Jacques Maritain Center: Ethics Without God?

"Is Ethical Naturalism Possible in Thomas Aquinas?"

Anthony J. Lisska
Denison University

Part One: Introduction

The role of philosophical anthropology in the moral theory of Thomas Aquinas is a hotly debated issue in contemporary Aquinas studies. Proponents of what has been called "the New Natural Law" argue that an analysis of practical reason without an ontological foundation is sufficient in order to develop a theory of natural law fully compatible with the insights of Aquinas. Other philosophers question this method of analysis on the texts of Aquinas.

In this paper, I wish to probe what I take to be the metaphysical underpinnings of Aquinas's moral theory. The argument fundamentally is that Aquinas's moral theory is a second order inquiry based squarely on the metaphysical foundations of his natural kind ontology. The philosophical queries to be considered are the following:

The argument of this paper is that, in opposition to analytic philosophers like Myles Burnyeat, one can develop a persuasive dialectic for natural kind theory based on Aquinas's analysis of form. This depends upon the necessity of synthetic a priori causal properties. Secondly, if one takes these properties fundamentally as dispositional in mode, one has a method for transcending the limits of G. E. Moore's infamous naturalistic fallacy.{1} The important claim to be articulated is a natural kind ontology grounded in dispositional properties. Thirdly, using what Father Gauthier once called "the metaphysics of finality," one can develop a theory of obligation based upon a dispositional theory of human nature. Lastly, one must distinguish between an ontology of natural kinds and an ontology entailing divine existence. The scope of these two metaphysical questions is, I suggest, distinct. In some respects, this analysis is a "new look" at some "old questions" in natural law theory.

By discussing the role of form as a necessary condition for establishing synthetic necessary properties, which are dispositional in structure, one has a way of articulating and defending ethical naturalism in the moral theory of Thomas Aquinas. This defense proposes a way to develop a theory of obligation, which depends on a natural kind ontology.

It is important to recall that Aquinas, as a university academic, always defended the use of reason in what he called philosophical inquiries. Note the following passage:

The professional academic disputation is designed not for removing error but for teaching, so that those listening may be lead to an understanding of the truth with which the professor (magister) is concerned. And here one must rely upon reasons, reasons that track down the root of the truth and create a real knowledge of how it is that the assertions of the professor are true. Otherwise, if a professor settles questions by bare authority, listeners are indeed told that such and such is so, but they gain nothing in the way of knowledge or understanding (scientia vel intellectus), and go away from the lecture empty. (Quodl. IV, Q. 9, a. 3){2}

Simon Tugwell once remarked about the role of rational argument in Thomas's writings:

(Thomas) believed that the best way to discover the truth is to have a good argument.(and that while) he reacted sharply to stupidity and intellectual incompetence, he did not adopt the strident tones of self- conscious orthodoxy rebuking the errors of everyone else, as it were, ex cathedra. He preferred to engage his opponents in a common search for the truth, and this may well have brought him closer to the philosophers, just as it set him at odds with his critics among the theologians, some of whom at least where deeply suspicious of the amount of philosophy involved in his theology.{3}

It is to advance this rational method articulating arguments in Thomas that this essay is directed.

Part Two: Natural Law, Practical Reason and Metaphysical Foundationalism: Problems for the New Natural Law Theory

Twentieth century analytic philosophy proposed rather trenchant criticisms about moral theories rooted in natural law. It is to some of these worries that Germain Grisez and John Finnis address in what has been called "the New Natural Law." These include, I suggest, the naturalistic fallacy, the is/ought problem, the role of moral intuition, and the autonomy of moral reasoning, among others.

The following comments begin this discussion on the "new natural law theory."

While I do not wish to beg any questions here, nonetheless there are issues in Aquinas on the distinction between speculative and practical reason that Finnis and Grisez, among others, need to consider. Aquinas adroitly addresses the role of speculative reason and its direction toward "knowing" that is part and parcel of both his and Aristotle's position on ethical naturalism and its connection with human nature. The "New Natural Law Theory" is what Ralph McInerny perspicuously once referred to as "Natural Law without nature."

Robert George's essay "Natural Law and Human Nature" in his anthology, Natural Law Theory: Contemporary Essays{4} attempts to refute the metaphysical foundation approach and defend the Grisez-Finnis rendition of natural law theory. George articulates a distinction between "ontological" and "epistemological" issues, and he believes that this distinction sheds light on what Finnis/Grisez attempt to undertake in their "revisionist" position on natural law in Thomas Aquinas. Ultimately, I suggest that George's argument will not wash for the following reasons:

The Role of Metaphysics:

In discussing the role of metaphysics in Aquinas and natural law theory, several distinctions must be made. This is not to deny the importance of the claims about the necessity of metaphysical inquiry as a foundation for Aquinas's moral theory. However, it seems to me that some Thomist critics adopt a particular metaphysical paradigm and they argue that this scheme is necessary for an underpinning of natural law theory in Aquinas. I think a distinction needs to be made between at least two kinds of metaphysical inquiry:

Approaches to Studying Aquinas:

There are at least three ways of approaching the study of Aquinas:

  1. Traditional Thomism: This is the way of proceeding with the texts of Aquinas carried out by faculty and their students of the many scholastic institutes in both North America and Europe. What is called "Transcendental Thomism" is a sub-set of this division.
  2. Analytic Thomism: This way of approaching Aquinas is rooted in the philosophical questions and problems put forward primarily by English speaking philosophers in the twentieth century.
  3. Post-Modern Thomism: This would be an approach to Thomas suggested by Milbank and Pickstock, among others, especially as developed in their book, Truth in Aquinas.{10}

I approach Aquinas by means of analytic Thomism, and that modus operandi will become obvious in this analysis. I do this because, in my philosophical judgment, Aquinas's natural law moral theory is an important philosophical position that needs to reach as wide an audience as possible.

