Lesson 12: Weakness of Will

Moral philosophy begins with a discussion of man's ultimate end because it is a characteristic of human action that it is for the sake of an end. The delineation of the comprehensive end of human activity provides the context within which lesser ends can be located. Some lesser ends can be considered as constituents of the ultimate end, others as means to its acquisition. Thus, one model of moral reasoning consists in the search for appropriate means to accomplishing or achieving a given end.

...actus dicuntur humani, inquantum procedunt a voluntate deliberata. Objectum autem voluntatis est bonum et finis. Et ideo manifestum est quod principium humanorum actuum, inquantum sunt humani, est finis. Et similiter est terminus eorundem: nam id ad quod terminatur actus humanus, est id quod voluntas intendit tanquam finem... actus morales proprie speciem sortiuntur ex fine: nam idem sunt actus morales et actus humani. -- ST, 1a2ae, q. 1, a. 3, c.

...acts are said to be human insofar as they proceed from deliberate will, but the object of the will is the good and end. It is clear therefore that the principle of human acts, insofar as they are human, is the end. It is also their term, for the human act terminates in that which the will intends as end... moral acts are properly specified by the end, for moral acts and human acts are the same.

Deliberation, was we have seen, is a search for means to the end. Once this search is completed, the process of execution begins with the last the chain of means deliberation has turned up. The kind of example that suggests itself is of something like the objective of education, e.g. the desire to be a doctor. In order to be a doctor one must have gone through medical school; in order to be admitted to medical school, one must, inter alia, have amassed a good academic record in pre-medical studies. Pre-medical studies can be pursued in a number of institutions, of which say five are within one's reach. Which of the five should be chosen? For the nonce, it seems well to apply to three of them. For this application forms are needed. Addresses of the registrars of these institutions may be found by consulting the public library. This could be done in person or by phone. Better phone. The act of picking up the telephone on this occasion, then, fits into a complicated network of acts so related that, carried through to successful completion, I will soon be scrubbing up for my first whack at brain surgery.

On the other hand, when we think of Thomas's account of the first principles of practical reasoning in his Treatise on Law in the Summa theologiae, specifically the discussion of natural law, the model of moral reasoning set forth is one of applying general principles to particular circumstances and drawing the appropriate conclusion.

Not surprisingly, then, it is often maintained that Thomas, and Aristotle before him, operated with two quite different conceptions of practical or moral reasoning, on the one hand, and end/means analysis, and, on the other, a principle/application model.

Sed sciendum est quod a lege naturali dupliciter potest aliquid derivari: uno modo, sicut conclusiones ex principiis; alio modo, sicut determinationes quaedam aliquorum communium. Primus quidem modus est similis ei quo in scientiis ex principiis conclusiones demonstrativae producuntur. Secundo vero modo simile est quod in artibus formae communes determinantur ad aliquod speciale: sicut artifex formam communem domus necesse est quod determinet ad hanc vel illam domus figuram -- ST 1a2ae, q. 95, a. 2, c.

Notice that something can be derived from natural law in two ways: first, as conclusions from principles; second, as certain determinations of the common. The first way is similar to that by which in the demonstrative sciences conclusions are derived from principles. The second is similar to the way in which in the arts common forms are determined to something special: as the artisan must tailor the common form of house to the construction of this house or that.

Action is the application of general judgments as to what ought to be done to the particular circumstances in which we find ourselves. Thomas makes use of the term synderesis to name the habitual knowledge of the precepts of natural law. These precepts, we have seen, are universal: the first -- Do good and avoid evil -- ranges over the whole domain of human action. Less universal principles specify the first to a given range of action. Until and unless universal precepts are tailored to this action here and now they cannot be effective. Thus application is accomplished by the virtue of prudence or practical wisdom. Imagine that an action is described discursively in this way:

    I ought not take possession of what is not mine.

      This Father Dowling novel is not mine.

The conclusion would seem to be the judgment: Therefore I should not take possession of this Father Dowling novel.

Or consider this:

    It is only just that I should pay my debts.

      I owe you five dollars.

The conclusion would seem to be: Therefore I ought to pay you five dollars. Of course you would not be satisfied with my just saying that or just thinking that. You want me to hand over five dollars. The conclusion of such a practical syllogism must be embedded in an action in order for us to say that the discourse has achieved its goal.

It is possible to be uninformed or confused about general precepts of action, although Thomas considers that total ignorance of the precepts of natural law is impossible. No matter how perverse our upbringing, no matter how decadent the society into which we are born, our practical judgments will incorporate the truth that we ought to do and pursue the good and avoid evil. We also have the capacity to discern that we have been misled by our moral education into thinking that something that is not truly our good is our good. In principle, at least, it would seem to be a feature of being a human agent, that we retain the ability to assess and appraise the moral ideals that have been inculcated in us. If this is difficult, sometimes seemingly to the point of practical impossibility, it is because we are not talking about disengaged knowledge, but of judgments which are embedded in our choices and actions.

