Neither Truth Nor Charity, Part 2: Globalization and the Pope’s Discontents

August 3, 2009

by Mario Rizzo  

Throughout Pope Benedict XVI’s enclyclical (“Caritas in Veritate”) he stresses that scientific knowledge is not enough when trying to determine appropriate government policies or even individual actions. This is quite true.  

He fails, however, to appreciate in many specific instances and arguments the importance of the fact that that moral or ethical knowledge is also insufficient to determine appropriate government policy or individual actions. He pays lip service to this idea (Sec. 9, 30) but it rarely constrains him in practice, as we shall see. 

Now consider a specific issue.  

The pope is worried about the effect of globalization on the traditional welfare state. (Sec. 25) As countries compete for internationally-mobile capital resources (and to a much lesser extent, labor resources) they will feel the need to reduce taxes to encourage capital inflows (or prevent outflows). This may result in reductions in government spending on social welfare in both developed and developing countries. The pope doesn’t welcome this. He specifically recommends several constraints on the behavior of businesses to deal with this problem. But first let’s analyze the pope’s framing of the putative problem.  

Benedict XVI has made a number of judgments: (1) It is morally obligatory for those who have abundance to help others who are poor; (2) The state – welfare state – is an appropriate institution to do this; (3) Such aid should not be left (largely/mainly/exclusively) to the voluntary decisions of other individuals or private agencies created for that purpose; (4) The free movement of capital and the greater prosperity it brings does not more than offset the value of welfare state handouts (an implicit assumption, given the pope’s positive recommendations – to be discussed in a future post).  

1. Clearly he asserts competence with regard to point #1.  However, the extent of this beneficence and the sacrifice required by the benefactors are not determinate implications of his moral framework. (Or so it seems, given the practice of most Christians, including the pope.)  

There is actually a scholarly discussion of this issue by, among others, Adam Smith. (See Lectures on Jurisprudence, Sec.1.14-1.16, and The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Sec. III: “Justice and Beneficence.”)  

Smith appeals to the distinction between duties of perfect obligation and duties of imperfect obligation. Duties of perfect obligation are those for which the timing and extent of the obligation are determinate. For example, if I promise to deliver a thousand bushels of wheat in six months for a payment today of $X, this is what I must do.  Smith says “justice” in this narrow commutative sense is a duty of perfect obligation.  

On the other hand, Smith grants that we have duties of beneficence. These are also called justice (“distributive justice”) by the pope (Sec. 35). But these obligations are different. They are imperfect duties. This means that their precise extent, their timing, and the person on whom the obligation falls in the particular case are not determinate implications of moral principles. Their precise implementation is left to the individual given all of the particular facts of the situation. Thus this particular form of “justice” is different from Smithian justice.  

This is one reason Smith argues that duties of perfect obligation are suitable for legal enforcement while duties of imperfect obligation are not. To enforce the latter by law amounts to an arbitrary imposition. I have argued elsewhere that it neglects the important role of individual, decentralized knowledge in contexts of charity.   

Thus what appears at first to be a purely ethical issue has become a legal or jurisprudential issue as well. We must go beyond the teachings of Jesus which were directed to individuals or voluntary communities. We must apply them to state action which uses coercion as its method of implementation. This extra step is taken for granted, as is now fashionable in social-democratic circles. Yet it is an extra step.

Is the pope claiming special competence in determining the appropriateness of legal coercion as well as in the area of personal moral obligation? Clearly, he is. He believes that we must conceive of “political action” “as a means for pursuing justice through redistribution” (Sec. 36). He stresses that the Church must not be limited to teaching and good works. Specifically he says:  

“The Christian religion and other religions can offer thir contribution to development only if God has a place in the public realm, specifically in regard to its cultural, social, economic, and particularly its political dimensions. The Christian social doctrine came into being in order to claim ‘citizen status’ for the Christian religion” (Sec. 56).  

The reader should be aware of this expansive assertion of competence, and judge accordingly.  

2. This brings us to the second point that the modern welfare state is an appropriate instrumentality of “charity.”  Such a conclusion requires knowledge of how institutions work and the indirect costs them impose on members of society. Are such institutions likely to be captured by special interest groups? This is obviously a very relevant consideration.

There is a very large scientific “public choice” literature on the matter. Many economists, including this one, believe that social welfare spending, looked at as a whole, is rarely for the benefit of the truly needy and powerless. It is for the politically well-situated. I am sure the pope would agree with this to a certain extent. But he is also content simply to demand that it not be so. He should hear the voice of St. Thomas Aquinas: Men are not angels. It is not useful to wish they were so.  

3. The third point is a variation of the second but focuses on the relative role of the state. The pope understands that society encompasses more than government. The relative roles of the various branches of society are not predetermined by Catholic theological ethics. It is an issue of prudential judgment. What business is it of the pope to prescribe more, less or the same in any particular field? Clearly, the efficacy of certain instrumentalities is a technical, not ethical, issue.  

