Do we Live in a Society? This question came up in a recent Josias Podcast episode. Serious doubts were raised about whether we do. The discussion focused on the United States, where my interlocutors live. I lived almost half of my life in there, but it has now been almost 14 years since I left. In another sense, however, as a German rock band says, “we’re all living in Amerika.”
Most generally considered, a society is “a union of intelligent beings acting for an end” (Crean and Fimister). But in this context we mean not any society, but a “complete” society, one that is ordered to the complete human good: happiness. Happiness is a fully human life (virtuous activity) lived in common, and so such a society ought to be a union of friends mutually willing each other’s good for their own sake—that is, as a common good. A common good that is not diminished or divided in being shared. Happiness consists mostly in the common enjoyment of such goods: truth, friendship, etc. Happiness in that sense is the extrinsic common good to which society is ordered as its end.
The intrinsic common good of society is the harmony of peace among the members, which enables (and partly already realizes) the attainment of that end. Peace is the tranquility of order, and it depends above all on justice, that is, on everyone being given what is due to them, their right (jus). Several things are due to everyone in a society, because they are necessary for participation in society. First, of course, what is necessary for mere life: food, shelter, etc. But then beyond that what is necessary for the leisure and security required to really participate in civic friendship and public virtue, according to their proper station in life. That is, a certain security in the possession of the means for life, protection against over-work, and exploitation. And then a certain education is necessary for people to acquire the virtues and skills necessary for participation in the common life. Supplying these things is first the task of the household, but the larger society has to give the households help (subsidium) so that they can fulfill their role well, and in a way that really fosters participation in the common good. What exactly is needed will vary both according to the station of each person in society, and according to the complexity of the society itself.
Now, most really existing societies have failed to provide the means for real participation in the common good for many of those living among them. This is unjust, and destructive of the very existence of a society. But it is not an on/off type thing. Most societies have some degree of participation in real common goods, constantly wounded by some degree of injustice, including the injustice of excluding many from real participation in common goods.
What about our “society”? Alasdair MacIntyre has a great lecture where he talks about how the problem in our society is exacerbated by the fact that we think wrongly about society. The habitual way of thinking in modern society misunderstands happiness as a private good, and therefore it misunderstands what society is. Everyone has a natural inclination to live in a society, but individualistic misunderstandings lead to heedlessness of evils that undermine the common good. That is, they lead to heedlessness about what MacIntyre calls “structural injustice.” One of the examples of heedlessness that he gives is the heedlessness of “food deserts,” poor neighborhoods that lack grocery stores.
The same example was given by a friend of mine on Facebook, recently wrote an impassioned post describing how she became aware of the structures of injustice that oppress African Americans in the US:
I lived in one of the most segregated cities in the country. I lived in a neighborhood where if you told someone your address, they would literally say “you don’t live there” because only black people were expected to live there. It took me 1 1/2 hours on the bus (with changes and waiting) to reach the grocery store ONE WAY that would be 10 minutes by car. I felt that it was almost impossible to get basic food, and I was single. Most of the people I saw were moms with children who were trying to navigate kids and groceries AND one of those large wheeled shopping carts. Now I find it almost impossible to get to and from the grocery store with kids, WITH a car. How do you get basic nutrition like that? The most basic resources are food and water. And in those areas people are struggling so much it’s not financially advantageous to put more stores in an area because there wouldn’t be as much revenue as the store would want. I could see the absolute desperation of people evicted from their homes because they could not pay rent, because they could not keep a job because their child was sick and they missed work or school for just too many days and they had no backup help and the jobs they could get paid almost nothing. I realized we had absolutely no clue what it was life in the inner city was like, in our white neighborhoods with our cars.
The more one looks into it, the more one sees how many injustices have been committed against African Americans. How they have been driven to despair and crime by injustices of all kinds that have made it almost impossible to participate in the common good. And then there are the killings of which the killing of George Floyd is the latest symbol. For so long the officers of “justice” have been the officers of injustice for African Americans. Do we live in a society? It is hard to blame many African Americans from concluding that they don’t, and acting accordingly.
