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On Natural Law and Justice

In his work Introduction to Moral Theology, Fr. Romanus Cessario O.P. remarked on certain misconceptions with respect to how the natural had grown in application and importance over time in the late 19th and early 20th centuries: arguing that the presentation of the natural law given in teaching manuals was anachronistic and unhelpful, and in extreme cases was at times influenced by Suarezian or casuist trends in moral theology.

The casuistry embedded in the Roman Catholic manual tradition greatly contributed to misinterpretations of natural law. Although Prummer follows Aquinas’ own material distinctions, this sort of presentation nonetheless reinforces the misconception that Catholic moral theology is given to consider every specific moral issue as if natural law alone supplied the ultimate determination. The manualist misconstrues of natural law also explain the tendency among some contemporary authors to think that natural law theory supplies the equivalent of a complete moral theory… Natural law is not the only resource needed for a complete theory of Christian morality. A realist moral theologian recognizes that natural law provides a starting point for discovering the concrete forms of moral goodness.[1]

Romanus Cessario, Introduction to Moral Theology

Natural Law and Justice

If a scholar of Aquinas were to look at what the Angelic Doctor wrote on the natural law in the Summa Theologiae, they would be surprised to find very little actually discussed by St. Thomas. Fewer than twenty questions in the Prima Secundæ are devoted to questions specifically concerning law and only one of them to the natural law. By contrast, what Aquinas had to say on the virtues, more specifically the virtue of justice, greatly eclipses what he wrote on law.  Questions 57-122 are all devoted to discussing the importance and concrete application of justice, and the entirety of the Secunda Secundæ discusses the virtues in general.

Aquinas, in discussing the natural law, outlines the precepts of the law in the Summa, arguing that the precepts of natural law are roughly equivalent to first principles in speculative sciences and demonstration. They provide us the starting point, as it were, for praxis and practical reasoning:

[T]he precepts of the natural law are to the practical reason, what the first principles of demonstrations are to the speculative reason; because both are self-evident principles… Since, however, good has the nature of an end, and evil, the nature of a contrary, hence it is that all those things to which man has a natural inclination, are naturally apprehended by reason as being good, and consequently as objects of pursuit, and their contraries as evil, and objects of avoidance. Wherefore according to the order of natural inclinations, is the order of the precepts of the natural law. Because in man there is first of all an inclination to good in accordance with the nature which he has in common with all substances: inasmuch as every substance seeks the preservation of its own being, according to its nature: and by reason of this inclination, whatever is a means of preserving human life, and of warding off its obstacles, belongs to the natural law. Secondly, there is in man an inclination to things that pertain to him more specially, according to that nature which he has in common with other animals: and in virtue of this inclination, those things are said to belong to the natural law, “which nature has taught to all animals” [Pandect. Just. I, tit. i], such as sexual intercourse, education of offspring and so forth. Thirdly, there is in man an inclination to good, according to the nature of his reason, which nature is proper to him: thus, man has a natural inclination to know the truth about God, and to live in society: and in this respect, whatever pertains to this inclination belongs to the natural law; for instance, to shun ignorance, to avoid offending those among whom one has to live, and other such things regarding the above inclination.[2]

In Summa Theologiae Ia-IIae qu. 94 art. 1

A problem one might face with Aquinas’ theory is that the natural law, or more specifically its precepts, do not determine their own application. A sentiment as universal as “striving towards living in a society and avoiding offense against those with whom one has to live” might be admirable, but it can hardly help determine for us the day-to-day demands of justice—especially living in an increasingly technocratic and hyper-communicative world. These principles may indeed be what ought to form the basis of our practical reasoning, but they are not principles which determine their own application. Aquinas is aware that this is the case, and in discussing justice as it pertains to the virtue of epieikeia (reasonable accommodation of circumstances in pursuit of equity), writes how justice is that with which laws are concerned, and principally deal.

