Principles of Catholic Morality V: Aquinas on the first principles of practical reason

Thomas Aquinas is the most relentlessly erotic of the major Catholic moral theologians.  He disagrees with Anselm about the will having two inclinations.  Man, he says, always seeks happiness/beatitude/self-perfection.  Our true happiness is in knowing God, but sin is possible because people can be mistaken about what brings true happiness.

Being an Aristotelian, Aquinas doesn’t see any difficulty in our inferring the human telos.  It involves projecting neither preferences nor a priori dictims onto humanity.  We all possess a faculty for extracting universal forms from concrete particulars.  Watching a nonsentient life form, we can recognize the pattern of metabolism, growth, and reproduction, and we can mentally separate this pattern from the particular matter that is instantiating it.  Once one grasps the pattern, one can objectively determine what good functioning of it would be.  There’s no mysticism, for example, in realizing that the purpose of the heart is to pump blood, and once we know that, we can say that a heart that is too weak to pump blood is objectively defective.  In the same way, once one grasps humanity, whose distinctive quality is reason, one can objectively infer that knowing God, the ultimate Cause, is its ultimate good.

Very well, let us grant that what is good for man is something that can be objectively inferred, and let us suppose, as Aquinas argues, that this good requires rectitude of will, and therefore all of the virtues can be derived from it.  Where does the moral obligation for me to perfect myself come from?  If I do not pursue my last end intelligently, why does that make me wicked, as opposed to just stupid?  Some old-school Thomists today are proud of their master’s supposed lack of regard for the fact-value distinction, thinking Aristotelian essentialism renders this distinction meaningless.  It doesn’t seem meaningless to me.  It may be that “X fails to conforms to my objective good” implies “I have a duty to avoid X”, but the concepts are definitely distinct.  And Aquinas, too, thought the issue worth addressing.

Aquinas seems to have believed that the leap is made via a basic axiom of practical reasoning.  Just as theoretical reason must assume the law of contradiction (p and ~p = false) before it can reason to anything else, even though this law is an axiom and cannot be deduced from anything more fundamental, so practical reason relies on an indemonstratable precept which must be taken as self-evident.  This precept he identifies as “Good is to be done and pursued, and evil is to be avoided.”  This is not tautological:  the content of “good” and “evil” have been fixed already by consideration of man’s essence.  What the precept does is to move us from “X is good” to “Do X”.  It says, basically, “metaphysical good = moral good”.

We post-Kantians will be tempted to see the axiom “Do (metaphysical) good” as an a priori principle imposed by the reasoning mind on a morally but not metaphysically neutral world.  Aquinas certainly doesn’t see it that way.  This precept, like the law of non-contradiction, is based on an apprehension of the nature of being itself.  In this Aristotelian view, the mind can open itself and take in the nature of any outside reality, including universal features of being.  Goodness, he says, just refers to being apprehended by the practical intellect:

Now a certainorder is to be found in those things that are apprehended universally. For that which, before aught else, falls under apprehension, is “being,” the notion of which is included in all things whatsoever a man apprehends. Wherefore the first indemonstrable principle is that “the same thing cannot be affirmed and denied at the same time,” which is based on the notion of “being” and “not-being”: and on this principle all others are based, as is stated in Metaph. iv, text. 9. Now as “being” is the first thing that falls under the apprehension simply, so “good” is the first thing that falls under the apprehension of the practical reason, which is directed to action: since every agent acts for an end under the aspect of good. Consequently the first principle of practical reason is one founded on the notion of good, viz. that “good is that which all things seek after.” Hence this is the first precept of law, that “good is to be done and pursued, and evil is to be avoided.” All other precepts of the natural law are based upon this: so that whatever the practical reasonnaturally apprehends as man’s good (or evil) belongs to the precepts of the natural law as something to be done or avoided.

Next, Aquinas considers human nature’s various “inclinations”, meaning the things that everyone recognizes as goods of human nature:  existence, procreation, knowledge, from which we derive the natural law dictates for behavior and institutions that foster these goods.  It all still seems distastefully selfish.  Aquinas uses two Aristotelian motifs to introduce other-directed elements to his ethics.  First, there is the idea of friendship, whereby we love another for his own sake.  Aquinas will argue, as we will see, that charity means us becoming friends of God.  Then there’s the idea of the common good, either of our Earthly or heavenly city.  A person can see the common good as having greater import than his private good, and he can love the common good selflessly.  For the kingdom of heaven, for whose citizenship we are equipped by the theological virtues, God Himself is the common good.

