Archive for the ‘justice’ Tag

Was Killing Osama Bin Laden Just?

“For the United States, a Long-Sought Prize; for Obama, a Welcome Victory.” The New-York Times headline last week captures a critical truth about Bin Laden’s assassination: it carries more symbolic than strategic significance:

How much his death will affect Al Qaeda itself remains unclear. For years, as they failed to find him, American leaders have said that he was more symbolically important than operationally significant because he was on the run and hindered in any meaningful leadership role. And yet, he remained the most potent face of terrorism around the world and some of those who played down his role in recent years nonetheless celebrated his death.

Killing of any kind, even of someone as wicked as Osama bin Laden, should give us pause, as Patrick Clark observes over at catholicmoraltheology.com. In the Christian tradition, it is by no means a foregone conclusion that wicked people should be killed for their transgressions. Operative here are Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount:

You have heard it said ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth fora tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.

Thomists, following Augustine, do not take this passage as commanding passivism or non-resistance. Aquinas holds that is just to kill sinners “if a man be dangerous and infectious to the community, on account of some sin . . . in order to safegard the common good” (II-II, Q. 64, art. 2). In a bit of a departure from Augustine, Thomas also allows for killing in self-defense:

It is not necessary for salvation that a man omit the act of moderate self-defense in order to avoid killing the other man, since one is bound to take more care of one’s own life than of another’s. But as it is unlawful to take a man’s life, except for the public authority acting for the common good, as stated above (Article 3), it is not lawful for a man to intend killing a man in self-defense, except for such as have public authority, who while intending to kill a man in self-defense, refer this to the public good, as in the case of a soldier fighting against the foe, and in the minister of the judge struggling with robbers, although even these sin if they be moved by private animosity.

This passage forms the basis of the just war tradition which allows Christians to engage in warfare for the protection of the common good. There are, however, important limitations to the circumstances in which such killing might be justified, patricularly regarding proportionality and the protection of the innocent (II-II, Q. 64.2, ad. 1).

Thus, if killing Osama bin Laden was simply an act of self-defense, it would seem like a relatively unproblematic act in the Thomistic moral tradition. But it was not self-defense that most motivated his execution:

Mr. Obama called Mr. Bush on Sunday evening to tell him that Bin Laden had been killed. Shortly after Mr. Obama’s announcement at the White House, Mr. Bush issued a statement congratulating his successor, saying, “No matter how long it takes, justice will be done.”

What is this justice that has been done? I suggest it is rather vengeance that has been accomplished, “the infliction of a penal evil on one who has sinned,” as Aquinas defines it (II-II, Q. 108 art. 1). It is vengeance that has sent people dancing in the streets all over this country (or in the libraries as the case may be at my own Boston College, where amid celebrations, exams and papers still have to get done):

“I don’t know if it will make us safer, but it definitely sends a message to terrorists worldwide,” said Stacey Betsalel, standing in Times Square with her husband, exchanging high fives. “They will be caught and they will have to pay for their actions. You can’t mess with the United States for very long and get away with it.”

For Aquinas, vengeance is not evil in and of itself, but its moral evaluation depends on the mind of the avenger. If the intention of the avenger is evil of the person on whom she takes vengeance, the act is rendered unlawful,

because to take pleasure in another’s evil belongs to hatred, which is contrary to the charity whereby we are bound to love all men. Nor is it an excuse that he intends the evil of one who has unjustly inflicted evil on him, as neither is a man excused for hating one that hates him: for a man may not sin against another just because the latter has already sinned against him, since this is to be overcome by evil, which was forbidden by the Apostle, who says (Romans 12:21): “Be not overcome by evil, but overcome evil by good.”

Vengeance is only justified when the intention is good, “for instance that the sinner may amend, or at least that he may be restrained and others be not disturbed, that justice may be upheld, and God honored.” Moreover, vengeance, when motivated by an upright will, is actually a special virtue, reckoned under the virtue of justice: “Man resists harm by defending himself against wrongs, lest they be inflicted on him, or he avenges those which have already been inflicted on him, with the intention, not of harming, but of removing the harm done. . . Therefore vengeance is a special virtue” (II-II, Q. 108, art. 3).

