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Thomas Aquinas Theory | ETHICS

Introduction | Thomas Aquinas Theory | ETHICS 

  • Italian Dominican theologian Saint Thomas Aquinas was one of the most influential medieval thinkers of Scholasticism and the father of the Thomistic school of theology.
  • Combining the theological principles of faith with the philosophical principles of reason, Saint Thomas Aquinas ranked among the most influential thinkers of medieval Scholasticism. An authority of the Roman Catholic Church and a prolific writer, Aquinas died on March 7, 1274, at the Cistercian monastery of Fossanova, near Terracina, Latium, Papal States, Italy.

Thomas Aquinas Moral philosophy

  • The moral philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) involves a merger of at least two apparently disparate traditions: Aristotelian eudaimonism and Christian theology. On the one hand, Aquinas follows Aristotle in thinking that an act is good or bad depending on whether it contributes to or deters us from our proper human end—the telos or final goal at which all human actions aim. That telos is eudaimonia, or happiness, where “happiness” is understood in terms of completion, perfection, or well-being. Achieving happiness, however, requires a range of intellectual and moral virtues that enable us to understand the nature of happiness and motivate us to seek it in a reliable and consistent way.
  • On the other hand, Aquinas believes that we can never achieve complete or final happiness in this life. For him, final happiness consists in beatitude, or supernatural union with God. Such an end lies far beyond what we through our natural human capacities can attain. For this reason, we not only need the virtues, we also need God to transform our nature—to perfect or “deify” it—so that we might be suited to participate in divine beatitude. Moreover, Aquinas believes that we inherited a propensity to sin from our first parent, Adam. While our nature is not wholly corrupted by sin, it is nevertheless diminished by sin’s stain, as evidenced by the fact that our wills are at enmity with God’s. Thus we need God’s help in order to restore the good of our nature and bring us into conformity with his will. To this end, God imbues us with his grace which comes in the form of divinely instantiated virtues and gifts.

Aquinas’s Metaethics | Thomas Aquinas Theory | ETHICS

  • Aquinas’s metaethical views are indebted to the writings of several Christian thinkers, particularly Augustine’s Confessions, Boethius’s De hebdomadibus, and perhaps Anselm’s Monologion. Due to the constraints of space, the present section will only consider Augustine’s influence on Aquinas’s views.
  • According to Augustine, “things that exist are good” (Confessions VII.12). This claim is meant to express a basic metaphysical idea, namely, that if something exists, then it necessarily has some degree of goodness. Augustine’s argument for this claim is as follows. We can divide existing things into two categories: incorruptible things and corruptible things, with the latter being inferior to the former. If something is incorruptible, then by definition it cannot be made worse; that is, it cannot lose whatever goodness it may have. On the other hand, if something is corruptible, then it can be made worse. Notice that a thing’s being corruptible presupposes having goodness. Otherwise, it would not have any goodness it could lose. While this argument may be sufficient to show that corruptible things necessarily have goodness, Augustine uses it to identify a problem with the view that something can exist even if it has no goodness at all. For if something has no goodness, then it cannot lose goodness and must therefore be incorruptible. And since incorruptibility is better than corruptibility, it looks as if something lacking goodness is better than its corruptible counterpart, which has goodness. Clearly, this is incoherent.
  • Augustine writes: “What can be more monstrous than to maintain that by losing all [its] goodness [something can] become better” (Ibid.)? Yet this is precisely the implication of claiming that something with no goodness whatsoever can exist. According to Augustine, the only remedy for this problem is to deny the existence of things that have no goodness. If something exists, then it must necessarily have goodness.

