Defunding the Common Good

The Role of the Police in a Just Society

Samuel Stone

The last few weeks have seen many people calling to defund the police. These calls are colored with a variety of meanings, but one central idea is found in each iteration: the police in America are over funded and the money saved by measures to defund the police can go back into the community and help areas that are more deserving. Much of this seems tied to the idea that the force the police represent is inherently wrong. Many claim societal problems can be better handled without force and compulsion. This has called into question the role of police in society. Are they necessary and if so why? Thomas Aquinas’ Treatise on Law offers guidance on this question. This section of the Summa Theologiae provides Aquinas’ account of law and the necessity of punishment in relation to the law. Police find themselves as the front line of the coercive power of the law. This allows them to protect the common good and work towards the betterment of society. According to Aquinas, without good, just policing in a community, the political order falls apart and the common good is lost. 

Thomas Aquinas begins his explanation of law by delineating its four essential characteristics. “Law,” Aquinas explains, is an ordinance of reason for the common good, made by one who is in charge of the community, and promulgated.” While this may seem like a very straightforward definition of law, Aquinas’ earlier mention of punishment raises complications. In a brief reply to an objection, Aquinas asserts that law is meant for the common good which, in part, means leading the people toward virtue. This fits perfectly with law being ordered toward the common good. Aquinas continues to explain that those who enact law must have a “coercive power.” To put it more clearly, lawmakers must be able to punish offenders. Aquinas’ introduction of punishment brings up its relation to the law. Is punishment an implicit characteristic of law that, as a part of its being, is ordered toward the common good or does it have some other relation to law?

It is interesting to note that Aquinas introduces the idea of punishment in the article discussing who makes the law, and within this ties punishment to virtue. Aquinas brings up the discussion in response to an objection that claims every man is capable of leading another to virtue and as such every man can make law. The important part of the response is how the power to punish is tied to making men virtuous. According to Aquinas, the lawmaker or ruler is the only one who possesses this power. As such, he alone is capable of leading men to virtue. Indeed, leading men to virtue appears to be the main function of punishment. Aquinas notes that the law orders men toward the common good, and as such ordering men toward common good is a means of ordering them toward virtue. 

Looking at the different types of laws and their particular relations towards punishment enlightens one’s understanding of the nature of punishment. This is in large part because we have always lived under human law and as such have the most familiarity to it. Aquinas takes up the topic of human law specifically in Question 95 and begins with an examination of the necessity of human law. In the body of Question 95 Aquinas writes, “Man has a natural aptitude for virtue.” He continues to explain that only through discipline does one achieve perfect virtue. In other words, man would never reach his most complete state unless a force compelled him towards said state. He would be able to participate in this virtue but would remain unable to perfect it. Aquinas continues by explaining that many men can be compelled towards virtue by their parents. Unfortunately, not all parents can compel their children towards virtue, thus human law becomes necessary for human flourishing. It is important to examine how he explains the need for human law here. Aquinas explains that some men “are impudent and prone to the vices.” He continues to explain that “force and fear” are the only means of preventing these men from evil. Not only does this prevent such men from vicious acts, it can also lead them toward virtue. From this, it is clear that law must contain some sort of punishment in order to instill the fear necessary to compel men towards the good. It would seem, therefore, that human law must contain within it some force and punishment. This punishment does not exist for its own sake, but only in relation to the common good. 

The relation between punishment and the common good seems to be essential in regard to human law. Law’s purpose is to get people used to acting in accord with virtue and perhaps even turn souls toward virtue. Aquinas develops this as he writes that “every law is ordered toward the common welfare of men, and this is how it gets its force and character as law.” In human law, punishment is a means of allowing law to continue to work towards the common good. An example of society being ordered towards the common good is dispensations, which release certain individuals from the law in cases when enforcement of the law would actually be harmful due to some circumstance. As particular actions are determined by circumstances, the common good can, in certain rare cases, be destroyed by the law. As such, dispensations are meant to prevent such evil from occurring. Punishment works much the same way as dispensations for Aquinas. It is a means of seeking and preserving the common good in society. From this, one can gather that the common good is to be sought out and protected by the lawmaker as much as possible. In order to achieve this, certain practices are necessary. In human law, one such practice is punishment. 

Moving to an examination of natural law, one can determine its relationship with punishment and compare it to the relationship found in human law. The natural law is more abstract for Aquinas, and as a result the relation between it and punishment is less clear. For this it must be understood that the natural law is man’s rational participation in the eternal law. From this, it would seem that the transgression of one of these laws is, in actuality, a transgression of both. Indeed, Aquinas does not directly address punishment in regards to the natural law. He does, however, give a slight treatment of such matters when discussing the eternal law. 

At first glance, Aquinas’ discussion of human affairs in relation to eternal law would seemingly fit better in a discussion about natural law. In the course of this discussion, Aquinas turns to the topic of those who transgress the eternal law. He writes that people of this sort are “imperfectly subject” to the eternal law through their actions. This seems to suggest that a sort of harmony is missing in the relationship between such people and the eternal law. In order to reestablish this harmony, Aquinas writes that people are corrected through dictates in the eternal law. He goes so far as to claim that people “suffer” from such dictates. “Suffer” is the operative word; people who act contrary to the eternal law are punished in some way, though Aquinas does not make clear how. Like the example of punishment’s role in human law, Aquinas seems to be suggesting that punishment is related to the common good and making men virtuous. In both eternal and human law, people who break the law are working against the common good. This becomes apparent as the community may be harmed by one not performing virtuous acts or from one who does not feel restrained from vicious acts. If left to their own devices such people would continue to transgress the law and any power society once had to order itself toward the common good would be lost.

In his writing, Aquinas has made punishment an implicit characteristic of law by making it a means to achieve the common good. For Aquinas, the purpose of law is to point men towards the common good. While the common good by itself draws men towards it, man is easily turned away. Men sometimes seek many other things beside that which they are ordered towards. Punishment serves as a necessary corrective characteristic of law because it recenters men when they turn away from the common good. Without it, human flourishing would be utterly impossible. While not listed as one of the four essential features in itself, it nonetheless orders the city to a common good. Ultimately, Aquinas asserts that punishment is an essential part of the law for that very reason. Without punishments, the common good is left defenseless and the city fails to serve its just purpose. 

This view of the law being oriented toward the common good illustrates the role police ought to assume. They are meant to be the defenders and protectors of the law. Thus they are meant to work towards the common good. In some instances this requires police to arrest criminals. In others it means helping someone fix their tire. Each case is an example of how the police work towards the common good. As such, police serve as an essential part of the political community. The Defund the Police movement seeks to do away with this force of good and offers nothing with the ability to replace the police to preserve the common good. The community based approach could provide some good, but the loss of coercive force would be detrimental to society. As Aquinas shows, the common good cannot protect itself. It requires an element of coercive force through which it is able to lead men towards virtuous acts. Without this, law becomes mere suggestion and, as has been shown in cities in which the police presence has decreased, chaos reigns.

About the Author

Samuel Stone is a Hillsdale College graduate who majored in politics. He currently is getting his masters from St. John’s College.

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