4. Finally, the last point is clearly the domain of economic science. What are the net effects of globalization on the incomes and wellbeing of the poor? 

The history of economic progress has not been one of human betterment by redistribution, but of capital accumulation and technological advance. Perhaps it is better to allow “unlimited” globalization and let the size of the aggregate pie grow even if some gain less than others. I am reminded of Bernard Mandeville’s line in The Fable of the Bees about the progress that had already occurred by the mid-eighteenth century: “The very poor lived better than the rich before.”  

Even in the realm of inequality, it is important to distinguish (1) inequalities that arise in the context of all boats rising; and (2) world-wide inequalities resulting from the fact that some countries are not participating in globalization while others are.  

So where is the papal encyclical? At least three out the four constituent points above are not matters of specific Church competence. Yet the pope relies on all four.  

Even more interesting is what Benedict XVI has to say about how the perceived threat to the welfare state posed by globalization should be handled. In a globalized world, redistribution is not enough! He proposes more direct inference in the behavior of economic agents. 

Next time.

Part 1 is here.

11 Responses to “Neither Truth Nor Charity, Part 2: Globalization and the Pope’s Discontents”


  1. According to your example of a duty of perfect obligation, it seems that such a duty refers to a commitment with another that one agrees to fulfill. Such duties would be analogus to the terms and conditions found within contracts. From its nature as a commitment that one voluntarily agress to fulfill follows its nature as a commitment that can be determinate regarding timing and extent. If one can genuinely agree to fulfill a commitment, obviously the commitment must be precise enough to warrant determinateness in timing and extent. For instance, contracts that try to integrate contradictory commitments (fractional reserve banking for example) cannot be coherently agreed to precisely because they are not determinate in both timing and extent.
    The failure to fulfill a particular duty of perfect obligations thus may be punished through coercion because the fulfillment of such duties are volitionally selected.

    Thus an initially unfamiliar term (I’ve never heard of a duty of perfect obligations) we see refers to a voluntarily-chosen commitment (I hope).

    I’ve noticed that left-liberals often conflate globalization and international corporatism. They fail to make a distinction between foreign direct investment made with private funds and foreign direct investment made with tax dollars by the IMF, World Bank, etc. They cannot identify the difference between capitalism and what they refer to as “neoliberalism.” If you mention globalization then the first thing that comes to their mind sometimes is the Iraq campaign or the foreign ventures of the heavily subsidized corporate agriculture industry.

    This failure to identify differences is pervasive.

  2. Mario Rizzo Says:

    A duty of perfect obligation includes voluntarily undertaken duties as in contract. But it also includes the obligation not to kill innocent people or violate property rights. The 17th century naural law philosopher Samuel Pufendorf elaborated the perfect-imperfect obligation distinction, although it goes back even farther in time.


  3. The natural law tradition would certainly regard the duty not to kill as a perfect duty. But I’m not sure Aquinas, for instance, or Locke, would have classified the duty not to violate property rights–as defined by the legal system–as a perfect duty. Both obviously took property rights seriously, but both would, I think have allowed for some wiggle room with respect to their application in ways that would have unsettled some modern property rights absolutists.

    For Aquinas, when a need is “so manifest and urgent, that it is evident that the present need must be remedied by whatever means be at hand (for instance when a person is in some imminent danger, and there is no other possible remedy), then it is lawful for a man to succor his own need by means of another’s property, by taking it either openly or secretly: nor is this properly speaking theft or robbery” (ST II-II q. 94 a. 7c). Similarly, Locke is clear that “charity gives every man a title to so much out of another’s plenty, as will keep him from extreme want, where he has no means to subsist otherwise” (First Treatise, ch. IV, §42).

    One either say that, for Locke and Aquinas, the duty to respect property rights was contextual in a way that rendered it imperfect. Or one could say that property rights for Aquinas and Locke were defined in such a way that taking what both would standardly regard as someone else’s property needn’t always be seen as violating those rights.

    I’m not arguin that this shores up the Pope’s argument–I’m just trying to muddy the water as far as the discussion of what counts as a perfect duty is concerned.

  4. david Says:

    Wonderful post. Thanks so much and thank you for taking on the analysis of the encyclical. I have been disappointed by the rather weak and timorous analyses provided even by writers who profess to understand the moral and economic value of freedom.

    I am not a Catholic, and I can’t say that I have followed the writings of the Pope (or other theologian for that matter) closely. However, I have to say that, based on what I have read, I have been impressed by the intellectual depth and discipline that the current Pope has brought to his previous speeches and pronouncements.

    Nonetheless, I have been confused by what I have read about the current encyclical, for a number of very basic reasons. (I’m way out of my depth here but anyhoo….)

    First, I had thought that it was a fundamental aspect of traditional Christian theology that, without free will, there can be no virtue. Thus, while true charity may be a virtue, coerced “charity” in the form of the welfare state cannot be considered to be a virtue. Even those who may have voted for it cannot claim a virtue given that they are forcing others to share the cost of their supposed goodwill. In fact, getting the less or non-charitable “others” to share the cost of one’s own moral decision appears to be the whole point of the welfare state given that, absent the welfare state, one has always has the option of being as charitable as one wishes.

