Saturday, February 1, 2020

Aquinas’s Ethics

In an email response to my post on Telos, searching for the central or common core of the purpose or end for human beings, I was reminded of this lecture from Dr. Arthur Holmes, Professor of Philosophy, Wheaton College.  The lecture is entitled “Aquinas' Moral Psychology and Ethics,” and it is one in a series of more than eighty lectures in his advanced philosophy course at Wheaton.

I say “reminded,” because I have already watched this lecture some time ago, and am now somewhere in the lectures on Kant.  As always when regarding comments taken from video sources, I have done my best to capture the statement properly – at least the meaning, if not exact wording.

The lecture builds more foundation regarding telos; better, it provides triggers toward answering the questions raised in my previous post – it doesn’t provide answers, but clues.  That will work for me.

The concept of free will since the 17th century (Ockham) is an indeterminate concept based on a mechanistic world view, operating in a causal vacuum.  It is a free will not directed at, influenced by, or determined by any causal forces at all.  This is the modern libertarian view.  This is a billiard-ball type universe, where all that must be considered are efficient and material causes.

The material cause: what is it made of?  The efficient cause: what brings the thing into being – what actualizes the potentiality?  These ignore the formal and final causes, introduce by Aristotle and further developed by Aquinas.

I have written of this thinnest view of libertarianism – can we be described as “free” if living in a manner other than that according to our nature?  It doesn’t make sense to me.  Therefore, those who find freedom in not being limited by this nature – in other words, in not believing in or ignoring the idea that there is a final cause for man – live in a mechanistic view of liberty, a view that seems to make impossible the idea of liberty.

We are nothing more than atoms randomly smashing together – there is no formal cause, there is no purpose, there are no ends at which we are to aim.  I recently saw some excerpts of Sam Harris saying exactly such a thing – and explaining why this means that we live under an illusion of free will, albeit – in his mind – a useful illusion.  Like those who are trapped in the Matrix, I guess.

It is hard to imagine intelligent people, when saying such things, actually believe these things.  I suspect people like Harris have found, when challenged, that maybe their made-up nonsense leads them to places from which there is no escape without dumping all justifications for anyone paying attention to them in the first place.

From Aquinas, the concept is based on intellectual inclination.  The emphasis is not on choosing, in a context where there are no causes effecting the choice; but of choosing where there are causes effecting the choice.  There is still choice.  This is a teleological worldview, where formal cause and final cause must be considered along with efficient and material cause.  The final causes lure you in a direction; there are formal causes – your own nature – inclining you in a natural direction, toward what is perceives as good.  Human beings are end-oriented, with an intention and inclination native to humans.

We have free will in accord with our nature, within the context of our formal cause and our final cause.  The formal cause: the form, structure, or pattern of the matter.  The final cause: what is the end, goal, or purpose of the thing? 

I am human; I do not have the freedom to be a planet or a bird.  Of course, this starts getting a bit dangerous to woke ears.  I am man; I do not have the freedom to become a woman – you know, dangerous ideas like that; in other words, many of the ideas that permeate society today.

I am made for a purpose.  A lion has a purpose; why should I not have one?  Me, an example of the only being on earth with the ability to consider that I have a purpose; am I not to have one?  What a pathetic joke that would be.  Cosmic teasing in perpetuity.  How can one look at his child and wish such a thing for him?

The contrast between libertarianism and Aquinas is not the proper distinction; instead, the conflict is between the mechanistic worldview vs. the teleological worldview.  Freedom is not in being in a vacuum and having to choose; it is in having an inner-directedness towards an end that you gladly, freely, spontaneously pursue.

This is the distinction: am I creature made with a purpose or telos, or am I the result of random atoms smashing together randomly.  If the former, my life affords the opportunity for meaning; if the latter…what’s the point.  Nihilism makes perfect sense if the latter.  If life has no objective meaning, all liberties – even the liberty to violate the non-aggression principle – are open to it.  If life does have objective meaning – a life aimed at final causes from which one cannot escape – then liberty cannot be defined strictly by the non-aggression principle.

So, the contrast isn’t between a strict libertarianism and Aquinas’s metaphysics.  This isn’t a possible set of options.  Strict libertarianism is not available to the nihilist, and strict libertarianism is insufficient for a human being with purpose.

If the ultimate end or good is God, then you have – on an Aristotelian basis – a non-Aristotelian end as the highest good.  The highest good for Aristotle was the actualization of a life lived in accordance with reason.  For Aquinas, the highest aim is to be like God – not a philosopher, but a saint!

Now we are getting into the part of the lecture that will offer me some clues.  But so far, it is a somewhere that isn’t satisfactory given the closing of my previous post: Aquinas is bathing in a worldview that believes that man is made in God’s image; that the greatest commandment is to love God with all your heart and soul, and to love your neighbor as yourself.  But must it be so?

For Aquinas, how to develop a good person – whose goodness bears resemblance to the likeness of God?  He places emphasis on the Four Cardinal [Natural] Virtues.  But he isn’t satisfied with these; he adds the Three Theological Virtues – dependent on Grace. 

