The Moral Emotions and the Will

The Moral Emotions and the Will

The moral emotions are spontaneous inclinations by individuals towards others, but at the same time, they reflect some understanding of a pattern of social relationships, grounded in the way of life appropriate to creatures of a given kind. As such, they lead individual beings to act in such a way as to promote the overall well-being of the community, in and through appropriate interrelationships with one another. The formation of individual virtue and the promotion of communal well-being are thus bound up together, and distortions at either level are bound to have repercussions at the other level.

In my book on justice as a virtue, I looked at justice in Aquinas, starting with Aquinas’ claim that justice, as a virtue, is a perfection of the will. Aquinas continually returns to the idea that the will is directed towards actions that bring a person into relation with the external world and, critically, other people. Justice as a perfection of the will makes a person relate to others in the right way, out of a stable desire to respect the value and the claims of each individual. This approach allows Aquinas to develop a clear defense of the ideal of equality as the key to justice, and it also helps him interpret the requirements of justice as deontological, obligatory norms.

In the course of developing this reading of Aquinas, I drew on recent work on the moral emotions in the process of trying to account for the way in which the disposition of justice might emerge out of processes of development and interaction with others. In doing so, I obviously had to go beyond anything that Aquinas or his interlocutors would have known, but the general idea of a morally structured emotion or passion is not foreign to him, either, nor indeed is it foreign to Aristotle. Both are aware that the passion of anger is structured in accordance with a sense of justice, and Aquinas has interesting things to say about the relation between a properly human form of anger, and the kind of spontaneous indignation that we share with other kinds of animals. Taking Aquinas’ treatment of anger as a starting point, I argued that the moral emotions can be understood as passions, or more exactly inclinations of passions, understanding the passions in Aristotelian/Thomistic terms as capacities to respond with desire or aversion to immediate apprehensions of social relations. As such, the moral emotions by themselves cannot account for justice or morality, but they do provide the kind of framework of structured desires necessary if justice is to emerge.

Aquinas identifies the will as the characteristic appetite of the rational and intellectual part of the soul. As such, it has no direct counterpart in the capacities of non-rational animals, but it does have a kind of functional counterpart in the ensemble of animal passions, which operate together in such a way as to elicit appropriate operations. The passions of non-rational animals are innately oriented towards appropriate objects, but in addition, they also spontaneously operate in tandem, in accordance with an estimative sense, which prompts an overall response to a complex set of perceptions and desires. In this way, the animal’s perceptions and inclinations lead directly to appropriate, coordinated activities, naturally oriented towards its full development and operation as a creature of a certain kind. In contrast, the passions of the human creature do not spontaneously operate in such a way as to lead her to act in accordance with her overall good. This would seem to be true, even assuming that the agent’s passions are formed through virtuous habits, in such a way as to be oriented towards appropriate objects of desire and aversion. The passions and their characteristic virtues respond to the kinds of particular goods that we perceive through the senses, and in themselves, they cannot generate principles which would enable them to integrate diverse satisfactions and aversions in the necessary way. For this reason, the human creature, uniquely among material beings, needs an appetite directed towards her overall good, which integrates diverse inclinations towards particular goods into a higher-order inclination towards the good as such.

This appetite is of course the will, which is innately oriented towards a person’s overall existence and perfection as a creature of a certain kind. In contrast to the passions, which incline towards particular objects as perceived through the senses, memory, or imagination, the will inclines towards something judged to be good in accordance with a general, abstract conception of goodness. Thus the will, Aquinas argues, is a distinctively human kind of appetite because it depends for its operations on the distinctively human capacity of reason.

In order to appreciate the full significance of this point, we need to place it within the context of Aquinas’s comparative analysis of appetite and inclination as these are manifest at every level of existence. In my next post I will look at how the distinctively rational character of the will corresponds to its distinctive function within the operations that sustain human life.


Part II: The Will and the Moral Emotions – December 2, 2015.

Jean Porter is the John A. O’Brien Professor of Theological Ethics at the University of Notre Dame and a scholar with Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life.