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  • The Political Morality of the Late Scholastics: Civil Life, War and Conscience by Daniel Schwartz
  • Rudolf Schuessler
Daniel Schwartz. The Political Morality of the Late Scholastics: Civil Life, War and Conscience. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019. Pp. xiii + 234. Cloth, $99.99.

How should a crisis sparked by migration of the poor be dealt with? How should tax evasion be addressed? What is the appropriate response to manipulation of elections? Daniel Schwartz's book illustrates that moralists, lawyers, political decision makers, and society at large already contended with these issues some four hundred years ago. The underlying problems and their normative implications were thoroughly analyzed by scholastic authors at the time, many of whom wrote with an eye on influencing the emerging interested public, or doubled as advisors for political decision makers. Political morality, the moral analysis [End Page 402] of political decisions, is a particular field of applied ethics (undoubtedly, an important one), within which early modern scholastics excelled. Schwartz's book is therefore a timely contribution to the intensifying research on early modern scholasticism, which progressively reduces the largest of the subsisting lacunae in our knowledge about early modern thought. Schwartz is less interested in finding precursors to modern positions than in demonstrating that many of the antagonistic positions that characterize our contemporary debates were already on the table hundreds of years ago.

The book is in essence a set of famous controversies. Part 1 deals with civic life. Chapter 1 studies a scholastic controversy on electoral bribing. One might believe that nothing justifies bribery. But what about counter-bribing to secure a fair chance of being elected in a corrupt political environment? Chapter 2 addresses the ethics of tax evasion. Early modern moral theologians sought a balance between the state's legitimate power to levy and collect taxes, and the citizens' moral entitlement not to be excessively burdened. These two rights frequently clash in practice, and in weighing one against the other, citizens often embraced exceptions to the duty to pay the taxes demanded by the state. Chapter 3 discusses the problems cities faced in coping with poor migrants reduced to begging. Moral theologians disagreed on whether good Christians had a duty to welcome the poor from outside their cities. Some authors justified a defensive attitude that perceives the foreign poor as being the foreign state's problem. Other scholastics took a more cosmopolitan stance and argued that humans had a duty to let in and assist all human beings. Chapter 4 focuses on the duty to keep secrets. In late scholastic treatment, this question led to important considerations about whether a community has rights in an individual's reputation, or whether it solely belongs to that individual. In the first case, there may be limitations to the individual's freedom to do whatever he wants with his "public image" (as we say today). A member of a religious order might, for instance, ease his conscience by publicly admitting to a fraud, but at the same time, responsibility for the reputation of his order may ground a duty not to disclose the misdeed but to restitute ill-gotten gains silently. Chapter 5 raises the question of whether it can be moral for an artist to arouse wayward sexual thoughts in viewers. Scholastic moral theologians doubted this, not unlike their modern like-minded counterparts who promote no-porn policies. However, as is so often the case, exceptions existed, allowing the artists of the Baroque era to exhibit more than a bit of nudity in their works.

Part 2 of the book deals with the morality of war and warfare. Chapter 6 discusses scholastic views on disobedience to questionable orders. Generally, soldiers have to obey orders, but the famous rule that "in doubt, the morally safer option should be preferred" calls into question whether all orders have to be obeyed. Related questions of military obedience in unjust wars are very much on the agenda of present-day "revisionist" theories of just war. Chapter 7 addresses the sacrificing of innocents to save large numbers of persons. Some late scholastic authors argued that innocents may be sacrificed to save communities from extermination. Chapter 8 explores whether probable (i.e...


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