As we’ve noted once or twice on this blog, we like to get questions from our readers. This makes it easy to write the next blog posting. The only thing we like better is being able to, er, “borrow” somebody else’s answer to a question on some aspect or point of the Just Third Way.
That’s why we were pleased to receive the following question following up on an earlier response we had given to a highly technical question that we won’t inflict on you . . . unless you really want to know about the determination and calculation of projected post tax rates of return on private sector enterprises versus state-owned companies in the Eurozone. . . .
No, we didn’t think so. Suffice to say that (at least according to a research paper prepared by the European Investment Bank), privately owned enterprises typically have rates of return on invested capital twice that of state-owned enterprises, and — according to the National Center for Employee Ownership in Oakland, California — private sector companies that are 100% owned by the workers, have participatory management and profit-sharing typically out-perform otherwise comparable companies by 150%. ’Nuff said.
Now, on to the new question. As our correspondent asked,
I would like to ask one more question, I am really struggling with this. What does it mean “to have full access to the opportunity and means to become virtuous”? It’s from the post, “Life, Charity, and Justice” on January 23, 2020. How can we know whether this condition is met or not? —
When someone has full access to the opportunity and means to become virtuous and fails — for whatever reason — only then does charity step in to make up where justice may have been lacking. Again, charity does not in this way invalidate or replace justice, but completes or fulfills justice.
That is an excellent question . . . which is not a way of dodging the question, but of introducing the answer. We have answered this question before, but not directly, so it bears repeating.
To begin, we have to know the meaning and purpose of life. Within an “Aristotelian” framework or philosophy such as the Just Third Way, the meaning and purpose of life is to become more fully human. This is not to say that there aren’t other answers to this question, but this is the Just Third Way blog, and we’re giving the natural law, Just Third Way answer.
. . . which actually raises another question. That’s only to be expected, as we haven’t yet answered the main question, which is, What does it mean to have full access to the opportunity and means to become virtuous? We have a number of other questions to answer before we can answer that.
And the next question is, What do you mean by “become more fully human”?
Now, keep in mind that this entire discussion is framed within the philosophy of Aristotle, especially as corrected and expanded by Aquinas. In Aristotelian-Thomism, all things and persons are fully what they are from the first moment of their existence.
The difference between things and persons is not in the fullness of their existence, but in the difference between the nature of a thing, and the nature of a person. Yes, we’re actually answering the main question, but we have to build up to it.
A thing has a determinate nature, that is, a thing is what it is. A tree is a tree just like every other tree. A rock is a rock the same as every other rock. You can have different kinds of trees and rocks, but they are still trees and rocks because they have the specific characteristics common to all other trees and rocks.
Persons, on the other hand, have determinable natures, that is, a person is not defined by what it is, but by what it has the capacity to become! The commonality shared by all persons of a specific type (e.g., human persons) — the good common to all persons of that class, or “common good” if you will — is not a specific set of characteristics, but the capacity to acquire and develop a broad range and degree of characteristics.
Thus, the difference between a thing and a person is that a thing is defined by its characteristics, while a person is defined by its capacity to acquire and develop characteristics.
But wait, there’s more! We’re talking about human persons here, not other natural persons such as angels or God, or artificial persons created by human beings such as political entities and business corporations.
|Persons and things are fundamentally different.|
A human person does not have all human characteristics from the moment of conception or even birth. It does, however, have the defining characteristic of what it means to be human, which is the only one that really matters: the innate capacity to acquire and develop human characteristics.
The job of each human person is therefore to acquire and develop human characteristics, thereby becoming more fully human. The complete package of human characteristics is perfect or perfected human nature. Since no mere human being is perfect (we’re not concerned here with a perfect God-man such as Jesus, since that is a matter of faith), we conclude necessarily that human persons are not perfect, but perfectible.
|Human persons must pursue virtue, it doesn't just happen.|
Human persons become more fully human or “more perfect” by conforming themselves more closely to perfected human nature. This is done by working to acquire and develop characteristics that, while they do not define human nature, conform to human nature. The more a human person conforms to human nature, the more fully human he or she thereby becomes.
Don’t worry, we’re getting to the answer. . . .
Conformity to human nature consists of acquiring and developing human-ness, or what in Latin is called “virtue.” Thus, the more you conform to your perfectible human nature, the more “virtuous” you become.
Another way of describing virtue or humanness is “the habit of doing good,” “good” in Aristotelian terms being that which conforms to nature. When Aristotle declared that “all things aim at the good,” he explained that what he meant was that all things tend to conform to their own nature. And if they don’t? It’s because they have a bad or inadequate idea of what good consists.
|Justice is the premier natural virtue.|
Traditionally, the virtues of human nature are temperance, fortitude, prudence, and (above all) justice. We’re not concerned here with the supernatural virtues of faith, hope, and charity. That’s another whole discussion.
How do human persons acquire and develop the natural virtues? By exercising their natural rights of life, liberty, and private property. (By the way, the right to be alive, to be free, and to be an owner are not the same as the rights OF life or how you live, OF liberty or what you can do within the limits of law, custom, and common sense, and OF private property or what you can own and how you can use it, but that, too, is another whole discussion.)
Now comes the hard part. Human persons are not mere individuals who can do what they want when they want without concern for themselves, other persons, or the physical and social environment within which we subsist. Nor are we faceless members of “humanity,” mere indistinguishable cogs in society.
|"Man is by nature a political animal."|
No, we are what Aristotle called “political animals.” Human persons by nature live in an organized institutional environment called the pólis, hence political. We are individuals with individual rights, but we can only exercise those rights within the constraints established by our “political environment,” within which other people are also exercising their rights, all presumably working to acquire and develop human-ness or virtue.
The problem is that sometimes the institutional environment is badly structured. That is, the institutions no longer do the job(s) for which they were designed, which is to help people acquire and develop virtue. We can tell when that is happening when there are people being treated unjustly as a matter of course, or there are problems that no one acting by him- or herself is able to correct. As a result, people are being prevented from becoming virtuous, or are even being encouraged to become vicious, or the opposite of virtuous.
When that happens, social justice demands that people get organized to correct those institutions that prevent people from becoming virtuous. In modern society, what seems to be the single biggest flaw that prevents people from becoming virtuous is lack of capital ownership. Capital ownership is so important to being able to participate in society and become virtuous that Aristotle declared (wrongly) that people who own nothing except their labor aren’t even able to become virtuous!
So, ordinarily the first demand of social justice in any society is to make it possible for people to become capital owners by opening up access to the means to become owners. Usually, that means access to money and credit to be able to purchase capital assets that pay for themselves over time out of their own future profits. This is not automatic, of course. People don’t just get handed money. New money can be created, but ONLY for new capital that will pay for itself and is adequately collateralized either with existing wealth or capital credit insurance.
When people do not qualify to use capital credit to become capital owners, it is essential that whatever is preventing them from becoming capital owners be corrected. Someone who lacks collateral can use capital credit insurance. Someone who can’t find good capital to purchase can be helped to locate good investments. Someone who is a bad manager can hire a professional. And so on.
And that is the answer to the question that began this discussion. When there are institutional or other barriers that prevent people from having access to what they need to become virtuous, social justice demands that people get organized to remove those barriers so that people have full access to the means to acquire and develop virtue.
Any (more) questions?