Saturday, June 12, 2010

Unintended Ramifications

I love this take-down of the Texas State Board of Education (ht):

Let us begin chronologically, considering the contributions of Saint Thomas Aquinas (1224-25-1274). Aquinas is a new addition to the curriculum, added at the insistence of those who would emphasize the important role of Christianity in the development of natural law, political institutions and related ideologies. As the board surely knows, Aquinas was no friend of business or what the new guidelines call “free enterprise.” In his Summa Theologica, he writes of business, “It is devoted to satisfying the desire for profit, and such desire knows no bounds and always strives for more. And so business, absolutely speaking, is wicked, since it does not essentially signify a worthy or necessary objective.” The only possible justification for business, he argues, is to feed one’s family and help the needy. I applaud the board for challenging students in these times to question the moral foundations of the free enterprise system.

It's a little bit misleading (I wouldn't have translated the passage in quite the way it is here), but it's not really far from the truth, which we can crudely summarize here. None of the medieval scholastics are very favorable to usury, but Aquinas is arguably the scholastic who allows the least grey area of all the scholastics: charging interest on loans is contrary to natural law, end of story. And Aquinas also holds that private property is derivative: the natural state of the whole world, so to speak, is to be for the common use of everybody; private property is justified -- and in Aquinas's view is really only justifiable -- as being something that usually best contributes to common use (by encouraging people to take better care of things, by simplifying disputes over use, etc.). Common use still trumps private property if they actually come to an unavoidable conflict, e.g., an emergency situation; the poor can take from the surplus of the rich in dire need and it is not stealing. And even if we aren't in a situation of that sort, if you have more money than you need to feed, clothe, shelter, and educate yourself and your household, you have a moral obligation to use the rest not to satisfy your own tastes but to do what, as far as your best judgment can tell, will do the most good for others. You are merely a steward of anything you have that is more than you actually need in order to meet the essential ends of human life. And, of course, the view that business, insofar as it involves grasping after profit (rather than, saying, doing good things for others in a sustainable way), is wicked is an Aristotelian line of thought that Aquinas also takes up. And the thing of it is, you really do have to understand these sorts of things to understand how Aquinas himself develops and applies the theory of natural law, which, of course, is the (nominal) point.

The rest of the article is good as well -- the knife is put in with Sicilian flair. It highlights a fundamental problem with the TSBOE; these people simply don't understand ideas, and it is shown by almost everything they do. They think that ideas are little snippets that can easily be maneuvered in a textbook to a desired end. But they are really vast, ramifying things that are not easily manipulated. Failure to understand this inevitably leads to the sort of incoherent mess that comes down from these people. They are trying to lead tigers by their tails.

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