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Aquinas's Moral Theory Author(s): Ralph McInerny Source: Journal of Medical Ethics, Vol. 13, No. 1 (Mar., 1987), pp. 31-33 Published by: BMJ Publishing Group Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/27716553 . Accessed: 21/02/2011 20:13
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Journal of medical ethics. of Aristotle. truth Such can be decided truths may to what anyone by appeal to be true because be believed indeed theoretically theology. their knows. philosophy of how can we now ought be to defined act as which that is Moral knowledge The to be It is another other than God's independent of religious belief for its acceptance. holds. Aristotle. 31-33 Moral theories Aquinas's Ralph Mclnerny moral theory University ofNotre Dame. feature of the de fide neither can that. as a human counts person are what when dropped. Anything voluntarily. or further confusion precision gross and revealed' not does Thomas 'being identify is a necessary revealed de fide'. A proposition is defide if (a) it is accepted true (b) because God has revealed it and (c) there is no way independent that Christ believes persons resurrection. asked is: 'Why did you do that'? If it is granted that each and it could for some end. that is. expect of pagan in the the up teachings Thomas this happens. is not human De fide also God. for Socrates Human we all other it is another we do. Thomas maintains religious and large the Ten Commandments or believer are moral person. human not for appraisal. be ascribed Digesting. or bad to the degree as good that it is be assessed too are subject to the end desired. in the writings interest his insatiable hence as truths which to show latter on the philosophy of Aquinas. though Being 'being of being de fide and some truths not sufficient condition have been revealed which need not have been because and adultery is contingent upon that by whose acceptance precepts in fact Thomas belief. and the question we are answerable for them. accepts as true because they propositions a great number of revealed have been as by God. done Not with every to a human deliberation. which with Good agent. the It is one odd to think the prohibitions of murder. whatever are responsible Actions do for some end or purpose. but in their case belief can be replaced by knowledge. Thomistic complete I shall here moral philosophy. moral Aristotelian that moral philosophy Like ethics. recognise is necessary. Indiana. be truths are chiefly about God. but first a word of considering his moral philosophy without possibility his moral theology. or activity that can truly event act. any human principles of he is guilty as true. acts. three Thomas Thus. all of which were becoming available in Latin for the first time. is a version of of Aquinas he will take the end while something its truth can not be decided say-so. But ends conducive the beginning to moral the actions appraised agent. while into moral the moral is subsumed in itself. sway of thought to be growing. act is undertaken every human a vast number of is simply there be that . as de fide truths contains we would be known. discussing Thomas As a Christian. consciously. acts are teleological. De fide truths. the human the are about The injunction about the is such a truth. Although Christians have described faith dramatically as the as acceptance Thomas Aquinas true of what among actions that is known them. And ageing. of attaining the means to the nature of reference As with are and means ends are those are and means sought and are them. is human in God and that there will be a general to decide its truth. ismeant is what This thus fitting. revealed can resurrection. calls 'acts and Thinking are moral human actions. USA The moral theory of St Thomas Aquinas has a theological as well as a philosophical (1225-1274) aspect. beard thing for Socrates's to grow a beard. be concerned only with God revealed them. because Key words Moral theories. as to how are in effect judgements precepts can A certain kind of action the end is to be achieved. ends Aristotle. like the incarnation cannot well If what has and been be known and general trinity to be true in this life. Either should not. What as oneself neighbour to Moses were which of the Decalogue given precepts revealed Are on Mount Sinai? obviously they not truths? one seems that is to charity the injunction While incumbent upon theft the believer are moral as believer. 1987. lying. by appeal to such some propositions be known to be false. but they can should such of practical considerations. Exactly philosophers. it would seem ends bad befitting those which Human Law. moral theory of St Thomas Aquinas. falling of man' activities but not that human come under acts. 13. as one these are ordered love to one's to be false. that there are and divine. by Natural are synonymous actions and moral actions a human as counts action? What Aquinas.

