Aquinas and the Bonum Commune

Zachary Taylor


The concept of the redistributive welfare state traditionally finds its philosophical roots in the kind of political liberalism popularized by John Rawls in the twentieth century. One need notlook far back into the history of philosophy to find ample material that supports or refutes redistributive welfare policy in ethical terms. Here, I nevertheless draw upon thirteenth century Dominican friar and Church Doctor Thomas Aquinas to contend that the moral imperative of the bonum commune, or common  good, requires that the state redistribute property to those who suffer from material deprivation.

I use Thomas primarily because Thomistic philosophy has considerably influenced Catholic social doctrine. Thomas explicitly confronts the tension between redistributive efforts made for the bonum commune and the ethics behind the liberal conception of private property. While he did not witness the participation of free and equal citizens in a pluralistic and democratic political system or the distribution of wealth in a bureaucratic welfare, he nevertheless understood that the moral imperative of the bonum commune necessarily strained opportunities to exercise moral virtue and defend private property. Despite this clash of philosophical principles, he never wavers in his affirmation of the moral imperative of the bonum commune. Modern Catholic social encyclicals, all of which draw upon Thomas, also emphasize the sacrosanctity of the bonum commune and the role the state plays in its promotion. The moral imperative associated with the bonum commune requires redistributive efforts on behalf of the state whenever material deprivation threatens the welfare of the most vulnerable in society.

I. The Bonum Commune and Redistribution

The Thomistic conception of the bonum commune provides us with fertile material to justify the redistributive welfare state. Like Thomas, I draw upon Aristotle for my interpretation of the bonum commune as a final end (1). The bonum commune is not merely “common” by type but rather by a shared sense of a final cause (2). The final end of political society is synonymous with the final end of the individual, namely beatitudo, or perfect bliss, with God (3). While perfect bliss with God achieved by means of virtuous behavior may be difficult to achieve, Thomas notes that the benefits of beatitudo are enjoyed here on earth (4). Beatitudo for political society is not a lofty ideal. In fact, “every law is ordered” to protect the bonum commune with beatitudo in mind (5). The bonum commune, when properly understood as an end, is then only possible when no human persons suffer from material need at the very least. If there is perfect bliss with the divine creator of the universe, millions of people do not die from poverty-related hardship every year. Billions do not live on less than two dollars every day. As I will soon make clear with reference to capabilities, material deprivation constitutes one of the most severe threatsto the Thomistic conception of bonum commune.

The state plays a critical role in pursuit of societal beatitudo. Because political society is an a priori requirement for the cultivation of the virtues needed for individuals to pursue perfect bliss with God, the state has a duty to its citizens to not only protect but to promote the bonum commune. Governments and rulers should implement policy measures that advance the bona vita of its citizens in such a way as to make suitable the attainment of happiness with God (6). Whenever there is material need, the state must address material deprivation because it severely inhibits poor individuals’ pursuit of their own bona vita and subsequent beatitudo. When one suffers chronic malnourishment or lives paycheck to paycheck, one cannot pursue the bona vita. Material deprivation consequently thwarts basic capabilities like bodily health and practical reason (7). The state must respond, but how? Once more, Thomas provides the intellectual framework needed to properly determine how the state should combat material need.

In his account of the virtue of justice, which he claims “outshines the other moral virtues,” Thomas outlines two major distinctions: iustitia legalis or legal justice and iustitia particularis or particular justice, and iustitia distributiva or distributive justice and iustitia commutativa or commutative justice (8). Iustitia legalis and iustitia distributiva help inform our response to how the state should promote the bonum commune of political society. First and foremost, iustitia legalis reaffirms my previous assertion that the state should protect and promote the common welfare of ociety because the bonum commune is its “proper object" (9). The state must therefore seek to implement laws that meet the standard imposed by iustitia legalis. In addition to other aims, public policy should at the very least attempt to eliminate material need and enhance citizens’ capability to pursue beatitudo. Secondly, iustitia distributiva clarifies how to distribute resources to citizens of political society (10). Aquinas first tells us that “distribution is always the office of a ruler [or the state]" (11). Second, the distribution of resources corresponds to what citizens deserve. Indigents then deserve resources that will lift them out of material deprivation (12). Finally, Thomas relates iustitia distributiva to a radical conception of common property that clarifies how the state should further combat material need.