I think there is a relatively good chance that a Thomist could justify vengeance in this case. Thomas even goes so far as to say that killing out of vengeance can be profitable to the common good. Notice, though, the contingency of these two sentences. Merely because vengeance can be justifiable does not mean it ought to be sought out. The justification of an act of vengeance depends on whether or not the act was prudent.

I want to suggest that in this case, killing Osama bin Laden was not prudent. First of all, it seems he was killed with relatively little resistance. With our highly-trained Navy Seals responsible for the mission, there is no reason that I can see that he could not have been captured and tried. Bin Laden’s capture could have prevented criticisms like the ones we see from his own family, published recently in the NYTimes:

If he has been summarily executed then, we question the propriety of such assassination where not only international law has been blatantly violated but USA has set a very different example whereby right to have a fair trial, and presumption of innocence until proven guilty by a court of law has been sacrificed on which western society is built and is standing when a trial of OBL was possible for any wrongdoing as that of Iraqi President Sadam Hussein and Serbian President Slobodan Miloševic’. We maintain that arbitrary killing is not a solution to political problems and crime’s adjudication as Justice must be seen to be done.

Moreover, Osama bin Laden’s execution resulted in the death of non-combatants, including a woman. The Christian tradition has a precedent that in executing vengeance, the “wheat should not be uprooted with the chaff,” and if the innocent suffer along with the guilty, vengeance ceases to be virtuous. Aquinas acknowledges that vengeance may be executed on a populace that bears a common guilt, thus providing a possible justification of the killing of a non-combatant in the execution, but again, only if in conformance with the demands of prudence:

On the other hand, if it is not the whole but only a part of the multitude that has sinned, then if the guilty can be separated from the innocent, vengeance should be wrought on them: provided, however, that this can be done without scandal to others; else the multitude should be spared and severity foregone. The same applies to the sovereign, whom the multitude follow. For his sin should be borne with, if it cannot be punished without scandal to the multitude: unless indeed his sin were such, that it would do more harm to the multitude, either spiritually or temporally, than would the scandal that was feared to arise from his punishment (II-II 108.1, ad. 5).

It is not clear to me that Osama bin Laden’s death has not caused a scandal, especially if the remarks made by his family are commonplace, as I suspect they are:

I Omar Ossama Binladin and my brothers the lawful children and heirs of the Ossama Binladin (OBL) have noted wide coverage of the news of the death of our father, but we are not convinced on the available evidence in the absence of dead body, photographs, and video evidence that our natural father is dead. Therefore, with this press statement, we seek such conclusive evidence to believe the stories published in relation to 2 May 2011 operation Geronimo as declared by the President of United States Barrack Hussein Obama in his speech that he authorized the said operation and killing of OBL and later confirmed his death. . .

In making this statement, we want to remind the world that Omar Ossam Binladin, the fourth-born son of our father, always disagreed with our father regarding any violence and always sent messages to our father, that he must change his ways and that no civilians should be attacked under any circumstances. Despite the difficulty of publicly disagreeing with our father, he never hesitated to condemn any violent attacks made by anyone, and expressed sorrow for the victims of any and all attacks. As he condemned our father, we now condemn the president of the United States for ordering the execution of unarmed men and women.

Relying on the political and moral realism of Aquinas, we don’t get clear answers to the justifiability of Bin Laden’s execution. We get no categorical statements like “Killing is always wrong” or “Christians should never pursue vengeance.” Both killing and vengeance have a place in Aquinas’ moral system. I am just not so sure they have a place in the recent execution of Osama Bin Laden. Regardless, as a Thomist, I am forced to sit uneasy with the president’s decision to call for his execution and not respond, as he did, with certainty about the justice of his actions.

Is There a Christian Response to the Organ Shortage?

Maybe because I teach the topic, but I have been noticing a significant increase in the media’s coverage of organ allocation in recent weeks. In January, two sisters who had been in prison for sixteen years in Mississippi were released on the condition that the younger sister donate her organ to her older sister. The ethical response to this case focused on the financial motives for releasing the sisters:

After considering the matter for several months, Governor Barbour announced in late December that he would not pardon the sisters, but would indefinitely suspend their sentences.

He said he had acted in part out of concern over Jamie Scott’s health, but also to relieve the state of the cost of her dialysis treatment, which is approximately $200,000 a year.