It was suggested by RMB that I look up the meaning of these virtues in the Greek.  I will likely do so, but in a subsequent post; it will get too long if I include this here (I know, I just looked at one and it will take some unpacking).  Let’s just say that if we are a result of random atom-smashing, none of the virtues – Cardinal included – would seem to be useful.  They are only slightly useful unless considered in regard to others – let’s call this “other-regarding action.  This just for a start.

Here is where his Natural Law ethic comes in to play – a teleological conception of Natural Law.  The Natural Law written on the heart is written in the inclination of the heart – the natural inclinations towards…something; an ends-oriented natural law.

Our hearts are inclined toward what?  Both love and murder, I suppose.  From Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago:

The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either -- but right through every human heart -- and through all human hearts.

Yet, what is it we feel at the first glimpse of our newborn child?  I have to tell you, a smile comes to my face whenever I see a young couple cherishing a loved child.  Why is this?  Would I smile if I saw them beating the child?  Why not?  What of it for randomly-smashing atoms?

Returning to Holmes:

The natural law is accessible to all people.  What is it?  Do what is good, don’t do what is evil.  There are some things to be done, and some things to be avoided.  Further, what are the “good” natural inclinations: sexual intercourse, education, raising of offspring – we take these things to be good. 

One can see other-regarding action in each of these examples. 


Holmes goes further, offering that the Natural Virtues are somewhat impotent without the Theological Virtues.

A natural inclination to know the truth about God, to live in society: hence, we shun ignorance, avoid giving offense.  Aquinas develops all of this under the rubric of Love: what does the virtue of Love require?  The Theological Virtues effect the formation and exercise of the Natural Virtues.

And maybe this is the most important point.  Certainly, the Four Natural Virtues can exist without Faith, Hope and Love.  But will they sustain through time, from generation to generation, without Faith, Hope and Love?  What does this say about any hope for sustained liberty?  Interesting.  I cannot even write that question without leaning on one of the Theological Virtues. 

Further: I cannot put the Cardinal Virtues and my desire for liberty into practice without the Theological Virtues – why would I care about or hope for liberty sustained through time unless I possessed Faith, Hope and Love?


  1. If ‘telos’ (fulfillment) is the end of a goal-oriented process, then anything can result in telos. For instance, a young person can set a goal of becoming President of the United States, work for it through an entire life, and eventually attain it, thus achieving his ‘telos’. However, the way I see it, within the context of this blog, telos must mean something else—the end of a moral, spiritual, Christian-oriented life, lived not only for ourselves, but for everyone else as well.

    Marshner has this to say.

    “It orders one’s life (sets one’s priorities) by looking at first causes and ultimate purposes. A philosopher who turns his knowledge of these things to good moral account is a wise man by the natural standard. A Christian who turns his revealed knowledge of the first cause and last end to the good account called “living the faith” is a wise man by the revealed standard. Under either standard, a wisely lived life is an enlightened pursuit of fulfillment. They differ in whether the light that makes them enlightened is human or divine, a thing of this world (this world at its best) or a thing of Eternity.”

    In other words, in our quest for fulfillment, are we working for what we can achieve naturally or are we after what can only be seen in a spiritual sense? Do we work to become rich, famous, and celebrated in this life or is our goal to hear those words, “Well done...”, from the lips of Christ?

    Beatitudo (happiness, well-being, fulfillment) at the end of (or even during) a person’s quest for telos may be valid, but the ultimate end of human means is to become like God. With respect to this, I agree with Aquinas, not Aristotle. Like God, but not God, and how do we become like God except in the way we interact with other people? What will it benefit us if we get everything we want out of this life, but treat others as a means to that end? What good does it do to gain the whole world and lose your own soul? How can you say that you love God, if you hate your brother?

    I used to think that an appropriate epitaph for my life would be written, “He Made a Difference.” This would be a recognition of my accomplishments, a measure of my good deeds, an extremely prideful statement. Today, after 61+ years of life, I would prefer that people remember that, “He Learned to Love.”, the result of Divine Enlightenment. It’s been a long, hard road to get here, but learning how to love the way that God loves is slowly and surely becoming my Telos, and in the process, I am learning what Beatitudo really means.

    1. "Like God, but not God"

      I think this is a very important distinction. I agree with you. When people speak of becoming God or a god, it often means in actual practice that they become tyrants who can no longer sin, because God cannot sin, and well, they are God remember? A few of the notable heretical traditions of the Middle Ages fell into this trap. I think it is one of the may pitfalls the devil lays for us who strive to follow in Jesus' footsteps. It feeds upon the sin of pride.

    2. I have been reading a lot of C.S. Lewis lately. After I posted the comment above, I picked up his book, The Four Loves, and found this gem in the introduction.

      "St. John's saying that God is love has long been balanced in my mind against the remark of a modern author(M. Denis de Rougemont) that 'love ceases to be a demon only when he ceases to be a god'; which of course can be re-stated in the form 'begins to be a demon the moment he begins to be a god'. This balance seems to me an indispensable safeguard. If we ignore it, the truth that God is love may slyly come to mean for us the converse, that love is God."

