St. Thomas, Laws, & Ron Paul

With elections around the corner, the Republican candidates for the presidency have been furiously campaigning for the party nomination leading to a run off with incumbent Democrat Barack Obama.  Of the four contenders left in the race, one of them consistently and fundamentally stands apart from the rest – Ron Paul.  While the others generally agree upon everything except the details, Dr. Paul delves deeper into more fundamental issues and leaves these arguments over details of general principles on the sidelines.  Example: the other three candidates all support, to one degree or another, another war… this time with Iran.  They differ on the details as to how to go about this, ranging from immediately bombing them to imposing sanctions, but all generally agree.  Ron Paul stands alone in saying that war with Iran is not necessary.  Again, the other three essentially agree upon our fractional reserve monetary system controlled by the Federal Reserve.  Dr. Paul desires to see fundamental reform of this system with a return to the gold standard and the abolition of the Fed.  The other candidates quibble about at what rate the federal government should tax income, Ron Paul wants to see the repeal of the 16th amendment and have the federal income tax abolished. Finally, the other three desire to see the government used to coerce citizens into virtuous behaviors about which Dr. Paul believes the government should have no say – a frequently cited example is government’s role in the “war” on drugs.

This always was in the back of my mind as I researched the candidates, and it often made me feel quite unsettled about supporting Ron Paul.  After all, it does seem to be in the interest of the government to ensure that its citizens are free of chemical dependencies and other vices!  As I began researching, I naturally turned to St. Thomas Aquinas for guidance as to the nature of human laws and to what extent it should regulate the activity of individuals with free will.  After having read a little of the trusty Summa Theologiae, I feel more compelled to throw my support behind Ron Paul given that this was one of the few issues that we seemingly disagreed upon.  So what does St. Thomas say?  Should the State coerce virtuous behavior by outlawing all vices?

Turning to the Prima Secundae, q. 95, a. 1, we see a general premise outlined, namely that the wicked must be restrained by force of law:

…And as to those young people who are inclined to acts of virtue, by their good natural disposition, or by custom, or rather by the gift of God, paternal training suffices, which is by admonitions. But since some are found to be depraved, and prone to vice, and not easily amenable to words, it was necessary for such to be restrained from evil by force and fear, in order that, at least, they might desist from evil-doing, and leave others in peace, and that they themselves, by being habituated in this way, might be brought to do willingly what hitherto they did from fear, and thus become virtuous. Now this kind of training, which compels through fearof punishment, is the discipline of laws.

This seemingly contradicts what Dr. Paul advocates, yet there is an important distinction made here – “… and leave others in peace.”  This discipline of laws regulates that which concerns the relation of one man to another and not necessarily what that man does individually which does not harm fellow men.  St. Thomas goes on to make this distinction even more clear in q. 96, a. 2 when answering the question, “Whether it belongs to the human law to repress all vices?”  I will quote here the first objection and answer in order to clarify the previous answer:

Objection 1. It would seem that it belongs to human law to repress all vices. For Isidore says (Etym. v, 20) that “laws were made in order that, in fear thereof, man’s audacity might be held in check.” But it would not be held in check sufficiently, unless all evils were repressed by law. Therefore human laws should repress all evils.

Reply to Objection 1. Audacity seems to refer to the assailing of others. Consequently it belongs to those sins chiefly whereby one’s neighbor is injured: and these sins are forbidden by human law, as stated.

As we can see, the general principle of human law regulating vices chiefly applies to those vices whose commission injures one’s neighbor.  The respondeo explains further:

As stated above (90, A1,2), law is framed as a rule or measure of human acts. Now a measure should be homogeneous with that which it measures, as stated in Metaph. x, text. 3,4, since different things are measured by different measures. Wherefore laws imposed on men should also be in keeping with their condition, for, as Isidore says (Etym. v, 21), lawshould be “possible both according to nature, and according to the customs of the country.” Now possibility or faculty of actionis due to an interior habit or disposition: since the same thing is not possible to one who has not a virtuoushabit, as is possible to one who has. Thus the same is not possible to a child as to a full-grown man: for which reason the law for children is not the same as for adults, since many things are permitted to children, which in an adult are punished by law or at any rate are open to blame. In like manner many things are permissible to men not perfect in virtue, which would be intolerable in a virtuous man.

Now human law is framed for a number of human beings, the majority of whom are not perfect in virtue. Wherefore human laws do not forbid all vices, from which the virtuous abstain, but only the more grievous vices, from which it is possible for the majority to abstain; and chiefly those that are to the hurt of others, without the prohibition of which human society could not be maintained: thus human law prohibits murder, theft and such like.

So as we can see, human law does not need to regulate all vice, but only those vices “that are to the hurt of others.”  In the example above concerning outlawing drug use, it would seem that Dr. Paul is in agreement with the Angelic Doctor.  So long as this use does not hurt others, for example by operating heavy machinery while impaired, it seems the human laws should not regulate it.  Taking the common sense approach, as Dr. Paul often does, ask yourself this question – if the government were to cease enforcing drug laws today, would I go out and use heroin tomorrow?  The answer to this question is likely to lead you to the conclusion that the government, in fact, does not need these laws.  And this goes beyond drug use into other questions concerning behaviors of a personal matter.

