Friday, March 01, 2019

The common good

It's often said that western thinking is more individualistic whereas eastern thinking is more collectivist. Of course, that's a generalization, which is vulnerable to overgeneralization. But assume that's true, has that always been true? Consider Aquinas on capital punishment:

Now every part is directed to the whole, as imperfect to perfect, wherefore every part is naturally for the sake of the whole. For this reason we observe that if the health of the whole body demands the excision of a member, through its being decayed or infectious to the other members, it will be both praiseworthy and advantageous to have it cut away. Now every individual person is compared to the whole community, as part to whole. Therefore if a man be dangerous and infectious to the community, on account of some sin, it is praiseworthy and advantageous that he be killed in order to safeguard the common good, since "a little leaven corrupteth the whole lump" (1 Corinthians 5:6).

As stated above (Article 2), it is lawful to kill an evildoer in so far as it is directed to the welfare of the whole community, so that it belongs to him alone who has charge of the community's welfare. Thus it belongs to a physician to cut off a decayed limb, when he has been entrusted with the care of the health of the whole body.

As it stands, that's a collectivist outlook. The good of the many automatically supersedes the good of the few or the one. 

Normally, Christian ethics places high value on individual wellbeing. Although the common good is important, an individual must do something wrong to forfeit certain rights and immunities. The common good is not sufficient to override the needs of the individual. 

Now, I'm not a scholar of Aquinas, so perhaps what he says here is counterbalanced by things he says elsewhere. Otherwise, his position is starkly utilitarian. It makes me wonder whether his viewpoint is a throwback to an older collectivist outlook that was typical in pre-Christian Europe. One which Christian reflection eventually overcame and supplanted. 


  1. A quick comment. It does seems that his application of punishment is more utilitarian, but it can only be applied if the person deserves it. He says somewhere that punishment is primarily applied medicinally, such as reasons he gives in the quotation you give, but only if someone deserves it. If someone deserves some punishment in some ultimate sense, they have forfitted thier rights, but not all who deserve punishment in this cosmic sense need to or can be punished by the state, but only where doing so would not cause more harm that good, or which has a good chance of sucseeding, stuff like that.

    I'm not an Aquinas scholar either, but I think what I said is a fair representation of this thought, even if crude. I do have Elenore Strump's Routledge book on Aquinas, which surely mentions some of this, so I'll read through any relevant section and emmemd my comment if necessary.

  2. I'm no Clarkian, but John W. Robbins claimed (rightly or wrongly) that there is a connection between Aquinas and the popularity of collectivism and socialism. Here's a link to a mp3 lecture of his where he discusses his views.

    The Economic Thought of the Roman Church-State by John Robbins,_John_Robbins.mp3

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  4. "I'm no Clarkian, but John W. Robbins claimed (rightly or wrongly) that . . ."

    Maybe I'll listen the recording, maybe I won/'t. I recall reading a few years ago an essay by Robbins where he attacked a Reformed theologian (maybe Bavink). Robbins' interpretation of what he said (which Robbins quoted) bordered on the bizarre. Clark wrote some good stuff; I can't say the same for Robbins.