Oct 16, 2014

Six Senses of Justice in Saint Anselm's Thought.

Last weekend, down in Washington D.C., I read a paper and got involved in some very interesting and provocative discussion on the borderlines between philosophy and theology.  The American Catholic Philosophical Association -- one of my old haunts in an earlier academic life (I'd not been there since 2008) -- includes a great variety of what are called "satellite sessions."  Many of these are in fact meetings of other scholarly organizations and institutions whose membership overlaps partly with the ACPA, and one of those, with which I have a longstanding and particularly close personal connection, is the Institute for Saint Anselm Studies.

This year, the Institute hosted a panel focused specifically on one of Anselm's greatest works, the Cur Deus Homo - or Why God Became Man.  One of the issues about which I've been thinking for quite some time, and particularly in light of St. Anselm's thought and writings, is the relationship between divine mercy and justice.  So, when the opportunity presented itself to become the third interlocutor on the panel, I gladly put myself forward, and the Institute accepted.  The paper that I presented -- which is still in rather unpolished state (I'll post it once I've added the requisite footnotes and transitions) -- was titled "Is God's Justice Unmerciful in St. Anselm's Cur Deus Homo?"  You can listen to the paper, my responses to questions and comments, and the general discussion (after all three papers had been read) in this podcast, if you like.  What I'd like to do here is to take up a related topic that I inserted into a footnote of the paper and touched upon in the Q&A -- the differing senses of "justice" in Anselm's thought.

Why bring this up, though?  Isn't Anselm crystal clear about the nature, scope, and meaning of "justice"?  It's quite rare that you'll see him actually use the term "definition," but one of the instances is precisely when he is talking about the most specific and proper sense of justice, the "justice that merits praise," whose contrary is the "injustice that deserves blame."  In the dialogue De Veritate (On Truth), Anselm and his student interlocutor settle upon justice as "rectitude" or "rightness of will maintained for its own sake."  This understanding of justice, pregnant with important implications, is at the same time the very heart of Anselm's moral theory and one of his most important contributions to the history of ideas, one which the great Benedictine scholar, Robert Pouchet, argues to be as significant as the formula used in the Proslogion's unum argumentum, characterizing God as "that than which nothing greater can be conceived"!

On Truth unequivocally locates the primary sense of justice in the will, specifically in the will of a rational creature -- as far as Anselm is concerned, only us and the angels, whether integral or fallen.  Since only rational creatures can actually know and willingly choose rectitude or rightness -- though in fact, non-rational creatures can possess rectitude (this will be significant, as we'll soon see) -- only rational creatures can be praised or blamed, i.e. held morally responsible for possessing or lacking justice in their wills.

Continuing through On Truth, through the other two parts of his trilogy (On Freedom of Choice, On the Fall of the Devil), and into the later treatises (Why God Became Man, On the Virgin Conception and Original Sin, On the Harmony. . . ), it is plain to see that there is also another, clearly derivative, sense to the term "justice."  In rational creatures, it is their wills in which justice principally exists, but we also speak of humans and angels themselves, of their actions, their hearts, states of affairs and relationships, even of carnal appetites as good or bad, just or unjust -- but we do so by reference to the will.  So, for an action to really be just, the will which produces that action must first be just.

So far, we have two senses of "justice" in play.  There's a third sense, one which metaphysically is foundational for all others in Anselm's thought -- God is justice itself.  Already in his first work, the Monologion, Anselm stresses that God does not merely possess justice as a quality, but rather is what it is that justice in itself is, the justice in which all other just things in some way participate.  Of course, one can say the same thing about every one of the divine attributes -- goodness, life, happiness, being, eternity. .  . even about simplicity itself (and all of these attributes are in fact, in God, the same thing -- if you'd like to wrap your head around that, here's my 2008 St. Anselm Lecture, devoted to that topic).

Still, if there is any one single divine attribute to which Anselm makes the most references, I think it is probably this one of justice.  Now, this is a very different sense of the term "justice" than the other two we have noted so far.  There's a lot more that could be said about this -- but I'm planning on doing that in a more systematic and rigorous way in an upcoming paper, so I'll just point out one key difference here.

It's not just that in Anselm's Christian neo-Platonic metaphysical (and moral) scheme, God is justice in the fullest sense, the very being of justice (justitia existens, as he'll say), and everything else that is just (i.e. that possesses some degree of justice) participates in that justice.  That's quite true, and that does matter.  But, even more important here, human justice, whether primarily in the will or secondarily in other things, is just by according with some sort of normativity.  The rectitude or rightness which it comprises is also something that is measured in accordance with a debere, an "ought" -- how things ought to be, what things were created to do or be.

