Moral Theory

I. The Desire for Deep Happiness, the Parts of a Human Action, and the Moral Evaluation of Action

A.  Flourishing or Deep Happiness: The End or Goal of all Human Action
B.  The Nature of Human Acts
C.  The Moral Evaluation of Human Acts
D.  Virtue, Law and Grace

II.  The Virtues: Prudence and Justice

A. Overview of Theories of the Relation between Cognition and Affection in Human Action
B. Prudence
C. Justice

III.  The Virtues: Fortitude and Temperance

A. Fortitude
B. Temperance

I. The Desire for Deep Happiness, the Parts of a Human Action, and the Moral Evaluation of Action

IA. Flourishing or Deep Happiness: The End or Goal of all Human Action
  • The big picture: Once again, as with the philosophical anthropology, Thomistic-Aristotelian moral theory is embedded within Thomistic-Aristotelian philosophy of nature. The philosophy of nature posits for every substance in the universe inclinations to the ends toward which their actions are aimed. This holds for everything from the elements to so-called "perfect" animals such as mammals, marsupials, etc. But it is especially clear in the case of higher animals. When we study the physiognomy, breeding habits, eating habits, migratory habits, and the growth and physical development of, say, aardvarks, we are discovering the good, or ultimate end, for aardvarks -- the various conditions under which they flourish and in the absence of which they flounder in one or another way. The same holds for human beings, though with the significant additional fact that because of our rationality, where this includes our freedom, human beings play an active role in the attainment -- or not -- of our ultimate end. On a traditional Catholic view, our desire for our ultimate end (aka our desire for fulfillment or flourishing or (deep) happiness), motivates our every action. However, because of our freedom we start off as, and can become hardened in, identifying our ultimate end with the attainment of goods that cannot in the end provide us with deep happiness. This is the road to moral self-destruction. Later I will discuss alternative ways to view our moral situation, but I want to begin with what I take to be the truth of the matter. This account accords well with what is in the Catechism, even though some prominent Catholic thinkers have through the centuries dissented from it in certain fundamental ways. More on that below.
  • Classical moral theory: Given what has just been said, it is natural for us to ask four questions:

    1. What is the good or ultimate end for human beings? What good (or set of goods) is such that possessing it would fulfill all of our well-ordered desires and leave us lacking in nothing.

    2. What is our starting point, i.e., the 'human condition'? Almost all classical philosophers appreciate the consequences of what Christians call Original Sin, even if they don't themselves have a doctrine of primeval sin. That is, they understand that our starting point involves (a) ignorance of what our ultimate end is and how to attain it, (b) concupiscence, i.e., disordered desires for pleasant or pleasurable objects that will not in the end provide us with fulfillment, (c) weakness, i.e., the inclination to allow our fear of danger or of difficulty in pursuing the good to turn us away from goods that can contribute to our fulfillment, and (d) malice of will, i.e., a readiness to treat others unjustly in order to get what we want for ourselves. These are the effects of Original Sin as posited by Catholic doctrine, but you don't need to be a Catholic in order to recognize them as crucial elements of the 'human condition'. Plato, for instance, depicts the human soul as divided into (1) reason, (2) the ambitious or spirited part, and (3) the pleasure-seeking part. The pleasure-seeking part is the most powerful (a many-headed beast), and the ambitious part has the capacity either to overwhelm reason in its quest for honor and glory or to be overwhelmed by fear, and reason is like a little person with a squeaky voice trying to get the other two parts to cooperate in seeking the true good -- pretty hopeless, right? (Now you're ready to read Plato's Republic!)

    3. How do we get from where we are to where we want to be? Here the classical philosophers differ from one another in interesting ways. But almost all of them try to come up with solutions which make it possible for reason to moderate -- and even habituate -- the passions.

    4. How do we come by knowledge of the sort that enables us to answer questions 1-3? Interestingly, most classical philosophers begin, not unlike the Hebrew prophets, by identifying what they take to be unsatisfactory human lives, e.g., lives focused mainly on making money, or seeking honor or prestige, or indulging in pleasure. Then little by little they fashion an ideal that fits in with their metaphysical views concerning the world and human existence.

      These are the questions that St. Thomas deals with in the First Part of the Second Part of his Summa Theologiae, aka ST 1-2. I have had you read ST 1-2, qq. 1-5. These five questions are usually called "The Treatise on Happiness," though perhaps a better title would be "The Treatise on Human Flourishing" or "The Treatise on Deep Happiness," or "The Treatise on Human Beatitude," since the English word 'happy' is very often used for a superficial and passing sort of contentment. In question 1 St. Thomas in effect defines an ultimate end for human beings; in question 2 he asks which good (or set of goods) is such that the possession of it in the right way constitutes beatitude or deep happiness for a human being; and in question 3 he asks what it is to possess this good or set of goods "in the right way." Questions 4 and 5 clear up some loose ends, and we will look at just a couple of them.

  • Question 1
    • In question 1 St. Thomas is asking only about the ultimate end in a non-specific sense. That is, he is asking whether every human act and/or human life has an ultimate end. In a. 4 the question is, in effect, whether there is at least one ultimate end of a human life. (In fact, what the argument seems to show is only that each human act must have an ultimate or last end.) Even if the answer is yes, St. Thomas does not take himself to have shown that there is just one end for any particular human being or, better, human life (this is shown in art. 5) or just one (or the same) end for all human beings (this is discussed in art. 7 and again at the very end of q. 5). His point here is simply that every complete human action presupposes some ultimate end, the desire for which gets the action started. If there were not such an end, we would never even begin to deliberate about the means to that end. Note also the distinction between the order of intention and the order of execution with respect to ends. The ultimate end is first in intention and, as it were, the principle that moves the appetite, thus initiating action; but it is the last in execution, since it is effected by the effecting of the proximate ends that precede it. (I intend to take a vacation and this initiates a series of acts ordered toward my being on vacation, which itself occurs last in the series.) By contrast, the most proximate means to the end is the first in execution and the last in intention, since the resolve to effect it is arrived at intentionally only at the end of a process of deliberation about how to achieve the ultimate end. Attaining the most proximate end is what gets the action started, e.g., when I make a telephone call to see if my father will pay for my transportation and lodging. :-)
    • Article 5 has to be read carefully. St. Thomas is arguing only that each human being has a single ultimate end, but he is not saying anything about the precise character of that end. The point he is making is in this sense a purely formal one: "Each thing desires its own perfection (completion, fulfillment) as an ultimate end .... Therefore, it must be the case that the ultimate end fulfills all of a human being's desires in such a way that there is nothing beyond it left to desire." So the ultimate end is one's own perfection or fulfillment, and under this description it is unitary -- even if, concretely, what one strives for in the attempt to bring about this fulfillment is a whole host of goods. So every human act has or presupposes the intention of attaining perfection or fulfillment -- which is the claim of art. 6. Notice, though, that the reply to obj. 1 suggests that the relation of an action to the ultimate end is not always direct. For instance, rest and relaxation are in given contexts seen as good for the one resting and so contribute to that person's attaining his perfection in an indirect way, e.g., as an enabling condition for, or as a necessary condition for, rather than as a constituent of, perfection.
    • In a. 7 St. Thomas makes some helpful clarifications. We can speak of the ultimate end in two ways: (a) according to the intension or meaning of the concept ultimate end and (b) according to that which the concept ultimate end applies to concretely -- or to put it another way, according to the good or goods that satisfy, or are thought to satisfy, the definition of the ultimate good. Everyone desires his own perfection and beatitude as such; so as far as (a) is concerned, there is one agreed upon ultimate end for all human beings, viz., their own perfection or flourishing or beatitude. But human beings disagree about what concretely constitutes their perfection or flourishing or beatitude. Some desire, say, riches or comfort or power, or knowledge, etc., or some combination thereof, as their ultimate end; others desire to dedicate their lives to others or to God; still others desire other things, e.g., something akin to absolute autonomy, or a relatively thoughtless desire for a suitable cluster of internal and external goods (see below). But from such disagreement it does not follow that there is no truth of the matter about what goods are truly perfective of us or about what sorts of life are best -- or, perhaps better, it does not follow that there are no objective constraints on what sorts of lives are aimed at or lead toward the true ultimate end for human beings. (Imagine, for instance, an independent-minded tomato plant that refused water and sunlight in order to "do it my way," as the song says. Well, luckily, tomato plants are not really in a position to engage in deliberately self-destructive behavior ... but human beings are.) We must take our cue here from what someone "with well-disposed affections" would think and do and feel. But what is that? Stay tuned for questions 2 and 3. Still, we are not starting in a vacuum -- we will be successful in moral inquiry only to the extent that our own affections are already well-disposed or at least on the way to being well-disposed.

