Tuesday, November 23, 2021

MacIntyre on human dignity

Recently, Alasdair MacIntyre presented a talk on the theme “Human Dignity: A Puzzling and Possibly Dangerous Idea?” at the Fall Conference of the de Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture at the University of Notre Dame.  You can watch it on YouTube.  It has gotten a lot of attention even beyond academic circles, which is not surprising given MacIntyre’s stature together with the question he raises in the title.  What follows is a summary of the talk followed by my own comments.  I’m only going to cover MacIntyre’s main themes; there are various details (such as MacIntyre’s comments on specific historical examples) for which you’ll have to listen to his talk.

Whose dignity?  Which humans?

MacIntyre starts out by distinguishing between two conceptions of human dignity, one of which he evidently regards as unproblematic but which is not widely known today, and the other of which is widely appealed to today but, MacIntyre thinks, is problematic.  According to this latter conception, dignity is something that all human beings have, and their having it entails that we owe every human being respect.  Hence, according to this view of human dignity (and to use MacIntyre’s examples) we owe respect even to people who torture children, and to Goebbels and Stalin.  This, MacIntyre notes, is a puzzling idea.  But it is also vague exactly what this respect and dignity amount to.

MacIntyre says that this conception of human dignity became prevalent only after World War II, and that it is reflected in documents like the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in various post-war European constitutions.  And its vagueness, he suggests, was deliberate, because it was designed to secure rhetorical agreement among people who did not agree on substantive matters (Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims, atheists, conservatives, liberals, etc.).

A rival conception of human dignity is associated with Aquinas, and given exposition in the 20th century Thomist philosopher Charles De Koninck’s essay “The Primacy of the Common Good against the Personalists.”  There are four components to this conception:

1. What distinguishes human beings from other creatures is the end toward which we are directed, which is to know and love God.  The dignity of this end is what gives us our dignity.

2. There are further ends associated with this end, most importantly the common good of the society of which we are parts.  This entails a rejection of individualism.

3. Whether we achieve these ends is up to us, given our powers as rational agents with free choice.

4. Insofar as we fail to direct ourselves to these ends, we lose our dignity or worth, and no one any longer has reason to treat us as possessing it.

The Aquinas/De Koninck conception of human dignity differs from the post-war conception in three crucial ways.  First, the post-war conception was designed to secure agreement between people holding various different modern moral and political views, whereas Aquinas’s account is deeply at odds with those views.  Second, for Aquinas, individuals can and do lose their dignity, whereas for the post-war conception, no one ever loses it.  Third, the post-war conception holds that we have dignity simply by virtue of being human, whereas for Aquinas, it is not what we are that gives us dignity, but rather what we should became that gives it to us.

Three rival versions of inquiry into dignity

MacIntyre next notes that there are three basic alternative approaches one could take toward these rival accounts of human dignity.  First, one could reject both of them.  Second, one could reject what he calls the post-war conception.  Third, one could reject the Aquinas/De Koninck conception.  For the purposes of this talk, MacIntyre focuses on weighing the respective merits of the post-war and Aquinas/De Koninck accounts (rather than considering some third alternative or throwing out the notion of dignity altogether).

Why have many people found the post-war conception attractive?  MacIntyre suggests that there are six or seven reasons.  The view that all human beings have dignity rules out slavery.  It rules out other kinds of mistreatment of people.  It rules out killing the innocent.  It rules out insulting and humiliating people.  It rules out arbitrary discrimination against people.  It requires us to give other people’s views a fair hearing before judging them.  And it rules out lying to people (though MacIntyre says that people now seem to be widely abandoning the idea that it is wrong to lie).

But MacIntyre next asks: What gives us a rational justification for believing that all human beings really do have dignity in a sense that would rule out these things?  The two main contemporary justifications are contractarian and Kantian.  But these attempted justifications are at odds with one another, and the notion of human dignity has also been subjected to consequentialist objections by writers like Peter Singer.  The upshot is that attempts to justify the post-war conception of human dignity are no less controversial than that conception itself is.

So, the post-war conception is hard to justify.  But MacIntyre also suggests that it may, in addition, be positively harmful.  For it is an entirely negative conception, requiring of us only that we do not do certain things to people.  But in a sound morality, MacIntyre thinks, negative precepts have their importance only relative to positive ones. 

For example, suppose we free a group of slaves, but leave it at that, and do nothing positively to improve the unhappy condition slavery has reduced them to.  Or suppose we outlaw abortion, but do nothing to remedy a situation in which the children who are born are not sufficiently provided for.  It is not plausible to suppose that respect for the dignity of the slaves or the children requires only the negative duty of not enslaving or aborting them, with no positive obligations to them beyond that.

MacIntyre then revisits the Aquinas/De Koninck conception of human dignity.  He notes that it distinguishes between dignity and utility, where the latter involves having value only as a means and the former involves having value as an end.  And again, it holds that our dignity derives from our having the end of knowing and loving God.  This end in turn derives from our nature as rational agents.  The reason is that the highest realization of our rationality is having the fullest possible understanding of things, and that entails knowing God as first cause.  And the highest realization of our having wills is to love the most perfect object of desire, and that is God.  Our dignity thus derives not from what we are actually, but what we are potentially, i.e. knowers and lovers of God.

Again, he notes that on the Aquinas/De Koninck conception, another of our ends is contributing to the common good, and that this entails rejecting individualism.  This implies in turn various positive obligations rather than a mere negative duty not to do certain things.  And MacIntyre suggests (acknowledging that this is his own inference rather than De Koninck’s) that among the things this would entail is provision of adequate childcare services for all, education for all, employment for all, and so on.

After dignity

MacIntyre then reiterates the point that on the Aquinas/De Koninck conception of human dignity, unlike the post-war conception, our dignity can be lost by sinning and turning away from God.  He notes that for Aquinas, a human being who does this is worse than a beast and that Aquinas links this to the legitimacy of the death penalty.

Does this mean that we do not owe such sinful human beings justice and charity?  MacIntyre says that that does not follow.  However, he notes that any appeal to justice necessarily presupposes a shared account of what it is to be a member of a flourishing social order (family, larger political community, etc.).  As long as there is no agreement on that, appeals to justice will not be effective.

Relatedly, he notes at the end of his talk, in recent years Catholics have often supposed that when dealing with a secular audience, they can appeal to the notion of human dignity in order to justify the Church’s teaching on various moral issues.  But this is a mistake, because there is no agreement between Catholics and the secular world on the rival background assumptions that are necessary to give the notion of dignity content.

During the Q and A period, MacIntyre elaborated on some of these points.  John O’Callaghan suggested that we need to distinguish between losing one’s dignity, and failing to live up to it.  Why, he asks, can’t we say merely that a sinner has failed to live up to it?  Why say that the sinner loses his dignity?  Furthermore, if a Hitler or a Goebbels loses his dignity, does this entail that we could torture them?  If not, why not?

In response, MacIntyre says, first, that we should not torture such people, but not because they have dignity.  Rather, we should not do so because it would be contrary to justice to do so.  He also claims that at least for Aquinas, it’s not merely that a sinner has turned away from the end of knowing and loving God, but that, even if only temporarily, he is no longer directed to that end.

MacIntyre here also makes a couple of interesting side remarks.  He says that the Laval Thomism associated with De Koninck was the most important strain of Thomism in the twentieth century, and that Ralph McInerny, who was the foremost exponent of Laval Thomism after De Koninck, was the most important philosopher ever to teach at the University of Notre Dame.  MacIntyre says that other Notre Dame philosophers wouldn’t agree with him about this, but that that simply reflects ignorance.

Melissa Moschella then suggested that the notion of human dignity does more philosophical work than MacIntyre gives it credit for.  For example, in bioethics it provides a way of grounding the idea that all human beings (unlike non-human animals) share common membership of the moral community.  In reply, MacIntyre says that the concept of justice is independent of and prior to the notion of dignity, so that we don’t need the notion of dignity in order to do the work in question.

Ben Conroy then suggested that the Thomistic conception of dignity that MacIntyre favors might be accused of having had some bad consequences, just as the modern conception of dignity has.  His example is excessively harsh treatment of heretics during the Middle Ages.  In reply, MacIntyre says, first, that as a matter of history, there is no reason to think that Aquinas’s conception of dignity, specifically, influenced the way heretics were treated.  Second, he says that when we consider how heretics ought to be treated, it is really the concept of justice that is doing the work, rather than the concept of human dignity. 

He notes that on an Aristotelian conception of justice (unlike, say, John Rawls’s conception) treating someone justly by giving him his due requires knowing what it is to be a member of a flourishing family, workplace, or other social community.  And in the case of the Church’s dealing with heretics, he says, the problem was that the Church did not have an adequate understanding of what dealing with them justly requires.

Finally, Chris Wolfe asked whether, on Aquinas’s view as interpreted by De Koninck, the nation state, and not just the local community, can be said to have a common good.  MacIntyre’s answer is that the modern state is problematic as an institution, but that it is nevertheless there, so that we have to work within its organizational framework in order to achieve common goods.  It isn’t itself really an instrument of the common good, but it does afford resources and obstacles vis-à-vis the common good.  An example he gives of a resource that it makes possible is maternity leave.

