THE Global Justice Movement Website

THE Global Justice Movement Website
This is the "Global Justice Movement" (dot org) we refer to in the title of this blog.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Political Animal, Part IX

In the previous posting in this series we saw that Aristotle and Aquinas both agreed and disagreed on their respective understandings of legal justice and how people participate in the common good. According to Aristotle, no one has direct access to the common good by means of an act of a virtue. According to Aquinas, no individual has direct access to the common good by means of an act of a virtue . . . but that the common good is directly accessible. How is this possible?

Unfortunately, Aquinas did not explain how the common good is both not directly accessible by any act, and directly accessible . . . but not by any individual act. (Remember this, for it is an important point: no individual as an individual can have direct access to the common good.) To this we need to add the general principle of philosophy that no one other than a person can carry out an act of a virtue. Further, no one can act directly on something that does not allow a particular act — and a general virtue is, by definition, a virtue that does not have a particular act.

The solution to the first of Aquinas's apparent self-contradictions becomes evident once we think about it. If you have something you call legal justice that you define as a general virtue with the common good as its indirect object, and then claim that legal justice alone looks directly to the common good, it is clear that you are using the same term for two different things. Obviously, then, Aquinas was telling us that there is a general virtue called legal justice that has the common good as its indirect object . . . and that there is a particular virtue, that he also confusingly called legal justice, that has the common good as its direct object. Logically, there are thus (according to Aquinas) two distinct types of legal justice, one general, and one particular.

General legal justice is just what Aristotle said it is: a general virtue without a directed (particular) act that has the common good as its indirect object. Particular legal justice, however, has the common good as its directed object — "legal justice alone looks directly to the common good" . . . and there Aquinas left us hanging. It necessarily follows from the fact that a virtue is a particular virtue that it has a directed act . . . but all we can tell from what Aquinas said following his declaration about particular legal justice is, although particular legal justice has a directed object, individuals as individuals cannot carry out a directed act of legal justice! (Again, this is a critical point to keep in mind: individuals as individuals cannot carry out directed acts of legal justice.)

The "act" of legal justice, whether general or particular, apparently remains the vague, indirect effect that Aristotle described. That is, the effect that individuals acquiring and developing the classic virtues has on the general welfare, not any particular, directed effect on the complex network of institutions that make up the concrete manifestation of the common good and give particular form to the social order.

For the next eight centuries or so philosophers and political scientists got around this difficulty by — ignoring it. Treatises on justice examined legal justice exclusively as a general virtue (and not very deeply, at that, as Ferree notes), and left it at that. The only way to affect the common good is, they concluded, indirectly, and then only by means of acts of other virtues that somehow improved the general welfare of the community. In the meantime, however, a theory was reemerging in Europe regarding the origin and transmission of political power — sovereignty.

For centuries the west had more or less based its politics on Roman theory. According to the Romans, the social order is divided into three discrete societies, domestic (the family), religious (the temple), and civil (the State). Sovereignty is a slightly different concept, or at least has different applications, in each of the three societies.

In the family, the Romans believed the gods vested all power in domestic matters in the head of the family, the pater familias. No one, not even the head of State or the chief priest, could interfere with the power of life and death that the pater familias exercised over the members of his familia. In theory, anyway. In practice, it wasn't too uncommon for a pater familias to be prosecuted for violating a family member's civil or even religious rights, such as poisoning your wife or introducing the worship of unauthorized gods into the family. Even a slave had the quasi-right to sue for his freedom if he thought he could prove he had been unjustly enslaved — and winning such a case was not as rare as we might think.

Religious society was similar. The gods vested the priest with the power to administer religious matters. With so many gods, however, and the fact that the Romans were always bringing in new ones as new nations joined the Empire, it was anybody's free choice which god or gods you worshipped, or even whether you worshipped at all. Again, that was the theory. In practice, many civil institutions required participation by religious authorities or religious sanction, including the games.

Foreign affairs, for example, were construed as relations between peoples under the protection of different gods, so diplomats at the highest level had to be priests. Also, the person of a diplomat or envoy was considered sacred, so harming a diplomat offended the god or gods involved. A witness could not give testimony in a court of law without calling a god — usually Apollo — to stand surety, and to punish the witness in the next life if the testimony was perjured. When the reigning Caesar was considered divine or at least semi-divine, soldiers burned incense to the emperor's "genius," symbolized by his bust, as a test of loyalty. Early Christians were considered dangerous atheists and traitors to the State for refusing to participate in these practices.

In civil society, however, the Romans believed all power resides in the people. The State receives its power as a grant from the people who make up the State. The Romans don't appear to have gone much further than that, but the principle is clear. The State only exists by the consent of the governed, and the selection of ruler is ultimately the people's choice — in theory. "Emperor" (Imperator) was not a civil office, but a military honor signifying "one worthy to command Romans in battle." The heads of State (there were always two) were officially the Consuls, in theory elected every year. How well this worked in practice, and how consistently it was applied is a different issue.

The bottom line in all this is that during the Middle Ages, any ruler, regardless of the specific form of government, was believed to rule ultimately only with the consent of those whom he or she ruled, albeit with the sanction of God, sometimes confusingly referred to as ruling by "divine right." With the intellectual revolution that resulted from the rediscovery of Aristotle in the 12th century and in response to the changing political situation, however, new theories began to evolve or be revived as philosophers and political scientists began to examine the matter in greater detail. That is what we will start to look at in the next posting in this series.