The same cannot be said about God.  He is rectitude itself, and unlike other rectitudes which are so, and are more or less right, by conforming to some sort of rule or order, an "ought" woven into the very fabric of created existence, the divine rectitude is not one which is measured, but measures -- not one dependent on any other rectitude, but upon which all others are dependent.  The same can be said about justice as well.

So, it looks like we've got three distinct senses of justice now.  That's just the start of the story, though, for if we think through some of Anselm's other references to "justice," they can't all possibly fit within the conceptual space demarcated by these three senses.   In fact, making sense of precisely what Anselm's definition of justice in the will entails requires a reference to something outside of the will, something that provides a norm, a criterion, for justice in the will.

Justice in the will requires that one will the right thing.  It also requires that one will the right thing for the right reason -- which turns out on closer analysis to involve willing precisely to maintain justice in the will (for instance when tempted by other, in that respect, incompatible goods).  And, both willing the right thing and willing it with the right motivation also involve using one's will for "what it was made in order to do," i.e. to will rightly.  This all sounds good, but what supplies any determinacy to all these "right"s and "rightly"s?

Anselm will say at several points that justice in the will involves willing in accordance with the divine will -- willing what it is that God wills that we should will.  But, Anselm is no fideist or divine-command ethicist, making immediate recourse to God, simply kicking the problem of figuring out what is right and wrong upstairs.  The way God's will provides a norm or criterion for the "right" governing justice in the will (and therefore justice in actions) is rarely immediate.  Rather, we can and do much more frequently make recourse to a framework of normativity, both metaphysical and moral, built into the very fabric of created being, and to some considerable degree discoverable and intelligible for rational creatures.

Such considerations lead us to two more senses of "justice."  Both of these bear upon the divine will as expressed in creative activity.  In a way, this appears analogous to the justice existing in the will of a rational creature and the justice existing in the actions of such a creature -- as we've seen, God is justice itself, in such a way that it is what God is.  There's not really a difference, at bottom, between God's justice, God's will, God's understanding or intellect, or even God's activity.  But there is a created order which is as it is because of the divine will and activity -- a product as much as project of God as willing agent.  And that created order provides not only a matrix within which rational creatures exist, will, act, but also the framework of normativity by reference to which right or just willing occurs and is determined.

In my view, a case can be made for distinguishing between this normativity as expressed in the very order of created things (for example in the complex workings of the rational creature's will as a faculty or capacity -- God chose that wills ought to work certain ways) and this normativity as expressed in the providential ordering of affairs, which is able to encompass even myriad and serious creaturely transgressions of the normativity willed into being by God.

I'm willing, actually, if someone balks at this distinction -- after all, it's not as if Anselm himself made it in his own writings -- to collapse these two into one.  It's not as if ontologically they are entirely different or separable.  What's important is that Anselm does use the term "justice" to refer to both of them in his works.  Right willing is in accordance with "justice" in this fourth and fifth (or if you prefer, a fourth comprising both of them) sense, which derives ultimately from the divine will, but which can be made sense of without necessarily referring to God.  Notice that this sense of "justice" is not reducible to justice in the wills of rational creatures, precisely because it is that by which the justice in their wills is constituted and judged to be justice.

There's also a sixth way in which Anselm uses the term "justice," and here we are talking about the most derivative of derivative senses, at least as far as he is concerned -- this will for many really emphasize how far removed Anselm's conception of justice is from many other conceptions popular throughout the history of ideas or in political theory.  A prime example of it is when he names the decree of the English King, his counterpoint in rightly administering England (when Anselm is Archbishop of Canterbury), "arbitrary justice."  There's a sense in which laws, customs, social norms, decisions by leaders, dimly maintain some outlines reminiscent of a truer, more luminous, more genuine justice -- but there's always a great risk that what we take as "justice" is really more dross than genuine alloy.

"Justice" as embodied, debated, imposed, located in the political realm of rule, in Anselm's day -- we might add as well in ours, the cultural, the societal, the educational and other realms --  requires reference be made to something closer to the genuine norms of justice, and all too often, in Anselm's view, those who use the term, failing to do this (even while sometimes mistakenly thinking they do), end up misusing it, and misunderstanding the very justice they talk about.