A BRIEF CONSIDERATION OF ‘COMMON SENSE’ AS THE MORAL – POLITICAL GUIDE TO DO THE RIGHT THING
A COMMENT ON THE ELECTION OF POPE FRANCIS I
For starters let’s register some opinions and facts -
The U.S. Declaration of Independence states:
We hold these truths to be self evident, that all are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights Governments are instituted among Men, deriving there just powers from the consent of the governed.
The U.S. Constitution:
We the people of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish the Constitution for the United States of America.
Nature, (synderesis): The human person naturally seeks the ‘Good.’ Evil is chosen because it is perceived as ‘good’ – common sense choices tend to be correct and are morally good.
Human dignity: The human being is specifically different from the rest of nature in that a person can know and know that she/he knows. The person has the natural right to freely choose - to pursue happiness in community as a fulfillment of the reason for existence.
If the mind cannot know the essence of a being and can only rely on knowledge, that is, a collection of similar individuals, then a statement about the collection is a statement that, at best, is more or less true. “All men are created equal” can simply mean white male property owners living in the U.S.A. This limited concept of equality can change if we expand the meaning through new legislation, or the concept is broadened by a court battle. The ‘dignity of man,’ the right to a labor union, a voice in the workplace and civil society would be unheard of without well defined power legislation and contentious court battles. “What about the squirrels?” This is not ‘humanity’ as understood by Julian of Norwich. The movement of ‘individualism’ dictates the role of government in protecting these human rights; it emphasizes the individual, not the community.
Common sense: looks to a guide for moral decisions, then makes a judgment. This guide, the circumstances and the situation are all factors to consider. Courage and faith to choose the best solution and then to act is key, especially since often there is no certainty that the apparent best solution will work. (Abraham Lincoln had faith – see John Burt, A Tragic Pragmatism, Harvard Press, 2013)
Common Good: “the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or individuals to reach their fulfillment more easily.” (Gaudium et Spes, para. 26.)
Natural Law: Rational by nature, the human person should choose to do that which is reasonable. (From the Epicureans, Stoics, Thomas Aquinas.)
LINCOLN’S LABOR PROBLEM - SLAVERY
President Lincoln faced the dilemma of the Declaration of Independence stating that “all men are created equal” with a right to the fruits of their labor, yet the Constitution supported slavery. Slavery, of course, is a labor problem and is still relevant. For some this was not a dilemma; it was just a fact of life. Some, because of their situation were not to be considered as persons with rights to be protected. “All are created equal” is similar to Catholic Social Teaching’s “Dignity of Man” therefore workers have a right to a voice in the workplace – a union. Lincoln’s understanding of “All are created equal” was different than that of Jefferson or that of John Locke (1632-1704), the Oxford ‘enlightenment’ promoter of common sense. Locke and Jefferson were empiricists, whereas Lincoln was an ‘essentialist’ who understood humanity in terms of essence as the ancient Greeks, Romans and the realist scholastics of the Middle Ages. Common sense for Lincoln meant that “All are created equal” and he referred to ‘humanity’ not just as white, male, property owners. Gary Wills says that Lincoln in the Gettysburg address refers to the Declaration of Independence and presents a new understanding of the phrase “all are created equal.” Lincoln’s words go beyond Jefferson and they redefine the Republic. At the funeral oratory of Gettysburg, Lincoln announced a “new birth of freedom.”
Wills traces Lincoln’s ‘essentialism’ back to the Lincoln/Douglas debates. Lincoln opposed the Kansas – Nebraska Act which would have allowed the people of these new territories to vote on slavery. For Lincoln this was not an issue that could be decided by a vote. For Lincoln slavery was wrong, against the American principle of equality and couldn’t be sanctioned by a positive vote. Such is the voice of common sense.
Lincoln’s reasons are those of the Transcendentalists. As Unitarians with a developed philosophy and theology, they proposed that justice transcends law. Let’s consider one Transcendentalist, George Bancroft. He wrote the following concerning the Declaration of Independence: “The bill of rights which it promulgates is of rights that are older than human institutions, and spring from the eternal justice.” (Gary Wills, Lincoln at Gettysburg, Simon & Schuster, 1992, p. 104.)
Consider the words of Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Nature, is the incarnation of thought … the world is mind precipitated.” (ibid. p. 103) These comments reflect Lincoln’s realism; he went beyond the empiricism of Jefferson and Locke.
Epistemological realism also influenced Lincoln’s position on secession. Lincoln admitted in his first inaugural address that some states have spoken for disunion but not the people, “my rightful masters.” “Otherwise, ‘The United States (would) be not a government proper, but an association of States in the nature of a contract (or pact) merely.’” (Ibid. p. 130) There is opposition to Lincoln’s view to this day, as President Reagan liked to put it, “the federal government hadn’t created the states; the states created the federal government.” But the Constitution states: We the people – not we the states.
