Lesson 8: Self-Evident Truths

If all human actions are undertaken for the sake of some end, the structure of human action will of course be centered on the end but involve as well the ways and means the agent chooses in order to secure the end. Acts of will follow on cognition: we cannot want what we do not know. (This doesn't mean that our wants presuppose highly distinct and detailed knowledge; but without at least vague knowledge, our desire would be directionless and unformed.)

Acts Bearing on the End

The will acts which bear on the end are three. The first is called by the same name as the faculty, will or voluntas, and it is the initial appetitive response to the recognition that something is fitting or desirable to the agent. Dozens of such recognitions flutter by the mind in a matter of minutes, and apart from its initial response, the will remains unengaged by the vast majority of them. Sometimes, however, it dwells on something recognized as good and responded to accordingly. One takes pleasure in the thought of the desired end. But this could be the end of the story -- sleep intervenes or one of the many distractions of waking life, or one's conscience, and we turn our mind to something else. If we do not, pleasure can give rise to intention. We make the good a project and thus are ready to seek the means to achieve it.

Thomas distinguishes three will acts bearing on the means. The mental activity that precedes is of course a search for ways to attain the intended end. As these are discerned, will gives its consent. But then it must choose among them. (Of course if there is only one way to achieve the end, the distinction between consent and choice will not be discernible.) A third will act is called Use -- but we must make another distinction before considering it.

The Order of Intention

The various will acts bearing on the end, and those bearing on means, are constituents of a complete human act. Since not every good leads on to a completely human act, and indeed the action may be cut off at various points, it is these interruptions that bring home to us the elements or constituents of an act. In a smoothly performed action one would scarcely be aware of these various stages. It will be seen that most of this goes on without any overt manifestation of it. This is the Order of Intention -- the term not of course restricted to the will act bearing on the end -- and it includes all the inner drama whereby we identify ourselves, our wills, more and more profoundly with something presented as a good, as desirable. Where this is only an apparent good, the inner drama involves our becoming morally identified with a false good. Even if, for whatever reason, we do not continue to the complete action, our moral character is shaped by this inner drama. What victories might be won and what defeats suffered without so much as the flicker of an eyelash.

The Order of Execution

This is not a directive from the governor's office, but the complement and continuation of the order of intention. The general rule is this: what is last in the order of intention, is first in the order of execution. When we have arrived at the best means here and now of achieving the desired end, our choice of it initiates a number of overt moves -- we step forward, our hand goes out, one arm encircles her waist, in a moment we are whirling about the floor, the heiress in our arms, our confederates with appropriate sacks and soporifics lurking at the far end of the dance floor . . .

Use is the will act which employs and commands our limbs. But we also use our inner faculties in pursuit of an end.

Elicited / Commanded

The will acts that are constituents of the complete act, which make up the states of the order of intention, are just that, acts of the will. As opposed to what? Well, if I nod my head and do so willingly, intentionally, as at an auction, I am soon the possessor of a Ming vase. The nod of my head is voluntary. But my will is one thing, my neck muscles another. In what sense can nodding my head be called an act of will, voluntary? As commanded. As the response of the body to the directives of the will. Hence the distinction between elicited and commanded acts of will.

Reason, since it is presupposed to acts of will, is the first principle of the practical order. It is reason's judgment as to what should be done which will be regulative in the practical order. Of course, human reason is not in every way a first principle, as if the human mind decided what the good for man is, invented it, decreed it. Our mind is a measured measure, and rectitude in the practical order depends first on our knowing what truly constitutes our good and thus what promotes and what thwarts it. There are certain truths in the practical order, like those in the theoretical order, the order of knowing as such, that are immediately seen to be true. Discourse always depends upon and goes back to truths of this kind.

As for theoretical thinking, Thomas, having distinguished the mental act whereby we grasp what a thing is, its nature, and the mental act whereby we affirm or deny a predicate of a subject, says that there is a first in both cases. No one can fail to grasp being; whatever we think of is brought under the notion of 'that which is' or 'what exists.' Every other idea or concept presupposes this one; that is what is meant by saying it is first. No one can fail to see that we cannot simultaneously affirm and deny the same predicate of the same subject. This is presupposed by any other judgment that we make; that is what is meant by saying it is first. 'The broom is in the closet' cannot be true at the same time as 'The broom is not in the closet,' assuming we are speaking of the same broom and the same closet.

If it is like that with thinking in general, there is an analogue in the practical order. To grasp something as good is to grasp a being seen as desirable. A good thing is by that very fact desirable, choosable. That is why we immediately see that we should pursue the good and avoid evil. Such a recognition is so obvious as scarcely to need stating. But it is worth stating because, however sweeping and vague it is -- as indeed is 'It is impossible to affirm and deny the same predicate of the same subject at the same time' -- it serves to anchor practical discourse in something nongainsayable. No one could possibly think otherwise. Are there more informative guidelines?

Natural Law

Natural law comprises the first self-evident principles or precepts of the practical order. And that is what we have been talking about. We have at least one such precept: Do good and avoid evil. And we had asked if there are others. What Thomas does at this point is not so much list a series of self-evident precepts as to point out the basis for their formulation.

What we cannot not will is the good. Will follows on intellect which grasps the universal, so the good desired is comprehensive, not this good or that, but goodness as such. How can we articulate our good? Thomas suggests that we consult our natural inclinations.

Inclinations are natural when we have them whether we like it or not. They are not chosen. They follow on what we are. But in thinking of what we are we notice that we are a microcosm. I don't mean that this occurs explicitly but what we recognize about ourselves is, at first, what we can recognize as true of things other than humans. Thus, we share with all things a natural inclination to preserve ourselves in being. We share with other animals an urge to sexual congress and having young. As men we are made for the society of others and our desire for knowledge is an implicit desire for knowledge of God.

A set, an ordered set, of natural inclinations; givens. They are not of course precepts that must be followed, as if natural law consisted of some such list as "Preserve yourself," "Get married," "Take out citizenship" and "Know!" Rather, these inclinations indicate constituents of our comprehensive good, but the pursuit of them is only moral when it is conscious and willing, ordering them to our comprehensive good. That we should seek knowledge must be understood in the light of our overall good. The pell-mell and heedless pursuit of knowledge could be ruinous. And of course the same is true of the rational direction of our attraction to the opposite sex and desire to have children. No element of our good trumps all the others; it is our comprehensive good that is the measure.

This can disappoint us if we expected Thomas simply to make a list. Of course there are lists, and one he draws attention to is the Decalogue, whose precepts he takes to be precepts of natural law. Negative precepts, like Don't lie, rule out any instance of lying, and thus may seem easier of application than such affirmative precepts as Honor your parents. They can both be difficult of application, but in different ways. Sometimes not telling another what we know may arguably not be a lie. And taking innocent life may not in every instance be murder. For all that, Don't lie and Don't murder are exceptionless norms.

The task of the human agent is not of course simply to think straight in general but to think straight in the here and now application of principles. For this to happen our appetites must be responsive to right reason: the good we cognitively recognize has to be the good of our appetite, something that requires habitual attending to it, that is, virtue.

Suggested Reading Assignment

Ralph McInerny, Ethica thomistica.

Suggested Writing Assignment

Give an account of Thomas's treatment of intemperate action in his commentary on the Ethics, Book Seven, lessons 1 through 3.


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