Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Poverty no, inequality si


Philosopher Harry Frankfurt is famous for his expertise in detecting bullshit.  In a new book he sniffs out an especially noxious instance of the stuff: the idea that there is something immoral about economic inequality per se.  He summarizes some key points in an excerpt at Bloomberg View  and an op-ed at Forbes.

The basic idea is very simple and not really original (I’ve made it before myself, e.g. here) but cannot be restated too often given that so many people appear to lack a grasp of the obvious.  It is that equality as such is not a good thing and inequality as such is not a bad thing.  Suppose everyone was so poor that it was difficult for anyone even to secure basic needs like food, shelter, and clothing, but no one had any more than anyone else.  It would be ridiculous to say “Well, at least there’s a silver lining here for which we can be grateful: Everyone’s equal.”  Or suppose everyone had a standard of living at least as good as that of the average millionaire, but some were multi-billionaires.  It would be ridiculous to say “It is unjust that so many have to make do with mere millions while a few get to enjoy billions.”

When people complain about economic inequality, this can make sense from a moral point of view only if talk of inequality is really a proxy for something else.  Most obviously, it certainly makes sense to lament that some people live in poverty, and it makes sense to call on those who have wealth (and indeed in some cases and to some extent to require those who have wealth) to help those who live in poverty.  But the problem here is not that the poor have less than others.  The problem is that they have less than they need.  The problem, that is to say, is poverty, not inequality. 

Similarly, it makes sense to be concerned that some wealthy people have massively greater influence over the political process than other citizens do.  And of course it is their greater wealth that accounts for this greater influence.  But as Frankfurt says, such influence can be countered “by suitable legislative, regulatory and judicial oversight,” and even if it could not be, it is not the inequality as such that is the problem, but rather something contingently associated with it.

Moreover, it very definitely makes sense to say that there are certain moral hazards associated with being wealthy.  A rich man can, if he is not careful, become too absorbed in business and other worldly affairs, too interested in acquiring fine material possessions and insufficiently interested in higher things, and thereby can gain the world at the expense of his soul.  Thus did Christ teach that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.  But that is not because there is anything wrong with being rich per se, but rather because there is everything wrong with being complacent, materialistic, and this-worldly.   And there are many rich people who are none of these things.  More to the present point, the problem has nothing to do with inequality

And yet many people constantly harp on about inequality as such, and not just self-described socialists.  For example, liberal political philosopher John Rawls’s famous “difference principle” is not about mitigating poverty or undue political influence per se.  While the principle allows for certain inequalities, it also rules out others, not because they entail poverty or undue political influence, but rather simply because they are inequalities. 

Barack Obama certainly sounded like it is inequality as such that bothers him during a 2008 presidential candidates’ debate.  Questioner Charles Gibson noted cases where government tax revenues actually increased when capital gains tax rates went down, and decreased when the rates went up, and asked why, in that case, Obama would favor raising rates.  Obama answered:

I would look at raising the capital gains tax for purposes of fairness.

We saw an article today which showed that the top 50 hedge fund managers made $29 billion last year -- $29 billion for 50 individuals.  And part of what has happened is that those who are able to work the stock market and amass huge fortunes on capital gains are paying a lower tax rate than their secretaries.  That's not fair.

End quote.  Now, Obama didn’t challenge Gibson’s factual claims.  Even when Gibson pressed him later to justify his answer in light of the fact that dropping the rates might actually increase revenue, Obama simply said: “Well, that might happen, or it might not,” depending on circumstances.  But if it did happen, what would be “unfair” about the hedge fund managers making so much more than their secretaries -- given that, by hypothesis, the government would in that case have more tax money to spend on programs which might benefit the secretaries?  It is hard to see what Obama could say other than that he thinks the inequality in question is in itself unfair.

From a natural law point of view, we have a grave duty to help those who are in poverty.  But we are also obliged to recognize that inequality is simply part of the natural order of things.  The two things -- poverty and inequality -- simply have nothing essentially to do with one another.  Pope Leo XIII expressed this position eloquently in his 1878 encyclical on socialism, Quod Apostolici Muneris, which vigorously reaffirms the duty of the rich to aid the poor, but also vigorously condemns socialism, which he calls “evil,” “depraved” and a “plague.”  And one of the problems he has with it is precisely its egalitarianism:

[W]hile the socialists would destroy the “right” of property, alleging it to be a human invention altogether opposed to the inborn equality of man, and, claiming a community of goods, argue that poverty should not be peaceably endured, and that the property and privileges of the rich may be rightly invaded, the Church, with much greater wisdom and good sense, recognizes the inequality among men, who are born with different powers of body and mind, inequality in actual possession, also, and holds that the right of property and of ownership, which springs from nature itself, must not be touched and stands inviolate. (Emphasis added)

Similarly, in Rerum Novarum (1891), Leo argued that under socialism:

The door would be thrown open to envy, to mutual invective, and to discord; the sources of wealth themselves would run dry, for no one would have any interest in exerting his talents or his industry; and that ideal equality about which they entertain pleasant dreams would be in reality the leveling down of all to a like condition of misery and degradation

Socialists may in that intent do their utmost, but all striving against nature is in vain. There naturally exist among mankind manifold differences of the most important kind; people differ in capacity, skill, health, strength; and unequal fortune is a necessary result of unequal condition. Such unequality is far from being disadvantageous either to individuals or to the community. Social and public life can only be maintained by means of various kinds of capacity for business and the playing of many parts; and each man, as a rule, chooses the part which suits his own peculiar domestic condition…

But although all citizens, without exception, can and ought to contribute to that common good in which individuals share so advantageously to themselves, yet it should not be supposed that all can contribute in the like way and to the same extent. No matter what changes may occur in forms of government, there will ever be differences and inequalities of condition in the State. Society cannot exist or be conceived of without them

[N]either justice nor the common good allows any individual to seize upon that which belongs to another, or, under the futile and shallow pretext of equality, to lay violent hands on other people's possessions. (Emphasis added)

Note that the pope was writing at a time when the standard of living of the poor in the Western world was much worse than it is now.  And note that he says these things while also reminding us in Quod Apostolici Muneris that the Church:

 is constantly pressing on the rich that most grave precept to give what remains to the poor; and she holds over their heads the divine sentence that unless they succor the needy they will be repaid by eternal torments.

and affirming in Rerum Novarum that:

those whom fortune favors are warned that riches do not bring freedom from sorrow and are of no avail for eternal happiness, but rather are obstacles; that the rich should tremble at the threatenings of Jesus Christ -- threatenings so unwonted in the mouth of our Lord -- and that a most strict account must be given to the Supreme Judge for all we possess.

This insistence on sharply distinguishing concern for the poor from any concern for equality as such is just the sort of clear and careful thinking you’d expect from the man who also wrote Aeterni Patris and thereby revived the Scholastic tradition within Catholic intellectual life.

Anyway, it is good to see some clarity on this issue coming also from within mainstream contemporary academic philosophy.  Complaining about economic inequality is at best a gigantic time waster that can only promote muddleheaded thinking about poverty and other moral and political issues.  At worst, it is a mask for envy, which is evil.

73 comments:

Thursday said...

I loathe the idea of equality, so don't take this as a defense of it.

It seems that human beings on the whole have really strong tendency to want absolute equality, at least among everybody within their in-group. And this is absolutely all about comparative status, and not about poverty. The classic ethnographic study is Christorpher Boehm's Hierarchy in the Forest.

Gene Callahan said...

"Similarly, it makes sense to be concerned that some wealthy people have massively greater influence over the political process than other citizens do. And of course it is their greater wealth that accounts for this greater influence."

This is a point that is often lost on those who say "inequality per se is not a problem," and I am glad to see you bring it up.

BB said...

One other 'argument' against inequality is that the rich often become so by unjustly taking from the poor, either directly or indirectly. For example, the manager of some company finds that his company's income is exceeding his expenditure; he has no need to invest this excess. He could either raise his salary/give more to his shareholders (helping the already wealthy); or lower his prices (helping his customers, some of whom may be in poverty)/pay more salary to his workers (helping his less wealthy employees, some of whom may be in poverty)/pay more to his suppliers (ditto). Of course, they chose to do the first of these two options, which drives up inequality.

Of course, once again, the problem is not inequality per se, but rather that the decisions made by the executives were motivated by greed rather than by a desire to help the poor.

Sandymount said...

I agree with your reasoning but dont think you can rely on cherry picking a Pope's words that fit as opponents can readily pick another Pope's words to refute the first. The current Pope's tweet that 'Inequality is the root of social evil' either means your Pope is wrong or that as Pope's contradict each other their words are not useful to support an argument.

Anonymous said...

True you can assign monetary valuation to property.
True you can assign monetary valuation to services.
True you can assign monetary valuation to bonds, stocks and other monetary instruments.
True you can assign monetary valuation to goods.

But in the end money IS a SOCIAL system.

Just ask your dog who has no concept of monetary value.

Zeb said...

What if it were the case that inequality itself causes suffering? It is possible and there is some evidence that simply being aware of lower status/power/fortune than one's community members causes physiological discomfort and long term lower health outcomes. If that were proven to be the case, would we have moral motivation to eliminate inequality itself so long as doing so would not force the equality line to a point of poverty more harmful than the inequality by itself?

E.Seigner said...

"It is that equality as such is not a good thing and inequality as such is not a bad thing."

Hardly anyone tries to make a case for equality as such (one language, skin colour, body weight,...), unless you mean groupthink, Gleichschaltung, elimination of (all) difference, which is not a leftist monopoly, but totalitarian, pertaining to both left-wing and right-wing extremism.

In terms of socioeconomy, there are aspects of equality that are invariably good - because they ensure fairness, justice. For example, equal opportunities for all.

To talk about equality of wealth also misses the point. Same as with equal opportunities for all, socioeconomists pay attention to income inequality rather than inequality of wealth.

Socialist ideology as a guide for engineering the society is another topic. Not today.

Anonymous said...

If there were no inequality then there would be no SENSE of inequality, so human beings would have no incentives for hard work, inovation, reward, improvement etc.

However what the pope and Obama are always railing is the abject despair of poverty which does not get solved by creating Snuggies, Designer Jewelery, unfair insurance monopolies that drive people into bankruptcy, strange mortagages with fine print etc.

What the right wing does is deny that human beings are SOCIAL beings and subject to all type of tribal or social behavior that lead to collusion, corruption, exploitation and suppression of the uneducated etc.

