In “Do We Agree?”, their final debate in 1927, Gilbert Keith Chesterton and George Bernard Shaw — immoderately moderated by Joseph Hilaire Pierre René Belloc (“I am here to sneer”) — once again presented the things on which they couldn’t agree.
Briefly, Chesterton took the position that what mattered was power: the power of the individual to live his or her own life as he or she saw fit within the constraints of natural law, i.e., the natural rights every person has to life, liberty, and private property. As Shaw declared, however, the only thing that matters is income, for that is the only thing that exists.
Yes, Shaw really said that, although it’s uncertain if he really meant “only thing.” It was probably a bit of Shavian hyperbole, but no less obscure for all of that. As a few newspapers would claim a few years later after Shaw’s laudatory remarks on Marxist communism on his return from the Soviet Union as the guest of Stalin, Shaw’s wit and intelligence might have been overrated.
The basic issue that never really got resolved — and was never actually addressed by either of the disputants or the (im)moderator — was the view of the human person and thus natural law. Is the natural law based on human nature, or on human opinion?
To explain, if the natural law is based on human nature, then something is right or wrong because it either conforms to human nature or contradicts it, respectively.
This is true whether or not you believe in a Creator. If you define a human being as that which has the capacity to acquire and develop virtue — “human-ness” — then obviously that which contradicts human nature is ipso facto not virtuous.
Just as obviously, no one can be completely objective about what constitutes human nature. We can, however, get a really good idea of human nature by observing what has generally been acknowledged as good in most times and places.
Within this framework we necessarily accept the idea of absolutes, even though we may never know those absolutes absolutely. Individual cases must always be judged individually, but in general it is possible for us to have a reasonably good idea of right and wrong. We also necessarily acknowledge that these ideas are based on absolutes, even though we may not know those absolutes in their fullness.
Further, if someone asserts a change in human nature and thus in understanding of what is right and wrong, it cannot be regarded as valid within a framework in which natural law is based on human nature. This is because asserting a change in human nature, or a different or new understanding of human nature that contradicts the previous understanding, it means either that the previous understanding was wrong, or the new understanding is wrong.
|Mortimer J. Adler|
That is, someone is asserting that what was once human is no longer human, or that what was not human is now human. Both of these are obvious contradictions, and thus nonsense. (In the Aristotelian framework, something can be true, false, or nonsense; there is not the strict either/or that some people assume.)
Basing the natural law on human opinion instead of human nature opens up a different can of worms — and explains why so many people today prefer opinion, which may be true, to knowledge, which is always true.
Yes, as Mortimer Adler explained in his book, Ten Philosophical Mistakes, what we believe to be knowledge and therefore necessarily true can in reality be false, and thus really opinion; human beings make mistakes. That is why it is so important that we learn to distinguish carefully between knowledge, which is proved, and opinion, which may not be subject to proof. Of course, once an opinion has been proved, it changes from opinion to knowledge.
But to the important point: to base one’s understanding of the natural law on faith or opinion is to take away its absolute nature, and relegate the whole concept to the realm of moral relativism. Notions of right or wrong necessarily become whatever the strongest individual or group decides is right or wrong — might makes right.
Thus, when someone asserts something as true without bothering to prove it, he or she is in reality confusing opinion with knowledge. That is why in most codes of law, someone is presumed innocent until proven guilty, and why so many faiths and philosophies regard calumny — asserting something as true about someone that has not been proved — as one of the most serious faults or sins. The Catholic Church, for example, regards calumny as tantamount to murder, a “sin that cries to heaven for vengeance” and something for which reparation must be made.
Now, what has this got to do with distributism versus corporatism? Well, everything.
It seems that some latter day distributists are of the opinion that “corporatism” — defined as “the control of a state or organization by large interest groups” — and distributism (defined as a policy of widely distributed private property with a preference for small, family-owned farms and businesses) are the same thing. There are a number of problems with that claim.
First off, human beings are real, actual things. They have an independent existence.
On the other hand, groups — large or small — are abstractions. Yes, abstractions (ideas) are real, too, but not in the same way as a human being or even a rock. An idea is completely dependent on the mind or minds that create it. Ideas have no existence apart from that; they cannot exist independently.
Thus, to say that corporatism, that vests power in abstractions, and distributism, that vests power in individual human beings, are the same thing is to state a contradiction, and therefore to be speaking nonsense.
Ironically, Plato’s philosophy vests ideas with an independent existence, and thus the status of absolutes, which (of course) are interpreted according to whoever has the most power. At the same time, Plato ridiculed the position of Kallikles the Sophist (possibly a made-up character in the dialogues) for asserting that “might makes right.” Then, despite his insistence on the independence of ideas as absolutes, Plato fell back on a concept of natural law based on human nature instead of his own opinion to refute Kallikles who was actually agreeing with Plato’s underlying assumption!
Then there is the problem of where rights reside. Is it in the human person by nature, or in an abstraction such as the local community, the State, or humanity as a whole?
If an abstraction has rights, where did it get them? Omitting God from the discussion (there are some very complex reasons why God cannot give rights directly to abstractions without being “not-God”, but we don’t need to bother with that for this discussion), how can something that human beings create in their own minds have rights that human beings do not have?
The logical answer is that they can’t.
Thus, to assert that distributism, which insists that human persons have the right to own by nature, and corporatism, which insists that an abstraction has rights by nature, can never be reconciled, much less equated. In order to do so, definitions of fundamental terms would have to be changed, meaning that private property is no longer private property, corporatism is no longer corporatism, distributism is no longer distributism . . . and human beings are no longer human. . . .