Some comments on MacIntyre on dignity

Again, that’s all just a summary of the main thread of MacIntyre’s talk, which I thought I’d write up to help organize my own thoughts and give context for the comments to follow.  It also seems to me that some other people who have commented on MacIntyre’s talk have cherry-picked certain remarks that are of special interest to them, but which could give a distorted picture of the talk’s overall theme to someone who hasn’t heard it.  So, a summary seemed worthwhile.  I have tried simply to report what he said, but if any reader thinks I’ve misunderstood or misrepresented him in any way, let me know. 

Here are my own comments.  First, I strongly sympathize with MacIntyre’s general theme that the notion of human dignity is more problematic and less interesting than many contemporary Catholics suppose.  Indeed, I’ve made the point myself several times over the years (e.g. here and here).  Shouting “human dignity!” does exactly zero work in justifying claims about abortion, euthanasia, etc. because what human dignity amounts to and what it entails are themselves no less contested than those issues are.  In order to show that respect for human dignity rules out those things, you need to do the hard work of setting out the natural law reasoning that shows that they are intrinsically evil.  But once you’ve done that, talk of “human dignity” drops away as otiose.

Having said that, I’m not convinced by some of the specific points MacIntyre makes.  For example, it doesn’t seem to me to be correct to say that what he calls the post-war conception of human dignity amounts merely to a set of negative requirements.  For some people, such as libertarians, it might, but that is because they’re libertarians, not because they’re appealing to human dignity.  A Rawlsian liberal, a social democrat, or a socialist might claim that human dignity does require various positive obligations, rather than merely negative duties to avoid certain ways of treating people.

MacIntyre might respond that these positive obligations really follow from the views about justice that these theorists have, and not from the notion of dignity.  But says who?  Precisely because the notion of dignity is so vague (as MacIntyre also complains), it’s not clear why it would have to entail only a set of negative requirements.

In this way, two of MacIntyre’s points seem to me to be in tension with one another.  On the one hand, he says that the post-war notion of dignity is too vague, but on the other hand he also suggests that it may entail only negative obligations.  Well, if it really does allow for only negative obligations, then it’s not that vague after all.  But if the post-war conception of dignity is vague – as I agree it is – then it doesn’t clearly rule out positive obligations, because it doesn’t clearly rule out much at all.  (Indeed, it doesn’t by itself even entail all negative obligations – for example, some people think it doesn’t rule out abortion and euthanasia.)  Hence, it seems to me that MacIntyre should have just stuck with the objection that the post-war conception is too vague, and not bothered with the claim that it entails only negative obligations.

A second problem is that I don’t think MacIntyre’s response to John O’Callaghan’s point really works.  After all, a sinning human being is still a human being, and thus still has a human nature, and thus still has the end entailed by having the nature, which is knowing God (albeit not the intimate knowledge of the divine essence entailed by the beatific vision).  And if the sinner is baptized, he remains baptized after sinning and thus still has the same supernatural end of the beatific vision (even if he has frustrated the realization of this end).  The problem is not that he has lost the ends in question, but that he is not doing what is necessary to realize them.  Hence it seems more apt to say, as John suggests, that he is not living up to the demands of his dignity, rather than that he has lost his dignity.  (In general, the failure clearly to distinguish and relate what is true of us by nature and what is true of us by virtue of grace may pose problems for MacIntyre’s treatment of Aquinas.)

A way to reconcile MacIntyre’s and John’s views is to appeal to a distinction emphasized by Steven Long (who was also influenced by De Koninck), between the “substantive dignity” that follows simply upon having a certain nature and the “acquired dignity” of someone who has obeyed the divine law.  The sinner loses the second (which is perhaps what MacIntyre wants to emphasize) while retaining the first (which is perhaps what John O’Callaghan wants to emphasize).

I am strongly sympathetic to MacIntyre’s emphasis on the common good and criticism of individualism.  But I am not so keen on the examples he gives of how to secure the former, such as maternity leave, childcare, and the like.  To be sure, MacIntyre only mentions such examples briefly and in passing and doesn’t elaborate on exactly what he has in mind.  But the problem with simply citing such examples without elaborating on them is that they cannot properly be understood without factoring in the principle of subsidiarity, which is crucial to understanding the Thomistic conception of the common good.

Take child care.  Is the provision of adequate child care essential to a just society ordered toward the common good?  Of course.  But exactly who is to provide for it?  For example, who is responsible for providing child care for my children?  The answer is that I am.  What if I am unable to do it?  The answer is that the primary responsibility for assisting me lies with my extended family.  What if they are unable to do it?  The answer is that the local Church and local community more generally ought to offer assistance.  Is there a role for more centralized authorities, such as the state or federal government?  Yes, but only to the extent that the sources of aid closer to those who need it are not sufficient.

Hence while Thomistic natural law theory (and Catholic social teaching, which was developed in light of it) rule out libertarianism, they also rule out socialism, as well as (I would argue) social democracy and Rawlsian egalitarian liberalism.  Now, under the influence of these latter doctrines, most people today, when they think of aspects of the common good like the ones MacIntyre cites, tend reflexively to think of centralized government as the agency that ought to provide them.  And that is contrary to the principle of subsidiarity, which, while it requires larger-scale levels of society (such as centralized government) to aid lower-level ones (like the family) when strictly necessary, at the same time and as a matter of justice forbids the larger-scale levels from doing so where it is not necessary.  In other words, whereas modern egalitarians think of central government as the provider of first resort, the natural law tradition and Catholic social teaching think of it as the provider of last resort.  (It is still a provider in that case, though, contrary to libertarianism.) 

The point of this is to safeguard the independence of the family and local communities, which are the primary context within which we manifest our social nature and realize the common good.  Without an accent on the family and subsidiarity, MacIntyre’s pitting of the common good against individualism – with which, again, I strongly agree – could be understood in a way that reflects, not Thomistic natural law, but rather modern egalitarian doctrines which Thomists ought to resist just as they resist individualism.

Related reading:

The catastrophic spider [On Kant on human dignity]

Liberty, equality, fraternity?

Liberalism and the five natural inclinations

80 comments:

  1. I think that discussion is one of extreme importance especially nowadays. The vagueness of human dignity in the actual context is something that I never really elaborated on by myself so seeing intelligent people talking about it with so much property certainly is one of the most fructiferous learnings.

    Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts on that matter, Ed! And I would say that this was one of the most important posts that I read recently.

    May God bless us all!

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  2. "After dignity"
    No pun intended of course.

    "Second, for Aquinas, individuals can and do lose their dignity, whereas for the post-war conception, no one ever loses it."

    I wonder how causally related the post-war conception is to the modern idea of God's unconditional love & forgiveness? This isn't something that you'd find much support for in, for example, St. Alphonsus Liguori's soberingly-titled sermon On the Number of Sins Beyond Which God Pardons No More (https://www.olrl.org/snt_docs/num_sins.shtml).

    Good points on subsidiarity. Agreed that it is key vis-a-vis fostering the common good.

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    1. “God's unconditional love & forgiveness? This isn't something that you'd find much support for in, for example, St. Alphonsus Liguori's . . .”

      “Peter asked, Lord how often should I forgive my brother? Seven times? Jesus said, I say to you seven times seventy times!” (Matt 18:22)

      Does that mean we're tapped out at 490 times? Can't do 491 times?

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    2. T N,

      Your quote from the Gospel is about human forgiveness of humans, not divine forgiveness of humans.

      If you're looking for a stronger quote from Liguori on the matter of God's unconditional forgiveness though there's this from his sermon for Easter Sunday (!) titled The Miserable State of Relapsing Sinners:

      "God has indeed promised pardon to all who repent of their sins, but he has not promised to any one the grace to repent of the faults which he has committed. Sorrow for sin is a pure gift of God; if he withholds it, how will you repent? And without repentance, how can you obtain pardon? Ah! the Lord will not allow himself to be mocked."

      Ah, the lack of peace this caused in my youth!

      To tie in better with the OP, though, I don't think Liguori's theology has much room for the post-war conception of human dignity. LOL. Or for that matter, it's not as if eternal damnation itself has much room for it either.

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    3. Albinus,

      If repentance is a grace from God, surely the human act of forgiveness is as well. Yet humans are called to outdo God in forgiving others?

      You quote Liguori: "God has indeed promised pardon to all who repent of their sins", which sounds like unconditional forgiveness, no? (in common use, the expression "unconditional forgiveness" assumes the understanding that the transgressor seeks forgiveness, though that technically is a condition). I'm certainly not denying that repentance is a grace, but that's not really the point.

      Be that as it may, are you going to accept double predestination in order to maintain the point? Are you claiming Liguori did? Scripture tells us that God desires the salvation of all, and double predestination is condemned by the magisterium, so God must be willing to forgive anyone any sin (provided they want forgiveness). Otherwise, Calvin was right.

      Purgatory would not make much sense if God doesn't unconditionally forgive since the eternal debt of sin is forgiven even when the temporal punishment due to sin isn't satisfied (thus Purgatory).

      A baptized infant didn't do anything to receive the state of grace. Is that not unconditional? Redemption is unconditional. Grace, by definition, is unconditional, no?

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    4. What does "unconditional" mean? Grace is gratuitous, not necessary. "Unconditional" could mean either gratuitous or necessary.

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    5. (in common use, the expression "unconditional forgiveness" assumes the understanding that the transgressor seeks forgiveness, though that technically is a condition)

      T N, I would dispute whether this is indeed the common usage. It seems to me that those (who are many) who presume God will in fact forgive all sins don't seem to require that there be repentance. And in typical human fashion, those who assume all WILL go to heaven, even if they initially think that you have to ask forgiveness for sins first, often tend to live their lives forgetting about repentance, and in practice just assume that "God has forgiven me". After all "love means never having to say you're sorry."