Donald Trump's popularity stems from an educated middle class that finds itself between a perceived corrupt liberal class in the dem party that want to redistribute wealth and a corrupt billionaire class that control the other Repub candidates who send American jobs overseas and turn a blind eye toward illegal immigrants that get exploited for wealth.

Human social behavior is very observable and why I think politics in this country is a joke, to say the least.

You have to put Pope Leo's writings into the context of the late 19th and early 20th century Europe when Marx's ideas were just becoming popular and Europe had a very large poor class. Forward to 1958 and the alleged election of Pope Gregory in 1958 who rejected the papacy because he was from a wealthy family and feared harm to his extended family. In the 60's Pope Paul VI wrote an encyclical lighly rebuking capitalism and socialism when the Liberation Theology Movement was gaining ground in South America. Pope's like all politicians and social leaders need historical context.

On of the reasons why "Pope Reagan" promoted capitalism was because an educated American baby boomer generation coming of age in the 1980's discovered making money and capitalism was actually a lot of fun. Unlike their parents who worked in mainly direct labor or manufacturing jobs, the expanding global economy and even expanding national economy past the local level made fields like finance and marketing the future.

Robert Allen said...

'One of the reasons why "Pope Reagan" promoted capitalism was because an educated American baby boomer generation coming of age in the 1980's discovered making money and capitalism was actually a lot of fun. Unlike their parents who worked in mainly direct labor or manufacturing jobs, the expanding global economy and even expanding national economy past the local level made fields like finance and marketing the future.'

Dear Anonymous,

This is spot on except for one thing (but I know what you mean). The folks you are referring to wouldn't know a REAL education if it slapped them in their unctuous faces. They went to college to learn things like accounting, business administration, and the law. The Reagan acolytes I know, despite being Catholic, did everything in their intellectual power to fit into the Protestant cesspool that is the USA, the 'Puritan's empire.' (One of them, however, DID go all the way and actually apostatized, though she's fond of citing the loathsome Father Sirico in defense of her lifestyle.) The paradigm happens to be my Confirmation sponsor. (What can I say; I was in the 8th grade and impressed by his firm handshake and the pole vault record he still held at his HS.) He's made lots of $ negotiating corporate mergers that probably rendered many workers unemployed. And here's the kicker, he forbad his son, who's actually become a fine man, despite having a dolt for a father, to even TAKE a philosophy course at the University of Michigan, lest he become a n'er do well bookworm like me. No kidding.

RFGA, Ph.D.

p.s.

Dear Professor Fesser,

I just finished Scholastic Metaphysics the other day- what a book and just what I needed to get up to speed in Thomism! I'd berate you about not including a discussion of MY philosophical hero, St. Anselm, especially his view on individuation, like your Scotistic buddy over at The Smithy, but for the fact that you did such a brilliant job of laying out Thomism, which is what I bought the book for in the 1st place.

DNW said...

Even that sack of, Karl Marx, as we all know, and as everyone is by now tired of hearing me say, did not believe in equality as a default natural state perverted by the private ownership of productive capital. He believed instead, in redistribution, as one of his mos famous formulations plainly stated. "From each ..."

The feminist complaint directed at the supposed "tyranny of biology" amounts to much the same recognition, approached from another angle.

Of course, as well as a tacit inclusionist redistributionism being the default position among run-of-the-political-mill feminists, there is the radical feminist of the Shulamith Firestone variety which wishes to launch off into a literal Brave New World of test tube reproduction and a transhumanist "humanity".


We have reached a point where the Bonobo mentality is quite common. You are guilty not only of transgressions such as cheating, manipulating and shortchanging, but guilty of emotional indifference, lack of fellow feeling, of failure to share the pain.

The fact that the most ardent of these people are clearly mentally ill in some way, has of course nothing to do with it. Just ask them. Ask your nearest progressive friend if his borderline personality disorder, or his wife's neurotic depression, or his kid's sexual identity problems have anything to do with his social views.

He will assure you there is nothing of the sort at work.

Thursday said...

In terms of socioeconomy, there are aspects of equality that are invariably good - because they ensure fairness, justice. For example, equal opportunities for all.

Clearly you are unaware of the arguments against equal opportunity. It is not an unquestionable good.

Thursday said...

What if it were the case that inequality itself causes suffering? It is possible and there is some evidence that simply being aware of lower status/power/fortune than one's community members causes physiological discomfort and long term lower health outcomes. If that were proven to be the case, would we have moral motivation to eliminate inequality itself so long as doing so would not force the equality line to a point of poverty more harmful than the inequality by itself?

Yes, this is a more articulate statement of what I was getting at. People tend feel a strong discomfort with too much inequality within their group, and it can't just be put down to envy.

Again, this is coming from someone (myself) who thinks that the drive for inequality quickly becomes pernicious.

Mr. Green said...

Ed: But that is not because there is anything wrong with being rich per se, but rather because there is everything wrong with being complacent, materialistic, and this-worldly.

I’m not sure about putting it that way; it strikes my ear like saying, “There’s nothing wrong with laziness per se, as long as you get your work done.” Perhaps there are many rich people who aren’t any more complacent, materialistic, or worldly than average, but if they weren’t any of those things at all, then surely they would have given away their riches. (Or perhaps one can be rich and virtuous in a natural sense if not a Christian sense.)

Complaining about economic inequality is at best a gigantic time waster that can only promote muddleheaded thinking about poverty and other moral and political issues. At worst, it is a mask for envy, which is evil.

Well, there’s enough distance in between that is not covered either by poverty at one end or by envy at the other.


Thursday: It seems that human beings on the whole have really strong tendency to want absolute equality, at least among everybody within their in-group. And this is absolutely all about comparative status, and not about poverty.

Do they (apart from a few outliers), or is it just that average folks are rather thoughtless and inept at articulating what is, deeper down, a tendency to want merely moderate inequality? (And I assume we’re talking about financial inequality.) I don’t think most people object to the idea that someone who works a bit harder should earn a bit more money; but they quite reasonably object to someone’s working a bit harder and making inordinately more. But definitely the comparison relative to one’s neighbours is what’s relevant in that case.


Gene Callahan: This [concern over the wealthy’s political influence] is a point that is often lost on those who say "inequality per se is not a problem," and I am glad to see you bring it up.

True, and it illustrates an important aspect: in “American Dream”-terms, if the rich earned their wealth through industry and hard work, then are they not exactly the sort of people we want to shape policy? Conversely, if it’s not right for them to carry undue weight, then that suggests that their wealth is not (entirely, at least) a product of their worthiness.


Sandymount: I agree with your reasoning but dont think you can rely on cherry picking a Pope's words that fit as opponents can readily pick another Pope's words to refute the first.

People are really down on picking cherries these days. Cherries are tasty, and how are you supposed to eat them without picking them? But I digress. A contextless seven-word Internet bumper-sticker hardly carries the same weight and import as a formal encyclical, and anyone who trots one out should be gently reminded that when coming from a Pope, the context in which we must read it is necessarily what previous popes have written.


Zeb: What if it were the case that inequality itself causes suffering? It is possible and there is some evidence that simply being aware of lower status/power/fortune than one's community members causes physiological discomfort and long term lower health outcomes.

That’s still not strictly the mere fact of inequality itself, although it’s about as close as we’ll meaningfully get. And the proof is readily to hand from simple observation (scientific details as to how much and to what extent are not self-evident, but clearly there is such a thing as indignation at exceedingly large disparities in wealth).


Anonymous: If there were no inequality then there would be no SENSE of inequality, so human beings would have no incentives for hard work, innovation, reward, improvement etc.

Oh, there are other reasons for all those things; and material gain is not even necessarily a particularly good motivator in all cases. However, that’s not to say we should discount the practical importance of inequality in actually getting stuff done.

DNW said...

"And yet many people constantly harp on about inequality as such, and not just self-described socialists. For example, liberal political philosopher John Rawls’s famous “difference principle” is not about mitigating poverty or undue political influence per se. While the principle allows for certain inequalities, it also rules out others, not because they entail poverty or undue political influence, but rather simply because they are inequalities. "



Yes, well as we have discussed before, Rawls goes so far as to suggest that eventually in the society he envisions, some form of reproductive controls or eugenic program will become necessary if his scheme is to actually work as imagined.

But you know, that can be left for latter, a mere detail to sort out once the deal is closed.

So anyway, since we are all going to be equal now, does that mean that the Pope gets assigned my workout routine? Hey Holy Fadder ... you need a several more 10 lb plates on that bar. Yeah, 4 sets of 15 reps reverse curls, and the same for standard type @ 80 lbs. Military presses follow. 30 minutes on the treadmill too,

Then I'll do my part to be equal to you by having prosciutto, melon and red wine for lunch tomorrow.

I don't personally want to be equal to Mr. Green or Grodrigues since I maxed out at Calc.

Other than that I think we are all set for a real nice age of social justice. Just as long as there are no free-riders, don't you know. After all, we want equality, not effen masochism.

DNW said...

An admission:

Actually, I once, as a kid, did live an equal life of the kind most people could accept. Life in one of those new brick ranch, tract-house neighborhoods. All houses virtually the same except for the elevations and minor layout variations. Two parent families, 2 to 6 kids; the parents mostly under 40. Skilled, high school graduate working class at one "extreme", to junior management college grads on the other - and where the time-elapsed hadn't yet allowed the accumulation of significant earning power and economic distinctions. In other words the whole gamut from A to B.

It was in a way idyllic; for the neighborhood children certainly. And apparently for the adults as well, who years later often reminisced on living in a place where everyone was friendly, family oriented, starting out, and in thus the same boat. Equality was defined as: No unwelcome keeping up with the Joneses.

But no one was forced or shamed into it, or condemned to a life of frustrated ambitions. And after a decade or so, many chose, my family included, to move on.

In other words the cost of equality was not high.

So what is it again that you get out of being *forced* to tolerate cowardly, weak, and morally subversive males?

Thomas M. Cothran said...

What people often mean by wealth inequality in the present context is not so much the fact that some people are wealthier than others, but rather the shocking gap -- which can be measured in orders of magnitude -- between the wealthy and everyone else.

