Catholic vs. Enlightenment theories of property

The Catholic theory of property as summarized in CCC 2402 or as attributed to the natural law by Thomas states that the principle of all property is the universal destination of all goods, which states that all things first belong by right to all persons. The right to private property arises downstream from this, as a result of an attempt to preserve the very common good of the society that is prior to private ownership. Starting at least with Hobbes, the order of property reverses: ownership is fundamentally private ownership, and social goods only arise after we divest ourselves of property rights by handing them over to the sovereign.

Both the Catholic and the Hobbesian theory involve a sort of exitus-reditus, since both take the source of property as what must be preserved by the what arises at the later stage. Catholicism sees property as fundamentally communal and the purpose of the subsequent system of private ownership as the preservation of property’s fundamentally common character; Hobbesianism sees property as first individual and so the subsequent system of handing over one’s right, and thereby constituting civil society and a common good, is only to ensure the greater security of contracts for private ownership.

The Hobbesian scheme sees property as essentially divided from common goods, making anything one does with his own property mostly free from moral considerations. Even an extreme case like price gouging doesn’t strike us as obviously immoral. It might be mean, to be sure, but isn’t “The right answer to [what] a company should charge  “what the market will bear” — in other words, the highest price that customers will pay“(?) As with price gouging so too driving up commodities’ prices or paying subsistence wages is simply asking for what one can get for his own stuff, so it’s not as if he is trying to defraud, burgle or rob someone. We can disagree whether this makes such a businessman a shark or a jerk, but it can’t make him evil, right?

Misconception about the physical infinite

Aristotle’s claims everyone other than he misunderstood the physical infinite:

The infinite turns out to be the contrary of what it is said to be. It is not what has nothing outside it that is infinite, but what always has something outside it.

III Physics c. 6 206b33

The infinite is visualized as the limit and whole containing all finite things, when in fact, he claims, it is what always fails to be whole and is unable to contain anything.

In physics and chemistry, the physical infinity of the conserved quantity makes its action perfectly predictable, and so a foundation for prediction (as Sean Carroll explains in the first chapter of his new book.) This tempts us to an ontology of the conserved quantities as corresponding to things that are more substantial than anything else, so that we say with Empedocles that there is no such thing as a Nature, only a combination and separation of what is combined; it is merely called Nature by men. All we have to do is start with the solid and substantial reality of matter or energy and then figure out the details about what emerges from their majestic fullness and substantiality.

This is one version of the fundamental misunderstanding of the physical infinite, namely seeing it as what is most whole and existing-in-itself when it is in fact the most partial and existing relative to an actuality other than itself. It is the ontological poverty of the physical infinite that accounts for its explanatory breadth, and its absence of substantiality that allows it to enter into the causal explanation of so many substances. The sort of causal explanation it can hope to give is not one that will replace form (say, a physical account of the living being that replaces the soul) but a causal explanation precisely as the proper material of a form to which it owes its existence even as matter.

Fifth Petition

And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. Namely, by the Holy Spirit.

Conserved quantities

A conserved quantity – energy, momentum, etc – is an infinite potential and so has minimal actuality. Causal reduction to such things is an unreachable limit, since they need some sort of actuality in order to be intelligible while any intrinsic actuality would render them finite. The minimal act of these things seems to be counterfactual: if they were to stop, then they would be definite, but as they “are neither created nor destroyed” this actuality cannot come to be.

Knowledge and immateriality

-Knowledge is receiving a form. Q: Why? Even in God?

-A: The account of knowledge begins with the object as actuality apt to be in another. Even God is such actuality. Language about reception is nothing other than a description of the knower as with an actuality apt to be in another.

– Form is in another first as making it an entity, the way form in matter makes a material essence or esse in essence makes a created entity. In God, the “other” receiving esse is distinct in our mode of signifying but not in reality. All of these ways of receiving form are entitative and are opposed to the way knowers receive form.

-Whatever receives form as material cause receives it entitatively, and vice versa. The material subject is material cause to its accident; prime matter is material cause to substantial form; the immaterial intellect is material cause to the accident of its virtues; and the divine essence is, in our mode of signification, the material cause of its act of existence. Knowers, however, do not receive forms entitatively, so they do not receive them as material causes. Thus knowledge transcends material causality even in the order of sensation. This is the sense of all knowledge is immaterial. 

