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Chapter 10: From Modes of Responsibility to Moral Norms

Question F: Are communities governed by moral norms other than those which govern individuals?

1. All of the modes of responsibility can apply to the acts of communities. Groups, like individuals, can make decisions which involve giving in to nonrational motivations against reasonable considerations. The modes direct those who participate in making group decisions not to do this—to proceed instead in line with a will toward integral human fulfillment.

That all the modes of responsibility apply to acts of communities can be seen from the following examples. A parish which carries on a minimal liturgy because there is not enough interest and enthusiasm to plan and arrange, practice, obtain necessary things, and participate violates the first mode of responsibility. Ecclesiastical administrators who discourage the people’s involvement in church affairs in favor of more efficient management violate the second mode of responsibility. A nation which does not abandon war aims which it realizes are unreasonable violates the third mode of responsibility. A society which abandons its weaker members out of reluctance to bear the burden of caring for them violates the fourth mode of responsibility. A nation which goes to war in order to seize for itself the natural resources of another country violates the fifth mode of responsibility. A university which develops curricula aimed at providing its students with an educational “experience” instead of the reality of education violates the sixth mode of responsibility. A nation which takes revenge in kind against enemy attacks on its civilian population violates the seventh mode of responsibility. A nation which threatens the total destruction of a potential adversary in order to deter war violates the eighth mode of responsibility.

2. Moreover, cooperative acts do not involve any form of voluntariness other than those available to individuals. Although group acts should not be reduced to an artificial structure of individual choices, still the acts of a group do arise from the willing of individuals. These individuals often act on behalf of others, sometimes as their representative. But even when a whole group fully participate in common action, the group’s act depends on its individual members, united in common spontaneous willing, choice, acceptance of consequences, and executive willing.

3. The basic human goods, the human capacities for action, and the norms of reasonable action are the principles of morality. They are the same for individual and for group action. Therefore, the moral principles of the actions of groups are the same as those of the actions of individuals; and, since responsibilities follow from the principles, there is no difference in principle between the moral responsibilities of groups and those of individuals.

4. “In principle” means that the same specific norms apply to the extent they are relevant. Obviously, the possible acts open to individuals and groups are not the same. No group can have an obligation to remember its wife’s birthday; no individual as such can have an obligation to levy taxes fairly. Thus, there are some specific norms which apply only to individuals and others which apply only to certain groups. If, however, a certain kind of action is always wrong for any individual, it is always wrong for any group. For instance, if it is wrong for individuals to kill one another for the sake of revenge, it is wrong for nations to do the same. If it is wrong for an individual freely to accept another’s death when there is no basis for doing so in a common good and common commitment, then it is wrong for a corporation freely to accept the death of its employees or its customers in order to increase its corporate profits.

5. This conclusion is at odds with the view that reasons of state justify nations in doing whatever they must to survive and maintain public order (international and national security). The notion of “reasons of state” is clearly articulated by Machiavelli and accepted almost universally in modern politics. It is simply an instance of proportionalist rationalization in the service, often, of a kind of mystique of the state. A similar rationalization is used by the administrators of many other groups, including ecclesiastical leaders and business executives. Not uncommonly, for example, people who consider lying in self-interest wrong take lying to be a necessary and justified part of their social responsibilities.

6. Aristotle thought of the state as a quasi-organic whole, its parts the individual citizens.7 Individuals could rightly be treated by the state as one treats parts of one’s body: Much as one cuts off a diseased limb, the state might cut off a criminal by capital punishment (cf. S.t., 2–2, q. 64, a. 2). But this conception of the state is false, and any notion of the common good based on it will have unacceptable implications (e.g., S.t., 2–2, q. 11, a. 3). Rather, the common good of a civil society is only that part of human fulfillment which its citizens should cooperate in pursuing and serving. But the modes of responsibility articulate the requirements of openness to integral human fulfillment. Thus, they define what truly furthers the common good, while the common good cannot justify violating any of them.

7. Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics i, 1094b7–10; Politics i, 1253a19–28. Although Aristotle’s social philosophy is unsatisfactory, his view must be distinguished from the modern conception of the organic state, which makes it into a supraindividual reality and endows it with characteristics of the divine, thus setting up an idol which claims to justify negating the dignity of individual persons. Aristotle never dreamed that the human could be divine; only a post-Christian society can adopt this distortion of Christian faith. This modern conception was fully articulated by G. W. F. Hegel, Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1942), 215 and 279–86. With modifications it is continued in the thinking of subsequent totalitarians. The Catholic critique of totalitarianism has rightly rejected this conception of the common good, but has not been so critical of the comparatively innocuous Aristotelian view.