The language that people who are concerned by this is not so much equality and inequality as economic justice and natural right. And Aquinas provides far more radical resources to criticize than your average "spread the wealth" liberal:

"Hence whatever certain people have in superabundance is due, by natural law, to the purpose of succoring the poor. For this reason Ambrose [Loc. cit., 2, Objection 3] says, and his words are embodied in the Decretals (Dist. xlvii, can. Sicut ii): "It is the hungry man's bread that you withhold, the naked man's cloak that you store away, the money that you bury in the earth is the price of the poor man's ransom and freedom." Summa Theologica, II-II, Q 66 A 7.

Really, applying Aquinas' views to the modern global finance sector-driven economy results in a far more fundamental rejection of our current system than the people who use catchphrases about inequality would be willing to accept.

Shane Scott said...

In Russell Kirk's famous article on "Ten Conservative Principles." he listed as the fifth item "the principle of variety," which he described like this: "For the preservation of a healthy diversity in any civilization, there must survive orders and classes, differences in material condition, and many sorts of inequality. The only true forms of equality are equality at the Last Judgment and equality before a just court of law; all other attempts at levelling must lead, at best, to social stagnation. Society requires honest and able leadership; and if natural and institutional differences are destroyed, presently some tyrant or host of squalid oligarchs will create new forms of inequality."

Thursday said...

I don’t think most people object to the idea that someone who works a bit harder should earn a bit more money

You'd be surprised. I don't think that they'd outright say that those who work harder shouldn't get more; instead, they'd complain about how the other person has some sort of unfair advantage.

Anyway, read the Boehm book I referenced above for how this works in h-g societies.

Michael Brazier said...

Mr. Cothran, that article continues: "Since, however, there are many who are in need, while it is impossible for all to be succored by means of the same thing, each one is entrusted with the stewardship of his own things, so that out of them he may come to the aid of those who are in need. Nevertheless, if the need be so manifest and urgent, that it is evident that the present need must be remedied by whatever means be at hand (for instance when a person is in some imminent danger, and there is no other possible remedy), then it is lawful for a man to succor his own need by means of another's property, by taking it either openly or secretly: nor is this properly speaking theft or robbery."

The article doesn't discuss the modern economy at all - Q 78 "Of the Sin of Usury" is relevant to financial practices, but Q 66 is not. And Q 66 taken as a whole rejects taking great wealth from someone simply because he has a superabundance.

DNW said...

Thursday said...

" 'I don’t think most people object to the idea that someone who works a bit harder should earn a bit more money"

You'd be surprised. I don't think that they'd outright say that those who work harder shouldn't get more ...
September 23, 2015 at 2:16 PM "


That's correct. You don't have to go to ZNet and Parecon to find those who will assert that.

To quote myself quoting my third favorite pincushion and grave to piss on, John Rawls, (and only since Feser brought him up) in the past:

"In justice as fairness men agree to share one another's fate. ... they undertake to avail themselves of the accidents of nature and social circumstance only when doing so is for the common benefit. ...

[In considering objections] ... it is necessary to be clear about the notion of desert ...

Perhaps some will think that the person with greater natural endowments deserves those assets and the superior character that made their endowment possible.

... This view is surely incorrect. It seems to be one of the fixed points of our considered judgments that no one deserves his place in the distribution of native endowments ...

... over time a society is to take steps at least to preserve the general level of natural abilities and to prevent the diffusion of serious defects. ...

I mention this speculative matter and difficult matter to indicate once again the manner in which the difference principle is likely to transform problems of social justice. We might conjecture that in the long run, if there is an upper bound on ability, we would eventually reach a society with the greatest equal liberty the members of which enjoy the greatest equal talent. But I shall not pursue this thought further "




Tony said...

So many comments to make, so little space. Where to start. Well, here:

Prof, you done STOLE MY TITLE idea, dang it. Well almost, sort of. I have been writing an article on the Pope's encyclical, and it's title is similar to yours - but enough different that I can still use it. Well, I am going to anyway. Otherwise: well said, up and down, Ed. I also contributed to this thesis in this post a while back.

It seems that human beings on the whole have really strong tendency to want absolute equality, at least among everybody within their in-group. And this is absolutely all about comparative status, and not about poverty.

Thursday, I don't care if it is about poverty or comparative status, it sounds like envy to me. I would need a good reason not to say "them's that embrace envy aren't going to get my vote."

Gene quotes Ed in saying:

Similarly, it makes sense to be concerned that some wealthy people have massively greater influence over the political process than other citizens do. And of course it is their greater wealth that accounts for this greater influence.

And yet, what about the men who rise to "massively greater" political power than the rest of us, BUT NOT by wealth? Is that power, in their hands, an evil, because of the disparity? Why not? It is not solely because of the wealth of the wealthy that they have influence, (though it sure doesn't hurt). And it is not solely in virtue of wealth that that those who have massive influence have it. And it is inherently the case that those who rise to high position have great power: if having great power were an evil because of the disparity, then there should be no political power at all, indeed no positions of trust. No, massive wealth used ill is evil, massive wealth used well IS NOT, even when used to influence people to do the good, in the right way. Influence is evil only if it acts wrongly, otherwise your guardian angel would be a devil.

One other 'argument' against inequality is that the rich often become so by unjustly taking from the poor, either directly or indirectly. For example, the manager of some company finds that his company's income is exceeding his expenditure; he has no need to invest this excess.... Of course, they chose to do the first of these two options, which drives up inequality.

BB, you are conflating "the rich become so unjustly by taking from the poor" with "not choosing to GIVE their wealth to the poor". Sorry, that is just not not the SAME thing. If a rich man ought to give some of his money to this very poor man in front of him, and refuses out of greed to hold his wealth, that is evil. But the evil is not that of stealing from the poor. It is a different evil. What you are implying is that a man becomes rich _generally_ by taking from the poor, because he wouldn't have GOTTEN rich had he given some of that wealth to the poor before it became rich, darn it all. Sorry, doesn't work that way.

Tony said...

What if it were the case that inequality itself causes suffering? It is possible and there is some evidence that simply being aware of lower status/power/fortune than one's community members causes physiological discomfort and long term lower health outcomes. If that were proven to be the case, would we have moral motivation to eliminate inequality itself

Zeb, you are describing the evil of envy. A man feels ill over the good of another because he has evil in his heart. The proper way to eliminate this evil is not to do away with inequality, but to do away with the sin of envy. Then men will be happy over the good fortune of another.

Donald Trump's popularity stems from an educated middle class

No, only of the pseudo-educated class of politically illiterate knuckleheads. Which describes 50% of the rightwards half of the liberal 70% of the country, and also describes about 80% of the leftwards half of the liberal 70%.

He will assure you there is nothing of the sort at work.

DNW: spot on, man. Keep it going.

Perhaps there are many rich people who aren’t any more complacent, materialistic, or worldly than average, but if they weren’t any of those things at all, then surely they would have given away their riches.

Sorry, Mr. Green, but we will have to part ways here. A man can BE RICH and still be holy, if he is ALSO spending ordinate amounts of time and energy putting the wealth to good use. See: St. Katherine Drexel, who eventually gave up her wealth, but not all at once. She was in the process of using it to establish schools and such for Indians when she decided to become a nun. Since becoming a nun and taking a vow of poverty is ALWAYS a matter of the "counsels" and not a duty, she could licitly and morally have gone on with her work of founding and promoting charitable works, using that vast wealth to good purpose. And yes, eventually, she (or her family) would not have been vastly wealth - in time. Because of how God and nature allow the generation of wealth, sometimes a good man becomes wealthy even though he is and does only good. And there is no moral duty to dispense with it immediately, only to spend your time putting to good use wisely.

Tony said...

Nevertheless, if the need be so manifest and urgent, that it is evident that the present need must be remedied by whatever means be at hand (for instance when a person is in some imminent danger, and there is no other possible remedy), then it is lawful for a man to succor his own need by means of another's property, by taking it either openly or secretly: nor is this properly speaking theft or robbery."

Michael Brazier and Thomas Cothran, even in this quote St. Thomas fails to consider an aspect that usually is present in such situation. If a destitute man in dire need comes to the door, and I have surplus just waiting to be used, I should give it to him. And if, perchance, I am out and nobody is at home, he can just help himself. But, but, but...

What if the surplus is sitting on the kitchen table with a sign on it that says "to be taken to the homeless shelter for today's meal"? Does the man thus help himself to the food of the wealthy man, or to the food of the homeless?

What if the man comes to my door, destitute and in great dire need...and I know that he is a drug addict, that he squandered his inheritance on drugs and women, that if he takes my money now he will use only 1/4 of it on food, and the rest on drugs because to him drugs are more important than food. Have I no permission, nay, DUTY, to others, to consider whether my giving for THIS need (which need is real enough) is a lesser obligation than the need of some neighbors across town?

What if the "vast surplus" the rich man has is the extra grain Joseph has set aside in the great granaries of Egypt, in wait for the 7 years of famine? Was Joseph constantly faced with people who wanted more THIS year, to whom he had to say no? We are not sure - the story implies such bountiful harvests that there was enough and more - but there never was such extra that NOBODY went hungry, if only because some would not work. What about them?

What if the "surplus" that I have, the great vast wealth that I could dispose of, is simply that huge factory employing 1000 people in my fair city? If I sell it to realize the wealth that I supposedly "own", but the buyers close half the plant to "save money", am I doing the right thing so I can use that surplus for the poor - including the new poor out of their jobs? Isn't their productive work a greater good to them than the charity I could dole out for 2 or 3 years until I run dry?

The problem of St. Thomas's allocation of "surplus" to which the destitute man can just help himself in this article is that it fails to allow a condition in which much of the time vast surplus is not utterly and completely idle, not utterly and completely without a specified use, even if it is not an immediate and obvious use. The very possibility of a man saving (a la Pope Leo) to invest in better production in the future is his being able to say of his neighbor in need (at least SOME neighbors in need) "no, your need is not my obligation", or there could not possibly be the setting aside of some to meet a future goal. Or even setting aside next year's seed grain for next year's planting.

Tony said...

Really fundamentally here: God makes some tall, some short; some fast and some slow; some nimble and some immovable; some clever and some simple; some excel in managing others, some excel in singing, some excel in loving. God makes inequality, and these are inequalities we can neither change, nor have any business TRYING to change.

God makes part of the Earth wealthy in sand and oil, another part wealthy in grasses, another part wealthy in swamp life, another part wealthy as the sea. Nowise is it man's job to make all the earth a desert, or all all a grassland, nor all a sea, so that everyone has the same.

