Jacques Maritain Center : A First Glance at St. Thomas Aquinas / by Ralph McInerny


Fifi's apartment is on the first floor and one morning she throws open the window, thrusts her head into the invigorating air, and is showered by a dishpan of suds from on high. The occupant of the apartment upstairs is abject. Fifi, lovely girl, laughs it off. "That's all right. No harm done."

Fateful remark. Her neighbor, debonair, good looking, weak chinned, is a philosopher. His expression of relief is replaced by one difficult to describe. The word 'smug' suggests itself.

"I couldn't agree more," he cries.

Fifi, toweling her just shampooed hair, is nonplussed. Her neighbor is all too willing to explain. His name is Legion. He is even now completing his doctoral dissertation.

"Do no harm to others. It is the only moral absolute."

He explains through much of the morning that he has proved beyond the shadow of a doubt that the history of moral philosophy is a record of bad arguments and unpersuasive exhortation. He proposes to cut through all the crap ad begin and end with a single moral principle. Do no harm to others.

Among the many merits Legion sees in his proposal is that moral philosophers can get out of the business of assessing and appraising what people choose to do. Legion would leave them to their own devices. With one proviso. They must not harm one another.

"Why not?" Fifi asks, the question prompted perhaps by the murderous thought that have been assailing her during Legion's lengthy lecture.

"Would you want someone to harm you?"

"I want to harm someone else."

"Who may want to harm you."

Who already has, she thinks, though her pretty smile does not falter.

Legion lauds his own position as free of any assumptions about moral absolutes and human nature and things we ought to do just because of the way we are made. Or evolved. His smile is toothy and conspiratorial.

"Just think," he says at the door to which she eventually leads him. "If I hadn't done dishes this morning, we wouldn't have met."

"Yes," Fifi muses, mentally resolving to send him a year's supply of paper plates.

Fifi's Reflections

In the days that follow, Fifi, a thoughtful girl, thinks about these things. What Legion has said, but notL himself, interests her. Him she avoids. She slips in and out of the building, she adopts a thick foreign accent in answering the phone and chirps about orders of fried rice being on their way when she recognizes his voice.

Why, she wonders, would anyone think he had escaped a natural measure for moral judgments by settling on the notion of harm? Even if one took harm to be the only moral evil and avoiding it the only the only moral imperative, this is to get oneself in very deep indeed.

What is harm in this usage? Pain? That can't be. Dentists, dieticians, punishing parents, and exercise all inflict pain, but the pain is taken to be all right because it is for something else. Something good. Which is more than the absence of pain.

A dentist's disquisition on dental health is not put forward as subjective. "I think cavities are bad, but that's just my opinion. Some people like them. Why, there's an island in the Pacific . . .." Dentists don't talk that way.

So too dieticians and physical therapists and parents have an end in view when they attend to ours. The pain their ministrations involve leads on to a proper weight, a desirable agility, rectitude.

Pain is good or bad depending on whether or not it is harmful. And, it seems to Fifi, we think there are objective measures of what is or is not harmful to human beings. Our knowledge of health may be imperfect, but we know where to look to perfect it.

Legion may not like it, but Fifi sees his moral theory as a minimal version of natural law. Because harm must apply to more than health. To isolate someone from other is to do him harm. To prevent someone from learning is to do him harm. To prevent men and women from marrying and having children is to do them harm. Harm means thwarting the pursuit of what is fulfilling or good. Without an objective measure of goodness, harm makes no sense.

The more she thinks of it, Fifi sees a rich moral theory springing from Legion's notion of harm. It is a theory so rich it contains a justification for her continued avoidance of her upstairs neighbor.

Moral Commonplaces

The moral comes into play when we act consciously. Digesting lunch, blinking my eyes, breathing are things I do not consciously do. I do them in my sleep. I am unlikely to be asked why I am doing them. The relevance of Why is the sign that we are in the moral realm. The question assumes that we know what we are doing and are deliberately doing it.

Acting consciously involves taking into account things which are not what they are because of us. Like health. Like the fact that humans are born into societies and would not survive outside them. Like the fact that boys are attracted to girls and vice versa because the race will go on only if they mate and have children. Like the fact that we have a mind. Reflecting on such facts gives rise to judgments about what we do.

The most general judgments of that sort, the inescapable ones, make up what Thomas means by natural Law.

