CRT And Thomas Aquinas: Contra Ed Feser

CRT And Thomas Aquinas: Contra Ed Feser June 9, 2022

college.library: CRT (Critical Race Theory) Book Display/ Wikimedia Commons

Ed Feser announced that he has written a book about Critical Race Theory (CRT),  All One in Christ: A Catholic Critique of Racism and Critical Race Theory; it is set to be published this summer. The description found on the back of the book is very telling, for it indicates Feser’s underlying ideology, showing us the problematic hermeneutic he employs against CRT:

This book also demonstrates that Critical Race Theory, far from being a remedy for racism, is, in fact, a new and insidious form of racism that cannot be reconciled with the social teaching of the Church and the call of Christ. Edward Feser exhorts Catholics to oppose Critical Race Theory—precisely because they are opposed to racial injustice.

What is suggested by the description is that the book will offer us the kind of argument which would be expected from a White Supremacist, that is, someone associated with the KKK or Stormfront, and not from someone who is Catholic, let alone someone who presents himself as a Catholic philosopher embracing the scholastic tradition (and especially, St. Thomas Aquinas). It is common for White Supremacists to decry measures to fight racism as being racist, using such a claim to suggest that such measures make them the real victims of racism. This is not what we should expect from a Thomist. This is because St. Thomas Aquinas was interested in justice, and in his understanding of justice,  he explored the problems of injustice, and how we must pay back the debt which injustice brings with it, even if the injustice was in the past and the person who suffered from some injustice is now dead. And, he also said, if we do not know all those who suffered from some particular form injustice, this does not leave us free to ignore the debt which is owed them; rather, we must do what we can to repair the harm which has been done. Thus, we read in the Summa Theologica:

If the person to whom restitution is due is unknown altogether, restitution must be made as far as possible, for instance by giving an alms for his spiritual welfare (whether he be dead or living): but not without previously making a careful inquiry about his person. If the person to whom restitution is due be dead, restitution should be made to his heir, who is looked upon as one with him. If he be very far away, what is due to him should be sent to him, especially if it be of great value and can easily be sent: else it should be deposited in a safe place to be kept for him, and the owner should be advised of the fact. [1]

Everyone is owed justice, and so everyone deserves to be treated fairly, to receive what is justly their own. This itself is not an act of justice, but rather, its precondition:

Then, too, since the act of justice consists in rendering to each that which is his own, the act by which a thing becomes one’s own property is prior to the act of justice, as we see in human affairs; a man’s work entitles him to possess as his own that which his employer, by an act of justice, pays to him. The act by which a person first acquires something of his own cannot, therefore, by an act of justice. But by the act of creation, a created thing first possesses something of its own. It is not from a debt of justice, therefore, that creation proceeds.[2]

When someone does not receive their proper due, than they suffer an injustice. And we must do what we can to repair the harm such an injustice has done, even as we must make sure they do not suffer more, new injustices. Restitution, reparation, is therefore a part of the process that is to be had in order to restore justice; those who have suffered harm must have what was unjustly taken from them restored to them (or, as was said above, if they are no longer alive, their heirs are owed that restitution):

I answer that, Restitution re-establishes the equality of commutative justice, which equality consists in the equalizing of thing to thing, as stated above (Article 2; II-II:58:10). Now this equalizing of things is impossible, unless he that has less than his due receive what is lacking to him: and for this to be done, restitution must be made to the person from whom a thing has been taken. [3]

And as legal justice, that is positive law, is meant to serve the common good, it must embrace virtue, embrace what is good, and work to promote it:

However the name of legal justice can be given to every virtue, in so far as every virtue is directed to the common good by the aforesaid legal justice, which though special essentially is nevertheless virtually general. Speaking in this way, legal justice is essentially the same as all virtue, but differs therefrom logically: and it is in this sense that the Philosopher speaks. [4]

This, of course, does not happen when a particular legal system codifies and reinforces injustices, that is, when it finds a way to ignore or outright undermine attempts to bring restitution to those who suffer from some past injustice. Justice has a communal application, and this application must be reinforced by positive law, that is, by the legal system. If some law undermines the common good, it undermines justice; if some law works to undermines basic human rights, rights which are owed to everyone, it undermines justice; if some law works to codify and reinforce injustice, it undermines the whole point of the law. Thus, Aquinas is clear, the legal system must serve the common good, and the community as a whole must embrace such justice:

I answer that, Justice, as stated above (Article 2) directs man in his relations with other men. Now this may happen in two ways: first as regards his relation with individuals, secondly as regards his relations with others in general, in so far as a man who serves a community, serves all those who are included in that community. Accordingly justice in its proper acceptation can be directed to another in both these senses. Now it is evident that all who are included in a community, stand in relation to that community as parts to a whole; while a part, as such, belongs to a whole, so that whatever is the good of a part can be directed to the good of the whole. It follows therefore that the good of any virtue, whether such virtue direct man in relation to himself, or in relation to certain other individual persons, is referable to the common good, to which justice directs: so that all acts of virtue can pertain to justice, in so far as it directs man to the common good. It is in this sense that justice is called a general virtue. And since it belongs to the law to direct to the common good, as stated above (I-II:90:2), it follows that the justice which is in this way styled general, is called “legal justice,” because thereby man is in harmony with the law which directs the acts of all the virtues to the common good. [5]

Restitution not only is to be given by those who directly harm others by taking from them what is rightfully theirs, such as their freedom and dignity, but by those who indirectly gain from such injustice. Thus, in exploring the various forms of restitution, Aquinas made it clear, those who are indirectly connected to some particular injustice also owe restitution to the one who suffers from that injustice:

I answer that, As stated above (Article 6), a person is bound to restitution not only on account of someone else’s property which he has taken, but also on account of the injurious taking. Hence whoever is cause of an unjust taking is bound to restitution. This happens in two ways, directly and indirectly. Directly, when a man induces another to take, and this in three ways. First, on the part of the taking, by moving a man to take, either by express command, counsel, or consent, or by praising a man for his courage in thieving. Secondly, on the part of the taker, by giving him shelter or any other kind of assistance. Thirdly, on the part of the thing taken, by taking part in the theft or robbery, as a fellow evil-doer. Indirectly, when a man does not prevent another from evil-doing (provided he be able and bound to prevent him), either by omitting the command or counsel which would hinder him from thieving or robbing, or by omitting to do what would have hindered him, or by sheltering him after the deed. [6]

Everyone, then, is owed basic justice. St. Thomas Aquinas considered one of the classes of people who are to be seen as owing a debt are “masters” who are served by “servants”:

Furthermore, no one owes anything to another except because he depends upon him in some way, or receives something either from him or from someone else, on whose account he is indebted to that other person; a son is debtor to his father, because he receives being from him; a master to his servant, because he receives from him the services he requires; and every man is a debtor to his neighbor, on God’s account, from whom we received all good things. [7]

Thus, from this, we can find the injustices connected to slavery are both individual, those who owned slaves and did not give them their proper due (but rather, abused them, engaging in greater and greater injustices), as communal, so that the society which allowed slavery to continue because it  gained something from the institution of slavery owes restitution to those who were harmed by it.  Insofar as that debt remains, the heirs of that debt are owed restitution by the society which incurred that debt. Sadly, history shows us that instead of paying that debt off, society continued to hinder African Americans, preventing them from living out their lives in justice, creating terrible conditions for them to live in, so that even if they were no longer slaves, they continued to suffer grave injustices; the society which allowed such injustices to continue, owes them a debt for those injustices as well as to the debt which developed as a result of slavery. This is easily something which we can easily conclude based upon the notions of justice and restitution seen in the writings of Aquinas. He promotes the notion of restitution (reparations), and the need to reform society and its laws so that the common good not only would be promoted, but previous injustices were dealt with and those harmed by them received proper restitution.