God makes monsoons to land in some places, droughts in others, blizzards in a third, and gentle sun and rain in a fourth. And in a later year he switches it around. Nature provides unequal goods throughout the world. Man can ATTEMPT to share out what they are wealthy in, but all such transport is, itself, work. And takes effort: in what wise is a man OWED BY NATURE an equal share of what they produced over there in that land, if he will not make the effort to go over to there and GET IT? And yet, in doing so he will miss the opportunity to go in the opposite direction to get something they are wealthy in back there. There is no such thing as absolute and complete equality of all material goods.

Nor would absolute and complete equality of material goods make men happy. Nancy has beautiful hair, Sally has a fantastic singing voice, and Jane has the most charming personality. The men who admire Sally for her excellences don't wish she was just like Nancy or Jane, and vice versa. When Jane gets the admiration and attention and gifts of a man she wishes to be with, Nancy is not being deprived of goods that belong EQUALLY to her. What nonsense, what blather.

Those who wish for perfect equality wish for God to have made not human beings, and not this Earth, but some fairy land where all can be equal OR different merely by wishing, and there is no price to pay for choosing to, say, spend your efforts on getting heavily muscular in terms of being a graceful dancer.

Inequality is not evil. To see in it per se evil is to be shrouded in sin.

Thursday said...

Zeb, you are describing the evil of envy.

Not necessarily. Egalitarians typically want to bring the people below them up to their level, not just bring the rich down. It's a longing for justice, albeit of a perverted kind, but (mostly) genuine nonetheless. The evil of egalitarianism isn't primarily about envy.

BB said...

Tony,

I put 'argument' in scare quotes for a reason. I'm not saying that what I presented is an 'argument' I support, merely an objection that I have frequently seen raised and which wasn't addressed in the original post but I felt ought to have been. As we both reflected, the problem with this 'argument' is that it substitutes 'inequality' for the real problem, which is greed and a lack of charity. Remove the greed and increase charity, and the rest of the injustice would go away.

hybridslinky said...

Hi Ed, i am an italian follower of your blog. There is a typo in the title of your post. In italian "sì" (meaning "yes") is written with a grave accent. "Si" (without accent) is a reflexive pronoun.

Thomas M. Cothran said...

Michael:

Q. 66 is highly relevant to our modern economy, at least insofar as the legitimacy of private property is relevant.

The second article of Q. 66 seriously qualifies the sense in which it is just to own private property. Property may be held privately with respect to its procurement and dispensation, but it should be held in common with respect to its use. The notion that, in the modern world, property could be administrated by private persons, but be commonly held with respect to its actual use is both highly relevant and farther than any on the left or the right would go.

And sed contra in the article I quoted from states that "in cases of need all things are common property, so that there would seem to be no sin in taking another's property, for need has made it common." We live in a world where tens of thousands of children die every day through lack of nutrition or medical care. Almost thirty percent of children in developing countries are underweight because they do not get enough to eat. What Aquinas is saying in that passage is that for people in that situation to take what they need from those who have more than they need is not stealing. That claim, if true, is relevant to hundreds of millions of people around the globe.

To say that Aquinas' article on usery is "relevant" to our current financial system is quite like saying that Jesus' comments on loving one's neighbour are relevant to burning your neighbor's house down with him inside. Aquinas' prohibition on usery is relevant in the sense that it proscribes one of the primary engines of our economy--charging interest on money lent.

Interestingly, in that article on usery, Aquinas specifically states that usery is immoral because it "evidently leads to inequality [inaequalitas] which is contrary to justice."

Robert Allen said...

Michael,

Mr. Cothran has you dead to rights in pointing up tenets of Aquinas' philosophy that place SERIOUS moral restraints upon the acquisition and holding of wealth, measures that are violated every day by Capitalists/Protestants (to me they are the same wicked, heretical thing, see Belloc) in their headlong pursuit of material gain. Of course, if the superabundance of some didn't inevitably produce poverty- if $ grew on the proverbial trees- there would not only be no need for a proscription against usury but for that mean-spirited practice itself. It is because we live and will always live under conditions of scarcity- 'You will work by the sweat of your brow ...'- that is is so morally important that usury be roundly decried whenever the urge to engage in it rears its ugly head. What Aquinas might or might not have said about a possible world in which great inequality did not entail poverty is quite irrelevant to his views on how we should treat our fellows in this vale of tears.

Those of you who continue to dismiss critics of inequality as envious are not only committing the ad hominen fallacy, but acting judgmentally as well, presuming to know what is inside a man's heart.

RFGA, Ph.D.

DNW said...

" It is because we live and will always live under conditions of scarcity- 'You will work by the sweat of your brow ..."


I'm trying to figure out if there is an argument lurking in that conjunction somewhere.

Of course most Americans are not particularly interested in keeping others down for the sake of experiencing the ego fulfilling thrills of a comparative social advantage. That kind of interest is at base an expression of the same kind of Euro-peasant mindset that informed Marx: wherein "needs" are not measured in terms of biological necessities, but in terms of socially generated wants ... with no mug left behind.

Both old Irish law and the Talmud have this annoying aspect to them as well - the whole social place and face concern. How people can even live in such a suffocating psycho-social environment is a mystery that perhaps genetic science will one day solve.

DNW said...



I should offer the proviso, that I am not an expert in Brehon law, and that my remarks and characterization are based on a number of historical references to its categories of concern and examples, rather than a deep study of the whole body of the law.

The Talmud, and its principles, especially as interpreted by the 19th century reform Judaism movement, I am somewhat more familiar with.

BB said...

I just ran across this article:

http://www.theguardian.com/global-development-professionals-network/2015/sep/23/developing-poor-countries-de-develop-rich-countries-sdgs?CMP=share_btn_fb

For some reason which I can't quite fathom, my thoughts immediately turned to this post.

Michael Brazier said...

"Property may be held privately with respect to its procurement and dispensation, but it should be held in common with respect to its use. The notion that, in the modern world, property could be administrated by private persons, but be commonly held with respect to its actual use is both highly relevant and farther than any on the left or the right would go."

The question is what Aquinas meant by distinguishing "procuring" from "use". I don't think he meant, for instance, that he who procures property is not allowed to use it except as someone else directs (that's not a fancy on my part, real laws have been passed to that effect in many places) for in that case what is "procured" is no more than a legal fiction; it's the director who really owns the property.

I venture to suggest that Aquinas' intent is that those who possess property far in excess of their personal need are obliged, as a matter of justice, to use that property in that way which, in his best judgement, will satisfy the needs of others. That doesn't necessarily mean giving it all away. Some things it does rule out are wasteful extravagance and willful destruction. But I fail to see how that's a serious limit on the legitimacy of private property.

"We live in a world where tens of thousands of children die every day through lack of nutrition or medical care. Almost thirty percent of children in developing countries are underweight because they do not get enough to eat."

Allow me to suggest that the obstacle in the way of those with great wealth relieving the needs of those children is not a lack of generosity in them, but the need on their part to work through local agents, many of whom are dishonest, or else incapable of protecting the alms from robbers. In the modern world, we cannot succor the truly poor because there are too many thieves between them and us. And that's not the fault of private property.

Glenn said...

Q 66 seems clear enough:

1. He who maintains that it unlawful for a man to possess property is in error.

2. Natural law does not dictate that all things should be possessed in common.

3. Natural law does not dictate that nothing should be possessed as one's own.

4. The division of possession is not according to the natural law (although the community of goods is ascribed to it).

5. The division of possessions arises from human agreement, which belongs to positive law.

6. The ownership of possessions is not contrary to the natural law.

While that is not the entirety of Q 66, it is not a insignificant part of it.

Tony said...

Me: Zeb, you are describing the evil of envy.

Not necessarily. Egalitarians typically want to bring the people below them up to their level, not just bring the rich down. It's a longing for justice, albeit of a perverted kind, but (mostly) genuine nonetheless. The evil of egalitarianism isn't primarily about envy.

Let's see. Pete has a real influence, when he talks, people listen and follow his orders. Bill has no influence, nobody pays any attention to what he might have said about things. I am pained at this lack of equality.

But not really. Pete is a successful manager at the company. He is GOOD at directing people. He excels at finding people a niche where they are happy and comfortable contributing to the whole enterprise. He knows how to organize many people in many component tasks to a large project, and gets people motivated to put forth their best. Bill, on the other hand, is a born follower. He is a techno-geek, a whiz at his own desk, but can neither communicate with people easily, nor likes to. He can organize his own work, at which he is a wizard, but cannot organize other people at all. We know this because Bill filled in for Pete for 2 weeks, and EVERYBODY was miserable, Bill most of all. So, no, it really doesn't pain me that Pete and Bill are completely, worlds apart in influence in the company. I take joy in it, for it is a good thing.

When people see inequality between person A and person B, this should not pain them. What may cause pain is seeing deficiency between what person A needs (or can fruitfully use) and what he has. At seeing a lack of fittingness between the person A and his circumstances that are unsuited to him as a person. If he has EXACTLY what B has, but those circumstances fit B perfectly but are unfit for A, then we should be unhappy for A because of the lack of fit. If A has an inequality with B, but both A and B are fit well with what they have, then we should not be unhappy with the inequality.

And yet there is hardly a full-bore egalitarian out there who would willingly accept this - because by and large they refuse to accept that PEOPLE are unequal, and are made unequally by God, and are made for unequal particulars. They rebel at the notion that some angels are loved more by God than others, namely the ones who are higher in the order of charity, by God's will. Same with humans: God loves more those whom he raises to higher levels of love, and this is unequal. And this is good.

Tony said...

The division of possession is not according to the natural law (although the community of goods is ascribed to it).

Glenn, I think the division of possession is not according to the natural law but according to the positive law IN SOME SENSE. But not wholly.

For example, the positive law makes provision for clarifying who possesses, when the matter would be in doubt. Thus, a bill of sale, a deed, or a brand on the skin of an animal are humanly prescribed methods of clearly specifying who owns. There is nothing in the natural law that prescribes one over the other or some different means.

But there are cases where the natural law is itself already clear about ownership, and needs no additional human prescription. If a man goes out into the (common) forest, cuts himself a nice stick to his size, cures it slowly over a fire to harden it, and sands and stains it, and puts a leather thong in the end of it for a cane / walking stick, nobody can be seriously in doubt that THIS IS HIS possession. There is no need to resort to positive law to reduce a (general) natural law into the concrete here, the natural law is itself clear: by his application of his own energy, forethought, and design to a natural resource nobody had a claim on in any way, he made it his. If he wishes to transfer ownership, the natural law does not prescribe whether he does it through a public act, a signed note, or what, but whatever human prescription presumes (rightly) that he first owns it, for he does.

