The Virtue of Justice

'Aristotle with a Bust of Homer' by Rembrandt

Ah…March enters like a dewy lamb. Nice change from last year, when I had to wear my sailboat cufflinks for 38 consecutive days just to keep hope alive for sunshine.

…An admirable man once told me that he reads Aristotle’s Ethics every spring.

Book V of Nichomachean Ethics concerns justice. In one sense of the term, to be ‘just’ means to be virtuous, law-abiding, fair. It means “doing the right thing.”

There always is a ‘right thing.’ This is one of the metaphysical principles of morals. Doing right harmonizes us with the symphony of goodness which is infinitely greater than ourselves. But discordant notes also sound in this world: there are evil powers greater than us, and we, too, are not purely good. From this metaphysical state–i.e., that the right thing can be done, or not done–morals arise.

In this sense of the word justice, the ‘just’ person is prudent about doing right by others; he is temperate so as not to wrong others; he is brave for other’s good.

(Justice also has a more precise meaning. We will come back to that.)

Aristotle quotes one of the “Seven Sages” of Greece, who asserted: “Office reveals the man.”

To hold an office puts a person in a relationship with other people. An official bears the burden of responsibility for the welfare of others; therefore, he must be just. I think we can say that the primordial ‘office’ is parenthood. We show our true colors by how we treat those for whom we bear some responsibility.

This helps us perceive, I think, another foundation of morals. Our moral choices are framed by the particular responsibilities we have. In order to be a moral person, a just person, a virtuous person–in order to attain maturity as a moral individual–a person must be ready and willing to hear and follow a summons to particular responsibilities. To be a virtous youth is to be ready to take on an office. To be a virtuous adult is to be faithful to one’s office and its duties.

Perhaps I have bored you. Next week we will have the Big East tournament to keep us diverted.

Greedy and Envious? Try Poverty and Love

He found in the temple area those who sold oxen, sheep, and doves, as well as the money changers seated there. He made a whip out of cords
and drove them all out of the temple area, with the sheep and oxen, and spilled the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables…At this the Jews answered and said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?”
(John 2:14-19)

The Lord Jesus drove the greedy merchants and money-changers from the Temple. The Jewish leaders envied Christ’s authority and power. So in the gospel reading, we have seen both greed and envy. These are two of the seven deadly sins.

Continue reading “Greedy and Envious? Try Poverty and Love”

Business, Rules, and Reality

I am no expert on finance. As you know, that would be my brother Ben. Nonetheless, I am going to opine on the current situation. I beg you, dear reader, to comment on this and correct all my ignorant and lame statements.

Obviously, the most important ingredient in successful business is confidence. To put it on a small scale: An entrepreneur proposes a plan to benefit people in some way that they will be willing to pay for. For the plan to come to fruition, people who have money have to have confidence in the entrepreneur’s prudence, dedication, and honesty.

Their confidence is ultimately vindicated by two things. First and foremost, if it is vindicated, it is because of good fortune. For the most part, the things that happen to us are out of our control. But something else is also needed: The entrepreneur’s mind must be connected with reality. Leaving bad and good luck aside, money-making schemes tend to work when they are realistic, and they tend to fail when they are unrealistic.

Therefore, a very important question is: Who can judge reality correctly? Someone who possesses two things. A businessman’s correct judgment of reality always begins with this: “My plan is fallible, but God’s plan is infallible. My business will truly profit precisely to the extent that it cultivates the gifts of God. My first duty as a businessman is to receive God’s gift with gratitude. Then I can put them to good use.”

The second thing a businessman needs to perceive reality is: virtue. Reality is correctly perceived by a virtuous person. This is not simply a matter of someone being honest because he or she has no vices to hide (though of course it is a lot easier to tell the truth all the time when you have no serious vices). There is more: Being just, sober, courageous, and honest enables a person to perceive reality. In other words, the virtue of prudence requires all the other virtues. A greedy liar cannot be prudent because he cannot see reality as it is.

Again, I confess my profound ignorance of high finance. My understanding of the problem we have right now is that it is basically the result of home prices that were not realistic. The country will now witness extensive political debates about how to regulate the real-estate market so that this does not happen again. I am sure that experts have good ideas about regulations that will help to keep things more stable.

I would like to propose, however, that ultimately business cannot be successfully regulated in this way. External rules cannot keep pace with entrepreneurial creativity (thank God.) But there is always a sure rule for business, a rule which always applies. If everyone followed this sure rule, we would not have Wall Street meltdowns requiring massive government bailouts. The rule for business is: the virtuous man himself. Church law calls this rule the “steady man.” Reality is the measure for a business scheme. Only a virtuous person can see clearly when a proposal is unrealistic.

Perhaps this reads like a long-winded, moralizing statement of an obvious fact: If more Wall Street bankers were virtuous, we would not have a financial crisis. But this is not exactly my point. My point is that everyone needs to pay more careful attention to the virtuous people we know. God has given us these people to help to guide us; they help us to avoid the mistakes and disasters that inevitably occur when we make decisions without connecting with reality. As soon as a virtuous person starts to get uncomfortable with something, then there is a problem. All of us should have the sense to put the brakes on at such a moment.

PS. And let’s all pray fervently to St. Jude Thaddeus that the bailout plan will work and we won’t have another Great Depression.