Part Three: Burnyeat on Incomprehensibility of Form in Aquinas

Our next set of issues concerns how to justify philosophically a theory of essence, which for St. Thomas depends on a theory of substantial form. There have been several recent critiques of the concept of form in Aristotelian philosophy. One of the more prominent is a much circulated essay, "Is An Aristotelian Philosophy of Mind Still Credible?" where Myles Burnyeat argued that, for various reasons, Aristotelian ontology is not credible, and moreover " ought to be junked."{11} This wholesale "junking" applies equally to the moral theory articulated by Thomas Aquinas insofar as natural law moral theory depends on a theory of essence that is based on substantial form. Burnyeat bases his conclusions on what he takes to be a rejection by modern philosophy of Aristotelian hylomorphism. He suggests that modern philosophy, riding on the coattails of the rise of the new science, rejected unequivocally any theoretical significance for matter and form put forward in medieval philosophy. Matter was no longer the "enformed" matter characteristic of medieval Aristotelianism. The demise of matter/form ontology entails the rejection of any theory of ethical naturalism in Thomas, since this ethical naturalism depends foundationally on some acceptance of matter and form. Simply put, Burnyeat argued that a theory of ontological hylomorphism is neither acceptable nor understandable by contemporary philosophers. Burnyeat, furthermore, appeared to argue against what he took to be the materialist/physicalist account of Aristotle put forward by Richard Sorabji.{12} Burnyeat argues for three points:

  1. The only way for Aristotle -- and Aquinas -- to be coherent on philosophy of mind and ontology issues is to argue for some "spiritual" reception of forms.
  2. Accepting "a" entails that some version of Cartesianism is necessary for an adequate philosophy of mind and ontology. The Sorabji materialist position is by definition incompatible with Cartesianism.
  3. The rise of the new science in the seventeenth century, with its theory of corpuscular matter, did away with any semblance of ontological hylomorphism. Hence, if Aristotelian philosophy of mind and ontology depend on hylomorphism, then they too must be junked.{13} And if ethical naturalism depends on a hylomorphic ontology, then it too must be junked.

This analysis proposes two rejoinders to what Burnyeat affirmed concerning the rejection of a philosophical theory of form. Both suggest that contemporary philosophy must take seriously the issue of the formal structures of reality. The first is drawn from the writings of Everett J. Nelson, with special emphasis on his "The Metaphysical Presuppositions of Induction."{14} Nelson argues that scientific laws require synthetic necessary (a priori) categories of causality and substance. What Nelson proposes is similar structurally to the Aristotelian concepts of formal cause and primary substance found in the writings of Thomas Aquinas. Hence, matter is "structured" in a formal way.

Secondly, the recent work of Hilary Putnam{15} and John Haldane{16} suggests that the model of efficient causality prominent in early modern philosophy -- and adopted in principle by Burnyeat with his rejection of matter/form ontology -- fails to provide an adequate foundation for perception theory in the philosophy of mind. Haldane argues that what contemporary philosophy of mind requires is a return to the Aristotelian hylomorphism found in the writings of Thomas. Haldane writes: "I will proceed boldly and suggest that progress (in the philosophy of mind) may be achieved by making use of the ancient doctrine of hylomorphism."{17} Haldane argues that "formal identity" between mind and thing is a necessary condition in order for awareness to be "veridical" in any significant sense of the term. Therefore, the philosophical dialectic Haldane proposes requires some account of form in order for a theory of perception to hang together theoretically.

This paper argues that Burnyeat's rejection of Aristotelian ontology theory based on what he believes modern theories of matter entail will not pass muster in either contemporary metaphysics or philosophy of mind. Insofar as Nelson and Putnam/Haldane argue for the necessity of "enformed" matter, both offer rejoinders to Burnyeat's thesis. A discussion of matter/form ontology articulated in the writings of Aquinas offers important insights for several issues discussed in contemporary analytic philosophy. Moreover, since substantial form is a necessary condition for developing a theory of natural kinds, and since Thomas's ethical naturalism is dependent upon a concept of natural kinds, it follows that the establishment of the ontological necessity for form is a necessary condition for undertaking a justification of ethical naturalism.

Part Four: Everett J. Nelson and Synthetic Necessary Properties: A Realist Ontology

I propose that we consider reestablishing the importance of form in contemporary metaphysical discussions through an analysis of the Nelson's arguments postulating the necessity of synthetic necessary causal properties. This work is propaedeutic to what is necessary for ethical naturalism in Thomas.

In opposition to the prevalent "event ontologies" proposed by Russell and Ayer, among others, in early analytic philosophy, Nelson argued for an ontology rooted in substance. These substances, moreover, had synthetic necessary causal connections between them that justified inductive knowledge. In his "The Relation of Logic to Metaphysics," Nelson suggested that ". . . a function of philosophy is to reveal the presuppositions of our beliefs about the world and to construct a hypothesis which satisfies these presuppositions and interrelates those to all fields of knowledge."

{18} In his American Philosophical Association Presidential address, Nelson asked the following question important for any realist philosophy: "Just what must the principle of induction assert about the formal structure of the world in order that it and the empirical data, taken together, would entail the likelihood of the conclusion?" {19} Nelson argued that a justified principle of induction requires as a necessary condition ". . . the truth of some non-empirical principle that entails that the world or course of events embodies a type of unity that can ground laws and such that instances of them are evidence for them." {20} The realist thrust of Nelson's ontology is readily apparent. He proposed formal structures to reality, a metaphysical claim denied by Burnyeat.

