|Real Consequentialism: A Critique of the Political Ethics of Dr. John Rist|
For if the Christian religion condemned wars of every kind, the command given in the gospel to soldiers asking counsel as to salvation would rather be cast away their arms, and withdraw themselves wholly from military service; whereas the word spoken to such was, “Do violence to no man, neither accuse any falsely, and be content with your wages,” – the command to be content with their wages manifestly implying no prohibition to continue in the service. Wherefore, let those who say that the doctrine of Christ is incompatible with the State’s well-being, give us an army composed of soldiers such as the doctrine of Christ requires them to be; let them give us such subjects, such husbands and wives, such parents and children, such masters and servants, such kings, such judges – in fine, even such tax-payers and tax-gatherers, as the Christian religion has taught that men should be, and then let them dare to say that it is adverse to the State’s well-being; yea, rather, let them no longer hesitate to confess that this doctrine, if it were obeyed, would be the salvation of the commonwealth.
Augustine, Letter CXXXVIII: To Marcellinus, II. 15.1Real human life requires real ethics.Contrary to the expectations of his January 2007 Aquinas Lecture audience at the University of St. Thomas (Houston, TX), Dr. John Rist refused to say that the innocent should never be murdered. Prior reading of Rist’s recent book Real Ethics: Reconsidering the Foundations of Morality would, however, have spared the auditors shock. In this paper I respond to the political consequentialism called for by Rist in the aforementioned book, with occasional reference to his lecture for clarification of his points. To bring out Rist’s account of political virtue and ethics, I will present his expressed position in comparison and contrast to Machiavelli and Aquinas while offering my own critique. It is not the intention of this paper to give a detailed or even a survey account of the entirety of Dr. Rist’s theory, but rather to consider the position that he sets out regarding ethical actions in the political realm.2
The Good: Common and Individual, and Real
But if realism is true, there will be a common good which will provide a focus for the varying individual goods of individual members of society. But, if defensible, that common good will itself depend on the fact of God as a transcendent Common Good, who has made man with his specific needs and limitations and thus gives intelligibility to a common good which is (or should be) the object of human striving in social and political life.3
I see the above quotation as a summary of Rist’s foundational principles for discussing the order of politics in Real Ethics. The quotation itself fits contextually into Rist’s discussion of political figures in Western democracies, where pluralism and diversity have brought about a state of affairs in which there is no common conception between individual States regarding a common good for which the society as a whole should be striving, and toward which the society, members and leaders, order themselves and each other as toward a goal. In these societies, some even doubt that the common good exists other than as the expression of the dominant will, controlling, perhaps by deception, the unwitting populace.4 In contrast to those mentioned above, Rist holds that the common good of society is in fact derivative of “a transcendent Common Good” whereby social life and the lives of individuals in society have a meaningful frame of reference and end. I draw this point out for the sake of the principles involved whereby I intend to discuss Rist’s claims regarding actions politicians should take and the nature of those actions. The principles are the notions of the common good of the society and the individual good of the member. The two goods as real goods, intimately related, and yet distinct (at times seeming to oppose each other) will guide this essay, providing the framework for how Rist and others, such as Aquinas, treat human actions as moral and as choices between goods.
1 As found in The Works of Aurelius Augustine, Vol. XIII, ed. Marcus Dods, trans. J. G. Cunningham (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1875), p. 206.
2 I would like to note that, though critical of a point in Rist’s theory, I found both the book and the lecture enlightening in general, particularly his “ghost of God” criticism of modern moralities.3 John M. Rist, Real Ethics: Reconsidering the Foundations of Morality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 241.
4 Ibid., 237.