As we saw in They never really get there, of course, but as a general rule, as Fulton Sheen was fond of saying, “Right is right if nobody does it, wrong is wrong if everybody does it.”, given ordinary circumstances, moral questions tend to get away from the gray shadings and drift into black and white.
The problem with general rules, however, is that particular circumstances tend to get in the way. When that happens, it is essential to remember that we derive the general from the particular, not the other way around. Thus, an actual human being takes precedence over the abstraction of the collective, and a particular act takes precedence over a general rule.
Circumstances necessarily change how general norms are applied in particular circumstances. Forgetting that and attempting to apply a rule without qualification in all circumstances leads either to anarchy and chaos or to the tyranny of a Dracos in which all infractions of all rules are punished with death.
The issue is made even more complex when we take into account the fact that human beings are neither mere individuals nor indistinguishable members of the collective. Human beings are what Aristotle called “political animals” — individuals who naturally live in consciously organized societies and an institutional environment.
This causes serious problems when those institutions are flawed, and individuals find it difficult and sometimes even impossible to do what is right, or even in some circumstances survive. As Pius XI summarized the problem by giving an example, “It happens all too frequently, however, under the salary system, that individual employers are helpless to ensure justice.” (Divini Redemptoris, § 53.)
In his pamphlet, As he said,, CESJ co-founder Father William J. Ferree, S.M., Ph.D. addressed this seemingly insoluble problem.
Third Characteristic: Nothing is Impossible
Another characteristic of Social Justice, which was already pointed out in Chapter Two, is that in Social Justice there is never any such thing as helplessness. No problem is ever too big or too complex, no field is ever too vast, for the methods of this Social Justice. Problems that were agonizing in the past and were simply dodged, even by serious and virtuous people, can now be solved with ease by any school child. Lest this statement seem too extreme, let us take an actual example of such an insoluble problem of the past.
A Common Problem
The following problem was proposed on a national radio hookup:
I know many businessmen, lawyers, physicians, who lament the trend to the unethical in the special worlds in which they operate. They tell me that the tide is running against them, that too many of their rivals have reduced business ethics and professional ethics to three principles: 1. Everybody is doing it; 2. If you don’t do it, someone else will; and 3. You can’t do business nowadays with old-fashioned principles. Especially in the metropolitan cities, they say, the degeneration is obvious. They blame this set of persons and that, but they all seem to agree that decline, if not actual decay, is upon us.
“It’s easy enough,” they add, “for you preachers to tell us to stand firm, to hew to the line, and all that. But we have families to support, homes to maintain, food and clothing to buy . . . . We must do what the others do or be sunk. The crowd is running all one way; we cannot forever buck the stream!”
This is a sincere and straightforward statement of a problem as common as any to be met at the present time. In fact, it is an understatement: to complete the picture we should add that the laws of our secularized society are usually in favor of the crowd which is running all one way! It is not too hard to see that this is identically the same problem which Pope Pius XI presented in a passage which we have quoted several times: “It happens all too frequently, under the salary system, that the individual employer is helpless to insure justice.”
The radio preacher [yes, it was Fulton Sheen] happened to be a rather pronounced individualist, and the best answer he could give to his own problem was the following: “Right is right if nobody does it. Wrong is wrong if everybody does it. What the businessman needs, and what the professional man needs is a new declaration of independence.”
Notice that the first part of this answer dodges the question. The businessman had said in effect, that he as an individual was helpless to insure justice. He knew the system was wrong, but he did not know how to buck it. The only information contained in the answer was that there is such a thing as right and wrong. If the businessman had not known that perfectly well before he stated his problem, he certainly would not have called his system wrong!
The second part of the reply is more to the point; but that “new declaration of independence” which sounds so nice in a speech, is precisely what the businessman meant by the last three words of his complaint: “We must do what the others do or be sunk.” This certainly is not much help!
It is difficult to see what other answers could have been given from an individualistic point of view. The speaker could of course have told the businessman to “use his own judgment,” or to “do the best he can,” but this once more is not much help; and the businessman is looking for help. The only other solution would be to tell the businessman that since he has to make a living, and has to pay his debts and meet his other obligations, he should go ahead with his business, since its injustice is something which he cannot help, and which is only indirectly willed. This may indeed offer the businessman a chance to save his individual soul while precariously balancing on a “good intention” in the midst of evil, but it certainly does nothing to remedy the evil.
The Right Answer
No other answer, except a frank admission that the problem is insoluble, could be given from an individualistic point of view. The answer which Pope Pius XI gave to his own statement of the same problem was not individualistic at all — it was social; namely, that the employer who found himself thus helpless to insure justice had a duty to organize, among the employers, institutions which would make the practice of justice possible. How this organization would be carried out we have seen in the simple example of social action above (the unjust community).
Once more notice how directly and clearly the Pope solved that problem which was absolutely insoluble to the radio speaker who had an individualistic philosophy. That is why individuals, at least from now on, will not be very bright. Not only that, but they will be downright wrong-failing against Social Justice.
Admittedly, Father Ferree was a “little” unfair to Sheen. In extenuation, Ferree was making a point and found it convenient to use a handy example that, taken out of context, illustrated that point very well. The fact is that Sheen was absolutely right in saying that “Right is right if nobody does it, wrong is wrong if everybody does it.” The point Sheen was making is that there are and will always be absolute standards of right and wrong, and circumstances cannot change the object morality of any wrong act. Ethics are not situational.
The point Ferree was making, however, is that the situation is not hopeless. The ethical businessman doesn’t have to face ruin for doing the right thing, or a stretch in Purgatory for doing what is legal but wrong. Most moral questions are far from black and white, and determining not merely what is right in a particular situation, but what is best as well as right can be complicated.
Thus, what Father Ferree referred to was the whole paragraph from Divini Redemptoris in which Pius XI gave the solution, not just the problem:
It happens all too frequently, however, under the salary system, that individual employers are helpless to ensure justice unless, with a view to its practice, they organize institutions the object of which is to prevent competition incompatible with fair treatment for the workers. Where this is true, it is the duty of contractors and employers to support and promote such necessary organizations as normal instruments enabling them to fulfill their obligations of justice. But the laborers too must be mindful of their duty to love and deal fairly with their employers, and persuade themselves that there is no better means of safeguarding their own interests. (Divini Redemptoris, § 53.)
In other words, and with all due respect to Fulton Sheen (who had most of the answer, just not enough of it — and, frankly, Sheen gave his radio talk before Divini Redemptoris was released . . . not even he knew the future!) the way to respond to and solve a social problem involving institutions is socially, by organizing and undertaking actions for the common good.
Yes, it is essential that people be virtuous as individuals, doing good and avoiding evil, but they must also organize and work on their institutions to ensure that the social environment is conducive to people being able to live virtuously — and that is what social justice is all about.