Samuel Cooper discusses essays and letters between Anscombe and Foot, now held in the Somerville college archive. (Post 2/3)


Questions about the ‘Abstract Problem’

Anscombe’s essay leaves us with two sorts of question. First of all, it leaves us with questions about what she calls the ‘abstract problem’: questions about the sense in which I can be said to be guilty of injustice when I withhold alms to those in desperate need, questions about what kind of logic of collective responsibility is a good one; second, it leaves us with a set of questions about almsgiving and what sort of duty we have to give to the needy. This post will be about the first set of questions; the following one will be about the second set.

To get the most out of the discussion, it might be useful (though not necessary) to read a few sections from the Summa Theologica: first part of the second part, Question 13 article 1; second part of the second part, Question 30 articles 2 and 3, Question 31 article 1, and Question 32 article 1.


The Argument of Anscombe’s Essay

The starting point of the problem is something like this:

It seems that the man who was beaten by robbers and left lying beside the side of the road can rightfully feel that an injustice has been done to him by every priest and levite who passes him by on the other side. If this feeling is right, then it seems that every person who could help someone in dire need but does not, bears a full share of guilt for their inaction. This suggests the principle, ‘I am guilty for all the suffering that I could relieve but do not’.

But we cannot adopt this principle. Let’s imagine that I have five hundred pounds spare, and there are, say, a thousand people whose suffering could be relieved by the gift of it. So long as I do nothing with my money, it seems that every one of them can feel that I am doing them an injustice: I am like the levite who passes him on the other side. But I can only give away the money once, and so only one of those people could have been relieved by it: each of them could have been relieved, but not all of them. So, even if I keep the money, it cannot be the case that I am guilty for all of the suffering I could have relieved with it.

In the notes that accompany the essay, Anscombe offers the following clarifications. First, it seems that the requirement is not to give to ‘all people in desperate need’, but to ‘any person in desperate need’. Giving my surplus to any such person satisfies the requirements of justice, in the same sense that, if I owe someone a horse, I don’t owe them a specific horse, or all horses, but rather any horse: giving them any horse relieves the debt.

This is a good start. But it leads us to another problem. That there is no specific needy person to whom I personally ought to give seems well enough. But if I am a person in desperate need, it seems that I am suffering injustice when others have plenty and my need goes unrelieved: but because of the above considerations it seems problematic to identify any specific person as doing injustice to me: because no specific person owes anything to me specifically. I can’t hold everyone who could help me to be guilty, because each one of them can’t be held to be guilty for not relieving the suffering of everyone in the same position of me, when they have enough to help only some. But if there are many people around who have more than enough, so that if they all helped, everyone in desperate need would be relieved, then I still seem to be suffering an injustice, and an injustice must be being done by somebody: and this thought leads Anscombe to consider the idea of collective injustice.

Later in the letter, she is clear that the phrase ‘collective injustice’ is not intended to suggest that the locus of moral responsibility is not the individual.

She considers two reasonably clear senses in which a group of people can collectively act unjustly. First is the case which she illustrates with the example of a “garden committee”: a group of people get together and agree that such-and-such should be done. This is the most straightforward sense of collective action, but it is not how this kind of injustice is done.

Second is a kind of case which she illustrates with the example of air pollution: “the people with chimneys collectively pollute the air because, though what comes from each chimney does not pollute the air, the total of what comes from many chimneys does pollute the air.” This again is a reasonably clear sense of collective action, but again it does not accurately capture how this kind of injustice is done: “People may starve in one place because of a famine there; their starvation was not caused by the retention of a surplus in another place, but merely could have been relieved by it.”

So there must be some further sense of ‘collective action’ through which this collective injustice can occur. But what is it?


Clarifications from St Thomas

It might be useful here to look over the Thomistic doctrine of formal and material co-operation. This is another example of the material vs formal distinction which was discussed in the first post, and should be a useful example of one of the ways in which this distinction is put to use in practice. Once again ‘formal’ is what determines the species of the act, and has to do with what is intended or willed; and ‘material’ does not determine the species of the act, but refers to what is actually done whether or not it fulfils what was intended.

Formal co-operation is to intend or will the action of another person. Material co-operation is to do something that contributes to another person’s action, whether or not I intend or will that it is accomplished.

Material co-operation might implicate me in the moral character of the action, but need not do. For example, I might fulfil someone’s request for a knife thinking that they intend to cut vegetables with it, and then they in fact go out and stab someone. In this case I’ve contributed materially to the action, but I am not blameworthy for having so contributed. (I’m imagining here a case in which I couldn’t reasonably have guessed that they would stab someone: if I have been negligent in giving that person a knife, then this is a case in which, though I have only co-operated with them materially rather than formally, I am still blameworthy for having done so.)

