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Scholastics contra racism

The falsity and evil of racism, and thus of those institutions, clearly follows from standard Scholastic thinking about human nature and natural law.

Statue of Francisco de Vitoria, before San Esteban, Salamanca. (Image: Jacob Burckhardt/Wikipedia)

Condemning racism (or “racialist prejudice,” as he referred to it), Pope St. Paul VI affirmed that:

The members of mankind share the same basic rights and duties, as well as the same supernatural destiny.  Within a country which belongs to each one, all should be equal before the law, find equal admittance to economic, cultural, civic and social life and benefit from a fair sharing of the nation’s riches.  (Octogesima Adveniens 16).

This suggests a useful definition of racism, which is best understood as the denial of what the pope here affirms.  In other words, racism is the thesis that not all races have the same basic rights and duties and/or supernatural destiny, so that not all races should be equal before the law, find equal admittance to economic, cultural, civic and social life, or benefit from a fair sharing of the nation’s riches.

There could be no clearer manifestations of racism in this sense than the institutions of slavery and segregation that once existed in the United States.  The falsity and evil of racism, and thus of those institutions, clearly follows from standard Scholastic thinking about human nature and natural law.  Perhaps the best-known examples of Scholastic thinkers who made this case are Francisco de Vitoria (c. 1486-1546) and Bartoloméo de Las Casas (1474-1566).

Vitoria’s argument

These thinkers were writing at a time when the Spanish were colonizing the Americas, and were troubled by the harshness with which the American Indian populations were being treated.  Let’s start with Vitoria, who was an important contributor to the development of a Scholastic doctrine of natural rights as grounded in Thomistic natural law, and he hammered it out in the context of arguing for better treatment of the Indians.

The idea of a right in the modern sense is that of a kind of moral power to act in certain ways.  For example, if I have a right to my car, that entails that I am morally at liberty to drive it or not drive it, paint it or keep it the color it is, sell or lend it, and so on.  Others do not have a right to it insofar as they are not at liberty to do these things.  The moral law permits me this range of actions, but it does not permit them to others.

Rights theorists refer to rights in this sense as subjective rights, because they inhere in the individual subject or moral agent, in a manner analogous to the way his height or weight inheres in him.  This is contrasted with the idea of objective right, which essentially has to do with the object or aim of justice being realized.  For example, a society in which people do not murder or steal from one another is one in which objective right, at least to that extent, is achieved.

While the idea of objective right is to be found in a medieval philosopher like Aquinas, the notion of subjective rights is not, at least not explicitly.  As scholars like Brian Tierney have argued (see Tierney’s The Idea of Natural Rights), the notion began to evolve in medieval canon law, and later Scholastic writers like Vitoria essentially grafted it onto the Thomistic understanding of natural law.

The basic idea is this.  What sets human beings apart from non-human animals and the rest of the natural world is our rationality, and the free will that follows from it.  This affords human beings a mastery over their own actions that other creatures do not have, and it is, of course, why we are subject to a moral law that tells us how we ought to use our freedom.  So far this is just standard Thomistic teaching.  But the Scholastic argument for natural rights (in the sense of subjective rights) is that if I am obligated to act in a certain way under natural law, then I must have a right in the sense of a power or liberty to do so.  I must be able to make a moral claim against others that they not interfere with my actions in that particular respect.

Some Scholastic thinkers developed a theory of the natural right to private property on this basis.  The idea is that property is necessary in order to bring our powers to bear on the world in a manner that will allow us to do things like provide for ourselves and our families, which we are obligated to do under natural law.  Hence if natural law directs us to do things that presuppose private property, we must have a natural right to acquire it.  In the same way, we must have natural rights not to be killed and not to have our liberty taken from us (at least if we have not forfeited these rights by committing a crime), since these rights are prerequisites of our acting in any way at all.  (Naturally, there are all sorts of details concerning the institution of private property and the scope and limits of other rights that this doesn’t address.  I’m just trying to convey the basic idea here.  I say more about these issues in articles like “Freedom in the Scholastic Tradition” and “Classical Natural Law Theory, Property Rights, and Taxation.”)

Let’s come back, then, to Vitoria’s critique of the harsh treatment inflicted on the American Indians, which was an argument appealing to the natural rights that the Indians shared with all other human beings.  (See Chapter XI of Tierney for a useful survey of Vitoria’s position.)  Vitoria considers four reasons why some in his day did claim or might claim that the Indians lacked such rights: it might be claimed that they lacked such rights because they were sinners; or that they lacked them because they were infidels; or that they lacked them because they lacked rationality; or that they lacked them because they lacked sufficient intelligence.  Vitoria disposes of each of these arguments.

First, he points out that natural rights are grounded in human nature, and that sinners and infidels have the same human nature as everyone else.  Hence they have the same basic rights as everyone else (such as the right not to be murdered, the right not to be stolen from, and so forth).  Hence, whether the American Indians were sinners or non-believers is irrelevant to their having natural rights, and thus could not justify treating them as if they did not have them.

As to the claim that the American Indians lacked rationality, Vitoria pointed out that this is obviously false given that they had customs and institutions that only creatures with reason have (laws, the institution of marriage, cities, etc.).  He also argues that it will not do to suggest that they somehow have rationality only in potentiality rather than actuality, since (as the old Aristotelian maxim has it) nature does nothing in vain.