Tony said...

The second article of Q. 66 seriously qualifies the sense in which it is just to own private property. Property may be held privately with respect to its procurement and dispensation, but it should be held in common with respect to its use.

Like Michael above, I strongly advise caution in working out what St. Thomas actually means about this, as well as whether what he means must be taken with additional qualifiers. Obviously, it makes little sense to say "well, sure, you OWN that, but you cannot use it, John over there is the only one who can use it." St. Thomas must mean something by dividing the possession and the use, but you should not assume it is a simplistic division.

I would also propose that we might be mis-stating (at least for English speakers) what God and natural law sets for as "in common". In Genesis, God says to Adam, and to all mankind in Adam, "have dominion over all the earth..." The grant of dominion is GENERAL. This is not the same thing as saying it is IN COMMON.

What's the difference? Let's use an analogy: St. Robert Bellarmine, in his treatise on civil government, explains that because man is social, he must needs have a government. But because nature does not prescribe specifically WHICH government and WHO is to govern, and makes all men equal in that regard (that none is designated by nature to govern all others), it is up to man in man's prescription to lay the government on this one or those few, or that group of magistrates. Nature does not specify, but nature demands that men arrive at SOME specification. God, through nature, provides a general permission, that men might choose among the themselves who shall govern, BUT HE DOES NOT PROVIDE THAT GOVERNMENT IS ALL IN COMMON. That is, mankind does not exercise governance in common, THAT's not what the natural grant is. Nature is not specific herself, but MAN (because of his nature) must be specific about laying the government on some and thus not on others. And men cannot simply refuse to so designate, as if government were a mere optional extra.

Similarly, we might say that nature does not do (or at least does not always do) the specifying for possession of this or that in the concrete, but that merely means MAN himself must come up with the rules for specifying possession. What God laid down is general: men can own any and all of the goods of the earth, and by nature (acting alone, that is) no man is granted this or that good. There is no reason to say this grant was, per se, also "in common," so that in origin all men exercised dominion in common, and in order to own any good, a man must first remove its possession / control from the community as a whole.

So let's keep clear that God's original grant of dominion was in general, not in specific, and there will be less need to root out erroneous diversions of "in common".

E.Seigner said...

Michael Brazier, I venture to suggest that Aquinas' intent is that those who possess property far in excess of their personal need are obliged, as a matter of justice, to use that property in that way which, in his best judgement, will satisfy the needs of others. That doesn't necessarily mean giving it all away. Some things it does rule out are wasteful extravagance and willful destruction. But I fail to see how that's a serious limit on the legitimacy of private property.

And I venture to suggest that when a property sits idle, but is obviously useful for a purpose, then the people who are able to make use of it have the right to do it, so that the property would not sit idle. In other words, squatting is a, well, human right if you will. Just like collecting leftover grains in the field after harvest is a right of the poor in the Old Testament.

Tony said...

And I venture to suggest that when a property sits idle, but is obviously useful for a purpose, then the people who are able to make use of it have the right to do it,

That's fair enough. How long is needed before it is "sitting idle"? If I have a tent that I use 4 times a year to camp, can a neighbor simply take it and use it when I am not using it? If I have a field lying fallow to rest and recuperate, can a neighbor plant his crop there because "I am not using it"? Or build a house there, because even when I am "using" the field, all I am doing is "using it 3 times a year, once to plant, once to weed, and once to harvest, whereas he is going to use it all year? Can a person tired of apartment living build a shack on my back yard because I am not "using it" even 2% of he level of use the apartments get? If a park is set aside so that people "won't use it up" for houses and farms and commerce, can a squatter come along and say "you said you weren't using it, so I will"?

I am not suggesting that the principle you laid out is either invalid or cannot be used even in theory. I am just saying that its application has to be tempered by what people have decided is reasonable to ascertain as "unused" by custom and by law. And perhaps some of custom and law needs to be modified to re-orient goods that really should be allocated to new owners: certainly vast tracts of land never touched, being "owned" by the plantation owner merely because some ancestor claimed all the land he could see from a tall hill, is a situation that may be ripe for correction.

E.Seigner said...

@Tony

Specific questions are up to specific legal regulations. In Netherlands, the law since 1971 permitted squatting of buildings that had stood idle for a year. In 2010 squatting was made subject to judicial decisions - no squatting unless a court permits.

Anyway, the principle should be obvious - an empty place attracts all sorts of adventurers. If they turn out to be meaningful people, why not grant them legitimacy by default? There definitely is such a thing as responsible ownership. When the owner of big properties is not behaving responsibly, it's a social problem, not personal.

Thomas M. Cothran said...

Michael:

"I venture to suggest that Aquinas' intent is that those who possess property far in excess of their personal need are obliged, as a matter of justice, to use that property in that way which, in his best judgement, will satisfy the needs of others. That doesn't necessarily mean giving it all away. Some things it does rule out are wasteful extravagance and willful destruction. But I fail to see how that's a serious limit on the legitimacy of private property."

The first part seems to me to be much in the spirit of what Aquinas says. I do, however, think this is a limit on private property, at least in the way we generally think of private property. That is, the notion of private property that is most common is that property is both procured and used at the discretion of the property owner. So if someone has money and they want to conspicuously consume it, then (so most people think) that's the prerogative of a private property owner.

What Aquinas seems to say is that property is private as the way it is administered, but common with respect to its disposition or use. The former accords with the way most people currently think of private property, but the latter does not. In fact, it seems to me to be well outside of mainstream political views were it actually a principle that was used in public policy.

Thomas M. Cothran said...

Tony:

In your response to Zeb, you say: "You are describing the evil of envy. A man feels ill over the good of another because he has evil in his heart. The proper way to eliminate this evil is not to do away with inequality, but to do away with the sin of envy."

Actually, what Zeb is talking about resembles the form of injustice Aquinas calls inequality [inaequalitas]:

"Secondly we speak of injustice in reference to an inequality between one person and another, when one man wishes to have more goods, riches for example, or honors, and less evils, such as toil and losses, and thus injustice has a special matter and is a particular vice opposed to particular justice." ST II q 59 a 1.

Jeremy Taylor said...

One thing that has struck me about the whole debate about the Pope and capitalism, is both sides seems to be too materialist, in the informal sense. The whole focus seems to be on material goods, consumer products I suppose. Surely, as long a reasonably civilised standard of living is available to most in society - which in the West it was long ago - questions of family, community, our relationship with nature, and more cultural, social, and spiritual goods are far more important.

Jeremy Taylor said...

Shane Scott,

It is certainly true that Russell Kirk affirmed the importance of inequality and different classes in society. He though more or less suggest that it is not wealth alone that creates what he called a natural aristocracy.

And he was very much at pains to refute those who equated the contribution of America and the West to world with their standard of living and economic growth. Indeed, he suggests that such people suffer from much the same materialist delusions as the Marxists.

Michael Brazier said...

Thomas:

We should remember that there are moral obligations that cannot be enforced in positive law, because all possible means of enforcement would destroy more important goods. I believe Q 66 art 2 is one such case. Any attempt to compel the extremely wealthy to use their property as if it were not theirs alone, but the common possession of everyone would, in practice, hollow out the right to procure and dispense of property, to the great damage of human life. Aquinas gives three reasons why private property is a necessity in the article, and experience has proved him right on all of them.

Now, it is sometimes possible to recognize a class of uses of property which are all detrimental to human life, and thus can feasibly be forbidden. One example that comes to mind is nuisances - constantly creating loud noises or noxious fumes on one's property that spread to the neighbors' land and make their lives a misery. Here Aquinas' distinction is useful; the right to procure property doesn't include the right to make a nuisance from it.

E. Seigner: "I venture to suggest that when a property sits idle, but is obviously useful for a purpose, then the people who are able to make use of it have the right to do it, so that the property would not sit idle. In other words, squatting is a, well, human right if you will."

I think you are forgetting that there are worse ways to use any property than doing nothing at all with it. And while it's possible that a squatter on a bit of land will use it for the common benefit, for instance by building a house on land that previously stood empty, that's not the common case. Much more often, a squatter moves in on property that's been elaborately developed and, because it isn't his, does nothing to maintain it, uses it in ways that do lasting damage, and creates nuisances that disturb the neighbors. In those cases the principle we've laid down actually requires the property owner to evict the squatter.

(Do you happen to know why the Netherlands changed its rule for squatting in 2010?)

DNW said...



Tony said,

"What if the man comes to my door, destitute and in great dire need...and I know that he is a drug addict, that he squandered his inheritance on drugs and women, that if he takes my money now he will use only 1/4 of it on food, and the rest on drugs because to him drugs are more important than food. Have I no permission, nay, DUTY, to others, to consider whether my giving for THIS need (which need is real enough) is a lesser obligation than the need of some neighbors across town? "

That is a good point. The effect of the recipient on the giver.

Has anyone here, and I presume there are some here, tried to help a drug addict?

I don't mean slipping a pan-handler 5 bucks, I mean tried to "work with" a heroin addict in a supportive role?

So what happens when you give them money because they say they are hungry? What happens when that backfires and you give them prepaid food market or gasoline cards?

What happens when you let them crash at your place, "for a bit"?

And I was only stepping into someone else's role, on a very limited basis, at structured remove and distance, for a couple of weeks while she attempted to recuperate.


Better chime in ... or I will.

Thomas M. Cothran said...

Michael:

I can't agree with you if you are saying that Aquinas only thinks there is merely a private moral obligation on the wealthy to use their wealth for others. He clearly says that "ownership with respect to use" is common rather than private. He even cites with approval Ambrose' claim that conspicuous consumption is a form of robbery:

"When Ambrose says: 'Let no man call his own that which is common,' he is speaking of ownership as regards use, wherefore he adds: 'He who spends too much is a robber.'"

Shane Scott said...

Yes - I agree. In fact I was just thinking it would be interesting to hear the Pope and Kirk have a conversation on these very issues. I actually think they would end up agreeing a lot more than disagreeing. Kirk once wrote an essay about Wilhelm Ropeke's "third way" vision of economics: "Roepke’s 'third way' is not 'gas and water socialism' or consumer cooperatives or a managed economy. Instead it is economic activity humanized by being related to moral and intellectual ends; humanized by being reduced to the human scale." In this regard it sounds a lot like the writing of Wendell Berry.