Nomic and Accidental Universal Propositions

Nelson postulated real connections of causality in order to justify what he took to be the real distinction between "nomic universal propositions" and "accidental universal propositions." A nomic universal proposition would be a genuine law-like statement. An accidental universal proposition would be a general statement based on a property that does not generate a law-like proposition.

Examples of nomic universal propositions would be something like the following:

Examples of accidental universal statements would be something like the following:

According to Nelson, only a nomic universal proposition will hold under the scrutiny of a "contrary to fact" or "subjunctive conditional" statement. For instance, we might state categorically: "Were this an acid and a base, it would yield a soluble salt and water." Under normal conditions, we cannot imagine an instance in chemistry when an acid and a base would not yield a soluble salt and water. An acid and a base are causally connected in virtue of what their predicates signify in rerum natura.

Conversely, the same contrary to fact or subjunctive conditional will not hold for an accidental universal proposition. "Were there a chair in this room, it would necessarily be blue." There is nothing about being a chair in this room that necessitates that it be blue. It might be brown, purple, red, green, the popular mauve of a decade ago, or whatever. A Franciscan Missionary of Mary in Northern Alaska might own a SUV and use a cell phone in order to make her ministry rounds in the winter season over the frozen tundra; one would hardly call her a "Yuppie"! One can disconfirm easily any accidental universal proposition.

A contrary to fact conditional, however, will hold for nomic universal propositions. Nelson considers this linguistic fact to be an Aristotelian aporia -- a puzzling philosophical quandary. Nelson questioned vigorously the then predominant empiricist tradition in analytic philosophy. Berkeley, Hume, Mill, Ayer, Russell some of the time, and C.I. Lewis, among others, could not justify this distinction regarding general propositions. Nelson suggests that this is a real, categorical distinction and an ontological difference that must be justified. Nelson reminds one of Aristotle's Categories [1b] where Aristotle affirms the distinction between properties "said of" and properties "found in" primary substances. Properties "said of" are reducible to nomic universal statements; these are the sets of essential properties that determine a natural kind. On the other hand, properties "found in" are reducible to accidental universal properties. These properties do not determine the essence of the thing but are related, as Aquinas would say, in a per accidens manner to the individual.

Synthetic Necessary Connections in the World.

Nelson's concern was directed at the issue concerning the validity of induction, which he called "the metaphysical presuppositions of induction." Nelson proposed that the distinction between nomic and accidental universal propositions can be affirmed only if we assume that some ontological categories are true of the world. The connection between an acid and a base, for instance, is more than an accidental grouping of properties. It is not, so Nelson argues, merely a randomly assembled class of properties. The connection, moreover, is not reducible to an analytic proposition, because the causal connection between an acid and a base does not depend on the use of language. The category of cause is not reducible to a linguistic or conceptual connection, although Nelson uses a linguistic criterion to show that a nomic universal proposition holds. Nelson's account is similar to what Saul Kripke, in Naming and Necessity, once called the "metaphysically necessary."{21} Kripke calls the "metaphysically necessary" a truth that is dependent on reality. This concept is not a mere convention of human language. Hence, the "metaphysically necessary" is not coextensive with the semantic notion of "analytic necessity" common in English speaking philosophy since Hume. Kripke suggests that the proposition, "Water is H2O," is a metaphysically necessary truth because something would not be water if it were not H2O. This is the essence, or what Kripke calls the "natural kind" of water. This structure is the nature of the kind of thing water is, and it is, Kripke argues, true in all possible worlds. Kripke's concept of metaphysically necessary seems commensurate with what Aquinas holds. For Aquinas, like Aristotle, an account of an essence is more than a modal necessity. Aquinas intends a de re (about things) necessity and not a de dicto (about language) necessity. This de re necessity entails a synthetic necessary claim about the nature of reality. There are real, causal connections in the world, which causal connections Aquinas grounds in his concept of substantial form.

If the causal connection is not analytic, then it must be synthetic. Furthermore, since it is necessary, it cannot be a posteriori. Nelson argues, therefore, that this connection, using Kant's terminology but in a non-Kantian context, is synthetic a priori or synthetic necessary. It is a necessary connection, but one which is true of the world. Nelson suggests that his theory of causal necessities " . . . asserts that there is something that transcends what a phenomenalist, positivist, or strict empiricist would be willing to admit." {22} Again, the realist overtones of Nelson's ontology are apparent.

The absence of causal connections in a metaphysical system, Nelson argues, entails the following philosophical paradoxes

In fact, the assumption that there are only factual uniformities leaves us with a chaos:
(a) ontological because everything would be completely independent of everything else:
(b) epistemological because no inferential knowledge beyond the immediately given would be possible. {23}

Nelson concludes his analysis with the following remarks: "If the theory of the presuppositions of induction . . . is at least in principle sound, the only alternative to scepticism is the acknowledgment that some non- empirical metaphysics is true."{24} Commenting on the structure of Nelson's argument, Morris Weitz once wrote that each ontological category Nelson presented " . . . is presupposed as part of a network of ontological features without which our ordering of experience is incoherent . . .; they . . . are the very ontological features and structures which make knowledge possible." {25}

Hence, Nelson affirms that ontological presuppositions are necessary if inductive knowledge is to be explained. Inductive knowledge, if it attains law-like statements, requires nomic universal propositions. Nomic universal propositions require the category of real causal connections. And these causal relations, which are synthetic a priori connections in the world, are rooted in a substance. Nomic universal propositions presuppose an ontology of causal entities. These causal entities are the formal causal structures of the world. This is what Aquinas meant by a forma substantialis. Nelson argues that a presupposition of mere uniformities alone is never sufficient to account for inductive knowledge. In his "A Defense of Substance," Nelson once wrote that the category of substance provides " . . . the connection presupposed by the stable compresence of qualities and . . . of dispositional properties [as well as] to connect the successive states of a series exemplifying a law." {26}

