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An Actual Budget Cannot Be Morally Neutral: Part 1 on Human Action, Thomas Aquinas & Prudential Judgments

Since the choice of Paul Ryan as Mitt Romney’s running mate there have been many attempts by Catholics of republican sympathies and a handful of bishops to support and promote Ryan’s status as a “good Catholic” over and against those who claim that the “Path to Prosperity” aka the Ryan Budget fails the basic moral test of Catholic social teaching.   This back and forth rests largely on Paul Ryan’s stated good intentions to apply Catholic social teaching to the budget, testimonials on his faith, and the seeming carte blanche of “these are matters of prudential judgment.” While many of these statements do not officially endorse the Ryan budget, they use prudential judgment as the reason it is not fair to claim that the budget or its underlying fundamental approach is unjust or morally wrong.  There are many issues latent within these seemingly theological defenses of Ryan (among them the disrespect being shown to the USCCB Committees on Domestic and International Justice, Bishops Blaire and Pates, who are elected by their fellow bishops and specifically tasked with evaluating the moral questions in any budget or legislation, but that is a post for another day). For the limits of this post, I wish to focus on the impression that to question the moral status of the Ryan budget is to label Paul Ryan a heretic or pass judgment on his eternal salvation (while similarly passing judgment on others like Sr. Simone). As Mark Silk astutely pointed out,

“To say that Paul Ryan’s approach to government policy is at odds with Catholic teaching is not to condemn him to eternal damnation. It’s to say that it’s at odds with Catholic teaching.”

Now I readily admit to being among the Catholic moral theologians who continue to be critical of both the Ryan budget and his interpretation of Catholic social teaching (which I do argue is fundamentally flawed). I have not, however, nor have any of my colleagues as far as I am aware claimed knowledge of the state of Mr. Ryan’s eternal soul.  Nevertheless, I maintain that Paul Ryan’s budget and his general approach to the social safety net fails to meet the basic moral test of Catholic social teaching.

This is the first of what will be a series of posts migrating between and the Political Theology blog examining the questions raised by the attempt to defend Paul Ryan’s approach as simply a matter of prudential judgment.  First, I will begin with the question of the budget as a moral document. Second, I will examine the objective and circumstantial understanding of human action in Thomas Aquinas, and why, according to that theory, simply asserting this is a matter of prudential judgment is irrelevant to the determination that the approach of the Ryan budget is morally wrong. It is fitting to begin with St. Thomas Aquinas for two reasons. First, Aquinas is a major figure in the Catholic tradition and the development of Catholic social teaching in particular. And second, Paul Ryan has claimed an affinity for the epistemology and worldview of Aquinas when seeking to distance himself from previous statements on Ayn Rand.

According to St. Thomas Aquinas, there are some kinds of actions which are always  wrong – killing of innocents; yet, as renowned philosopher and Thomistic scholar Brian Davies notes, Aquinas

“seems to concede that hard and fast rules are none too easily available as yard sticks against which to measure the rightness and wrongness of particular actions in precise situations . . . Aquinas also affirms that every action we actually perform is either morally good or morally bad in that anything we do either helps us to our ultimate good or hinders us from achieving it” (236).

In his treatment of Good and Evil in Human Acts in the Summa (IaIIae.18), St. Thomas Aquinas explains:

“It sometimes happens that an action is indifferent in its species, but considered in the individual it is good or evil. And the reason is this because a moral action, as stated above (a3), derives its goodness not only from its object, whence it takes its species; but also from the circumstances”

“And every individual action must needs have some circumstance that makes it good or bad, at least in respect of the intention of the end.”

Consequently every human action that proceeds from deliberate reason, if it be considered in the individual must be good or bad.” (Ia.IIae.18.9.response)

Aquinas makes a sustained argument that any human action is either morally good or morally bad. This determination is made based upon both the question of intention and the question of circumstances.  For an action to be morally good it must have a good intention, be a good kind of thing to do and it must be done in the appropriate circumstances.