talk of virtue activity law. Call this practical Activities thinking. purely with of the good different notions compatible radically life. since beings as immoral. for assessing criterion do? those thwart practical virtues. Like ultimate for persons ultimate superordinating If there were. at ascertaining the this Call theoretical truth about thinking. All of the following may be true (a) Socrates is falling. are infinitely and we various. even if whatever that saying as rational describable activity. than thinking be called the word function is engaged in with thinking some than other activity thinking. do things humans seem not to have a unified achieved view. peculiar as temperance and justice. Thomas Aquinas is scarcely guilty of saying that act every human What criteria human on action from end moral the ultimate the natural this is just as such good. is a good one. there cited is such two an reasons of would all and if there that a have are had. on holds guidelines in the very one can claim. circumstances the acquisition virtues of speculative will like Aristotle. is difficult fail directing choosing. are for which ultimate single bad. adjudicate moral would that disagreement by argument. can overt acts the for be regulated which is thus taken or to be the ultimate Aristotle itmakes of human commanding prohibiting. further in order There we But clearly some had when senses virtues constituents of rational the virtues The the virtues the of rational human are objectives to pass studies to cure order superordinate were some human One objectives. What it remains it is since Alas. conception no way to to others telling etc and of as taking untruths may We the law take there is in the are are of that activity. is all well and good. either of the in terms Virtues of priority and necessity. the eye If the eye is for seeing. for it. Virtue in a further is a is Reflection is to maintain law precepts Thomas By natural self-evident of the practical precepts its opposite. for criterion takes sense action The of that human these is. in performing quite simply is rational reply to talk of acting for ends and of rational objection: as peculiar as perfective to men. Moral in its purest virtues. which come under action the human That may it makes which agent and an seem manifest and and activity to express a settled way of performing used we can say that the human well. if they do not. of (b) any animal. to get the degree in subordinate act. for assuming end commonweal. First. (b) Socrates is hungry and (c) Socrates tells Xanthippe he is going to the Agora to engage in dialogue. of nature He human of to know. of and the virtues intellect. but only humans in (c). Thus. advantage. an objection to say: stealing and spoiling the and cheating are peculiar to human and. Thomas effect objection common embedded which no adventurous that what to be incoherent. The end. holds as good or to that conducive that Aristotle is to act of human action The ultimate objective the well but that turns out to mean achieving rationally These virtues virtues of rational activity. (in the plural) or can be ranked in terms of dignity in two ways. can be truly a number of activities Quite to human are not peculiar or ascribed which beings to this question relies acts and acts human badly. engage in the kind of activity mentioned human Peculiarly activity the analogy of the examples the human consists good rational The variety activity difficulty of things. to ends. I may define with virtues connected rational activity undertaken of are some There another's to my classical is in relation ignorance. good as prima to ask what reasons facie in fact the ultimate for man will be the fulfilment or task which or function activity or perfection is peculiar to a thing is If you know what agents. ultimate consisting to mean which It the human end. moral activity some well It is now clear that single 'Performing of man's ultimate kind of act' is not a good description end. use of our mind and wisdom such as science speculative are more as perfective is of the activity which desirable such to man form. formal. on a natural The Thomistic doctrine a response to that view. is that and we 'rational are back activity' again humans the do can mean a to the point of do is truly on Thus. good rational the sway of reason can sense. will be more come first. One thing we can do is sort out some major meanings It can first of 'rational activity'. The subject of (a) could be any physical body. This our should activity necessary conducive are unlikely of speak happiness. That well is the point of as performing of virtue it well. activity. can be performed or badly. be good ones would the bad ones those which Thomas Aristotle. in the third sense. of all be taken to mean the activity of thinking an activity the way Sometimes which things aims are. well. in contemplation. in the previous paragraph.32 Ralph Mclnerny disparate and unrelated ordered the course the ends sick. as such. you instance cuts well that task sees or in this single good without to be taken the virtue to qualification. Indeed. in its various activity then have as its good will the of the speculative intellect. are for distinguishing there bad? It is here that Thomas's with his Thomas should be connected would good talk of teaching proper to them. Thomas. If a knife that is for cutting. viz have it is the assumption of legislation Second. an eye to like other advantage when they embrace disagree. The activities speaking mentioned are precisely instances of performing it between earlier distinction a man. obtain. . a function one. that all we a name so. What end we actions it. means the first use of reason. it is quite useful. are generally such activities regarded to the human is no guide human behaviour distinctively procedure environment But of course the distinctively human function good. not be and to to the as taken of this thinking 'happiness'. end of all we do. that there is some is the human is sometimes good. a basis have it is a good for deciding whether a knife of its type. you justice. Does man well is a good have sense? function? Thomas's on his of affirmative answer Is there some peculiarly human for.