Weitz suggested that the theme running through Nelson's ontological studies was the search for what Weitz called "the grounds of sense."{27} In other words, how do philosophers go about making sense knowledge hang together in a consistent and thoughtful manner? For Nelson, the ultimate ontological category is substance. Like a primary substance in Aristotle and Aquinas, substance for Nelson is ". . . the ground of power, stability, order and causality in the world."{28}

Therefore, what Nelson calls a synthetic necessary causal connection is similar structurally to what Aquinas means by a substantial form. A substantial form in Aquinas's metaphysics ties together the real connections in the world of sense. Without a substantial form, Aquinas could not argue for the difference between essential and accidental predications, or for a difference in properties upon which the predications are asserted. Nelson suggests that analytic philosophy, finely wrought, cannot sustain itself without metaphysical assumptions. Aquinas would say the same about medieval Aristotelian philosophy. For Nelson, the two fundamental ontological categories are causality and substance. For Aristotle and Aquinas, the two categories are substantial form and primary substance. Weitz nicely summed up this issue with the following words:

Now since induction presupposes cause and cause presupposes substance, . . . [Nelson's] solution for the validity of induction is a world that, whatever else it may have, contains synthetic causal connections among certain events that are unified in a substantive manner."{29}

Hence, if nomic universal propositions are valid, it follows that reality must be structured by an ontological category of form. This analysis of induction put forward by Nelson offers one refutation to the Burnyeat thesis. This is, therefore, a dialectic that establishes the ontological necessity for the existence of natural kinds. This natural kind metaphysics is a necessary condition for ethical naturalism in Aquinas.

Part Five: John Haldane and Hilary Putnam on Formal Cause

A second way of approaching the need for form in contemporary philosophical discussions is to approach the issue through the lenses of contemporary philosophy of mind. Writing about Aristotle and Aquinas, John Haldane wrote recently that there is "no epistemology without ontology."{30} Haldane further suggests that there is a different architectonic of proceeding in Aristotle and Aquinas than what one finds in most modern philosophy:

Our knowledge of the external world is the starting point for philosophical reflection, the task of which is not to justify this knowledge but to explain it; to give an account of the scope of cognition, its genesis and its operations."{31}

In his "A Return to Form in the Philosophy of Mind,"{32} Haldane developed a fascinating analysis of the importance of form for contemporary philosophy of mind. In this essay, Haldane takes his cues from the work of three philosophers who recently have defended some version of direct realism: Donald Davidson, John McDowell and Hilary Putnam. From Davidson, Haldane accepts "the anomality of the mental," which suggests the non- reducibility of the psychological to the physical. From McDowell and from Putnam, Haldane accepts the double claim that any form of representationalism is false and that efficient causation alone is insufficient to explain the possibility of knowledge. These positions are different sides of the same coin. In his analysis of contemporary philosophy of mind, Haldane appeals to his "making use of the ancient doctrine of hylomorphism."{33} Haldane expresses his judgments on these issues in the following passage:

Clearly input from the world is relevant and is in part at least a matter of efficient causation. However, if there is to be the sort of conformity of mind to thing which Putnam and McDowell seek, then I can only see this being provided according to an account of the sort developed by Aquinas when he writes that the intellect in act is the intelligible in act; or less scholastically, that a thought will only be of a thing when it is formally identical with it; when what we think and what is thought are the same.{34}

This is nothing other than a statement of what Aquinas proposed and what later philosophers, under the influence of Brentano, have called a theory of intentionality. The principal statement of this theory is that knowledge is the "having of a form of another without its matter." In his Commentary on Aristotle's On the Soul, Aquinas asserts that the "receiving of a form without matter" is the ontological ground for distinguishing esse naturale from esse intentionale:

Sense receives form without matter, since form has a mode of being in sensation different from that in the sensible object. For in the sensible object, it has natural being (esse naturale), while in the sense faculty it has intentional being (esse intentionale).

Commentary on the Soul, #553

In the twentieth century, Peter Geach and Anthony Kenny often emphasized the ontological differences between esse reale/naturale and esse intentionale. Kenny, moreover, once wrote the following about this distinction put forward by Aquinas:

Aquinas's doctrine of the intentional existence of forms remains one the most interesting contributions ever made to the philosophical problem of the nature of thought.{35}

What does this entail? Intentionality theory requires that the capacity to know be considered a "primitive" in one's ontology of knowing. This immaterial reception of forms grounding the possibility of intentionality is an example in Aquinas of what Roderick Chisholm once called ". . . a funny kind of characteristic that ordinary physical things don't have."{36} "Taking on the form of another without matter" entails that there is an isomorphism of structure between the form of the thing and the form as known in the mind. One must take Aquinas literally here -- there is a strict, formal identity of form between the knower and the known. This is what Aquinas means when he claims that "Sensus in actu est sensible in actu," and "Intellectus in actu est intelligible in actu." What makes knowledge possible is that the form known is identical with the form in the thing. This holds for both sense knowledge and intellectual knowledge. Haldane writes the following about this set of claims:

What does this mean? And how is it possible? It means that when I think of something, that which makes my thought to be the kind of thought it is . . . is formally identical to that which makes the object of my thought to be the kind of thing it is. . . . The form of dog (what I would call the foundation for the natural kind of dog) exists naturally and substantially (in esse naturale) in the dog, and intentionally and predicatively (in esse intentionale) in the thought.{37}