      Setting that aside as a matter of observation of human practice, it still seems to me inappropriate to dismiss the seeking forgiveness as if it were "assumed" and therefore not qualifying as a "condition", in order to characterize unconditional love. God has love for all things in the universe: that's why they exist, because he has loved them such as to make them real. He necessarily, then, loves for the rest of all time those beings whose existence will persist for the rest of all time, so that they continue to exist. But that doesn't mean he forgives all sinners for all sins, even though he loves them. His love for them pertains to them as they are constituted: if they are in a state of grace, he loves them with the love of friendship. If they fall from grace, he loves them as enemies who had once been friends. But he loves them. (Be it noted that he sent his only Son to redeem his enemies who hated him.)

      The problem is not that he has lost the ends in question, but that he is not doing what is necessary to realize them. Hence it seems more apt to say, as John suggests, that he is not living up to the demands of his dignity, rather than that he has lost his dignity. (In general, the failure clearly to distinguish and relate what is true of us by nature and what is true of us by virtue of grace may pose problems for MacIntyre’s treatment of Aquinas.)

      While this is true, I fear that Prof. Feser failed to point out the critical feature that makes the distinction of the two aspects important not only in God's dealing with us, but in our dealings with each other: that not only does a man who has (gravely) sinned lost grace and thus his claim to an everlasting life of friendship with God, but he retains the possibility of repentance and regaining that friendship. He has that possibility as long as he retains the underlying dignity of his rational, human nature. So, by being human he cannot (in this life) lose his second referent dignity absolutely and irretrievably.

      The son of the King has been banished for a grave sin against the King, but the banishment was not made permanent: it was conditioned on the son's remorse, repentance, and begging forgiveness. Are you going to treat that banished son as a dog to be whipped, on his way out of the kingdom, or are you going to treat him as, potentially, the prince and future king he might once again be?

      If repentance is a grace from God, surely the human act of forgiveness is as well. Yet humans are called to outdo God in forgiving others?

      Indeed, I have heard it said that by forgiving a sinner before he has shown remorse, you actually CALL DOWN from God the grace of remorse so that he can ask forgiveness. And further, that your act of forgiveness is, a grace to you, so that you can be a participant and assistant in God saving that person. So that FIRST God loved and initiated movement in your heart. So, no, God is not the laggard in doing good.

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    6. Tony,

      Indeed, presumption is wrong, but it was not the issue between Albinus and I.

      But what is meant by "unconditional" is important (as David McPike implies by his question). God's grace is not conditional on anything we can do to "earn" it; we cannot, strictly speaking, obligate God to any action. But perhaps Albinus means something else.

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    7. T N,
      No, I don't think Liguori believed that anyone is positively predestined to damnation.

      But he did believe apparently that God has allotted to each man, in differing amounts, a particular number of sins beyond which He will not pardon. I can hardly imagine a doctrine, except perhaps double predestination, that is more directly contrary to the modern idea of God's love and forgiveness as unconditional. I.e., that it is not conditioned on the number of sins one commits but rather that God is always ready to forgive and indeed wants to forgive us more than we can imagine.

      One might praise the Infinite Justice of a God who damns children after their first mortal sin (as Liguori relates in his sermon of children who were 12, 8, and even 5 years old!) since apparently "one" was their allotted number, but who would praise His love and forgiveness as unconditional?

      In any case, my overarching point was simply that the post-war conception of human dignity doesn't fit well with Catholic Theology, whereas it seems that modern non-Catholic understandings of God's love/forgiveness are intelligible in light of this post-war conception which holds that the possession of human dignity is not conditioned on the number of sins one commits. So it only seems logical to ask, as I did, whether this is a coincidence or is there some historical / philosophical causal link here.

      David McPike,
      By "unconditional" I meant "not conditioned on the number of sins committed".

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    8. But he did believe apparently that God has allotted to each man, in differing amounts, a particular number of sins beyond which He will not pardon.

      Nothing in Scripture suggests that God allots a specific number of sins to be forgiven, and when you have surpassed that, God withholds forgiveness even if you repent and ask sincerely. Indeed, everything in Scripture that speaks to this indicates that God always forgives in that case.

      The question is, rather, WHY do some repent and seek forgiveness, and some do not. And whatever ELSE is the case, it is clear that God provides for / allows other persons to have a part in the providential order by which some are brought to a state of repentance: those who preach forgiveness, those who give good example, those who pray for sinners, those who make sacrifice for others, and those who forgive sinners before they have repented, all these may have a God-given role in being the occasion by which God calls a person to repentance. But this makes possible that some of these others, whom God made room for their being the means by which a sinner became repentant, refused to take on the role...and the sinner was not called, and did not repent.

      It's not that God sometimes refuses to forgive sins when asked, it's that God does not necessarily provide an infinite number assistances where a sinner's heart is turned to repentance enough TO ASK. And even there, it may be understood more in the sense that IF a person were to live long enough, he might have had more opportunities to hear that call to repentance, but God simply did not allot him more lifetime. It's not forgiveness that ran out, but his time to make use of it. God doesn't give people forever.

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    9. Tony,

      Agreed on the gist of that being in accord with the sensus catholicus, though there are some quotes of the Saints that seem to imply the opposite. For example, Liguori again in his sermon On the Death of the Sinner:

      "It is true that, in whatsoever hour the sinner is converted, God promises to pardon him; but to no sinner has God promised the grace of conversion at the hour of death. “Seek the Lord while he may be found.” (Isa. iv. 6.) Then, there is for some sinners a time when they shall seek God and shall not find him. “You shall seek me, and shall not find me.” (John vii. 34.) "

      Yikes.

      That said, there are other quotes from Liguori that stress God's willingness to give the grace of repentance and that hardly seem compatible with his more austere side. Really, I think some of his sayings are rather rhetorical. I.e., deliberately aimed at terrifying the congregation unto repentance than they are at perfect theological accuracy.

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  3. Thank you for this post. I am grateful for the work of Alisdair MacIntyre and for those continuing to engage with his work. In reading Whose Justice? Which Rationality? it appeared to me that he did not account well for why one would enter into a particular tradition. If I am not yet a disciple of Neitsche or of St. Thomas, by what criteria should I choose one over another? It seems to me that he makes it appear as though the choice is completely ad hoc. Do you have any thoughts on this? Do you have any book recommendations of Thomists who have engaged his work related to this question?

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    1. The 3rd book in that trilogy by MacIntyre offers some answers on that: 3 Rival Versions of Moral Inquiry

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    2. Michael Copas:

      It seems to me that the beginnings of an answer are found in MacIntyre's After Virtue, where describes how to choose between "incommensurable" ethics-systems.

      The two systems will offer competing proposals about what a system of ethics ought to do...and (of course!) each system will conveniently fulfill the standard that it proposes!

      Any other system likely won't...but not because it was trying to fulfill the first system's standard and failed! On the contrary, it wasn't trying to fulfill the first system's criteria. It had its own separate standard, which it fulfilled, and which the first system didn't fulfill (because it wasn't trying to).

      If they had a shared standard, they could be compared against it. But if they have separate standards, then they are "incommensurable." Now what?

      If one (and only one) system were complete, with no serious challenges from critics, that'd help it to "win." But that never happens in a fallen world. If humans discover a perfect ethics system, being humans, some of them will misunderstand it and criticize it incorrectly. In comparing a perfect system with an imperfect one, we should expect both to look imperfect, to us.

      How, then, can we select one among incommensurable systems?

      Well, the two systems might turn out to be equally bad, such that there really is no reason to prefer one over the other.

      But MacIntyre says that one system might bring with it a new set of underlying analyses which apply both to itself and to its competitors. In such a case, we might find that these analyses predict and explain all the ways in which the competitor systems are failing, while the competitors' analyses gave us no particular insight into either the failures of their own systems, or of the first system. A situation like that would be the "tell" that the first system was superior to all the others.

      MacIntyre then offers a historical account of how AT-style virtue ethics was discarded in a fit of cultural exasperation and boredom, without being disproven. He shows how the attempts to replace it, introduced by Nietzsche and Kant and Sartre and Moore and the rest (which he labels "The Enlightenment Project") all failed. And he shows how the A-T virtue-ethics tradition predicts all those failures, and even the inevitability of their final despairing collapse into moral agnosticism and sentimentalism.

      So, it is on that basis, MacIntyre tells us, that we need to chuck the "Enlightenment Project's" underlying assumptions (which are unable to make headway with Virtue Ethics' strong points, or even to explain its weak points) and opt for the underlying assumptions of something like the A-T ethical tradition (which not only achieves its own strong points and equals-or-exceeds the Enlightenment Project's strong points, but also easily explains why and how the Enlightenment Project was doomed to fail, and even why the underlying assumptions of the Enlightenment Project were unable to make the same prediction).

      So if you haven't already read (or haven't recently re-read) After Virtue, I'd look into it. I think you'll find MacIntyre saying something like, "Look. Thomism and Nietzchism both still need some work. But even the Enlightenment critics of Nietzchism are correct in their criticisms, even if they don't see the ways their own criticisms can be turned back upon their preferred views. Nietzsche explains why Kant is wrong, and is correct; Kant's disciples explain why Nietzsche is wrong, and are also correct; because while both can't be right, they can both be wrong. In the meantime, Thomism explains why both are wrong, and shows how they could never possibly be right even in principle. They don't "get" Thomism, but Thomism "gets" them. And that, alone, is sufficient reason to believe that Thomism is on the right track."

