Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology

Expressing the Good

Fr. Michael Sweeney, OP

On November 12-14, 2009 Fr. Michael Sweeney, OP, President of DSPT, attended a conference sponsored by the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture entitled, “The Summons of Freedom: Virtue, Sacrifice and the Common Good” and presented this paper. The expressed purpose of the conference was “to reflect upon political and legal questions having to do with the very nature of the political common good, the particular conflicts that arise in trying to achieve it, and the precarious situation of freedom in the democracies of advanced modernity.”  The conference was attended by scholars from the U.S. and Canada, and presenters included professors from as far away as Freiburg, Switzerland and Hong Kong, China.



A very great gulf separates those of us who hold to the social teaching of the Church and most of our contemporaries. The premise of the social teaching is faith. By “faith” I do not mean supernatural faith, the theological virtue; I mean, rather a natural faith, a disposition that insists upon staying with phenomena as they present themselves to us. In its simplest expression to be faithful simply means to remain, to stay, to look and not look away. Such a faithfulness clearly implies relationship: one stays with someone or something apart from oneself. It also implies a seeing: one who remains with another, who attends watchfully, will come eventually to see the other ¬ might we say have knowledge of the other – in a manner that would otherwise be impossible.

This is a disposition that is not wholly unknown to our generation, only extremely rare. For ours is not an age of faith but rather of ideology. We do not so much stay with other people and things – or even with our own experiences that seem so much to fascinate us – as we manipulate them to an end, generally to a political end. The most egregious examples are always the easiest ones to spot, and I would like to offer just one very fine example of what I would term ideological thinking.

We are all familiar with epistemological approaches that deny any appeal to natures of things that could in any way be regarded as fixed or certain, and that are therefore skeptical, if not hostile, to the idea of natural law. Their skepticism is founded largely upon the assertion that our experience of the world is individual and private and ultimately incapable of generalization, so that they would equally deny the possibility that anything could be truly held in common. While we might understand how social or political phenomena might be approached in this manner, we would expect that anyone engaged in the pure or applied sciences might – or should – be more open to the assumption that experience can be generalized. Otherwise there would be no possibility to increase our knowledge through experimentation.

Perhaps we should not be surprised when we discover that Bruno Latour and others have pursued their skepticism even into the realm of experimental science. Latour holds that the objects themselves of scientific study are socially constructed within the laboratory and that no existence can be attributed to phenomena apart from the minds that interpret them. Latour follows this “social constructionist” approach to interesting conclusions. In responding to the research that suggests that Ramses II died of tuberculosis Latour responds, “How could he pass away due to a bacillus discovered by Koch in 1882? ... Before Koch, the bacillus has no real existence.” He asserts that to hold that Ramses died of tuberculosis would be as anachronistic as claiming that he died of machine gun fire.

How, we might wonder, could anyone in his five senses assert such a thing? If we assume that M. Latour is sane, we must at the same time and therefore assume that he is not in the least interested in the manner in which things present themselves to him. Instead, he is interested in the manner in which “knowledge” can be shown to be the product of our manipulation of phenomena: we possess the means, not only for restructuring human society, but for reorganizing reality itself –if only there were a reality to reorganize.

While an extreme example, Latour’s viewpoint is much closer to the majority view in our present age than is that of the bishops. Any faith – even a natural tendency to stay with things and with others – has been rendered suspect to our generation, for the reason that faithfulness of that sort tends to holding firm positions about things; my view inclines to be fixed because it has been fixed upon another. Such a view will be inflexible with respect to projects that would seek to restructure knowledge or experience.

In the place of science we have “worldviews” that are judged according to their political viability for society to the degree that even being human has become a project to be engaged rather than a good to be attended. We have even developed the pernicious habit of speaking of the Catholic faith as an “ism” –apparently unaware that Pope Pius XII condemned “Catholicism”; the Catholic faith is not a worldview, an ideology, a “belief system”, a marshaling of all human experience into a program, however benign. It is, rather a faith, a close and very careful attending to the One who, as Augustine says, is wholly other, yet closer to us than we are to ourselves. Unfortunately many of us Catholics have developed not only a habit of speaking of our faith as though it were an ideology, but of living it and understanding it ideologically; we can be concerned, not so much upon living an encounter with Christ and others –a relationship– as with getting everything right.