Haldane argues, much like Putnam and McDowell, that efficient causation alone will never be able to explain the possibility that we know things in the external world. Haldane writes "the difficulty is insurmountable so long as one is confined to efficient causation."{38} Concerning the necessity of isomorphism in order to ground the very possibility of knowledge, Wilfred Sellars once wrote the following: "I believe it must be granted that unless the sensation of a white, triangular thing were in some way isomorphic with its external cause, knowledge of the physical world would be impossible."{39} Burnyeat accepts efficient causation as a sufficient explanation for knowing. Haldane and Sellars argue that some notion of form is necessary or else scepticism once again will rule the philosophical roost. This requires some account of formal cause. Hence, we discover another rejoinder to the Burnyeat thesis arguing that any concept of form for matter renders hylomorphic ontology junkable. Therefore, within analytic philosophy itself, from Everett Nelson's synthetic necessary causal connections of causality and from Wilfred Sellars and John Haldane's requirement of form in order to explain knowing, it is apparent that the concept of form in matter, especially as found in the writings of Aquinas, is not irreconcilable with the requirements of contemporary analytic philosophy of mind and ontology. Therefore, a necessary condition for ethical naturalism -- the establishment of a substantial form defining the foundation for the set of essential properties -- is justifiable philosophically.

Part Six: Thomas Aquinas and the Summa Theologiae

Given the extensive published material on the recent renaissance of natural law, one needs to consider briefly the old questions of natural law and how they relate to the new look of contemporary philosophy rooted in a theory of natural kinds. This is a return to the classical canon of natural law theory, which are the relevant passages in Questions 90-97 from the Prima Secundae of the Summa Theologiae of Thomas Aquinas. This account is similar structurally to the ethical naturalism articulated by Thomas in his Commentary on the Nicomachean Ethics. Father Gauthier established that Aquinas wrote the Prima Secundae and the Commentary on the Ethics at about the same time.{40} Simon Tugwell writes, " . . . the commentary on Aristotle's Ethics, at least in its final form, seems to be related to the composition of the second part of the Summa."{41} In the Prima Secundae, Aquinas defines law in the following way: "Law, of its very nature, is an ordinance of reason for the common good, which is made by the person who has care of the community, and this law is promulgated."{42} Certainly there are historical antecedents to Aquinas on natural law, but that discussion is beyond the limits of this inquiry.{43}

There are two principal points that I wish to address in Aquinas's account of ethical naturalism, which is rooted in the works of Aristotle: the foundation in a theory of the human person and the requirement of reason as opposed to voluntarism.

Foundation in the Human Person:

Aquinas bases his moral theory, and a fortiori his theory of human or positive law and his derivative theory of human rights, on the foundation of the human person as an instance of a natural kind. Aquinas argues that a human person is, by definition, a substantial unity grounding a set of potentialities or capacities or dispositions. The substantial form is the ontological ground for this set of dispositional properties. Aquinas divides these capacities into three generic headings, which serve as the basis of this theory of natural kinds for human persons. This is Aquinas's account of human nature -- the human natural kind -- which is based upon the insights of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics.{44}

  1. The set of Living Dispositions [what we share with plants];
  2. The set of Sensitive Dispositions [what we share with animals];
  3. The set of Rational Dispositions [what renders us unique in the material realm].

A natural right is the protection that prevents, in principle, the hindering of the development of the basic human dispositions. Considered briefly, a living disposition is the capacity or drive all living beings have to continue in existence. In human persons, this capacity is to be protected; hence, a "right" is developed based on the dispositional property of living. Had we humans been created or evolved (e.g., the Rationes Seminales of Augustine) differently, there would be a different set of rights. A right is what it is because human nature is what it is. This analysis is similar structurally to what H. L. A. Hart in his the Concept of Mind called the human right to the protection against violence.{45}

In a similar fashion, one of the rational dispositions Aquinas considered is the drive human beings have to know -- our innate curiosity to know and to understand. Aquinas suggests that this disposition is only developed when human persons know propositions that are true. Hence, human persons have a "right" to the truth. Again, rights protect what we are as human persons. I recall that Finnis once argued, for instance, that college faculty have an obligation not to teach that which is known to be false, because this fractures the right to true propositions, which right students as human persons possess intrinsically. Finnis offered the same principle for political, academic, and religious leaders. This is based upon the classic position of "a conception of human dignity and worth, precisely as it bears on the interpersonal act of communication." {46}

The English Dominican, Columba Ryan, once wrote that these three general aspects of human nature are "the good of the individual survival, biological good, and the good of human communication."{47} Martin Golding referred to the living dispositions as the "basic requirements of human life," the sensitive dispositions as the "basic requirements for the furtherance of the human species," and the rational dispositions as "the basic requirements for the promotion of [a human person's] good as a rational and social being." {48} In his Aquinas, Finnis writes as follows:

The order Aquinas has in mind is a metaphysical stratification: (1) what we have in common with all substances, (2) what, more specifically, we have in common with other animals, and (3) what is peculiar to us as human beings.{49}

Martha Nussbaum once suggested eight properties that she argued, "we can nonetheless identify [as] certain features of our common humanity, closely related to Aristotle's original list." Nussbaum's eight characteristics are mortality, the body, pleasure and pain, cognitive capability, practical reason, early infant development, affiliation or a sense of fellowship with other human beings, and humor.{50} In his Natural Law and Natural Rights, Finnis puts forward what he takes to be a list of basic human goods: life, knowledge, play, aesthetic experience, friendship, practical reasonableness, and religion.{51} The point here is that all of these theories of ethical naturalism depend upon the concept of the human person and require the "functioning well" of that person -- all of which is rooted in Aristotle's concept of eudaimonia or "happiness." Yet this is rooted in the natural kind of the human person, which is the metaphysical foundation necessary for moral theory in natural law theory.

