Thursday, June 7, 2012

Catholic Social Teaching and Economic Justice, V: The Task of Social Justice

As we saw in the previous posting, human beings acquire and develop virtue by exercising their rights and meeting their obligations. We can now take that a step further and observe that there must be a hierarchy of rights and duties. Some rights, for example, may be trivial to the point of meaninglessness within the larger context of the common good as a whole, such as the right to lead a club march in a St. Patrick's Day Parade. Other rights, however, are essential if we are to acquire and develop virtue, that is, become more fully human in a manner consistent with our own nature.

There are thus certain fundamental rights without which we cannot be said to participate fully in the common good. That is, without the effective exercise of these rights we either cannot acquire and develop virtue, or have great difficulty in doing so.

Because these rights help us to conform to our own nature and develop that nature more fully, we call them "natural rights." Among the most important of the natural rights are life, liberty (freedom of association/contract) and property. Without life, of course, the whole issue of acquiring and developing virtue becomes moot. Without liberty, there is no question of developing virtue, for the acquisition and development of virtue by its nature must be voluntary, that is, free. Without property, we do not have the right to receive the fruits of our labor or our capital, thereby supporting our lives and vesting us with the power to exercise liberty.

By "property," we do not mean the thing owned, but the natural right each person has to be an owner, and the socially determined bundle of rights that define how an owner may use what he or she owns within a specific context. Typically, the bundle of rights that accompany the right to be an owner in the first place prohibit the owner from harming him- or herself, other individuals or groups, or the common good as a whole.

This brings us back to the common good. We have already defined the common good as the capacity that each human being has to acquire and develop virtue, and thereby become fully human. We acquire and develop virtue by exercising rights and meeting obligations.

It follows, then, that the common good must somehow manifest itself in the social order, or there is no way in which human beings as political animals can acquire and develop virtue. We can therefore take the general definition that we have developed of the common good — the capacity to acquire and develop virtue — and "particularize" it by noting that the common good manifests itself in the social order as the network of institutions (such as laws, organizations, customs, traditions, and so on), within which human beings acquire and develop virtue by exercising their rights and meeting their obligations.

The problem, of course, is that just as each human being has different degrees of different types of virtue because of a failure to develop his or her natural capacity to its fullest, every society has institutions that might not assist people adequately to acquire and develop virtue. In some cases, our institutions might actually prevent people from being virtuous except through heroic effort — which, while it may be noble and consistent with the highest aspirations of humanity, is hardly the way to run a society. We must be ready at all times to exercise such heroic effort, but to require it as a matter of course simply to be able to act in a manner consistent with nature is counterproductive. It should not require an epic quest merely to have enough to eat or to be treated fairly by others.

When our institutions are flawed to the point that they inhibit or prevent us from acquiring and developing virtue, we must take steps to correct or repair our institutions so that we are once again able to exercise our rights, and thereby acquire and develop virtue. Social justice, as the particular virtue directed at the common good, governs this activity. When our institutions are in need of repair, our task is to organize, study the situation to decide which principles are being violated, and then act in an effective manner to bring about the desired restructuring so that the institutions of the common good once again function to the optimal benefit of every member of society.

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