E.Seigner said...

Michael Brazier, I think you are forgetting that there are worse ways to use any property than doing nothing at all with it.

You mean I am forgetting that evil occupiers of properties are worse than responsible owners? Perhaps you are forgetting that irresponsible owners are worse than angelic squatters?

The issue is not about who is better. Even Pr. Feser's post is wrong inasmuch as his emphasis is on this - greed and envy etc. The point is that irresponsible ownership exists and there must be ways to deal with it. Also, authorities don't get everywhere, not in good time anyway, so it makes sense to allow for some self-organisation. When a house is empty too long, then it's a sign that the owner doesn't need it. The principle is the same as in grains left on the field after harvest.

I don't know the specifics about the law in Netherlands, but the fact is that it's one of the most densely populated countries in the world, so housing problem must have been pressing. In 2010 squatting ceased to be a right and fell under the rule that if you want to occupy an apparently abandoned building, you apply to the court for permission. This presupposes that judges have time for this bureaucracy. This arrangement strengthens the rights of owners of course, but this means the rights of irresponsible owners too along with the good ones. There's always a trade-off.

Michael Brazier said...

Thomas: I should like to see you propose a legal procedure which requires the wealthy to use their property only for the common good, which does not turn the right to procure property into an empty shell, and thus lead to the mischiefs Aquinas enumerates as the results of denying that right. I don't believe it can be done - and no one can be obliged to do what is logically impossible.

E. Seigner: Look up the legal concept of "adverse possession", and what is required to prove title by that method.

DNW said...

Someone says,

"When Ambrose says: 'Let no man call his own that which is common,' he is speaking of ownership as regards use, wherefore he adds: 'He who spends too much is a robber.'"



http://faculty.cua.edu/pennington/Law508/RightsofProperty.html


http://faculty.cua.edu/pennington/Law508/tierney2.htm#Rights:%20Property%20and%20Poor


Ambrose of course lived in late Empire times when the deliberate and smug exploitation of the poor by the late antique ruling class was a common theme. You don't have to cite Gratian alone. It forms the basis of the writing of the so-called Sicilian Briton, and is the stuff and substance of Gildas' work on the Ruin of Britain.

Something more than the mere private ownership of the tools of production is being treated there.

Tony said...

The point is that irresponsible ownership exists and there must be ways to deal with it. Also, authorities don't get everywhere, not in good time anyway, so it makes sense to allow for some self-organisation....In 2010 squatting ceased to be a right and fell under the rule that if you want to occupy an apparently abandoned building, you apply to the court for permission. This presupposes that judges have time for this bureaucracy.

The problem (well, at least some of the problems) with trying to use St. Thomas's comment about use, and it not being theft for someone in dire need, is not so much in the theory as in the application thereof. Here are 3 such problems.

First, no man is a good judge in his own case. A man who is hungry, or tired, or discouraged at the 7th refusal, might say to himself "my condition is dire, I can't wait until I find someone willing to help, I am now entitled to just take that man's surplus". But he may be in error about some or all aspects of this judgment. He is not impartial. He may be overblown about the emergency. Etc. There is no possible "one size fits all" prescription for how many people you have to ask for help before determining that asking is pointless.

Second, rarely is a man a good judge of whether another man's property is "idle" or "surplus". He just doesn't know the facts. In not knowing the facts, he is guessing about whether his own need supercedes some other claim on the property, whether this 4th car in the driveway is surplus or actually a necessity, etc. Which is normally a bad model for prudent, moral action: he should NOT take it unless he actually is morally sure he has that right, not just a guess. "I might have had the right" is not sufficient.

Third, allowing a man to help himself to property that ostensibly belongs to another presents a ripe situation for violence. If the man who "owns" the property (i.e. the man who, under the law, is the registered owner) doesn't agree with the one just taking, he will (reasonably) think he can protect "his" property with violence.

Thus, while it is true that a very rich man's claim on surplus goods is one that is subject to duties to charity, civil society still has a need to respect his claims before he has made such gifts. This is borne out, also, by _that_very_duty to charitable giving: how can a man make a gift of his surplus to THIS person in need, (rather than THAT person whose need is less clear), except by exercising judgment over his own property. If by being surplus it isn't his property, he cannot exercise judgment over it in the act of giving, he cannot "give" it at all (he can only watch as he who has the proper claim to it takes it), and there is no such thing as giving away your surplus. It is the fact that during the period between when he has come to own it, and when he decides how best to alleviate suffering with it, it belongs TO HIM that gives him the obligation to decide how to apply it for others. And for this reason (also), normally civil society cannot just wrest it away from him on the mere grounds that it is surplus.

DNW said...

@ Tony re his latest.

The whole notion of surplus is suspect; while at the same time negligent speculators could in theory use respect for the law to induce shortages and tie everyone up in knots, or else pay them extortionate rents.

Look what happens anytime word gets out that a major developer plans a rejuvenation project; every deadbeat that can tries to get in the way so as to be bought out or carried along to riches on someone else's drive and vision.

It's not a simple question, I guess.


In the US, there is as you probably know, a doctrine in both law and equity called adverse possession. It basically states that after some period of years wherein a boundary has been established and recognized or piece of land occupied and used in an open, notorious, exclusive and uncontested manner, it becomes the boundary or property of the occupier, even if subsequent surveys indicate an overstepping.

This is intended to quiet what might otherwise lead to endless legal claims or even violence over a property line, right of way, or some other real property interest.

The elapsed time necessary is usually between 7 and 15 years.

I've been to court over this myself, after I went into the woods and tore down a neighbor's fence line and postings which had some years before encroached on our holdings during a time of my absence out of state.

They sued me, and they lost: Both on statue law and their parallel equity claim of acquiescence. As this was a remote and hilly woodland boundary, and the time frame was on my side, there was little the plaintiff had going for him other than the threat and reality of both the psychological trauma and legal expense of joining in a courtroom legal battle. Which was what there was; a courtroom trial.

I can tell you that losing your property - or the threat of being dispossessed, is enough to precipitate violence. And I am very surprised that the Netherlands would take real property ownership so lightly as to allow land to be occupied in as little as two or so years.

Of course in my state, the State has a complete defense against adverse possession by statute. They cannot lose their land even to long customary use; though they can certainly take yours. And nowadays, property can be forfeit to back taxes in as little as two years.

It's always a fight to keep what is yours.

E.Seigner said...

Tony, First, no man is a good judge in his own case.

And another man is a better judge of your own case? Disputes are referred to the (official) judge, we agree on this much, I hope.

Tony, Second, rarely is a man a good judge of whether another man's property is "idle" or "surplus".

By "surplus" you must mean "superfluous". "Surplus" in economics means added value, an aspect of which is profit.

"Idle" is a matter of empirical determination that can be safely formalized. In the Bible, the applicable formulation is: the grains in the field are free game after the harvest. In the Netherlands, squatting was permitted when a house had stood unvisited for twelve months.

Tony, Third, allowing a man to help himself to property that ostensibly belongs to another presents a ripe situation for violence.

E.g. renting is a form of violence? The radical in me agrees and would stretch this statement far and wide. But civilized people settle their disputes in front of the (official) judge.

Another example. If you find a wallet full of money and you turn it over to police (good boy), police will make a public announcement of this find. In a few months, if nobody picks the wallet up, it's yours (not specifying the country, because I think it's so in many countries). Now, isn't it so that the rightful owner is still out there somewhere and still rightfully owns the wallet? Maybe so, but the wallet has stood idle in public view long enough...

This is not really question of who is better or worse, envious or greedy. I'm making a point about what to do about resources openly available here and there. Just like we use natural resources by simply taking them, apparently abandoned things are considered common property, certainly when they can be considered of immediate use or danger (think of an industrial plant whose owners and managers fleed).

Tony said...

But civilized people settle their disputes in front of the (official) judge.

E. Seigner, I guess we are not disagreeing. I was pointing out the problems that attend when a person helps himself to what - according to the standing civil rules - is another person's property. You are speaking to the fact that civil law should have _special_rules_ for when society itself deems what was (formerly) owned by one person (according to its basic rules) is now not owned by that person and may be owned by another, such as for abandoned property. The cases are night and day apart: helping yourself vs society doing it by law and magistrates are very different scenarios. And, by the way, the latter is precisely the sort of thing that answers to "The division of possessions arises from human agreement, which belongs to positive law."

Tony said...

Actually, what Zeb is talking about resembles the form of injustice Aquinas calls inequality [inaequalitas]:

"Secondly we speak of injustice in reference to an inequality between one person and another, when one man wishes to have more goods, riches for example, or honors, and less evils, such as toil and losses, and thus injustice has a special matter and is a particular vice opposed to particular justice." ST II q 59 a 1.


Thomas, maybe I am missing the point here, but it sounds like St. Thomas is talking about a man who has equal to his neighbor, but is unhappy with that state of affairs, and wants to have MORE, precisely because it is more than another's and not equal (and less of ills, precisely because it is less than that suffered by another). Thus, the subject of his desire is "inequality", what he is unsatisfied with is precisely the equality.

Which is the opposite side of the coin of envy, which is being dissatisfied with the fact that someone else has more good than you, simply because it is more.

In neither case do these evil desires of the soul regard "more" and "less" in terms of "how much I need" or "how much I can use fruitfully" but in regards to "how much he has", which is a disordered basis for wanting those goods.

So if someone has money and they want to conspicuously consume it, then (so most people think) that's the prerogative of a private property owner.

What Aquinas seems to say is that property is private as the way it is administered, but common with respect to its disposition or use. The former accords with the way most people currently think of private property, but the latter does not. In fact, it seems to me to be well outside of mainstream political views were it actually a principle that was used in public policy.


Like Michael, I would like to see what you propose as the proper mechanism by which, when a man (following good and wise laws about property) manages to acquire a vast amount, far in excess of his needs, tells us how that superfluity is to be handled so that it is "private as the way it is administered, but common with respect to its disposition or use". I don't know what that means.

Here is a trial balloon: To have dominion over an object is to have the right to preserve, use, or consume it. If a man takes his $50 million, forms a foundation of which he is the chairman and CEO, and builds a hospital, he remains (at least largely) in control of how the hospital is run, how the wealth it represents is used. At the same time, it is being put to use for the community.

What this respects is that it is up to the man to decide how to use his superfluous amounts. What this does NOT imply is that the community gets to decide how to use his $50M, or gets to take the $50M away merely because it is superfluous to his needs.