If we cannot hold that there is anything fixed in the realm of being and in thought, actuated by the mind’s relationship to reality, then how is it possible to order society at all? In the introduction to his Commentary on the Metaphysics, Aquinas remarks that to order anything requires some fixed point to which other things can be related. Without such a fixed point, order cannot be achieved either in thought or in things. If there is no order save what the mind imposes upon things according to the socially conditioned premises embedded in one’s worldview, and if there is more than one worldview –which must, indeed, be the case given that experience cannot be generalized– then order in society must depend upon an ideal that is posited. Such an ideal must be capable of absorbing or disarming the competing worldviews that would otherwise fragment society. Therefore it must be sufficiently remote from immediate experience so as to applicable to multiple “worldviews” or “belief systems” to serve as a plausible end. The more immediate and particular ends that political process might secure along the way (healthcare, changes to the tax code, greater control of investment) then become symbols of the “progress” that political process espoused by this or that party can achieve.

I think that it is imperative for us to realize that appeals to “pluralism” are not any longer merely denoting the social fact that different faiths and customs are represented in most contemporary societies. Rather, given the premises that all knowledge is contingent upon one’s worldview, and that one’s worldview is largely a product of social construction, pluralism must be insisted upon in order to relativize previous social constructions –worldviews or belief “systems”– in order to achieve “progress” in society, which effort consists in positing a new ideal toward the construction of the social order.

What will such an order achieve? Always it will promise to maximize advantages to the individual for the sake of achieving a new order in society. This holds, I think, for two reasons: first, the “individual” who must always seek, like Sisyphus, for an elusive autonomy, is a creature who is isolated from history, and therefore particularly susceptible of ideals and possibilities; such a one must look forever forward, not back. (When he does look back it is see evidence for an evolution of society organized around the idea of freedom as autonomy). Second, the autonomous individual is not a social animal; he is not rooted in a community, but is taught to identify himself according to certain preconceptions that he has inherited –his “belief system”– from which he can be easily detached.

So, for example, in a number of states the question of gay marriage has been raised. There has been very little conversation about what marriage is, what is the good or the end according to which marriage is ordered. One will, after all, understand marriage according to the premises founded in one’s worldview, and there is no interest on the part of the government in asking what marriage as an institution might have been in the past. Rather, marriage must be divested of previous meanings so that it can be framed in the light of an ideal. So: whatever else it might be, marriage is a stable relationship that is publically acknowledged. Given that the political process itself insists that every individual should be treated equally, it must be that any relationship ought to have the same dignity as any other. In order to absorb competing views, and in order not to disenfranchise anyone, courts and legislators are therefore proposing that every stable relationship between adult individuals ought to be recognized as a marriage. Those who think otherwise because of their “belief system” are free to do so, but privately; otherwise they would be imposing their social construction upon others, and would render achievement of the ideal impossible. The result will be that “consensus” is legislated, not discerned, and that marriage will cease to mean anything other than a relationship that is acknowledged in law.

A second example: That everyone should have access to health care would seem to be –and is– a very good thing. However, we must keep in mind that universal health care is not a good, but an ideal. Therefore, there has been little discernment of why it is a good thing, and little clarity concerning what we are attempting to achieve. There is no consensus concerning what we might mean by “universal” (should the health of all children be included, even those of illegal immigrants?) and no consensus concerning what we might mean by “health” (does health involve access to abortion?). The role of government is regarded as one that proposes new social possibilities –posits ideals– and therefore the government has the task of legislating the ends, along with the means to fulfilling the ends. Therefore there is an urgency that “universal” and “health” must not be too closely defined; they must have the character of an ideal that we are striving for, so that everyone remains free to insert his or her private notions, founded upon previous social constructions, of what that ideal might look like in realization.

I do not suggest that government is bent upon tyranny or that those who govern are not attempting to seek good things; I do suggest that, willy-nilly, this process is totalitarian in the strict sense, in that it must relativize the particular communities that were once subsidiary societies –families and churches, for example– in order to create consensus around an ideal. I do hold that a totalitarian state is one that admits of no subsidiary societies, and that a government that presumes to define what is a family is precisely totalitarian.

In such a system it is futile to speak of the “good”, let alone the “common good.” (When the term is used by politicians they mean, if we look closely, collective effort to achieve the greatest benefit for individuals through ideals that are posited, which does not satisfy what the tradition means by “common” and may not satisfy what we have held to be “good.”) First, the good is not an idea that we might propose, a “being of reason” in the language of Aquinas. It is very precisely not a construct of human invention. It is, like our idea of being or of act, a quasi-idea: the term designates but does not define. According to Aristotle, it designates and depends upon finality: anything that is good has the character of an end that all humans seek.

We should immediately notice that the very notion of the good connotes something that is common: all persons seek what is good. This is precisely why we can speak of goodness or of the “good”; to seek is common to the human person –it pertains to each without exception– so that each person, without exception, can understand what is meant by “good” in terms of an end that is sought, given only that they understand the terms. What, then, is the character of this end?

