On Truth and the Foundational Role of Precepts

Fresco Saint Thomas Aquinas
Fresco Saint Thomas Aquinas

Preface

(repeated for context, from yesterday’s Part 1 of this 2-part series)

The birth of the “new natural law theory”—whose two primary exponents are Germain Grisez and John Finnis—can be dated with some plausibility to 1965, the year in which Grisez’s article on the first principle of practical reason appeared in the journal then called Natural Law Forum. Over these fifty plus years, these two scholars have associated the theory with the thought of the Angelic Doctor with varying degrees of insistence. The article just mentioned calls itself a commentary on the relevant article in the Summa Theologiae of Thomas Aquinasand the first two—and most theoretical—volumes of Grisez’s now three-volume work The Way of the Lord Jesus both contain separate indexes to the works of St. Thomas, the first with over 650 entries. Finnis has published fairly recently a substantial volume entitled Aquinas: Moral, political, and legal theory, and the longest entry in the index of his more recent Collected Essays is dedicated to Aquinas. (Coming in at a close second is Aristotle, and this pair leave the rest of the field far behind.)

 

But, although certainly neither Grisez nor Finnis would ever reject out of hand a thesis proposed by Aquinas, they have both quite candidly declined to follow him in some important—even central—regards. Grisez, for instance, is critical of Thomas’s way of conceiving man’s ultimate end and Finnis maintains that “Aquinas’ efforts to follow Aristotle in classifying types of justice—its species, parts, and associated forms—yield no really clear and stable analytical pattern.”

 

Given, then, this situation, the present excerpt from a longer essay delivered at the Symposium Thomisticum in Paris, June 2016, does not address directly the question whether the new natural law theory as a whole is genuinely Thomistic: both Grisez and Finnis would be happy to acknowledge that, in certain regards, they depart from Thomas’s teaching. It considers rather specific interpretations of Thomas by Grisez and/or Finnis which the present author believes are mistaken. Showing that these interpretations are not consistent with Thomas’s thought is to present strong evidence that the new natural law theory ought not to be considered Thomistic. Here in this excerpt I briefly consider article 7 of question 64 of the secunda secundae, about “whether it is licit for someone to kill someone in self-defense.”

 

 On Truth and the Foundational Role of Precepts

(Part 2 of 2)

But, importantly for our larger argument, what makes the species of act identified as ‘telling the truth about oneself itself’—but not every act in that species—a good thing to do is its correspondence to the moral precept enjoining telling the truth (which is founded upon the natural inclination to tell the truth). As Thomas says in ST 2-2.64.7—quite nearly quoting ST 1-2.94.2—what makes the species ‘defending oneself’ (but not every act in that species) good is the fact that “it is natural to whatever thing to conserve itself in being as far as possible.” By virtue of this inclination, says Thomas in ST 1-2.94.2, “those things by which the life of a man is conserved and the contrary impeded pertain to the natural law.”

 

The rest of ST 2-2.64.7c follows this same pattern of citing precepts of the law in order to justify the theses put forward. For instance, as mentioned above, after his initial remarks about what gives species to acts of personal self-defense, Thomas says that even some acts of that species are illicit, for instance, when the agent uses more violence than is appropriate. Thomas then says that, if the self-defender “should repel a force moderately, the defense will be lawful, for, according to law, it is licit ‘to repel force by force,” provided it is “with the moderation of blameless self-protection.'” These latter two phrases—vim vi repellere and cum moderamine inculpatae tutelae—are both taken from a canon in Gregory IX’s Decretalium Collectiones.3 Thomas would not have maintained that this canon, qua canon in the Decretals, belonged to the natural law; but he would certainly have regarded it as consistent with the natural law, which itself (following Augustine) he recognized as consistent with the eternal law.

 

Thomas also finds support for his position regarding “the soldier fighting against foes” and “the minister of a judge fighting against a thief” in law: that is, in precepts. In the section of ST 2-2.64.7c where these officials are mentioned, he does not indicate this legal basis, but only because he has indicated it just previously, in ST 2-2.64.3, where he quotes in this regard a passage attributed to Augustine which found its way into a canon in the Decretum of Gratian.