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    3. @anonymous:

      Thank you. I have read After Virtue and Whose Justice? Which Rationality, but had not yet read the third volume. After taking a brief glance at Three Rival Versions of Moral Inquiry, it appears that he frames the options to be an encyclopedic version of moral inquiry, a geneological version, and a traditional version. Yet, if my memory serves me, I believe he understood those adhering to Nietsche as part of a "tradition" and yet this "tradition" is in fundamental ways antithetical to the Thomistic tradition. I will be interested to see how he fills out these categories and how that might be helpful for answering my question.

      @RC

      Thank you for your thoughtful response. It seems to me that the framework he has created wherein accounts of justice and rationality are mutually dependent leaves no principled way to avoid the selection of a tradition being ad hoc. The only way to avoid this consequence is to admit that one of the versions of inquiry is irrational in a fundamental sense (i.e. contrary to natural law and violates the principle of non-contradiction). In other words, there must be something fundamental to human nature that allows each *individual* to recognize when they cannot live out a particular account of justice or when/how some account of justice is incoherent.

      This is actually suggested in what you assert in that you presuppose the ability of the individual to assess systems *by some criteria*. For example, the variation in "standards" for determining the rationality of an account of justice could itself be assessed. In other words, someone could in principle recognize that the "standards" of one system are in fact pseudo-standards. Put differently, they might recognize that one account of rationality is irrational in that it cannot be consistently lived or the system and standard of rationality cannot be complete and entails some ad hoc violation internally.

      For this reason, I don't see how the idea that we must work within a tradition is helpful. Why not simply appeal to a principle within human nature such as the principle of non-contradiction? That seems to me to account for both the rationality and justice of some men and the irrationality and injustice of others in a way that avoids the attribution of "postmodern" (i.e. relativism) that MacCintyre received in the wake of After Virtue. (I think he notes this in a subsequent edition of After Virtue and/or in Whose Justice?)

      In other words, it is not a "system [that] brings in the set of underlying analyses." A rational system must proceed from a rational nature to be grounded in a way that avoids relativism.

      I recognize that the AT tradition is able to explain the enlightenment project and able to account for how it fails and that the enlightenment project is unable to return the favor. However, it would be helpful for MacCintyre to emphasize that the former has an account of rationality that is universally rooted in natural law and that this would avoid relativism. I would assume that he would not disagree with this and perhaps his aim is simply to provide a means for someone in the stream of enlightenment thought to begin to consider how they might adjudicate between two systems without first accepting the existence of natural law. This approach simply presupposes an account of rationality that is consistent with natural law without explicitly appealing to it. In doing so, however, MacIntyre has not avoided "being in a tradition" to assess the various tradition. The tradition that he is in could be called "natural law" or "authentic rationality" or something of that sort. For this reason, I question whether the category of tradition--which is typically associated with things that we receive that we could not in principle access on our own (i.e. matters of faith)-- is even helpful for a discourse about rationality and justice.

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  4. The post-war conception reminds me of the New Natural Lawyers.

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  5. The Thomistic view is represented as: It is “what we should became that gives [dignity] to us”, and “Our dignity thus derives not from what we are actually, but what we are potentially”.

    Is it not merely a matter of semantics to say the more modern view can claim likewise? Given the Incarnation, is it not true that this distinction applies to all? Christ died for us while we were still sinners, not for any inherent worth, and now that He has, is human nature not reoriented?

    “After all, a sinning human being is still a human being, and thus still has a human nature, and thus still has the end entailed by having the nature, which is knowing God (albeit not the intimate knowledge of the divine essence entailed by the beatific vision).”

    But now that the Incarnation is a historical fact, has human nature not been reoriented even prior to justification? It seems as though the Early Fathers thought so.

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    1. The Incarnation does not change the human nature: actually it defines the Hypostasis of the Christ Himself as such, and refers only to His Person.

      When we say that Christ has forever won the death and sin, it just means that: He, and only He, has won the death and the sin thanks to His Perfect Sacrifice.

      The human nature, as such, still stays corrupted by the original sin as it was before, and there is no change whatsoever: we do continue to die individually, as that victory over the death is not ours by any means, but only His.

      The Incarnation has not granted any new "rights" or any changes in their nature's quality to humans: it is the sole realm of God's gratuity, i.e. He does not owe us anything either, nor we have any newly acquired "right" to be saved by the simple fact to be humans, and everything is still, and always, at the free and gratuitous discretion of the Lord.

      Thinking otherwise leads to more problems that it solves, like modernist positions do.

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    2. Gaetan,

      Yes, all that is just Catholic teaching and is not what I’m talking about. Christ became man and thereby redeemed mankind. We can’t baptize poodles, or toasters, or trees because God did not become a poodle, or a toaster, or a tree. But why does baptism (and therefore justification) require a human nature if not for the fact that the Incarnation has “changed” human nature even prior to justification?

      This is Mathias Scheeben’s argument in ‘The Mysteries of Christianity’ and he cites a long list of Early Church Fathers who make this very claim:

      “The Son of God assumed the nature of flesh common to all; and having thus become the true vine, He contains within Himself the entire race of its offspring.” St. Hilary of Poitiers

      “From the whole human nature, to which was joined divinity, arose, as the first fruit of the common mass, the man who is in Christ, by whom all mankind was united to divinity.” St Gregory of Nyssa

      There is a long list of others.

      And, on this point Thomism faces the challenge of avoiding its necessary claim that man could have two different ends: Those who meet a supernatural end in the Beatific Vision, and those who would, if the Thomist position is correct, meet an ultimate end in some sort of natural limbo state.

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    3. There is nothing that has ben "changed" in the human nature even prior to the justification: simply because it is in the human nature itself the capacity to be shared with the divine nature in a specific Individual.

      This is what is the only base of human dignity: to have ben created at the image of God from the beginning, this is what teaches the Church.

      St Hilary and St Gregory's expression must be understood within this magisterial context and not extrapolated as metaphoric hyperbole.

      The only "change" we know about is the once concerning the ever blessed Virgin Mary: but here the teaching of the Church is also very clear, She is a human, Her nature has not changed, but She was conceived and born without the Original Sin.

      We, humans, all are subjected to the original sin and as baptized we are not even exempted from its consequences.

      The individual possibility to have access to the Grace of Baptism after the Holy Sacrifice of the Cross does not imply any change of our human nature, like the possibility to have access to the Zueckerberger's Metaverse does not change our human nature either.

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    4. Gaetan,

      “simply because it is in the human nature itself”. “the only base of human dignity: to have ben created at the image of God from the beginning,”

      The Incarnation had nothing to do with it? Oh, ok.

      “St Hilary and St Gregory's expression must be understood within this magisterial context and not extrapolated as metaphoric hyperbole.”

      Metaphoric hyperbole? Huh?

      “The individual possibility to have access to the Grace of Baptism after the Holy Sacrifice of the Cross does not imply any change of our human nature”

      Oh, ok, try to baptize a Volkswagen then.

      Look, there’s a massive literature on this issue and you clearly don’t understand the subject, but there’s no way you’re going to cry ‘uncle’ because you’re fighting what you think is Modernism.

      Peace out, Bruh.

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    5. Dearest Bruh TN,

      When people start offending instead of discussing is that they are at loss of arguments.

      (1) The Human Nature itself is a necessary preamble to Incarnation.... Not the other way around as you seem to pretend

      (2) Also St Hilary and St Gregory must be evaluated and assessed against the Magisterium and not the other way around, once again like you seem to pretend

      (3) A VW does not participate to the human nature that I know of: was the Beetle created at the image of God? Can you even think of an hypostasis of the nature of VW's cars and the Second Person of the Holy Trinity?

      (4) I do not know what massive literature you are referring too, but I think you actually refer to the the catalogues of the car industry since 130 years

      In Pace, Bruh TN

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  6. I'm not sure how MacIntyre could answer the issue of abortion: since an unborn child is unbaptized and of no immediate value to the community, then why is abortion murder?

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    1. Yeah, I think I agree with what I think you're pointing out. I suppose the answer would be that it's a matter of justice, but my question in return would be "justice grounded in what?" Human dignity?

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  7. It also seems like we all have an innate sense of the relative equality of human dignity as reflected in our law. The murder of both a virtuous and a vicious individual usually results in the same ruling in court. Maybe MacIntyre would say this is a wrongheaded approach to law, but I think intuition must count for something

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    1. Yeah, I think you're pointing out a legit problem.

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  8. Of possible interest and relevance: In the 8 April 1993 issue of the London Review of Books (Vol. 15, No. 7), in a review of Charles Taylor's The Ethics of Authenticity entitled “In a Flattened World,” the American philosopher Richard Rorty (1931-2007) wrote, “The great merit of Taylor’s brief, non-technical, powerful book ... is the vigour with which he restates the point which Hegel (and later Dewey) urged against Rousseau and Kant: that we are only individuals in so far as we are social…. Being authentic, being faithful to ourselves, is being faithful to something which was produced in collaboration with a lot of other people.... The core of Taylor’s argument is a vigorous and entirely successful criticism of two intertwined bad ideas: that you are wonderful just because you are you, and that ‘respect for difference’ requires you to respect every human being, and every human culture – no matter how vicious or stupid.”