His point seems to be that it makes no sense to suppose that a large and ongoing population of human beings would have rationality only potentially rather than actually, because in that case their possession of it would be pointless, which violates the Aristotelian maxim.  If a population has the power of rationality, then over time and across the population that power is inevitably going to be actualized.

In response to the claim that the Indians lacked sufficient intelligence, Vitoria says that though children and mentally ill people lack the intelligence others have, they do not lack natural rights, because they have the same human nature as everyone else.  Hence, he concludes, claims to the effect that the Indians lacked the same mental acuity as the Spaniards could not justify denying that they had the same natural rights.

Vitoria also argues that Aristotle’s notorious argument to the effect that some people are naturally fit only to serve others could not justify chattel slavery.  His view was that this conclusion is ruled out by the circumstance that even such servile persons have the same rational nature as every other human being, so that they have the same natural rights as other human beings.  Hence, even someone better suited to serve others could not justly be treated as property or otherwise less than human.

Las Casas’s argument

Las Casas was even more thoroughgoing and passionate in his defense of the rights and equal dignity of the American Indians.  He argued strongly against any suggestion that the Indians were morally or intellectually inferior to Spaniards, and put special emphasis on the right to personal liberty and government by consent.  Fellow rational creatures, he insisted, have to be appealed to via rational persuasion rather than force.  He also emphasized the brotherhood of man both on Christian and natural law grounds, writing:

All the peoples of the world are humans and there is only one definition of all humans and of each one, that is that they are rational… Thus all the races of humankind are one.  (Quoted by Tierney, at p. 273)

Las Casas developed an especially important argument against any suggestion that Aristotle’s view that some people are naturally servile could be used to justify racial slavery.  First, he noted some problems with claims, common in his day, to the effect that some peoples were “barbarian” races.  What does that mean, exactly?  In the original sense of the term, “barbarian” peoples were those whose language was strange, but in this trivial sense all people are “barbarian” relative to those who speak a different language.  In another sense, a “barbarian” people is one that is especially cruel, but in this sense, Las Casas points out, the Spanish could be said to be barbarians given their treatment of the Indians.  In yet another sense, “barbarians” referred to non-Christian peoples.  But the pagan Greeks and Romans were non-Christians, and yet they were not considered by Christian writers to have been barbarians.

Las Casas argues that a “barbarian,” in the only interesting sense of the term, would be someone who essentially lived the life of a savage, bereft of reason and barely above the level of non-human animals, like a proverbial forest-dwelling “wild man.”  He would for that reason essentially be a damaged human being, his defects of rationality comparable to blindness or lameness.  But now Las Casas makes two key points.  First, he says, even such a person would still be a human being (even if his use of reason was greatly stunted) and would therefore retain the basic human rights.

Second, he argues, such people would also in the nature of the case be extremely rare and isolated.  There could not, in principle, be a race of barbarians in this sense.  For it simply makes no sense for there to be a race of people who have the basic powers of rationality that other human beings have, with all the duties under natural law that that entails, and yet, generation after generation, are always fundamentally stunted or crippled in their capacity to use those powers.  That would be like a race of people all of whom, generation after generation, are always born blind or crippled.  There would be a kind of perversity in such a scenario that would violate the Aristotelian principle that nature does nothing in vain.  (Here, Las Casas essentially extends the line of argument we saw Vitoria propose.)

What Las Casas gives us, then, is an argument which, on grounds of Aristotelian-Thomistic metaphysics and anthropology, rules out the very possibility of a race that is naturally inferior to others.  And thus it rules out any justification for racism in the sense later condemned by Pope St. Paul VI.

But what about…

Some will ask: “But didn’t the Catholic Church once defend slavery of the kind that once existed in the U.S. precisely on natural law grounds?”  The answer is No, she did not.  To be sure, there were individual Catholic writers who defended slavery of that kind (e.g. with reference to Spanish treatment of the American Indians), but their view died out and the views of writers like Vitoria and Las Casas prevailed.  But it is not true that the Church as an institution defended slavery of that kind.

The word “slavery” is ambiguous.  What we usually think of when we hear the term today is chattel slavery of the kind practiced in the United States before the Civil War, which involved complete ownership of another person, the way one might own an animal or an inanimate object.  This is intrinsically evil, and the Church has never defended it.

There are, however, other practices that were sometimes loosely labeled “slavery” but which are very different from chattel slavery.  For example, there is indentured servitude, which is a contract to give the right to one’s labor to another person for a prolonged period of time – for example, in payment of a debt.  And there is penal servitude, which involves forcing someone to labor as part of a punishment for a crime.  Indentured servitude is essentially an extreme version of an ordinary labor contract, and penal servitude is an extension of the loss of liberty a justly punished prisoner is already subject to.  Now, Catholic theologians have long regarded such practices as so morally hazardous, and in particular as posing a serious enough danger of degenerating into chattel slavery, that in practice they ought not to be employed.  But it is practices of these kinds (rather than chattel slavery), that the Church did not condemn as intrinsically immoral.  Regarding the modern slave trade and the practice of chattel slavery, the Church and the popes have in fact consistently condemned them beginning at least as far back as the 15th century.

(Editor’s note: This essay originally appeared on Dr. Feser’s site on on September 5, 2020, and is reposted here with his kind permission.)


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About Dr. Edward Feser 12 Articles
Edward Feser is the author of Five Proofs of the Existence of God and co-author of By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed: A Catholic Defense of Capital Punishment, both published by Ignatius Press.

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