The Underground Thomist
That's Not What the Common Good Means
One of the hardest tasks in political theory is weaning people from a utilitarian view of the common good. Sometimes people tell me, “I’m not a utilitarian. I know we shouldn’t commit intrinsically evil acts for the sake of the results. But for the sake of the common good, don’t we have to make exceptions? What if we have to target innocent people to save our country? What if we have to lie to keep other citizens from voting for bad people?”
That is committing an intrinsically evil act for the sake of the results. People who speak like this are really saying that there are no such things as intrinsically evil acts -- that ultimately, a good enough result can justify anything whatsoever. If we say we are only willing to commit abominations “as an exception,” we are merely saying that in other cases the resulting good just isn’t quite good enough.
Besides, you can’t save your country by doing evil things. The country isn’t just a collection of people, but a moral community. If in order to vanquish our evil enemies we commit evil deeds, we convert ourselves into our enemies. That isn’t winning, it’s losing. We destroy the very thing that are fighting for.
This takes us back to the common good, because justice isn’t a personal scruple or an idiosyncrasy that we can dispense with when we wish and yet remain ourselves. The most important part of the common good is clean hearts.
Even if I were a utilitarian, I wouldn’t be a utilitarian. What I mean is that the results of acting on the belief that only results matter are also unacceptable. Each time we do the unthinkable, we make it more thinkable. Pretty soon it becomes routine. We lower the bar for justifying shameful deeds until it collides with the floor. We become like the streetwalker who says “I’m not promiscuous. I only have sex with men who pay me.”
I don’t want to tire you out with blurbs and publicity – but for those who are interested, a new interview about my new book How and How Not to Be Happy has just gone live. The interviewer is Michele McAloon of the Cross Word Podcast, and you can listen right here. I enjoyed talking with her.
Have I mentioned that you can buy the book? Well, you can. (Don’t you want to be happy?)
So What Is the Problem with Usury?
Can you offer some guidance on a very loaded topic: Usury? I am a convert who works in the financial services sector, and I am wondering if I’ve been continually participating in, or at least cooperating with, grave sin. For over a century, the Church has said very little about usury. But it was regarded as a grave sin for more than a millennium, none of the definitions have changed, and by those definitions it seems to be systematically and hopelessly entrenched in our daily lives.
This is a complex question. The Seventh Commandment forbids theft. Traditionally, this was viewed as the grounds for all prohibitions of financial subterfuge and pilfering, not only, say, the prohibition of fraud, but also the prohibition of usury. Deuteronomy 23:19 reads, “You shall not lend upon interest to your brother, interest on money, interest on victuals, interest on anything that is lent for interest.”
Over the course of Church history, the rule has often been taken as forbidding all charging of interest whatsoever to fellow members of the community. However, it is at least possible to argue that this interpretation misses the point. The question is the sense in which the passage refers to “your brother.”
Let’s distinguish between loaning to someone because he is in want, and loaning to him because he wants to invest the money in an enterprise and make a profit. If “your brother” means your fellow who is in want, then the passage prohibits exploiting the poor: After lending them what they desperately need, one may not then demand that they give back even more. But if “your brother” means all of your fellows, then it prohibits all charging of interest to those who belongs to the nation of Israel.
Scripture often praises lending to the poor, and two other passages of the Law which condemn taking interest do make clear that the context of the prohibition is loans to the poor:
● “If you lend money to any of my people with you who is poor, you shall not be to him as a creditor, and you shall not exact interest from him. If ever you take your neighbor's garment in pledge, you shall restore it to him before the sun goes down; for that is his only covering, it is his mantle for his body; in what else shall he sleep? And if he cries to me, I will hear, for I am compassionate.” (Exodus 22:25-27, RSVCE.)
● “And if your brother becomes poor, and cannot maintain himself with you, you shall maintain him; as a stranger and a sojourner he shall live with you. Take no interest from him or increase, but fear your God; that your brother may live beside you. You shall not lend him your money at interest, nor give him your food for profit.” (Leviticus 25:35-37, RSVCE.)