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  9. The postwar conception of human dignity has its precursor in Mohism, which emphasized "you are valuable because you are you" and universal love toward everybody. Of course, such a philosophy is extremely alienating, so for reasons of psychological comfort one or both of the principles are often rejected.

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  10. There's a problem here. Loving the lovable is not a virtue, it's justice. Love means loving the unlovable or it is no virtue at all.

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    1. >is not a virtue, it's justice

      So justice isn't a virtue? Aquinas was wrong?

      >Love means loving the unlovable

      Why? What does it mean 'to love the unlovable'? How exactly is it different from 'it is not a division unless we divide by zero'? Also, if we can (and should) love everything, doesn't this mean that literally everything is 'lovable'?

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    2. It's really not that complicated:

      "If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do as much . . . . And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? . . . But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting repayment." -- Luke 6: 32-35

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    3. "The lovable" is not synonymous with "those who love you". After all, among bad men, a very bad man may be loved by some because they benefit from his behavior.

      It is irresponsible to speak of loving "the unlovable" without qualifying it, and indeed it is oxymoronic if meant literally. Love can only be of the good - either the real good or the perceived good. Utilitarian love is a love because the other benefits me. Love properly considered is a love that acts regardless of benefit to me, acting for the good of the loved - when the loved is a creature. We cannot do good to God, so love of God cannot mean "doing good to God".

      Among men, we can love one who is in many, perhaps even MOST ways, defective in goodness, because (a) even the most defective person has SOME good to them (or they would not exist and would not have human nature), and (b) even for one who has the most degenerate morals, he MAY reverse and become good and gain heaven. We may love such a one in hope that he obtain in fruitful reality the excellence of charity that is his calling by having human nature. Thus we love one who is "unlovable" in a sense (in that they are deficient in the lovable virtues) by reason of their base-level nature (which is good and made in God's image), and by reason of the possibility of its completion in charity, by which he would be conformed to godliness, which is lovable as such.

      It is easy, for those who are good, to love those who add to the moral and theological virtues the outward polishing virtues of friendliness, courtesy, gentility, etc; but the virtue lies not in loving them primarily for their good manners, nor in their doing good things for me, but in loving the charity in them, which is an image of God in them.

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    4. Tony,

      Again, it's just really not that complicated.

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    5. T N,

      Of course it isn't. You're just trying to pass off poetry and oxymorons as a rigorous philosophical argument, that's all. Nothing in this verse from Luke contradicts what Aquinas, or MacIntyre, or Tony said (or at least you haven't shown that it does). But I even suspect you haven't read MacIntyre, as your 'justice grounded in what' questions show.

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  11. Hi, prof. Feser,
    Thanks you very much for pointing to MacIntyre's conference. I had a question about the opposition between thomism and libertarianism.
    Do you think catholic social teaching rules out versions of (paleo)libertarianism such as that associated to Hans Hermann Hoppe? I'm talking about his notion of consensual communities that should enforce conservative cultural and social values. It seems to me that one of your articles on the topic (on self property and children's right) was quite close to that position (though I know you rejected the "libertarian" label entirely later)
    Thanks you very much for your work!

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    1. Hi Spender,

      What is clearly incompatible with natural law and Catholic social teaching is the thesis that we cannot have any enforceable positive obligations to others except where these arise by consent. This is the basis of the Rothbard/Rand/Nozick sort of libertarianism according to which it is in principle unjust for the state to regulate wages, provide education or health care, etc.

      That doesn't mean that a Catholic has to support just every policy of these sorts. On the contrary, the principle of subsidiarity implies that such policies should be implemented by the state only where strictly necessary, and by the level of government closest to those who will benefit from the policies. And there may also be various prudential considerations that tell against particular policies in concrete cases.

      But what is ruled out is the doctrinaire claim that such policies may never even in principle be considered. Hence, suppose, for example, a certain living wage policy is being considered. It is open to a Catholic to argue that the policy is for such-and-such reasons unlikely to work, will cause more economic harm than good, etc. But it is not open to a Catholic to argue that the state has no right to interfere in labor contracts in any way and that the market wage is always per se just. That would contradict just wage teaching, which is part of natural law and long-standing Church teaching.

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  12. This comes as something of a shock to me as I believed the Catholic teaching that all humans have dignity by virtue of being created in the image and likeness of God. Eg CCC 1700 "The dignity of the human person is rooted in his creation in the image and likeness of God". Where does this fit in to the picture outlined by MacIntyre?

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    1. Yeah this was exactly my question upon reading this... I would have expected him to address this, as it looks to also be distinct from the "post-war" notion of dignity as well.

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    2. It is "rooted in"; it does not "consist in." Compare Feser's remarks about "substantive dignity" (which I would perhaps modify to "substantive ground of dignity") vs. "acquired dignity."

      Feser also wrote: "Hence it seems more apt to say, as John suggests, that he is not living up to the demands of his dignity, rather than that he has lost his dignity." I think Feser is wrong here and posing a false dichotomy, a contention his subsequent remarks bear out. The reality is, a man loses his dignity precisely because of his failure to live up to the demands of (the substantive ground of) his dignity. And I think MacIntyre is right and O'Callaghan is wrong insofar as O'Callaghan is committing a fallacy of secundum quid and simpliciter. The unqualified (simpliciter) sense of human dignity (human worth, human goodness) is dignity in the acquired sense (moral goodness), whereas the substantive sense (metaphysical goodness) is secondary and qualified (secundum quid). It is thus wrong to say, as O'Callaghan suggests, that the sinner does not lose his dignity but merely fails to live up to it. I think C.S. Lewis's The Great Divorce, or even Sartre's No Exit, portrays this well.

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  13. Every time I read something -- anywhere! -- that touches on the topic of positive moral obligations towards individuals (e.g. the topic of maternity leave), I feel like there's a missing level of analysis regarding the Use Of Force.

    I keep wondering, therefore, whether someone has already made arguments proving analysis of forcible action is irrelevant? ...and I just missed it? Or is it just that people consistently forget that it's a factor?

    Every act of the government is actively forcible to some degree, even if indirectly. Consequently, government involvement in solving any problem (at any level of subsidiarity!) risks being gravely immoral unless the evil being forcibly countered is of the kind which justifies forcible reply, and unless the degree and directness of the use of force is proportionate to the degree and the forcibility of the evil countered by it.

    That every governmental act is forcible (often very indirectly, as in tax-collection) is not debatable. And I do not think one can be a Catholic without holding that some evils do not warrant forcible opposition, and can only be justly opposed via non-forcible means (e.g. via voluntary monetary support of ministries or exhortations against them in the public square).

    So why does the question get so consistently skipped?

    When MacIntyre suggests that maternity leave is a good thing, I think, "Sure, if the employer offers it...and if not, maybe a different job is preferable." But that's not what MacIntyre has in mind. He's thinking of a law. What he has in mind is that the government points guns at employers and employees and says, "You may NOT contract to enter an employer-employee relationship UNLESS your contract includes this clause, worded this way."

    Now, maybe all that gun-waving is morally justified, but maybe not: It would have to be separately argued. Why doesn't anybody ever bother?

    This also came to mind when Ed stated, "For example, suppose we free a group of slaves, but leave it at that, and do nothing positively to improve the unhappy condition slavery has reduced them to."

    "We?" Who's this "we" being discussed? Is it the Rotary Club, or the Federal Government?

    I ask, because I can easily see that the Federal Government is justified wielding force to free slaves: Their condition of involuntary servitude is a forcible evil against them, and force is warranted to halt it.

    But when the positive moral obligation is considered, the justification for forcible action suddenly drops to a much lower level. (I don't say to zero. I'm unsure about that. I just know it's much lower.)

    Once the slavers themselves are reduced to penury to make restitution towards those they enslaved, and once anyone who benefitted from the enslavement have chipped in, is there really any argument that gun-waving is justified to make persons who were utterly uninvolved empty their pockets? I can well see that the Rotary Club should raise funds to help; but that the government should compel it is...not yet argued.

    If I'm overlooking something, please tell me.

    If not, then "we" (people who offer opinions in public) should distinguish sharply between two other uses of the word "we":
    1. "we should do X" intending compulsory government action, and
    2. "we should do X" meaning a voluntary fundraising effort.

    They're not the same.

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    1. An objection: There is no principled way to make a sharp distinction. Thus the distinction in practice must always be determined, with some degree of arbitrariness, through debate, negotiation, custom, propaganda (etc.).

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    2. David McPike:

      Thanks for the reply.

      I get that there is no way to make a sharp distinction. But I think a real distinction between forcible and non-forcible evils exists...and likewise, between forcible and non-forcible actions to oppose/redress those evils. (I assume you used the word "sharp" because you're saying that the distinction, while real and principled, is "fuzzy" because some things are a little bit forcible, while other things are a lot, and some things are directly forcible, while other things are indirectly so.)

      Nobody opposes pointing guns at and locking up (and sometimes even executing) mass-murderers. Using forcible opposition to an obviously-and-directly forcible evil is undisputed. That's one end of the spectrum.

      Also, people ought not to gossip, and it happens too often. How much gun-waving and locking-up of offenders, though, is warranted to oppose it? Not a lot! Should there even be a law on the books? I think not. Can we morally justify conversational meter-maids showing up at hairdresser salons (and prayer groups) to ticket offenders? Nah. It isn't that kind of offense.