When we were treating of laws, since human actions, with which laws are concerned, are composed of contingent singulars and are innumerable in their diversity, it was not possible to lay down rules of law that would apply to every single case. Legislators in framing laws attend to what commonly happens: although if the law be applied to certain cases, it will frustrate the equality of justice and be injurious to the common good, which the law has in view.[3]

In Summa Theologiae IIa-IIae qu. 120 art. 1

Relationality of Justice

Interestingly enough, Aquinas, in treating the virtue of justice, notes how it is more principally the virtue pertaining to the virtuous person as it especially stands in importance among the different virtues. Speaking of the subjective qualities of the soul, it simply is better on account of its residing in reason, but also because it is precisely through justice that we can be good towards other people, rather than being good in ourselves.

If we speak of legal justice, it is evident that it stands foremost among all the moral virtues, for as much as the common good transcends the individual good of one person. On this sense the Philosopher declares (Ethic. v, 1) that “the most excellent of the virtues would seem to be justice, and more glorious than either the evening or the morning star.” But, even if we speak of particular justice, it excels the other moral virtues for two reasons. The first reason may be taken from the subject, because justice is in the more excellent part of the soul, viz. the rational appetite or will, whereas the other moral virtues are in the sensitive appetite, whereunto appertain the passions which are the matter of the other moral virtues. The second reason is taken from the object, because the other virtues are commendable in respect of the sole good of the virtuous person himself, whereas justice is praiseworthy in respect of the virtuous person being well disposed towards another, so that justice is somewhat the good of another person, as stated in Ethic. v, 1. Hence the Philosopher says (Rhet. i, 9): “The greatest virtues must needs be those which are most profitable to other persons, because virtue is a faculty of doing good to others. For this reason, the greatest honors are accorded the brave and the just, since bravery is useful to others in warfare, and justice is useful to others both in warfare and in time of peace.”[4]

In Summa Theologiae IIa-IIae qu. 58 art. 12

Justice then seems to be just as important—if not even more so—than the precepts of the natural law, because it is only through justice that right relations between different members of a given society can obtain. Not only relations with family members, or friends, but lawgivers, employers, statesmen, and the like all require the application of justice.

Understanding Justice in our Contemporary Context

Putting aside justice as conventionally understood by Aquinas in his 13th century medieval context, what would he have to say with regards to the application of social media and communication-based technology that we have encountered and utilized in the 21st century? Is justice something that concerns us insofar as we employ social media? Do we have some sort of obligation towards justice in how we interact with each other socially online? My question then for us all for Wednesday is; what is the relationship between the natural law, or more specifically the precepts of the natural law and the virtue of justice, and what does it mean then to be justice today given the widespread use of social media and technology?

Philosophical Happy Hour

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Come join us for drinks (adult or otherwise) and a meaningful conversation. Open to the public! Held every Wednesday from 5:45–7:15pm ET.

[1] Cessario, R. (2001). Introduction to Moral Theology. : Catholic University of America Press. Pg. 104

[2] In Summa Theologiae Ia-IIae qu. 94 art. 1 Second and Revised Edition, 1920, Literally translated by Fathers of the English Dominican Province, Online Edition Copyright © 2017 by Kevin Knight https://www.newadvent.org/summa/2094.htm#article1

[3] In Summa Theologiae IIa-IIae qu. 120 art. 1 https://www.newadvent.org/summa/3120.htm

[4] In Summa Theologiae IIa-IIae qu. 58 art. 12  https://www.newadvent.org/summa/3058.htm#article12

On the End of War

“Only the dead have seen the end of war,” wrote George Santayana in 1922.  A century later his observation clearly remains poignant.  War has proven a commonplace ever since, with seldom a year passing without violent conflict.  Though we in the United States have lived fortunate enough never to have prolonged conflict upon our own soil, war has remained at least marginally present in our cultural conscience for decades.

But what makes a war just?  This is the question we seek to ask and answer in our Philosophical Happy Hour this week—a topic more sober and sobering than our usual fare.

To help orient our conversation, it is helpful to note that three temporal conditions have been customarily established to provide context for justification of war: jus ad bellum (before war), jus in bello (during the war) and jus post bellum (after the war).