When considering natural law theory as a form of ethical naturalism, two important philosophical questions remain that need to be addressed:

  1. The issue of the "naturalistic fallacy."
  2. The derivation of a theory of obligation.

Briefly, Aquinas's theory of a dispositional account of human essence enables this theory to transcend the naturalistic fallacy. The "good" is the end to be attained, which is the development of the dispositional property. Hence, a "value" is not added onto a fact, but a value is the further development of a dispositional fact. Disposition and end are in the same category of natural properties, the former the formal cause and the latter the final cause. Neither Hume nor Moore considered the possibility of developmental or dispositional properties. In fact, I would argue that the concept of a mathematical class dominates the discussion of essence in modern philosophy. Descartes dismissed the Aristotelian position on dispositional properties, and this dismissal has remained regnant through most modern and contemporary philosophical discussions of essence.

Aquinas, next, adopts what might be called a "metaphysics of finality." Henry Veatch uses this concept in several of his works, which is gleaned from the insights of Father Gauthier, the French Dominican scholar who first addressed the issues of the metaphysics of finality.{52} The ends to be attained are determined by the content of the natural kind of the human person; this differs from ordinary teleological theories like utilitarianism. Therefore, the dispositional view of human nature enables Aquinas's version of natural law theory not to succumb to the charges of the naturalistic fallacy and provides a justification for a theory of obligation.

An important jurisprudential corollary follows from this analysis. The role that this theory of ethical naturalism contributes to successful law making should be apparent. Any law, which, all things being equal, hinders the development of a natural disposition in a human person, is inherently unjust. Aquinas provides a set of criteria by means of which we can develop a theory of natural rights, and from that, a justified theory of law. This jurisprudence derivation is, however, beyond the time limits of this analysis. {53}

Moreover, the necessity of reason as opposed to will is emphasized continually in the writings of Thomas. Throughout his discussion of law- making and moral theory, Aquinas argues that reason is to be employed with vigor. Law is, as Aquinas emphatically states, "an ordinance of reason." A purely voluntarist account of either moral theory or jurisprudence, according to Aquinas, is incorrect.{54}

Thin Versus Thick Theories of Human Nature

This natural law account based on a metaphysics of natural kinds suggests a moral and a jurisprudential limit for philosophers like Ronald Dworkin and John Rawls. Both accept only a "thin theory" of the human good. Hence, their theories lack any substantive content based on the foundational principles of human nature. This is a foundational problem with most theories of liberal jurisprudence. Liberalism in jurisprudence, by its very definition, denies any role for substantive content to the fabric of law making. Without the content that a theory of human person provides, jurisprudence is limited in its attempt at achieving a substantive theory of human rights. Rawls's person who has a passion for counting blades of grass in city squares or Dworkin's beer-drinking TV addict both may be leading a good life -- one of "integral human fulfillment," to use a Finnis term -- provided they have chosen these ends after mature reflection. A thick theory of human nature espoused by the ethical naturalism in the Aristotelian and Aquinian scheme put forward in this paper requires more than what Rawls and Dworkin's thin theories permit. The same applies to the so called "good reasons moral philosophers" of the mid twentieth century.

Robert George's Making Men Moral{55} addresses this set of issues with some dispatch, which contemporary philosophers refer to as "moral perfectionism." Moral perfectionism makes sense only within the context of a theory of the human person grounded on a theory of the natural kind of human nature. This natural law schema provides a set of properties that determine the content of the human good to be attained. Without this content, one falls rather quickly into the vacuum of formalism. Such formalism is, in many ways, the hallmark of Kantian moral theory, most "good reasons" moral theories, all legal positivism, much legal realism, and most liberal jurisprudence. What justifies a morally right action for Kant or a set of human rights for Dworkin or for Rawls? In the end, it is the exercise of reason itself -- what contemporary moral philosophers often refer to as a "good reasons approach" to moral reasoning. What the natural law position offers, if only in a broad and general way, is a set of human properties or qualities -- human nature, if you will -- without which a justification of a moral theory or a legal system -- including a set of human rights -- is sought in vain.

Part Seven: Finite Human Nature and the Existence of God

Hence, what Aquinas needs for a consistent account of natural law is, in my view, a metaphysical theory of natural kinds. This is the first question he must answer in his ontology if he is to develop a theory of natural law. Once he has determined that he can justify his theory of natural kinds, then his next ontological question arises: Is the individual instance of a natural kind itself self-explanatory and totally independent, or is it a dependent being? I think it is fair to say that Aquinas regards this question of dependency as a further metaphysical question.

However, what if a philosopher of natural kinds -- let's call this philosopher "Harry Stotle" -- bought into an evolutionary theory, and he said something like this: "Well, natural kinds are what they are through some evolutionary process, and we really can't say anything more about them. They are just there!"

At this particular juncture, Aquinas and Harry are on the same level. Both could, in principle, derive a theory of natural duties based on the developmental properties. Harry even wrote a treatise on moral development and virtue for his son, Nick. Harry thinks that the development of a moral theory from his metaphysics is the best he can do. In fact, in referring to the limits of moral theory, Harry quotes the "Old Milwaukee beer jingle" -- "Things just don't get any better than this!'

What does Aquinas do here? Aquinas, to quote a favorite metaphor of Father Copleston,{56} must get Harry on "the metaphysical chessboard." Aquinas must show Harry that his analysis of human nature -- even as a natural kind -- requires necessarily that a human person is a dependent being. This requires the 'essence/existence' distinction, an ontological distinction that Harry is not too keen about affirming.{57} Here Aquinas must convince Harry that a dependent being -- or 'contingent being' in cosmological argument circles -- demands a real relation with an independent, Necessary Being. God as the 'Actus Purus' -- existence itself -- is what provides a response to the question about dependency. Here Aquinas would, I gather, suggest that Harry consider the Tertia Via in the Prima Pars of the Summa Theologiae. This reference is, as many of you know, to the argument that contingent beings entail a necessary being.