Taken this way, the prohibition of usury forbids taking unfair advantage of those who are vulnerable, and this makes it a natural extension of the Commandment against stealing, because stealing is another kind of injustice with respect to property. The prohibition of using one standard of measure for buying and another standard of measure for selling, which is a form of fraud, is another such extension: “You shall not have in your bag two kinds of weights, a large and a small. You shall not have in your house two kinds of measures, a large and a small. A full and just weight you shall have, a full and just measure you shall have; that your days may be prolonged in the land which the Lord your God gives you. For all who do such things, all who act dishonestly, are an abomination to the Lord your God.” (Deuteronomy 25:13-16, RSVCE.)
The question may arise, “If the idea is to forbid financial subterfuge and plundering, then why not simply declare ‘Commit no financial subterfuge or plundering’?” Because although that is a good moral principle, it does not have enough precision for the regulation of a community. The very purpose of the additional precepts is to provide the necessary exactness.
Various nations, philosophers, and religions have prohibited charging interest on loans, considering it the taking of unfair advantage. From the perspective of the demand theory of value widely held today, this is difficult to understand; it seems absurd to view charging interest as unfair, because a thing (in this case the use of borrowed money) is deemed to be worth whatever price people are willing to pay for it (in this case interest). However, for people who are borrowing not to expand their business, but to eat, and who might starve if they do not borrow, this way of thinking seems harsh.
Aristotle thinks another reason for holding the charging of interest in suspicion is that unlike someone who invests his money in a productive activity such as a farm, the lender seems to get something for nothing. He writes, “There are two sorts of wealth-getting, as I have said; one is a part of household management, the other is retail trade: the former necessary and honorable, while that which consists in exchange is justly censured; for it is unnatural, and a mode by which men gain from one another. The most hated sort, and with the greatest reason, is usury, which makes a gain out of money itself, and not from the natural object of it. For money was intended to be used in exchange, but not to increase at interest. And this term interest, which means the birth of money from money, is applied to the breeding of money because the offspring resembles the parent. Wherefore of all modes of getting wealth this is the most unnatural." (Politics, trans. Jowett, Book 1, Chapter 10.)
On the other hand, if the charging of interest is not allowed, then why would anyone loan money at all? Certainly not as a shrewd business practice. He would have to be motivated by love of neighbor. In this case lending money becomes a form of friendship or aid to the poor.
Some, seeking to harmonize the ancient suspicion of interest with modern banking practice, suggest that although perhaps some charging of interest is getting something for nothing, not all of it is. After all, the lender is giving up the use of money which he might otherwise have put to productive use, and so, they say, it is not unreasonable to compensate him for his loss. From this point of view, the crime of usury should be viewed not as charging interest per se, but as charging interest in excess of the lender’s opportunity cost.
That is a plausible objection to Aristotle’s economic argument against charging interest. However, it is not a sufficient objection to the charitable argument – that one should lend money not to make money, but to help one’s brother, especially if he is in need. From this point of view, one might say that modern banking practice presupposes that nobody counts as one’s brother.
In response to the hypothetical objection that Torah should have prohibited not just charging interest to strangers, but all charging of interest, St. Thomas replies that the Law did not intend that the Israelites take interest on loans to aliens, but only tolerated the practice. The people were prone to an excessive desire for wealth (as people are today), and would be more peaceful toward aliens if they were able to earn something through their dealings with them.
Other issues come into the picture too, but this may give you a start.
Commentary on Thomas Aquinas’s Treatise on Divine Law
Which is NOT THE SAME as
Commentary on Thomas Aquinas’s Treatise on Law
(but you can read that too)
Will Eating Pistachio Ice Cream Make You Sublimely Happy?
Will Eating Pistachio Ice Cream Make You Sublimely Happy?
Interview of J. Budziszewski
by Michael Cook of MercatorNet
Cook: You’re the author of a book on happiness. Are you happy?
Budziszewski: If you mean “Are you having a good time?”, the answer is that I am at the moment -- I like cheeky interviewers. But that’s not the same as happiness.
If you mean “Am I having a good life?”, the answer is yes. And believe me, I’ve lived through the difference.
If you mean “Are you already experiencing that perfect fulfillment which leaves nothing to be desired, and is not to be found in this life?”, the answer is “Not yet, but I live in hope.”
Cook: Apple still hasn’t released a happiness meter, as far as I’m aware.