Where there is reason, there is law.  Aquinas recognizes three laws:  the eternal law of God, the natural law, and human law.  Each is a concretization of the more general law above it.  The eternal law is Divine Wisdom’s plan for creation.  Natural law is eternal law relating to rational beings.  Natural law itself leaves a lot of things unspecified:  what the punishment for such-and-such a crime should be, what particular regulations should be used to maintain order, etc.  The final concretization of natural law into a particular way of life is by human law, a combination of explicit prescription by human authority and implicitly endorsed custom.  To use an Aristotelian metaphor, we might say that human law has natural law as its form and the particular community as its matter.  Human law, being an application of natural law, has all the obligatory force of natural law, just as natural law carries the obligatory force of eternal law.  Of course, human law refers only to just laws from legitimate authority; and unjust law being no law at all and having no claim on our conscience.

3 Responses

  1. Critics of St Thomas’s view of the will as rational appetite have argued that one can will without desiring. To this, Garrigou-Lagrange retorts “This is manifestly contrary to the facts, for every volition presupposes an end, and the notion of an end implies the notion of goodness. The goodness may be either virtuous, useful, or delectable good, but it must always be desirable”

    As to bad choices, it would be a cheap display of very trite learning to trace back the pedigree of St Thomas’s view to Aristotle in the Nicomachean Ethics [Book VII. 5 (1145a & 1148b in the Bekker numbering)], whom St Thomas quotes almost verbatim (. (S.T. I-II, Q. 31, Art. 7, cor.) when he says:

    “It happens that something which is not natural to man, either in regard to reason, or in regard to the preservation of the body, becomes connatural to this individual man, on account of there being some corruption of nature in him. And this corruption may be either on the part of the body — from some ailment; thus to a man suffering from fever, sweet things seem bitter, and vice versa — or from an evil temperament; thus some take pleasure in eating earth and coals and the like; or on the part of the soul; thus from custom some take pleasure in cannibalism or in the unnatural intercourse of man and beast, or other such things, which are not in accord with human nature.”

    The bestiality bit is St Thomas’s own (perhaps from a mistranslation of Aristotle’s θηριότης [The nature of a beast, brutality cf κακία ἀκρασία θηριότης vice, unrestraint and brutishness] – goodness knows what St Thomas’s version said. He misses out biting one’s nails, which is one of Aristotle’s illustrations. This is a pity, because I am sure that Aristotle intended these rather bizarre illustrations to emphasise the main point: that there are no “reasons” for bad choices- just causes. Aristotle uses the same word paralogism (παραλογισμός = Unreasonable or fallacious) to describe both errors in logic and morally bad choices. In fact, he has no category of the “moral,” and manages very well without it.

  2. In fact, he has no category of the “moral,” and manages very well without it.

    Here is where I think we disagree. It seems to me that Aristotle misses the essence of moral obligation. His ethics is thus seriously deficient, and St. Thomas was mistaken to try to force all of Christian life in to the Aristotelian mold.

  3. Obligation is a legal concept – “obligare” means “to bind.” In Latin, it can be used in the literal sense; in our sense it is rare outside the jurists. As Miss Anscombe showed in her famous 1954 paper, Modern Moral Philosophy, it makes no sense without a divine legislator. However, this does not mean that Aristotle was misguided (and St Thomas was convinced he was not). Aristotle saw clearly enough that “the good” must be, in some sense, “my good.”

    So, too, the Christian; as Miss Anscombe says “.” If he is a Stoic, he is apt to have a decidedly strained notion of what “flourishing consists” in; if he is a Jew or Christian, he need not have any very distinct notion: the way it will profit him to abstain from injustice is something that he leaves it to God to determine, himself only saying, “It can’t do me any good to go against His law.” (But, he also hopes for a great reward in a new life later on, e.g. at the coming of Messiah; but in this he is relying on special promises.)

    It is these “special promises” that forms the distinction between moral philosophy and moral theology, not in content, but in concept.

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