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The Circumstance of Unmet Need: Part II on Aquinas and the Moral Evaluation of a Budget

In their most recent letter concerning the budget, Bishop Blaire and Bishop Pates reiterated their longstanding position regarding evaluating the effects of Congress’s budget decisions.

 As you prepare to consider legislation that addresses deficits and spending, I reiterate the following moral criteria to guide these difficult budgetary choices:

1. Every budget decision should be assessed by whether it protects or threatens human life and dignity.
2. A central moral measure of any budget proposal is how it affects “the least of these” (Matthew 25). The needs of those who are hungry and homeless, without work or in poverty should come first.
3. Government and other institutions have a shared responsibility to promote the common good of all, especially ordinary workers and families who struggle to live in dignity in difficult economic times.

A just framework for future budgets cannot rely on disproportionate cuts in essential services to poor persons; it requires shared sacrifice by all, including raising adequate revenues, eliminating unnecessary military and other spending, and addressing the long-term costs of health insurance and retirement programs fairly

I wholeheartedly agree with the criteria and have written as such promoting the Circle of Protection and USCCB Domestic and International Justice Committees approaches. The criterion of “Matthew 25” is a way to consider the future consequences and thereby judge the justice or injustice of a particular budget (the devastating consequences of the Ryan budget and the Romney proposal are detailed in the analysis of the links provided). Instead of once again going through the concrete and conclusive data on the effectiveness of programs like SNAP, I’d like to take return to Aquinas because there is another angle to the Matthew 25 criterion. In particular, in my theological opinion, his focus on circumstances give us another avenue for evaluating the situation in which this budget is being developed and from which to demonstrate that the approach proposed in the Ryan budget is morally wrong.

First, how does circumstance function in Aquinas?

Using Aquinas is tricky, one must be very careful that in using him within our contemporary context we respect his own context. In particular, we have to be careful not to read Aquinas through the lens of Descartes, the Enlightenment or Kant and reinterpret Aquinas’ statements on intention, will, and circumstances as if it has a Cartesian bend. (Daniel Westburg addresses this and also offers the gentle over arching reminder, “The Thomistic doctrine on action should be seen as entirely consistent with the biblical principle that one may not do evil so that good may come,” in his essay “Good and Evil in Human Acts” in in the Ethics of Aquinas).

So how are we should we understand circumstances and how they are related to questions of the intention and whether it is a good kind of action itself? Aquinas’ moral theory simultaneously focuses on both unity and the distinct elements of human action.  While circumstances to not always alter the moral evaluation of an act (I-II, Q18, a10)– in De Malo Q2, A6 he explains “that is called a circumstance which surrounds an act, as it were, outside of, not within the substance of the act being considered,” and after examining the three aspects of circumstances to be examined,“which are all contained in the following verse: ‘who, what, where, by what aids, why, how, when.”Fittingness and context are important to the determination of whether or not a circumstance is relevant – does the circumstance (the what, where, by what aids, when, how) impact upon the determination of prudence.

Offering examples of how circumstances, intention and the kind of thing it is to do are all important to Thomistic moral evaluation,  philosopher Brian Davies, OP offers the following example:

Suppose I read the Summa theologiae with care and a desire to learn. That too might be regarded as a good thing to do and it seems that I do it with a good intention. But what if I am doing it while someone is dying of hunger beside me and begging me for food which I can easily provide? Then, Aquinas would hold my action is not good because of the circumstances in which it is performed. (238).

Attending to the questions necessary to determine appropriate circumstances and building off of Davies illustration, it is my contention that the current circumstances of unmet need is significant to the moral evaluation of a budget proposal or approach. I am not simply arguing that because of the difficult economic situation and high unemployment it is unjust to cut social programs like SNAP, TANF, and Housing Assistance because cuts will do harm to those currently receiving those benefits. That is true, but beyond that, it is unjust to consider cutting these programs because as they stand now there remains a significant unmet need among the poor in our society. Budget proposals (and the subsequent votes) rooted in an approach which prioritizes the deficit and debt in a significant reality of unmet need is morally wrong by virtue of circumstance.

Let’s begin with SNAP (food stamps) – there has been significant attention to the rise in the SNAP budget and what an “acceptable level” of said budget would be. SNAP is designed as an automatic stabilizer. As an automatic stabilizer, it is able to both effectively respond to changes of need when the economy contracts without new legislation. This is in addition to the effective economic impact SNAP provides stimulating the economy itself. From the perspective of Catholic social teaching, the size and budget of SNAP should only be a concern with respect to eligibility. The only morally acceptable way to shrink the SNAP budget is when fewer people are hungry in need of food stamps.  Even with the increase in SNAP participation and its budget, there is still a significant percentage of unmet need.

After falling to a low of 54 percent in 2001 and 2002, SNAP’s participation rate among eligible people has increased in recent years, reaching 72 percent in fiscal year 2009.

Effective outreach has increased SNAP participation and lessened the stigma attached to food stamps. The goal however should be that all who are eligible for food stamps receive them.  Unmet need is a morally significant circumstance – particularly in light of Matthew 25.

For Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), the Center for Budget Policies and Priorities estimates only 27% of eligible families receive it.

According to Housing and Urban Development report,

The population of unassisted very low-income renters increased by 11.0 percent during 2007–2009, from 11.57 to 12.83 million. During the same period, incidence of worst case needs in this group increased from 51.0 to 55.2 percent.

A similar analysis could be done of the recent Unemployment Insurance reports, which also has unmet eligible need.