Jus ad Bellum: Before the War

Why and when do we find war a necessity?  The ethical considerations prior to engaging in armed conflict ought to weigh heavily on any legitimate and authoritative leader: considerations such as whether one’s cause is just—for instance, self-defense, defense of innocent life, or attainment of conditions necessary to living—or that the war is not clearly susceptible to abuse by bad actors, that there is a reasonable probability of success, that no reasonable peaceful option remains, and that conditions of victory are clearly stipulated and recognized.

Jus in Bello: During the War

Once conflict has been enjoined, it remains necessary that the combatants employ restraint: proportionality ought to guide every action.  Even if the enemy might be wholly eliminated—purged from the face of the earth—this will seldom if ever be called for by just conditions of victory.  Similarly, non-combatants should not be targeted, nor should the violence exceed what proves necessary to win the conflict: acts such as rape, torture, or the use of weapons such as chemical gasses have no place in even the most acrimonious of wars.

This restraint protects not only the opposed soldiers and civilians, but also one’s own warriors: to de-humanize the enemy is to lose one’s own humanity.

Jus post Bellum: After the War

Most especially is this evident in the aftermath.  Having overcome the opposed, the victor might impose, and all too readily, certain punitive measures on the conquered.  Again, the measure here must be a certain proportionality aimed not merely at victory but at peace and at the reinstallation of equitable conditions.  Maintaining these principles will be much easier given both just antecedent cause and restraint in the war’s conduct.  Escalation of violence beyond proportion can end only in utter annihilation of even non-combatants or in a resentment that nourishes hatred.

Join the Conversation

Though we take up here a heavy topic, given current conditions in the world, it is important to note that—so long as the sun shines—we must strive ourselves to live a fulfilling human life.  Our conversation will not likely end violence in the world; but it may add some humanity to our understanding of war.

Philosophical Happy Hour

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Come join us for drinks (adult or otherwise) and a meaningful conversation. Open to the public! Held every Wednesday from 5:45–7:15pm ET.

On “Mental Health”

We, as a society, are not well. Reports on “mental health” in the United States of America, in particular, estimate at least 25% of adult Americans meet the criteria for one or another mental illness. This number has only been increasing in recent decades, despite the large number of professionals who have entered in the field in recent decades. Why?

It seems, indeed, that the prevalence of mental disturbance has risen unabated. The rates of suicide have risen, and continue to do so. Likewise, the number of persons using mood-altering medicine to alleviate the symptoms of these disturbances. But, while many therapists offer thoughtful assistance, and the use of some medications may be fruitful in controlling the worst of symptoms in the most desperate of times, it seems the problem continues unabated.

The facile etiology of this increasing crisis is to blame conditions of the world: the inescapable permeation of all life by the rapid pace of technologically-mediated culture. Television. The internet. The smartphone. There can be no doubt that a 24-hour news cycle undermined our well-being. Likewise, the frantic fractious flurry of Twitter—there is no place better to break your mind by a thousand conflicting opinions and false reports during a crisis. The culture produced by this technological inundation has resulted in a profound inability to dwell in reality.

But technology, though an instrument of our mental ailing, is exacerbative rather than originating. The ailment, in other words, is already there.

What then, truly, is the cause of the “mental health crisis”? This will be the topic of our Philosophical Happy Hour on 7 June 2023. Everyone is welcome to join. Questions we will explore include:

  • How are we to define “mental health”? A common definition, proposed by the World Health Organization, is “a state of mental well-being that enables people to cope with the stresses of life, realize their abilities, learn well and work well, and contribute to their community.” Is this a good definition? Why (not)?
  • Is the very concept suggested by the phrase “mental health” good or bad? Does it suggest, in our current culture, a kind of “mechanistic” approach to the psyche?
  • Does our technology condemn us to an ever-worsening mental condition?
  • What can we do?

We look forward to discussing these and other questions with you!

Philosophical Happy Hour

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Come join us for drinks (adult or otherwise) and a meaningful conversation. Open to the public! Held every Wednesday from 5:45–7:15pm ET.