Lesson Six: Moral Reasoning


    It is the nature of the will to be aimed at the good, at that which fulfills us; but will is a rational appetite and pursues the good as known. The human act can only be understood as a complicated interaction between reason and will. By the good we mean first of all an end, that for the sake of which we do what we do. In a secondary sense, the means to attain the end are called good. This can give rise to a puzzle. If the good is what we think to be the good, and everyone who acts is pursuing what he thinks at the moment at least to be his good, how can anyone be bad. We are not bad out of failure to pursue the good, but because we pursue a seeming good, or a real good in an inappropriate way. Moral reasoning will involve the search for the appropriate means to achieve the end, and it will be successful if our appetite has been trained to want the good. That is, one of the features of successful moral reasoning is that it involves PRUDENCE, the virtue of practical intellect, and the moral virtues.


    When Thomas analyzes the human act, he distinguishes a variety of acts of will which are components of the complete action. First, he considers three will acts bearing on the end: the wish for the end [voluntas], taking pleasure or delight in the end [fruitio], and then the intention of the end [intentio]. The mind considers something in such a way that it is attractive and engages the will -- and that might be the end of it, as the mind turns to other things; or the attractive aspects can be dwelt on and the will begins to take pleasure in it; this in turn can lead on to seeing the good as to be aimed at or sought -- intended. It can be seen that these acts of will presuppose cognitive acts.

    So too, the object being intended, the will responds to the mind's search for ways and means of attaining in. It gives its assent to means turned up [consensus], goes on to choose one of them, if there are several, [electio} and then, when reason commands the other powers or the organs of the body, the will is said to use them [uti].

    This subtle analysis has often been considered baroque. And certainly, pouring another cup of coffee -- a human act -- seems far simpler than the analysis indicates. The clue to the distinction of these constituent acts of the complete human act -- as Alan Donegan pointed out -- is that they represent points where action can be broken off or aborted. This is the basis for saying they are implicit in any act.


    Sometimes in speaking of the starting points of moral reasoning, St Thomas will speak of very general precepts which function in the way that premisses in an argument do. Is this so different from the analysis just mentioned? Not really. What these principles are are reason's judgments about the good to be willed. The phrase used to cover such very general principles of moral action is Natural Law. The first such judgment is sweeping -- good should be done and pursued and evil avoided. Other very general principles of moral action relate goods to which we have a natural inclination to our complete good.

    The instinct to stay alive is inborn, we do not choose it; so hunger and thirst and the attraction to the opposite sex are simply part of what we are; and so too is our membership in society -- we are born into it -- and our desire to know. Like the appetites which are governed by moral virtue -- itself the impress of reason on appetite -- these natural inclinations are directed by reason to our comprehensive good.


    From the outset we have been confronted by a haunting problem: In this course we are pursuing truths about how we should act and yet, as no one needs to be told, simply knowing what we should do is insufficient for good action. We all too often act contrary to our best lights. Why? Because our appetites draw us away from or against reason, as Thomas observed in a text we looked at earlier. In order for reason to complete its journey from the ultimate end -- or natural law precepts - - to the correct choice of means here and now, the will must be governed by the moral virtues, which ensure that the appetite will respond to the direction of reason.

    When things go wrong, when the application of a general rule is not made, this is often because we are appetitively indisposed to the good in question. That is, the good the mind presents to the will is not the good the will seeks. Correct knowledge of the good is the possession of a truth about the good; but the good is the object of appetite and only appetite can relate us to the good as good.


St Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae, IaIIae, qq. 13-17, 90-96
Alan Donagan, "Aquinas on Action"
Ralph McInerny, Aquinas on Human Action


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