In the previous posting in this series, we looked at how social justice differs from other types of justice: where commutative and distributive justice look directly to individual goods, and indirectly to the common good, social justice looks directly to the common good, and indirectly to individual goods.
What does this mean? In essence, no more than charity is a substitute for justice, social justice is not a substitute for commutative and distributive justice. Rather, social justice enables these other forms of justice to operate properly.
Maybe we can think of it this way. A common distributist slogan is “Three acres and a cow.” The implication is that you don’t need anything else to live a decent life. Of course, the slogan (like all slogans) takes a great deal for granted. For example, there seems to be the assumption that the cow will live off the grass of three acres, and you will live off the cow.
Assuming that you can live exclusively on dairy products and you actually know how to milk a cow and make butter and cheese, and don’t feel the need for pasteurization or refrigeration, or proper sanitary housing for dairy cattle, or a market to get rid of any surplus, or clothes to wear, nobody ever seems to mention the one essential ingredient to getting a cow to give milk: a bull.
Now, bulls don’t give milk, obviously. They also tend to be a little . . . testy, let us say, and difficult to handle. Notional, perhaps. We’re not talking Ferdinand here, sitting under a cork tree and smelling the flowers. We’re looking at a ton or so of easily enraged pot roast with horns.
Nevertheless, every dairy operation of any size whatsoever, even a single cow, requires access to a bull. A cow won’t give milk unless it has been “freshened,” which is a polite way of saying a bull has done his thing and impregnated her, or some fortunate farmer has done so artificially with bull semen from B-Mart in the handy, no-waste six pack.
A good bull is worth its weight in gold — and its services aren’t cheap. Nor is it considered neighborly to “borrow” the neighbor’s bull for free. (It’s also a bit dangerous. And illegal.)
The point of this pastoral perambulation, however, is that, while a bull does not produce milk directly, it enables a cow to produce milk. Similarly, social justice does not provide for individual wants and needs, but makes it possible for individuals to provide for themselves through their own efforts.
People become virtuous — become more fully human (“virtue” signifies “human-ness”) — by carrying out virtuous acts and building up habits of doing good. People cannot be coerced into virtuous acts, of course, but must do them of their own free will. Social justice is concerned with arranging our social environment — our institutions — to make virtuous acts not only a possible choice, but the optimal choice. You cannot call it “social justice” if you force people to be virtuous, or are trying to make up for the lack or failure of individual virtue.
The Aristotelian-Thomist argument for social justice goes like this. Atheists and agnostics can simply “bleep” out the mention of God and assume that humanity is an essentially good thing that has the capacity to become better — or worse — for whatever reason. The argument is the same whether you start with God’s Nature, or with human nature. Non-theists simply get spotted a few points.
God created man in His own image and likeness. This is generally construed as meaning that each and every human being has the capacity to acquire and develop the same fullness of virtue that defines God as God — and thus human beings as human beings.
Paradoxically, human beings are required by their nature to strive for perfection, at the same time knowing that it can never be attained. This, incidentally, might be one way of understanding Heaven: an eternity of a constant struggle to grow ever closer to perfection that can never be reached.
Hell, on the other hand, might be the realization that, by your own choice, you have become all that you presumably can be. You have given up. There is no more struggle for something you can never attain. You face an eternity of boredom, which some might think the worst form of torment ever devised — and you inflict it on yourself of your own free will.
Whatever the reality or lack thereof of Heaven or Hell, however, it is important to note that “having the capacity to acquire and develop virtue” is not the same as “having virtue.” Only God has the fullness of all virtue, and He didn’t acquire it. God IS virtue, His Nature as “all virtue” being self-realized in His Intellect, i.e., His Nature, and His Thought are in perfect accord.
Given that God is all “good,” and human nature is a “reflection” of God’s Nature, we can apply human reason and discern that which is “good” by observing human nature. In general, as Aristotle said, “good” is that at which all things aim. If someone or something strives for that which is not good, then he or it has the wrong idea about good.
“Virtue” is the habit of doing good, just as “vice” is the habit of doing evil. Both vice and virtue imply free will. If you are not responsible for something, or do it only under compulsion or by accident, the act itself may be good or evil, but you are not being virtuous or vicious, respectively.
Human beings acquire and develop virtue (pursue happiness) and conform themselves more closely to their own nature (and thus God’s Nature) by exercising natural rights, primarily life, liberty, and property. Rights, of course, can only be exercised “against” others, so the mere existence of natural rights necessarily implies society, a political order — the pólis.
The pólis is composed of a vast network of institutions, some as permanent as humanity itself, others not so long, and still others so fleeting as to be almost ephemeral. All these institutions have one thing in common, however. They all share the job of providing the environment within which individuals acquire and develop virtue by exercising their rights in striving for the good and pursuing happiness.
In this way people become more fully human by conforming themselves more closely to human nature. This has an added attraction for deists who believe that man is made in God’s image and likeness: by conforming ourselves more closely to what is good and true in human nature, we automatically conform ourselves more closely to God’s Nature.
For Christians, there is even one more benefit. Jesus the Son is “king” under the “emperor” God the Father, but does not rule the world in the conventional human sense. Instead, sharing with God the Father the fullness of virtue (goodness/happiness), Jesus “rules” the world by offering the perfect example for the human political animal to emulate, and by being the embodiment of the natural law. In freely obeying the precepts of the natural law — the chief of which is “good is to be done, evil avoided” — we “obey” the rule of Christ the King, even if we are not Christian, or have never even heard of Jesus.
We’ve heard this before, in Posting II on “Saints as Models.” Jesus is the perfect embodied principle, while “saints” provide us with applications of the principle. In neither case, however, is anyone forced to comply, at least with respect to obedience to God.
The case is different when it comes to human law that applies the precepts of the natural law. Being a human construct and thus imperfect, it requires coercion to enforce, whether implicitly or explicitly.
The “rule” of Christ the King, however, must and can only be accepted and complied with voluntarily by adhering to the precepts of the natural law. All this, of course, is carried out within the institutional environment of the common good.
Institutions being human creations, albeit based on the absolute and eternal verities of God’s Nature, they are necessarily imperfect. Being imperfect, they require constant maintenance and repair to keep them in working order.
The problem is that, as social creations, most institutions are not amenable to maintenance and repair by individuals acting alone. As Pius XI explained, using the wage system as an example, “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.” (Divini Redemptoris, § 53.)
Thus, as Father William Ferree pointed out in Introduction to Social Justice (1948), problems that seem insoluble when approached as individuals, become solved easily once addressed socially in an organized manner.
That, however, is only if we conform our conduct to the precepts of the natural law, discerned by applying reason to human nature to determine right from wrong. In the next posting in this series we will start to examine what happened when a key individual, Msgr. John A. Ryan, violated the fundamental precepts of reason and of the natural law in order to gain an end.