Pent-up rage at exclusion from society can take destructive forms. Rioting and looting are unjustly destroying lives. Such unrestrained violence makes even the bare minimum of the social impossible. And, of course, this is taken advantage of by anarchists who just like cathartic violence for its own sake. And it is celebrated and promoted by the political “left”— the political movement most explicitly committed to the destruction of the common good of human life through the corruption of morals.
So it is quite understandable that there is a strong impulse to push back. Many of my integralist friends have been writing about the need for strong action by the US government to end rioting. I agree that strong action is necessary.
But one has to be careful here. The causes of the current anger are a disorder and lack of justice deeper and less tractable than the injustice and disorder of rioting in the streets, and we have to be as determined in opposing them. John Rao has written about the temptation that Catholics since the French Revolution have felt to join “the party of order,” that is the “moderate” wing of the Revolution, the wing of capitalist exploitation, since they seem more opposed to the open anarchy of the left. But history has shown this to be a trap:
Enlightenment naturalism called for the construction of individual, political and social life upon the observable laws of nature alone; laws whose scientific character rational man was obliged to accept, and supernatural religion humbly to accommodate. Nineteenth century liberalism was pleased with that “moderate” application of Enlightenment naturalism in the Revolution of the period 1789-1792 which had guaranteed the victory of the French bourgeoisie. In contrast, it was terrified by the counterproductive demagoguery of the following Reign of Terror, and correspondingly convinced that the best means of attaining “nature’s” concrete victory over a superstitious world was in as bloodless a manner as possible. Capitalism expressed the Enlightenment’s iron clad natural laws in the economic sphere, and liberalism’s belief in the superiority of peaceful change through its commitment to a non-violent Industrial Revolution. The fortunes created by the investment of bourgeois capital in industrialization were used to support the liberal “party” that worked for the triumph of naturalism in all realms of life, economic and non-economic alike. No Enlightenment naturalism, no capitalism and liberalism. […] Fearful of the consequences of socialist activism, which seemed to strike at the peace necessary for all progress as well as the rights of property that they identified as an essential part of a natural society, [the liberals] began to feel terribly uncomfortable with its earlier historical record of association even with less disruptive revolutionary leftism. It wanted a new pedigree, one that disassociated itself from all violence whatsoever. Following in the footsteps of moderate revolutionaries of the 1790’s, it gradually sought to co-opt the use of the words “conservative” and even “rightist” to describe itself. A Specter was indeed haunting Europe, it argued, one that only a new, all-inclusive Party of Order could combat. Thus began a frantic hunt to join together “rightist” and “conservative” allies of the most disparate character, all of whom would be expected to suppress their other differences in a grand fraternal campaign for the protection of the first and most important of all rights: the sacred rights of property. Statesmen of capitalist persuasion recognized Catholicism, with its concern for private property, as a likely candidate for friendship, and opened negotiations for an Entente Cordiale with the Roman Church. In seeking an alliance with Catholics, the “conservatively” enlightened were calling for a crusade in favor of scientific, “natural” laws as observed by capitalists, over and against scientific, “natural” laws as observed by “the Reds”. But there was a steep price that had to be paid by the faithful in return for constructing this coalition of the willing. They were expected to admit that critiques of capitalism were either much ado about nothing or rationally erroneous. More importantly still, they were called upon to recognize that a God horrified by socialist materialism and covetousness had undoubtedly bestowed His blessing upon the opposing capitalist army, rendering criticism of the economic principles written on its banners nothing less than war against Heaven itself.
The “steep price” that Rao explains here is far too steep. It is a price that has probably resulted in the loss of many souls.
What is needed, then, is an uncompromising commitment to integral justice for the sake of the common good: fiat justitia ruat caelum. Justice towards poor minorities till now excluded from society, as well as justice to poor shopkeepers attacked by looters. Such integral justice requires the conversion of society to Christ the King. As Pope Pius XI put it: “When once men recognize, both in private and in public life, that Christ is King, society will at last receive the great blessings of real liberty, well-ordered discipline, peace and harmony.”