This approach to the laws governing our nation combined with Ron Paul’s constitutional views on subsidiarity, sound  economic policies, just war, and the personal liberty of free and virtuous citizens, I believe, makes him the only viable candidate for people of good will among the field of contenders for the US presidency.  What say you?


About John C. Reneau

After completing my undergraduate studies in biochemistry at the University of Dallas (no, not the University of Texas at Dallas), I decided that I would just love being in school for the rest of my life in order to avoid entering the real world. As a result, I ended up as an MD/PhD student at Texas A&M Health Science Center; I’m currently frantically trying to wrap up my PhD and continue on with my clinical training. I work in a lab that uses bone marrow-derived mesenchymal stem cells to treat various diseases. View all posts by John C. Reneau

9 responses to “St. Thomas, Laws, & Ron Paul

  • Michael Carper

    What concerns me about Ron Paul is not his view on drug policy, but abortion. I know he’s, in one sense, the “most” pro-life candidate, based on his actual experience delivering babies, but he is content to leave the states to make all their own abortion laws. So if half the states decided that they were not merely going to continue Roe v. Wade, but roll back existing federal restrictions like the Partial Birth Abortion Act, Ron Paul would be ok with that. At least, that what it seems to me.

  • John C. Reneau

    Michael – thanks for dropping by! I felt the same uneasiness about his approach to abortion at first. I think there is little doubt that he is pro-life based upon what he has said, for example, concerning ob/gyn being a “two patient specialty.” I think where he differs from someone like Rick Santorum is in the practicalities. Murder, theft, and other similar crimes are not handled at the level of the federal government, and it seems Ron Paul doesn’t think abortion should be either. I tend to disagree with him in this matter as it is in the interest of the federal government to protect the life of human beings – if states fail to do so, then the federal government should. Having said that, I think his approach is actually more practical than waiting for all three branches of the federal government to align their views on abortion in order to have Roe v. Wade overturned (which would then just send the matter to the states anyway) and a personhood amendment ratified in its place. Ron Paul simply wants the federal government taken out of the picture all together to allow states to decide. In this case probably 3/4 of the states would outlaw abortion and we’d have limited this evil to a great extent. Many states already have pro-life laws enacted which would become enforceable upon the removal of federal jurisdiction. Practically, it would seem to me that we would have far fewer abortions far more quickly under the plan Ron Paul proposes. Is it perfect? No. Is it practical? Probably more so than the other politicians who wish to protect life. Even having said all that, the president really has little say in the matter unless the legislators in Congress manage to pass any pro-life laws, in which case the president has the power to veto. I doubt Ron Paul would ever veto a pro-life bill if it were to land on his desk in the Oval Office.

  • John C. Reneau

    Just looked up a quick video I remembered seeing from one of the debates – this seems to sum up the disagreement pretty well:

    Note carefully around 3:30 concerning overturning Roe v. Wade.

  • John C. Reneau

    Furthermore, I just did some quick fact checking and Rick Santorum was incorrect about the 50% agreement with NRLC – over his entire voting career it is 75% and from 2009-2011 it is 100%. Looking through some of the votes, it seems he gets points taken off for disagreeing with the NRLC on things like the “Medicare Prescription Drug Price Negotiation Act” and the “Medicare Modernization Act.” Very few of the disagreements with NRLC actually stem from disagreements over abortion and even those that do are more about the practicalities and limits of the federal government it seems. For example, he disagreed with NRLC about the Unborn Victims of Violence Act because he felt the federal government was overstepping its constitutional bounds by enacting it even though he recognized it as “laudable goal of protecting unborn children from assault and murder.”

    Concluding quote from his commentary sums up his position pretty well it seems: “Protection of life (born or unborn ) against initiations of violence is of vital importance. So vitally important, in fact, it must be left to the States’ criminal justice systems. We have seen what a legal, constitutional, and philosophical mess results from attempts to federalize such an issue. Numerous States have adequately protected the unborn against assault and murder and done so prior to the Federal Government’s unconstitutional sanctioning of violence in the Roe v. Wade decision.”


    Regarding Paul’s position on abortion, I seem to recall that in “The Revolution” he explains how Congress could forbid the federal courts from having anything to do with abortion using Article III Section 4 of the Constitution. Evidently this was done during reconstruction to prevent the courts from infringing upon Congress’s wishes regarding the South. Paul’s attempts to get this through a Republican Congress were thwarted.

    In short, he takes his oath to uphold the Constitution very seriously. This in no way diminishes his ardent pro-life views, but it does channel the action he believe is allowed within that framework.