    • Article 8 is important mainly for drawing our attention to the fact that it is not only possession of a certain good (or goods) but the manner in which it is possessed that constitutes beatitude. In question 2 we will identify the good in which beatitude consists and in question 3 the relevant mode of possession. So it is only at the end of question 3 that we will understand the true ultimate end for human beings, and only at the end of questions 4 and 5 that we will have a better idea of what is involved in attaining true beatitude and what our chances are of attaining it.

  • Question 2
    • In Question 2 St. Thomas asks which good or set of goods is such that possessing it in the right way "fulfills all of a human being's desires, so that there is nothing beyond it left to desire," -- or, alternatively, which good or set of goods is "the complete and sufficient good that excludes all evil and fulfills all [well-ordered] desire." These definitions are from Aristotle. What St. Thomas will try to show is that no finite good or set of finite goods can satisfy Aristotle's own definition of human fulfillment. He proceeds to answer this question systematically by dividing the goods we desire into three broad categories: (a) external goods, (b) goods of the body, and (c) goods of the soul. In the end he argues that none of these goods, either by itself or in combination with others, fulfills or satisfies all of a human being's desires. Let's look at the arguments a bit more carefully.
    • The first four articles focus on "external goods" such as wealth, power, honor, fame (or reputation), glory and their concomitants. In art. 4 St. Thomas gives four general reasons why the good for human beings cannot consist just in the possession of one or more of these external goods: (1) human fulfillment rules out all evil, whereas each of the external goods can be found in both good and evil people and can be used to do either good or evil; (2) beatitude is a sufficient good that does not lack any good necessary for a human being, whereas the external goods leave out many necessary goods, e.g., wisdom, bodily health, love and friendship, etc.; (3) beatitude is a complete good from which no evil can come to a person, whereas all of the external goods can lead to evil for their possessors; (4) a human being is ordered toward beatitude by internal principles, since each of us is naturally ordered toward our own perfection, whereas the external goods come to us from without and in large measure fortuitously and by luck.
    • The next two articles focus on those internal goods that are "goods of the body". Think of health, longevity, good looks, bodily pleasures of various kinds, bodily strength and fitness, athletic prowess, bodily comfort, and, by extention, things like good food and drink, nice houses, hot cars, silk sheets (silk sheets?), etc. St. Thomas simply points out something that anyone with well-ordered affections will immediately see to be true, viz., that the goods of the body are ordered toward the goods of the soul. The goods of the body are not in themselves sufficient and perfect. (Even though it is in some respects unfair to animals to say that so-and-so lives like an animal, still, you get the point.) The discussion of pleasure (or delight) is very instructive. Delight is a consequence of the possession of a good rather than its essence. And in the case of bodily pleasure, it is evident that our desire for such pleasure is great but just as evident (at least to those whose affections are well-ordered) that beatitude as defined by Aristotle does not consist solely in bodily pleasures and that, indeed, the obsessive thirst for such pleasures is one of the signs of a disordered and pitiable life.
    • The next article focuses on those internal goods that are goods of the soul, e.g., intelligence, aesthetic enjoyment, artistic and intellectual accomplishment, friendship, virtue, upright family life, philosophical contemplation, etc. As for the thing that is our highest good, this cannot be any one or more of the goods of the soul, since these goods are not the complete good which wholly satisfies our desire. Rather, we desire a universal good, something that is good in every way and has no defect or downside associated with it. Every good of the soul is, by contrast, a participated and hence limited good, one that, however good it might be, does not give us complete fulfillment. Also, as St. Thomas points out later, permanence is one of the conditions of beatitude, and the prospect of death effectively means that we cannot achieve complete beatitude in this life, even if we enjoy a high degree of the goods of the soul. On the other hand, the manner of the possession of the highest good will obviously involve the soul, since it is in some way through the soul that we will possess the highest good.

    • Only God can be a sufficient and complete good for us, since we have the universal good as an object of our will. Here St. Thomas echoes Augustine famous sentiment, expressed at the beginning of his Confessions, that our hearts are made for God and will not rest unless they rest in God. Later St. Thomas will distinguish complete (or 'perfect') beatitude from incomplete (or 'imperfect') beatitude. A crucial question will be how these two sorts of beatitude are related to one another.

  • Questions 3 and 4

    • God is the good we must attain to. But as St. Thomas notes in aa. 1-2, our attainment or possession or enjoyment of God must be of a certain sort in order to be human beatitude or fulfillment. Not just any way of being related to God is sufficient. In particular, beatitude must be a certain operation of our soul that has God as its object. (And, as well shall see, only a soul that is well-disposed in a special way is capable of having this operation.) Hence, because in this life we cannot have any such operation without interruption, we cannot have perfect beatitude in this life -- though we can have a beginning (inceptio) of it under fortuitous circumstances to be spelled out later on. Look carefully at art. 2, ad 4:  "In man's present state of life, his ultimate perfection is in the activity whereby he is united to God, but this activity cannot be continual ..... [and so] men cannot have complete beatitude in this life."  This is imperfect or incomplete beatitude.  Question:  where and how is it realized in this life?

    • The next several questions try to narrow down the immediate subject of the operation in question -- or, to put it another way, to determine which part or power of the soul is the relevant subject of this operation. The alternatives are: the sentient part, the will, the practical intellect, and the speculative intellect. In art. 3 St. Thomas makes a useful distinction among (a) what is essential to -- or part of the essence or definition of -- beatitude, (b) what is [necessarily] antecedent to beatitude, and (c) what is [necessarily] consequent upon beatitude. In other words, we have to distinguish the essence or definition of beatitude from things which pertain to beatitude as either leading up to it (and/or accompanying it) or following upon it. (Remember the claim above that pleasure or delight is not part of the essence of beatitude but is instead consequent upon beatitude.)

      • Even though sentient operations of cognition and affection are antecedents of beatitude, they cannot be part of the essence of beatitude, since they cannot put us into direct contact with God. But what about intellective operations of the will, such as love and delight (art. 4)? We have already talked about delight. As for love, loving God is in some way superior to knowing God. To be sure, St. Thomas insists that the essence of beatitude is knowing God (in some way); still, it turns out that loving God both precedes this knowledge as a necessary prelude and follows upon this knowledge as a necessary consequence. I emphasize the role of love here in order to counter the objection that St. Thomas's notion of complete beatitude is excessively intellectualist.  On St. Thomas's view the knowledge that is constitutive of beatitude is the knowledge of one who is madly in love -- specifically in this case, in love with God in the appropriate way.  Another way to say this is that human beatitude consists in being a saint (and not, contrary to Socrates and Plato and Aristotle and the Stoics, etc., a philosopher). In fact, as ST 1.12.6  makes clear and as St. Thomas says in various places, those who love God more see God's essence more perfectly because of the greater antecedent intensity of their desire for Him.

      • So St. Thomas eventually settles on the claim that beatitude consists in an operation of the intellect with respect to God. But what sort of intellectual operation? Not, St. Thomas says, an act of the practical intellect, e.g., deliberation, judgment, command. For (a) a speculative intellectual operation with respect to God is our highest and most perfect operation, since it is an operation of our highest power with respect to our highest object, viz., God; (b) speculative understanding (contemplation) is most sought after for itself, whereas practical understanding is ordered toward action; and (c) contemplation emulates God and the angels, whereas lower animals partly emulate us with respect to the practical life. (Note: Imperfect beatitude consists principally in contemplation and secondarily in those operations of the practical intellect by which we order our actions and passions -- would-be saints must be contemplative souls even in the midst of activity.)

    • In the end St. Thomas concludes that beatific knowledge must go beyond the sort of knowledge that we can have in this life through the mathematical and natural sciences and even through metaphysics and natural theology. For we have already seen the limitations of natural theology earlier in the course. Hence, the best of human natural knowledge falls far short of what is needed to satisfy our every well-ordered desire. So perfect beatitude requires that we attain cognitively to the very essence of God -- something that is not possible for us in this life* and, more worrisomely, not possible for our natural cognitive powers.  Notice how understated St. Thomas's conclusion is here.  One reason is that he has already discussed the metaphysics of the beatific vision at ST 1, q. 12. The fact is that God must, as it were, supercharge our natural intellective capacities with the so-called "light of glory" in order for us to enter into the sort of intimate union with Him that will truly fulfill us. This is what in the Gospels Jesus calls 'eternal life'. Even though we can know without revelation that this is the only sort of union with God that is desireable for us and will make us truly and deeply happy, we cannot know without revelation that such knowledge is possible for us. (*Even though St. Thomas does not talk about it here, the fact is that sanctifying (or habitual) grace does indeed give us a foretaste of heaven by transforming our very nature or essence in a way that makes it possible for us to know and love God on an intimate basis even in this life. But this "light of grace" falls far short of the "light of glory.")