      Somewhere between these two extremes is the evil of failing to stop at a stop sign. Normally, people who do that are ticketed, not, say, executed. But there needed to be some rules of the road, so folks wouldn't get killed. Failing to follow them risks death to someone, sometime. So it's kinda forcible. But it's very indirect: Any given failure-to-stop probably doesn't result in anything worse than horn-honking and frazzled nerves. So we don't lock up the bad driver right away. We issue a warning, then a ticket, then a summons, then a warrant.... It's only after a long drawn-out process that the guy winds up locked up in prison. And then, if he tries to escape prison, maybe he gets shot. The threat of the use-of-force is there, but it's distant and indirect and minimal, in proportion to the offense.

      So it's a spectrum.

      For that reason, I agree with your proposal that "the distinction in practice must always be determined, with some degree of arbitrariness, through debate, negotiation, custom...." I grant all that.

      But when doing moral philosophy, we have to ask what the general principles are, before we start negotiating about how to apply them.

      What principle is in play, here? I'm not sure this is the perfect formulation of it, but I think it's something like: "Thou shalt not, either individually or in concert with others, oppose an evil with a level and directness of forcability which is disproportionate to the forcability of the evil itself."

      I think that that (or something like it) underlies all our judgments about how we take action against different evils.

      But this means we simply cannot regard government action to correct some harm as being on the same plane as volunteer work. When the Mickey Mouse Fan Club takes up a collection for out-of-work travel agents, it's commendable. But when the City of Orlando, FL accumulates the exact same amount of funds, for the benefit of the same persons, through taxation, it's morally dubious.

      So when MacIntyre and others say, "we ought to do XYZ" and I ask, "Who's this 'we,' anyway?" it's because I don't know whether he's proposing something laudable or dubious. Is he saying, "I'll start a GoFundMe for so-and-so, and whoever wishes can chip in?" ...or, is he saying, "I'll pay my public servants to go put their hands in your pockets for the purpose of distributing your justly-acquired income in the way I see fit, and to point guns at you if you resist?"

      Maybe that's morally licit. Maybe in certain cases it's even obligatory. But I think sometimes, for some cases, it's illicit: A disproportionate exercise of force.

      And too often, nobody even asks the question.

      Why is that?

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    3. RC, I think it would help to first make a distinction between force and violence. A mother picking up an infant to feed her is using force - the girl is not moving herself. The bully in the cafeteria who shoves you out of the way is using force also, but it is in the nature of violent force, in that the force is applied against your will.

      But a second distinction is necessary: There is force used as of moral right, and force used contrary to moral right. When a child tries to cross a busy street without care, and the parent reaches out and picks him up and hauls him back onto the curb, that is a use of force that is violence in a sense because it is against the child's will. But it is also a use of force as of moral right, because the parent has the right and duty to protect the child from danger, including physical danger, and to use force to do so. Even strangers would have the right to use force in such a situation. Suppose I were in a street and oblivious to a truck approaching at high speed, and a stranger ran out and shoved me out of the way and effectively tackled me to the ground, causing all sorts of bruises and abrasions. I might think "that's assault" and sue the stranger, but no court would agree with me that this use of force is "assault". The use of force is just and of moral right because the stranger (correctly) assumed that had I been aware of the full facts, I would WANT to move out of the street, and thus he was moving me in accordance with my own good as I would have willed it.

      There are other cases where applying force as of moral right is still obvious but more difficult, and this includes punishment: when the parent force-marches a child into the corner for a small offense, this is against the child's will, but it is for his long-term good, which he cannot grasp unless he be brought to learn order by the application of due limits. When the state applies force to push a convicted criminal into a prison cell, the force is not "violence" against the criminal, even though it is against his will, because the state is using force as of moral right to protect society and to redress justice. Even when the guards must physically beat on a prisoner to make him go where he belongs, while that is violent in a sense, Pius XII and JPII would refer the "violence" of this use of force to the criminal himself, in his refusing to comply with just obligations, so while it is the state applying the force, it is the criminal's own disorder that is the cause of it: HIS will is set against the good and in violation of due order.

      It is true, as RC suggests, that all of the state's prohibitions have, at the back of them, the state's constant reminder that it can and will apply force to you if you don't comply with just commands. However, it is also standard fare that there are due limits to the amount of force the state (in the person of, say, policemen) should be willing to apply. If a cop stops you for failing to make a complete stop at a stop sign, and you (for some idiotic reason) completely refuse to comply with orders to hand over your license and registration, (but offer no actual or threat of violence), the cop should not beat you to a bloody pulp "until you comply". And any well-trained police force would recognize due limits like that. They are supposed to be trained to consider a balance of the goods to be protected and the harms involved.

      As a separate issue, the principle of subsidiarity tells us that the state - as a higher-level authority - should leave alone many matters best left to lower-level authorities like counties, cities, villages, and families. That the state taking these over will damage the internal life of the lower-level entities and (tend to) destroy them, or at least make them ineffective. And this damages the good even aside from whether the force is is good measure.

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    4. @RC:
      You say nobody opposes locking up mass murderers. I have heard tell of people who favor abolishing not only the death penalty but also prisons, i.e., long-term incarceration, as being fundamentally opposed to human dignity. And they have a point. (If "human dignity" rules out the one, why not also the other?) But as you point out: Usually nobody even asks the question, i.e., considers the more radical possibilities of penal reform. So we could ask (as you have): Why is that? I.e., why do people never try to reflect all the way to the first principles of things, why do they not undertake "Cartesian meditations" on all sorts of questions, so as to provide their views with indubitable foundations? And as you may be aware, there are a number of more or less standard responses to this question.

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  14. If human dignity is something which is proper to the definition of human nature itself, it means that one has to look at what is intrinsically specific to humanity which is not found in other creatures.

    Hence starting from a materialistic point of view, whatever the intellectual construct used, it will be intrinsically impossible to show that human dignity is proper to the human nature, simply because atoms and quarks are creatures.

    Human dignity can only be founded in the origin itself of humans' creation: the fact that they are created at the image of God. Nothing else can be used to define that intrinsic dignity.

    At the end, what makes a single person dignifies is simply to be "derived" from humans: his filiation from humans is what guarantees dignity to a specific human.

    Sometime we do refer to the Turing experiment to be able to distinguish a human from an artificial intelligence wondering when it will not be possible to distinguish the latter from a human: the answer we can give is, the day this artificial intelligence will be able to answer to the question of its filiation giving the names (and the genes) of its human father and mother.... which is an oxymoron.

    The major danger we are facing now with artificial means of reproduction, separating fatherhood and motherhood, subcontracting them to third parties or laboratory produced cells of any kind, is that we loose these notion of filiation and, hence, we loose the notion of dignity for the individual produced and not anymore given birth. This is obvious material for future slaveries of any kind.

    So, no social construct, nor intellectual build up will ever establish the human dignity of any particular human individual but his demonstrated human filiation.

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  15. Feser, do you know why governments got into the welfare business? During the Great Depression, churches and other NGO charity organizations couldn't handle the load. There were legitimate fears of widespread starvation. Modern societies cannot survive that sort of economic upheaval. So governments started providing relief. Few people actually starved to death (the number was non-zero) but during World War II several thousand men in the US, UK, Canada, and Australia were medically rejected for military service due to the effects of long-term malnutrition.

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    1. OK. What part of what I said are you disagreeing with?

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    2. You said: " In other words, whereas modern egalitarians think of central government as the provider of first resort, the natural law tradition and Catholic social teaching think of it as the provider of last resort. (It is still a provider in that case, though, contrary to libertarianism.)"

      The reason why government is the provider of FIRST resort is that, despite what you and other libertarians pretend, NGO cannot provide necessary relief, especially during major crises. I gave what libertarians hate and fear, a real life example to support my point.

      So no, you and natural law are wrong, government needs to be the first resort. That's what I'm disagreeing with.

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    3. Michael,

      Like Ed noted, it doesn't seem you are actually disagreeing with anything he said; and consequently it's unclear why you addressed that particular post to him. Nothing he said requires that those things not be true; indeed, nothing he said suggests he wasn't already aware of them.

      BUT, there's more to add: While the pitiable conditions you list doubtless were used to add piquant sentimental force to arguments in favor of establishing welfare systems then and today, as arguments they turn out to have been mistaken, and mistaken in ways that were predicted at the time.

      To be specific: The welfare state turns out to have replaced, not supplemented, private almsgiving. The latter dropped by roughly the same amount as the former expanded, throughout the 20th century.

      And it's easy to see why this happened: It's the "I already gave at the office" syndrome, except in this case, it's "I already gave on April 15th."

      So the real question (once sentiment has been removed from the equation, and once we're aware of the actual impacts of the two competing systems on society and culture over time) is something like this:

      For each system, given that the amounts of one will tend roughly to replace the other, making them mutually-exclusive goods, are there other advantages or disadvantages associated with one system that differentiate it from the other, making one or the other preferable?

      I think there are, and I think they give the edge to private voluntary alms. BUT, my saying so is perhaps misleading because I actually wouldn't favor a system in which governments (including the Federal) had no role at all. My own preference would be to alter the current balance of involvement between the two, in specific ways...and to have a more subsidiarist system overall in which neighborhoods, towns, counties, metro areas, and states were not such ride-along passive participants, in comparison to the Federal government.

      (But that's way, way off-topic for this post.)

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    4. Michael wrote:

      despite what you and other libertarians pretend

      What are you talking about? I am not a libertarian, and haven't been one since the early 2000s. Moreover, I have criticized libertarianism many times, including in this very post!