    In regards to whether or not certain behaviors may be restricted, you’re right to focus on the purpose of laws, that is, in restraining men from doing evil so as to assist them in growth in virtue. It would be hard to think of a term that is more foreign to our political discourse, which suffers from a crude consequentialism.

    I would argue that Paul’s approach is not in conflict with a Thomistic teleology. But I think a discussion of teleology would be in order if we are to come up with the proper rules for living. Whether or not the American people possess the vocabulary requisite for such a discussion is another matter entirely.

  • Ron Paul, Rape, and Abortion « The World and The Word

    […] posted the other day about Ron Paul and his views on law in relation to those of St. Thomas Aquinas. In the comments, RP’s views on abortion were brought up so I thought it might be good to […]

  • Matthew

    Hi – I came across this post via your article on Paul and abortion. I think you hit both of the high points that are too often missed in discussing the Thomistic understanding of human law, that is, that it relates only to those acts that pertain to justice *between citizens* and that it pertains only to what most men are capable of.

    Into each category, however, I believe drug use certainly falls. That is, it pertains to justice because it pertains to how citizens interact with one another not only in the workplace but also in recreational settings. There are too many studies to ignore the severely debilitating effects of the use of hard drugs and even of soft drugs, when used immoderately. I don’t think this can be written off as not pertaining to justice except when operating heavy machinery (etc.) while under the influence. There are long-term effects not only on one’s behaviors but also on the deepest psychological and physiological health and the life of virtue. (I won’t speak here about the holistic nature of virtue — how one cannot have one virtue without all the others and in the same degree as he has all the others — though St. Thomas speaks to this point.)

    Moreover, it is important to remember that St. Thomas accepts that suicide ought to be forbidden by the state and that it also pertains to justice, even if the act itself involves no one else directly. The result of the act still affects the state at large. I believe other solitary sins would not be considered irrelevant to human law (say, pathological abuse of animals — St. Thomas addresses this — or certain addictions that may involve only one citizen) when those actions necessarily affect how the culprit interacts with others in the long-term — and some behaviors will inevitably do that, not the least of which is drug abuse.

    There is the additional question of enforcement of a just law, and in this case, I think I would lean more towards Paul’s position. I think this is what you were getting at with the question about heroin. In fact, your question is a pragmatic, not a philosophical one. The philosophical approach, which we have discussed above, is that because you would *not* go out to use heroin, that demonstrates that it *should* be forbidden (because it pertains to what most men can adhere to). Now, as I said, I would likely side with Paul on the enforcement of the law concerning heroin use (as you said, he is good on “common sense” or pragmatic solutions), at least according to our current system. I think it would be much better (however unfeasible) to return to the pre-Constitution system in many colonies where all felonies were capital offenses, though I would add the caveat, today: if they are proven beyond any doubt, e.g., caught red-handed. Furthermore concerning enforcement, speaking specifically of the American system, it is clear that the federal government needs to scale back, if not entirely abandon, any laws concerning drug use (though not necessarily drug trafficking), leaving this to the states. As with much of Paul’s platform, I agree almost universally with his application but not nearly as much with his principles.

    Of course, there must also be a distinction between different kinds of drugs and their effects. If most people who use marijuana were capable of using it in moderation, this would certainly justify removing any laws against it. I’m not sure this is the case. You are likely familiar with the papal laws against even the use of tobacco during certain periods, so I don’t see the difficulty in accepting a ban on marijuana. (Alcohol, I think, is a different question; I find it hard to accept Prohibition as being just, but I digress.)

    In any case, thank you for your post. I think, by and large, we agree, but I do think your analysis leaves out that added element of what pertains to justice indirectly, and many, if not most, human laws relate to what pertains to justice only secondarily and not primarily.

    • John C. Reneau

      Thanks for the well thought out response! I’d prepared a rather lengthy reply to your comments, but unfortunately they were somehow erased before I posted them, so I’ll just give the Readers’ Digest version. 🙂

      This post was written kind of hastily when I had some spare time and was thinking about it, so there is certainly some depth missing concerning St. Thomas’s thought – thanks for bringing that out. I also think we agree far more than we disagree.

      Concerning pragmatism: Human laws must ultimately have some practical application. The philosophers, therefore, have to descend from the clouds occasionally in order to deal with matters of practicality.

      I do certainly agree with you that drugs, alcohol included, have the potential to be used in inappropriate ways which can do great harm to self and to society. The question we must ask is this: whose responsibility is it to ensure this does not happen and instead to instill virtue? I would certainly prefer this task be handed to friends, family, and society rather than the state. I think you’d agree that the kind of virtue the state wishes to instill is not necessarily the kind of virtue we would like to see in society!

      We certainly disagree, however, on your wish to have all felonies classified as capital crimes. This is assuming that you weren’t just saying that facetiously :/ I tend to err on the side of refraining from capital punishment except in the rarest of circumstances. Our current prison system is more than capable of containing criminals who are likely to fall into recidivism if released back into society. Punishments must be proportional to the crime while still upholding the dignity of human life!

      Thanks for dropping by!

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