I must put my mind to doing what is right and avoiding the opposite. This vastly general assumption is embedded in any conscious act. That my desire for food and drink is not a law unto itself, but should be governed by mind is inescapably true. To deny it is to accept it. Think about it. And so with sex. And social interactions. Human agents must put their minds to these in order to do them well. They can always be asked Why and should have an answer.

So viewed, it turns out that it is difficult not to hold to what Thomas calls Natural Law. Not that it is often held under that name, but that doesn't matter. As Fifi has surmised, Legion, who thinks he is rejecting an objective basis for morality, is actually asserting it. And his position can scarcely be as lean as he thinks it is.

Natural Law consists of moral commonplaces. The theory is that these are the sweeping judgments anyone is going to make as a moral agent. If not explicitly formulated, they are embedded in the judgments that are formulated. Just as the Principle of Contradiction is seldom formulated outside of philosophy courses but, once formulated is seen to be what one held all along, so too the starting points of moral reasoning will be found implicit in the moral outlook of mankind.

Less Common Judgments

As soon as we get away from moral commonplaces, things get murky as to what ought to be done. The answers are no longer unassailable. If true, they are true by and large, for the most part. But it is easy to imagine circumstances in which their point would be thwarted if we abided by them. Moral philosophy, ethics, the attempt to formulate somewhat less general advice is incorrigibly corrigible.

This is not to deny that there are many judgments that are by and large true and that survive the ravages of time. But judgments about usury are made within the context of an economic system and will lose relevance if the system is replaced. Rules of justice will be contextual too and fairness has to be discussed in terms of particular social and political arrangements.

Even within a well-understood context, the question of what one ought to do cannot be decisively settled at the level of discussion. There are no ethical rules that just fit onto any old situation automatically. At the heart of morality is the agent who has to bring whatever previous explicit thinking he has engaged in to bear on these circumstances here and now. The knack of doing this, the virtue, is called prudence by St. Thomas, a good word that has fallen on bad times. For us the prudent person is a careful calculating one, looking out for Number One. Thomas has in mind the practically wise man who, desiring the good, with a past history of pursuit of the good, judges the here and now in the light of the good to which he is committed.

There is no neutral technique for generating particular moral judgments. To be able to judge well with regularity as to what ought to be done depends on one's heart being in the right place. In order to get a picture of what Thomas means by the prudent person, think of someone from whom you would solicit advice about a matter of moral moment.

Moral discourse has the moral commonplaces of Natural Law at one end and singular judgments in fleeting and unrepeatable circumstances at the other, and in between are general judgments which can guide us for the most part but it is up to us to judge when and how and where and how much. There are rules for applying rules. For that we need prudence.


Levels of Precept

The moral precepts, as opposed to the ceremonial and judicial, deal with those things which of themselves pertain to good mores. Since human mores are such with reference to reason, which is the proper principle of human acts, those mores are called good which are congruent with reason and those evil which are discordant with it. Just as every judgment of speculative reason proceeds from a natural knowledge of first principles, so every judgment of practical reason proceeds from naturally known principles, as was said earlier. From these, it goes on in different ways to judge of various things. (a) For there are some things in human acts so explicit that with the slightest consideration they can be approved or disapproved by means of common and first principles. (b) Some things are such that judgment about them requires much consideration of different circumstances -- a diligent consideration which falls not to all but to the wise, no more than a diligent consideration of scientific conclusions falls to all, but rather to philosophers. (c) In order to judge some things, man needs divine instruction; e.g.., things to be believed.

It is obvious, then, that since moral precepts concern the things that pertain to good mores, and these are in accord with reason, and every judgment of human reason derives in some way from natural reason, that all moral precepts necessarily pertain to the law of nature, but in different ways. (a) There are some things any mind judges right off ought to be done or not be done; for example, Honor your father and mother: Do not kill; Do not steal. Such judgments are absolutely of the law of nature. (b) Some things the wise, after more subtle considerations of reason, judge ought to be observed. Such things are of the law of nature but require learning whereby the many are instructed by the wise. For example, "Stand up in the presence of a gray head and honor the person of the old." (Lev. 19:32) (c) Some things are such that human reason needs divine instruction, whereby we are instructed in divine things, if it is to judge them. For example, "Do not make for yourself a graven image nor any likeness" and "Do not take the name of God in vain."

-- Summa theologiae, First Part of the Second Part, Question 100, article 1

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