      You talk about traps and pitfalls. This one would be very easy to fall into. If God is love, then love is God. Anything, everything which is love is God, therefore it doesn't matter what kind of love it is. Taken to its logical conclusion, if you love, you are God.

      Be aware! This is not a good road to go down. We must learn to love God, we must learn to love like God loves, but we must never allow love to become God.

  2. As I read Aquinas, Chesterton, and Lewis I have come to the conclusion that there is really no way to ignore that there is a God. Your concept of God may differ from mine, but it is mindless to argue that there is no God.

    So God wrote the four natural virtues on to the hearts of humans. Even little children will argue about fairness (Justice). It has been pointed out that no primate ever tries to draw a picture other than man. We don't go from monkeys doing poor art to mankind doing great art --- monkeys just don't draw. His point is that man is fundamentally different from the animals.

    The purpose of a lion is to be a lion. There are no sinful lions, only animals who follow their instincts. Humans can follow the virtues imprinted on their hearts ... or not. But the virtues are there and known to all men everywhere.

    Man's purpose is to become "sons of God". To become gods. This requires the three theological virtues and a ton of grace. We can become what God wants us to become via asking for his help; or reject Him.

    Ultimate liberty or freedom comes from union with God himself. We do not become a mere part of the body of God, but a full son of the Most High.

    God created a world where mankind could be free to do good or evil. God is the ultimate libertarian. Remember that the next time you want to legislate morality.

    The above thoughts are, no doubt, overly simplistic and many will be able to pick them apart. But at this point in my life, this is what I have come to believe reading the three I mentioned at the beginning plus my conversations with God himself.

    1. "...many will be able to pick them apart."

      I don't think so. I think you are on target and have hit the mark. I think that many will TRY to pick them apart, but will be unable and will expose their argument's weakness, which will allow them to be picked apart.

      Do not sell yourself short. I think you are doing just fine. Carry on!

  3. "This is the distinction: am I creature made with a purpose or telos, or am I the result of random atoms smashing together randomly." - BM

    Russell Kirk (and Eric Voegelin) would agree!

    "The great line of demarcation in modern politics, Eric Voegelin used to point out, is not a division between liberals on one side and totalitarians on the other. No, on one side of that line are all those men and women who fancy that the temporal order is the only order, and that material needs are their only needs, and that they may do as they like with the human patrimony. On the other side of that line are all those people who recognize an enduring moral order in the universe, a constant human nature, and high duties toward the order spiritual and the order temporal." - Russel Kirk, Ten Conservative Principles

    "Certainly, the Four Natural Virtues can exist without Faith, Hope and Love" - BM

    I wonder if the reverse is true? Can the higher virtues exist without the lower ones? I'm not sure that they can, even on the level of the individual person. On the level of a country or community, faith, hope and love will not protect us from invasion from without or criminality and corruption from within.

    "why would I care about or hope for liberty sustained through time unless I possessed Faith, Hope and Love?" - BM

    I suppose an intelligent utilitarian atheist would say that enduring liberty is worth pursuing because it does the most good (material, emotional) for the most people. But I think on some level, they would still be guided by the heavenly virtues. Why care about what's good for the most people? Why try and maximize happiness for others? Obviously there is some positive 'other-regarding' thought going on here - a tell-tale sign of divine grace.

    Great write up by the way. Loving it.

    1. "Why care about what's good for the most people?"

      Rather, who cares about what's good for most? Only those who stand to benefit from it or those who are driven by envy who think that taking someone down is raising everyone else up.

      In any event, the greatest good for the most people invariably means that someone has to suffer pain and loss. Someone has to lose so that everyone else can gain. This is not good. It becomes a zero sum game and leads to a society where the vast majority 'give' and a very few 'gain'.

      Not unlike our present system.

    2. Roger,

      You're certainly not wrong. Most often utilitarians are a totalitarian sort, fine with oppressing the minority so long as the majority is benefited by this oppression. And utilitarians always seem to find themselves in the latter category. Just look at Bentham's 'Panopticon' for insight into the mind of a pure utilitarian.

      Having said that, on some level, we are all utilitarians. One of the great justifications of the free market is that it tends to be a tide that lifts all ships, breaking the zero-sum game of the anti-market ideologies.

      Similarly I advocate for freedom because it is the most ethical political order, yes, but also because it works. If freedom didn't work, and its predictable result was always intolerable anarchy (of the Mad Max variety), I wouldn't waste my time on it.

      "leads to a society where the vast majority 'give' and a very few 'gain'." - Roger

      Funny how supposed utilitarian arrangements always lead to the condition you've identified. As Rothbard points out below, it has to do with the nature of a parasitic organism. In the same way that a parasite cannot become larger than its host without killing it, a corrupt ruling class cannot become larger than the citizenry it preys off of.

      "Since predation must be supported out of the surplus of production, it is necessarily true that the class constituting the State—the full-time bureaucracy (and nobility)—must be a rather small minority in the land, although it may, of course, purchase allies among important groups in the population. Therefore, the chief task of the rulers is always to secure the active or resigned acceptance of the majority of the citizens." - Rothbard, Anatomy of the State