Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Catholic Social Teaching and Economic Justice, IV: The Common Good

In yesterday's posting we pointed out that, contrary to explicit papal statements, there are ways in which non-owning workers can become capital owners other than by exercising industry and frugality. Does this mean that the pope is a liar or a fool?

Hardly. It merely highlights the fact that we need to exercise a little common sense when reading the encyclicals, and to realize when the popes are speaking infallibly as pope, and when they are speaking as fallible human beings, and perhaps not choosing the best words so that others may accurately understand their meaning. The popes may even be ignorant of principles of economics and finance that would be more effective in applying the principles of Catholic social doctrine — social justice — that they have discerned as infallibly true.

What, however, are these principles?

To answer that, we must define social justice. Social justice is the particular virtue directed to the common good. That, while relatively simple, needs a lot of explanation.

First, we need to define "common good." The common good is that good that is common to every member of the human race. Put another way, the common good is that which defines us a human beings — our "substantial nature," as the philosophers might say. If something does not have this common good, and have it in its entirety, then it is not human. It might be more than human, other than human, or less than human, but it is not human — by definition.

This means that the common good cannot be the aggregate of individual goods possessed by various members of the human race. It cannot be material goods, for example, for people can and do own such things and can legitimately prevent others from enjoying what they themselves possess, which is the essence of private property. Remember — the common good must be common, it cannot be individual, and each member of the human race must possess it in its entirety.

Even under absolutely pure communism, in which everybody presumably owns everything, material goods cannot constitute the common good. I cannot possess the food you eat in its entirety at the same time that you eat it, any more than you can possess what I eat in its entirety at the same time that I eat it. The common good, then, is to that extent a paradox: it is evidently utterly indivisible at the same time that everyone can possess it completely.

Let us consider for a moment that the common good might be possession of virtue — literally "human-ness." This is only for a moment, though. We soon realize not only that no mere human being possesses the fullness of virtue, each human being possesses different degrees of different virtues.

Yet there must be some connection of the common good to virtue, for virtue — human-ness — is, obviously, a characteristic of humanity. A human being without human-ness is a contradiction in terms. Still, there can be human beings without virtue, for newborns, while they are fully human and thus persons, are in a state of innocence and do not possess virtue.

We conclude, then, that it is not virtue per se that defines humanity as human, but the capacity to acquire and develop virtue. Actual being and potential being are equally stages of being. That being the case, a human being who is potentially virtuous, and a human being who is actually virtuous are both fully and equally human beings, regardless of the degree and type of virtue they have acquired and developed — or the lack thereof. We conclude that the common good of all humanity is the capacity to acquire and develop virtue.

That raises another issue. Every member of the human race may be as fully human, and human in the same way as every other human, and thus by nature have the same capacity to acquire and develop virtue, but that doesn't tell us how human beings acquire and develop virtue, that is, act consistently with their own nature.

Man, as Aristotle pointed out, is by nature a political animal. That being the case, we as individuals act in accordance with our own nature and acquire and develop virtue within a social context by acting consciously of our own volition.

Acquiring and developing virtue is an act. In order to act, we must have the ability to act or "do." That is, we must have power, defined as "the ability for doing."

Power, however, does not mean being able to act any way we choose without regard for our own good or that of others. Rather, power properly used must be circumscribed within specific limits, beyond which it must not go if it is to do its job.

These limits we call rights and duties. A "right" is the power to do or not do something in relation to another. A "duty" is the obligation to do or not do something in relation to another.

Rights and duties are therefore the means by which human beings acquire and develop virtue within a social context, that is, among other people. By exercising our rights or meeting our obligations we develop the "habit of doing good," that is, we acquire and develop virtue — we participate in the common good.

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