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Why successful societies require truth and goodness

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Dec 16, 2013

It is difficult to overemphasize how much a sound social order, a sound economy, and a sound political environment depend on virtue. It is a fairly basic insight, yet much of modern life is spent tearing down and discarding hard-won conceptions of virtue in the name of liberation and toleration. The problem is that we so often seek to be liberated from the very things that make social life possible. Endemic cheating and promiscuity, to take just two examples, rapidly erode all the ties that bind.

After the economic collapse of 2008, Pope Benedict tried very hard to convince financial leaders that a sound and productive economy was impossible without trust, and that trust was impossible without both virtue and generosity. In his social encyclical Caritas in Veritate (Charity in Truth), the Pope emphasized the need for solidarity in commercial relationships, insisting that a principle of gratuitousness must be part of all relationships, even those otherwise thought to embody only commutative justice, or contractual exchange. Not only did the well-being of all participants need to be taken into account, the Holy Father argued, but transactions needed to be animated by a genuine concern on the part of each party that the exchange in question should benefit the other.

One of the problems with high level “markets” is that they appear to involve nothing but huge numbers of bundled transactions; the human face of those transactions tends to be lost. This is true not only of bundled mortgages but of stocks and bonds and grain and other commodities. The real people who form the bedrock of all these transactions seem very far removed, and so the financial “action” can be erroneously viewed as little more than a profit game. It becomes very difficult to see where virtue and gratuitousness enter in. But the reality is that persons are always involved in every transaction. There is no source of wealth apart from people.

The point made by Pope Benedict XVI is that even the markets cannot remain productive without trust, and that trust is impossible without virtue and gratuitousness (remember the Pope’s title, Charity in Truth). We can see this point very clearly in our individual dealings with others, through the innumerable commutative relationships in which we engage during the normal course of our lives—the purchase of a car or an appliance, home renovation, payment of tuition to obtain an education, shopping for food or clothing, engaging someone to make a repair or remove a tree. When we find services or goods to be represented fairly, and the provider is genuinely concerned about our ultimate satisfaction with “the deal”, then we use that provider again and recommend him to others. And the provider will be happy to deal with us in the future if we have not made unreasonable demands; if we have paid promptly and in full, without “chiseling”; and if we have offered genuine thanks and even a gratuity where warranted.

Consequences of Trust and Lack of Trust

Such relationships can even blossom into friendships, perhaps leading to a whole network of friendships. But without these things—even if they are excluded under some pretext of “strictly business”—the relationships collapse and the “business” disappears. In mass societies, of course, it is a bit easier for the unscrupulous to stay in business or weasel more free work out of others. And the farther we remove trade from the real persons on which it is always based, the easier it is to lose sight of the very real integrity, solidarity and even gratuitousness that build trust and so make the economy work. But the consequences of failure increase as well. If the plumber who replaces my old pipes does shoddy work, I may suffer more or less by myself. If I find a way to withhold part of the payment due for a job well done, then he may suffer more or less alone. But when trust is abused in large-scale markets, that is, when people are ripped off en masse, the result is a general crash.

Trust must be rebuilt before economic relationships can recover. Moreover, as with the economy, so too with politics in particular and social life generally. If neighbors cannot trust each other to behave decently and look out for each other, true civility breaks down and is replaced either by chaos or increasing regulation. Ultimately, people will either develop a culture characterized by responsibility, virtue and generosity or they will choose between a battle zone and a police state. Think of many poor neighborhoods and disorganized countries, on the one hand, or of highly-regulated private communities and totalitarian regimes on the other. When trust and the predictable order on which trust depends break down, chaos ensues. Regulation, when it comes, will be at the hands of the government or the mob, sometimes without much difference.

In the worst cases, what we end up with in a world without trust is large numbers of alienated, disconnected individuals held together only by what Thomas Hobbes called Leviathan—the unbridled, terrifying power of the State to maintain order at any cost. But my point here is not to rail against the State. What I am emphasizing is that the only alternative to either the police state or chaos is a culture characterized by virtue and gratuitousness.

But what is virtue? It is the habit of acting rightly in each particular situation. As such it depends on both truth and love. We need to know what our proper ends are, and what the ends of the community as a whole are, and whether certain types of behavior tend to support or undermine those ends. This is where truth comes in. And then we must be willing to set aside behaviors which sacrifice these larger ends to some purely selfish desire; we must act consistently with our own ultimate good and the common good of the larger community in mind. This is where love comes in.

Of course, perfection is very far from us. But we do not need to be perfect to engender a culture generally characterized by virtue. And clearly it is far better to strive for the true and the good imperfectly than to deny that they exist altogether. This is what is so frightening about our post-modern world. If people are reduced in a given culture to a severe and endemic confusion about the true and the good, there are only two options. Neither involves a harmonious and successful social, political and economic life.

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Show 2 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: fenton1015153 - Dec. 18, 2013 6:50 PM ET USA

    Having trust will greatly help the exchange of goods and services. And trust usually will be focused on the items exchanged in payment for goods and services. If you are not in a barter society the focus will be on some sort of currency. A society will benefit from a currency that is trust worthy. Our current money is not since it is the product of fractional lending from bid banks. The Pope could help all people if he would chastise fractional lending in his economic encyclicals.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Dec. 16, 2013 8:19 PM ET USA

    And it does not matter how much goiod the good try to do if the foundation is corrupt. Thus the need for a return to the great works, to the Natural Law, to the Gospel, to the catechism. The wisdom of Eminem won't do the trick. Great work Dr. Mirus.

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