      When I say that government should not be the provider of fist resort, all I mean is that it should not be the provider unless necessary, i.e. when those with stronger obligations to be the provider can't do it. I gave the example of providing for my children. The provider of first resort in that case is -- obviously -- me, not the government. Might the government in some cases nevertheless have to be the provider? Sure, if I and other relatives etc. can't do it.

      In your earlier comment you gave examples of how certain programs were necessary during the Great Depression because nothing less than large-scale government action could do it. Fine, nothing I said is incompatible with that.

      So I still don't know what you're disagreeing with, unless (as I suspect) you are reading into what I wrote things I didn't say and don't believe.

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  16. I mentioned to my son (who is a fan of AM) that MacIntyre said Aquinas had nothing to do with the way medievals treated heretics, and my son laughed, saying the scholastic work behind canon law certainly relied on Aquinas. Thoughts?

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  17. Hi, Professor Feser,

    I have a question about this vague concept called "human dignity."

    To be more exact: I have a proposal...one which seems to me to be far too obvious for it not to have been previously proposed, considered, and perhaps discarded.

    (But, if it has previously been considered and discarded, then I don't yet know the reasons for its rejection, and I'd like to know what those are.)

    It seems to me that perhaps "natural rights" just are the negative or corollary to the natural-law moral obligations of others towards a human person qua human person...and that "human dignity" is properly defined as no more than a not-very-precise statement about the collective magnitude and importance of the natural rights held by humans qua humans.

    On this view, in a society consisting of human persons A, B, C, and D, and Siberian Husky K...,

    1. Person A has a natural right to life just in so far as persons B, C, and D are morally obligated under Natural Law not to murder A (although in some cases a just-cause execution, which differs from murder, is permitted);

    2. Person A has a natural right to liberty just in so far as persons B, C, and D are morally obligated under Natural Law not to unjustly imprison A (although in some cases just imprisonment permitted);

    3. Person A has a natural right to property just in so far as persons B, C, and D are morally obligated under Natural Law not to unjustly take A's justly-obtained stuff (although they might forcibly confiscate some of A's stuff if, for example, it was unjustly obtained);

    4. What is meant by the claim that A has "human dignity" is no more than the claim that A's natural rights, taken as a whole, far exceed those of Siberian Husky K, whose life, freedom of movement, and favorite chew-toy may be dispensed with by others, without violating Natural Law, for far lesser justifications than would have obtained had K been a human.

    For the sake of this proposal, let's presume that Natural Law ethics is in play and thus that the formulation of telos-driven moral obligations of each person towards the others don't require some circular appeal to metaphysically-prior "dignity" or "rights."

    Given that presumption, is there some obvious problem with the proposal given above? What would that be?

    (I figure there must be some reason that the above proposal isn't already the standard view, either for society-at-large, or maybe for Catholics and other Natural Law Ethicists who're articulating it in opposition to the society-at-large. I just don't know what the reason is.)

    Thanks,
    R.C.

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  18. Out of curiosity, does anyone have an argument for why St. Thomas' arguments for treating heretics harshly is no good?

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    1. To go into more detail, I'd like to quote what St. Thomas says in his Commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard (or Scriptum super Sententiarum Petri Lombardi). In his article "Whether Heretics Should Be Tolerated" he answers that "heresy infects with vices; hence it says they lead much toward ungodliness, and their speech spreads like a cancer (2 Tim 2:16-17). And so the Church excludes them from the company of the faithful, and particularly those who corrupt others, so that the simple, who can be easily corrupted, are segregated from them not only in mind, but also physically. And this is why they are imprisoned and expelled by the Church. Now, if they did not corrupt others, they could also be concealed. But those who are firm in the faith can spend time with them physically so that they might convert them; nevertheless they cannot share in divine things, for they are excommunicated. But in secular judgment, they can licitly be killed, and despoiled of their goods, even if they do not corrupt others, for they are blaspheming against God, and they keep a false faith. And so they can be justly punished more than those who are guilty of the crime of offending majesty and those who forge false money."

      In Saint Thomas' words, heresy is a form of blasphemy, and blasphemy is a crime on par with counterfeiting and lèse-majesté and is thus worthy of death if the secular authorities decide it be so. Furthermore, the Church has the authority apart from the state to coerce the faithful if the particular heretic has a corrupting influence.

      If you disagree with this, then what are your arguments? Where exactly is Saint Thomas mistaken in his reasoning?

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    2. Sure, everyone must agree with that in principle. It’s just a question of degree. In Aquinas’ day, it may have been a crime to deny the Trinity whereas it isn’t today. But we have our own mores and taboos. The fact that we don’t call them religious precepts any more doesn’t mean they aren’t.

      We may not imprison the heretics in the Tower for blasphemy anymore, but we “cancel” them from polite [digital] society for failure to conform. The fact that the new religion is less forgiving and more severe doesn’t mean it’s any less religious.

      “Men differ little on what they will call evil. But they differ wildly on what evils they will call excusable.” GK Chesterton

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    3. But in secular judgment, they can licitly be killed, and despoiled of their goods, even if they do not corrupt others, for they are blaspheming against God, and they keep a false faith.

      I think that the principle that DH is asserting is that the state can punish them (on its own behalf) if and ONLY if their heretic behavior is harming the STATE. That it is blaspheming against God is not sufficient reason: the state is not ordered and established to defend God's rights, but to see to the temporal common good.

      Now, it is true that the spread of heresy can in fact damage the state in its pursuit of the temporal common good, and thus it can have laws to restrict such behavior, and punish behavior that damages the state. But such laws will have a limit, because too severe and extensive such laws will also interfere with other goods of the state, as well as the goods of the spiritural order. (Thus, for example, laws that forbid even asking questions about the doctrines of the faith will impede spiritual and intellectual growth and (in the long run) will foment resistance to authority.)

      This actually follows as well from what Leo XIII said:

      "The Almighty, therefore, has given the charge of the human race to two powers, the ecclesiastical and the civil, the one being set over divine, and the other over human, things. Each in its kind is supreme, each has fixed limits within which it is contained, limits which are defined by the nature and special object of the province of each,"

      The state isn't called to rule over us in every aspect of the good, and God has not ordained it to redress every injustice.

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    4. Uh, geodon, we don't put counterfeiters to death.
      Never have.

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    5. Anonymous,

      You are wrong about that. Counterfeiters used to be put to death.

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    6. It is not enforced. That law would violate the 8th amendment. And we will never execute anyone for blasphemy, much as you may wish

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    7. Anonymous,

      You do realize that there are other countries besides America out there, right?

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    8. Yeah, like in the Middle East, Sharia law and all that. We are better than that.

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  19. It'd be great if so-called Thomistic "philosophers" quit with these stupid strawmen and non-sequitors about libertarianism. It does not logically follow that because we owe positive obligations toward our fellow men, that it is proper and just to force people to satisfy them, and if folks like Feser want to be taken seriously when the address "muh libertarianism" they need to stop just assuming this and at least make an attempt to prove it.

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    1. I'm not a Libertarian butthink it's a fair question to ask if a positive obligation that is forced can really count as virtue. A moral positive action relies on it being voluntary.

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    2. Anonymous,

      Edward Feser wrote an entire piece on whether virtue can be coerced in the piece "Meyer and fusionism." He argued that the fusionist position that "for good behavior to count as truly virtuous, it must be freely chosen," while true as far as it goes, fails to make several key distinctions, including: the distinction between requiring good actions and forbidding evil ones; between virtues which are best acquired through a struggle against the temptation to act viciously, and those which are not; and between actions that are inherently wrong and those that are wrong only under certain circumstances.

      As for the libertarian position: Feser does not strawman it here or anywhere else. He attributes to the libertarians the "thesis that we cannot have any enforceable positive obligations to others except where these arise by consent." Here and elsewhere, he cites Nozick and Rothbard, who have made such arguments in the past. Neither of these philosophers' arguments work, as he's shown previously.

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    3. Dr. Feser is a philosopher, and I hope you are in fact one in order to insinuate he isn’t one. He also specializes in political theory and was himself a libertarian until recently. I seriously doubt all his political theory relies on a non sequitur

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    4. Journey,

      It doesn't. Feser criticizes libertarianism for its rejection any enforceable positive obligations that aren't part of some voluntary contract. Nowhere does he characterize libertarianism as rejecting all positive obligations, period.

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    5. Just read "Meyer and Fusionism." Quite good.

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  20. Great post and discussion. I wonder why Macintyre makes such a sharp distinction between dignity and justice. It seems that the two concepts are reliant on each other.

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  21. McIntyre mentions the late Ralph McInerny of Notre Dame. He was the Grace Professor of Medieval Philosophy and Director of the Jacques Maritain Center. He edited two books. by Charles DeKoninck and wrote extensively about Aquinas. His book A First Glance at St Thomas Aquinas (1989) remains one the best introductions to Aquinas. He was a prolific author and wrote over 75 novels. He mentored many doctoral students at UND, which has the largest philosophy faculty in the US.

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    1. McInerny was a great soul! His contributions to "First Things" by themselves were a greater contribution than most people could hope to achieve in a career.

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    2. Also created the Father Dowling Mysteries...

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  22. Huge thanks and respect for expounding and critiquing this paper by the great man...
    God bless

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  23. (cont'd)
    Dignity is not a virtue: it is what characterizes the proper nature of humanity, being created in the image of God.