 

The foundational role of precepts is also apparent in the objections and responses of ST 2-2.64.7. One example will suffice to make the point. The first objection quotes a letter by Augustine, although Thomas is apparently taking the quotation (again) from the Gratian’s Decretum, for it begins where the canon in Gratian begins, which is not the beginning of the letter. The objection cites the beginning of the canon in favor of its position that it is illicit for anyone to kill in self-defense. Writes Augustine:

 

Regarding the killing of men lest someone be killed by them, the suggestion that it is licit does not sit well with me, unless perhaps the person is a soldier or obliged by virtue of a public function, so that he would not do this on his own behalf but for others or for the city in which he finds himself, having acquired the proper authority, if it accords with his person.

 

The objection uses the canon in order to argue not just that personal but also that public self- defense is immoral, finding particular weight in Augustine’s point that even one who has the proper authority cannot kill “on his own behalf” [pro se].

 

In his response, Thomas ignores the suggestion that Augustine’s words might be used in favor of the thesis that even public killing in self-defense is immoral. He says simply: “the authority of Augustine is to be understood as applying to that case in which someone intends to kill a man in order to free himself from death” [ut seipsum a morte liberet] (as when a man plans to kill his neighbor because he fears that in the future he may be killed by him). He might have added that a person killing in self-defense on behalf of the public good and with public authority is (per se) not doing so in order to free himself from possible death. But he does not go into this: he simply explains how the relevant law (deriving its authority from Augustine) is to be understood.

 

Thomas, of course, does not believe that every law proposed by human legislators or by custom is good law. He holds to Augustine’s adage that an unjust law is no law at all. Good human law is law that is consistent with the natural law and with eternal law. But determining what is consistent with natural and eternal law is not—or not simply—a matter of considering the goods that human beings pursue; and determining what is an act in accordance with natural and eternal law is not—or not solely—a matter of considering what an agent intends in performing an act. One comes to understand what is good law by immersing oneself or being immersed, preferably from youth onwards, in a healthy moral culture, and assimilating—not uncritically—its laws and customs by performing actions in accordance with them. If one is a scholar, even a pale imitation of Thomas Aquinas, one will want to study the legal tradition and (especially) its sounder interpreters in order to be able to recognize instinctively what is consistent with the higher law and to reject what is inconsistent.

 


1Modern editions of the Summa theologiae direct readers to ST 2-2.43.3 and 1-2.72.1.

2John Finnis, Germain Grisez, and Joseph Boyle, “‘Direct and ‘indirect’: A reply to critics of our action theory,” Thomist 65 (2001): 18-19. They also say in the same place that “it is not surprising to find Aquinas [in ST 2-2.64.7] framing his solution to that problem in terms of ‘intention’ rather than ‘object.'”

3Aemilius Ludovicus Richter and Aemilius Friedberg, edd, Decretalium Collectiones, vol. 2 of Corpus Iuris Canonici (Leipzig: B. Tauchnitz, 1881), Decretal. Gregor. 9.5.12.18 (col.800-801).


Rev. Kevin Flannery , S.J., is Professor of the History of Ancient Philosophy, Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, and Scholar with Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.

Aquinas, self defense, and the new natural law

A statue of a woman holding the books of Thomas Aquinas
A statue of a woman holding the books of Thomas Aquinas.

Preface

The birth of the “new natural law theory”—whose two primary exponents are Germain Grisez and John Finnis—can be dated with some plausibility to 1965, the year in which Grisez’s article on the first principle of practical reason appeared in the journal then called Natural Law Forum. Over these fifty plus years, these two scholars have associated the theory with the thought of the Angelic Doctor with varying degrees of insistence. The article just mentioned calls itself a commentary on the relevant article in the Summa Theologiae of Thomas Aquinas, and the first two—and most theoretical—volumes of Grisez’s now three-volume work The Way of the Lord Jesus both contain separate indexes to the works of St. Thomas, the first with over 650 entries. Finnis has published fairly recently a substantial volume entitled Aquinas: Moral, political, and legal theory, and the longest entry in the index of his more recent Collected Essays is dedicated to Aquinas. (Coming in at a close second is Aristotle, and this pair leave the rest of the field far behind.)