    • In Question 4 St. Thomas discusses the prerequisites for beatitude. The most important prerequisite is discussed in a. 4, viz., rectitude of will. This is an important article. Its upshot is that not just anyone can be granted the beatific vision. In particular, rectitude of will (i.e., moral uprightness -- indeed, supernatural moral uprightness in the form of charity) is required as a preparation because without it one is not appropriately transformed from within and properly ordered toward the true ultimate end. That is, without it we do not love our true ultimate end and hence do not even desire or pursue it. This is the stuff of human tragedy: wanting to be deeply happy but not wanting the one and only thing that can make you deeply happy. The bottom line is that we have the freedom to choose hell, i.e., separation from God, because union with God has become odious to us, and God does not force Himself on anyone. Just as matter that is not properly disposed cannot receive a given form, so a person who is not properly disposed to the true ultimate end cannot attain that end -- indeed, such a person does not want to attain it. By the same token, rectitude of will is required concomitantly because the will of one who see's God's essence must love whatever God loves, and loving whatever God loves is what makes a will upright. The upshot is that (i) God cannot grant the beatific vision to someone who lacks rectitude of will and that (ii) someone without rectitude of will does not love that which his true beatitude consists in. And just so you know, moral uprightness of the sort appropriate for the beatific vision results from the supernatural gift of charity and from the exercise of the other (infused) virtues as motivated by charity.

IB. The Nature of Human Acts
  • In q. 6 St. Thomas has a long and subtle discussion of voluntariness, which is a key feature of moral acts. That is, we are morally responsible for our actions only if they are in some way voluntary and up to us. St. Thomas divides human acts into elicited acts, which are directly acts of the will, and commanded acts, which are acts of the other powers that the will has as its object. For instance, all voluntary acts involving my body, e.g., walking, talking, driving, making the sign of the Cross, etc., are commanded acts. St. Thomas claims that an elicited act cannot be involuntary even if I elicit it reluctantly. For instance, I will to punish my child voluntarily, even though I wish I didn't have to. So every elicited act is voluntary. By contrast, some of my commanded acts might be involuntary because of compulsion or (inculpable) ignorance. A hunter might take all reasonable precautions and still wound a man, thinking him to be a deer. He shoots the arrow and hits the target voluntarily, but his wounding the man is involuntary. When I do something under the threat of bodily violence, the commanded act is normally involuntary. St. Thomas also carves out a loose sense in which the acts of non-rational animals are 'imperfectly' or 'incompletely' voluntary. Such animals have only sentient cognition of the end and act immediately (barring impediments) upon sentient desire or aversion triggered by this sentient cognition. Their acts are voluntary in that they have a sentient desire to act in the way they do. But although they apprehend the thing which is an end and desire it, they do not apprehend it as an end and are unable to proportion means to end. These are instead characteristic only of rational beings. Non-rational animals, by contrast, act by instinct and without choice. In general, St. Thomas is not afraid to concede that there are various ways in which the actions of non-rational animals in some way or other ape, so to speak, human acts. After all, they have sentient memory and imagination and even an imperfect sort of 'reasoning'. However, St. Thomas points out that their cognitive power is not capable of abstract reasoning or of seeing the ends of their actions as ends. And so they fall short of being able to achieve the heights of goodness or the depths of badness that human beings are capable of.

  • St. Thomas goes on to identify the parts of human acts. When I lay these out below, I don't mean to suggest that they always happen all together. We know how our lives get complicated and how we are often dealing with many practical questions simultaneously. Just arranging one's schedule every day can get complicated. Also, our cognitive access to these acts is much less direct than we sometimes assume. Many times we have to reconstruct what was going on in our minds when we act in one way or another. St. Thomas identifies the parts of human acts by, as it were, pinpointing where in the process of performing a complete action we might abort the action. For instance, our human acts are always motivated by some end (ultimately by our ultimate end, but by more proximate ends in ordinary circumstances).  If  I decide to abandon that end, then the action ceases.

    • Sometimes when there is a good that attracts us (e.g., an expensive vacation) we will it and mentally enjoy it somewhat weakly for a moment and then abandon it. This shows that our actions always begin with an act of willing some good as an end. St. Thomas calls this voluntas (an act of willing) and fruitio (an act of enjoying the thought, so to speak), and when the end is abandoned, we see that our willing it turned out to be a mere wish (velleitas).

    • But suppose that the good in question is one that, for whatever reason, I am more strongly committed to. At that point I am said to intend the good in question (intentio). Intention in this sense sets off a consideration of how I might go about attaining this end. This is called deliberation or counsel (deliberatio) concerning the means to the end. Sometimes it is obvious how to proceed, especially if we are acting from habit. But sometimes we need to formulate several alternative plans (or chains of reasoning) for attaining the good in question. (Later, when we look at the virtue of prudence, we will look at what's involved in deliberation and later acts of reasoning that enter into this process.)

    • Sometimes at this stage we realize that, for various reasons, none of the plans we have considered is acceptable. For instance, one or more might involve something that is morally dubious. (My goal is to make money; one plan that occurs to me is to rob a bank, another is to kill my rich uncle -- as you can see, my moral character will affect what comes to mind in my deliberations!) Perhaps another plan requires help from others that I am unlikely to get. What is going on here is that there are no plans that I can judge (iudicium) acceptable and thus consent to (consensus). So I break off the action at this point.

    • Suppose, however, that I do judge one or more plans acceptable and thus consent to them. At this point, I weigh them against one another with an eye toward choosing one of them (electio). Many times this choice is not easy, because the plans can be complicated and some aspects of plan A might be more attractive than the corresponding aspects of B and C, but the same can be said of B and C as well. For instance, it might be that A is 'safer' in certain ways but would take longer, whereas B and C are riskier in various ways but quicker. At this point I might retract my previous judgment that each of A, B, and C is acceptable and break off the action.

    • Suppose, however, that I choose one of the plans. It doesn't follow, of course, that I act immediately. Perhaps the plan calls for me to act immediately, but I hesitate -- say, out of fear or because something else has come up, etc. Often, however, I make my choice at one time, whereas the plan calls for me to begin executing the plan at a later time. Sometimes this is the end of the action, because I don't take care to make sure that I will remember to begin executing the plan at that later time. That's another way in which my action might be broken off. Or, I might remember, but something happens that makes it foolish or too dangerous or or pointless to execute my plan. This is another way in which the action be broken off.

    • Suppose, finally, that I actually get around to executing (or commanding) (imperium) the first step of my plan by making use of the relevant powers (usus). If I attain the good and now enjoy it in reality (as opposed to just mentally), then I have performed a complete human act. (Actually, there could be a gap between command and use, say in the case of a sudden paralysis; but by now you have gotten the general idea.)

IC. The Moral Evaluation of Human Acts
  • Q. 18, aa. 1-4: Acts have the fullness of their being in diverse ways. For instance, every human act qua being is something good. However, it is absolutely good only if it has moral goodness as well. Since acts can fall short of absolute goodness, some of them are bad, absolutely speaking. The problem, then, is to articulate the standards with respect to which acts can be defective as human acts. In 1, ad 3, St. Thomas identifies this standard tersely as "the order of reason," i.e., practical reason insofar as it judges correctly what is and is not consonant with our ultimate end. (This is often called right reason, though it is important to note that right reason can include, in one who has the gift of faith, the further illumination that faith provides with respect to our ultimate end and the means to attain it.) In arts. 2-4 St. Thomas explains that a human act derives its goodness or badness from (a) its object or what is directly willed (wherein it gets its species as a "substance"), (b) its circumstances ("accidents"), and (c) its end (motive), where, as noted above, the willing or intending of the end is what gets the act started in the first place. So the end is the most important of the circumstances and is thus singled out for special consideration. A general rule is that a human act must be good with respect to all three in order to be a good human act, absolutely speaking; otherwise, it is a bad act. We will now examine each of these elements. (For this section, you can find much more complete notes that cover all of qq. 18-21 at

    • Object: (aa. 5, 8, 10) The object ('exterior' or commanded act) that is willed gives a human act its moral species, i.e., its moral goodness or badness, insofar as willing that object is or is not in accord with the order of reason. So, for instance, acts such as sexual intercourse with one's own spouse and sexual intercourse with the spouse of another, though the same in species as regards the generative power, differ in species as regards right reason -- the latter being bad in its species and hence bad to will and the former being good in its species and hence good to will. (When I say "bad to will," I mean bad to will simply or to mentally delight in or to intend or to consent to or to choose or to will to execute (usus).) In a. 5, ad 4 St. Thomas adds that certain circumstances (we can call them specifying circumstances), far from being accidental to the 'moral substance' of an act, should instead be taken as specific differences determining the moral species of the act -- this because "they add a special note for or against the order of reason ..... This is necessary whenever a circumstance changes an act from good to bad; for a circumstance does not make an act bad except because it is repugnant to reason." (See also q. 88, a. 5). Now some acts are morally bad in their species, as determined by their objects, whereas others are morally good in their species, and still others (see art. 8) are morally indifferent in their species. However, a concrete human action is always either absolutely good or absolutely bad when performed by a given agent in concrete circumstances (see a. 9), since a concrete human act includes not only its own moral species as an exterior act, but also its accidental circumstances and the end for which it is willed.

