August 2012

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Be Good out of the Goodness of the Virtues

by Carmine Gorga

Be good out of the goodness of the virtues, not out of the fickle goodness of the heart.

Be humble

Be good, but be humble. Do not boast within yourself or with others about how good you are. Remember that only God is good. We will never be able to be perfectly good; we can only try to be as good as we can.

Is God good?

Of course God is good. He, she, it cannot be otherwise, otherwise he would be an evil prankster, since all the cards are on his side: He knows the present and the past as well as the future.

But God is also just; he must be just, otherwise he would be either a fool or a buffoon.

Here follows a simple rule, be doubly humble: Do not judge God.

Be triply humble

In relation to yourself, be triply humble: You do not know God (and you will never know him, except through the goodness of your heart. God, as the mystics know, wants nothing else of you). You do not know the other person, toward whom you are expected to be good. And if you are really humble, you have to admit that you do not really know yourself either.

It is for all the uncertainties that surround our existence that we need the sustenance of the virtues—as we will see, all the virtues.

The virtues

The cardinal virtues, the virtues around which the whole of human life revolves, as the classical antiquity discovered, are prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude. To the cardinal virtues we need to add the three intellectual virtues, namely wisdom, science, and understanding. The list is crowned by the three theological virtues, namely hope, faith, and, last but most, love.

There are no more virtues.

The confusion as to the number of the virtues arises from the inner structure of the virtues. Each virtue is a mountain peak; each virtue is surrounded by a well linked series of ascending and descending hills; but these are ancillary, supporting virtues (that descend into vices).

How can we be good?

It is really this simple to be good: We need to exercise all the virtues. The reward is immense. As St. Thomas Aquinas pointed out, “Virtue is the peak of power”. The deeper we respect the dictates of each virtue, the more powerful we feel and indeed we become. We are in control; we do not allow outside events or even other people to push us around.

The unity of the virtues

The unity of the virtues is such that one cannot truly exercise one virtue without assistance from them all. Pick a virtue, any virtue, and observe it in its depth. Adam Smith reduced the virtues to one, prudence. What happens when prudence is exercised by itself, as if it were the first and last word, as if it were an absolute?

Then you would have no answer to the question: How much prudence is necessary? The sky would be the limit; but then, as a consequence of exercising this virtue, you would foster greed. This is not a virtue, but a fall from a virtuous action.

To be prudent in the right measure, you need to be just. You cannot take everything for yourself; you need to give the other person his due.

There are many reasons to be just. Here is the most compelling one. You need to be just to assure for yourself a tranquil life. Injustice breeds revenge—you can stave off revenge for a while committing even greater injustice by protecting your unjust action with force and even violence. But this negative chain of protection is eventually going to be broken and you or your descendants are likely to pay dearly.

To be prudent in the right measure, you need to be assisted, not only by justice, but also by temperance. From greed you easily slide into hoarding, whereby you no longer hurt just yourself, but other human beings as well. As it can be easily demonstrated, from hoarding arise poverty, inflation, and lack of economic growth.

To be prudent in the right measure, you need to be assisted, not only by justice and by temperance. You also need courage. What does it mean to be brave? To be brave means many things. To be brave in the economic world, for instance, means making the right investment decision at the right time; it means investing billions of dollars without assurances of a safe return on the investment; it means hiring people who have limited experience, but tremendous potential. With brave “Just In Time” practices, Japanese firms achieved great savings and beat the competition worldwide.

It is easy to see that, to be prudent, one ultimately needs full assistance from the three intellectual virtues of knowledge, science and understanding as well.

The pivotal role of justice

One can go through the many necessary iterations of this chain of causation and discover always new, and perhaps unsuspected, wrinkles. Here I would like to focus on the pivotal role of justice in relation to prudence.