Aquinas’s Ethical theory | Thomas Aquinas Theory | ETHICS

  • Within Aquinas’ frame, ethical philosophy is about deciding the best way to live one’s life. This is continuous with wider ancient and Medieval approaches. Modern theorists tend to assume that people have a vast field of options which morality pares down. In contrast, Aquinas believes people need to identify meaningful goals before they can act. As such, moral theory is a way to facilitate action, rather than to limit it.
  • Although Aquinas believes in religious faith and the revealed truths of the Christian tradition, his philosophy is not on, the whole, grounded in either. In other words, most of Aquinas’ arguments do not require that the reader take the Bible as true in order to accept its premises and conclusions. Rather, Aquinas seemed to think that some truths could be demonstrated in secular ways, which Christianity simply repeated or made clearer. He also thought that reasoning could be used to figure out specific things that Christian doctrine did not make clear. For instance, unlike Islam and Judaism, Christianity never had its own tradition of law. This opens space for philosophers to provide what religious doctrine did not. Aquinas’ approach, valuing empirical knowledge, entails a partial rejection of the Christian denigration of the body. For Aquinas, the body is not the prison of the soul, but a means for its expression.
  • Aquinas’s ethical theory involves both principles – rules about how to act – and virtues – personality traits which are taken to be good or moral to have. The relative importance of the two aspects is debated. Modern thinkers tend to work more with principles, whereas ancient thinkers work with virtues, so this question decides which way the reader positions Aquinas. People trying to make Aquinas relevant to analytical philosophy emphasise his principles, and their basis in reasoning. People trying to use Aquinas to develop a virtue ethics, which challenges the legalistic thinking of analytical philosophy, play up the virtues instead.
  • Both sets of attributes have an underlying goal. The purpose of principles and virtues is to direct people towards the goal of human fulfilment, or living a worthwhile life. This is both an individual and a collective goal. Modern moral theories are mostly outwardly directed – actions are deemed right or wrong based on their effects on others. Aquinas, in contrast, believes that moral thought is mainly about bringing moral order to one’s own action and will. It is only secondarily about bringing order to the world. The most significant effects of a moral action are on the actor.

The Cardinal Virtues | Thomas Aquinas Theory | ETHICS

  • Aquinas offers several definitions of virtue. According to one very general account, a virtue is a habit that “disposes an agent to perform its proper operation or movement”. Because we know that reason is the proper operation of human beings, it follows that a virtue is a habit that disposes us to reason well. This account is too broad for our present purposes. While all virtues contribute in some way to our rational perfection, not every virtue disposes us to live morally good lives. Some virtues are strictly intellectual perfections, such as the ability to grasp universals or the causes underlying the world’s origin and operation.
  • Aquinas thinks the cardinal virtues provide general templates for the most salient forms of moral activity: commanding action (prudence); giving to those what is due (justice); curbing the passions (temperance); and strengthening the passions against fear (courage) (IaIIae 61.3). A more detailed sketch of these virtues follows (although I will address them in an order that is different from the one Aquinas provides).
  • Natural Law
  • Aquinas is often described as a natural law theorist. While natural law is a significant aspect of his moral philosophy, it is a subject of considerable dispute and misunderstanding. Of course, this is not the place to adjudicate competing interpretations of Aquinas’s view. Yet recent philosophers have noted that too many expositors distort Aquinas’s view by treating it independently of his metaethics and his theory of virtue.
  • On Aquinas’s view, a law is “a rule or measure of human acts, whereby a person is induced to act or is restrained from acting”. Elsewhere, he describes a law as a “dictate of practical reason emanating from a ruler”. At a very general level, then, a law is a precept that serves as a guide to and measure of human action. Thus whether an action is good will depend on whether it conforms to or abides by the relevant law. Here we should recall from an earlier section that, for Aquinas, a human action is good or bad depending on whether it conforms to reason. In other words, reason is the measure by which we evaluate human acts. Thus Aquinas thinks that the laws that govern human action are expressive of reason itself

The five ways | Thomas Aquinas Theory | ETHICS 

  • In his major work Summa Theologica, widely considered as the highest achievement of medieval systematic theology, Aquinas presented his five proofs of God’s existence known as the Quinque Viae (Latin for “Five Ways”).
    • Thomas’ first way involves the evidence of motion. The fact, to Thomas, that every moving thing needs a mover shows that God, the Unmoved Mover, exists.
    • The second way involves the notion of efficient cause. For the series of causes and effects, that we see in the world, to make sense it must have a beginning. God, the First Cause, therefore exists.
    • The third way notes that every existing thing does not owe its existence to itself. However, if all things are contingent, there could not have been anything as at one time all these could be non-existent. To account for all existence, there must be a Necessary Being, God.
    • The fourth way shows that there exist gradations in things, for example more noble and less noble, more true or less true. The existence of such gradations implies the existence of an Absolute Being as a datum for all these relative gradation.
    • The fifth way argues that the behavior of things in the world implies a Grand Designer or architect, God.
  • Thus Aquinas’ five ways defined God as the Unmoved Mover, the First Cause, the Necessary Being, the Absolute Being and the Grand Designer.




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