In a case of formal co-operation, on the other hand, I need not do anything at all to contribute materially to the action. If I hear that this person is going out intending to stab someone, and I think ‘yes, good on them for trying to accomplish that stabbing’, and think it not just in passing but in a stable and un-conflicted way, then I’m formally co-operating with them even if I do nothing at all to help them complete the action. What matters to formal co-operation is the disposition of my will.

(This is worth dwelling on a little bit, as it shows up one of the ways in which St Thomas’s ‘formal object’ and ‘will’ drifts away a little from the modern ‘intention’. If I have an erring conscience and so view this person’s stabbing to be a good thing, then my will is to that extent ordered toward it’s being done: because there is an essential connection between ‘is good’ and ‘ought to be done’. The fact that I may be cowardly, or bound by conventionality, or habituated to inaction, or dissuaded by the threat of punishment, may prevent me from intending the action myself or even from intending that another person does it in the sense of trying to get them to do it, or being willing to materially help with it; but if I view it as a thing that ‘ought to be done’, I assent happily and with approval to its being done, my will is still in disorder. St Thomas argues that to formally co-operate with an action incurs as much guilt as doing it, and includes this kind of case.)

Although material co-operation with evil is not automatically blameworthy, it is still an evil in the sense that we see it as something to be avoided. For example, if someone were to tell me that the person I was about to give a knife to was planning to use it for a stabbing, I would (hopefully) be glad to have been saved by that warning from the evil of contributing materially to that action. If I gave them the knife even after I had been told that they were planning the stabbing, I would then be formally co-operating with them, and would be blameworthy. (The same, mutatis mutandis, applies to material co-operation with good.)

Looking back at Anscombe’s two kinds of collective action, we can see the Thomistic logic which underpins them. In the ‘garden committee’ case, everyone involved formally co-operates in order to collectively decide how the garden should look. In the ‘air pollution’ case, nobody intends to pollute the air, but despite that everyone materially co-operates in polluting it.

There may be some examples of the kind of injustice which we are considering which fall into these two categories. Anscombe mentions the passing of laws which help to maintain injustice as an example of the first sort. Voting with approval for someone who would pass such laws, or looking down on a colleague who goes without markers of social station in order to give more away might be another example of such formal co-operation with injustice, and I personally think they may provide an uncomfortably large part of the total explanation; and there are similar cases for material co-operation, such as buying land-intensive food and so driving up the price of bread elsewhere.

But the main case here is one in which people are mostly not formally co-operating with such injustice (most people, I suppose, think in a general way that famines and homelessness and displacement of refugees through war are bad things that ought to be relieved). And though they may be materially co-operating with such injustice a bit, their collected actions are not a sufficient cause of such injustices (famines are caused, rather than merely not alleviated, mostly by droughts and so forth, rather than by purchasing habits). This collective injustice, if this is what it is, consists primarily in many people just not acting so as to relieve cases of desperate need. This kind of collective non-action seems rather more difficult to explain.


Negligence and Aggregates

One of my initial thoughts about the question of ‘collective injustice’ was: can this be explained in terms of negligence? It seems that most people either know that leaving someone in desperate need without food or shelter, where you have a surplus, is wrong; or if they don’t, their ignorance of the fact is culpable (and probably stems from a certain amount of self-deception).

This therefore seems like a culpable non-action: the kind of thing we usually understand as negligence. However, this doesn’t really get us any closer. Perhaps it is the case that each person who does wrong here is being negligent, but what is collective negligence? It can’t just be aggregate negligence, because the problem was in the first place that we couldn’t pin down responsibility for a given injustice on any single individual: and the aggregate of many zeroes is still zero.

Perhaps it is that I am responsible for the plight of any given person in need for the amount he would get if I shared my surplus between all the needy? In this case the ‘collective injustice’ would just be aggregate injustice. But it would be very strange if I went around to each good cause and gave it a few fractions of a penny on the basis that in this way I fulfilled my obligations to all: it rather seems to be that I can give to one or the other as I care to, and so long as I do not give imprudently (for example, by giving a vast amount to one person), there is no problem. So perhaps my obligation is to the needy as an aggregate? But in that case, who exactly is doing injustice to each needy person? The aggregate of persons with surpluses?

But now we have returned to the fact that those who have surpluses, taken as a mass, do an injustice to those who are in desperate need, taken as a mass, by withholding alms from them, which we already knew: and we have no better idea of how each individual person with a need or a surplus stands with regard to those aggregate masses. So we have just come back around to the problem.


A Possible Solution: Acts of Charity

St Thomas places almsgiving under charity (caritas, love of neighbour) rather than under justice. Can we resolve the problem which Anscombe identifies by taking this categorisation seriously?

The notes going along with the essay contain a section on this, in which Anscombe, (referencing Summa Theologica, second part of the second part, Question 31, article 1) notes that the one classification does not preclude the other, and a man can still execute the requirements of justice out of charity. She glosses St Thomas as saying that “friendship, or charity, relates simply to a good turn as such, so justice relates to it qua owed, and pity to it qua relieving wretchedness or want.”