First, to be sought something must be real, not merely ideal, actual and not merely possible. This is apparent when we consider our sense appetites: it is the fact of the chocolate chip cookie that one seeks, not the idea of it or its mere possibility. This is equally true of what the tradition has considered the higher appetites: we do not love friendship –an idea– but friends, and it is the actual presence of another that alone will satisfy my desire, not merely the possibility of an encounter. Nor do we love friends in the light of an ideal: as Pieper points out, we do not love others because our friends are so talented, wealthy, handsome, or whatever; rather, we love the very fact of them. And we love them precisely as other than we are. When I contemplate my friends I realize quickly that I am not in the presence of a community of the like-minded. We designate by the term “good” things or other persons that affect us, that beckon us, that move us to act; we seek to possess some real thing that moves us to act, and in our seeking we are drawn toward something that we experience as fixed, as having the character of an end, not of an ideal, and still less of a moment en route.

While the end of our seeking must be fixed, to move us to action it must also be in some sense present. An idea or possibility or ideal that, precisely as idea or possibility or ideal is necessarily remote from us –not presently realized, but future– cannot move us to act. In order for our desire to be awakened it is necessary that we be in some way in the presence of what it is that we seek to possess or to enjoy. True, the particular good that we seek may be arduous, difficult to achieve – the kingdom of heaven, for example – but if it is not, in some sense, already in our midst, already present to us, we will not seek it. There is, in this regard, one further thing that we should notice concerning the good that we seek: its character of presence to us as an end shapes the manner itself of our seeking such that, when we are most present to the good that we seek we experience a sort of repose. Aquinas remarks that the will is most engaged, most in act, when it is at rest in the presence of the beloved. The repose that we experience is the very contrary of inactivity; our faculties are most alert, most asserted, since it is precisely in the presence of the beloved that we are urged to seek a union that is yet more full.

If anything that is good is, indeed: real, not ideal; actual, not merely possible; an end and never a means; fixed and not merely provisional; present and not remote, then these aspects of what is good must be respected when we attempt to express the good. Yet I fear that we have tended to engage contemporary debates on our opponents’ terms rather than ours, so that the good as our tradition presents it has been much too little expressed.

If the good had the character of a categorical imperative; if it were, indeed, something that belongs to the realm of ideas, posited rather than discerned, then to consider the danger to society of certain policies or to answer propositions with counter propositions would be tantamount to expressing the good. But, because of the character of the good itself as something sought, something that truly has the character of an end, the good as such cannot be expressed by means of social or political agenda but only respected. If the good is to be expressed it can only be by means of the same act whereby it is discerned: by reflective –might we not say, contemplative?– resting in the presence of some real thing that we commonly designate as an end that we seek.

I would suggest that a presentation of life, of marriage and family, of the vocation of children not merely as a responsibility, as a categorical imperative, but truly as good has hardly occurred to anyone in the public forum. There is, at any rate, too little evidence of the good as such being expressed in the pro-life movement; it is respected, but remains largely unexpressed. I would further suggest that the fundamental social problem of our age is that because any consideration of the good-as-good has been almost fully neglected, the communities in which the good was once discerned –the family, the church, once themselves acknowledged as societies subsidiary to the state– have been marginalized and, as we suggested at the outset, regarded as hostile to a social project that must require commitment to a process and avoid ends that cannot be negotiated.

What, then, is to be done? No democracy, indeed, no social order of any sort, can long survive on the single assertion of the rights of individuals. The danger, as Habermas and others have pointed out, is that they may (Habermas is, perhaps a little too optimistic; I would substitute his “may” for “will”) use their individual rights as weapons against each other. Society requires a common bond that is absolutely prior to the function of government, and if the good is to be discerned, and with it, the common good, what is needed is to foster subsidiary societies in which the good is discerned for the sake of society as a whole.

Such an activity cannot be directed to issues, no matter how pressing, because no issue has ever had the character of the good. Rather, we must provide a safe place in which the challenge of Jesus, “What do you seek?” may be answered. The rules for this particular engagement are, I am convinced, given in the very character of the good: we will describe closely what we seek (recall that by “good” we designate rather than define); we will therefore keep faith with the actual circumstances of our lives and relationships; we will look to things that are real, actual, present, and eschew, at least in the first instance, conversation about ideals, possibilities, or utopias.

All of this means that we have a work to do, which is to express the good, to account for the ideals and possibilities that our contemporaries seek by discerning, and inviting them to discern with us, the goods –the fixed ends– that give rise to their ideals. 

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