    • Circumstances: (a. 11) There are some circumstances that, instead of making an action good or bad in its species, add to the goodness or badness it has in its species. For instance, to take what belongs to another is bad in its species, but to take something of great value from a poor person is worse than to take something of little value from a rich person. By the same token, giving monetary support to one's church is a good act when done for a fitting end, but the widow who gives a small donation out of her need does something better than the rich man who gives from his excess.

    • End: (Arts. 6, 7) Beyond the goodness or badness that a human act has from its "substance" and "accidents", it derives goodness or badness from its final cause, which is the agent's end or motive in acting. We have to be careful here about the metaphysics, since otherwise what St. Thomas says may seem hopelessly confused -- or at least hopelessly confusing.

      First of all, a complete human act, though a unity, includes both an interior act and an exterior act as integral parts.  Note again that an 'exterior act' in the relevant sense can be an act of intellect or will; that is, it need not be exterior in the sense of involving, say, bodily motions. It's exterior only in the sense that its object is the object of acts of will with respect to the means, whereas the interior act is such that its object (the end) is the object of acts of will with respect to the end and of acts of will with respect to the means insofar as they are elicited in the service of the end.

      Second, a complete human act is a whole, and so the division of a human act into interior and exterior acts must not be thought of as a division into acts that are complete in their own right.

      Third, an exterior act is not to be thought of as a mere natural motion of atoms in the void, as it were; to the contrary, it is a motion that is capable of being entertained, delighted in, consented to, chosen, and commanded -- and, as we saw above, it has a moral species in its own right, at least within the given concrete circumstances. Given this, St. Thomas says that the end (or motive) is properly the object of the interior act.  After all, the intending of the end is what gets everything started in the intentional order, and those interior acts by which we will the means to the end (or exterior act) also have the antecedently intended end included in their object. In this respect, the willed exterior act is, as it were, the matter (e.g., taking this thing that belongs to another, committing adultery with this person) informed by the end or motive (interior act).  It is in this sense that one can say that the interior act takes its species from the end.

      This seems complicated but is in fact consonant with the way we speak:  "You claim that you were only taking back the toy that belongs to you, but in fact what you were really doing was getting even for an insult."  That is, in appropriate circumstances we point to the motive as the most important determinant of the moral species. In the case at hand, it is true that what you did is something (taking back what belongs to you) good or indifferent in its species as an act, but your motive vitiated the act. In a similar vein, Aristotle says that one who steals in order to commit adultery is more an adulterer than a thief (though he is both), because his basic defect is more a lack of temperance (as evidenced by his ulterior motive or end) than a lack of justice. Likewise, St. Thomas says that an act of fortitude done out of love for God is materially an act of fortitude and formally an act of charity. Since there are some motives (e.g., envy, lust) which vitiate any action of which they are the end, they can make what would have been a good action to be evil in species. For instance, any action that is done with the direct purpose of committing adultery is an evil action, even if the exterior act is good in its species (e.g., helping someone get her car fixed).

      This is a different way of looking at the action from that given above under "object", since there the moral species was said to be determined by the object, i.e., the exterior or commanded act. Art. 7 tries to relate the two ways of looking at acts to one another. In the previous discussion we were looking at the exterior act and asking about its moral species. The question is whether the species-derived-from-the-end and the species-derived-from-the-exterior-act willed as an object are subordinated to one another. The answer is: sometimes no and sometimes yes. In one of the above examples, the complete act is both an act of helping someone out (exterior act) and an act of adultery (interior act); the end is, as it were, external to the object of the exterior act and in this sense accidental to it. You can, after all, help someone fix her car without intending to commit adultery with her. On the other hand, the interior and exterior acts may be ordered to one another. The soldier fights well with the intention of achieving victory -- here the end is, as it were internal to the object of the exterior act; in such a case the object of the exterior act is subordinated to the object of the interior act.

ID. Virtue, Law, and Grace
  • Virtue and vice. Remember back to the beginning, where St. Thomas, following Plato and Aristotle, argued that the primary motive that underlies all human action is the desire for the human good or human flourishing -- which in the end St. Thomas identifies as a complete and eternal union with God. On this view, an action is good and in conformity to reason to the extent that it is consonant with our good as thus defined, and an action is bad and contrary to reason insofar as it conflicts with our good as thus defined. From this (along with some facts about human psychology) it follows that it is important for us (a) to be able to act habitually in ways that are consonant with our good and (b) to avoid falling into habitual patterns of action that conflict with our true good. That is, it is important for us to possess and act upon virtues, and it is important for us to avoid falling into vices. In fact, this becomes the focus of our moral lives. This is why St. Thomas structures his whole moral theory primarily around the virtues.

  • Law. According to St. Thomas, the moral law is and ought to be ordered toward our ultimate end. Law includes notions like obligation, prohibition, permission, and punishment. The demands of the law have two important features. First, they are, as it were, minimal conditions for acting in accord with our ultimate end. In other words, if you're breaking the moral law, you're on the road to self-destructive unhappiness. You're becoming the sort of person to whom what will genuinely give you happiness will appear unattractive. Second, the demands of the law will seem burdensome only to the extent that one is not yet virtuous enough. So on this view law takes a back seat to virtue, and this is reflected in the way in which St. Thomas treats the precepts of the law in ST 2-2.

    There are other moral theories, however, which put obedience to law at the center and push virtue (along with the desire for deep happiness) into a subordinate role, if they allow for it any role at all. Moral educators who put one of these theories at the center of their dealings with young people are prone to demand morally good behavior without being in a position to connect that behavior with the deep motivations present in the human psyche. In fact, some philosophers and theologians (e.g., the Franciscans John Duns Scotus and William of Ockham) claim that God could have arbitrarily commanded us to kill the innocent, rape, plunder, deride, revile, lie, dishonor our parents, covet our neighbor's goods and wife, etc. ... and we would have been obligated to obey. What prompts this claim will be explained more fully in IIA below. At any rate, St. Thomas strenuously disagrees. On his view, necessarily, if God creates beings such as us, then He legislates in a way that is conducive to our flourishing, in both this world and the next.

  • Grace. Standing behind all of St. Thomas's assimilation of various formal aspects of Aristotle's moral theory is the order of divine grace, i.e., the order of the supernatural love of God and of neighbor -- in short, the order of charity -- and the big difference it makes.  This includes (a) sanctifying or habitual grace, which affects the essence of the soul, thus making us a "new creation" in the image of the Son of God and allowing us to share as adopted children in the inner life of the Blessed Trinity, and (b), flowing from this habitual grace, the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity, the infused moral virtues, and the gifts of the Holy Spirit, which make us receptive to the promptings of the Holy Spirit, who both illuminates our minds and strengthens our wills in particular situations.

