Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Social Justice, I: A Little Background

In yesterday’s posting we promised to start looking at the right idea of social justice.  This is not as easy as it might seem, because everybody and his brother “knows” what “social justice” is, although few people seem able to agree on a definition.  That being the case, here’s our understanding, and we’re sticking with it:

In the Beginning. . .
A philosophical detective story.
Father William Ferree, S.M., Ph.D., one of CESJ’s co-founders, began his pamphlet Introduction to Social Justice with “A Philosophical Detective Story.”  He related how Aristotle developed certain concepts like the common good, human nature, virtue, and so on, and then how Aquinas and Pius XI refined Aristotle’s ideas and switched terminology around.
Unfortunately, Father Ferree assumed that people knew proper terminology and what that terminology meant.  When he spoke of commutative justice, distributive justice, legal justice, and so on, he had precise, even scientific definitions in mind that did not take into account the shift from the lex ratio to the lex voluntas (from faith and reason, to faith or reason) that has resulted in today’s prevailing moral relativism.
Ferree took as a given that no sane person would knowingly violate the first principle of reason, the principle of contradiction/identity — even though acceptance of fundamental contradictions was standard, even construed as orthodoxy in many circles by the 1940s when Ferree did his doctoral thesis on the act of social justice. To correct this problem, we need a crash course in the basics that Ferree — and Pius XI — took for granted.
A Roller Coaster Ride through the Basics
First and foremost, the whole of moral philosophy is based on the dignity of the human person.  This involves almost exclusively the acquisition and development of virtue — habits of doing good.  The goal is the perfection of the human person by acquiring a fullness of all virtue, a task that, paradoxically, will never be completed.  “Good” is whatever directs or assists the human person in acquiring and developing virtue — that which is consistent with nature.
The cardinal virtues, Temperance, Patience, Fortitude, and Justice.
The classic “natural virtues” are prudence, temperance, fortitude and, above all, justice.  The classic “supernatural (‘above nature’) virtues” are faith, hope and, above all, charity.  Aristotle vaguely described the common good — the good that is common to all humanity by nature — as a “fullness of virtue.”
Aquinas got a little more specific about the common good.  He defined the common good in terms of something he called “the analogy of being.”  This means that every single human being has an analogously complete capacity to acquire and develop virtue.  All human beings are not identical clones, but “analogues” of each other in this respect.  The capacity to acquire and develop virtue is the one good common to every child, woman, and man; it is what defines us as human, and is thus “the common good.”
That, however, doesn’t help us much until we can identify the common good as it is applied to everyone.  In that sense, the common good is the institutional (social or political) environment within which each person acquires and develops virtue, i.e., becomes more fully human.
Defining the common good in this way means it is something definite and precise — “particular” in philosophical terminology.  Aristotle had left it vague and imprecise — “general” in philosophical terminology.
This means that, as far as Aristotle was concerned, there is no “particular” virtue that can be directed to the common good.  Something has to be “particular” before a “particular” virtue can act on it.
Aristotle: Legal justice is a general virtue.
Aristotle therefore declared that “legal justice” is a “general virtue.”  As a general virtue, legal justice can only have an indirect — not a direct — effect on the common good.  Also, as a general and not a particular virtue, legal justice has no specific “act” of its own.  Legal justice only affects the common good indirectly, through acts of commutative justice and distributive justice.  Most obviously this is through the State passing good laws and the citizens obeying them — which is why Aristotle called it legal justice, although all acts of individual virtue as a general rule indirectly benefit the whole of the common good.
Thus, in Aristotle’s opinion, the common good is not “directly accessible” by anyone.  “Common good” and “general welfare” are synonymous in Aristotle’s framework.
Demonstrating the power of definition for good as well as for evil, however, Aquinas gave the common good a definite and precise definition.  This made legal justice “particular” — at least in some respects.  There is always an aspect of “general welfare” in the common good.
Aquinas: Legal justice is also a particular virtue(!)
Aquinas, however, gave legal justice a particular character in a very subtle way.  At the end of the article on legal justice in his Summa Theologica he first reiterated Aristotle’s understanding, but then added another, new definition of legal justice.  He declared, “Legal justice alone looks directly to the common good” . . . meaning it is also a particular virtue!
That is not, however, what Aristotle said.  Consequently for the next 800 years or so philosophers seem to have glossed over it.  Nevertheless, defining legal justice as both a general virtue and a particular virtue has sweeping implications.
Not the least of these is that the common good becomes “directly accessible” — and in full — by every human being through the exercise of our natural rights of life, liberty, and property.  This correlates with Aquinas’s “analogy of being” by which the capacity to acquire and develop virtue is “complete” in every human being as well.  Since the purpose of life is to become more fully human by acquiring and developing virtue through the exercise of natural rights, each human being thus “possesses” the whole of the common good — not a discrete portion of it — and that in common with every other human being.
Nevertheless, it was not until the early 20th century that Pius XI clarified terminology, possibly in an effort to counter all the confusion about Catholic social teaching floating around, particularly the idea that it was just another name for what is effectively socialism.

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