But even short of such an extreme situation, one in which the human agent is raised in a wholly defective moral environment, nothing is more common than for a human agent to commence the process of applying a true precept, one that embodies an end that truly is fulfilling of a human agent, and failing to reach the goal. I know that I should be temperate. Temperance, the moderate consumption of food, say, is the pursuit of the undeniable good of nourishment and the accompanying pleasure in such a way that my integral good governs such conduct. Let us say that I have written a treatise on temperance; I am regularly invited to conferences where temperance is discussed. My analysis is considered the best since Aristotle. After the last session, I am at table in the hotel dining room. Succulent smells drift from the kitchen. There is the clink of tableware, the sparkle of glass and goblet, a dish of complimentary hors d'oeuvre placed at my elbow. A Manhattan seems just the thing. As I sip it, my eye travels over the menu. From a recessed alcove, music to eat by is played. The waiter hovers, ready to take my order.

Four hours later I attempt to rise from the table. With assistance I manage to get up. I am helped across the room and on to the elevator. In my room, I fall fully clothed across my bed and am immediately out like a light. Portrait of an intemperate man.

What went wrong? I know what I ought to do, at least on a level of generality. That knowledge was available to me as I sat down in the restaurant. Perhaps I reminded myself of the good of temperance and of various precepts which embody the ideal. As I become aware of the setting, surely I see the applicability of the precepts of temperance to those particular circumstances. But, in the event, I act intemperately. What went wrong?

The general practical knowledge I have bears on certain specific goods of action. My knowledge of those goods is true. But something that is good relates not just to my mind, but also to my will. My concrete action suggests that the good I know, the good of which I have true knowledge, is not my good; that is, it is not what I truly desire. What I truly desire is manifested in what I do. The good that I know, I do not and the evil that I would not, that I do.

Is this just a matter of the will freaking out, performing an action on its own that is unrelated to knowledge. In the example, what I will is certainly unrelated to the true knowledge I have concerning temperance. Can the will just act, independently of knowledge?

If will is a rational appetite, this is not possible. A particular will act is the will act it is because it is informed by a mental judgment. In the example, my action, what I will to do, is not specified or informed by my knowledge of temperance. What then? Thomas and Aristotle suggest that such occurrences reveal that there is some other knowledge or judgment that is actually informing the will. It is tacit, implicit, and if expressed would be the opposite of the true knowledge I have of temperance. It might be something as vulgar as Eat all you can when on the road or When on an expense account, order everything on the menu. Some version of Pursue pleasure heedlessly would seem to express what is actually my good or end. What I do reveals where my heart, and eventually my heartburn, is. A moral philosopher travels on his stomach.

The discursive process of one who does not have the virtue of temperance although he possesses true knowledge of temperance and its general precepts is aborted as it moves toward the singular action. As I try to apply the knowledge, my actual disposition, what I really relate to as good, makes itself felt. The act that I perform is the application of the judgment implicit in my actual disposition.

In order for practical reason to reach its goal I need true knowledge of the good and I have to be appetitively related to the true good -- it has to be my good. This is what Thomas means by practical truth.

Ad tertium dicendum quod verum intellectus practici aliter accipitur quam verum intellectus speculativi, ut dicitur in VIEthic. Nam verum intellectus speculativi accipitur per conformitatem intellectus ad rem. Et quia intellectus non potest infallibiliter conformari rebus in contingentibus, sed solum in necessariis; ideo nullus habitus speculativus contingentium est intellectualis virtus, sed solum est circa necessaria. -- Verum autem intellectus practici accipitur per conformitatem ad appetitum rectum. -- IaIIae.57.5 ad 3

To the third objection it should be said that the true is had in the practical intellect differently than in the speculative intellect, as is said in Ethics 6. For the true is had in speculative intellect by way of the conformity of mind to reality. And, because intellect cannot be infallibly conformed to contingent things, but only to necessary things, there is no speculative habit of contingent things that is an intellectual virtue, but only of necessary things. -- But the true is had in practical intellect through conformity with rectified appetite.

Only the man who loves the good expressed in true practical precepts will be able to apply them effectively in particular circumstances and act in conformity with them. If one has true knowledge but not correct appetite, his appetite will skew his reasoning and bring his action under the unstated precept which incorporates the end which truly captures his heart. The remedy is not more knowledge, since ex hypothesis this agent already has the relevant true practical knowledge. What is needed is prayer and fasting. Training the will toward the true good in situations less charged than the hotel dining room. Curbing one's appetite when this costs less schools the will so that, with difficulty at first, actions are brought under the true precept. With repetition comes ease and ease is a sign of virtue.

Reading Assignment

Ethica thomistica, chapter 6 and 7.

Writing Assignment 

Compare theoretical and practical truth.


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