II. The Virtues: Prudence and Justice

IIA. Overview of Theories of the Relation between Cognition and Affection in Human Action
  • Aristotle, following Plato, believes that we all begin with a single fundamental desire — a desire for our good, i.e., a desire for our own deep happiness or flourishing as human beings. This desire motivates at bottom all of our voluntary actions. Unfortunately, our starting point as human beings is such that the particular goods we begin by desiring as paths to that flourishing, and the way in which we desire them, cannot in the end provide us with anything close to genuine human flourishing or deep happiness, even by gentile standards. The main reason for this is that our affections, despite some weaker inclinations to the contrary, are deeply disordered from the start. More specifically, we begin with a narrow and perverted self-love — a self-centered desire for ‘private’ (or ‘autonomous’ on one understanding) well-being. According to Aristotle and Plato, this perverted self-love needs to be, and can be, transformed into rightly-ordered self-love, which includes the desire to will the good for others and to commit oneself to higher and more noble goods that transcend one’s own private good, narrowly conceived. In the end our goal is (or should be) to become individuals who are fit for genuine friendship (a political as well as a personal good) and self-transcending commitments that entail making sacrifices for transcendent common goods. In ‘going out’ of ourselves, as it were, in this way, we at least approach our own true fulfillment as individuals. The transformation from perverted self-love to rightly ordered self-love essentially involves an extensive program of formation, carried out by those who take part in our upbringing and aimed in part at habituating our affections in the right way. The conviction is that we can appropriately moderate our affections, including our concupiscible and irascible passions along with our will, so as to liberate ourselves from the slavery of perverted self-love. Prudence becomes the central virtue on this scheme, because it is precisely the proper use of practical reason that sets the parameters for the escape from disordered passion and malice of will. In particular, the sentient appetite, seat of the passions of the soul, can in its own right become the subject of virtuous habits, but only insofar as it participates in reason, i.e., only insofar as it is amenable to being moderated in a manner dictated by upright practical reasoning of the sort characteristic of the virtue of prudence. All of this is in conformity with the ideas from St. Thomas laid out above, even though in the end St. Thomas will insist with St. Paul and St. Augustine that we cannot accomplish the transition from perverted self-love to well-ordered self help without the working of God's grace. In effect, Aristotle and Plato are, as it were, Pelagians before Pelagius. The bottom line is: We can do it, but only with God's supernatural help and not through any kind of political or social or individual transformation wrought entirely by our own hands.

    Now for the dark side, both versions .....

  • In the Republic Plato put into the mouths of Glaucon and Adeimantus a powerful argument for what we might call the Hobbesian alternative. On this latter view our basic affective inclination toward the good inalterably issues in what Plato and Aristotle think of as perverted self-love. Our passions are both unruly and uneducable, and any concession we make to the norms of what we ordinarily call justice is made reluctantly and only in order to salvage as much as we can, in less than ideal circumstances, of what we want for ourselves as individuals. But if, as individuals, we could get away with attaining what we want without following the so-called 'norms of justice', then it would be stupid and irrational to compromise in the name of some allegedly noble alternative. Narrow self-interest, aka perverted self-love, is inevitably and inalterably the way in which the basic desire for happiness manifests itself, and so it is just a fixed fact about human life that perverted self-love, driven by passion, has to be accepted by any moral theory as the basic and inalterable motive for all human action. Reason merely helps us arrange our lives and our passions in the most efficient way to attain, in our particular circumstances, the best possible configuration of the objects of our self-centered affection. If we end up suppressing this or that passion in a given instance, it is only in order that others might have their way. On this view, reason merely serves the passions without the possibility of elevating them, as it were.

  • John Duns Scotus accepted the idea of the deep unalterability of our sentient affections. (St. Paul, after all, saint though he was, seemed to complain about his own unmoderated passions.) So our inclination toward the comfortable and pleasurable good as proposed by sentience, the affectio commodi, does indeed issue in perverted self-love when allowed to dominate. (The affectio commodi can include behavior that is just, but, as with the Hobbesian view, the deep motivation for such behavior is in the end selfish.) But fortunately for us, says Scotus, we have a second basic inclination, the affectio iustitiae, which is independent of the passions: as rational beings we selflessly desire to make our wills good by conforming them and our actions to God’s will as expressed in divine precepts — even when doing so does not serve our self-centered desires. (Kant, adopting a similar view, would later appeal instead to the precepts that an ideally rational being would autonomously (in Kant’s sense) issue to himself.) Hence, on this view self-love cannot be the motive of morally upright action, and our passions are morally irrelevant in the sense that an action does not derive any positive moral worth from their character, one way or the other. Here the role of upright practical reason is reduced to demanding more will-power in the service of duty as defined by divine precepts and, if need be, in opposition to recalcitrant passions. For the will alone, among our appetites, is subject to habituation. In the less Christian modern versions of this view, virtue becomes its own reward; in fact, it is demeaning to human dignity to desire an external reward for virtuous behavior.

  • This is a big divide in the history of moral theory. There are two relevant questions: (a) Is our basic desire for our own good inalterably self-centered and ‘perverted’? (b) If so, is there another morally relevant basic desire? Plato and Aristole answer NO to both questions. Scotus and Kant answer YES to both questions. Hobbes answers YES to (a) and NO to (b). The differences among these positions have a profound effect on how we think about moral formation and about the possibility and importance of shaping affection and sentiment. Hume is an interesting outlier here. Like the others who answer NO to question (b), he believes that our ‘ordinary’ affections supply us with our basic motivation; unlike the others who answer NO to question (b), he is an optimist who thinks of our affections in their "natural" state as predominantly benevolent rather than predominantly selfish and self-serving. Thus, Hume believes that it is a bad idea to try to re-shape our passions; this, he thinks, leads to moral and religious fanaticism. Rather, we have to proceed with care around the edges, as it were, in order to allow our basic benevolence to shine forth. (Not surprisingly, Hume had little contact with young children.)

IIB. Prudence
  • St. Thomas, of course, sides with Aristotle and Plato in this dispute. And despite the sort of usage that associates the English term ‘prudent’ with individuals who are excessively cautious or circumspect, the fact is that phronesis or prudentia, i.e., the habitually upright use of practical reason in the guidance and execution of one’s voluntary acts, both interior and exterior, is critically important for a philosophical anthropology according to which (a) reason is the distinctively human element among the animals, (b) the best human lives are lived by being guided by reason, and (c) the affections of the human animal are amenable to being shaped and formed by reason, i.e., amenable to ‘participating in’ reason, within the general moral project of turning affectively disordered human beings into persons fit for genuine friendship.

  • The formal structure of prudence. St. Thomas agrees almost completely with Aristotle on the formal structure of prudence, with its potential parts of deliberating, judging, and (the principal act of) commanding, and with its integral parts, viz., memory, understanding, docility, shrewdness, good reasoning, foresight (or providence), circumspection, and caution, and with its subjective parts, the main divide here being the distinction between the prudence by which individuals govern themselves as individuals on the one hand and the prudence by which those in charge govern multitudes such as families, military units, parishes, cities, universities, small and large businesses, etc. As usual, St. Thomas adds to Aristotle by drawing clearer distinctions in some cases and by incorporating into his discussion of the parts of prudence insights contributed by Cicero, Seneca, Macrobius, Ambrose, Augustine, and other Christian and non-Christian post-Aristotelian authors.

  • Sins against prudence: precipitateness. At least by retrospective reconstruction, we can see that our deliberations consist in the formulation of practical chains of reasoning (or plans), based (ideally) on (a) our understanding of basic moral principles; (b) our memories or, better, our experiences as we remember them; (c) our aptitude for sizing up a situation with all its complexity and devising alternative chains of practical reasoning issuing in different actions or patterns of action, and (d) our ability to reason to conclusions in the circumstances, exercising due caution to avoid bad incidental consequences that might accompany our chosen actions. Notice that each of these so-called ‘integral’ parts of practical reasoning is susceptible to affective influence. For instance, the more virtuous I am, the greater the array of good actions that will come to mind in any given situation, and the less the danger of having disordered affections leading me to neglect what I ought to be taking into account; on the other hand, the more prone to vice I am, the more likely I am not to be constrained by moral principles in formulating plans of action. In some cases, our deliberation is flawed by precipitateness (praecipitatio), which St. Thomas lists as the first basic sin against prudence and which may proceed either from an excessive desire for pleasure or comfort (precipitateness proper) or from a prideful contempt for the rule of reason (temeritas). In either case the use of right reason is bypassed completely and disordered affections rule the day.

  • Sins against prudence: inconsideratio. Similar considerations apply to the next step, which is to judge which of the alternative chains of reasoning (or plans) are acceptable (giving rise to acts of consenting), and which of the alternatives, if any, is the most worthy of choice (giving rise to acts of choosing). When we make bad judgments, leading either to bad acts of consenting or bad acts of choosing, this is an instance of another of the basic sins against prudence, viz., inconsideratio — the failure to take account of what we ought to have taken account of, and this is often due to a disordered passion, say, anger, envy, lust, fear, or sadness of one sort or another, etc. (How many times have you said to someone or had someone say to you, "What were you thinking!?)

  • Sins against prudence: inconstancy and negligence. St. Thomas insists, though, that the principal act of prudence is command, i.e., the act of reason by which we determine that this act, which has previously been judged best and chosen, is to be carried out here and now. The gap here is familiar to us. Choices made earlier are oftentimes not carried out. When we fail to carry out good choices, it is because of either inconstancy (inconstantia) or negligence (negligentia), which St. Thomas lists as the third and fourth of the basic sins against prudence and which, once again, often arise from disordered passions such as an excessive desire for pleasure or an excessive fear.

