Aquinas and the limelight (III)

This post is about Thomas Aquinas’s comprehensive legal and juridical theory, as it relates to constitutive charters and public reason. It is part of a series loosely based on my reading of Rawls’s The Idea of Public Reason [discussed here and here]. Aquinas’s legal theory is based on public-facing associative reasons, and ultimately I would like to explore the possibility that any account of legal publicity must be at least public-facing. But even if you don’t care about that stuff, the exercise in comparing and contrasting Aquinas and Rawls is worth doing for its own sake. So let’s get on with it.

For exegetical convenience, it would be instructive to talk about non-Rawlsian accounts of justice in terms that are broadly commensurate with the Rawlsian point of view, since Rawls is both more familiar and more perspicuous, and therefore easier to defend in good faith. So, for the sake of argument, I would like to imagine how a modern-day Thomist might think about justice if they set themselves to imitate Rawlsian ways of speaking, which means bringing his theological convictions to heel. I articulate a conception of Thomism that is based on notes from my reading of the first two volumes of the Summa Theologicae. Yet this conception only inspired by Aquinas, since his theological convictions are indefensible from a scientifically literate point of view, and therefore uninteresting. So, because my reading willfully departs from Aquinas’s own views, I will self-consciously invent an object of comparative analysis that is inspired by Aquinas, but which jettisons his metaphysical views. I refer to it this composite view as Nomism, advocated by the imaginary Nomas Baquinas, a bizarro fusion of myself and Thomas Aquinas. That does not make the exegesis immune to criticism, since if our man Baquinas strays too far from the real Aquinas, then the exercise will have been a waste of time. But I hope you’ll permit the indulgence.

Oh, and to be clear — not only I am not a Thomist, I am not even a Nomist. I, personally, am only trying to see how well that one instance of a comprehensive theories of justice, and public-facing associative reasons, might fare in accounting for legal publicity in appropriate contexts. That’s the (relatively nerdy) axe I have to grind. It is not, however, meant to be a strawperson. The Nomistic view has a set of disadvantages and advantages that distinguish it from the Rawlsian one. The point of contrasting them is to enlarge our cultural imagination, at a time when inter-civilizational justice is in high demand and mature justicial intellectual programmes are in short supply.

*

Everyone agrees that the idea of ‘justice as fairness’ does not capture the full scope of a theory of justice. And by ‘everyone’, I mean, everyone including Rawls, who stressed the point very early on in his Theory of Justice. But suppose we take insufficiency of scope as an essential defect in the idea of justice as fairness. Why might we prefer a theory that covers a wider range of issues?

Like all issues in conceptual analysis, our convictions about the acceptability of a characterization of a concept has got to do with the inferences worth caring about, as far as they bear on the usage of a term (embedded in sentences). One thing worth worrying about is that Rawls has gotten the wrong unit of analysis. Perhaps the proper unit of analysis for a theory of institutional justice — the ‘basic structure of society’ — is a civilization, considered as best advice for sovereign rule, and not merely the social, economic, and political apparatus of a Westphalian nation-state, as Rawls takes it in his Theory of Justice. In that case, a theory of justice should be compared to Rawls’s Law of Peoples. Call that the macroscopic objection. But we might also think that the development of moral agency is one of the basic institutions that we need to account for in a theory of justice, just in case we think that the self is at least partly a social construction. In that case, the constituency of a civilization is not found in citizens, but in the reasons and intentions that compel them to act in social contexts. In which case, the scope of analysis would be much larger than either the Law of Peoples or the Theory of Justice, extending to a theory of law, morality, and meta-ethics. That is the microscopic objection.

Why would anyone adopt a view of such a wide scope? What’s the point of being a hedgehog on steroids? Doesn’t a comprehensive account of this kind detract from the narrow focus of a theory of justice? (The reason ‘why not’ is, I suppose, obvious. I can’t help but comment that one might need to look no further for a reason to look for alternatives to comprehensive doctrines than by observing the prohibitive length of the Summa.)

Well, there are programmatic reasons to think that perhaps the wider view is best. For one thing, it looks as though comprehensive theories are more directly capable of handling wide reflective equilibrium as a means of justification. (Granted, this is a cheap shot — ‘direct’ does not necessarily mean ‘better’.) But for another thing, we might be convinced that justice is a living thing, like a seed, which is planted in one’s own convictions and capable of growing and flourishing to the point where it becomes a model of civil life. One does not understand the form of the nature of the tree without being able to understand where it came from, and how it can and must be nurtured to survive. On this view, the constitution of a thing can be found in its genealogical facts. To provide a political theory of justice that is structured around public reason, we would need to treat those diachronic questions as being of secondary concern. But if we think that the very idea of justice is inextricable from the flow of history, then the Rawlsian synchronic approach might strike us as wrongheaded.