“The Mississippi Department of Corrections believes the sisters no longer pose a threat to society,” Mr. Barbour said in a Dec. 29 statement. “Their incarceration is no longer necessary for public safety or rehabilitation, and Jamie Scott’s medical condition creates a substantial cost to the State of Mississippi.”

Dr. Arthur Caplan, director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania, said Mr. Barbour’s decision to free the women on the basis of the kidney donation had crossed a moral line.

“Either out of ignorance or out of indifference, he shifted what had been a gift into compensation,” Dr. Caplan said. “He turned it into a business contract.”

While it definitely raised ethical eyebrows, the judge’s decision in this case reflects a much larger ethical debate concerning what should be done about the shortage of available organs.

Currently in this country, about 100,000 people are waiting for organs. About three-quarter of these will die before they receive an organ. There are numerous proposals for what to do about the shortage of available organs, some of them rather creepy like the New York “Organ Wagon” that will try and harvest organs from cardiac arrest patients within twenty minutes of death. More serious and far-reaching proposals tend to focus on two solutions: (a) moving to a “presumed consent” policy and (b) encouraging donation through financial incentives.

A “presumed consent” policy already has a lot of worldwide support. Currently, in the US, organ donation depends on explicit informed consent. In other words, organs can only be harvested from your cadaver if you explicitly say so, usually by indicating so on your driver’s license. Supporters of a presumed consent policy argue that the number of available organs could be increased dramatically by requiring explicit “opting-out” of donation, presuming that all those who have not said otherwise have tacitly consented. This is already the policy in many European countries. Opponents argue that such a policy violates the foundational bioethical principle of informed consent, and furthermore, could exacerbate fears about doctors prematurely “harvesting” organs.

Another solution to the organ shortage looks to financial incentives. This is the argument of Sally Satel (herself an organ recipient) who argues specifically that relying on altruism for organ donation has failed. Satel’s argument is not so much that human beings are primarily self-interested rather than other-interested, but rather that an altruistic motive for organ donation alone is not sufficient. She recommends incentives like health insurance, tax credits, education vouchers, funeral expenses, and retirement funding as added motivations for people to donate.

The obvious response to a financial incentive solution is that it will place undue burdens on the poor while possibly disproportionately favoring the wealthy. In other words, it is the poor who would be most motivated by financial incentives to give up their organs without the same likelihood as the rich in actually receiving an organ. Satel’s incentives are primarily federally-allocated, as they are in Israel, thus avoiding the less savory option of having the organ recipient pay the donor directly (which is currently illegal in the US and elsewhere). Critics still argue that such a federal-based solution might not resolve the current organ trafficking problem, and may actually make it worse.

Most recently in the US, the debate has shifted away from increasing the supply of organs towards re-allocating the distribution of organs. The new policy of the United Network for Organ Sharing attempts to replace the current first-come, first-serve model with a more complex rationing protocol that would distribute organs first to those most likely to benefit: the young and the healthy.

“Right now, if you’re 77 years old and you’re offered an 18-year-old’s kidney, you get it,” said Dr. Richard N. Formica, a transplant physician at Yale University and a member of the panel that wrote the proposed policy. “The problem is that you’ll die with that kidney still functioning, while a 30-year-old could have gotten that kidney and lived with it to see his kids graduate from college.”

Under the proposal, patients and kidneys would each be graded, and the healthiest and youngest 20 percent of patients and kidneys would be segregated into a separate pool so that the best kidneys would be given to patients with the longest life expectancies. The remaining 80 percent of patients would be put into a pool from which the network that arranges for organ matches, called the United Network for Organ Sharing, would try to ensure that the age difference between kidney donors and recipients was no more than 15 years.

While this policy shift has been commended for its sensibility, Satel and others are critical of the assumption that we should have to ration organs in the first place. “Rationing should not be taking place at all,” Satel told NPR earlier this week.