For Thomas, God is the proper “owner” of all resources and human persons are merely permitted dominion over them. This “immediately establishes the appropriate limits of human stewardship" (13). The Earth’s resources are therefore for all persons to use. In addition, “the nature of property is fundamentally social" (14). No one is entitled to distribute property in self-interest but “must do so in the interests of all, so that she is ready to share them with others in case of necessity" (15). Here we arrive at Thomas’s most radical claim in his discussion of iustitia distributiva. “In the case of necessity,” Thomas asserts, “sunt omnia communia,” all things are common. When a person “cannot be helped in any other way, then a person may justifiably supply her own needs out of another’s property. In such a case there is . . . no theft or robbery" (16). The material deprivation of the poor and desire for the bonum commune thus supersedes claims to private property. “Goods held in superabundance” by those with more resources than they reasonably need “should be used for the maintenance of the poor" (17). What counts as “superabundance” needs to be determined, but I will not attempt a definition here. The important point is that resources in excess must be used to combat poverty. If all property is common, the state may collect the private property of individuals via taxation to use for redistributive purposes.

I contend that this formulation of justice and its clear moral imperative adequately justifies redistributive efforts undertaken by the state in order to promote the bonum commune. While Thomas lived long before the realization of a true welfare state, he nevertheless postulates that the purpose of taxation within the sociopolitical context of medieval Europe is to uphold the bonum commune (18). I contend that irrespective of whether one can “translate” Thomas’s evident support of redistributive taxation found in the Summa and De Regno into modern economic terms, his conception of the bonum commune in fact requires redistributive efforts on behalf of the state. If we assume that an optimally efficient redistributive tax policy reduces material deprivation, then the failure to implement such a policy denies low-income citizens the ability to search for beatitudo with God. This, in turn, inhibits political society’s pursuit of its ultimate end: the bonum commune. We must use practical wisdom to determine which tax policies most effectively cut down material deprivation through redistributive welfare.

II. Tension With Exercise of Virtue

I must respond to the objection that I have distorted the ideas of Thomas in my interpretation of his conception of the bonum commune. If I have interpreted Thomas’s discussion of justice erroneously, then I cannot use his conception of the bonum commune to support my defense of state redistribution of property. Paul Weithman contends that Thomas “cannot be pressed into service” to justify redistributive efforts on behalf of the state (19). He cites what he claims represents Thomas’s own prioritization of the “development and exercise of virtues,” which constitute one of the fundamental purposes of political society (20). When the state implements a tax rate enforced by coercion, it “restricts citizens’ opportunities to exercise . . . the virtues" (21). I contend that Weithman’s objection strikes at a critical tension prompted by the moral imperative of the bonum commune. Rather than warping Thomas’s discussion of justice, my interpretation of the bonum commune in the Summa illuminates the complex dynamic between communal responsibility and self-expression. Should political society governed by the state only “allow ample scope for the development and exercise of the virtues” or also to force citizens to aid the poor with their superabundance?

Prima facie, Weithman’s assertion that the welfare state restricts the right to exercise virtue seems reasonable. Thomas makes it clear that to offer what one has in superabundance is an act of virtue (22). In addition, “to succor the needy, which is a work of mercy,” he claims, “and to be open-handedly beneficent, which is a work of liberality, come back in a sense to justice" (23). Finally, in order to determine whom one must help requires the benefactor to exercise a considerable amount of practical wisdom (24). To use what one has in excess for the maintenance of the poor therefore seems toinvolve an interconnected web of virtuous action one would not want to restrict. When the state coercively collects taxes from those with superabundance, they do in fact seem to eliminate opportunities to exercise a myriad of virtues. At the very least, tax dollars efficiently spent decrease chances people have to donate money to poor individuals, charitable foundations, and food banks with discretion.