So, what if he decides to use his $50M on building a new Disneyland, an expensive toy for play...that gainfully employs 10,000 people? Or on a park that is set aside for people to enjoy nature? Or a museum of cubist art? Or a mansion in which he can entertain huge numbers of people at his (frequent) parties?

Anonymous said...

Leo XIII sounds quite literally like a libertarian totally opposed to government seizing property via taxation for anything but the most necessary of expenses.

Well, perhaps then we should all agree that inequality as such is not to be combated. On to the interesting question: whether the inequality within America and between nations globally features (even if it does not cause) a level of poverty that would justify greater redistribution than we currently have. We would have to address whether poverty concerns only life's essentials, or also opportunity-related goods such as education. I don't see any moral argument that will drive us one direction or the other on this; one's intuitions about the relative importance of right to property versus communal flourishing will determine one's position.

I suspect future societies will favor redistribution to the greatest extent that doesn't fundamentally harm society, basically thrashing the golden goose to death's doorstep but never pushing it across. We'll see.

Roger Donway said...

Beyond TANSTAAFL: NINACOW. Need Is Not A Claim On Wealth. The needy virtuous have a claim, yes. By virtue of their virtue. But need as such, no.

Mr. Green said...

Frankfurt: The fact that some people have much less than others is not at all morally disturbing when it is clear that the worse off have plenty. […]
When someone is evaluating his well-being -- his satisfaction with the resources at his disposal -- what is it important for him to take into account? The assessments he has to make are personal.


The cartoon caricatures at either extreme are not particularly interesting, but Frankfurt’s own position here is problematic, with its sense of modern individualism. Of course it can be morally disturbing if, say, the one with much more obtained it by cheating and stealing, regardless of the condition of those with less. And while “personal” assessments are of critical importance, no one can evaluate his condition without taking into account the community in which he lives. A community requires differences to be sure, but that doesn’t mean it can handle any old inequality, to any extreme. To be coherent, the inequalities have to be in proportion. A painting will not be equal in every way unless it’s a blank canvas; but a good painting will exhibit due proportion, or as it is called in a social context, “justice”. Where there are great disparities in power or influence, such as kings and presidents have, society also demands a great disparity in responsibility to balance things out. Yet the very rich are not seen to acquire their wealth justly or balance it accordingly. So there are perfectly good questions to be asked about extremely large discrepancies in wealth within a given society. Some of those questions will have perfectly good answers; some of them will not.

Tony said...

Yet the very rich are not seen to acquire their wealth justly or balance it accordingly.

Sometimes. Very true. And when they refuse to balance their vast resources with the responsibilities for seeking the good of others, this means that there will be ill results in society. What is not true, is that if the wealthy becomes so WITHOUT acquiring it unjustly, the evils result per se from the "discrepancies in wealth". They result more from the disproportion between the wealthy man and his obligations in mercy and charity. Which obligations are not defects in justice, but defects in mercy.

The Frenchman said...

Professor Feser, thank you so much for your thoughts !


I'm brand new in your blog, that's my very first comment, and i'm from France (yes, your blog gets you some foreigners !)


And, well, that's not always simple to read philosophy in another language when the letters are so small !

Furthermore, it's even more difficult to read philosophy when it is written as packages.


Oh i'm certainly not asking you to change your style; don't get me wrong about that. You've got a gift, when it comes to writing philosophy just the way you do.


I was just wondering if you could rather simply, for your fans who don't have English as their native language, skip lines after every dot... And write your articles bigger.

If that's possible.

Hell i don't even have the slightest idea of how a blog works ; i hope that's possible. :/


In any case, that's a great blog you got here, and i'm glad you're a theist philosopher, Doctor Feser.
Would have remained a big doubter till my death, if i hadn't discovered your thinking.

Mr. Green said...

Tony: What is not true, is that if the wealthy becomes so WITHOUT acquiring it unjustly, the evils result per se from the "discrepancies in wealth". They result more from the disproportion between the wealthy man and his obligations in mercy and charity. Which obligations are not defects in justice, but defects in mercy.

The obligation of mercy is an important point that I think is often overlooked nowadays. And I think that's the point about wealth that is privately administered but commonly disposed, that is, it may be under the control of a private individual, but that does not mean he is free to spend it however he wishes; he still has obligations to spend it for the common good (though of course that doesn't necessarily specify how he is to do that). I would add that there is a limit to how much wealth can be justly acquired (in the relevant sense); that is, there is often a question of justice as well as of mercy, and one of the reasons that so many people get disturbed by great discrepancies in wealth is that they instinctively pick up on this (although I think they often muddle this up with the merciful aspect, even though they are not the same thing).

Tony said...

I would add that there is a limit to how much wealth can be justly acquired (in the relevant sense); that is, there is often a question of justice as well as of mercy, and one of the reasons that so many people get disturbed by great discrepancies in wealth is that they instinctively pick up on this

Mr. Green, although I am sensitive to the problem, I am not sure there really is a hard limit to how much wealth a person can justly acquire. Because the big money runs in corporations, and a person who starts a corporation with 51% of his own money (in order to control it) must needs provide appropriate return to the others who own 49% (as well as to the workers, the suppliers, the customers, etc), I think that it is indeed possible for a person to have corporate holdings worth billions, from an initial modest stake therein, because a corporation making a valuable product can grow to be worth billions without cheating people. See this hypothetical as an example of what I mean:

http://whatswrongwiththeworld.net/2014/01/what_kind_of_poverty.html#comment-290174

I think it more cautious to say that much of the time a person grows extremely wealthy, it is in tandem with practices that are unjust, and the injustice often contributes to the "success" of the wealth-building. I would generally tend to dispute any theory that proposed that in principle, ANY example of vast wealth had to have been acquired by injustice. People OUGHT to be upset at the injustices used to generate such vast sums. They ought not to be upset at the inequality itself, as if that constituted a grave evil all on its own.

Timocrates said...

There is something inherently wrong with Americans apologizing for economic income disparity. America enjoys an inflated standard of living in virtue of the fact that the rest of the world is forced to buy oil in USD. So when America prints money like toilet paper to pay for its bills, everyone else is forced to pay.

And we still give our citizens free health care.

Why does America enjoy such a shocking preponderance of eccentricity and extremes in every category and scale? It's that +20%.

What does America produce? Nothing. It produces cruise missiles that generally explode upon delivery. America does nothing. So why are so many Americans so generally well to do? "Well, because it's America, darnit. That's why." These and other national superstitions will blow up in America's face, then we will see a lot less people apologizing for income disparity.

Tony said...

an inflated standard of living in virtue of the fact that the rest of the world is forced to buy oil in USD.

Forced to. You mean, at gunpoint?

America exports grain, meat, airplanes, industrial machinery, wood, medicines and medical equipment. For a while, America provided a significant portion of the rest of the world with food. Less so now, of course. America does have a terrible trade balance. That doesn't mean America "does nothing".

Glenn said...

Timocrates,

It produces cruise missiles that generally explode upon delivery.

Would you rather they explode when launched or during mid-flight?

What does America produce? Nothing.

If a GDP per capita in excess of $50,000 is a reliable indication of "producing nothing", then I suppose that must be right.

America does nothing.

If exporting goods and products valued in excess of $1.2 trillion qualifies as "doing nothing", then, again, I suppose that must be right.

Mr. Green said...

Tony: I think that it is indeed possible for a person to have corporate holdings worth billions, from an initial modest stake therein, because a corporation making a valuable product can grow to be worth billions without cheating people.

That’s surely a different case though; a businessman who is nominally rich because he controls a large business empire does not really have that wealth himself. The money is tied up in the company, just as a head of state is not rich just because the government over which he presides has a huge budget. Thus I don’t think you’d get so many people upset about a CEO who drives around a beat-up Volvo to his one house with maybe a modest summer cottage… it’s the billionaires with more houses than they can use and their solid-gold yachts that are the problem, because they are spending vast sums on themselves (and not for the “common good”, i.e. exercising stewardship over their riches for the good of others).

Now given that someone has immense riches personally, it is indeed all too likely that less than honest practices were employed somewhere along the line, but even that is not is my point. There’s of course no exact figure, but there has to be some range of acceptable values beyond which even a completely honest person cannot be said to be justly rich, and that’s because justice is what somebody deserves. There is an obvious sense in which you deserve to be recompensed for the work you do in proportion to how much effort you put in. All other things being equal — which they never are, but for the sake of example — if I worked for ten hours and you worked correspondingly for twenty hours, it is reasonable and just for you to get paid twice as much as I. (And this is something I think most people would readily agree with.) Or if you worked twice as quickly over ten hours, or twice as hard, or in whatever way did something that was proportionally double the work that I did. This is not the only factor relevant to justice (once upon a time, a man who had a family to support would earn more than one who didn’t, etc.), but certainly in contemporary discussions about discrepancies in wealth, it’s probably the main one. And while a fancy CEO may work twice as hard as you, or twice as fast, or suffer twice the stress, or whatever — he doesn’t work hundreds or even thousands of times harder/faster/longer/better (nor does he have a hundred times as many children to support, etc.). It’s just not humanly possible. If you could work that hard, you wouldn’t just be CEO of a billion-dollar empire, you’d be out fighting super-villains at night. (In fact, not even Batman is a hundredfold superior to an average man; that’s more like Robot-Batman from the Future.)

In a nutshell, human nature is bounded, and so there is a definite limit on how just any discrepancy in earnings can be. Some folks argue that if you come by your money honestly (and by that they usually mean “legally” rather than “morally”, but even ignoring that distinction), then it’s yours, full stop. But if the money is not justly yours — i.e. not in proportion to your efforts, to your state, etc. — then the inequality itself is unjust. (Well, not the mere arithmetical fact, of course, but the mathematical difference in the context of a whole economy, which is of course what people mean.) What people often miss, though, is that as per your example, injustice is not the same as immorality. But it’s a real and valid point in itself nonetheless.

Tony said...

That’s surely a different case though; a businessman who is nominally rich because he controls a large business empire does not really have that wealth himself. The money is tied up in the company, just as a head of state is not rich just because the government over which he presides has a huge budget.

I think I understand what you are getting at, but I am not at all sure the distinction WORKS.