  • The connectedness of  perfect virtues. By contrast to these sins, the virtue of prudence is the intellectual habit by which we do well as a matter of course in our deliberating, judging, and commanding. If we are talking about complete or perfect virtues, rather than just about virtuous inclinations that are somewhat easily overridden, then St. Thomas, again agreeing with Aristotle, claims that prudence and the moral virtues are connected. That is, you cannot use practical reason in an habitually good way unless you also have the rectitude of affection effected by justice, fortitude, and temperance. But since every virtuous act essentially involves the good use of practical reason in deliberating, judging, and (especially) commanding, the moral virtues cannot exist in a perfected state unless one has the virtue of prudence as well to discern and help execute the mean in a given circumstance.

  • Prudence and charity. The whole Second Part of the Summa Theologiae, supplemented by sections of the Third Part, is aimed at describing in a systematic and philosophically sophisticated manner the elements that need to be in place for one to live a Christian life successfully, supplemented by an exhaustive survey of possible pitfalls. And upon close examination, that life looks very different from the life of Aristotle’s paradigmatically good human being. In fact, as Pieper emphasizes, there is good reason to believe that it is precisely a virtuous gentile of the sort that Aristotle takes to be approaching the moral ideal who would be the most reluctant to undertake what Lumen Gentium famously termed “the call to holiness” — which is, of course, the ideal that St. Thomas has in mind.

    Consider that at least some of those who rejected Jesus among the Scribes and the Pharisees seem to have been genuinely decent men who, unlike others among their colleagues, were sincere seekers after the truth and not moved to reject Jesus by envy or anger or a lust for power. However, the best example for us to light upon is undoubtedly the rich young man of the synoptic Gospels, who seems, on the surface, like a perfect Jewish counterpart to Aristotle’s just man. He approaches Jesus, undoubtedly moved by Jesus’ reputation as a teacher, prophet, and miracle worker — someone who looks to be wise and worthy of trust. The young man clearly has a sense that there may be something more to life that he’s missing out on, despite the fact that he is already morally upright and has enough material resources to be, or to become, a shining example of Aristotelian magnanimity and magnificence. St. Mark tells us that Jesus looks upon him with love. Yet when Jesus tells him that he needs to make a radical change — “Sell everything ... and follow me” — he balks and walks away in sadness.

    It would be wrong, I think, to conclude that the young man is avaricious and thus not morally upright after all by Aristotle’s standards. Instead, he has the sort of attachment to his wealth that at one and the same time seems ‘reasonable’ and yet makes him fearful and unreceptive to what is clearly a prompting of the Holy Spirit to leave his comfort zone out of love for and trust in Jesus. He wants to be self-sufficient and autonomous in a way that cannot quite accommodate the radical change suggested by Jesus. From a Christian perspective, the young man acts imprudently at least in part because he is afraid to expand his understanding beyond what Pieper calls “naturally experienceable realities,” and for this reason he is not docile enough to accept the advice given to him in friendship by our Lord. This is not so much a failure to live up to a lofty but impersonal standard of perfection of the sort outlined by Aristotle as it is a failure to trust a person whom he himself has sought out as a guide — in short, a failure of love. The rich young man is unwilling to do what Peter and Andrew and James and John and (especially) Matthew had done before him when Jesus had looked upon them with love, viz., give up everything to follow Jesus.

    I am reminded of Chesterton’s comment that many of the apparently crazy (aka ‘imprudent’) things done by St. Francis that strike moderns who are otherwise attracted to him as dark and even sinister — his long hours of prayer, his severe fasts and bodily mortifications, his utter humility, his magnificent but unselfconscious interventions, his kissing of lepers, his ardent desire for the stigmata — make perfectly good sense if thought of as the actions of one madly in love. According to St. Thomas, whereas perfect prudence guides the moral virtues of justice, fortitude, and temperance, it itself is governed and guided by charity, the supernatural love of God and of neighbor for the sake of God. The focus of the Christian way of life is a Trinity of Persons to be loved and not an impersonal standard of flourishing to be aimed at. And the main guiding virtue is charity, which should be guiding prudence in the living out of a Christian life -- even if this is not the case, or even the intention, in the lives of many Christians. As St. Thomas puts it: "It was explained above (q. 58, aa. 4-5) that the other moral virtues cannot exist without prudence, and that prudence cannot exist without the moral virtues, since the moral virtues bring it about that one is related in the right way to certain ends from which prudence’s reasoning proceeds. But the right reason that belongs to prudence requires much more that a man be related in the right way to his ultimate end — a relation that is effected by charity — than that he be related in the right way to other ends — a relation that is effected by the moral virtues — just as right reason in speculative matters especially requires the first indemonstrable principle, viz., that contradictories are not simultaneously true. Hence, it is clear that infused prudence cannot exist without charity and, as a result, neither can the other moral virtues, which cannot exist without prudence."

IIC. Justice
  • The right (ius) and its foundation. (What Pieper says about justice has as its background the atrocious injustices surrounding World War II). As Pieper emphasizes, the virtue of justice, which is the habitual inclination to render to each person what is 'due to' that person, presupposes that in the real, objective, world, independently of what anyone wants to be the case, human persons, by virtue of being human beings, (a) have a standing that imposes moral constraints on how others may treat them, and (b) have moral constraints on how they may treat others. In fact, the seriousness of this right that serves as the basis for the just, is that, as Socrates pointed out many times, someone who acts unjustly suffers a greater harm than the one who is treated unjustly. To act unjustly is to take a step in the direction of destroying yourself. Ultimately, this is so because we are spiritual beings who are created by God and can come to fulfillment only by being united with God.

    So the virtue of justice, as it exists in a given human being, is a habit of the will by which one habitually wills to treat others justly, and this habitual disposition can be described in general as the fixed disposition to render to each human being what is due to that human being in the relevant circumstances. Pieper puts the foundation for this right, i.e., for what is due to a human being, in our being spiritual beings created by God.

  • Justice as directed to others and the rank of justice. St. Thomas notes that we do not need a special habit in order to look out for ourselves. However, one of the consequences of original sin is that we are not so well disposed toward the good of others. That is why we need a special virtue of the will in order to treat others justly as a matter of course. Justice applies to everyone, even (and especially) complete strangers with whom we have no bonds of kinship, affection, or mutual interest. When there are such ties, e.g., between spouses, between parents and children, with benefactors, etc., there are special virtues associated with, but differing from, justice, e.g., filial piety in the case of children with respect to their parents, and gratitude with respect to one's benefactors. So the temptation to mistreat others precisely because they are "other" in some respect or other is, strictly speaking, a temptation to sin against justice.

    Notice that Pieper, like St. Thomas, also invokes a broader notion of justice (legal or general justice) which relates our actions to the community as a whole and to God. In this sense, all our virtuous acts, even acts of temperance and fortitude, are thought of as making us fit for friendship with the others in our community and with God. All our actions matter in this regard, since we must always be ready to contribute to the common good and to abide in God's presence. This is the sense in which Sacred Scripture talks of the "just man" --  not just someone who performs acts that fall under the virtue of justice, but one who is virtuous in all ways and is hence habitually disposed to perform just acts because his passions are under control. Still, he is called the 'just man' because it is mainly in acting justly that his overall goodness becomes clear.

  • Commutative  justice, distributive justice, and legal (general justice). Pieper points out that there are three important relationships in the discussion of justice: (a) the relationships of individuals to one another (commutative justice), (b) the relationship of the social whole to the individual (distributive justice), and (c) the relationship of the individual to the social whole (legal or general justice). We have already talked about (c).

  • Commutative justice:  The main act of commutative justice is restitutio, i.e., the restoration of a balance between two individuals. I take what you are selling and give you a sum of money in order to restore the balance between us. You perform a service for me and I pay you the agreed amount of money. Suppose you revile me in public; you need to make up for it in some way. (Not all denunciation is unjust, but social media especially has made us insensitive to the sin of vilification.) You steal from me; you are obligated to make restitution and may be subject to fine or imprisonment as well, depending on the circumstances. In such cases, the just consists in a balance between what is received and what is given in return.

    The sins against commutative justice that St. Thomas explicitly talks about in Summa Theologiae 2-2: (a) sins of deed: (i) in involuntary commutations (homicide, mutilation, beating, being held against one's will, theft, robbery); (ii) in voluntary commutations (fraud in buying and selling, charging excessive interest); (b) sins of word: (i) inside of court (unjust judgment, unjust accusation, unjust defense by either the defendant or the attorney, unjust witness); (ii) outside of court (vilification, detraction, gossiping, derision, malediction).