There are many scholars who work in Catholic social teaching who have been attempting to challenge the inaccurate assumption that we simply cannot afford to provide basic services to the poor and vulnerable. These have included theologians, economists, and others all of whom challenge the underlying ideological assumptions behind claiming the deficit is itself the problem rather than a side effect of a jobs problem (as well as of the host of ethical issues and fraud within the financial sector). Generally, we highlight the clear and consistent message from Catholic social teaching; today I have tried to make another complementary case. In chorus with all of those statements, the level of unmet need serviced by these programs makes any proposal or approach which cuts their budget morally wrong. And by necessity then, given that reality, it fails the Matthew 25 test identified by the USCCB Committees on Domestic and International Justice.

(NOTE: Part 1: Check out An Actual Budget Cannot be Morally Neutral at catholicmoraltheology.com)

Clarification: For the sake of specificity – the last sentence should read: In chorus with all of those statements, the level of unmet need serviced by these programs makes any proposal or approach which cuts their budget – without devising and proposing any other realistic and morally just means of meeting this level of need –  morally wrong

(Matthew 25 Criteria refers to Matthew 25:31-46 account of the last judgment whereby Jesus instructs that we will be judged based on what we have or have not done for the least among us.)

5 thoughts on “The Circumstance of Unmet Need: Part II on Aquinas and the Moral Evaluation of a Budget

  1. Meghan, this is something I wanted to post in response to your first post in this series but I didn’t have the time. It is not so much on the substance of what you are trying to say, but on the approach.

    I would be hesitant to apply Aquinas’s concepts (object, intention, circumstances) that were intended to be applied to individual actions to a social policy like a budget. In other words, drafting a budget, proposing a budget, voting on a budget, voting for a candidate based on their views on the budget, are all actions. The budget itself is not. The concepts of object, intention, and circumstances could all be applied to the actions mentioned above, but I don’t think they could be applied, at least in a straightforward way, to evaluating the justice of the budget.

    My point should not be taken to mean that social policies are outside the realm of moral evaluation, or that everything can be reduced down to individual actions. Rather, it is just that the individual and the social are different, and we need some explanation of how they are connected. I see trying to make that connection as one of the key goals of my own work.

    I do eagerly await your future installments, but i at least wanted to raise this caution as a question about how you would approach the problem I have identified.

    1. Matt,
      Yes, proposing a budget, voting for a budget, supporting a budget…these are all actions and these are all actions which I am claiming are morally wrong when the concrete budget in question does what this budget does to social programs for the poor. (But at its heart a budget, in all of these statements, is a moral document made up of human choices – which for Aquinas are either morally good or bad.) I do think you can apply these categories to the budget itself in so far as it is based on these categories that the budget MUST be evaluated as to whether it is morally good to be proposed, supported, voted on, and implemented. This is a direct analogy to Aquinas on law, as a budget is a proposed law as well).

      The trick in these posts is each one ends up making clear I need another one, and perhaps the next should be on Aquinas on public prudence.

  2. This post doesn’t provide the promised definitive moral judgment on a budget; it amounts to another prudential judgment.

    Why? Here’s one example: “The only morally acceptable way to shrink the SNAP budget is when less people are hungry in need of food stamps.” That’s an absolute statement and (it seems to me) the kind of absolute claim you’re relying on to end up making your final judgment on the morality of a budget.

    But suppose, as just one example, a new budget cut the SNAP level of spending, but ended up increasing employment: it could be argued that the higher level of employment would lead to greater charitable giving at a local level, cancelling out the effect of the reduced SNAP budget, and leaving no one hungry.

    Is that right or wrong? I don’t know. The point is that different prudential judgments might be made.

    1. I recommend you read Part 1 and its links to other posts on prudential judgment:
      “The underlying problem with the methodology of these defenses of Ryan’s approach through an assertion that because it is a matter of prudential judgment (in explicit contrast to intrinsic evil) therefore that makes your position a valid one within the framework of Catholic social teaching. This logic treats prudential judgment as if it is a “get out of jail free card,” effectively turning prudential judgment into a new form of moral relativism. This is explicitly counter to the moral theology of Thomas Aquinas, who firmly argued that despite a strong theology of conscience, all of our actions are subject to moral evaluation and that our judgments of conscience can be wrong.”

      The way in which you use and raise prudential judgment in your comment is precisely what I am challenging throughout this series.

      In the example Prof. Davies, OP offers of reading the Summa with the right intention and a good kind of the thing to do, while someone is beside you dying of hunger begging for food you can provide – that circumstance makes reading the Summa in that instance morally wrong. It is a prudential judgment which requires moral evaluation – but it is objectively wrong, it is not “my prudential judgment its wrong, but you can reach another prudential judgment that knowledge gained by Summa more important than the hungry man”

      It is also worth pointing out again – I cannot do evil so that good may come. I cannot harm the poor because by harming the poor I may do good and in the end help the poor.

      1. Your argument seems to be saying: First: “Sometimes the circumstances are such that a particular course of action is morally necessary.” You support that by pointing out a simple occasion (reading the Summa while someone needlessly starves next to you) where a particular response is required. And then you conclude that this means: “Not all courses of action are morally permitted as matters of prudential judgement.”

        Does that outline, at least in part, your line of argument?

        If so, I completely agree with that. And I do not see how anyone could reasonably disagree with it.

        However, you try to show that the current circumstances in society necessitate a particular kind of budget. But you’ve only done that by producing your own line of prudential judgment, that in turn relies on particular claims that are not at all sufficiently necessary.

        In your comment you make the absolute claim: “I cannot harm the poor because by harming the poor I may do good and in the end help the poor.”

        But such a claim is not necessarily true. For example: If, as a farmer in the midst of a famine, I harvest a field before its time, I may be able to save 100 starving people; but if I wait until the right harvest time, I may be able to save 1000 people. On exactly what basis could we condemn the farmer who waited? From what moral principle does his obligation to feed the 100 at the expense of the 1000 come from?

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