Wednesday, November 1, 2017

I. A Question of Human Dignity



Modern society, if there are any doubts, is in serious trouble.  Over the last two centuries, the institutions of civil, religious, and domestic society — State, Church, and Family — have been revised, reformed, and reinvented to the point that these chief props of human dignity have become, to all intents and purposes, meaningless.

Thomas Hobbes: The State is a Mortall God.
To clarify the situation, “the State,” (human) nature's only legitimate monopoly, which in this context refers broadly to all governing institutions and forms of government at all levels of the common good in the civil order, is nowadays often understood only in terms of the Nation State.  “Church,” a term referring to all organized religious bodies (as in the phrase “Church and State”), is taken to refer to religion itself or, at the other extreme, only to a particular institution or belief system.  “Family” has come to mean whatever someone or group with enough power has decided is most expedient, often being subsumed, along with religious society, into civil society.
In part because “The State” has a monopoly over the instruments of coercion, it has become all-powerful in the eyes of many people, an entity sovereign in and of itself, a virtual “Mortall God,” as Thomas Hobbes put it in Leviathan.  In modern political science, in common with other social sciences, the underlying theory is that the State has absorbed everything and everybody, changing from a specialized and very dangerrous social tool, into the source of all good.  Any individual or group with sufficient power to control the State can decide what is right for everyone; “might makes right.”
Nevertheless, the real issue is not encroaching State power, but human dignity: the sovereignty of the human person under God.  Human beings, as Aristotle put it, are “political animals.”  Institutions, up to and including the State itself, were made by people, for people.  This is so that people can meet their own wants and needs (primarily acquiring and developing virtue, “humanness”) by their own efforts within a justly organized society, “the pólis” — hence “political.”
Father William Ferree: Social Justice scholar.
When institutions (especially the State), however, are controlled by a few people or groups for their own benefit to the detriment of others, become more important than the people for whose benefit they were established, or fail to do the jobs for which they were designed, there is injustice.  Human dignity has been violated.  Organizing to restructure the institutions of society to conform to the demands of human dignity then becomes the direct and personal responsibility of every member of society.
And that is the “matter” of social justice.
To explain, neither social justice nor any other social virtue is a right that any form of society has over people, individually or in association with others.  Nor are the social virtues a replacement for the individual virtues of temperance, fortitude, prudence, faith, hope, or, above all, justice or charity.
No, the social virtues, especially social justice and social charity, are not directed at any individual good, however important or immediate that individual good might be in the individual order.  Rather, the social virtues are directed to removing barriers to the proper functioning of the individual virtues within the context of the social order, not to replacing the individual virtues.
That is, social virtues are directed to the common good, that vast network of institutions within which people carry out the business of living, not any individual good.  Once barriers to participation have been removed, institutions can be accessed and rights exercised: human dignity can be respected.
Aristotle: Man is by nature a political animal.
This confuses a great many people today.  They tend to think of the common good as the aggregate of individual goods, and thus the goal of social justice is the greatest good for the greatest number, regardless of the rights, wants, or needs of the minority or any individual.
The common good is not, however, the aggregate of individual goods.  It is the vast network of institutions within which individual human beings as political animals realize their individual goods, primarily the acquisition and development of virtue — “human-ness” — a seemingly subtle but important difference.
Unfortunately, misunderstanding of human nature and essential human dignity has resulted in social justice and socialism being confused in both Church and State.  This has changed Church and State from the chief props of human dignity outside of the Family, to the principal obstacles to virtuous human development.
Religion — “Church” — has been reoriented and updated to focus almost exclusively on people’s material wants and needs.  At the same time, politics — “the State” — has changed from overseeing institutions that make it possible for people to meet their own needs through their own efforts, to meeting them directly, after those in power decide what wants and needs are legitimate.
Auguste Comte: Worship of Humanity is the true faith.
Is this true in all cases?  Has every religion and every government fallen into this trap?  Has there been a complete shift from God to Collective Man, as the late Fulton Sheen put it?
Of course not.  These are tendencies and trends, not general rules.  There are thousands of religious organizations and political institutions, along with millions of believers and citizens, who not only do not accept or go along with these changes, they actively oppose them.
Having said that, it cannot be denied that “the Religion of Man” has in many cases displaced a more traditional understanding of both Church and State for many groups and individuals — Pagan, Jewish, Christian, Islamic, or anything else.  Organized religion has become an effective branch of government in many cases, while the modern Nation State has taken over more and more of what was once considered the exclusive purview of the individual and the family.
As noted above, however, when institutions are flawed, every individual in or affected by that institution has a personal responsibility in social justice to organize with others and work to remove barriers that inhibit or prevent the institution from functioning properly as props for human dignity.  The problem is that when it is social justice (or at least the understanding of social justice) that needs reform, where does one begin?
That is what we will look at tomorrow.
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