Thomas himself seems to have confronted the issue between the responsibilities associated with communal responsibility and self-expression. He walks a delicate line between support for wholesale communitarianism and fierce individualism. Like Thomas, I should like to balance concern for the individual and her pursuit of beatitudo with concern for the welfare of all people in society.

While we certainly do not want to abandon the cultivation of the virtues, we cannot elevate their purpose over and above that of the bonum commune. A person is ordained to the service of the whole community, ipse totus homo ordinatur ut ad finem ad totam communitatem, because political society is an a priori requirement for the cultivation of the virtues in the first place (25). Furthermore, the bonum commune transcends the individual bonum of any one person. If the bonum commune is in fact an end synonymous with beatitudo with God, as I have demonstrated earlier, and it is up to society to promote the bonum commune, as Thomas asserts, then it must not conflict with the bonum units personae (26). In response to a concerned citizen who objects to redistributive welfare policy on account of the fact that it eliminates opportunities for her to cultivate the virtues, one need only cite that her individual pursuit is one in the same with that of society. The redistribution of property, then, cannot truly inhibit her search for perfect bliss with God.

Perhaps most importantly, redistributive efforts do not prohibit the exercise of the virtues if a maximally efficient welfare state can completely eliminate all opportunities to help those who suffer from systemic oppression (27). It seems evident that property redistribution can do little to eliminate racial prejudices in the criminal justice system or promote equality for citizens of all sexual orientations. A society without those who are economically poor will still have citizens whom those with a superabundance of time, skills, or other resources can help and therefore cultivate justice, practical wisdom, mercy, and liberality. In fact, a maximally efficient redistributive welfare state would free citizens to cultivate virtues in previously unpopular or potentially more intimate ways that ultimately promote the bonum commune and are no less important.

To conclude, I wish to address under what circumstances redistributive efforts can and should take place with respect to virtuous action. When citizens with superabundance refuse to offer what they have to the poor and therefore perpetuate poverty, a Thomistic conception of the bonum commune necessarily requires the state to redistribute property to those in need. Thomas does not cling to the individual pursuit of beatitudo when the realities of material deprivation threaten the bonum commune. Nor do I.

While I think it is worthwhile to criticize social institutions that fail to “be structured in such a way that virtuous activity is for the most part effective,” I contend that Thomas’s conception of the bonum commune provides us with ample material to criticize more than that (28). In an ideal world, individual persons with superabundance would realize the ultimate human end and habitually cultivate virtues that help both themselves and their communities. However, this is not the case. The moral imperative of the bonum commune demands that we devise efficient and resourceful methods to ensure that the material needs of all people are sufficiently met.

III. Tension With Private Property

I now must turn to the tension between common property as prescribed by the moral imperative of the bonum commune and private property in order to justify the preeminence of the former when there is material deprivation.

Thomas appreciates the differences between these two conceptions of property – he refers to common ownership as dominium and private ownership as proprietas – yet nevertheless contests that in the case of necessity all resources are common. Necessity, therefore, establishes the moral priority of property in common. This moral priority, it should be noted, in no way eliminates claims on private property. Like Thomas, I defend the utility of private property and emphasize “the motivational value of private ownership and its function as a means of social coordination" (29). Private property enshrined in law offers incentives, promotes the relatively peaceful trade of resources, and allows for otherwise impossible market interactions that contribute to economic prosperity. In addition, private property secures individual freedom and social mobility. I do, however, subordinate individuals’ claims to private property to the bonum commune when I advocate for redistributive tax policy. This requires further clarification and explanation. The Entitlement Theory espoused by Robert Nozick famously condemns redistributive activities conducted by the state and upholds private claims on property justly acquired as sacrosanct. For Nozick, “taxation . . . is on par with forced labor" (30). When the state taxes its citizens and redistributes the revenues it collects to those who desperately need assistance, it practices economic enslavement. Nozick has no conception of the bonum commune. In Anarchy, State, and Utopia he claims, “[A] right to life is not a right to whatever one needs to live; other people may have rights over [what one needs to live] . . . at most, a right to life would be a right to have or strive for whatever one needs to live, provided  that  having  it  does  not  violate  anyone  else’s  rights" (31). He would denounce the Thomistic notion that extreme cases of need make all property common, for this would eliminate private claims on property and therefore put individuals’ property at risk of seizure by those who need it more than its owners. As per Nozick, a malnourished homeless person who steals food from a street vendor commits a human rights violation. This, I simply cannot accept.