Anyway, if we think these requirements of scope are well-motivated, then we could say that we are seeking a theory of justice based, not just on the ideal of justice as fairness, but on a broader ideal fit for larger social circumstances — that is, on justice as goodness, i.e., where goodness is rationally beneficial, useful, and pleasant. That is the Nomistic view, for whom the idea that justice is a disposition to do right by all. Considered in the context of contemporary theories of justice, this conviction is both unexpected and unexpectedly rewarding in its consequences. But considered as a restriction of law, it is potentially disquieting, if not totalitarian, constraint on personal conduct.

**

On my retelling, Rawls’s political theory has five notable features. (1) It uses a device of representation, the original position, which functions as a procedural effectuation of the values of freedom and equality among citizens. (2) Original citizens are presumed to be sincerely interested in securing a reasonable state of cooperation — that is their strategic orientation. The output of the original position is a hypothetical contract with certain rules: (3) concerning the ideal structure of government, and (4) the demands of institutional justice. (5) The demands of institutional justice will relate both to conceptions of both the rule of law and legal validity.

  1. Device of representation. I would like to say that Baquinas’s device of representation is not the original position, but something more like the position from eternity. The thought-experiment looks like this. Suppose that you were the ultimate sovereign over a whole universe, and you wished to generate the greatest potential goodness for the people who will come to populate it. Suppose, though, that the life-situation that the citizens in your universe come to experience will be fully determined by your understanding of yourself. Imagine, in other words, that you are in the narcissistic position that Kant asks us to be in with his first formulation of the categorical imperative — that you ask whether the maxims of your intentions, when generalized, could become laws of nature. How should you think about yourself, if you were placed in the position of ultimate benefactor or master role model? Aquinas suggests that you should be rather nice to yourself — that is, you ought to have an absolutely loving intent, a love for your powers of creativity, and a love for constant activity and motion. If you, a perfect being, held yourself in any lower esteem than as a perfect being, then your universe would not be conducive of the good — the people within it would have no sense of reason, or would not appreciate what is useful, or would be in an unrelenting state of misery, without that Northern Star to aspire towards. In our terms, Baquinas argues that we should adopt an optimistic political attitude.
  2. Strategic orientation to action. Since we are assuming that goodness is necessarily rational, we should want our citizens to exercise their agency through reason, and hence to govern themselves rationally as best they can. What counts as ‘best’, though, is already conditioned by the setup. First and foremost, Baquinas suggests that the most rational option is the one that encourages generally good consequences, and seeks to minimize bad consequences. And, second, direction towards the good demands the preservation of life, and the need to seek good according to reason. The upshot, throughout, is to act charitably. These are the ways that agents behaving in an optimistic mood will behave, and expect others to behave, insofar as they participate in the position from eternity through the possession of reason. However, we should also encourage a degree of stoicism, since excessive solicitude creates misery through hypervigilance.
  3. Ideal government. Baquinas thinks ideal governments should be ordered as a patriarchy. The sovereign should do their best to prize the flourishing of the sublime arts, the sciences, and the trades — essentially, the apex vocations which make a life worth living, and which make the day-to-day survival of a community possible. In this sense, political economy and distributive justice are of first concern to an ideal government. The task of the upper classes is to come to a consensus on — and then to publicize — a plan for collective action that maintains and enforces service to the community and also the requirements of charity. The second tier of government involves the means of maintaining life and order — judicial and legislative systems, health care systems, and police and military. These offices should exist and function only to the extent that they produce a society where all people are free to pursue and attain excellence. And, in the third tier, the government should take care of enriching its citizens — it should be ordered in terms of municipal associations, a scholarly community, and a system of education, all geared towards making more virtuous people. These lower tiers of government should be directed towards the preservation of a just system of rule. Because the proprieties of government are patriarchical, the system is one of associative reason.
  4. Institutional justice. There are two kinds of justice — distributive and commutative. In this scheme, distributive justice demands respect for dignity, i.e., the relative contribution of a person to the community. This is broken into two kinds — duties to the sovereign, and duties to the community as a whole. By ‘dignity’, Baquinas means deference to the apex vocations, and especially, the masters of the sublime arts. Respect for dignity is given expression in a criminal code with a handful of seven basic imperatives: respect and obey the sovereign, pay your taxes, don’t harm people, don’t steal and destroy the property of others, don’t break trust, take care of your own thoughts, and pay your debts. Meanwhile, commutative justice is directed towards a principle of reciprocity, which requires, e.g., a duty of reparations and the golden rule. In all of these contexts, private reason does not have much of a place.
  5. Legal validity and rule of law. Bad rulers can exist under the following conditions: if they fail to act charitably, order themselves in a strict class system, do it prudentially, and with a system of laws based on dignity and reciprocity. Disobeying the orders issued by tyrants is not strictly speaking breaking the law, since human law is an expression of the right, and an attempt to do well by justice, and only legitimate to the extent that it protects us against imprudence and injustice. So, ultimate legal validity of law is found in the higher law. To be sure, in normal contexts, insurrection against the rulers is illegitimate, since all authorities are at least a little bit good. Still, citizens can determine for themselves if emergencies exist requiring lawful insurrection, since is law mainly about rules that fit normal conditions.