Is there an “everydaythomist” response to the organ shortage? Aquinas obviously never dealt with this issue, but there are a few guidelines we might apply from his general worldview. The first is that the debate over how to increase the number of available organs is often susceptible to the utilitarian critique that the “ends justify the means.” In other words, whatever we need to do (within limit) to increase the number of available organs is justified if we can save more lives. From a Thomistic worldview, the ends do not justify the means. The means themselves must be good as well. More specifically, the means chosen to increase the organ supply must also attend to those who are most potentially vulnerable, in this case, the poor who are more likely to give their organs and less likely to receive organs when in need. Thomas is famous for arguing that theft in the case of necessity is not actually theft (II-II Q. 66, art. 7) because “whatever certain people have in superabundance is due, by natural law, to the purpose of succoring the poor.” While this “preferential option for the poor” (not Thomas’ language but not necessarily inconsistent with Aquinas’ idea of justice) need not preclude a financial incentive solution, it does provide us with a reminder to be wary of how the poor will fare in the long and short term should such incentives be implemented.

Second, the debate about organs frequently presumes on both sides that our bodies are our own. Our bodies, however, are not our own property, but rather, gifts from God over which we are stewards. We are not free to dispose of our bodies in any way we would like, but we should also not cling to our bodies as ultimate goods. Christians can be encouraged to donate their organs freely as a sign of the reality of the body’s giftedness. In other words, in donating their organs especially as live donors, Christians are reminded in a very visceral way that the body is a gift, and thus just as Christ gave up his body for us, we in turn are called to give up our bodies for others. As such, Christians need not be opposed in principle to a presumed consent policy on the basis that it violates autonomy. For Christians, autonomy is subordinated to the body’s giftedness. Christians can set a marvelous example to a nation that is rapidly concluding that “altruism isn’t enough” by making altruistic acts a little more common.

Finally, the organ shortage is partially a result of longer life-spans and better overall care for the terminally-ill and severely handicapped like those in a persistent vegetative state. In light of extraordinary new medical procedures to extend life, Christians need also to be reminded that death need not be avoided at all costs, nor must “every step be taken” to extend life. For Christians, what matters is dying well. In order to die well, Christians must prepare, not only by “living well” as Robert Bellarmine wrote in his book “The Art of Dying Well,” but also by making specific plans for end-of-life treatment and organ donation. Many organs are lost because the dying or deceased person did not make their wishes known. Christians reading this who want to register to become an organ donor can also take the opportunity to reflect on what constitutes a good death and how they can begin to live in such a way to make that good death possible. A wonderful exercise for the season of Lent.

Obama’s Pledge to Reform Ethics and the Principle of Epikeia

Liberals and conservatives are outraged at Barack Obama’s apparent contradiction of his campaign promises to clean up Washington and initiate sweeping ethical reform. The most recent complaint is over President Obama’s unwavering support for Tom Daschle’s nomination as the new head of Health and Human Services, despite the fact that Mr. Daschle has failed to pay $128,000 in federal income taxes (and the questionable ways in which Mr. Daschle spends his money).

The problem people have with President Obama is that he is making exceptions to the rule, despite the fact that he presented on the campaign trail an uncompromising message of ethical reform. Those who defend Obama say that the exceptions are necessary because certain people who the rule would exclude (lobbyists, e.g.) are needed for their expertise and skill set. Jody Powell, Obama’s press secretary, puts the conflict nicely: “If you set standards, you’re going to fall short on occasion and you’re going to have to compromise on occasion. But you’re probably also going to get more done.”

Seems like a perfect opportunity to talk about the principle of epikeia. Laws, says Aquinas, deal with human actions. As such, laws are about “contingent singulars,” meaning particular situations with particular circumstances. Because laws are about the particular, it is impossible to make laws that can exhaust the possibilities for moral action in every single conceivable case. Legislators, rather, make laws according to what usually happens.

However, there will be cases where even the best law, if applied to a certain case, will do harm to the common good than would be considered just. And since it is the law’s job to protect the common good, the application of the law in the particular questionable situation would be antithetical to its purpose. The example Aquinas gives is the law that all deposits should be returned. It is a good law–if I put a deposit in the bank, I expect to get it back. But, posits Aquinas, what if a madman gives his sword as a deposit, and if he gets it back, plans on going on a murderous rampage? To give him the sword back would be contrary to the common good. The law about returning deposits is still a good law and will have good effects in the majority of cases. In this case, however, applying the law would be injurious and so it is probably better not to follow it.