    Second, the moral impact of the welfare state is not simply that forced “charity” is not a virtue, it is that it “crowds-out” the potential for voluntary charity and thus true virtue. The crowding-out results not only from household budgetary considerations but from a) the reduced sense of responsibility that any particular individual may feel towards the less well off and b) the reduced sense of civic involvement that both result from the “big-state” mentality. (I ‘m from Canada so I speak with authority here).

    Third, no mention appears to be made of the moral damage that is done to recipients of state-administered “charity”. I’m speaking here of such well-recognized things as a culture of dependence, sense of entitlement, etc., that ultimately degrade the recipients.

    Fourth, I have always appreciated the centrality and value of the individual in Christianity – the individual is not simply a vehicle for achievement of collective goals. Consequently, I would have thought that modern Christianity would value free markets (disciplined of course by private virtue) above all other economic systems, as the system that best allows individuals to flourish.

    Fifth, regarding your point about a rising tide lifting all boats, perhaps it is precisely the free market’s amazing ability to create and spread wealth entirely (and most especially?) in the absence of charitable intent that bothers some theologians. The fear may be that the prosperity engendered by the free market lets us all off the hook. And if the best thing we can do for the poor or disadvantaged is not to bury them in toxic aid or welfare but rather to act in our own (and only coincidentally their) interests and trade with them, then why be concerned about being so explicitly charitable? For an institution that ranks charity among the highest virtues (perhaps the highest?), it must be a disturbing prospect. One wonders if the Church would find it preferable if there was less prosperity and, as a result, a greater perceived need for charity.

    Sorry for the long comment, but your post got me to thinking.

  5. Pete Says:

    Hey guys! The Pope is not lobbying for a welfare state! Oi!! No ways. This guy is one of the most balanced thinkers on this planet.
    He won’t diss “capitalism” in principle either. But he/we all have to conscious of the potential pathologies of whichever “system” and philosophy beiong followed blindly or proposed in hope, whether in economy or in religion, (or even the arts and sciences for that matter….)

    Ratzinger’s texts are to be read very carefully. It is much more nuanced than most texts that we get before our eyes these days. I suppose we also have to keep in mind that he argues from a foundation that is not purely “secular”.


  6. I have not yet read the encyclical and am waiting for Ignatius Press to put it out as a book (August 15th). But I’m following the discussion. I agree with Pete on B16 based on his earlier writings and statements. Some context is useful. The Vatican, both as Church and State, is frequently critical of US foreign policy (and often aligned with secular Europe). It strongly opposed both Gulf Wars. The Second Gulf War in particular realized its worst fears: the balance of power in the Middle East was upset and the influence of Iran greatlly enhanced. The war has been a disaster for Christians in the Middle East generally and the Catholic Church in particular. Now unilateralism in foreign policy has been matched by unilateralism in financial policy. From the perspective of Europe, U.S. financial firms have brought havoc to the world — even to countries that followed sound policies. So the urge to constrain the U.S. both in foreign policy and financial policy is an understandable reaction. It does not necessarily reflect an antipathy to capitalism as such (though within the Vatican, there is such antipathy).

  7. Eric Jensen Says:

    Thanks for the post. As a traditional (SSPX sympathizer, though not parishioner) Catholic I have been confused from the recent rhetoric from Rome about these issues. Luckily, there are parishes that still call for de-centralization and free markets, and they are those parishes that practice the old right of the Mass (1962 right).

    As a student of theology and economics I simply try to argue that free markets do advance solidarity; that they do advance rule of law, and that they do advance peace. In fact, abolishing the welfare state gives Roman Catholic charities more opportunities to advance charity through service to the poor and hungry–and when all is said and done, maybe people will at least choose Christ over the state.

  8. Eric Jensen Says:

    choose to worship God over the state* rather.

  9. Doug nusbaum Says:

    It is all very nice to analyze what the pope has to say, but a bigger question is why. Looking to the pope for moral guidance is akin to looking to the mafia. given the depth and breadth of pedophilia in the church it is hard to argue that cardinals were unaware of it or that they did not support it. Consider this egregious case:

    ***In response to the scandal, over fifty priests signed a letter declaring no confidence in Cardinal Law and asking him to resign – something that had never before happened in the history of the Roman Catholic Church in America. ***
    But the cardinal had a defense. Like almost all other pedophiles he blamed the victim, who was six when the abuse started.

    So what does the pope do? Why he appoints him to a position in the Vatican to avoid criminal prosecution. Then this pedophile helps elect the current pope.

    And people still take the pope seriously as having anything to say about morals. Give me a break


  10. […] therein at ThinkMarkets. The first part is about the destructive influence of the encyclical. The second part is about globalization. The third part is about the attack on classical […]


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