Now, I would argue that budgets are not properly speaking the kind of things which are neutral by kind either; all budgets are by definition moral documents. There is no such thing as a  morally neutral budget. Yet, for the purpose of argument, I have examined Aquinas’ position that all particular human actions are either morally good or morally bad and subject to evaluation.  St. Thomas Aquinas’ basic definition of human action provides a clear foundation the starting point that a particular budget, such as the Ryan budget and its operating approach to government resources, cannot be viewed as morally neutral. It is either morally good or morally bad evaluated based on whether or not it is an approach that itself is a good kind of approach, done with the right intentions AND in the right circumstances.

Based upon critical evaluation that budget is either morally good or morally bad (neither of which offers within it a judgment of Ryan’s relationship with God). The current dismissal of substantive critiques of the Ryan budget through the invocation of prudential judgment misrepresents the breadth and depth of Catholic theology on human action, practical reason, and economic justice.

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.  In the coming post, I will apply Aquinas’ criteria for evaluating a moral action in our current circumstances to the approach of the Ryan budget explaining exactly why I find that approach to be morally wrong, and why that it is a matter of prudential judgment does not change or weaken that moral evaluation.



  1. Meghan Clark: “It is either morally good or morally bad evaluated based on whether or not it is an approach that itself is a good kind of approach, done with the right intentions AND in the right circumstances.”

    However, each human action is accompanied by the thinking and experience of the particular individual human who is performing that action. And whatever that thinking and experience happens to be made up of, it is always unavoidably a part of the circumstances of that action. (E.g. Summa II-1 Q7A3).

    Which means that the good or evil of a particular action (in the specific context of Aquinas’s discussion of “human action”) can potentially vary from person to person, if thinking and experience varies from person to person.

    Which of course it does.

    Meghan Clark: “Based upon critical evaluation that budget is either morally good or morally bad.”

    However, nothing that Aquinas or Davies says is any support against the fact that different humans with different thinking and experience may decide differently about the good or evil of putting a particular budget into action.

    (I do agree that just because something is genuinely a matter of prudential judgment, it does not follow that it is therefore morally unobjectionable. Prudential judgments can be legitimately rejected for all kinds of reasons: they may contain errors of logic, errors of fact, include strictly unnecessary harmful effects, or leave out good effects that can be easily had. But any fault has to be pointed out.)

  2. Meghan,

    Thanks for the post. Not only is it incisive analysis (and certainly timely!), but it’s also a really helpful review for my comps prep.

    I look forward to the rest of your series!

  3. Excellent post. In looking to Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Aeterni Patris, we are reminded of the central role Aquinas’s thought plays in the social teaching of the Church. What Paccer seems to address is the de facto relativism that is part of a moral agents’s subjective reasoning on doing good and avoiding evil. The problem, however, is when de facto relativism is substituted for relativism de iure. Certainly no one can deny the moral agent (the person) approaches problems of good and evil from their own unique perspective and life experiences but this cannot be a bridge to a form of de iure relativism. This would be entirely un-thomistic.

    The ongoing debate over prudential judgments and intrinsic evils raises the larger question about to what extent the social teaching of the Church will effectively have in society if all the Church can offer are universal principles such as the medieval maxim, “do good and avoid evil” without an examination of the nature of policies (even beyond those that touch on intrinsic evils), political acts or what have you and how they impact the life of the human person in very real ways.

  4. Very good post. Important to keep this up. Incidentally, I used the “get out of jail free card” line for prudential judgements a while back! :)

    Morning’s Minion from Vox Nova.