Another classic example is the person hiding Jews from the Nazis who is confronted by a Nazi and must either lie (and break the rule against lying), or tell the truth in accordance with the law and risk the death of a number of innocent people.

In situations like this, Aquinas says the letter of the law should be set aside in favor of following the dictates of justice and the common good. This decision to set aside the letter of the law is called epikeia, and with Aristotle, Aquinas calls it a virtue. Specifically, it is a subjective part of justice (meaning that it is a part of justice but doesn’t fully encapsulate the meaning of justice) and its object is equity.

Now, epikeia does not set aside the application of a law that is just in itself because of inconvenience or severity. Epekeia, for example, does not allow a person to set aside the letter of the law regarding lying because if he tells the truth, he is going to lose his reputation or suffer some other punishment. Aquinas recognizes that following the law will often be arduous and sometimes will have unpleasant effects. Epikeia simply assures that we see the purpose of the laws as serving the common good and justice, rather than viewing obedience to the law as a good in itself.

To return to Obama. He might have made a rule that no lobbyists would be given political positions in his administration, but if the application of that rule would harm the common good, it would be consistent with epikeia to break it. The burden of the question, therefore, is if the nomination of William J. Lynn III, an ex-Raytheon lobbyist he nominated as deputy defense secretary, is really for the common good.

In a political leader, a healthy sense of epikeia is a good thing, and Obama seems to have it. In fact, his ethics reforms, especially those regarding lobbyists, were not as hard-lined as you might have assumed based on his campaign rhetoric. His rules regarding lobbyists in reality do not ban all lobbyists outright, but rather set conditions on their employment. Obama seems to have been aware that a hard-lined rule against lobbyists would have been counter-productive.

So I think that all the claims that Obama is a hypocrite are unfounded. I think that our president is simply trying to do what all people do–find out how to apply a rule in any given situation so that it is conducive to the common good. As Aquinas says, “Without doubt he transgresses the law who by adhering to the letter of the law strives to defeat the intention of the lawgiver.” However, I think it prudent that President Obama make as few concessions as possible, especially this early in his administration, in order to keep the hope in his constituents alive, and keep people believing that goodness and politics are not antithetical. Is it really necessary for the common good to select Raytheon lobbyist William Lynn for deputy defense secretary, or are their others, less questionable candidates just as suited to the job? I’m betting on the latter. Similarly with Tom Daschle. Obama pledged his “absolute” support for Daschle’s nomination, but I think the common good demands that Obama exercise epikeia here . . . And reverse his support for a far-too questionable candidate.

Can Aquinas Shed Light on Our Current Economic Predicament?

When the House of Representatives first voted on the bill proposing $700 billion dollars to bail out corporations about to sink into the abyss following the decline in value in mortgage-backed securities, I crossed my fingers that it wouldn’t pass.  In the wake of impending financial doom and Hank Paulson’s strangely monotone yet panicked demand that Congress “do something,” I withheld my confidence in the potential success of this plan.  I am no economist and I certainly don’t understand every element of the current economic fiasco, but I was pretty sure Congress didn’t know what they were doing either.  My first clue was that Nancy Pelosi and George Bush actually agreed that the bill should pass.  Clearly, this is a confused bunch of legislators.

It may seem odd in light of my distrust of Congress and my skepticism regarding the prevailing opinion that this $700 billion is a good idea that I would turn to a 13th century thinker for guidance.  But Aquinas lays out some principles of justice that I think do, in fact, shed light on why we are in the economic situation we are in, and what can be done about it.

I. Justice

Aquinas’ treatise on justice is in the “Second Part of the Second Part” (the Secundae Secundae) of his magnum opus, the Summa Theologica.  It is a large treatise, consisting of 79 questions.  As with every virtue in the Secundae Secundae, he defines the object, the subject, the parts, the vices against, and the precepts of justice.  The object of justice is the right, the ius, which Aquinas says is a “work adjusted to another person according to some kind of equality” (II-II, Q. 57, art. 2).  The subject of the virtue, that is, the power of the soul that the virtue perfects, is the will.  So Aquinas defines the virtue of justice as the “habit whereby a man renders to each one his due by constant and perpetual will” (II-II, Q. 58, art. 1).