the prudential decisions. a sane assure that our for that the good is. and this can be done in numberless ways. of great generality in two ways. of singular sense of the there Finally. deed law. Neither knowledge prescriptions is the level of the finality under the which blinding limbs of sexual inclinations Prescriptive regulating trespassing can ethics legal code nor a reasonable actions will be good. recognised by all human for the precepts The basis of natural law seek. The of these inclinations objects we moral cannot inclinations our pursuit The most and direct desired evil not want. these natural clear that without rational direction. us to live in society the truth. are not given what what Thomas we are. adultery to the effect that these are kinds always destructive and of everywhere the good and general wrong for man. most them on an analogy with the first and self or speculative use of of the theoretical precepts we form will be an instance notion of the Any notion. is embedded extension embedded in our actions and which of a generalised kind that knowledge in various in a given culture is an ways of those very general and universally binding law. societies look for will look The alike. These to more fashions of activity because are will have embedded in it the primary judgement that a thing cannot and not be. natural all share with and inclination regard we have a natural things.Moral theories: Aquinas's moral theory 33 he discusses evident reason. they prohibit an action is seen to be an instance of this type. so ourselves in being. is the Michael in P Grace Professor of Dame. and fulfilment well-being law that Thomas of natural the precepts on a level of less generality than 'Pursue recognises or 'Do good and avoid evil' are the prohibitions virtue' Among by frustrating be false. Knowledge we have. that good should precept. The of natural precepts of these naturally desired goods. cardinal realisable law. the right to good a person reason to exercise and in Thomas into account. inclines Finally. Good action is the product of not and is character character. application. USA. concrete Natural positive. must they take would The are more precepts into account bring guidelines desire by by likely formulated to fc>e thwarted by natural of the sway would of than reason reason. counsel Reason goods. role in that their constitutive desired goods naturally human is fostered. we The like to do. it is such goods For pursue another. everywhere consists of three philosophy second is the moral stage is that of natural enshrined stages. are taken to be presupposed these precepts by positive are in conflict laws which with law. Given is enabled enjoy influence thinkers. analogy are law precepts everywhere moral Second. incorporate a natural law its prohibition degrees extensions distinguishing sanctions. First. for societies. us to seek nourishment. particularly and to pursue are goods about God. arguments are which essentially precepts precepts and lying. ends we naturally instinctively goods we a number Thomas of such recognises inclinations. theory does not say that 'being' first forms anyone is of a being. only is not 'An So too one's first sentence its true'. we share a nature with all animals and in this an inclination to reproduce and ourselves regard have our rational nature to raise our young. can law precepts be either negative moral are more easily negative applicable are wrong acts which in their kind. it is impossible for us to is self-evident. is to make the moral persons. (in the classical of natural term) order. law are directives these naturally of law. acts of a given kind until our hearts formed by repeated are moral for inclined virtue. If this in any knowledge common of natural precepts of it is implicit are implicitly are the the works. constituents and not and of 'Be brave' Many possible and the precept Justice. These means natural by natural law are directive of be done rationally task. That are evil. Such character and murder against by an eye to punitive do not of course share in the with precepts which are always guided by that basic truth. acts may be instances of just action alone does courage. That amputating the activity oneself. it is false to suggest man is to thwart the attainment of goods men naturally these in so pursuing will consist Virtue desire. relate specific is 'good' and the first nongainsayable concept that the good should be pursued and done and precept The is the evil avoided. Precepts our reason. Positive what we ought precepts or 'Be just' are not so easily applicable. the University . nature in this sense inclines Second. negative level of positive law or codes: admit of here both exceptions. primary simultaneously In the practical our mind. Any and use judgement in the of same we make sense be the of murder. our actions ideals which Thomistic The first and positive. law alike. and affirmation simultaneously word that the first idea he utters. simply knowledge. of persons thwart these avoided. right character. less formally prohibitions natural of practical of food and sex should be regulated by reason pursuit For one thing. desire. First. of Notre Catholic insights and action. law precepts. of general moral the same. such that positive them are not morally A law may binding. inclinations fulfilled. and doing good to do the it. to preserve For us to be is to live. of the human good are infinitely but entail diversity both only permit It is the and actions which always moral The and cultures. controlling and regulating birth intercourse would The moral continues Catholic find taking philosophy of St Thomas today Friend arguments on and well Aquinas both foe non alike worth Ralph Mclnerny Medieval Studies Indiana. Thomas theft. unconsciously. 'being'. contradictory But all human cannot discourse be is as the selection of the term 'law' suggests. general means as that we on of should they bear is the note not to perform. in this there is the nature we are natural which precepts the theory from of natural ordered persons peoples. tell us which wisdom these temperance. It does that No not at all follow all morally well more will all moral for ideal or since Once know agents.

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