Lesson 7: What All Men Seek

In his prologue to the moral part of the Summa theologiae, Thomas reflects on the meaning of the truth that man is made in the image and likeness of God. In this man is unique among creatures of the sublunary world. All creatures are like their creator to some degree -- as vestiges and shadows, as Bonaventure will say -- but man shares in capacities that give him dominion over his own life. He has an intellect and free will and thus can both know that which is fulfilling of him and responsibly pursue it. Other terrestrial creatures are more directed than self-directing. A sign of this is that we do not blame creatures less than man when their actions cause harm.

You will object that you have just disciplined your Black Labrador, chiding him in much the same way as you do your children when they have tracked mud into the kitchen. "Shame on you," you cried, and the beast cringed, as if accepting your moral verdict. Perhaps you beat him a bit as well. Ah, but you train your dog. Your children you raise. Pets who are trained bear the impress of their master's mind, but his children have minds of their own and eventually will be held accountable in their own right. Doubtless parental influence will be felt in the long years ahead, but it does not function as the training of an animal does, nor is it ever the sole explanation of what one does.

The great mark of human action is the relevance to it of the question Why? Why did you do that? If you are asked why you plunged forward when tripped, you can explain what happens physiologically when equilibrium is suddenly lost. In your forthcoming book The Fall of Man you will present to the world the definitive treatise on tripping and falling. But when Larry King asks you if only human beings are susceptible to tripping and falling you will say no and treat him to a number of anecdotes about grounded antelopes and giraffes, to say nothing of dogies lassoed and wrestled to the ground. Of course human beings utter disedifying things as they are crashing to the ground, but were you to cite this as the mark of distinctively human tripping and falling, your fundamental honesty would get in the way of enthusiasm for the claim. To fall when tripped and to utter lines from Ovid on the way to the ground are two very different kinds of act.

Thomas suggests that we use the phrase "acts of man" to cover those activities which are truly predicable of a human person but not precisely insofar as he is human. Any animal with pedal extremities can be tripped up. Man has pedal extremities. When tripped he falls. Willy nilly. It is something done to him, not something he does. We neither praise him nor blame him for the way he falls -- unless of course if he is a movie stunt man. Then his falling is artful and intended and worthy of the Oscar he limps home with.

Men grow and take nourishment. Our eyes see and our ears hear. Much the same can be said of your plants and your pets, respectively. The bloodshot eye of your Labrador follows you about the room, an ear twitches and lifts. At the same time that Thomas speaks of what sets the human agent off from all others, he is insistent on the way in which man is inserted into the material cosmos. He is in fact that cosmos writ small, a microcosmos, in whom all the lower levels are present and at the service of what sets the human agent off from other animals and plants and inorganic things. The levels of our nature become important when we ask what is our good.

"Acts of a man" could be distinguished into those which are the operation in us of powers we share with plants and animals; these just go on without our notice but still it is our digestive system that is at work, our respiratory system, our circulatory system, and so on. It is the mark of these that we are not held accountable for them just as such. Our metabolism is not the creature of our choice.

You will object that we do many things to affect these natural activities -- diets, medicine, exercise, transplants -- and this blurs the distinction the phrase "acts of a man" is meant to make. Au contraire, mon brave. But we will return to this most important demur.

If it is a mark of "acts of a man" that we are not praised or blamed for them, we will want to distinguish between the normal or abnormal working of our digestion, say, for which we get neither credit nor blame, and the unintended effects of our deliberate choices. You go to the supermarket and find that Tom & Jerry's alleged ice cream is on sale. You put a carton of it in your basket. A week later, watchng War and Peace on your VCR, you pause the film and fetch the carton of ice cream. Some time later, as Pierre is wandering about the battlefield at Bordolino, something resists your chewing. You pluck it from out mouth and drop it into an ash tray. It is not until the next morning that you notice it is a massive diamond ring. The sequel to this intriguing event calls out for a story teller, but we will leave such matters to courses in creative writing. How you tracked down the owner of the ring, now a fetching widow, how Tom and Jerry sent the two of you on an extended and much ballyhooed honeymoon cruise, the tragic loss of your bride when she leaned over too far in examining the crater of Vesuvius -- over all this we will draw a veil. All that interests us for the nonce is the fact that in buying a carton of ice cream you become the startled finder of a valuable diamond ring. Is this good or bad? Well, good or bad what? The word that occurs is luck. And luck suggests the absence of any intelligible link between what you did -- what you knowingly and freely did, viz. buy ice cream -- and come into possession of a diamond. If you descended on Martin's Supermarket and bought up the entire supply of Tom & Jerry's on the assumption that you would find another diamond, we would think you mad. (We exclude the promotional possibility that every one hundred thousandth carton contains a diamond.) The conjunction of your buying ice cream and finding a diamond is accidental. You intended the one but not the other, yet the other would not have come about if you did not buy that ice cream.

