Thursday, June 25, 2009

Mr. Muehlenberg on property rights

Given that, in my link to his blog on the right-hand side of this blog page, I say that Mr. Bill Muehlenberg “is usually spot on about social morality”, I ought to point out where he has gone wrong, and he has gone quite wrong in the combox in a post at his blog. In response to this example given by Mr. Michael Webb

… if a man takes a banana off of a tree of a rich landowner and eats it and cannot pay for it, it is not a sin against the 8th commandment if the man is starving and without a penny.

Mr. Muehlenberg made the following comment:

Thanks Michael

But now you are starting to drift into dangerous territory. Are they 10 Suggestions, or 10 Commandments? Stealing is stealing. Sure, we want to be sensitive to the needs of others, and if, say, a believer stole a banana to stay alive, in his defence he should not say, “Well this commandment is relative, and can be bent in certain circumstances”. What he should say (to the judge, or whoever), is “Yes, I did steal, and that was wrong, but I am also very needy, and I ask for your understanding and mercy” or some such thing.

So Mr. Muehlenberg seems to think that property rights are absolute, not relative. In fact, they are relative, by reason of the universal destination of goods (as Mr. Webb rightly mentioned in reply to Mr. Muehlenberg), and so in cases of extreme (i.e. the difference between life and death) necessity it is licit to take someone else’s property (but not if the necessity is merely grave; cf. the following error, condemned, among other moral errors (the list is quite interesting), by the Holy Office:

It is permitted to steal not only in extreme, but in grave necessity.
[Decree of the Holy Office, March 4, 1679, no. 36., Dz. 1186,])
I wonder whether the problem for Mr. Muehlenberg arises from the Protestant understanding of how present-day Christians are bound by the Ten Commandments. Until Christ fulfilled the Old Testament, Jews were bound by the Ten Commandments (and the other commandments) because they were injunctions of Divine positive law (like how today, Catholics are bound by the precepts of the Church). But the Ten Commandments are binding on Christians because they provide an accurate synthesis of the (Divine) natural law, as the Roman Catechism explains:


Now among all the motives which induce men to obey this law the strongest is that God is its author. True, it is said to have been delivered by angels,10 but no one can doubt that its author is God. This is most clear not only from the words of the Legislator Himself, which we shall shortly explain, but also from innumerable other passages of Scripture that will readily occur to pastors.

Who is not conscious that a law is inscribed on his heart by God, teaching him to distinguish good from evil, vice from virtue, justice from injustice? The force and import of this unwritten law do not conflict with that which is written. Who is there, then, who will dare to deny that God is the author of the written, as He is of the unwritten law?

But, lest the people, aware of the abrogation of the Mosaic Law, may imagine that the precepts of the Decalogue are no longer obligatory, it should be taught that when God gave the Law to Moses, He did not so much establish a new code, as render more luminous that divine light* which the depraved morals and long-continued perversity of man had at that time almost obscured. It is most certain that we are not bound to obey the Commandments because they were delivered by Moses, but because they are implanted in the hearts of all, and have been explained and confirmed by Christ our Lord.
[my emphasis,]
But I wonder: even before the abrogation of the Mosaic Law, did the injunction against stealing cover even stealing in situations of extreme necessity? I wonder what Orthodox Judaism’s understanding of the question is?

And I wonder also: if (which is not certain, I know) Mr. Muehlenberg regards the Ten Commandments as binding not only as distillations of the natural law, but also binding as positive law, then to which, if any, of the other commandments of the Mosaic Law does he also submit?

Mr. Muehlenberg’s next paragraph in that comment is quite preposterous:

In your scenario you wipe our absolute morality and make everything conditional. That is situation ethics, a la Joseph Fletcher, and not biblical ethics. Of course the Marxists simply notched up your scenario a few levels: “The capitalists are robbers who are oppressing people, so if we simply ‘expropriate’ (read: steal) their assets, it is the just and right thing to do”
But the fact is, some moral judgments are contingent; to acknowledge this does not make everything contingent.

There is more that is fallacious in Mr. Muehlenberg’s reasoning:

… But it is a hidden assumption of [Mr. Webb’s] that is more problematic for me – namely that there is some bibilcal command or right to self-preservation.

Of course suicide is out, as is murder. We are not to take our own life, or unjustly and illicitly take the life of another. But we have no command to preserve our life at all costs. That is not a biblical summon bonum.
Just take your scenario and expand it a bit. It is right for me to pinch a banana to keep from starving to death? Probably. But is it right for me to commit adultery in order to stay alive? Or betray a brother in order to stay alive? Do I have a right to stay alive that trumps all other moral claims?
[my emphasis]
Mr. Muehlenberg is clearly knocking down a straw man here; no-one here is arguing that the right to stay alive trumps all moral claims or that it is to be preserved “at all costs”, just that it permits one to steal in a situation of extreme necessity by reason of the universal destination of goods. Adultery is always wrong, but taking someone else’s property without his consent is not always wrong.

Interestingly though, Mr. Muehlenberg seems to soften somewhat, at least in tone and emphasis if not in principle, in his opposition to stealing in extreme necessity in his last comment on the subject:

To wrap up our particular discussion, I would simply recognise that there has been a very rich and deep tradition of moral theology within the Catholic church over the centuries. They have thought long and hard about many of these moral issues. Sadly we Protestants - or at least we Evangelicals - have not always intellectually and theologically wrestled as much in these areas. But there are a number of excellent Protestant ethicists and moral theologians out there who are doing a good job nonetheless.
Not backpedaling, by any means, but a curious way to end the discussion nonetheless.

Reginaldvs Cantvar
Feast of St. William, Abbot, A.D. 2009


Louise said...

But I wonder: even before the abrogation of the Mosaic Law, did the injunction against stealing cover even stealing in situations of extreme necessity?

I seriously doubt it. There were, after all, customs about gleaning, which I doubt would be customs in Protestant nations.

Protestants are usually over-zealous about property rights, which is why the Americans don't cope well with even the mere concept of taxes.

And surely in a matter of life and death, we don't even call it "stealing." It's not as though a humane person would refuse a starving man food even from his own supply of necessities! It wouldn't bother me to have some of my own food taken from me without my knowledge under such circumstances.

Cardinal Pole said...

"Protestants are usually over-zealous about property rights, which is why the Americans don't cope well with even the mere concept of taxes."

Speaking of taxes, I wonder what Mr. Muehlenberg regards as the proper purpose of the State? Is it, for him, the common good, or some subset of the elements of the common good, such as a 'just public order'? I raise this in the context of taxation because if someone thinks that a subset of the elements of the common good is the State's proper end then clearly they will object to paying a level of tax which is necessary for the full common good in all its elements.

Louise said...

A subset, I should think.

Historically, even from pagan times, income tax was generally kept to under 10%. I'm inclined to think it would be good if income tax were kept to that kind of limit. In general, I think that consumption, rather than labour (ie Income) should be taxed by the State.