The general parts of justice are distributive justice, which deals with the just distribution of goods according to some sort of proportionality, and commutative justice, which deals with just actions in exchange and agreement.  There are lots of vices against commutative justice, some of which we will address below, but against distributive justice, there is only one vice which Aquinas calls “respect for persons.”  This vice is characterized by giving to people goods not because they deserve them, but because they are a certain person, such as a person of prominence or a person of wealth.  I am inclined to think that the current bailout is in part a manifestation of this specific vice of respect of persons.  Congress does not bail out Joe Smith when he gambles away his savings at a Las Vegas casino, or Sally Jones when she borrows more than she can pay back.  But the people and corporations currently benefiting from the bailout, even though essentially guilty of the same actions, get special treatment. 

Aquinas says that respect of persons involves a certain inequality contrary to justice “in so far as something is allotted to a person out of that proportion to him in which the equality of justice consists” (Q. 63, art. 4).   Moreover, he says in the objections in that same article that crimes committed against a greater person, and presumably, crimes that severely endanger the common good would be included, deserve a greater punishment.  Distributive justice demands that these bankers, and similarly, these banks, get the punishment they deserve, not the succor that belongs to the vice of “respect of persons.”  The argument that these companies are “too big to fail” is partially a consequentialist argument (i.e. if these companies went under it would be really, really bad) but I think it is also an argument based on the fact that those running these companies are very wealthy, very high-powered individuals with a lot of political leverage that they use in sticky situations like this one. 

II. Question 77: Of Cheating

 The “respect of persons” issue is interesting, but it doesn’t really address the principal reasons why we might be in this mess and what we can do about it.  In order to address these questions, I turn now to Aquinas’ treatment of cheating.

Aquinas asks first whether it is lawful to sell a thing for more than its worth.  This might strike us as odd if we think that things don’t have any inherent value outside of the value the market assigns.  Aquinas thinks the value of something depends on their usefulness to a person and that just exchange serves both parties equally.  Now, if the thing being exchanged is faulty, either because it is broken or because it is not worth as much as may be claimed or because it is of lower quality than may appear, the sale or exchange of that thing is unlawful.  Aquinas says that in all these cases, “not only is the man guilty of a fraudulent sale, but he is also bound to restitution.”  Even if the person selling the faulty good is ignorant of the fault, he is still bound to restitution.  This ensures that the common good is protected by restoring equality where inequality exists.  This means that houses that were sold for more than they were worth were fraudulent sales, even if the real estate agents and lenders and home owners didn’t know that the homes they were selling were overvalued.  It also means that the people who profited on these sales are bound to restitution.  Banks and companies that profited off of mortgage-backed securities that were bought and sold for more than they were worth rightfully should pay to restore equality.

But somebody may respond that it is perfectly reasonable to sell something like a home for more than it is worth, if a buyer exists who will pay the price.  Aquinas disagrees.  First, he distinguishes between two types of exchange.  The first is natural, as when one thing is exchanged for another, or for money equal to the value of the good exchanged.  The second type of exchange is the exchange of money for money or money for a commodity not on account of the necessities of life, but rather for profit.  This kind of exchange “is justly deserving of blame, because considered in itself, it satisfies the greed for gain, which knows no limit and tends to infinity” (Q. 77, art. 4).

 We have been hearing a lot about predatory lending in the subprime community.  What we don’t hear enough about is predatory exchange.  Houses have been greatly overvalued, but so have lots of other things.  Think about how much people spend for food at Whole Foods, for clothing from Neiman Marcus, or for luxury cars.  Obviously, lots of people willfully choose to overpay for these commodities but for Aquinas, that does not matter.  Exchange serves the purpose of supplying for natural needs and the necessities of life.  Profit may be a secondary consequence, but cannot be a primary purpose for exchange.

III. Of the Sin of Usury

Aquinas says that to make money on money lent is unjust in itself, “because it is to sell what does not exist, and this evidently leads to inequality which is contrary to justice.” Aquinas compares money to wine or wheat whose use consists in their consumption.  It would be wrong, Aquinas says, to sell wine and then to charge for drinking the wine.  Money is like wine in the sense that its use is to be consumed.  Lending money in itself is not wrong, but lending money for the sole purpose of making money off that loan is, as the Philosopher says, exceedingly unnatural.