Such fortuitous results of our choices are the boon and bane of human life.

If "acts of a man" can be subdivided in the way just suggested, a third type of action seems to present a quite different problem. We have called these technical acts -- that is the deeds of a second baseman, a bank teller, a lab worker, a cellist, a butcher, a baker, a candlestick maker. Most of the acts we appraise, blaming or praising, are of the kind we are calling technical, and to say that they are done will or ill is clearly not moral appraisal. Yet these are deeds done in full knowledge and freedom. They are thus indisputably human acts. Yet they are not moral. So what? St. Thomas equates human acts and moral acts. Is he wrong?

Imagine a ball player whose accomplishments during his active career far exceed those of anyone other in his position. The time comes for him to be elected to the Hall of Fame. No one questions his feats as a baseball player but now it comes to light that his hobby is tearing the wings off bees. It further comes to light that high in the mountains of Tennessee his parents are living in abject poverty while he lives high off the hog in Nashville. What kind of son is this? Sportswriters wax eloquent with the moralistic fervor fueled by their own deficiencies. Keep Al out of the Hall of Fame becomes the watchword.

Does admission to the Hall of Fame involve a moral as well as an athletic verdict? However we answer this, we must distinguish between the two. We would do this even though it is the same act that is morally and technically appraised. Al blocks the runner coming from first and turns a double play. In the course of doing this he drives his spikes into the wrist of the runner seeking desperately to touch second base. The internal damage is severe, the only support of his sainted mother is driven into premature retirement, Al is the MVP of the game, the league, the season. Now we know Al and we know the spiking was deliberate. So the same deed that got the runner out and was prelude to the double play that won the game and put the team in the playoffs gets high marks in baseball and moral condemnation.

Our suggestion is this: any act that is subject to a technical appraisal is also subject to a moral appraisal. Further, the moral appraisal is more basic and pervasive. Not every moral act is subject to a technical appraisal. The technical appraisal bears on a human act but not in terms that are most fundamental to it as moral.

Every human act is undertaken for the sake of an end which has the character of a good. For Aristotle, it is self-evident that there is some all comprehensive end for the sake of which we act, an end sought for its own sake and not for the sake of something further. If there were no such ultimate end, Aristotle argues in his Ethics, Book One, chapter two, no act would make sense since every act would be ordered to some further end and so on ad infinitum.

Thomas's establishment of an ultimate end for human actions is similar but in many ways even simpler. The good that is sought in any act is never goodness itself, but some element or portion of it. In acting I am thus implicitly seeking the complete and comprehensive good even as I pursue this or that good. I pursue them as good, sub ratione boni, and that means as conducive to or part of the comprehensive good.

For both Aristotle and Thomas, an ultimate end is the condition of our action making sense at all. Both of these ways of establishing the ultimate leave open what exactly it is. That is why Thomas will call what he has done to this point providing the ratio ultimi finis. That is, what the phrase means. If it is common to all human agents that for them to act at all presupposes the ultimate end, there is great disagreement as to what precisely realizes the notion of ultimate end.

Suggested Reading Assignment

Summa theologiae, IaIIae, q. 1, articles 4 through 8.

Suggested Writing Assignment

Do a careful analysis of Thomas's commentary on Aristotle's argument for an ultimate end: In I Ethic., lectio 2.


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