  5. Meghan–
    This is a very good way to approach this question. I know you are going to go on to look at intention and circumstances, but I want to add something on the “kind of thing” that a budget is, as an action. We can say, I think, that all actions of government are supposed to aim at the common good. (cf. GS 75) But what is that? In a more obscure Aquinas text, On Kingship, Aquinas actually makes this quite clear: “There are three requirements for the good life of a social group. First, the society must be united in peace. Secondly, the society thus united must be directed towards acting well. Just as a man cannot do anything unless there is unity among the parts of the body, so a number of men who are disunited cannot act well because they fight among themselves. A third requirement is that the king work to see that there is a sufficient supply of the necessities required to live well.” I think this is a helpful quote, because it suggests the importance of social cooperation, as well as the obligation of a “sufficient supply of necessities.”

  6. Aquinas’ use of circumstance may not be as narrow as yours since his includes the act and the intent while I believe you are speaking specifically about what he referred to as “other circumstances”: “Now, the motive and object of the will is the end. Therefore that circumstance is the most important of all which touches the act on the part of the end, viz. the circumstance “why”: and the second in importance, is that which touches the very substance of the act, viz. the circumstance “what he did.” As to the other circumstances, they are more or less important, according as they more or less approach to these.” (I-II 7,4)

    In speaking of the budget you use the phrase that it must be done “in the right circumstances.” I recognize that attitudes of recklessness or indifference can be circumstances (broadly understood) that would make an act immoral but those qualities pertain to the person writing the budget and not to the budget itself so I’m wondering what kind of circumstances you are concerned with that would be associated with the document and not to the people who created or endorsed it.

    I also think you somewhat misstated the argument regarding prudential judgments. No one believes that simply because a decision involves judging between multiple options that there are no immoral choices. An issue like abortion involves an intrinsic evil which offers only two choices: yes or no; a bright line separates the moral from the immoral position. With prudential choices the range of morally acceptable options is much greater – there is no line, bright or otherwise. At the extremes we may properly say this or that choice goes too far but in the main we are not involved in moral choices but in practical ones, and choices within a broad range are all morally equivalent. Asserting that a decision involves prudential judgment is not grasping for a “get out of jail free” card. It is rather a rejection of the persistent claims that practical solutions involve moral choices when generally they do not.

  7. I think it is important to clarify how a practical choice is not a moral choice. A non moral choice would be a matter of preference such as whether I should have a hamburger or a ham sandwich for lunch. This would be a preference unless of course eating one of these would be contrary to my own well being or is by nature morally problematic. I think it is also important to clarifiy how choices within a broad range are all morally equivalent. If one is considering choices that involve free will, knowledge and delibration, we can say these are moral choices. It is also important to adderess the intent and object of such choices. One can think of a variety of scenarios where diverse choices outside of those related to intrinsic evils, certainly exist on a moral plane whereby one speaks of greater evils or the greater good.

  8. Meghan, I think that what your argument needs is a sustained consideration of the distinction Aquinas makes between the prudence of the private citizen and the prudence of the statesman. As it is, this seems like an attempt to shoehorn political considerations into ethical analysis. The two orders obviously are related, but they do require distinction. That”s not something we moderns are used to doing, but it is something Aquinas did.

  9. While it indeed is a virtue having to do with practical intellect, prudence is a moral virtue; in fact, according to Aquinas it is the primary cardinal virtue that is present whenever other moral virtues are practiced. Indeed, prudence is the primary virtue of conscience. Prudence is “the skill of making right judgments about things to be done” (quoting Paul Wadell). As a moral virtue, prudence is an important virtue for all persons, not only for those in government. To the objection that “[i]t would seem that prudence is not in subjects but only in their rulers,” Aquinas answers, following Aristotle, “that there are two kinds of political prudence, one of which is legislative and belongs to rulers, while the other retains the common name political, and is about individual actions. Now it belongs also to subjects to perform these individual actions. Therefore prudence is not only in rulers but also in subjects” (II-II, Q. 47, art. 12). The prudence of the prince is referred to as regnative prudence (II-II, Q. 50, art. 1), and it guides the rulers in directing their execution of justice toward the common good. The “prudence of subjects, which falls short of regnative prudence, retains the common name of political prudence” (II-II, Q. 50, art. 2, reply to obj. 1).


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