09/10/2013 12:44 pm ET Updated Nov 10, 2013

Put Social Justice Back in the Social Contract

I just started my dream job as faculty at the Boston College Graduate School of Social Work. One of the many reasons the job's a dream is that I get to teach future leaders about social justice. We desperately need problem-solving rooted in the principles of human dignity and "right relationships" today. And we need to teach people that using social justice in our policies should not be something special. It should be baseline.

Entire libraries have been written on social justice, much of it conflicting. Dead professors everywhere will roll over in their graves at my simple interpretation of what justice tells us is right. Still, here it goes.

Social justice says that we have inherent dignity as human beings. As we organize ourselves into communities and societies, we should do so in a way that preserves and allows expression of that dignity by everyone. That means doing our best to share resources and opportunities. It means building laws, policies, economies and relationships everyone wants to live with. As ethicist John Rawls put it (with much more sophistication than I do here): You ought to be able to die and come back as anybody in a given society and be OK with where you landed.

Clearly, that's not the case right now. Perhaps it never will be.

We can do better than we are, though. A corporate executive once said to me, "The poor will always be with us, but the same people shouldn't always be poor." Amen. Social justice calls us to use society's systems, policies and even budgets -- as well as our own time, talent and treasure -- to make that idea true as well as correct.

There was a time when most people understood that and agreed with it on some level. Today, we seem to have lost social justice as a shared principle in governing ourselves. Advocating for the collective good today can get you labeled a communist. It's not a communist idea. It's a just idea, and one well rooted in democratic principles. My state of Massachusetts, for example, is a commonwealth, founded expressly to provide for the collective good. Massachusetts too liberal for you? Virginia is a Commonwealth, too.

Coming down from the nose-bleed seats in the theory section of the stadium, let's look at what a social justice framework means on the ground. Last week, my local NPR station ran a story about Raleigh, N.C. Due to business and public safety concerns, Raleigh started arresting some church groups for using a downtown park on weekends to serve food to the homeless. This was one part of several steps Raleigh has taken to address homelessness. Another is the creation of an emergency shelter in the winter -- a mandatory shelter. Raleigh planned to arrest homeless people who don't use it.

This is not a question of, "Raleigh bad, homeless good." Public safety, the cleanliness and usability of public spaces, and concerns by local merchants about lost business are legitimate concerns. So are are the right to food, the right to use public space even if you're homeless, and the right not to sleep where someone else says you must. When these various rights come into conflict, I believe social justice tells us to try to favor the disenfranchised and marginalized.

Ideally, that would mean backtracking all the way to prevention. Yes, hunger has been around as long as there have been mouths to feed. Our current public policies, however, rarely start with, "Hunger is a fundamentally unjust condition in a place where there's enough food, so we better first make that right." We tend to start with, "People who aren't hungry are really scared they are going to be someday, so we better make sure that doesn't happen, and we better keep the ones who are hungry from confronting the rest of us with it too much."

If prevention fails (or, as usually is the case, we don't invest in prevention), then our solutions should start with preserving dignity. When it comes to homelessness, "We're offering congregant overnight sheltering for the winter and will arrest you if you don't use it," doesn't fit the bill. What would you say if your mayor told you where to sleep and then said you'd be arrested if you failed to comply? Why would someone without a home feel differently?

In the end, the people of Raleigh instinctively got both of these points. As the story noted, private individuals have stepped in to offer other locations for food distribution, and the town is backing off on arrests.

More to the point, Raleigh isn't alone. Not even close. We're all lost about how to handle society's problems. Social justice is a corner of the map. We need to dig it back out again and agree that it points us in the right direction.

That's what I'm telling my students now that I'm in my dream job.