 

But, although certainly neither Grisez nor Finnis would ever reject out of hand a thesis proposed by Aquinas, they have both quite candidly declined to follow him in some important—even central—regards. Grisez, for instance, is critical of Thomas’s way of conceiving man’s ultimate end and Finnis maintains that “Aquinas’ efforts to follow Aristotle in classifying types of justice—its species, parts, and associated forms—yield no really clear and stable analytical pattern.”

 

Given, then, this situation, the present excerpt from a longer essay delivered at the Symposium Thomisticum in Paris, June 2016, does not address directly the question whether the new natural law theory as a whole is genuinely Thomistic: both Grisez and Finnis would be happy to acknowledge that, in certain regards, they depart from Thomas’s teaching. It considers rather specific interpretations of Thomas by Grisez and/or Finnis which the present author believes are mistaken. Showing that these interpretations are not consistent with Thomas’s thought is to present strong evidence that the new natural law theory ought not to be considered Thomistic. Here in this excerpt I briefly consider article 7 of question 64 of the secunda secundae, about “whether it is licit for someone to kill someone in self-defense.”

 

Aquinas, self defense, and the new natural law

(Part 1 of 2)

Summa Theologiae 2-2.64.7
ST 2-2.64.7 by is about whether it is licit for a person to kill another while defending himself. In his response, Thomas makes a basic distinction between personal self-defense and what we might call “public self-defense.” (Thomas mentions a “soldier fighting against foes” and “the minister of a judge fighting against a thief”). He says that personal self- defense, in which the agent’s intention is not to kill but to preserve his life, can be licit, although some acts of personal self-defense are illicit, as when the agent uses more violence than is appropriate to that same end. On the other hand, public self-defense can be licit even if intended, although even this type of self-defense is rendered illicit if the agent is motivated by personal animosity.

 

The use of ST 2-2.64.7 by the advocates of new natural law theory is problematic in a way different from the way their (and, especially, Grisez’s) use of ST 1-2.94.2 is. Grisez agrees with ST 1-2.94.2 or, at least, with that article as interpreted by him; but he and the others, although frequently citing ST 2-2.64.7, are less than enthusiastic about the second part of its corpus. The new natural law theorists understand the first part of the corpus as supporting their thesis that the basis of natural law is human goods, as opposed to precepts. Says Thomas at the beginning of the article:

 

Nothing prohibits there being two effects of a single act, only one of which is within the intention [in intentione], the other being beside the intention [praeter intentionem]. Moral acts, however, take their species with respect to what is intended, not from that which is beside the intention, since this is per accidens, as is made clear above.1 So, from the act of someone who defends himself there can follow a double effect: one, the conservation of one’s own life; the other, killing of the aggressor.

Our authors understand Thomas to be saying here, with them, that the moral character of acts is determined by what is intended, that is, by the proposal that the acting person adopts by choice. But they also think that that principle ought to be applied quite generally within ethics itself and so also to the types of acts mentioned later in that corpus, so that also public self-defense would be licit only if not intended. They say (in a co-authored article) that the “main issue in questions about the permissibility of using force” is whether an outcome “is intended—is part of the chosen (adopted) proposal—or rather is a side effect.”2 They then quote the beginning of ST 2-2.64.7c (translating in intentione as “intended” and praeter intentionem as “a side effect”), after which they remark:

 

But the point is in no way limited to questions of defense of self or others. Quite generally: “morally significant acts get their species [species] not from what happens as a side effect [praeter intentionem], but from precisely what it is that one intends [per se intentum].”

 

What they say here, however, about the species of acts and about intention is difficult to square with what Thomas argues in ST 2-2.64.7c. In particular, their interpretation of the first part of that corpus, from which interpretation emerge key theses of their theory, is mistaken.

 

The intent of what follows is to show that the basis of Thomas’s argument in ST 2- 2.64.7 is the precepts—or the laws which find their foundation in the precepts—of which he speaks in ST 1-2.94.2. It does indeed appear that, when Thomas says at the beginning of ST 2-2.64.7 that moral acts “take their species with respect to what is intended, not from that which is beside the intention,” he means that the moral character of any human act comes from what the agent of that act intends. In fact, however, he is not making a point about the moral analysis of individual acts but rather about the taxonomy of types of acts.