  • The parameters of distributive justice. As Pieper puts it: "Whoever speaks of distributive justice has to speak of the exercise of power. What is under discussion is the right order in the relation between those who have power and those who are entrusted or delivered to this power." Here the social whole has obligations to the individual in a way that neither collectivism nor individualism can account for. That is, both the social whole and the individual have independent standing, so that it is unjust for an individual to think and act without recourse to the social whole, whereas the social whole cannot justly treat the individual as a mere instrument without moral standing as a spiritual being. However, these matters are more complicated than commutations among individuals, since those in authority must make their determinations from the perspective of the common good. In the end, those in authority need to be just (as well as wise or prudent) and to care about justice themselves. Given the human condition, we cannot expect that this will be the 'normal' situation.

  • The limits of justice 1: ineliminable debts. As I mentioned above, there are relations between people which make for cases in which, even though they involve what is due to a person, justice does not apply to them strictly speaking, because the debt can never be repaid in full. The first and most important case of this sort is the relation each human being has to God. We owe God adoration and an ineliminable debt of gratitude for our very being and -- in the case of those in the state of grace -- for our supernatural life as well. In addition, we owe God our penitence, since we have all sinned against Him. This is why St. Thomas includes in the treatise on justice a long treatise on the virtue of religion, with its main interior acts of devotion and prayer, along with a long list of exterior acts. Next comes filial piety, the virtue that is to be nurtured by children with respect to their parents (and other close relatives) and by citizens with respect to their homeland. A third such virtue is observantia, which is something like respect for and gratitude to those outside of our family who contribute in some way to our upbringing by doing their proper jobs (e.g., those who occupy official roles in govenment, schools, religion, sports, medicine (including dentists!), along with police and firefighters and first responders, etc.).

  • The limits of justice 2: going beyond the strict demands of justice for the sake of the common good. There are many virtues of communal life by which we act in ways that are not, strictly speaking, demanded by the virtue of justice, but which nonetheless make life bearable for others and perhaps even pleasant -- even under general conditions of rank injustice. St. Thomas talks, for instance, of truth-telling, fairness, friendliness, generosity, respect, kindness, etc. "Justice without mercy is cruel." And we all know what it is like to be treated harshly by people whom we are forced to deal with by the exigencies of life. From a Christian perspective, this is where charity -- which includes joy (even cheerfulness), peace, and mercy -- comes to the fore in our everyday lives. In fact, it is precisely our ability to follow Jesus's admonition not to mistreat people who mistreat you that becomes important here. I am not talking here about extraordinary events, but instead about ordinary situations in life and offenses against us personally -- when we're shopping or getting medical treatment or attending sports events, etc. On the other hand, there are going to be times when we are called upon, for instance, to protect others who are not in a position to defend themselves. But even then we are called upon to do this with as much restraint as we can, given God's grace and the relevant circumstances.

III. The Virtues: Fortitude and Temperance

IIIA. Fortitude

We now turn to those virtues that have the sentient appetite as their subject, i.e., that reside in the sentient appetite and participate in the rule of reason. In other words, these virtues are habits that belong to the passionate part of a human being and enable one to have appropriate feelings at appropriate times, either in order to act on those feelings or in order to be restrained by them from acting. As Pieper notes, the point of these virtues is to conserve the good of reason as carried out by the virtue of justice -- and, one might add -- the virtue of charity, i.e., the supernatural love of God and of neighbor for the sake of God. That is to say, they make one fit, and preserve one's fitness, for genuine friendship and life within a just political community.

The first cardinal virtue of this sort that we will consider is fortitude, which resides in the irascible appetite and governs passions such as fear, audacity, hope, despair, and anger. In general, in the case of each person and of each action, the virtue of fortitude, guided by prudence, seeks the appropriate mean between excess and deficiency, i.e., between fear and audacity and between hope and despair. (The case of anger is more complicated and is treated by St. Thomas under the virtue of temperance.
  • Readiness to die and/or be killed in the service of a noble transcendent cause. On Aristotle's view the highest act of fortitude is readiness to be killed in battle in defense of one's city-state (polis). St. Thomas does not deny that this is a great act, but he is talking mainly about infused fortitude, which is motivated by charity, and so on his view the highest act of fortitude is readiness to be killed as a Christian martyr out of love for Christ and His Church. In general, fortitude applies to risking various goods in order to preserve or obtain greater goods. Thus it is important to understand that the martyrs do not suffer injury for its own sake. They love what they lose, be it their very lives or some lesser good such as bodily integrity or good reputation or financial security, etc. These are all goods in themselves and highly valued -- but not valued as highly as fidelity to Christ, to the Faith, to the Church. Likewise, under the appropriate conditions, it is part of fortitude to defend significant human goods, such as one's homeland, against various sorts of evil. So fortitude involves defending, standing up for, enduring pain and even death for, etc., some worthy good that is more important than any goods that are being sacrificed in the process.

    By the way, as Pieper notes, the Church has a long history of discouraging anyone from presumptuously putting himself forward for martyrdom. This is something that we must leave to God. In fact, as we shall see, the degrees of fortitude in the end correspond to the various degrees to which we able, with the help of grace, to abandon ourselves to God in trust and in hope of God's ultimate victory over the power of evil.

  • Fortitude and truth. The virtue of fortitude can exist only in the truth, i.e., insofar as it is guided by a prudence fixed in the real world instead of in an imaginary world. This is why many manifestations of "brave" behavior cannot stem from the virtue of fortitude. "The virtue of fortitude has nothing to do with a purely vital, blind, exuberant, daredevil spirit," even though it does presuppose a healthy vitality and hopefulness as regards succeeding in attaining or preserving the relevant good. "The nature of fortitude is not determined by risking one's person arbitrarily, but only by a sacrifice of self in accordance with reason, that is, with the true nature and value of real things .... Genuine fortitude presupposes a correct evaluation of things, of the things that one risks as well as of those which one hopes to preserve or gain."

    Genuine fortitude must be subordinate to both prudence (truth) and justice (the true good). Otherwise, what looks like bravery is in fact fake fortitude and can become an abomination -- as, for instance, when someone thinks that his own cause is just to a degree that warrants the killing of innocent people. In 1958 the renowned Catholic philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe published a famous pamphlet entitled "Mr. Truman's Degree" in protest against Oxford University's awarding an honorary degree to Harry Truman. The reason was the dropping of the atomic bombs on the civilian populations of Hiroshima and Nagasake. And we all know about the scourge of terrorism in our own times, where innocent people are targeted in order to promote a just cause. Even if one's cause is truly just, it still does not sanction killing the innocent -- unless, of course, one thinks like a consequentialist and allows a good end to justify intrinsically immoral acts, even atrocities. (In other words, unless one thinks it's ok to do evil in order that good might come of it. But Church teaching has always opposed this, going straight back to St. Paul and to Jesus before him. Unfortunately, some 20th century Catholic moralists fell into this trap under the rubric of "proportionalism.")

  • Endurance and attack; hope and cheerfulness. Pieper says, "Endurance is more of the essence of fortitude than attack is." But he makes clear that for from being merely passive, endurance is first and foremost active. This is a point that rings true. First of all, it is especially when further 'active' resistance is futile that we see fortitude kick in at its highest point, with the individual vigorously grasping and clinging to the good -- "and only from this stout-hearted activity can the strength to undergo the physical and spiritual suffering of injury and death be nourished." Thus, according to St. Thomas, patience is a necessary component of fortitude, where those who are patient "do not allow themselves to be made inordinately sorrowful" by the evil that is encroaching on them. Hence, fortitude involves hope, interior peace, and even cheerfulness. But this takes a ferocious strength of spirit.

  • Vital, moral, and mystical fortitude. Finally, Pieper tries to distinguish three different manifestations of fortitude in the broad sense. The first he calls 'vital' and we would probably call 'tempermental', i.e., a psychological condition of vitality that is conducive to the natural virtue of fortitude. Someone with this temperament will find it easier to acquire fortitude than someone with a weaker and more anxious temperament. 'Moral fortitude' designates the natural or acquired virtue of fortitude, whereas 'mystical fortitude' is the infused virtue of fortitude, aided by the eponymous gift of the Holy Spirit and admitting of three levels, corresponding to the traditional levels of sanctity, viz., the political fortitude of everyday life, the purgatorial fortitude for those who have taken the call to holiness seriously, and the fortitude of the purified soul, found only in the great saints. We don't have time to delve into this any further, but this is an interesting, if rather difficult, section of Pieper's essay.