For my example of Bill the founder CEO who both controls the whole corporation which became immensely large in value, and whose personal holdings IN that company are $1 billion, there is (as you say) a sort of _nominal_ sense in which he is immensely wealthy. His wealth is all tied up doing stuff, valuable stuff, contributing to the welfare of others and the economy as a whole. It isn't sitting around just gathering dust in his drawer or being used to light his $100 cigars.

But now he decides he is too old to continue, he needs to retire, and because the new CEO (whom he is going to hand-pick to be just as good a fellow as himself) needs that same sort of control as Bill had, Bill is going to sell his shares to his successor. NOW, Bill has $1 billion in liquid cash, it is no longer tied up in the company "doing stuff". Now, he is immensely wealthy and not just in a nominal sense. Now he can decide hand it over to build that hospital, or college, or fund 40 irrigation projects in semi-arid Africa, or pursue research on a cure for cancer, or a thousand other great things. Or burn $100 bills lighting up $100 cigars if he turns selfish. He CAN decide to do the latter, though not morally.

Surely the sheer act of converting his nominal wealth into liquid wealth is not unjust - he does it for an appropriate reason. Surely the plan to stop doing "business" type good works with the wealth and instead start doing "philanthropy" type good works is not unjust. So, Bill, for the moment between his selling his stock, and putting it into philanthropy, is _simply_ vastly wealthy. And not unjustly. As he moves it into philanthropic projects, as long as his personal life doesn't change (still the modest 4-bedroom house, used Volvo, a tiny summer cottage), his having the wealth become accessible cannot represent an injustice.

it’s the billionaires with more houses than they can use and their solid-gold yachts that are the problem,

I accept that if Bill turns into the rich playboy without a care for what the money is doing, that's a moral problem. But that is, again, looking through the lens "what is he doing with his wealth", not through the lens "how much does he have". Though I put it to you: aren't the solid-gold yachts going to end up on the floor of the sea? ;-)

There’s of course no exact figure, but there has to be some range of acceptable values beyond which even a completely honest person cannot be said to be justly rich, and that’s because justice is what somebody deserves.

I think that's what my example disproves: I will accept for this discussion that there may be effectively a limit to just wages and salary from a company. These are payments out of company wealth, the company always has a duty to respect other employees, customers, suppliers, planning for future changes, etc. I have said (repeatedly) that boards of directors should normally be telling prospective CEOs that "your asking for a $10 million salary proves to us that you are not morally qualified for the job. Get lost."

I dispute that there is a natural limit to the value of a company, and thus to the value of its stocks. Or rather, what limit there is can be a limit mainly with respect to the whole economy, and is driven by market forces that DON'T have to take into account how wealthy that company value would make a particular stockholder. And as a result, natural market forces can indeed make a company founder who holds a big block of stock immensely wealthy, and do so justly.

Tony said...

Your alternative to accepting this would to say that in justice, Bill can be immensely wealthy on paper, but he cannot justly convert that wealth into actual liquid wealth. And I ask you to consider what that would actually mean: Yes, Big Solar really is worth $2 billion. Yes, Bill's holdings in it really are worth a billion. No, when he sells he cannot receive what those holdings REALLY are worth, because...why? Because justice requires that he get an amount NOT EQUAL to the amount his holdings really are worth? When you put the pieces together like that, they don't fit. Justice permits people to become immensely wealthy, because the natural order DOES NOT have a fundamental natural limit to the amount of wealth that can be generated by productive activity from a given initial stake.

I also think (merely as an opinion) that a company becoming that valuable through JUST practices alone is going to be very uncommon. But not impossible, there are plausible candidates out there.

My argument from authority is the example of King Solomon: God made him vastly wealthy because he chose NOT to set his sights on wealth as his goal, but on a higher good. But very wealthy he was made, and (we must presume, since God ordained it), justly.

Some folks argue that if you come by your money honestly (and by that they usually mean “legally” rather than “morally”, but even ignoring that distinction), then it’s yours, full stop.

Yeah, they are wrong - if they mean there are no MORAL limits on what they may choose to do with it. And some people say the "full stop" means it is immoral for the government to take part of it in taxes, "because it's MINE, I tell you." They are wrong too. But the moral limits on "what I can choose to do with my money" doesn't prescribe a moral limit on the amount of money I can have the right to control in choosing to put into this or that or the other charity.

But if the money is not justly yours — i.e. not in proportion to your efforts, to your state, etc. — then the inequality itself is unjust.

I would argue that if the money came to be yours while you were both legally AND MORALLY pursuing normal business, like Bill, and through a combination of vision and luck you happened into a combination that, under good, wholesome, rational rules of business behavior still ended up landing you a holding worth $1 billion, you cannot say that the AMOUNT is unjust because it is not fit to "your state". By becoming wealthy through just behavior, your DUE STATE is that of philanthropist. Your proper virtue is that of magnanimity. Your proper behavior is seeking out wise ways to help others out of poverty or other evils. The temporary inequality is due to "acts of God", and while it persists it is not as such an injustice; while you pursue intelligent USE of the wealth (including giving much away), you are not an unjust man because it is a big amount. God made the wealth of the world locally to subsist unequally, and makes it to move about unequally, and while it is our job to seek to level out a lot of the inequality, that must needs take time and effort and cannot be done instantaneously. And so, during the intervening period, t

Tony said...

And so, during the intervening period, the inequality is not injustice.

Mr. Green said...

Tony: No, when he sells he cannot receive what those holdings REALLY are worth, because...why? Because justice requires that he get an amount NOT EQUAL to the amount his holdings really are worth? When you put the pieces together like that, they don't fit.

We live in a broken world; lots of things just don’t fit. (And even in a “perfect” world, it’s not obvious that everything would have to fit in that way; although I do wonder where all this cash would come from to get stuffed into Bill’s pocket, as opposed to being distributed among all the employees who made the business work, or reinvested into R&D, or passed on via lower prices to customers, etc.)


[…]you cannot say that the AMOUNT is unjust because it is not fit to "your state". By becoming wealthy through just behavior, your DUE STATE is that of philanthropist.

That’s an interesting way to look at it. If you can be born into the state of being king by chance, then I guess you can find yourself a philanthropist. But still, it wouldn’t be having wealth itself that is just; your actions would have to be philanthropic to be just, though, in those circumstances.


But very wealthy [Solomon] was made, and (we must presume, since God ordained it), justly.
[…] while you pursue intelligent USE of the wealth (including giving much away), you are not an unjust man because it is a big amount.


It doesn’t follow that it was just, though, because justice is “due proportion”, and God can and does obviously give us things that are not due to us. However, I didn’t say that the rich man was unjust, just the amount. It’s not “just” that Michael Jordan is as tall as he is — nobody owed it to him to make him that tall, certainly not God; he didn’t somehow deserve to be that tall, such that being shorter would have been an injustice on somebody’s part — it’s just good luck. (Or bad luck, if he had rather been a jockey.) A man may be unjustly, i.e. undeservedly or un-owedly rich, but still be just in his actions (if he then uses that wealth appropriately for the common good).

I think this a key point where people go wrong in this issue: one side observes that the amount of riches is unjust and therefore decides that it must be immoral, and so we have an outright obligation to take the riches away. That does not follow. The other side observes that having the money is not immoral in itself, and so decides that the amount, no matter how ridiculously high, must be justly merited. That is also wrong. Both sides of the same coin equate morality with justice, instead of allowing for mercy: something that is an obligation, but not an obligation of justice.

Tony said...

A man may be unjustly, i.e. undeservedly or un-owedly rich, but still be just in his actions .

I think I begin to see. I didn't grasp what you were trying to say by using the word "unjustly".

And I don't think you can use "unjustly" that way, if the concept you are indicating is "it is neither just nor contrary to the just". For, "unjust" is, I think, always CONTRARY to the just. A horse that bolts the barn is acting neither justly nor unjustly, because a "justice" is not predicated of a horse, it is incapable of acting justly. But for a man, if the topic is his chosen, intentional acts, they can be just or unjust. But when they are NEITHER just nor the contrary (such as dreaming of swimming), we cannot use the word "unjust" of such actions. If the topic is a condition or state in which the man finds himself, an "unjust" state is a state following some unjust action (either his or some other person's), not merely an "unequal" state, nor even an "unfitting" state. A man whose state is not fitting to mankind is not by that mere fact in an "unjust" state. A man who is drowning in the sea is not in an "unjust" condition, a man whose crop is destroyed by a tornado is not in an unjust state. A man whose wallet has been stolen is suffering an injustice while the wallet remains taken, because an unjust act was done to him.

If we had such a word, the word would be 'ajust', analogously to 'amoral', (rather than 'immoral', which is analogous to 'unjust'). An truly amoral act is (like the act of an animal) an act which is devoid of BOTH moral and immoral quality.

So, when a man receives (say, as a gift) what he does not deserve, but does so without any person acting unjustly, e.g. when God forgives his sins, his condition is not "unjust". When nature grants a windfall bumper crop, 3 times the normal, the farmer's condition is not "unjust". When Jonas Salk accidentally discovers penicillin and all of a sudden has a cure for bacterial diseases, we do not call this "unjust". These are, variously, conditions of mercy, bounty, windfall, serendipity, grace, favor, blessed, etc, not "unjust". When a man invests money in a high-risk endeavor with a promise (if it works out) that he will reap all of the profits over 400% of his investment, because (based on reasoned guesswork) the most likely outcomes range from his losing his entire investment, to his getting back 3 times his investment, and instead he reaps 20 times his investment because the project works better than anyone expected, that's a windfall, not "unjust".

Tony said...

And, I agree that the "windfall" need not be characterized as "justly merited" in at least one sense: nobody planned out that the project would be THAT good, and "justly" aimed at that level of profit. But on another level, it is justly merited: to take a reasonable risk on an investment (according to Pope Leo XIII) means it is JUST to be repaid in profits. And to take on a greater risk implies (for just compensation) taking a greater portion of the profits. A man who "invests" in Treasury bonds is taking on virtually zero risk. A man who lays out $50 million on a possible new drug is risking that he will get back NOTHING at all. It is just for him to seek greater profits on the project. Indeed, if he is the ONLY person taking a risk by putting up ALL of the money for the project, if he pays ALL of the employees a good, healthy, generous wage, and pays for ALL of the supplies, and pays for ALL of the testing trials etc., he justly can expect to receive the vast majority of the profits that come if the drug works out. So, if it works out better than anyone expected, he may indeed be justly owed large amounts that are gained in profits, even if (at the outset) nobody expected such large amounts and could not plan for them.