I think, actually, St Thomas’s position can be put in slightly (but importantly) stronger and more precise terms than Anscombe puts it here. In Summa Theologica, first part of the second part, Question 13, article 1, he says: “an act belonging essentially to some power or habit, receives a form or species from a higher power or habit, according as an inferior is ordained by a superior: for if a man were to perform an act of fortitude for the love of God, that act is materially an act of fortitude, but formally, an act of charity.”

Therefore, it seems to me that St Thomas regards almsgiving to be materially a work of justice (if it is almsgiving that does not go beyond the requirements of justice); and formally a work of charity.

The structure of St Thomas’s argument cannot be laid out in full here; but in brief, he first argues that pity is a virtue (‘pity’ is ‘misericordia’: Anscombe uses ‘pity’, but ‘mercy’ and ‘compassion’ are equally good translations and may in this case be more informative). There are cases in which the sentiment is moved to pity without the involvement of reason, and in this case we aren’t talking about a virtue but a passion or emotion: this may well cover the majority of cases of ‘pity’. However, Aquinas also identifies a use of the word ‘pity’ (‘mercy’, ‘compassion’) to mean “a movement of the intellective appetite, in as much as one person’s evil is displeasing to another”: and if the sentiments and the rest of the soul are in harmony with this intellective movement, then what is present in the soul is not a mere passion but a full-fledged virtue. Then, he argues that almsgiving is done out of pity, because pity is the virtue which motivates relieving distress, and almsdeeds, properly speaking, are done to those in real need (if one gives money to help out a friend who is in some trouble, but not especially desperate trouble, this may be a good deed, but it isn’t almsgiving).

St Thomas introduces the virtue of pity (not merely the sentiment) as a part or species of charity (love of neighbour). Though one might be sentimentally moved by another’s suffering on any old grounds, what it is to have the relevant kind of motivation to relieve another’s suffering which is required if that action is to come under a virtue rather a passion, is to grasp their suffering as an evil in itself, something to be fought or ameliorated or avoided – in the same way as one instinctively and automatically sees evils that accrue to oneself as to be avoided. Thus, he says, this kind of motivation must stem from charity, love of neighbour, which is the virtue which allows one to see the suffering of others as one sees one’s own.

In the section on justice Aquinas considers distributive justice – the justice of distributing common goods amongst those who may have a right to them – and commutative justice – justice in the realm of exchange between individuals – but does not consider almsgiving. This is explained by what has been said above: almsgiving refers to what is given on account of a real distress or need. When a sovereign decides how to justly divide the common goods between the people, he may be doing right, but he isn’t almsgiving; likewise, when I buy something, I ought to pay the price that is set for it, and even if in making the decision to buy I may be being generous or thinking of the seller’s need, by paying the price that is set I am not giving alms but simply fulfilling an obligation of justice. In these cases what is being done is formally justice. What brings these actions under the species of justice is that my intention in performing them involves satisfying some particular claim of the person or people I am dealing with, such as the claim a merchant has not to be cheated when he sells me something.

In the case of almsgiving, Anscombe notes that a man can exclude the thought of justice from the action (“e.g. by thinking ‘I am good beyond what I need to be, because here I am acting out of pure benevolence and doing more than is required’”), and when one performs an act of almsgiving one can act in accordance with justice by giving from one’s superfluity in order to fulfill the needs of one who suffers; but as Anscombe has found, one can’t form the intention to satisfy some particular claim in the action, in the way that one can form the intention to satisfy the particular claim of the merchant for proper payment.

This fact, that in giving alms one can act in accordance with justice but one can’t form the specific intention to do some act of justice, implies that in giving alms one can be materially just but not formally just: and this would explain why St Thomas cashes out almsgiving as being (at least potentially) materially an act of justice, but formally always an act of charity. (In fact, Aquinas has already stacked the deck toward this conclusion by previously defining almsgiving in terms of pity, and pity in terms of charity.)

The confusions left by the discussion might thus be resolved.


Remaining Questions

Although this may be a way out of this particular problem, we’ve gotten here not by tackling the question of collective injustice but by sidestepping it; or perhaps even by admitting that it can’t be tackled head on.

My suspicion is that, because St Thomas conceives of moral action in terms of personal goodness and sin, he will not admit of any idea of ‘collective injustice’ except as it emerges from individual co-operation in injustice: ‘justice’ is a virtue, something that dwells in the soul, and it is applied to actions only secondarily and by analogy, as ‘healthy’ is first applied to a person and secondarily applied to medicines and the like that bring health. A collective does not have a soul, and so it can’t be capable of justice and injustice. When we talk of ‘collective injustice’ what we mean is simply many people co-operating in injustice, or piling up an aggregate of individual injustices.

If I’m right about this, then part of the logic of St Thomas’s categorisation is the thought that there just is no answer to Anscombe’s question, and we must account for the phenomena in other terms.

I cannot decide whether or not this is a satisfying answer.