Wealth Creation and Human Dignity

Catholic Social Ethics

Although Meghan Clark and Joseph Tetlow, S.J. have raised some important criticisms of Stacie Beck’s contention that the “social justice agenda” of many Catholics ignores certain basic truths of capitalist economics, they downplay the extent to which the provision of certain basic human rights is dependent on the creation of wealth. The Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain provides guidance on how to maintain both the grounding of human rights in universal human dignity and the contingency of concrete rights, a balance necessary in the current age of austerity.

grameen-bank-futureBack in May, the economist Stacie Beck published an article, “Just Economics,” in the Catholic magazine America arguing that the “social justice agenda” of many Catholics ignores certain basic truths of capitalist economics. The article generated a substantial response, including two responses published on America’s blog “In All Things,” one by Meghan Clark, assistant professor of theology at St. John’s University, and the other by Joseph Tetlow, S.J., the director of the Montserrat Jesuit Retreat House in Lake Dallas, Texas. Although both Clarke and Tetlow raise important criticisms of Beck’s article, on the issue of wealth creation and human rights, the two miss the mark.

In her article, Beck asserts that “The goals of social justice assume a society prosperous enough to support them.” Clark responds by saying, “No, social justice assumes a Christian responsibility to build a social order based upon justice in which the life and dignity of every human person is respected.” Similarly, after listing several quotations from the documents of Catholic social teaching, Tetlow affirms that “In none of these do the goals of social justice depend on society’s prosperity. They depend only on the equal dignity of each human being under God—owner, laborer, consumer.” Clark and Tetlow’s concern seems to be that Beck’s formulation makes the promotion of human dignity contingent on economic conditions, whereas for Catholic social teaching human dignity is the starting point for reflection and action.

Clark and Tetlow, however, have created a dichotomy where none need exist. After all, Beck’s point is that the “goals” of social justice assume prosperity, not that the “pursuit” of social justice does so. There is no reason why we can’t think of the quest for economic prosperity as part of the “responsibility to build a social order based upon justice,” as long as it is pursued alongside a commitment to basic human rights. In fact, Jacques Maritain, the leading intellectual light of the modern Catholic human rights tradition, insisted that we must do so.

Maritain was a guiding force in the creation of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1945, and perhaps the most important intellectual influence on Pope John XXIII’s encyclical Pacem in Terris, to which Clark rightly appeals as a touchstone for the Catholic conception of rights. In his book Man and the State, written six years after the drafting of the UN Declaration, Maritain argues that the natural law provides the philosophical foundation for rights. He points out, however, that some doctrines of the natural law are better than others. By the seventeenth century, the natural law had come to be seen as “a ready-made, pre-existing pattern” that “should be immutably and universally recognized in all places of the earth and at all moments of time”; our laws and institutions are “a mere transcript traced off from natural law.” This simplistic understanding contributed to the discrediting of natural law and the idea of natural rights by the end of the nineteenth century. Maritain insists that an adequate doctrine of the natural law recognizes that human nature is concrete and historical, and therefore what human dignity demands of society is contingent on both our knowledge of natural law and the historical conditions in which we live.

Maritain makes an important distinction between what he calls the ontological and the gnoseological elements of natural law. The ontological element refers to our shared, universal human nature, and natural law refers to “the proper way in which, by reason of its specific structure and specific ends, [that nature] ‘should’ achieve fulness of being either in its growth or in its behaviour.” The gnoseological element refers to humankind’s knowledge of the natural law, which, unlike the ontological element, changes and develops over time. Our basic understanding of the natural law arises from the inclinations of our nature and is further developed through the use of reason within human communities. Maritain rightly points out that it was only in the eighteenth century that humankind was able “to bring out in full light the rights of man [sic] as also required by natural law.” We could also point to specific examples, such as slavery and women’s rights, where humankind’s moral awareness has been progressive.

Maritain makes a further distinction between the possession and the exercise of rights. The “possession” of a right is grounded in the dignity of the human person and is for that reason fundamental. But the “exercise” of a right is subject to limitation, dependent on “a given society’s concrete possibilities.” Maritain gives as an example the right to an education. He points out that it would have been simply impossible for society to have ensured a right to education, as we understand it today, in medieval Europe. In fact, to attempt to do so would have been unjust, presumably because it would have taken limited material resources away from even more basic necessities. Nevertheless, according to Maritain, medieval persons retained a claim to this right, “as something to be fulfilled in time.”

