Monday, December 21, 2009

The Nexus of Social Justice and Moral Principles

 In a recent article about Robert George of Princeton University by the New York Times's David D. Kirkpatrick, I was impressed with the following:
The “rights” to education and health care are another matter, George told his seminar. “Who is supposed to provide education or health care to whom?” George asked. “Health care and education are things that you have to pay for. Resources are always finite,” he went on. “Is it better for education and health care to be provided by governments under socialized systems or by private providers in markets or by some combination?” Those questions, George said, “go beyond the application of moral principles. You can get all the moral principles dead right and not have an answer to any of those questions.” (Source: NY Times)
There is an element involved in issues such as the right to education and the right to health care that are not purely matters of morality, so that presumably any number of proposals that are morally spotless might be entertained by men who are concerned about making good decisions, good in both the moral and technical senses.

So, if the "moral issues" have been satisfied, and there remain a plurality of "technical possibilities" to resolve, or begin to resolve, the "technical problems", why in God's name is there any reason for some other presumed set of directives which some would have us believe are "social justice" imperatives following on the Catholic Church's "social teachings"?

I want to put the question in this way to highlight the fact that the doctrina socialis Ecclesiae is no other thing than the application of the Church's evangelical message to specific conditions of society as they exist in a particular set of circumstances (historical context).

Are these "prudential judgments", as others continually formulate the problem? Yes, and no. As principles derived from "moral theology" they are not prudential judgments. The latter govern specific human activity; but "moral theology" addresses the general principles that should govern such prudential judgments, as well as general conclusions about what we can be certain is good and what is evil. "Moral theology" can be taught; prudential judgments cannot, although the principles for making good prudential judgments can be taught. Strictly speaking, though, prudential judgments can only be made.

A prudential judgment would take one of the specific technical offerings, and decide that it is the one that should be implemented in the current circumstances. Or, it might decide that a number of them ought to be reconciled (somehow, if possible) with each other, and the result implemented. The decision-maker for a society will be the law-maker, and one would hope that in a democratic system that would be based on input from the populace, but that, of course, cannot be guaranteed.

Citizens must be properly educated, at some level of specificity, in order to understand the moral principles that should be applied, as well as some of the pros-and-cons of the various "technical" suggestions. But, those judgments then become informed opinion, not prudential judgments.

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