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The Priority of Personal Goods and the Lack of Ethical Virtues: A Looking at Current Brazilian Politics

The Priority of Personal Goods and the Lack of Ethical Virtues: A Looking at Current Brazilian Politics


Alexandre A. Martins, MI


I begin this short text by suggesting that most Brazilian politicians should go back school and take some classes on Aquinas’ and Aristotle’s accounts on ethics and politics, especially regarding the virtue of justice and the common good of the political society. The current socio-political situation in Brazil has shown, through innumerous scandals of corruption and negligence in basic actions to address predictable issues (lack of usable water in some big cities, e.g. São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, and Belo Horizonte), how the political arena has become a public space to seek for personal goods that make the common good an instrument to increase the satisfaction of individuals who have political and economic power. How can we address this issue that affects all people who are members of the political society, especially those who are poor and marginalized? Honestly, I do not know the answer. Moreover, the complexity of Brazilian society requires a deep analysis that cannot only touch political issues, but also the formation of this country, its diversity, international relations, and some cultural aspects of its people. However, I believe that Aquinas’s ethics and politics can offer us some light to try to understand what is lacking in Brazilian politicians.

Aquinas’s ethics and politics are primarily grounded on Aristotle’s philosophical foundations of the human being as a political animal by nature and the centrality of civic social virtues. But he goes beyond his master by adding new foundations to his account in which he also provides a natural law to ground the human inclination to participate in the common good and presents all cardinal virtues oriented toward civic life (and not only justice, as Aristotle affirms). According to a Notre Dame professor on political sciences, Mary M. Keys, Aquinas’s account provides a synthesis of the conflict between particular and common goods that is the opposite of the division found in contemporary political theories. These theories tend to prioritize the individual or the community (cf. Aquinas, Aristotle, and the Promise of the Common Good, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006). In the Brazilian case, it has become explicit that the majority of its politicians have forgotten this synthesis. The scandals of corruption and negligence in caring for the public good are a proof that the private good became an end into itself. Consequently, kickbacks, bribery, and suspected favors and awards involving public money became a common mechanism to move public administration.

Aquinas’s account aims to do justice in two dimensions: the common and the good. These dimensions are united and lead personal actions in a civic society. According to Aquinas, an ethics of virtues is essential for keeping the social order in the way of justice because it permits a healthy relationship between personal and common goods. Therefore, he supports social political virtues that are grounded in natural law theory, and oriented toward the happiness of citizens, and open to transpolitical happiness as well.

The concept of the common good is central in Aquinas’s thought. He says that human beings by nature desire to participate in the common good in a fair society. He affirms that, for example, in his commentary to Aristotle’s Politics: “There is in all human beings a certain natural impulse toward the political community, as also toward the virtues” (Comm. Pol I. 1 n. 40). A governor has to govern its city in a way that all citizens can participate in the common good.  The promotion of the common good and the participation of citizens in the political community are the criterion to use when judging the quality of a governor (Cf. De Regno, Chapter XVI). Aquinas recognizes the importance of private goods for human happiness, but these goods must strengthen the common good. In other words, private goods must be sought in order to promote the common good. The preservation and the promotion of the common good of the political society is the criterion for any citizen to decide what private good he/she must seek. In addition, the common good leads the ruler’s decisions toward the happiness of the social/civic community.

There is a dialectal and tense relationship between the private and the common goods. This leads Aquinas to a reflection about the human will and to present cardinal virtues as measuring and mediating between these goods. He says: “A man’s will is not right in willing a particular good unless he refer it to the common good as an end: since even the natural appetite of each part is ordained to the common good of the whole” (Summa Theologiae I-II, q. 19, a.10). The personal good will certainly be realized in a society where one (as well as all citizens) participates in the common good.

Aquinas affirms that the human being has a natural inclination to ethical virtues in accord with natural law. Hence, virtues are the vehicle to balance the tension between the common good and the human will for private goods. The harmony between the particular and the common depends on exercising virtues that will keep personal human actions in the right way to contribute to the common good of the civic community (Cf. ST II-II q. 6, a. 21). Aquinas expands Aristotle’s vision of cardinal virtues in their role in seeking for the civic common good. Cardinal virtues are human virtues that are also political virtues because of the political nature of the human being. Therefore, cardinal virtues make possible this harmony in which the one who seeks for the good of many, also seeks his own good. In other words, individual good is not possible without the common good. Because the individual is a member of a political community, he must consider his good by being prudent about the goal of the many, that is, the particular good is considered in the functioning of the common good of the political community (Cf. ST I-II, 47, 10; II-II 50, 1-4).

Returning to the political context of Brazilian society, all scandals have shown that the common good and the happiness of Brazilian civic society are not the end that will lead to actions and decisions in the political arena. Scandals of corruption, such as the one involving the petrol state company, Petrobras, show the lack of virtues mediating decisions that must have as their end the happiness of civic society. Consequently, personal goods, such as diverting millions of public money from a public work to a personal account in an illegal transaction between private and public organizations, become priority in public decisions. Remembering Aquinas argument that all human action has a social impact (that differ in degree) and not only individual consequences because of the social and civic nature of human beings, therefore, all actions are ordered to the good or the evil of another person or/and the community (Cf. ST I-SS, 21, 3 ad. 1,3), the Brazilian people suffer the impact of these corrupted political actions, especially those who are at the bottom of the civic society.  This impact is visible in daily life through: raising taxes, inflation, high price of gasoline, unemployment, difficulty in accessing fresh water and so forth. The false happiness of a few people (as a result of the priority of private goods and the lack of virtue) generates insecurity and instability in an entire nation.