Statue of the Madonna, St. Dominic and Thomas Aquinas on Charles
Statue of the Madonna, St. Dominic and Thomas Aquinas on Charles bridge in Prague

In ST 2-2.109.2, Thomas asks whether truth is a “special virtue” [specialis virtus]. He does not understand the word ‘special’ as we do today in English: his question is whether truth (or telling the truth) can be distinguished from other virtues, as in biology the species ‘bird’ can be distinguished from the species ‘fish.’ One of the objections in ST 2-2.109.2 argues that “the truth of life is called that by which someone lives rightly” but that this does not pick out a particular species of virtue since one lives rightly by any virtue. Thomas responds that he is not speaking about anything so general as “living rightly” but about the particular virtue “according to which someone speaks the truth” [ST 2-2.109.2 ad 3]. This virtue would be distinct not only from living rightly (because more specific) but also, for instance, from the virtue of courage. As he says in the corpus, “whenever in a human act there is found a special type [ratio] of goodness, it is necessary that man be disposed towards this by a special virtue.”

 

The second objection in ST 2-2.109.2 argues that “an act of truth” is an act by which a man makes manifest what pertains to himself; but this is found in any virtue, “since the habit of any virtue is made manifest by one’s own act”; therefore, truth is not a special virtue. Thomas’s response is couched in language that interests us:

 

The habits of the virtues and the vices are organized according to species from that which is intended per se, not from that which is per accidens and beside the intention [praeter intentionem]. That, however, someone makes manifest that which pertains to himself does indeed pertain to the virtue of truth as intended per se, although it can pertain to the other virtues as a consequence: beside the principal intention. A courageous man, for instance, intends to act courageously; but that someone acting courageously makes manifest the courage he possesses: this follows as a consequence beside his principal intention.

 

Thomas is speaking here not about the moral analysis of particular acts; he is not, that is, saying that the moral character of any particular act comes from what the agent intends.

 

He is saying rather that types of acts—which might be either virtuous or vicious—are “organized” or “sorted” [sortiuntur] into species by looking to what is intended per se by a hypothetical agent. Thomas acknowledges in the immediately preceding article that someone might tell the truth about himself, thereby doing something that pertains to the virtue of truth, and yet that act might be immoral in so far as its moral character is determined by some other factor, such as telling this truth without due cause. Similarly, as Thomas says in ST 2-2.64.7, one’s act might fall into the species of personal self-defense (a species of good acts), but that act might be rendered evil “if it is not proportionate to the end,” for instance, “if someone in defending his own life uses more force than is called for.”

 

 This post will continue tomorrow, with Part 2 of 2, “On Truth and the Foundational Role of Precepts.”


Rev. Kevin Flannery , S.J., is Professor of the History of Ancient Philosophy, Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, and Scholar with Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.

Virtue Talk Podcast: “Moral character of particular acts” – Fr. Kevin Flannery

VirtueTalklogo1Click the link below to hear our scholar and philosopher Fr. Kevin Flannery discuss his research in action theory, how we analyze whether an act is good or not within its context, and how his research is impacted by working within our project.

Kevin Flannery | Virtue Talk

Rev. Kevin Flannery , S.J., is Professor of the History of Ancient Philosophy, Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, and Scholar with Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life. Read more here.

WGM June 2016_20160606_2946
Fr. Kevin Flannery (center) at our June 2016 Working Group Meeting.

 

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Days 1-2 Working Group Meeting in Chicago – photos

Our 2nd working group meeting of scholars met June 6-10, 2016 at the University of Chicago in the beautiful Neubauer Collegium for Culture and Society. Although the sessions were closed, you can read our scholars’ abstracts for their June Meeting Topics here and see more photos up in our Flickr album for the week.

 

 

Questions our scholars are asking – round two

20130301_View_From_Biology_WEB_1

This coming week (June 6-10, 2016, at the Neubauer Collegium at the University of Chicago) is the second of four meetings for our  scholars (the first was December 2015 at the University of South Carolina). These meetings are immersive experiences for these scholars, who are philosophers, theologians, and psychologists; the meetings are aimed at generating systematic and integrated knowledge, including ultimately a new construct for empirical research on self-transcendence, new instruments of assessment, and new data.