In order to be just, you need to be prudent and even brave. You especially need assistance from knowledge, science, and understanding. You need to know that the virtue of justice has been investigated to extraordinary depth from the ancient Greeks to the most modern of scholars. Just pick up any catalogue of publications in political science and you are likely to be buried under an avalanche of books extolling the advantages that even the most deficient system of political democracy has over any of its competitive autocratic systems. And why are the claims of political scientists mostly validated in the field? The fundamental reason is that democracy has explored the theoretical limits of political justice. The search for improvements in democratic practices has not ended and it will never end. For a large variety of reasons, I would like to recommend the work of my friend and colleague, Dr. Peter J. Bearse, for an exploration into the depths still to plumb for political justice. See especially his 2012 Amazon ebook titled A NEW AMERICAN REVOLUTION: How "We the People" can truly "take back" our government. 

The abandonment of the economic justice project

Up to Adam Smith, it was well understood that political justice is empty without economic justice. The understanding of this indivisible union has been lost to civilization, and we see the destructive effects growing more dismal at every turn of the business cycle. The dismemberment of the body politic cannot be permitted to proceed any further. The economic justice project must be restored to its full splendor.

In order to recover the economic justice project, we need to call for assistance from knowledge, science, and understanding.

The knowledge of economic justice is well preserved in the annals of the economic history of the world. I have researched only a minute part of it, and what I have found is astoundingly encouraging. If we were to recover only a part of the experience, the modern world would be in much better shape. Start from Moses and end with the Islamic world of Muhammad Yunus, the 2006 Nobel laureate in economics. The rear guard fight against usury is fought in the Islamic world and fought intelligently through microfinancing and equity investments.

Nor is economic justice a set of scatter brain propositions. The whole structure of economic justice hangs around three fundamental principles of participative, distributive, and commutative justice. Since these principles are universal, meaning that they ought to be applied every time, everywhere, and in every case, we can succinctly say that economic justice constitutes a science.

And the science is neither cold nor stagnant. Once you add a touch of understanding to the entire structure, you realize that economic justice is the mirror image of the description of the economic process: The economic process is the integration of production of real wealth (= participative justice), distribution of ownership rights (= distributive justice), and consumption or exchange of financial instruments (= commutative justice).

The reason why the study of economic justice is essential is that it provides the rudder to economic policy.

A link to a higher order of understanding

Nor is the understanding of economic justice restricted to the understanding of the pedestrian world of economics alone. Once you insert the discussion into the issue of the indivisibility of the practice of the virtues, the recovery of the economic justice project through the integral application of all the virtues organically links us up with the world of hope, faith, and love.

You cannot have justice without the hope that the world of justice does indeed yield better fruits than the world of injustice. And the first fruit to hope for is peace. As Pope Paul V stressed in 1972, work for justice if you want peace.

But there is no assurance. There is no assurance, especially in the world of economics, especially in the modern world. So you must march forward hoping that peace will follow.

Peace will indeed follow if you have faith in the better instincts of human nature. If you do not keep this faith very much alive, human nature is such that “bad” people, the wicked people singled out in the bible, will overwhelm you. Even if their power is minuscule power, they can hoodwink the majority of the people and thus enslave you. There is a great deal of evidence, unfortunately, that the power of the wicked is far from slight.

So you need to persist among the worst odds, and if you keep faith in your heart you will eventually prevail. That has traditionally been the history of the world. Just look at the positive aspects of the French revolution; look at Gandhi; look at Martin Luther King. They won.

And you will surely win if you march with love in your heart, love especially for your enemies. Without love, all your efforts to be just, all your efforts to have hope, all your efforts to have faith will all be in vain.

Love wins all. Not in some distant future. Not in some after life. Love wins your heart now and gives you peace.

Did we lose our way along the way? Did we start talking about prudence and ended up talking about justice? No, not really. To be really, truly prudent, you truly, deeply have to love yourself—and the person next to you.

Mr. Gorga would like to acknowledge the invaluable editorial assistance received from Peter J. Bearse and David S. Wise.

Carmine Gorga, a former Fulbright Scholar, is president of The Somist Institute, a research organization in Gloucester, Mass. Through The Economic Process, To My Polis, and numerous other publications in economic theory and policy, he has transformed economics from a linear to a relational discipline. Dr. Gorga blogs at and