Tag Archives: Thomas Aquinas

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?