Angilbert (fl. ca. 840/50), On the Battle Which was Fought at Fontenoy

The Law of Christians is broken,
Blood by the hands of hell profusely shed like rain,
And the throat of Cerberus bellows songs of joy.

Angelbertus, Versus de Bella que fuit acta Fontaneto

Fracta est lex christianorum
Sanguinis proluvio, unde manus inferorum,
gaudet gula Cerberi.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Priority of the Good over the Right

THE CHURCH, RELYING ON REASON AND GUIDED BY REVELATION, has her own political philosophy, or perhaps better, principles of political philosophy. The Church rejects the political visions of Machiavelli, of Hobbes, of Locke, of Hume, of Kant, of Rousseau, of Marx, of Rawls. Instead, against these thinkers of modernity, she offers a personalist vision of politics and a personalist theory of authority. The Church's personalist political philosophy is based upon the nature of man, i.e., the natural law. It therefore holds to a theory that good has priority over right, and not that right has priority over the good.* It is the good that defines right. It is not the right that defines the good.**

The ethical world is divided into two: those who give priority to the good over the right, and those who give priority to the right over the good. Classical ethics and political philosophy emphasizes good over right. Modern ethics and political philosophy emphasize right over good. The classical view is virtue-based. The modern view is duty based (e.g., Kant), utilitarian-driven (e.g., Mills and Bentham), contractrarian (Locke, Rousseau), value-based (Scheler), or based on emotivism (e.g., Hume, Moore, Ayer).

The Church's understanding is classical, not modern. The Church teaches that the modern penchant of holding the priority of right over good is wrong.

According to this classical vision [of the priority of the good over the right], determinations of what is just are dependent upon a prior conception of the good of humanity, of a thick or substantive conception of the good that embraces both the community and individuals. In other words, agreement on what justice is is only possibly subsequent to agreement on what constitutes the proper end or good of humanity. Furthermore, this account entails an hierarchical ordering of goods and merit. What is due person is "not same" but correlates instead with one's role and function, and corresponding excellences [virtue], in the community. Fairness, one could say, is not a matter of strict equality in the modern egalitarian sense but of proportion. Like are treated alike, but unlike are treated differently and this is just.

Bell, 198.***

Frontispiece to Nicole Oresme's translation of The Ethics of Aristotle.
Brussels, Bibl. Royale, MS 9505-6, fol 2v
Upper left: Charles V receives his translation from Nicole Oresme;
Upper Right: Charles V and his family;
Lower Left: A king and his counselors attend a lecture;
Lower right: The expulsion of a youth from a lecture.

The classical construct fell apart for a variety of reasons, including the religious divisions caused by the Reformation, the thinking of the thinkers of the Enlightenment, and the rise of Liberalism which viewed society as a group of individuals, each of whom had interests, ends, and conceptions of the good that were equally valid, and among which visions government had no business of choosing. The abandonment of the notion that man had and end (telos) and that man's good was defined by his nature and its inclinations (good) led to a prioritization of the right over the good and a re-definition of justice.

[I]n contemporary parlance, now the right is given priority over the good. What constitutes justice is arrived at apart from any substantive agreement about what constitutes the good or telos of humanity. Justice in modern liberal social orders becomes essentially procedural. Under the sign of modernity, justice is a matter of arriving at a procedure for securing effective cooperation between and security among discrete individuals pursuing an irrepressibly diverse plethora of self-determined interests and private goods. In this situation, justice is no longer conceived as a unitive force. Indeed, with the arrival of modernity, the general virtue of justice is invariably reduced to "legal justice" and equated simply with following the positive laws of the state, or it is discarded altogether. Henceforth, the particular virtue of justdice moves to center stage and increasingly takes on the fundamentally distributive hue that is commonplace today. Correlatively, "right" becomes a matter of discrete "rights" and these rights, instead of being anchored in a (common) good that is external and prior to the individual, adhere to sovereign individuals who possess them prior to (and frequently over against) any communal bonds. The result is a justice that functions essentially as a police force, as a procedural power that attempts to supervise the competition of rival interests struggling for access to society's resources for the sake of the pursuit of private ends.

Bell, 198-99.

