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 catholicmoraltheology.com 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.