IIIB. Temperance

The virtue of temperance has to do mainly with bringing the order of reason to the concupiscible appetite, i.e., the passions of love and hate, desire and aversion, and pleasure (or enjoyment) and pain (or sorrow). The temperate individual is self-possessed or self-mastered, freed from slavery to his own disordered loves and desires. One in this position is free to give himself to others without being sidetracked by having to satisfy his own self-centered desire for pleasure, enjoyment, and comfort. This is what Pieper calls "selfless self-preservation. "To sum up: chastity, continence, humility, gentleness, mildness, studiositas, are modes of realization of the discipline of temperance; unchastity, incontinence, pride, uninhibited wrath, curiositas, are forms of intemperance." The rest of Pieper's essay on temperance deals with these virtues and vices, which he claims are diabolically misrepresented in modern life in order to deceive otherwise decent people.
  • Chastity and unchastity; virginity. This is a vexing topic in contemporary Western culture, but the Church will survive -- perhaps mainly because one consequence of the sexual revolution of the 1960's (sorry about that, folks; my generation has a lot to answer for) seems to be demographic suicide. Sexual activity has been separated from procreation, and the result is predictable: extremely low birth rates in virtually every 'developed' country. We need not even mention the unbelievable spread of the use of pornography made possible by the internet, sexual trafficking of young girls, high divorce rates, etc. Following Scott Hahn, I suggest that we think of the view of St. Thomas and of the Church in this way: The form of Christian marriage is the permanent and faithful union of the spouses, freely entered into and blessed by sacramental grace, and the end of marriage is the procreation and education of children. A relationship entered into without accepting this sort of union as the form of marriage, along with this end as the goal of marriage (even if unrealized in some instances), is not a valid marriage. But the Church also recognizes the validity of marriage as a natural institution with the same form minus the sacramental bond. And the claim is that this is the only context in which sexual activity can lead to human flourishing and not become self-destructive. This, of course, is not your normal rom-com conception of sexuality, but how's that sexual revolution working out, anyway? Is everyone happy, like my generation predicted we would be if only we could throw off the fetters (see Psalm 2) of the Christian conception of marriage and sexuality? (Appendix: the instruction read at every wedding when I was a kid.)

    Pieper makes the very important point that sexual sins are bad in large part because they make us blind ... spiritually blind. The pleasure is so addictive that everything else, including the truth about ourselves and our relation to God and neighbor, takes a second place. Once this sort of insensitivity becomes deeply rooted, it is our practical reasoning in general that is skewed, in the ways noted above in the discussion of prudence. This is one very common way in which we become slaves of our passions and lose our ability to determine how to be self-giving lovers of God and neighbor. Instead, we become self-taking lovers of ourselves and have a strong tendency to become closed in upon ourselves. In short, we make ourselves unfit for friendship and well-nigh incapable of repentance. This is why it is so important to struggle against sins of the flesh and to repent quickly.

    Incidentally, this discussion is incomplete without a discussion of a somewhat neglected topic, viz., how unchastity can arise within marriage and threaten the union between husband and wife. I can't go there right now, but this really needs to be thought about more by serious Catholics. Nor does the topic of contraception, taken in isolation, come anywhere near exhausting this topic.

    Finally, St. Thomas thinks of consecrated virginity (or celibacy) as, literally, a magnificent and big-souled example of chastity. Here is the way Romano Guardini puts it, "Christian virginity is a special garden within the reservation of grace in nature as it exists in Christian marriage. The power that has created both states of life is the power of Jesus Christ. Christian marriage, like Christian virginity, is not the product of sociological truth, however evident; nor of moral and personal strength, however valuable; nor of immediate, personal religiousness, however genuine. None of these even touches the essential. Both states are tenable only through the strength of Christ ... Both Christian marriage and Christian virginity become incomprehensible the moment the Nazarene ceases to be their essence, their norm, and their reality."

  • Fasting and, more generally, mortification. Just as the practice of the virtues in general is meant to make us better self-giving lovers of God and neighbor, various acts of self-denial aid our growth in the virtues, and especially our growth in fortitude and temperance. Spiritual writers sometimes draw a distinction between active mortifications, i.e., acts of self-denial that are deliberately undertaken (e.g., fasting), and passive mortifications, i.e., the sort of annoyances that show up all the time in ordinary life. For most of us, it is the latter that play the most important role in our growth in holiness. The more promptly we offer them up, even thank God for them, and see them as opportunities for spiritual growth, the better off we are -- even when they get to be extraordinary, as with serious illness or the death of a loved one or one's child getting into trouble, etc. In the wake of Vatican II some theological pundits declared mortification in general defunct and "out of date," along with devotion to our Lady and the other saints, natural family planning, Latin in the liturgy, novenas, apostolic celibacy, catechisms, etc. Getting rid of such things would, they promised, attract more people to Catholicism and put the Faith more in tune with the times. Hmm, so how did that work out?

  • Humility. Pieper spends most of the time in this chapter talking about the amazing conjunction of humility and magnanimity in the great saints. However, he is so eager to avoid the identification of humility with low self-esteem that he doesn't get it quite right. As I see it, the dynamic is this: first, there is a twofold realization of (a) God's paternal love for me and (b) my utter unworthiness. These two realizations need to coincide with one another, and this is something that often takes time; it can get complicated, and very often one or the other of these realizations will be present before the other. But once this twofold realization is in place, then one sees that great things are possible for him because of God's power and goodness rather than his own. So, with confidence in God, he can think great thoughts. This seems to be the way it was with St. Peter and St. Paul, with St. Augustine ... and with the founders of all the most important religious orders and other ecclesial movements in the history of the Church. "We are a bunch of zeros ... but Christ is the numeral 'one' to their left. And so 0000... becomes 10000... and God can do great things through us." That's how genuine humility is accompanied by magnanimity. And it can be that way, perhaps on a smaller scale, in the life of every follower of Christ.

  • Anger. Pieper is at pains to separate the sin of unmoderated anger or wrath (in the form of blind rage or bitterness of spirit or vengeful resentment) from the sort of anger that justifiably makes one spring into action because of one's own failures or because of injustice and other evils. Here the virtues of gentleness (with respect to oneself) and mildness (with respect to others) moderate the anger and keep it within the bounds of virtue. It would be bad, for example, not to be indignant with oneself or others in certain situations. The goal is not to become the sort of person who never experiences anger. That would be inhuman and would be incompatible with genuine charity. Rather, the goal is to feel the right degree of anger at the right time.

  • Disciplining the eyes: curiositas vs. studiositas. Lastly Pieper deals with the virtue of studiositas and the corresponding virtue of curiositas. There are no exact English equivalents for these Latin terms, which have to do with moderation in seeing and in the quest for knowledge. In an interesting discussion, Pieper finally lights on something like intellectual restlessness for curiositas. What he means is that instead of a longing for truth, someone who has the vice of curiositas experiences a sort of rootlessness which is always looking for something new to tickle his fancy and to get enthusiastic about. He has no inner core of stable beliefs and stable living around which he has built his life. In a memorable passage Pieper comments that curiositas "reaches the extremes of its destructive and eradicating power when it builds itself a world according to its own image and likeness: when it surrounds itself with the restlessness of a perpetual moving picture of meaningless shows, and with the literally deafening noise of impressions and sensations breathlessly rushing past the windows of the senses. Behind the flimsy pomp of its facade dwells absolute nothingness; it is a world of, at most, ephemeral creations, which often within less than a quarter hour become stale and discarded, like a newspaper or magazine swiftly scanned or merely perused; a world which, to the piercing eye of the healthy mind untouched by its contagion, appears like the amusement quarter of a big city in the hard brightness of a winter morning: desperately bare, disconsolate, and ghostly." What is ultimately clouded is the very vision of reality and of God. In light of this, the intellectual asceticism of studiositas is necessary in order preserve one's inner silence and openness to reality and to God.

  • The fruits of temperance. Pieper asserts, "The infantile disorder of intemperance not only destroys beauty, it also makes man cowardly; intemperance more than any other thing renders man unable and unwilling to 'take heart' against the wounding power of evil in the world." In other words, intemperance weakens a man, makes him soft, and keeps him from taking a stand against evil. He's too busy finding ways of satisfying his sensual desires or his desire for notoriety or prestige. Also interesting -- because I believe that we see a lot of it in our society -- is the connection between intemperance and despair. "One who rejects fulfillment in its true and final meaning and, despairing of God and himself, anticipates non-fulfillment, may well regard the artificial paradise of unrestrained pleasure-seeking as the sole place, if not of happiness, then of forgetfulness, of self-oblivion."

    By contrast, temperance is liberating and purifying. It purifies us for selfless acceptance of the real world and abandonment to God -- especially in the face of suffering, illness, and death.