Prof. C. Wolfe
Moral and Political Philosophy
Moral and Political Philosophy
Aristotle’s Politics - different levels of community, from the family, through the tribe or clan, to the polis, which is distinctive because it is a self-sufficient community, ordered not just to mere life, but to the good life, which makes the development of the full range of human capacities possible.
I. The Common Good
The Thomistic understanding of the common good can be understood as a mean between two extremes:
-it is not understood as the sum of individual goods (as libertarians tend to think of it) - an individualistic conception of the common good
-nor is it a separately existing entity, which exists apart from the goods of the people who make up the community - a collectivistic conception of the common good
A. Does Civil Society Have a Common Good for Its Object?
(Yves Simon’s The Philosophy of Democratic Government):
-What are the distinguishing features of a society relative to a common good? Are they found in civil society?
-The features are:
1 - some transitive actions are traceable, not to any particular individual, but to the community; this is “collective causality”
2 - the transitive actions of the community are prepared and intrinsically conditioned by immanent actions of knowledge and desire in which the members commune; this is “communion in immanent actions”
3 - communications in a community assume a new character, calculated to produce communions and to entertain them; these are “communion-causing communications”
-These 3 features ARE, in fact, present in civil society:
1 - collective causality includes:
A - defense against internal and external enemies
B - binding commitments with foreign societies (e.g., treaties)
C - overall status of
-ownership [laws regarding property, including the decision to allow or defend private property]
-education [laws regarding education, including the decision to allow private education and to recognize natural parental rights to direct education]
-temporal life in its relation to the spiritual [church-state relations]
2 - communion in immanent actions
-feelings like loyalty, patriotism, allegiance to one’s country
[but also intellectual and moral goods – which is especially possible, because, unlike material goods, they can be shared fully – whatever I have is not necessarily a diminution of what you might have
-digression on an example: Voegelin’s discussion, in his New Science of Politics, of Greek drama, and, in particular, Aeschylus’ The Suppliants; the “participation” of the Athenian citizens, as they are drawn into a drama that raises the question of what the demands of dike or justice are, is a sharing in an important intellectual and moral good]
-especially as expressed in ceremonies, e.g., parades, inaugurations, national funerals, flag-raising in schools
[-this includes the “ceremonial deism” that O’Connor discussed in the Pledge case]
3 - communion-causing communications
-teachings of civics in school
B. Current debate within natural law thought: is the common good “instrumental” or not?
-John Finnis has developed the argument (in articles and books) that the common good is limited and instrumental: “to secure the whole ensemble of material and other conditions, including forms of collaboration, that tend to favor, facilitate, and foster the realization by each individual in that community of his or her personal development” (NL, L, and M, p. 5)
[also?: “the sum of those conditions of social life which allow social groups and their individual members relatively thorough and ready access to their own fulfillment” (Gaudium et Spes, #26)]
-he has challenged traditional interpretations of Aquinas that assert the close congruence of Aquinas’ view of the purposes of govt with Aristotle’s
-he interprets Aquinas’ texts about the promotion of virtue by govt in light of a notion of the “public good” that confines this virtue to matters affecting the public
-so, for example, he seems to suggest that private acts of sodomy are not appropriately prohibited by law – though this does not mean that acts harmful to the public good (e.g., gay marriage) cannot be prohibited
-Michael Pakaluk (in a Review of Metaphysics article in 2000) criticizes Finnis, arguing that he misinterprets Aquinas, and that the promotion of virtue broadly-conceived is indeed an important purpose of govt according to Thomas
II. Political Authority: Is Political Authority Natural?
(again, drawing on Yves Simon’s Philosophy of Democratic Government, chap. 1)
-the problematic: Madison’s quote in the Federalist Papers: if men were angels, no need for govt
-deficiency theory of govt and political authority: authority is “substitutional” - as in parent over child
1- aims at the good of the governed
2-made necessary by a deficiency
3-is pedagogical and aims at its own disappearance
-but does authority have essential functions, not rooted in deficiencies? To answer this question: imagine a society made exclusively of intelligent and virtuous persons; is govt necessary in this situation [e.g., in the Garden of Eden]?
A. First argument (regarding choice of means):
1 - communities require unity of action
2 - unity of action depends on unity of judgment, which is secured either by unanimity or authority
3 - in practical affairs, truth is a relation of conformity between a judgment or a proposition and the requirements of an honest will (“right desire” Nich Eth 1139a21), which is possessed as “affective knowledge,” not by rational demonstration. It is therefore not a judgment which admits of rational communication (that is, which cannot necessitate the assent of the minds). Unanimity cannot, therefore, be brought about by demonstration.
4 - when the means to the common good is uniquely determined (i.e., when it is the only means), then affective community supplies an essential basis for unanimity (e.g., when a country is invaded, then any nation which is not already disintegrated can approximate unanimity with regard to the only means to preserve itself, i.e., war or defense.
5 - when there is a plurality of means to procure the common good, there is no foundation whatsoever for unanimity
6 - therefore the common good demands that the problem of unity of action be solved by way of authority
-Objection: the plurality of means arises from deficiency (as opposed to the good nature of things)
-Response: wealth, health, and strength cause independence: “plenitude causes choice, poverty leaves no choice;” authority to achieve unity of action, therefore, grows as deficiencies are made up, and therefore “originates not in the defects of men, but in the nature of society. It is an essential function.”