It is at this juncture in Aquinas's metaphysical scheme that God enters the scene. God, as necessary being, provides the answer to this further question about the dependent character of individuals of natural kinds. But one could still work out a theory of natural law on the basis of the natural kind composed of dispositional properties. What Aquinas provides additionally is an explanation in terms of dependency. What Harry has done with his moral theory, so Aquinas would suggest, is not to have developed a false moral theory but rather an incomplete moral theory. Next, if one asks about an interpretation of scripture passages about human beings made in the image and likeness of God, Aquinas throws in the exemplar language he picked up from Augustine and, a fortiori, from Plato.

Hence, Aquinas does have God and eternal law in his system. But this is the last set of questions he responds to. He can develop a theory of ethical naturalism from his account of a human essence as a natural kind. But if one asks about the ultimate dependency, then God as a Source of Existence enters the picture.

Part Eight: Conclusion:

This concludes a somewhat rapid sojourn through the gardens of contemporary ontology and its connection with what I take to be the necessary conditions for natural law theory, both in moral theory and with a few hints towards jurisprudence. In discussing the role of natural kind in Aquinas's moral theory, it is important to remember that Aquinas's entire epistemological and philosophy of mind system is based upon the empirical principles that he found in the Aristotelian texts, both those which came up to Paris from the Islamic translating institute at Toledo and especially the texts which his Dominican confrere, William of Moerbeke, provided for him from the middle east. This empiricism requires that "Nihil est in intellectu quod non prius fuerit in sensu." This epistemological maxim suggests that human knowers become aware of the content -- the concepts -- of natural kinds through the empirical process worked out in Aristotle's De Anima and in Book Two of the Posterior Analytics, texts in the philosophy of mind in Aristotle that Aquinas appropriated almost in toto. Since moral theory is a second order activity for Aquinas, as it was for Aristotle, the concept of a human essence must be first determined. Aquinas nowhere suggests, as far as I know, that we need Divine knowledge to be aware of essences. Aquinas does not accept the theory of Divine Illumination proposed by Augustine.

This paper articulates a theoretical possibility for reconstructing the texts of Aquinas so that a version of natural law makes good philosophical sense without requiring as a necessary condition a position of Theological Definism. That Aquinas was a theologian and a philosopher no one denies. This paper, however, articulates the "logic" of his argument suggesting that the role of God in natural law theory is a final ontological question. Aquinas's metaphysics can account for the content of a human essence -- the natural kind -- without an appeal to the eternal law. There is no need, therefore, to appeal to a divine being in order to understand the content of a human essence. The foundation of natural law depends upon natural kinds, which is a metaphysical issue resolved in terms of Aquinas's metaphysics, not his theology.

The heritage of ethical naturalism, with its emphasis on natural law theory as found in Thomas Aquinas, has been re-discovered by many analytic moral philosophers and philosophers of law. Hence, several important issues formulated in the analytic tradition of moral and legal philosophy have their roots structurally aligned with the old questions posed so vigorously by Thomas Aquinas in the central tradition of natural law theory. These issues in analytic philosophy pose a "new look" to some rather "old questions," but questions not relegated to the metaphysical pile of antiquated philosophical claims. This essay, then, provides "a new look at some old questions." The old questions reflect a tradition of moral realism that is important for normative ethical theory and for jurisprudence. Natural Law theory at its best has a realist foundation based on human persons actually living in the here and now of the twenty-first century. It is a theory with rationality articulated as a necessary condition. It is cognizant thoroughly of the common or public good. It is a theory well worth the attention of contemporary philosophers. Natural Law theory, once thought to be part of the dustbin of antiquated theories on the nature of law, is now providing vibrant excitement in the writings found in contemporary moral theory and jurisprudence. Yet it demands a realist ontology of natural kinds. This paper has attempted to spell out how one might articulate that set of conditions by means of an analysis of the role of form in contemporary metaphysical discussions. Hence, this is a "new look" at some "old questions"!

{1} G. E. Moore, Principia Ethica (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1903).

{2} This passage, slightly altered in translation, is found in John Finnis, Aquinas (Oxford; Oxford University Press, 1998), pp. 11-12.

{3} Simon Tugwell, Albert and Thomas: Selected Writings (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1988), p. 258.

{4} Robert George, "Natural Law and Human Nature" in Natural Law Theory: Contemporary Essays (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992, 1994), pp. 31-41.

{5} See Anthony J. Lisska, Aquinas's Theory of Natural Law; An Analytic Reconstruction (Oxford: the Clarendon Press, 1996, 1998), pp. 158-161.

{6} Lisska, Review of Fundamentals of Ethics, by John Finnis, New Blackfriars (Oxford), Vol. 65, No. 768 (June, 1984), pp. 288-290.

{7} John Haldane, "Thomistic Ethics in America," Logos, Volume 3, # 4 (Summer, 2000).

{8} Works of Henry Veatch include Rational Man (Indianapolis: the Liberty Fund, 2003), For an Ontology of Morals (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1973), Human Rights: Fact or Fancy? (Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 1985), among others.

{9} Fergus Kerr, After Aquinas: Versions of Thomism (Oxford: Blackwells Publishing, 2002).

{10} John Milbank and Catherine Pickstock, Truth in Aquinas (London, 2001).

{11} M. F. Burnyeat, "Is An Aristotelian Philosophy of Mind Still Credible?" in Martha Nussbaum and Amelie Oksenberg Rorty, editors, Essays on Aristotle's De Anima, (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1992, 1995), pp. 15-16.

{12} Richard Sorabji, "Intentionality and Physiological Processes: Aristotle's Theory of Sense-Perception," in Nussbaum and Rorty, pp. 195-225.