I find Maritain’s terminology problematic, since it is not clear what it would mean to possess a right one could not exercise; the problem here is reducing all ethical discourse to the language of rights. The distinction Maritain brings out, however, between the latent demands of human dignity and those rights which can adequately be promoted and protected by society, is valid. Returning to the example of education, we do not call medieval monarchs human rights abusers because they refused to provide the equivalent of a high school education to their subjects (although they might have been unjust rulers for other reasons); to do so is anachronistic. But that does not keep us from saying that the full flourishing of human dignity was limited in the Middle Ages. The point becomes even more obvious when we look at other rights. The Affordable Care Act is based on a human right of access to affordable health care, but who would argue that people merely a hundred years ago had a right to basic, but then non-existent, things such as vaccines and antibiotics, let alone advanced treatments such as contemporary cancer therapy? As a third example, in his book Modern Catholic Social Documents and Political Economy, Catholic economist Albino Barrera, O.P. claims that the right to economic participation defended in Catholic social teaching is conditioned by the nature of the economy, such that participation today demands access to, among other things, an internet connection.

In their criticism of Beck, Clark and Tetlow are in danger of reducing human nature and human rights to the “ready-made, pre-existing pattern” that Maritain warns against. They rightfully insist that the human rights demanded by the “social justice agenda” are grounded in human dignity, but their argument masks that these rights refer to concrete things whose availability is historically contingent. And in this sense Beck is absolutely right that economic prosperity is an essential precondition for the exercise of these rights. Although I cannot present an exhaustive account, at least three historical developments are essential preconditions to the human rights regime promoted by Catholic social teaching.

1) Technological Revolution. Beginning with the Industrial Revolution in the late eighteenth century, the pace of technological development has accelerated at a rate undreamt of by earlier generations. New methods of production have allowed for the manufacture of more and cheaper goods. Means of transportation such as the railroad, the automobile, and the airplane have made it possible for people and goods to reach the ends of the globe. Medical technologies have pushed the boundaries of human health. Information and communication technologies have given people unprecedented access to information and ideas.

2) Wealth Creation. The development of the modern market economy has made possible the creation of wealth dwarfing that of all previous eras. The freeing of the market from royal favoritism, the invention of modern banking and finance, and the expansion of global trade have all been essential to contemporary affluence. The market economy and the technological revolution have existed in a complex relationship; certain technologies have helped make the market economy possible, and the market economy has unleashed an entrepreneurial spirit that contributes to the rapid pace of technological development.

3) The Modern State. It is easy to overlook, but the state apparatus itself is a relatively recent invention. In Europe, it was not until the late Middle Ages that a sufficiently educated lay population existed to perform the accounting necessary for systematic taxation. The invention of the railroad and the telegraph in the nineteenth century helped extend the state’s control over all of the territory between its borders. It was not until the 1930s that governments mastered the econometric techniques necessary for the effective regulation of the economy.

The provision of basic rights such as education and health is dependent on appropriate technology, the wealth to afford them, and a state apparatus to administer them. Yet it is important to note that none of these three historical developments originated in the pursuit of the equitable provision of human rights. Even the modern state emerged in pursuit of dominance and control, and was only later put to more benign use. And the reality is that even today, those policies that lead to the development of new technologies or to the creation of wealth are not necessarily the same as those that promote the basic human rights of the most vulnerable, yet, paradoxically, lifting up the poor requires technology and the creation of wealth.

Maritain points out that historically, movements promoting different aspects of the human good have often been in conflict with one another. As an example, he points out how the French revolutionaries attacked associations of workers as a threat to the individual freedoms laid out in the Declaration of the Rights of Man. Perceptively, Maritain discerns that the historical struggle of our own time is how to reconcile social and economic rights, such as those to education and health care, with both democratic liberties and the economic liberties necessary for wealth creation. When such rights appear to come into conflict, he writes, the danger is to “inflate and make absolute, limitless, unrestricted in every respect” some rights while leaving others “unfairly disregarded.” Yet they all must be recognized and reconciled, because they all originate from genuine impulses of human nature. The solution to this dilemma cannot simply be read off of human nature or derived from the mantra of “human dignity,” it must be an act of political reason.

Therefore Beck is right to insist that Catholic social teaching must take adequate consideration for the creation of wealth, which is necessary for the provision of the basic human rights defended in Catholic social teaching, but also dependent on a set of institutions and policies that are not the same as those needed to promote social equity. Beck is correct that this insight has often been “unfairly disregarded” in Catholic circles. For example, Tetlow himself compares wealth to the air and water, something that is given to us to be shared. Without denying that wealth is to be shared, wealth is also quite unlike air and water in that it is not simply there to be used, but must be created, which requires work, human ingenuity, and proper institutions.

At the same time, wealth creation cannot become the only value. Even if, as Beck claims, redistributive policies put limits on economic growth, Clark and Tetlow are certainly right that these policies are also necessary to establish an equitable society where the rights of all are met.  Therefore redistributive tax rates can be justified, despite the disincentives for wealth creation they might generate.

Maritain was certainly right that a key task of our time is to harness the great wealth and technological advancement that the free market provides and put it to use in the service of human dignity. The economic crises we are living through provide a new opportunity for the type of political reasoning we need to effectively balance growth and equity, as the old orthodoxies that have promoted one or the other lay discredited. Catholic social teaching should be a crucial voice in this discussion, but it too must examine its own blind spots.

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