We’ve established what the usurer is, and are just haggling over the price
September 19, 2015 § 28 Comments
If there is one thing that writing and debating the Usury FAQ has demonstrated, it is the pervasiveness with which people use the same words to mean very different things.
When we talk about one person “owing” another person something, we are basically saying that one person has some sort of specific and concrete moral obligation to another. But there are all sorts of different kinds of specific, concrete moral obligations; and it is a basic mistake to treat incommensurable obligations as if they were commensurable.
I do address this in a number of places in the Usury FAQ, following the lead of St. Thomas Aquinas (not because he is an authority, but because he is correct). The incommensurability of different kinds of “owing” may be one of the most difficult sticking points for folks who are struggling with understanding the subject.
There are many different and incommensurable senses of “owing” which arise in entirely distinct kinds of situations. Husbands and wives owe each other the marriage debt. If I accidentally kill my neighbor’s horse, I owe him a replacement. If I steal someone’s money or car, I owe its return and acceptance of due punishment. If I borrow money from a friend or a charity organization when I am in need, I owe both what I borrowed and a debt of gratitude once I am back on my feet. If I rent an apartment from a landlord, I owe him the rent or my departure from the property and possibly forfeiture of a deposit. And if I accept money from an investor, I owe him his share of the fruits of that investment.
One accurate way to characterize usury is that it conflates incommensurable senses of “owing”. The usurer profits from kinds of “owing” under full recourse terms and conditions — conditions in which profit is intrinsically unjust. He is like a “friend” who lends money to someone in need and insists that it be returned in the form of the marriage debt.