Budziszewski: If Apple ever does release a happiness meter, don’t believe the readings! It would probably measure only your bodily state. Suppose it went further and measured the electrical activity in the pleasure center of the brain – would that be better? Sorry: This may come as a shock, but pleasure isn’t happiness either. Pleasure is something we are feeling, and it comes and goes. Happiness is something we are doing, and it abides.
Cook: How do you know if you’re happy? If I’m happy?
Budziszewski: We know through thoughtful conversation and reflection – but I don’t just mean asking “Are you happy?” It’s possible to be vaguely unhappy without knowing it, until one day, wham! the awareness of misery drops down on you like an anvil. It’s even possible to be happy without noticing, although time brings greater insight. My wife and I might look back on an earlier period in our life, for example when we were raising our children, and say, “We were happy, weren’t we?” Yet at the time, we were too busy and absorbed to think about it.
My hunch is that most people have some share in happiness, but not many are simply happy. And that most people know something about happiness, but not many have connected the dots to see the whole picture.
Cook: I’m living in Australia, which ranks 11th in the World Happiness Report. Sorry to point this out, but the USA only ranks 19th. And we’re both left flat-footed by Finland, which is the happiest nation on the face of the earth. Should we be jealous?
Budziszewski: Australia is a great country. For all I know people might be happier there. I’d love to visit. (Would you like to set up a book tour for me?) They might be happier still in Finland. But you know what? You aren’t going to find out by surveying people.
Even the way you ask the question makes a big difference. Only small percentages answer “Yes” when asked “Are you happy?”, but high percentages answer “Yes” when asked “Are you satisfied with your personal life?” There may also be national differences in what people are willing to say to interviewers – or even in how well they understand themselves.
Not all statistics are useless. Suicide rates are high in wealthy, high-status communities, and that’s a pretty sure sign that there are a lot of desperately unhappy people in them. But where rates are low, does it follow that people are happy? Not necessarily.
Cook: You list a number of possible causes of happiness – wealth, beauty, fame, power, self-esteem, pleasure and so on – and then demolish them. Pistachio ice cream makes me pretty happy. Did you forget that?
Budziszewski: Nope, I always remember ice cream. Pistachio comes under possibility #6, “pleasure.” When you say that eating pistachio ice cream makes you pretty happy, you mean it makes you feel pretty good, or that you’re having a pretty good time. As Mortimer Adler once remarked, there is a difference between having a good time and having a good life.
But in my humble opinion, you’re wrong about pistachio anyway. Coffee ice cream is much tastier.
Cook: Do we have a right to be happy?
Budziszewski: A right to be happy would be like a right to receive payment for the groceries I sell to you: You have a duty to pay up. Sure enough, you can give me certain things – bread, meat, schooling. But since happiness is not the sort of thing that can be given, how could anyone have a duty to give it to me? “You owe me ten years of happiness. Fork them over.”
I have a right not to be murdered, robbed, or prevented from worshipping, and those things are certainly related to my happiness. But I don’t have a right to everything that might be related to my happiness. I don’t even have a right to Nike sneakers.
A right to be happy might also be viewed as a right not to have my happiness destroyed by anyone else. But that’s too broad. What if I am such a snowflake that I say your disagreement with my opinions destroys my happiness?
Cook: Or perhaps more to the point, does the government have an obligation to make us happy?
Budziszewski: As you remind me, I’m in the nineteenth-down-in-the-ratings USA. Over on this hemisphere, our Declaration of Independence asserts a right to “pursue” happiness. Some people do think this means a right to be made happy! But that’s impossible. The government doesn’t have an obligation to make us happy, because it can’t make us happy. No one can.
Of course some of the things the government has an obligation to do are connected with happiness, either negatively or positively. The government has an obligation to administer justice -- that’s positive. Unless I am a demonstrably unfit parent, it also has an obligation not to interfere with the raising of my children -- that’s negative. But all sorts of problems arise when we imagine that the government can make us happy, or when the government itself imagines that it can.
Cook: Isn't happiness over-rated? Isn’t it just too hard? You quote one of your students who told you that’s there’s no such thing and "If we’re disappointed, we just have to get over it.” A lot of people feel this way.