The moral prioritization of property in common when material deprivation is at play is an essential component of the bonum commune, for it values human life above all else. Nozick refuses to accept that “all exclusionary property claims remain secondary to the prior moral claims of all [people] to the means of their subsistence" (32). Often, extreme poverty can be fatal. I contend that the life prospects of the poor are far more important that any private claims on resources. As Grotius puts it, “the case of extreme necessity seems to form an exception” to the “human laws” of property. Property in common “must be revived" (33). In addition, we are the ones who steal when we hold back resources essential to human life from those who really need them. “It is the bread of the poor which you hold back,” Thomas says when he quotes Ambrose (34). Finally, the individual’s pursuit of beatitude is not drastically inhibited when the state collects taxes from her privately held fortune. On the other hand, the societal pursuit of beatitudo is very much threatened by severe economic poverty. If the bonum commune is in fact our ultimate end, then we must always keep this at the forefront of discussions about political philosophy and policy formation. The redistribution of property held in common on account of material need impels political society toward its ultimate end. It therefore takes precedence over other principles that hinder our pursuit of that end.


Thanks for reading. Check out Confronting the Agamemnon Problem 


Aquinas, Thomas. De Regno Ad Regem Cypri. Edited by I. T. Eschmann. Translated by Gerald B. Phelan. Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, 1949.

Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Theologiae. Translated by Thomas Charles. O'Brien. London: Blackfriars, 1976.

DeYoung, Rebecca Konyndyk, Colleen McCluskey, and Christina Van Dyke. Aquinas's Ethics: Metaphysical Foundations, Moral Theory, and Theological Context. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2009.

Finn, Daniel K. "Private Property, Self-Regulation, and Just Price: A Response to Philip Booth and Samuel Gregg." Journal of Markets and Morality 15, no. 2 (2012): 325-28. Accessed April 10, 2015.

Finnis, John. Aquinas Moral, Political, and Legal Theory. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Gilby, Thomas. The Political Thought of Thomas Aquinas. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958.

Goyette, John. "On the Transcendence of the Political Common Good." The National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly 13, no. 1 (2013): 133-55. Accessed April 10, 2015.

Grotius, Hugo. De Jure Belli Ac Pacis. Translated by A. C. Campbell. New York: M. W. Dunne, 1901.

John XXIII. Pacem in Terris [Encyclical Letter on Establishing Universal Peace in Truth, Justice, Charity, and Liberty]. Accessed April 10, 2015.

John Paul II. Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, [Encyclical Letter for the Twentieth Anniversary of Populorum Progressio]. Accessed April 10, 2015.

Kenworthy, Lane. "Do Social-Welfare Policies Reduce Poverty? A Cross-National Assessment." Social Forces 77, no. 3 (1999): 1119-139. Accessed April 10, 2015. doi:10.2307/3005973.

Leo XIII. Rerum Novarum [Encyclical Letter on Capital and Labor]. Accessed April 10, 2015.

Lustig, B. Andrew. "Natural Law, Property, and Justice: The General Justification of Property in John Locke." The Journal of Religious Ethics 19, no. 1 (April 01, 1991): 119-49. Accessed April 10, 2015. JSTOR.

Lustig, B. Andrew. "Property, Justice, and the Common Good: A Response to Paul J. Weithman." The Journal of Religious Ethics 21, no. 1 (April 01, 1993): 181-87. Accessed April 10, 2015. JSTOR.

Nussbaum, Martha. Creating Capabilities: The Human Development Approach. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2011.

Nozick, Robert. Anarchy, State, and Utopia. New York: Basic Books, 1974.

