Questions Answered

What is a just wage; the nature of the common good?

Just Wage

Question:  Can you explain what a just wage is, and how one would determine it?

Answer:   The problem of the just wage is what has been called the “social question.”  In order to address this issue, it is necessary to understand the general Catholic social teaching on economics, which was Leo XIII’s general solution to the competing systems of capitalism and communism arising from the Industrial Revolution.

Liberal, laissez faire capitalism in its various forms has basically followed a deterministic line.  In reaction to the excessive state control exercised over economics in the mercantile system of empire, liberal capitalism emphasized the systematic law of supply and demand, with profit as the only motive.  It adhered to the idea that there should be absolutely no state control of the economy.  The law of the market, if left free to develop on the basis of supply and demand, had its own deterministic laws—much like Darwin’s “survival of the fittest”—which would always produce more money, resulting in more economic prosperity.

Marxism’s reaction to this absolutely “free market,” rather surprisingly, affirmed determinism, but displaced supply and demand, to the means of production itself.  The worker’s capacity to work was the machine, and when materialist economics had progressed far enough, private ownership (indeed, even the proclamation of human individuality) merely stood in the way of materialist progress.  Marx said that there was not justice or injustice in economics.  To proclaim worker’s rights was just an outmoded attempt to cling to the style of economics proclaimed by the capitalists.  For Marx, capitalism was a necessary step in the growth of materialism, but the development of matter, and the means of production, had required that this step now evolve into the next one: matter as all in all.

The capitalist philosophy produced many of the horrors of the factory system of the 19th century.  Workers rightly reacted against being treated like machines through the advent of the labor union movement.  But this took a Marxist turn towards emphasizing that violent class revolution, in which private ownership was destroyed, was the only way to justice in the economic order.

Since economics is an essential part of social justice, late in the 19th century, the Church finally spoke out in the person of Leo XIII, who sought to give some guidance to Catholics concerning these very difficult and important problems.  His basic solutions have been the foundation of all Catholic social justice ethics.  In 1894, Leo XIII issued Rerum Novarum, addressing the above problems.  In reaction to Marxism, he upheld the right to private property, but underlined that it had a social function, which did not just exist for the good of the individual, but must be developed for the common good.  He denied laissez faire capitalism on the part of the liberal state, but affirmed that the civil order was not the economic order. Any interference in the economic order on the part of the state should be only supplementary.  He upheld the duties of workers to employers, but demanded a sufficient salary to ensure a decent way of life for workers.  The salary was not a commodity to be bought and sold, according to supply and demand.  It had both a human and a moral nature.  He condemned the class struggle as unnatural, but recognized that workers could organize, and even strike, in order to defend their rights.  In Quadragesimo Anno, Pius XI reaffirmed all these principles, adding that a just wage should be a family wage.  Later, in Laborem Exercens, John Paul II would point out that the strike is not an attempt to take the means of production away from the owner (who has a right to a legitimate profit), but rather should be an attempt on the part of the workers to convince the owner to do his duty in paying them a just wage.

These principles have been the basis for all the subsequent papal teaching on the subject of the “social question.”  Obviously, the just wage cannot be determined in any exact way without considering the economy of a given country.  However, it should be sufficient to support a family in that particular country at more than a subsistence level of living.  If the wage is too high, the company might be go broke, leaving all the workers unemployed; if too low, the workers are unjustly treated, a form of theft on the company’s part.  Obviously, the workers are morally obliged to do their part in meeting the expectations of their jobs.

The Nature of the Common Good

 Question:  I have heard a lot of discussions on the morality of politics and economics where a term is used, “the common good.”  What is it, and how does one determine it?

Answer:  Human society is a moral union of wills.  Man, as such, demands a social unity in order to perfect himself, as some goods and virtues cannot be realized alone, but only through the efforts of society, especially the virtue of justice.  The nature of society is determined in relationship to the various powers of the human soul which are fulfilled by this societal unity.

Thomas Aquinas explains that: “Every individual person is referred to the whole community as a part to a whole.” (Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, II-II, 64, 2, ad corp.)  There have been several opinions about the nature of this social union.  Marxists and totalitarians generally hold that it is essential to man in that there is no act a human being performs which is apart from the social character.   The social contractors of the 18th Century, Hobbes and Rousseau, held (for different reasons) that this “social character” is purely incidental.  Man can live without society, only needing society in extreme emergencies.  This latter opinion is more common in modern western democracies.

The Church, agreeing with Aquinas, has always upheld a third opinion:  man’s social nature may be accidental, but not incidental.  Men may have performed acts apart from the group, but the group is necessary to pursue some necessary moral goods.  This social character is what is known in more contemporary circles as “solidarity.”

The goods for which solidarity is necessary are generally referred to as the “common good.”  Since they rise above the level of only individual good, they cannot be considered as merely an individual good, or even the sum total of the greatest good for the greatest number of individuals.  The common good of the state, for example, is domestic good and tranquility.  The common good of the family is peace and material well-being, necessary in living a life of virtue.  The common good of the Church is heaven.

Once the common good of a given society is identified, then this determines the kind of order needed to attain it, i.e., the social structure and its chosen level of authority.  Therefore, it includes both the end to which it was created, and the order to accomplish that end in a given community.  According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, it has three essential elements:  “respect for the person as such,” which includes their inalienable rights (CCC 1907); the “social well-being and development of the group itself” (CCC 1908); and, “peace— the stability and security of a just order” (CCC 1909).

One will note that there are certain necessary requirements for a “common good” to successfully bind the members of a society.  It requires members to participate in order for the society to attain its purpose.  Both its reason for being, and the order to achieve that goal, must be present in the society.  One who seeks to pursue a common good but denies the necessity of authority, or confuses the kind of authority demanded by the given common good—democracy in the family, for instance, or husband-wife relationship in the state, or monarchy involved in the Church—cannot attain the purpose of the society.  Both the end, and the order, must also be just and in accordance to the objective moral law.  When one sacrifices the end to achieve order, one has tyranny. When one sacrifices order to achieve the end, one has chaos.  The basis of this objective moral law is human nature, body and soul.  “The common good is always oriented towards the progress of the person: ‘The order of things must be subordinate to the order of persons, and not the other way around’” (CCC, 1911).

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avatar About Fr. Brian Mullady, OP

Fr. Brian T. Mullady, OP, entered the Dominican Order in 1966 and was ordained in 1972. He has been a parish priest, high school teacher, retreat master, mission preacher, and university professor. He has had seven series on EWTN and is the author of two books and numerous articles, including his regular column in HPR, "Questions Answered".

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Fr. Brian T. Mullady, O.P.
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  1. avatar John P. Van der Zalm says:

    Where in Scripture can I find direct reference to homosexuality?
    Unfortunately, in Ontario we are being flooded with pro homosexual info into our Catholic education system.
    Thank you, John van der Zalm

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