In the last several years, this nation has seen the rise of what is termed the social justice movement. This movement seeks to advance the interests of certain minority groups that are considered to be treated unjustly in society. This injustice could be either cultural, economic, or political, and overcoming this injustice calls for breaking down barriers to opportunity, mobility, and participation in any aspect of society (i.e. employment, health care, voting, etc.). Acknowledging one’s privilege due to people’s past actions is a constant refrain. Many within the Church have jumped on the social justice bandwagon as well. Every ideology, however, has a philosophical foundation. In this series of articles, I wish to explore the philosophical foundations of the social justice movement.
Let’s begin by looking at the metaphysics of the social justice movement. One of the biggest social justice movements involves the LGBTQ community. This involves both homosexuality as well as the various trans-positions (i.e. transgender, trans-species, trans-racial, etc.). These positions all reject the traditional and biological understandings of sex, gender, race, species, etc. The acceptance of these positions exemplifies a particular metaphysical position known as existentialism. Existentialism focuses on the individual as the locus of reality. While existentialism does not deny very basic scientific concepts, it does claim that people are not fully understood by these intellectual categories or even by moral ones. A further set of categories governed by the norm of authenticity is needed. As a result, existentialism protests the strict application of reason and science to understanding individuals.
Theslogan “existence precedes essence” provides the distinctive idea of existentialism: that no true account of what it means to be a person can be given since that account is decided in and through existing itself. Western philosophy has long accepted that essence (i.e. what a thing is) defines and controls existence (i.e. how a thing lives or ought to live). As a result, something that does not live or function according to its essence is considered irrational, defective, or even immoral. Existentialism believes that this philosophy applied to individuals is wrong. There is no objective human essence shared by all individuals controlling their existence.
Rather, it is how one lives that determines what one is. Existence is something that is made and not fixed by the individual’s type whether natural or cultural. A person defines himself and reality by providing meaning to himself and reality. As a result, existentialism puts heavy emphasis on the individual’s interpretation of lived experiences, his freedom to choose, and his responsibility over any other factors in defining the reality of the individual. These things, however, can lead a person to feel alienated from himself and his culture. Freedom and responsibility lead to the experience of the absurdity of life (i.e. a life detached from any direction, purpose, or meaning that is shaped solely by the individual). If an individual’s interpretations of reality do not fit his culture’s, the individual might feel shame or anger due to his perception of what others think of him (what existentialists call the Other and the Look). Often the individual is forced to reject an aspect of himself either because of his shame or because of cultural forces. Both lead to existential dread and despair. This alienation ultimately leads the individual to search for an authentic life where his perceptions are not rejected and meaning for his life is constructed.
Existentialism appears to be an outgrowth of metaphysical nominalism. This position claims that all objects are individual and unique. Objects do not share properties, such as being blue, being male,or being human. Such properties are merely words or “names” (i.e. nomen) created by people and applied to objects that merely appear similar but are actually different. There is, consequently, no objective human essence shared by all. Further, existentialism appears committed to an indirect realist approach to perception where experience of reality is via a constructed image in one’s mind derived from sense data. Reality, therefore, is primarily what one perceives it to be based on an interpretation of one’s lived experience.
It should be evident how existentialism is philosophically embedded in the social justice movement. Homosexuals and the trans-community all assert that what it means to be an individual or even a certain kind of organism is fluid and not reducible to any logical, scientific, or even religious definition. Such a reduction alienates individuals, denies an authentic life, and leads to despair. As a result, social justice is needed to end this alienation and allow these individuals full participation in society. In fact, any minority community can claim discrimination and oppression due to a perception of their lives which is unrecognized by others leading to alienation, unauthentic living, and despair that must be ended to create a meaningful life. In the end, reality is an interpretation to which one reacts in order to define and make oneself.
An obvious problem with this philosophical approach is that it leads to a subjective view of reality. Reality is whatever the individual interprets it to be. As a result, there are many different conceptions of reality with nothing to privilege one conception over another. All interpretations are equally valid. By embracing a subjective view of reality, however, the social justice movement undermines the legitimacy of its claims. If individuals do not perceive reality the same, then why accept someone’s claims regarding discrimination and oppression? Others might perceive reality differently and disagree (i.e. skepticism). Such a position would also undermine the acceptance of legitimate instances of discrimination and oppression.
Existentialism, however, is not bothered by this descent into subjectivity but rather embraces it. The social justice movement can avoid this problem simply by rejecting existentialism. This move, however, would require the rejection of certain minority worldviews and claims, which is unlikely with the social justice movement. Such a continued embrace of existentialism will further affect the philosophical realms of epistemology, morality, and the social-political which I have only briefly touched upon here and shall revisit in further articles.
Image taken from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qpXNRrtuo38.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_justice; Janet Flynn and Maxine Johnson, “What is Social Justice?” OUP Blog, March 25, 2017. https://blog.oup.com/2017/03/what-is-social-justice/, accessed May 15, 2019.
For more on the notion of “privilege,” see Joshua Rothman, “The Origins of ‘Privilege’,” The New Yorker, March 12, 2014, https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/the-origins-of-privilege, accessed May 15, 2019.
Steven Crowell, “Existentialism,” in TheStanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy(Winter 2017 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2017/entries/existentialism/, accessed May 15, 2019; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Existentialism, accessed May 15, 2019.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Direct_and_indirect_realism, accessed May 15, 2019; Jack Lyons, “Epistemological Problems of Perception”, in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2017 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2017/entries/perception-episprob/, accessed May 15, 2019. As a result, many existentialists utilize the philosophy of phenomenology: the study of the structures of experience and consciousness particularly intentionality. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phenomenology_(philosophy), accessed May 15, 2019; David Woodruff Smith, “Phenomenology,” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2018/entries/phenomenology/, accessed May 15, 2019. There is also a strong tie with the philosophy of idealism (reality is fundamentally or completely an immaterial and experiential mental construct) because of idealism’s emphasis on the mind and the subjectivity of reality. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Idealism, accessed May 22, 2019.
It should be noted that many in the LGBTQ community claim that they were born the way they are. Such a claim seems inconsistent with their worldview. If they were born the way they are, then they would be appealing to some sort of human essence that fixes their condition and legitimizes their behavior by taking away the individual’s control over what he is. This move, however, is not necessarily successful. LGBTQ behaviors are anomalous to human existence as exemplified throughout history. This fact suggests that such behaviors are neither natural nor legitimate. For example, many who suffer from mental disability are born that way and not in control of what they do. Their behavior, however, is anomalous to human existence and not considered natural or legitimate. We do not endorse or promote it. In fact, we often seek to limit, stifle, and even correct it where possible. Why not say the same of the LGBTQ community? Are those in the LGBTQ community defective in their human essence like the mentally disabled? As a result, existentialism with its rejection of a human essence is the better path for the LGBTQ community to take.