Today, the term “social justice” is invoked almost exclusively by those on the political left. Those on the right seldom even engage in these debates. This shouldn’t be the case, both because the term has roots in a set of principles often embraced by conservatives, and because the issues at stake are too important to ignore. Conservatives should not only reclaim social justice but should also allow its lessons to shape an agenda for the future.

The progressive approach generally begins with the view that much of society is flawed or expressly unjust. Power is unequally distributed. The economic order privileges the advantaged and exploits the vulnerable. This understanding is then coupled with strident rhetoric about the unfairness of social and governing arrangements and advocacy of policy prescriptions designed to bring about “equity.”

This approach can motivate supporters by describing conditions and solutions in blunt and pressing terms. But it can also prove divisive by weakening trust in institutions, traditions, and norms. By indicting so much of our economic and social life, this vision of social justice implicates the organizations, beliefs, practices, and relationships that many of us appreciate and rely on. It also separates individuals into groups—the haves and the have-nots, the privileged and the unprivileged—who then, understandably, see themselves as antagonists instead of partners in a joint enterprise.

When this kind of social-justice language is at its most zealous, it can make civility, cooperation, and accommodation seem like part of the problem. It can imply that the only way to solve our problems is through the “correct” vision of justice and swift, uncompromising, uniform interventions. As a result, in our public discourse, social justice is typically associated with an aggressively progressive political agenda led by a muscular Uncle Sam.

Start your day with Public Discourse

Sign up and get our daily essays sent straight to your inbox.

There is an alternative understanding of social justice that is especially well suited to helping the nation address many of today’s most troubling challenges. It’s time for conservatives to explain this approach and articulate an agenda for the future based on it.

Social Justice as a Virtue

This alternative definition isn’t built on a utopian vision for society, nor does it envision bulked-up governing authorities far away. Instead, it sees social justice as a virtue or set of habits in individual actors. It seeks to guide how we behave on our own and within our little platoons in society.

In Social Justice Isn’t What You Think It Is, Paul Adams and the late Michael Novak explained the term’s origins in philosophy and Catholic social teaching—how it developed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in response to industrialization and the centralization of overbearing government power. This older understanding of social justice was rooted in individual and community duties and authorities.

Adams and Novak argue that pairing “social” with the word “justice”—justice being a term exhaustively debated for millennia—signifies at least two important ideas: that justice requires an appreciation of the common good, and that there are social practices associated with realizing the common good. Those practices include forming voluntary associations, cooperating in local activities, and participating in civic affairs. A similar definition argues that social justice is the result of individuals and associations being able to obtain their due according to their nature and vocations.

Social Justice as a Guide for Domestic Policy

This gives those on the political right, in particular, a way to think about engaging with domestic policy issues. First, it encourages individuals to join with others in forming voluntary associations and other types of mediating institutions, so that citizens can solve common challenges together. This view doesn’t look first for large, impersonal, faraway public or private bodies to define and solve problems. Instead, it affirms that citizens can and should collaborate with their family members, friends, and neighbors to address the challenges of the day.

Second, it aims to achieve the common good first and foremost at the community level, not just at the national or international level. It directs collective efforts toward shared, local goals—not private interests. It respects individuals and allows societies, and the institutions on which they rely, to thrive.

This understanding of social justice, therefore, provides special direction to those engaged in public policy as it relates to schools, social services, housing, transportation, or any number of other issues. It encourages advocates, policymakers, and their staffs to think in terms of civil-society activity and local initiative. When setting out to tackle an issue, we can ask whether Washington and state capitals are deciding what’s most important, or whether communities are setting the priorities; whether government agencies are confronting problems directly, or whether the government is catalyzing non-governmental bodies to take the lead; whether state programs depend on uniform, centrally developed, technocratic initiatives, or whether America’s great pluralism should be encouraged to develop a vast array of solutions to problems.

Individual Agency, Social Challenges, and the Common Good

Undergirding all of this is a recognition of the importance of agency and differentiation—the ability of people and communities to be in charge and address challenges in myriad ways. To be clear, the “common good,” to which social justice is tethered, is not infinitely malleable. It can’t simply be redefined to suit one’s preferences. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church explains, the common good requires respect for individual rights, the social well-being and development of the group, and the stability and security that comes with peace. But the Catechism is less specific about how to realize all of this through the practice of governing, even noting that the diversity of governing regimes is morally acceptable, so long as these approaches serve the good of their communities.

So we can understand social justice as accommodating a range of priorities and strategies that emerge from individuals’ exercising their natural liberty. Indeed, experimentation by groups—healthy experimentation that adheres to sacrosanct principles, is informed by practical considerations, and is shaped by deliberation—will help us understand and pursue the common good. Social justice does not, therefore, dictate a single, big, fixed, state-mandated answer. It can, instead, foster an amalgam of micro-strategies.

Some social challenges—how to solve a town’s opioid-addiction crisis, how to help a region’s out-of-work men, how to care for a city’s foster kids—might not have uniform solutions, much less uniform solutions that can be managed and enforced by a central authority. On such matters, a humble understanding of social justice would expect that communities—using local traditions, practice wisdom, and public deliberation—could reach different but similarly valid conclusions. It would see, for instance, that the wise use of financial investments, governmental or philanthropic, should energize different approaches fashioned by community leaders—not just scaling strategies preferred by “experts.”

Seeking Subsidiarity and Solidarity

Two related notions bolster this understanding of social justice. One is subsidiarity, a principle that describes a way of preserving the dignity and authority of individuals and groups while ensuring that they take their responsibilities seriously. It protects the rights and powers of smaller groups—families, towns, community associations—from encroachment by larger entities. But it also requires that groups collaborate and support one another. It simultaneously decentralizes authority and organizes numerous communities to assist one another as they pursue overarching goals.

Another notion is solidarity: the expectation that, as bearers of a shared humanity, we seek the common good of all. Though power can be decentralized and differences in traditions and priorities are legitimate, solidarity keeps individuals from splintering into unfriendly factions. It asks that we care for one another, especially the most vulnerable. Social justice thus requires the practice of “social charity,” a firmness of purpose based on respect, cooperation, and tolerance.

Because both progressive and conservative approaches to social justice aim for fairness and the protection of individual dignity, especially for the most vulnerable, there is overlap between them. So there is room for common cause among those on the right and left. However, the origins and implications of the more conservative understanding seem to have been mostly forgotten or neglected. They ought to be elevated in our public discussions.

By way of conclusion, four points seem essential: to appreciate the value of individual agency and voluntary associations; to recognize the danger of investing too much authority in distant, powerful bodies; to protect the right of groups to take distinctive forms and pursue different activities, while also holding such groups responsible for meeting their obligations; finally, especially today, to commit to civic participation, temperance, and collaboration.

This alternative approach to social justice is exactly what’s needed in these difficult times. When people are frustrated and divided and political language is radioactive, we could use more modesty, trust, and accommodation. Such an approach could present a strategy for counteracting the alienation and polarization that pervades our overheated politics.