 

Here are summaries of the questions and research our scholars will be discussing with each other in the coming week.

 

Matthias Haase: Can virtue be cultivated like a habit?

 

Tahera Qutbudden: Can one enjoy a happy and pleasurable life in this world while also preparing for the next?

 

Jennifer A. Frey: Is selfishness a particular kind of vice, or the nature of vice?

 

David Schatz: Is ignorance always a vice, or can it also be a virtue?

 

Heather C. Lench: Can boredom lead us to virtue?

 

David Carr: Does spirituality have a material dimension, and if so, can it be developed and educated?

 

Mari Stuart: Can the indigenous knowledge reflected in a moral ecology worldview teach things that climate science cannot?

 

Jean Porter: Can malice, like virtue, also give meaning to life?

 

Erik Angner: Is social well-being the same thing as happiness?

 

Paul Wong: Is it possible to measure Self-Transcendence?

 

Katharine Kinzler: Can infant food preferences teach us about the social world?

 

Mark Berman: Do ugly surroundings encourage criminal behavior?

 

Angela Knobel: Can the notion of virtue as a gift from God have broad appeal?

 

Father Thomas Joseph White: Can Aquinas help us understand Nietzsche’s ideas about truth and moral freedom?

 

Michael Gorman: Is a meaningful life also necessarily a good life?

 

Nancy Snow: Is magnificence—expenditure for the public good—virtuous, or vicious? Can it be both?

 

Tal Brewer: Are human beings irreplaceable, and due special forms of regard and good treatment?

 

Dan McAdams: What is the difference between habit and character? Do we narrate these things about ourselves in different ways?

 

Reinhard Hütter: How do we overcome the lure of self-sovereignty that surrounds us and attain true self-transcendence?

 

Father Kevin Flannery: What is the relationship between intention, choice, and virtue?

 

 

Recap: 1st Working Group Meeting, days 3, 4, and 5

Nancy Snow, Dan P. McAdams; Reinhard Huetter, Paul Wong, Fr. Thomas Joseph White; David Shatz, Michael Gorman; Matthias Haase, Talbot Brewer; Candace Vogler;  Reinhard Huetter, Mari Jyväsjärvi Stuart, Marc G. Berman;  Marc G. Berman, Heather C. Lench; Reinhard Huetter, Talbot Brewer; Fr. Thomas Joseph White, Paul Wong; Mari Jyväsjärvi Stuart, Heather C. Lench; Reinhad Huetter, Nancy Snow; Michael Gorman, Jennifer A. Frey; Candace Vogler, Michael Gorman; Jennifer A. Frey, Jaime Hovey, Matthias Haase; Kristján Kristjánsson; Erik Angner; Dan P. McAdams; Jennifer A. Frey; Mari Jyväsjärvi Stuart, Jean Porter; Mari Jyväsjärvi Stuart; Marc G. Berman, Dan P. McAdams; Fr. Kevin Flannery, Matthias Haase;  Erik Angner, Jennifer A. Frey; Kristján Kristjánsson, Paul Wong; Jennifer A. Frey, Matthias Haase)

For more photos, visit our “December 2015 Working Group Meeting” Flickr album.

Welcome to our first working group meeting (December 14-19, 2016).

On Wednesday Father Thomas Joseph discussed the relationship between grace and nature, and Paul Wong talked about measuring happiness. In the afternoon Marc Berman discussed his research on nature restoration theory, or how nature commands attention from the mind in a way that restores cognitive energy and creativity. Michael Gorman discussed a purposeful life, and how sometimes we need to stop and listen rather than throw ourselves into “doing something.”

 

On Thursday Nancy Snow and her collaborator Jennifer Cole Wright discussed their work on measuring ordinary virtues. In the afternoon, Eric Angner spoke on the science of “happiness,” and Reinhard Hütter talked about doing without religion and the virtue of religion.

 

Friday morning Dan McAdams presented his work on stories of generativity, or the commitment to future generations. Jennifer Frey talked about happiness as a constitutive principle of action in the work of Aquinas. On Friday afternoon Mari Stuart spoke on Hindu moral ecology in an era of climate change, and the meeting week ended with Matthias Haase discussing G. E. M. Anscombe’s “stopping modals” and the necessity for justice.