The questions remain, how are we to know what those injustices were, how are we to determine who is owed,  what exactly are they owed, and who, exactly, owes the debt brought about by such injustices? These questions are among those asked and examined by the legal theory known as Critical Race Theory. It is also what is addressed by those who, following the initiative of such legal theorists, explore the questions in other kinds of discourses, such as sociology, psychology, philosophy, and theology. Both the legal theory, and the other viewpoints which have come after (which are not to be confused with the legal theory, though can conventionally be called CRT, so long as the distinction is kept), point out that a part of the injustice we find in the past, indeed, one of its root causes,  lay in the way people were improperly divided into various so-called “races,”  using that division to create different standards of rights for those coming from different “races.” Once different rights were established, then those who were seen as “inferior,” were given inferior rights; society justified the unjustifiable, that is, all kinds of abuses, through this means. One of the ways to fix this problem is to deconstruct the constructs which were created and used to support and implement such racism, showing how they worked and hurt people, and then find a way to repair the harm which has been done, creating new structures in positive law so as to fight against such injustices in the future:

Critical Race Theory (CRT), intellectual and social movement and loosely organized framework of legal analysis based on the premise that race is not a natural, biologically grounded feature of physically distinct subgroups of human beings but a socially constructed (culturally invented) category that is used to oppress and exploit people of colour. Critical race theorists hold that racism is inherent in the law and legal institutions of the United States insofar as they function to create and maintain social, economic, and political inequalities between whites and nonwhites, especially African Americans.[8]

It is important to note, CRT does not produce one answer to the questions which are posed. We do not find one solution being given by those who engage CRT. Rather, we must understand CRT offers a critical examination of the problems, leading people to come to different suggestions, different ways to deal with the problems once they have been identified. “But critical race theory is not a single worldview; the people who study it may disagree on some of the finer points.”[9]Thus, to try to undermine CRT by examining one particular engagement of it  would be as erroneous as trying to examine and criticize scholasticism due to some of the opinions held by William of Occam. This is not to say there are not many things held in common by those who engage CRT, as there are, just as there was much held in common between William of Occam, Duns Scotus, and St. Thomas Aquinas. One of these common elements is the recognition of how racists try to undermine attempts to bring about a just society by pretending to be color blind. CRT would have us see that this is one of the ways people  work to keep the structures of injustice in place,  for those who have been privileged due to what they have inherited from past injustices will have advantages to those who have yet to experience restitution for the injustice of racism:

Critical race theorists reject the philosophy of “colorblindness.” They acknowledge the stark racial disparities that have persisted in the United States despite decades of civil rights reforms, and they raise structural questions about how racist hierarchies are enforced, even among people with good intentions.[10]

It is, to be sure, this kind of pretense of color-blindness which lies behind the way many, like Ed Feser, decry  CRT as being racist. What they would have us do is ignore the injustices of the past and what is left in the system which continues to promote and reify those injustices. If we act as they suggest, we will find we are not on equal footing with each other:  those who inherit the debt owed by society will find that debt ignored, and so will continue to suffer the ill-effects of such injustice in their lives. Those who owe it are not victims, because, again, they have inherited what was not rightfully theirs and are being asked to restore it to those who lost it. Having to pay ones debts does not make one a victim. To claim otherwise is to fight against justice and the justice system itself, and so, to struggle against what St. Thomas says is owed to those who suffer injustice, a restoration of what was lost.

Ed Feser seems to suggest that looking for and finding those injustices of the past, those injustices which were caused by racist policies, so that we can determine which injustice still need to be healed by proper restitution, is a racist endeavor. He wants to paint those who are told they owe restitution as being the true victims of racism. It is a deplorable attitude. It is an argument one expects from racists, not from one claiming to be a philosopher in the tradition of Aquinas.

[1] St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica. Translated  English Dominican Province.  II-ii.62.5.

[2] St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles. Book Two. Trans. James F. Anderson (Notre Dame University of Notre Dame Press, 1975), 80 [c.28-9].

[3] St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica,  II-ii.62.5.

[4] St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica,  II-ii.58.6.

[5] St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica,  II-ii.58.5.

[6] St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica,  II-ii.62.7.

[7] St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles. Book Two, 80 [c.28-9].

[8] Encyclopedia Britannica, “Critical Race Theory.”

[9] Jacey Fortin, “Critical Race Theory: A Brief History” in New York Times (11-8-2021).

[10] Jacey Fortin, “Critical Race Theory: A Brief History” in New York Times (11-8-2021).


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