Notre Dame professor of law Vincent Rougeau writes:
Catholicism in particular has long instructed that true individual flourishing can occur only the within the context of a web of human relationships. This culturally, heterogeneous situated understanding of human well being is an accepted part of political philosophies around the world but it has been rejected in the United States in favor of a contractarian understanding of rights…
(Vincent Rougeau, Christians in the American Empire, Oxford, 2008, p. 17.)
Lincoln’s realism went beyond that of Aristotle, the Stoics and Thomas Aquinas who supported natural slavery. It was not the realism of Karl Marx who infused his doctrine of historical materialism into Hegel’s spiritual thrust of history. It was a realism comparable to that of Bartolomé de las Casas, who eventually opposed slavery in Latin America. Lincoln added the dimension of democracy as a right and a necessity for humanity. Marx saw the “spirit of history” in matter and came up with historical materialism. Lincoln saw the “spirit of history” as a creative destiny in the people and in democracy. People and politics are difficult at best to predict. Lincoln’s democracy did not have Marx’s certitude of historical materialism or the Calvanist confidence of Manifest Destiny.
Manifest Destiny is an idealistic philosophy and a theology that fueled support for the war with Mexico (1846-1848). It was a doctrine of expansionism and racism that Lincoln as a U.S congressman opposed. Michael Hogan cites Mexican scholar Bergoña Arteta as documenting clearly: “the connection between the invasion of Mexico in 1846 and the doctrines of Calvinism, Manifest Destiny, expansionism, coupled with Anglo Saxon belief in racial superiority …” (Hogan, Michael, The Irish Soldiers of Mexico, Custom Book Tique, Quebec, Canada, 2011, p.107.)
Such is the Civil War climate that Lincoln faced and that we continue to experience. For example, the neo-cons ironically are born out of classical thought like Lincoln. They follow Professor Leo Straus and classical philosophy, but it should be remembered that Aristotle and St. Thomas supported natural slavery.
The common sense meaning of “all men are created equal” is a philosophical problem for epistemology. John Courtney Murray, S.J. wrote:
Every proposition, if it is to be argued, supposes an epistemology of some sort. The epistemology of the American Proposition was, I think by the Declaration of Independence by the famous phrase, ‘We hold these truths …’ (p. viii)
… What cannot be questioned, however, is that the American Proposition rests on the forthright assertion of a realist epistemology.” (p. viii)
…In this matter philosophical reflection does not augment the data of common sense. It merely analyzes, penetrates, and organizes them in their full abstractness; this does not, however, remove them from vital contact with their primitive source in experience. (p.329)
(John Courtney Murray, We Hold These Truths, Sheed & Ward, New York, 1960)
John Burt’s book, Lincoln’s Tragic Pragmatism, promises to give a thorough review of Lincoln’s philosophical understanding of common sense. ‘Tragic Pragmatism’…what is that? Book reviewer, Steven B. Smith, explains: “Burt argues that Lincoln’s decision to pursue a politics of principle over deal making was an act of faith.” But where will this mystical destiny take us? (Steven B. Smith, “Book Review – N.Y. Times,” Feb. 17, 2013)
Could emancipation of the slaves move the nation anywhere but a new freedom? Samuel Fielden reflected on the results of the U.S. Civil War in his death row autobiography. Fielden was an immigrant from Todmorden, England who became a labor movement leader in Chicago. He was caught up in Chicago’s Haymarket Riot in 1886 and sentenced to death. In his reflections he wrote about working in the southern United States after the Civil War and the Negro.
I worked before my return to the north in the states of Louisiana, Mississippi and Arkansas, and I took every opportunity I could to learn about the condition of the Negro, and I learned he was as much a bondsman as ever he was, and in many cases worse.
(Philip S. Forner, end, Autobiographies of the Haymarket Martyrs, Monad Press, New York, 1969, p.151)
Fielden was pardoned by Illinois Governor John Altged in 1893.
The story continued and continues, “American democracy remains a work in progress.” (Ibid. p. 14) Faith in the destiny of democracy and humanity is key.
A COMMENT ON THE ELECTION OF POPE FRANCIS I
I’m not an anti-clerical Argentinean, but if Newt Gingrich is excited about the new Pope Francis there must be more than something wrong.
The color, the pageantry, the smoke, the screaming crowds – but – we end up with an old white man carrying the baggage of horrible murders in Argentina as Pope – how depressing. Is this something more to cover-up? Faith too easily slips into the denial of reality and belief in staged fantasy. But there is the possibility that there is something more.