    No action can increase or decrease the dignity of a human being: there is no cursus honoris for the first, nor path of shame for the latter. No virtue to increase dignity nor vice to decrease it.

    One can put a man on a throne, but he will not be more dignified than another who is tortured or killed. A human in Paradise has no more dignity than a human in Hell.

    The ethical reflection cannot rooted in increasing or decreasing dignity, but in the appraisal that this dignity deserves: how much she is honored or to what extent one does commit a crime of lese-majesty (or lese-dignity, we should, may be, say).

    Hence the fist virtue concerned is justice: because only justice gives everyone their due, in that case honoring the dignity of a human because this is praising the God Who created him at His image.

    One has to love God above anything else, i.e. one has to give to God what He deserves, Honor, Praise, and Glory. One has to love the others like oneself. i.e. one has to honor, praise and glorify the dignity of the fellow humans, like one has to honor, praise and glorify its own proper dignity.

    Developing virtues, with this in mind, means struggle to be at the level of its own dignity, not because this will increase the dignity, but because this is what one owes to God for having created him dignified with His likeness.

    Treating oneself or other humans in a non dignified fashion, does not decrease their dignity, but is a crime of lese-dignity, which immediately becomes blasphemous in its nature.

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    1. (cont'd cont'd)

      Certainly my position here is much closer to the one of John O’Callaghan than MacIntyre's for a simple reason: it fits to what the Authentic Magisterium teaches about the theocentric root of human dignity, something which was not so explicit at the Aquinas's time. Nonetheless our reasoning stays perfectly Thomistic, though with a different conclusion as this premise has been clarified by the Church.

      The consequence of it, is that death penalty does not diminish the dignity of the condemned, nor the second death penalty which can be inflicted by the particular or universal judgment imparted by the Christ, Supreme Judge.

      As John O’Callaghan pointed out, what is really interesting here is the notion of "failing to live up" one's own dignity or of a third party one.

      When we do not live up to our dignity, we commit a blasphemy and we do contravenes the first and second commandments: what happens is not that we loose any dignity but "only" that we do not match her and here the notion of Shame takes over which does participate to the greater of all sins as it is a very vivid manifestation of sin against the Holy Spirit.

      The "Shame" expresses the deep disapproval of one's own acts, the measure of the gap between what one would like to be in one's own eyes and in the eyes of others and what one is objectively and the consequence that results is that one tries to hide from the divinity, whose purity is perceived as an underlining of one's low incapacity to live up his own dignity.

      For this reason to feel shame is in itself and per se a sin and an aggravated form of the sin of pride that, far from being an extenuating circumstance, becomes an aggravating circumstance that objectively places infinite distance between the creature and his God.

      Typically, a Christian avoids with all his strength every feeling of shame to set out on a very humble path of self-acceptance as a sinner guided by the Holy Spirit and, therefore, a path of penance steeped in justice that seeks the satisfaction of one's sin and the genuine forgiveness of God.

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    2. (cont'd) (cont'd) (cont'd)

      If one does not live up to his own dignity exercising the virtue of justice, he finds himself in shameful situation.

      The only way to restore justice is to act with justice: as justice is in its deepest root a social virtue, this restoration can also be exercised by the society, the community, the family, the Church.

      Hence, having this is mind, it follows that death penalty, or any kind of penalty, a human society inflicts according to justice, but only on this condition, cancels and/or counterbalances the shameful situation of whom did not live up to his human dignity.

      The "compelle intrare", the call for proselytism taught and ordered by Christ Himself is precisely also that: people who do not recognize Jesus, as the Christ Who came to save us, live in the shadow of the shame of the Original Sin: baptizing them obliterates this shame and renovates the original human dignity.

      The case of slavery is interesting also: the slave does not lose his dignity because of being a slave, and, by the way, many slaves became Christians; it is the slaver who does not live up the dignity of the slave, who is lacking of justice and covers himself of shamefulness.

      At the end, and to conclude, I totally disagree with this sentence "Our dignity thus derives not from what we are actually, but what we are potentially, i.e. knowers and lovers of God." and would, instead replace it with the following, in my humble opinion, much closer to what Authentic Magisterium teaches and to a Thomistic "forma mentis": "Our dignity is rooted in our ontological likeness to God, but our incapacity, to live up to it, is due to our lack of virtue of justice at personal and societal level, which leads us to live in shame"

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  24. Any thoughts on Universal Basic Income? Might be a worthwhile subject to explore in a future blog post.

    As a Catholic, I wholeheartedly believe in subsidiarity. But as a disabled person, I am greatly sympathetic to government programs that aid the disadvantaged. It's nice to think in theory that the family, local community, and whatever near uper-level authority should be the one to help. But we're living in a different world where circumstances may warrant the government to radically step in and provide for these things (which, btw, I'm sure you would agree with in principle). I just wonder though, whether there is anything against Catholic social teaching or Natural law, that has the government giving its citizens a basic allowance?

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    1. While I am sympathetic to some sort of Basic Income, I fear that there are simply too many hurdles to overcome for it to be prudently good. The simplest is, perhaps, this: St. Paul touched on an important element of (fallen) human nature when he said "those who do not work, neither shall they eat." Taking the necessity out of the equation by guaranteeing a basic stipend would cause a great many to be full of sloth, which is a cardinal vice. Also, unless you paid the "Income" in food, it would be - in many cases - (a) used for drugs or alcohol, or (b) would become the basis of a huge cesspool of extortion by which some few forced others to cough up most of the amount, and similar evils. That's completely aside from how it would drive unnatural pricing mechanisms in the market, (plus inflation, but I am willing to ignore inflation if we hypothesize that the government doesn't do this on the back of deficit spending - which is a pretty difficult hypothesis to serve up).

      But probably the single largest problem, I think, has always been present with any presumption of a universal hand-out to make things "even" (and this includes a "Basic Investment" to be used for an education, or a business, or ...): people being people, some would use it well, others would blow it on frippery, parties, gambling, or similar waste, and would be RIGHT BACK at square one, with nothing to eat and nowhere to sleep. "Equality" of outcome cannot be forced by merely providing everyone with some income, it takes equality of USE, also - i.e. communism. (And a stiffer communism than was ever actually practiced, at that). And there are whole libraries worth of what's wrong with THAT.

      I don't present these as certain and provable, but as probable. I think a better plan for the future is to construct some kinds of public-private partnership hybrids that get SOME of the benefits of government, and some of the benefits of private charity. I admit I don't know quite what that would look like in detail, or whether it would "work". In reality, nothing is likely to work in the current environment, as both our government and our people are too degraded to expect any truly successful results anywhere - long term, that is.

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  25. Dr. Feser,

    As always I appreciate your posts and find them very instructive. You certainly get a lot of responses!



    On libertarianism, I understand you present the official doctrine of the Catholic Church, but I wonder if you have considered the teaching of the scholars associated with the University of Salamanca during the Reformation? I have an article on how they invented the field of economics here: https://finance.townhall.com/columnists/rogermckinney/2020/01/23/the-christian-origins-of-austrian-economics-n2559993



    They seem to have been in the mainstream of Catholic teaching at the time and determined that the state cannot intervene to regulate wages because that would violate the just price doctrine that a just price can be found only in a free market. It would also violate the owner’s right to property.



    On providing healthcare and education, those same scholars determined that the purpose of the state is to punish those who violate the rights to life, liberty and property and the state can’t violate those either. If the state raises taxes for more than its basic role of punishing evil, then it commits theft.



    It seems to me that those Salamancan scholars got into trouble only for suggesting regicide and not for their economic principles. The Dutch Republic first implemented those principles and became the first to implement what Adam Smith called the system of natural liberty, later called capitalism and those who supported it were liberals. But when socialists stole the name, classical liberals began calling themselves libertarians.



    What do you think of the economic government teachings of the Salamancan theologians?

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    1. Your interpretation of the Hispanic scholastic is hardly the only one in the literature. Criticism of the Austrian interpretation of the School of Salamanca can be found here, for example: Reese, Philip Neri. "Cajetan's economic treatises: a critique of rothbard's proto-Austrian portrayal." Journal of Markets and Morality 18, no. 2 (2015).

      And here: D'Emic, Michael. "Market liberalism and antiliberalism in Spanish late scholastic treatises (1541-1547)." Journal of Markets and Morality 15, no. 1 (2012).

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    2. I have read a few other articles citing the Salamancan Scholastics for some advances in economic theory - especially that of interest. So I suspect this article has a lot of stuff to the right thinking. But this:

      On providing healthcare and education, those same scholars determined that the purpose of the state is to punish those who violate the rights to life, liberty and property and the state can’t violate those either.

      I doubt accurately represents their thinking. If we are speaking strictly of economics, there is nothing there to tell us "what the state is for", and it is hardly logical to go from "the state can protect life, liberty and property" to the conclusion "the state may ONLY protect life, liberty and property." And given the rest of Scholastic theory on the state, I cannot locate a thread of reasoning by which they would have gone from what had been said earlier to this conclusion. It seems not only difficult to square with earlier Scholastic teaching, but positively contradictory to earlier stuff. So, I suspect this is a bit of an exaggeration on what they asserted. I would like to see source quotes at length, or (even better) whole treatises (translated, if it's not too much trouble), before I went along with that being what the Salamancans were teaching.

      Which is not to say that I flatly disagree with the thesis, or that I dismiss their contributions. I agree with the general point that they made important advances in economic theory, and that by itself merits more attention.

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