Paul VI. Populorum Progressio [Encyclical Letter on the Development of Peoples]. Accessed April 10, 2015.

Pius XI. Divini Redemptoris [Encyclical Letter on Atheistic Communism]. Accessed April 10, 2015.

United States Catholic Bishops. Economic Justice for All: Pastoral Letter on Catholic Social Teaching and the U.S. Economy. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Catholic Conference, 1986.

Weithman, Paul J. "Natural Law, Property, and Redistribution." The Journal of Religious Ethics 21, no. 1 (April 01, 1993): 165-80. Accessed April 10, 2015. JSTOR.


[1] Summa Theologiae I-II.8.1. Here after, ST.

[2] ST I-II.90.2.

[3] ST I.26.3., De Regno 15.107.

[4] ST I.69.2

[5] ST I-II.90.2.

[6] De Regno 16.115.

[7]Martha Nussbaum, Creating Capabilities: The Human Development Approach (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2011), 33-34.

[8] ST II-II.58.12., II-II.58.6-7., II-II.61.1.

[9] ST II-II.58.6.

[10] ST II-II.61.1.

[11] Ibid.

[12] ST II-II.61.2.

[13] ST II-II.66.2., B. Andrew Lustig, “Natural Law, Property, and Justice: The General Justification of Property in John Locke," The Journal of Religious Ethics 19, no. 1 (April 01, 1991): accessed April 10, 2015. 123.

[14] Lustig, “Natural Law, Property, and Justice,” 123.

[15] ST II-II.66.2.

[16] ST II-II.66.7.

[17] Ibid.

[18] John Finnis, Aquinas Moral, Political, and Legal Theory (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998) 195., ST II-II.66.8., Lustig, “Natural Law, Property, and Justice,” 184.

[19] Paul J. Weithman, “Natural Law, Property, and Redistribution,” The Journal of Religious Ethics 21, no. 1 (April 01, 1993): accessed April 10, 2015. 177.

[20] Ibid., 172.

[21] Ibid., 174.

[22] ST II-II.32.5.

[23] ST II-II.58.11.

[24] Weithman, “Natural Law, Property, and Redistribution,” 173.

[25] ST II-II.65.1.

[26] De Regno 15.107. Here, I know, I depart from Thomas in some sense. For him, the bonum commune surpasses the individual bonum unius personae (ST II-II.58.12). I cannot support this claim as I feel it erroneously subordinates the pursuit of the individual toward beatitudo to the pursuit of the community.  

[27] B. Andrew Lustig, “Property, Justice, and the Common Good: A Response to Paul J. Weithman,” The Journal of Religious Ethics 21, no. 1 (April 01, 1993): accessed April 10, 2015. 185.

[28] Weithman, “Natural Law, Property, and Redistribution,” 177.

[29] Lustig, “Natural Law, Property, and Justice,” 126.

[30] Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia (New York: Basic Books, 1974), 169.

[31] Ibid., 179. My emphasis.

[32] Lustig, “Natural Law, Property, and Justice,” 140.

[33]Hugo Grotius, De Jure Belli Ac Pacis, trans. by A. C. Campbell (New York: M. W. Dunne, 1901), 2.2.6.

[34] ST II-II.66.7.

[35] John XXIII, Pacem in Terris [Encyclical Letter on Establishing Universal Peace in Truth, Justice, Charity, and Liberty], sec. 55.

[36] Pius XI, Divini Redemptoris [Encyclical Letter on Atheistic Communism], sec. 51.

[37] Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum [Encyclical Letter on Capital and Labor], sec. 32.

[38] John XXIII, Pacem in Terris, sec. 54. My emphasis.

[39] United States Catholic Bishops, Economic Justice for All [Pastoral Letter on Catholic Social Teaching and the U.S. Economy], sec. 115.

[40] Paul VI, Populorum Progressio [Encyclical Letter on the Development of Peoples], sec. 23.

[41] John Paul II, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, [Encyclical Letter for the Twentieth Anniversary of Populorum Progressio], sec. 42.