Budziszewski: So many people feel this way that I gave a whole chapter to why we shouldn’t “settle” – why we shouldn’t give in to continuous frustration. You know, people who say “Happiness is too much trouble” haven’t really lost interest in happiness. They merely think that they’ll have more happiness if they lose interest in it. Now that is a theory of how to attain happiness – it’s just confused. People most often say such things because they’ve been burned -- they’ve gone down blind alleys, they’ve pursued happiness in the wrong ways, and they’re tired of all the pain. I say, why not find out what the right ways are?
By the way, by finding out what the right ways are, I don’t mean obsessing over happiness. Continuously asking “Are we happy yet?” isn’t a path to happiness either. But notice: If we hadn’t thought at all about happiness, we wouldn’t know that, would we?
“Nature makes nothing in vain.” Everything in us is for something. There would be no point in natural hunger if there were no such thing as meals. Well, we have a natural desire for abiding happiness. We can distinguish between the partial and the complete fulfillment of this desire. The former is possible even in this life, and I discuss how. The latter ….
Cook: I’ll have to give our readers a spoiler alert here, but you say that ultimate, complete happiness has something to do with God. That’s a hard sell nowadays, isn’t it?
Budziszewski: It sure is. That’s why I tell God-phobes early in the book that they can take heart. They can turn off the alarms. Although I take questions about the relationship of happiness to God seriously, those questions don’t come up again until much, much later in the book, and all (or almost all) of what I say up to that point should make sense equally to those who believe in Him and those who don’t. No God for many chapters -- I promise. The topic is simply how and how not to be happy. So if people wish, they can read up to that point and then stop.
But I hope they don’t. I don’t really see why anyone would want to. For me that would be like reading to the next-to-last chapter of the mystery novel, then stopping because “I’m not the sort of person who likes the mystery solved.”
Cook: Amongst your philosopher colleagues, what’s the consensus on happiness?
Budziszewski: There isn’t any.
Which is a strange thing. I draw from all sorts of people in the tradition – philosophers like Aristotle, theologians like Thomas Aquinas, essayists like Joseph Addison, even satirists like Jonathan Swift – people who “got” what I am saying. But a lot of what there is to “get” has been lost today, not just in the popular culture – think of get rich quick books and of pop stars melting down on video -- but also among the intellectual classes.
Cook: Any hints of an invitation from Oprah Winfrey’s book club?
Budziszewski: Hold on. I think that’s her call calling in right now. Hello, Oprah?
Come on, Man! The President as an Ethical Theorist
Physicists tell us that time seems to freeze when we enter the event horizon around a black hole. Our current president has been frozen in the event horizon around the black hole of moral relativism for decades of conventional time. People think he has shifted to the left since becoming president. No, he hasn’t. He is right where he has always been.
The other party has its own difficulties with relativism. Mr. Biden, however, presents a particularly conspicuous and persistent case of what we might call the relativistic paradox: Although relativists seem to say that there is no moral law, they insist on the moral rightness of their relativism.
In 1991, then a senator, opposing the Clarence Thomas nomination to the Supreme Court, Mr. Biden worried in an op-ed piece in the Washington Post that the nominee might believe in “a static set of unchanging [moral] principles,” rather than an “evolving body of ideals.” His statement was relativistic, because it denied that there is a thing as an unchanging moral principle. But the statement also exhibited the relativistic paradox, because at the same time it insisted that there is. For consider: What did Mr. Biden mean by suggesting that moral ideals “evolve”? I don’t think he meant that they undergo meaningless and arbitrary change; after all, he approved of this so-called evolution. What he meant was that moral ideals are getting better. But to suggest that they are changing for the better presupposes a standard of moral comparison, a yardstick of better and worse, which doesn’t change. So even in order to say that our moral ideals have no fixed content, Mr. Biden needs at least one moral principle which does have fixed content – the principle by which he approves change in the other ones.
He also worried that the nominee might view the natural law as a “specific moral code regulating individual behavior” rather than something that “protects moral freedom, even in areas of moral choice.” But to suggest that instead of laying down a moral code, the natural law protects moral choice, is to say that it is a moral code, for it does limit moral choice. It declares exactly one restriction, which it considers all-important. This restriction is, “Thou shalt not restrict choice.” Once again we encounter the relativistic paradox.