B. Second argument (regarding willing of the common good materially)
-Opposing argument: in a society of defective men, it is obvious that authority would have to direct vicious men to the common good; but in a virtuous regime, the virtue of each person guarantees that he intend the common good, and not by accident
-Problem with this argument: does the virtuous person will the whole common good, or just a fundamental aspect of it? If the latter, then authority may still have an essential function
-begins by examining some cases, e.g., the wife of a murderer who may be sentenced to death, or different teachers in a school (e.g., different disciplines desiring larger share of resources)
-series of propositions
1 - virtue implies love for the common good, a willingness to sacrifice one’s own advantage to its requirements
2 - the common good may be intended formally without being intended materially (this is related to Simon’s earlier observations “that particulars be properly defended by particular persons matters greatly for the common good itself”); e.g., the wife of a murderer ought to wish her husband to live, though the common good may demand capital punishment
3 - the virtue of a private person guarantees the intention of the common good formally considered, not materially considered (that is, the wife of the murderer is not less virtuous for wishing that her husband’s life by preserved)
4 - (the keystone of the theory): society would be harmed if everyone intended the common good materially as well as formally; in a material sense, particular persons and groups ought to intend particular goods. The root of this is metaphysical, transcending human deficiencies. The unity of a multitude is different from the unity of an individual [cf. Aristotle’s objections to Plato’s communism, Politics 1261a10]. The extinction of qualitative diversity impairs the metaphysical function of plenitude. There is no good of a multitude unless particular goods are intended by particular appetites, and taken care of by particular agents.
5 - the intention of the common good, materially considered, is the business of a public reason and a public willl – otherwise it might not be intended at all
6 - the intention of the common good by the public reason and will necessarily develops into a direction of society by the public reason and will toward the common good formally and materially considered; i.e., the intention of the common good, materially considered, demands the operation of authority
-If political authority and the common good are natural, what are the causes of the widespread belief that civil govt is an evil [even if a necessary evil]?
1 - the abuse of civil authority is frequent and frequently grave
2 - among the purposes of civil govt, the most obvious and consequently the best known is the repression of evildoers [i.e., the enforcement of criminal law], so the power of coercion is often treated as the defining feature of the state
3 - two accidents:
a - the failure to distinguish between the substitutional and essential functions of govt
b - the construing of the ends of civil society after the pattern of the dominion of servitude, in which the end of govt lies in the private advantage of the masters
4 - the illusion that the good will of each would suffice to guarantee the intention of the common good. In fact, the common good demands that particular persons should do full justice to the goodness of the particular good, and this makes some overall direction toward the common good necessary
III. What are the Grounds for Legitimate Political Authority?
1. Contrast Thomistic thought and modern liberalism (the variants of social contract thought in Hobbes, Locke, and Rawls);
-in social contract theory, popular consent seems to be both the ground of the legitimacy of authority and also the means by which the one who holds legitimate authority is determined (even short of democracy, in the choice of the form of govt)
-But it is necessary to distinguish the question of the ground of authority from the mechanism by which one decides who will exercise political authority; these are two separate questions
A. For Thomas, and Catholic Social Thought, the ground of political authority is God
-not by divine positive law, but rather by natural law: especially through human nature and what it requires
B. The actual determination of the ruler will depend on the form of government, and what is the best form of govt will vary with circumstances
-later Thomistic commentators inclined toward the “transmission theory,” according to which no one person or group has the natural right to rule, and therefore the right to determine who will exercise the power to rule is left with “the multitude”
IV. Various Forms of Government
-openness of classical political philosophy (and Catholic social thought) to various forms of govt, depending on concrete circumstances of a people
-But there has been movement toward the view that democratic govt is preferable, where conditions permit (e.g., much greater literacy and education)
-This is on what might be called Tocquevillean grounds: the business of government may be done less well, but the impact on the character of the citizenry – expanding their horizons and stimulating their initiative and capacities – makes the whole society better off
Question: why do rights not have a prominent place in classical political philosophy; has the contemporary turn toward rights talk been a good one?
-Rights are central to liberalism, but barely appear in classical natural law, which focuses on what is right by nature rather than on the rights we have by nature. Yet modern representatives of the natural law tradition, and in particular, the social teachings of the Catholic Church, have strongly embraced rights in the twentieth century.
-Some (e.g., the late Ernest Fortin and Robert Kraynak) argue that there are dangers in the adoption of rights-language, because it is imprudent to employ language whose origin is in philosophical systems (such as Hobbesian-Lockean natural rights theory or Kantianism) that are antithetical in so many respects to classical natural law theory and which may encourage some of the defects of those systems (such as individualism). Some truth in this.
-But such arguments do not come to grips with a key question: putting aside questions of prudence for the moment, let me simply ask whether it is true that people have “rights.” I think the answer that any proponent of classical natural law has to give is clearly “yes.” If it is wrong for A to hit B, then B can be said to have a right not to be hit by A. If it is a principle of justice that A ought to give x to B, then B can be said to have a right to x from A.
-There is a need to recognize a larger context for rights, but that does not mean that the idea of rights, and emphasis on them, is wrong.