{13} Martha Nussbaum and Hilary Putnam wrote an extensive response to the Burnyeat challenge to Aristotle's philosophy of mind. In essence, they refute the materialist account put forward by Sorabji and offer a modified functionalist account of Aristotle. In my judgment, all three philosophers neglected a theory of intentionality. It is by intentionality theory that Aristotle and Aquinas find a middle ground position between Cartesian dualism on the one hand and the physicalism of many contemporary studies in the philosophy of mind on the other. Yet these issues in intentionality theory are beyond this discussion on ethical naturalism in Thomas Aquinas.

{14} Presidential address delivered at the Sixty-fifth Annual Meeting of the Western Division of the American Philosophical Association, and printed in the Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association: 1996-1968 (Yellow Springs, OH, 1967), pp. 19-33; reprinted in Anthony J. Lisska, Philosophy Matters (Columbus: 1977), pp. 249-260.

{15} "Aristotle's Mind and the Contemporary Mind," unpublished manuscript. John Haldane kindly provided me with a coy of this important paper.

{16} John Haldane, "A Return to Form in the Philosophy of Mind," in Form and Matter: Themes in Contemporary Metaphysics, edited by David S. Oderberg (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1999), p. 54.

{17} Haldane, op. cit., p. 41.

{18} The Philosophical Review, Vol. LVIII, # 1 (January, 1949), p. 1.

{19} Nelson, "The Metaphysical Presuppositions of Induction," found in Lisska, p. 256; (Italics not in the original.).

{20} Nelson, Ibid.

{21} Saul Kripke, "Identity and Necessity," in Identity and Individuation, edited by Milton K. Muniz (New York: New York University Press, 1971), pp. 144-146.

{22} Nelson, Ibid.

{23} Nelson, Ibid., found in Lisska, p. 258; (Italics not in the original.).

{24} Ibid., p. 260.

{25} Morris Weitz, "The Grounds of Sense," Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Vol. 33, # 4 (June, 1973), p. 460. This is the best overall account of Nelson's ontological commitments found in the literature.

{26} The Philosophical Review, Vol. LVI, # 5 (September, 1947), p. 499. This is the printed version of Nelson's Pacific Division American Philosophical Association Presidential Address. Nelson was at that time a member of the faculty at the University of Washington before joining the faculty at The Ohio State University as Chair.

{27} Weitz, op cit.

{28} Ibid., p. 466.

{29} Ibid.

{30} Haldane, "A Return to Form in the Philosophy of Mind," p. 54.

{31} Haldane, "Insight, Inference and Intellection," in Proceedings of the American Catholic Philosophical Association, "Insight and Inference," Vol. 75, 1999 (Bronx, NY: Fordham University, 2000), p. 38.

{32} Haldane, in Form and Matter: Themes in Contemporary Metaphysics, pp. 40-64.

{33} Ibid., p. 41.

{34} Ibid., p. 54

{35} Anthony Kenny, Aquinas (Past Masters Series): (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980), p. 80.

{36} Roderick Chisholm, "Intentionality and the Mental," a correspondence with Wilfred Sellars, Minnesota Studies in the Philosophy of Science, Vol. II, edited by H. Feigl and others (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1958), p. 524.

{37} Haldane, "A Return to Form in the Philosophy of Mind," p. 54.

{38} Ibid., p. 56.

{39} Wilfred Sellars, Science, Perception and Reality (New York: The Humanities Press, 1963), p. 47.

{40} Cf. Jean-Pierre Torrell, O.P., Saint Thomas Aquinas: The Person and His Work, translated by Robert Royal (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1996), p. 172 ff.

{41} Tugwell, Albert and Thomas: Selected Writings, op. cit., p. 256.

{42} Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, I-II, Q. 90, a. 4.

{43} Readers interested in the history of natural law jurisprudence need to consult Fred Miller, A History of Philosophy of Law from the Ancient Greeks to the Scholastics, Volume Six of A Treatise of Legal Philosophy and General Jurisprudence (Kluwer: forthcoming),

{44} Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, I-II, Q. 94, a. 2.

{45} H.L.A. Hart, The Concept of Law, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1961), pp 194 ff.

{46} Finnis, Aquinas, op. cit., p. 160.

{47} Columba Ryan, O.P., "The Traditional Concept of Natural Law: An Interpretation," in Light on the Natural Law, edited by Iltud Evans, O.P. (Baltimore: Helicon Press, Inc., 1965), p. 28.

{48} Golding, Proceedings of the American Catholic Philosophical Association, op. cit., pp. 242-43.

{49} Finnis, Aquinas: Moral, Political and Legal Theory, op. cit., p. 81.

{50} Nussbaum, Ibid., pp. 263-264.

{51} Finnis, Natural Law and Natural Rights, pp. 85-92

{52} Veatch, Swimming Against the Current in Contemporary Philosophy, p. 116; Veatch acknowledges his debt to Gauthier.

{53} Aquinas argues that the common good -- the commonweal -- of a society must be part of the enactment of a law. Finnis translates the common good as "the public good." A law is never justified for the private interest of one or a few citizens. Furthermore, the common good or the commonweal of a society must not be neglected arbitrarily through the enactment of a law. Like Aristotle before him, Aquinas believed that a human person, as a social person, achieved her development through the auspices of a society. Donne's claim that "No man is an island" would ring true to Aquinas. The recent work of Michael Sandel on the importance of community hearkens back to Aquinas on the common good. Michael Sandel, "Morality and the Liberal Ideal," The New Republic, May 7, 1984, pp. 15-17.

{54} In contemporary jurisprudence, both Lon Fuller and Martin Golding defend versions of reason much like this.

{55} Robert George, Making Men Moral, op. cit.

{56} Cf. The Copleston/Russell BBC debate on the existence of God.

{57} Cf. Joseph Owens, "Aristotle and Aquinas," in Norman Kretzmann and Eleonore Stump, The Cambridge Companion to Aquinas (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), pp. 38-59.