And now the plot thickens. We have just seen that if you say that I must not restrict moral choice, then my moral choice has been restricted, for I am not allowed to choose to restrict moral choice. But it is logically impossible to put just one moral choice off limits. To say that the only choice that we are not allowed to make is to restrict moral choice is just double talk. Consider rape, for instance. You may either permit rape or forbid it. Either way, you are restricting someone’s choice. Some relativists try to escape this dilemma by saying that the rapist wants to restrict the woman’s choice, but the woman doesn’t want to restrict anyone’s choice. Nonsense. If you permit rape, you are restricting the woman’s choice, because her choice would have been not to be raped. If you forbid rape, you are restricting the rapist’s choice, because his choice would have been to rape her. How do we decide which of the two choices is sacrosanct and which one isn’t? The only way to do so is to fall back on a moral principle which tells us that rape is wrong and resisting rape isn’t. So you aren’t merely putting one choice off limits, that is, the choice to restrict moral choice. You are also – in this case, rightly -- putting another choice off limits – in this case, the choice to rape. And so it goes.
Not only is it logically impossible to put just one choice off limits, but we also find that when Mr. Biden suggests that he wants to put only one choice off limits, he doesn’t mean it. Leaping from the 1990s to the present, in which he is still stuck in the same event horizon, we find that Mr. Biden, now president, is the most ardently pro-abortion person ever to hold that office. Mr. Biden chooses to restrict the choice of individuals, medical personnel, and organizations to refuse subsidizing or cooperating in choices which they consider gravely immoral. Instead he insists that they choose his way, which is to subsidize and cooperate in them.
And so we advance toward the truth of the matter. The relativistic talk of protecting choices in general never really protects choices in general, because that cannot be done. You can protect some choices, but it is impossible to protect all choices; to protect some choices logically entails restricting others. For example, to protect the decision “I choose that someone else will subsidize my act” is to restrict the decisions of other people who choose not to subsidize my act, and vice versa. So on close examination, what the moral relativist really does is forbid the choices he doesn’t like, and permit or command the choices he does like.
So what? Doesn’t all morality do that? Doesn’t all morality encourage good choices and restrict bad ones? Yes, but there is a difference. The moral relativist doesn’t do it in the good, old-fashioned, honest way, by explaining why the choices he restricts are morally bad and why the choices he encourages are morally good. Instead he pretends that he is not restricting anything at all – that he is following the policy of protecting choices in general – which, as we have seen, is impossible. In other words, he enforces his morality by pretending (a) that he isn’t enforcing it, and (b) that it isn’t a morality. So moral relativism isn’t just a false and bad philosophy; it is a crooked and deceptive philosophy.
Now you may object that the much-mocked Mr. Biden is an easy target. Perhaps he is not crooked and dishonest, but just a little stupid. Perhaps he is not so much deceiving others as deceiving himself, trying to making some sort of peace with his uneasy Catholic conscience. I think this may very well be true. But this kind of stupidity is not accidental; it is motivated, and the motivation is bad. If I lie to myself to make peace with my conscience, it is nonetheless a lie, and it may still be criticized for what it is.
Joseph R. Biden, Jr., “Law and Natural Law: Questions for Judge Thomas.” The Washington Post, 8 September 1991, Sunday, Final Edition.
What Kind of Progress Does Progressivism Want?
Cable Bills and Birth Control Pills
I am pleased to tell you that three new interviews have just been posted to the Talks page:
The Truth about Happiness Pieced Together from Lies. Interviewer Karina Macosko of Academic Influence (video). This interview aimed mostly at students.
Why Is More Never Enough? Interviewer Jed Macosko of Academic Influence (video). This interview aimed mostly at others.
How and How Not to Be Happy. Interviewer Marianna Orlandi of the Austin Institute for the Study of Family and Culture (audio).
A Refrigerator from Birth
A student who witnessed the incident tells me this anecdote about another course he is taking.
One of his classmates was finding it difficult to accept his professor’s line that people are whatever they “identify” as being. The classmate asked, “So if someone decides he’s a refrigerator, then he’s a refrigerator?”
A “woke” student retorted, "It wouldn't be like that. He would have been a refrigerator from birth."