I find the distinction McCall admits between that of distributive and commutative justice inadmissible. A series of objections have raised themselves in my mind. I will attempt to lay those down cogently here.
I start with the most fundamental objection. “In the beginning was the Word (logos), and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
We see here that there is ultimately no distinction between God himself, the logic or laws that govern the universe, the full and correct abstract concepts which represent those laws in the human heart and mind, viz., “word(s),” and the son of God, the word or law made flesh, who perfectly as both human and God embodied those laws.
Thus if God is so, as we know him to be. If he is perfectly and simply constituted such that He will admit of no distinctions between Himself, His laws, the proper representation of those laws and His son who embodied in all perfection and cogency the forgoing three, then justice itself which is based entirely on the same must admit of no distinctions if it is to be properly and fully understood.
Yes, the human mind, which McCall admits is “weakened by the effects of the Fall” may allow for a distinction between the norms of commutative justice and the particular distribution of goods that inherently follows from such norms, but that does not mean any such distinction resides in the proper notion of justice as such, since perfect justice based on perfect logic will not admit its constitutive parts to contradict one another. Taken from this more perfect perspective, the distinction between commutative and distributive justice is a distinction representing no actual difference in reality (‘a distinction with no difference’).
A possible objection to this is the example of the barons who unjustly withhold grain from their serfs during a famine. You argued in this situation it would be just for the king to force the barons to provide their grain to the serfs. Let us put aside for the moment a discussion over whether such an arrangement of things corresponds ultimately to the dictates of commutative justice or not. Let us stipulate for the sake of the example that it does. Thus, one says, aha, look here, we have a situation where the dictates of commutative justice (those who currently have, up to this point in time, rightful use of their possessions) and the dictates of distributive justice (those who now should have rightful possession of the goods in question after the advent of the famine) seem to contradict one another. Fair enough, let us go ahead and admit to the possibility that such a situation might exist. Here the mere human encounters an epistemological problem. How does one determine with sufficient certainty that a.) a famine exists that the serfs did not have a direct hand in creating themselves, b.) the barons, who would in most cases see it in even their self-interest to keep their serfs alive, do not have a legitimate higher reason for withholding the grain c.) the King, who is so convinced of the injustice of this situation, is not simply taking away the barons’ grain in order to establish precedent that weakens the independence of his rightful aristocratic competition in the long run, especially if he is not willing to lead by the example of providing the serfs with his own grain for the time being d.) the peasants who may or may not have a direct role in bringing about the famine will not learn to work less than they should because they will see the barons’ surplus is always something to be openly taken if their sloth leads to crisis.
No single human arbiter, especially if taken from the forgoing parties, is likely to have sufficient information and clarity of thought to see through the myriad of contentions to determine with confidence that the norms of commutative justice do not correspond to the norms of distributive justice for the whole of society in this situation. And even if this arbiter could come to a confident judgment, it is another question entirely how exactly to re-arrange resources so as to rectify the deficiency between the two, overlooking that it will yet take even more resources to accomplish this rearrangement. Sure, in the abstract it is easy to say the barons should give their grain to the serfs. But, how much? At what rate? For how long? If, as we said, commutative justice has been perfectly served up to this time, then it seems most reasonable to assume that the two-fold combination of a lack of human omniscience and the presumptive unity of justice would render any second-guessing of whether justice has been served mute. It would seem more reasonable to assume the distribution of goods remains just, and God has endowed each owner of the goods in question the ability to judge via his conscience on how best to use those goods, since every human participant retains knowledge unique to himself and his situation and the ultimate responsibility he is to serve. The owner of goods will have to answer to God for their distribution, but not to his fellow man who is not a disinterested party.
Furthermore, these are not empty objections. Let me give but one example. A baron, as wise as the magi that brought gifts to our Lord, uses his knowledge of astronomy to understand that the sun has just hit a solar minimum and forecasts that harvests will fail for the next ten years. He rightfully withholds his grain in order to ensure his knights and he will have sufficient food for the next ten years, during which it is extremely likely the neighboring kingdoms will invade due to their own short-sightedness in this matter. Thus, the kingdom on which the serfs depend for their protection will not disintegrate completely if the grain is withheld. And while the serfs may barely survive, eating rotten squirrels and roots, some of them even dying, this is still better than the fate they would have under a victorious invading army, which would happily kill them all.
The other barons of the realm, not nearly as sophisticated as this baron, nevertheless take his example to heart, and perhaps for short-sighted selfish or copy-cat motivations alone also withhold their grain from the serfs. The king has long resented the barons since shortly after his election as king when the barons threatened to never vote for his offspring to inherit the throne because of their disapproval of the king’s choice to marry a princess from a neighboring enemy kingdom. The king knows little about astronomy, and resentment has built in his heart since that time, so he is in no mood to listen even to the wise baron. Or, even if he did listen, he might suspect it as some sort of trick. He sees a chance to weaken the barons’ future independence. If the king can strip the barons of their grain on the pretext of any crisis, maybe those crotchety barons will think twice before they refuse to elect his offspring. And so, the king forces the barons to empty their granaries and within the first two years of famine, all the grain is exhausted, the kingdom disintegrates taken over by the neighboring kingdoms and the serfs are slaughtered.
Let us go back to the start, where we stipulated that the barons having all the remaining grain, at least until the occurrence of the famine, corresponded to the dictates of commutative justice. If this is the case, then it follows the barons are barons for a reason and the serfs are serfs for a reason. The barons are in their position rightfully because of some quality they have, a greater amount of virtue, an ability to see the long range consequences of their actions more clearly, something of this sort however one chooses to phrase it. The serfs are similarly weaker; they are more prone to fits of unjust anger and vengeful jealousy. What good does it do to have such a properly ordered system, if the moment there is a crisis such as a famine which must be met with the most consummate wisdom, those who were rightly in a position of superiority prior to the crisis find themselves stripped of the appurtenance of that superiority at the very time when the skillful management of resources is needed most!
Thus, I cannot buy into a distinction between commutative and distributive justice. It seems all of society’s effort ought to go towards ensuring the integrity of the former, and the later will correspondingly find itself properly ordered as well.