Ultimately, the notion of the priority of the right over the good is self-defeating. It is a slogan intended to avoid the hard thinking that is required to know the good. It is a cowardly retreat into skepticism, into moral agnosticism. As Charles Taylor put it in his Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity, "the good is always primary to the right" if for no other reason because "the good is what, in its articulation, gives the point of the rules which define the right."†

As Professor Breen summarizes it:
[C]ontemporary Catholic social thought, as well as the historic Western moral tradition prior to the Enlightenment, rejects the lexical priority of the right over the good proposed by Rawls and others. From this historical perspective, the right and the good are distinct but related. Indeed, the right should be seen as a constitutive part of the good.[1] That is, the reason why the right is desired—the reason why the principles of justice are inviolable and so earnestly sought in social life—is because recognition and enforcement of the right itself is good,[2] not because it is somehow independent from the good.[3]

The modern refusal to face "the good," that is, what man is made for, what is his end, and what inclinations and order is built within the nature that is given to him by his Creator is what is at the heart of its reversal of the classical and Christian principle that the good has priority over the right, and not that the right has priority over the good.

*John Rawls somehow thought that giving right the priority over good would end the interminable squabbles over what was good. Besides, Rawls despaired of man's ability to know the good, whether through reason or revelation. But in addition to create a political theory based upon indifferentism to truth and moral relativism (and one biased in favor of liberalism and against natural law), it simply results in an interminable squabbling over rights.
**Another way of putting the "right over good" notion is that it is based upon deontological ethics (e.g., Kant), whereas "good over right" is based upon teleological, eudaemonistic ethics (e.g., Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas). Yet another way of trying to distinguish may be borrowed from Sidgwick, who called those theories that prioritize right over good
imperative (duty or command defining what is good), and those that proritize good over right, attractive (the good attracting us and defining the right). Theories that stress right over good are typical of modernity. Theories that stress good over right are classical and more adaptably Christian. One's political theory is affected by one's ethical presumptions.
***The reference to Bell is to Daniel M. Bell, Jr., "Deliberating: Justice and Liberation," in eds., Stanley Hauerwas and Samuel Wells, The Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2011) (2nd ed.).
†Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self: The Making of Modernity (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989), 238.
††John M. Breen, "Neutrality in Liberal Legal Theory and Catholic Social Thought," 32 Harvard J. Law & Policy 555-56. The footnotes are re-numbered from the original text. [1] See AQUINAS, supra note 173, at II-II, Q. 58, arts. 3, 5, 6; see also MORTIMER J. ADLER, SIX GREAT IDEAS 136 (1981) (arguing that justice is in "the domain of the idea of goodness" and that "[t]o act rightly or justly is to do good"). [2] See Smith, supra note 187, at 316 (arguing that "rights are valuable only insofar as they are related to our conceptions of what is good"). [3] Rawls’s rhetoric would seem to suggest that the right refers to a moral quality that is somehow separate, or in Rawls’s words, “defined independently” of the good. RAWLS, A THEORY OF JUSTICE, supra note 230, at 24. Indeed, in stressing that “[i]t is essential to keep in mind that in a teleological theory the good is defined independently from the right,” Rawls seems to suggest that the right could be defined wholly apart from the good. Id. at 25. Likewise, by refusing to “interpret the right as maximizing the good” and by insisting that “there is no reason to think that just institutions will maximize the good,” Rawls seems to suggest that the right and the good are not merely distinct but radically different sorts of values. Id. at 30. Rawls, however, recognizes that the putative priority of the right over the good cannot be the priority of one independent category of moral value over another. He concedes that the right is dependent upon a conception of the good. He also admits that to establish the principles of right, “it is necessary to rely on some notion of goodness.” Id. at 396. Still, he attempts to minimize the importance of this concession by asserting that only a “thin theory” of the good, limited to “the bare essentials,” is needed to formulate the principles of justice in the original position. Id. As Charles Taylor has made clear, however, the principles of justice that Rawls articulates are appealing precisely “because they fit with our intuitions.” CHARLES TAYLOR, SOURCES OF THE SELF: THE MAKING OF THE MODERN IDENTITY 89 (1989). Rawls makes no attempt to move beyond the level of intuition. In large part, that is the method and goal of his book—to set forth a theory of justice that eschews metaphysical commitments. Yet, something else lies beneath the surface. As Taylor rightly cautions: "If we were to articulate what underlies these intuitions we would start spelling out a very “thick” theory of the good. To say that we don’t “need” this to develop our theory of justice turns out to be highly misleading. We don’t actually spell it out, but we have to draw on the sense of the good that we have here in order to decide what are adequate principles of justice. Id. Thus, from the Catholic point of view, the so-called "priority of the right over the good" shows itself to be more of a slogan than a serious principle of moral and political philosophy. It is a rhetorical means of overtly claiming to avoid metaphysical commitments regarding the nature of the good while, in fact, surreptitiously employing those very same sorts of commitments.

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