Now, banks and companies involved in lending to the subprime community have lent money not primarily for the purpose of just exchange, but rather to make profit.  And many people have made extraordinary profits on these loans, especially in light of variable interest rates that forced poor and middle class people to make house payments that were mainly just paying off interest, not paying off the house.  Is it any wonder that these people have to default on their loans and the banks have to repossess their houses?  Aquinas says that if a person by usury extorts a person house or land, they are bound by the demands of justice to restitution.  This means that the banks who profited so much in the good years cannot repossess these houses simply because the people living in them can’t make the high monthly payments due to the high interest rates.

Now, I understand why people might bristle when reading this, but what I want to emphasize is the fundamental difference with the way we think of economics and the way Aquinas thought of economics.  We think of exchange as serving first and foremost the goal of profit; Aquinas thought of exchange as serving first and foremost natural human needs and the good of the community.  We think the market determines price; Aquinas thought that there were fair prices due to the inherent worth of a thing.  We cringe at making the rich, who profited for so long on practices of unjust exchange and usury, to make restitution to the poor; Aquinas saw this as a fundamental demand of justice.

IV. What should be done?

The reason Aquinas makes all these claims is that for him, justice is fundamentally about establishing equality.  When exchange is unequal, even if inadvertently so, restitution must be made.  So what does that mean for the bailout?  First of all, there is no way that the bailout can be considered just.  Nor do I buy the argument that we have to let some unjust people benefit in order to save our economy.  Justice can only be reestablished by restoring equality.  The bailout increases inequality for the sake of alleged good consequences, namely, saving the economy.  But saving an economy where injustice abounds and which is powered by usurious practices strikes me as ridiculous.  Here are some things we should do:

First, if the government is going to help anybody, it should be homeowners that are the victims of predatory lending practices, especially the elderly, the uneducated, and the handicapped.  How to finance this?  Liquidate the assets of Freddie, Fannie, and every other corporation that profited off of mortgage-backed securities.  Liquidate the assets of the executive members of these companies.  Take their homes, their cars, and every last dime in their bank accounts.  And do the same for every politician that profited either politically or personally from mortgage-backed securities.

Second, we need to challenge the way we think of money and the right we consider ourselves to have to spend our money on whatever we want.  We live in a society where, through unequal exchange, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.  And we all participate in perpetuating this system when we spend $6.00/gallon for milk at Whole Foods, while children in our own community have no milk at all.  Whole Foods only gets away with charging such exorbitant prices because people are willing to pay, but that willingness does not remove the fundamental injustice of this exchange.  We need to stop paying, but more fundamentally, we need to stop thinking that a just price is whatever the market will allow for.  Aquinas recognizes that we can’t make it totally illegal to sell a thing for more than it is worth because human law is designed for the virtuous and unvirtuous, so if something is oversold without deceit, like our $6.00/gallon milk, the law looks upon this as licit by not punishing it unless “the excess be too great, because then even human law demands restitution to be made, for instance if a man be deceived in regard to more than half the amount of the just price of a thing.”  I don’t think we use the law to make places like Whole Foods pay restitution, but we can cease our spending of things that cost much, much more than they are worth simply because we can.

Finally, we need to start thinking of money as a means of exchange and not a good in itself.  We need to stop sinking our money into stocks, corporate bonds, and hedge funds in order to make more money from our investments.  We need to stop building up credit card debt and paying huge interest rates for the privilege to do so.  Rather, we need to start investing in our community and spending our money in exchange for goods and services, which not only distributes wealth more fairly, but also uses money in the way it was meant to be used.  Money is a means of exchange, meant to serve other ends, and not be an end in itself. 

The $700 billion bailout bill has passed and still, stocks are on the decline, inflation is rising, and the Fed had to once again cut interest rates to keep people from assuming the sky was falling.  I think it is very possible that we will have hard times ahead.  People will lose their homes, people will lose their savings, people will lose their luxurious lifestyles.  I think we need to make sure that we who have much are providing for those hardest hit, opening our homes to the homeless, our tables to the hungry, and our wallets to the destitute.  I also think that we need to courageously challenge the economic status quo, realizing its inherent injustices, and allowing those unjust sectors of the economy to fail, rather than artificially propping them up with yet another Congressional bailout.

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