that they resulted from a rational thinking, willing and acting individual. The same Logic applies to equality and inequality in society, which are generally framed and analyzed under the scope of social justice in the purpose of attaining a general equality within a society. Inequality, especially economic inequality, is a situation observed among people, as a given. But problems appear when voluntary actions like Humanism and charity, which aim at tackling economic inequality, exceed the threshold of the voluntary act in gaining a coercive character. In that case all kind of abuses are observed.

With Burke, we discover Social justice as an abstract concept that experienced several meanings in History from a claim for economic equality to the interdiction of all kind of discrimination. Additionally, he sees a slight difference between Justice and fairness as the latter means treating people equally. Justice is when people are treated as they deserve or merit. In drawing from his theological background, Burke detects from the scriptures in the parable of workers of the first and the last hour some elements that could possibly justify unfairness. Treating someone unfair in giving a present to one but not to anothers is not necessarily injustice as long as there is not done harm to anybody. Indeed, unfairness cannot cause damage as far as no voluntary engagement or liability has been taken but to the unfairly treated person. Therefore, unfairness cannot be considered as a prosecutable offence.

Burke sees the danger of an insidious imposture of supporters of social justice in their tendency to use State institutions to impose social justice at the cost of traditional institutions as family, which they consider as a scene of injustice, thus this means to question the family as an institution. This tendency also led many governments into unsound economic and budget policies to satisfy what Burke calls an abstract concept, through expensive welfare programs with devastating economic consequences visible in many European nations. The debate traditional justice versus social justice as conducted by Burke reveals the ideological positioning between liberal traditions and Socialism.

Nevertheless, it appears necessary to dilute and translate some concepts more practically into policy and political debates. Traditional justice as presented by Burke despite its logical foundations should not shadow the necessity of balanced and inclusive policies. It implies a more social and just society, not in the sense of socialism but in the sense of reaching a more humane, virtuous and free society. Any refusal by liberals to join the debate on Justice in society would be understood as an attempt of throwing out the baby with the bathwater.


The views expressed on austriancenter.com are not necessarily those of the Austrian Economics Center.

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