-The immateriality of sense knowledge is clearly inseparable from the modification of an organ, but insofar as the known object modifies the sense organ the sense organ contributes to the object itself, but so far as this happens the knowledge is not objective. Perfect objectivity is possible only for knowledge that does not arise from the modification of an organ, i.e. that is of an entitatively spiritual being.


Reduction is a causal explanation terminating in a certain order of higher and lower. For example, if one give a causal explanation where one explains B by A and this makes B merely apparent and A robustly real; or alternatively B is entirely causally dependent and A is causally independent, then B is reduced to A.

Reductive accounts of nature are either to something transcending nature, or to a denuded and homogeneous level of existence within nature. There can be some harmony between these in different orders of causality, i.e. Aristotle argued that in the order of material causality things reduce to the homogeneity of prime matter but in all other orders they reduce to what is immobile and perfect, whether simpliciter (God) or secundum quid (form.) Our own intuitively appealing doctrine of participation denies this, and says that the (apparently) heterogeneous and formal distinctions of “higher” orders are simply emergent from lower orders. Since Aristotle allowed a sense in which this can occur (in the order of material causality) we can in one sense make room for such beliefs, but they will always be true with qualification and never simply speaking. The qualification, however, makes physicalism either tautological or false: things emerge from lower phenomena insofar as we consider them in the order in which they do so.

Anthropomorphism vs. exceptionalism

Assume the thought occurs to you that all motion is for an end, but you dismiss it for being anthropomorphic. To be sure, humans start with ends, but we can’t imagine nature starting that way.

It’s interesting that this is exactly the thing we dismiss as human exceptionalism in other contexts. Why not just say that reason starts with an end not because it’s rational, but because its discursive? Why not say reasoning starts with ends not qua human, but qua kinesis or even qua action? Aristotle even thinks he can prove that reasoning acts for ends qua action, so that even actions without kinesis (like God’s action) or actions without reason (like natural actions) are only intelligible relative to an end.

Christ and Afterlife

Christ’s response to the Sadducees (Lk. 20, Mk. 12 and Mt. 20) means that taking sexual desire as integral to human identity requires denying the afterlife.


-It’s easier and more enjoyable to fantasize about the moral improvements one would bring about with more power than to bring about the actual moral improvements over which one has power.

-To define oneself as victim seems to justify the easier and more enjoyable path. Qua victim or oppressed class, how else could one relate to moral improvement?

-Forgiveness? Forbearance? Patience? Love of enemies? Christianity.

-The social science on pornography shows that its users beliefs about sex become more porn-like. This is in one sense very odd, as porn users also see porn as a counterfactual fantasy, like a superhero or alien invasion movie. But superhero movies don’t tend to make our beliefs about the world more superhero like: What would that even mean?

-In the face of his experience of motion and change, Parmenides says that it in fact is the subjective response to a reality that is, in fact, unified, unseen and immobile. Although Aristotle defends the reality of change, he relies no less on the unseen reality of potential being on the one hand, and a unified, unseen and immobile mover on the other.

God and moral responsibility

Is God morally responsible for the evil in the universe?

Sure, in some sense of responsibility – the term includes any choice entering into an explanation of how or why something happened, and God’s choices somehow enter into an explanation of evil. But is this the same as imputing guilt to God? What might divine guilt or innocence even mean?

The best analogue we have for God’s act of creating the universe is the screenwriter’s act of writing a cinematic universe. Within cinematic universes, the plot is driven by the moral choices of the characters, but we have to hold God responsible in a way that is different from how we hold creatures responsible, so it seems we can’t hold God responsible morally. Could we hold God morally responsible in a different sense from how we hold the characters responsible? Sure, but what can we say about this other sense of guilt? We would have to hold him guilty in the way we blame a screenwriter for writing a bad character, but this judgment isn’t about the evils of the character – even tremendous Thanos-level evils like the intending to wipe out all living beings – but is rather the existence of a character contributing nothing to making the whole story better.

So the sense in which we could praise or blame God is for the existence of something – whether good or evil – that served no purpose in the whole drama of spacetime. This is a criterion, to be sure, and it does at least articulate a meaningful sense in which we could understand imputing guilt or innocence to God, but we have no more right to apply the criterion to some event before the eschaton than a critic could judge the value of a character before he finished watching the movie, or even before he knew how much of it he watched or what happened before that point. Though we know what an innocent or guilty deity would be, it would take someone who saw the universe like a god to pass such a judgment on God.

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