***

On the first point, we can notice that neither Rawls or Baquinas are foundationally liberal, since neither of them permit free choice in political mood or attitude. There is nothing in their respective devices of representation that encodes the ability for original participants to choose their attitude. That said, Rawls permits relatively wider latitude: for him, the only requirement is that we not be in what in the last post I called the ‘pessimistic’ political attitude, i.e., for whom it is presumed that we have neither collective solutions nor any means of knowing them. Meanwhile, Baquinas is decidedly less liberal, as he makes optimism mandatory.

Second, Baquinas endorses a teleological theory of the right. It is similar in some respects to consequentialism, since all just actions is to increase the stock of good and reduce the bad. It is not quite act-consequentialism, though, for two reasons — first, because at some points he suggests that the right and the good are intertwined, or mutually adjusting, in the sense that sometimes the right is derived from the good, and sometimes the good from the right. Second, because virtuous practical action is stoic, and so directed towards satisficing, not optimizing, reasoning. In contrast, Rawls’s theory of justice is based around contractualist ideals, not consequences. Hence, his device of representation is directed towards the formulation of policies adopted by original citizens, and is concocted for the sake of securing a society based on freedom and equality that they can own, and results in scheme of justice where the demand for the right of equal liberty is lexically ordered above consequentialist considerations related to distributive justice.

The strongest points of difference concern their approaches to ideal government and institutional justice, as far as these relate to public and private reason. For Rawls, all offices are potentially open to any member of the public. The open status of governmental offices issues more or less directly from Rawls’s commitment to public reason, or common reason for the commons, where all have free and equal opportunity to participate. For Baquinas, the point of government is paternalistic, with stations at the top devoted to the masters of right and good. Their form of reasoning is public-facing, since their reasons are meant to bring order our public institutions, and expressly need to be promuglated. But this view of reason is nevertheless a form of associative reason, since it is not conducted by the commons or in common view. The sciences, trades, and sublime arts are not offices open to all.

What are their attitudes towards private reason? In the previous post, I noted that Rawls asserts there is no such thing. But he was mistaken. So, a stronger version of Rawlsian politics would argue that private reason has no justificatory role in developing a democratic constitution, even though it is vital to our understanding of liberty. Meanwhile, though Baquinas believes that both free choice and liberty of conscience are necessary presuppositions in moral inquiry, this freedom does not have a central place in his political theory, since the liberty that is implied is not reflected in either natural right or in ideal government. Further, Baquinas suggests that private reason ought to be tolerated, but only as a matter of prudence, since a government that pokes too much into the free conscience is one that is doing work inefficiently.

Legal validity and rule of law. Also for Rawls, while there is a wide range of reasonable disagreement among subjects, some overlapping consensus can still be found over the right and the good, and which will direct government action at any particular moment. Citizens have a duty to civil obedience that fits broadly into this conception. Rawls referred to his position as ‘dualism’, which is a fascinatingly opaque descriptor. I am not sure a normative ‘dualism’ is fully consistent with his considered opinions, however, since the ordinary law is subordinate to the higher law. In contrast, for Baquinas, the only overlapping consensus we need should be found in the upper classes — the technocrats who are looking out for the public good. The job of subjects is to obey for the right reasons. If, however, subjects found themselves in agreement that the vanguard is a form of tyranny, then the right to rule would shift accordingly. That reflects the Nomistic natural law, where definite moral duties conclusively override the dictates of the rulers, and the dictates of the rulers derive their authority from the moral law. Which is all just to say that, on this point, there is may not be a lot of blue sky between Rawls and Baquinas.

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