Natural law theory and virtue ethics follow directly from the Scholastic understanding of goodness.
Goodness can only be described using analogical language rather than univocal language. Sometimes, the goodness of a thing is determined by a thing’s conformity to its nature and is thus describable using an analogy of proper proportionality. When I call a dog good and a tree good, I’m saying that each conforms to its nature. What makes a dog good and what makes a tree good differs as widely as their natures, but their goods are not unrelated to one another either. Sometimes, a thing’s goodness is only attributed to it because it aids another thing’s perfection and is thus describable using an analogy of attribution. For example, food is good only because it’s good for the one who eats it.
All this is well and good, but it seems a little abstract? How is any of this metaphysical theory related to practical concerns? This essay intends to show how moral goodness is derived from metaphysical goodness by way of the norms inherent to human nature and the role rationality plays in making humans moral.
In this essay, we will explore the Aristotelian concepts of eudaimonia (oft-translated as “happiness” or “human flourishing”), natural law, and virtue ethics. If you haven’t read the previous essays in this series, I suggest you do so. The links can be found here, here, and here. This essay presupposes and fleshes out the arguments I’ve made before by applying what is true of goodness generally to human morality.
Flourishing in General
For any given thing, their intrinsic good is to do what it does well. The actions a given thing takes reflect its purpose. In general, if a particular kind of thing alone does or does better than other things a particular act, then that act is that thing’s end or purpose. This is concomitant of the general Scholastic principle agere sequitur esse (Latin for “action follows being”). What a thing does necessarily reflects what it is, and what a thing does alone or better than most things reflects its natural purpose. Since goodness is conformity to one’s nature, it follows that a good thing will do its given purpose better than less good members of the same kind.
One can see this with human tools. A corkscrew’s purpose is to remove corks, so a good corkscrew will remove corks well. A knife’s purpose is to cut, so a good knife will cut things well. Much the same can be said with biological organs. The eye’s purpose is to see, so a good eye will see well. The heart’s purpose is to pump blood, so a good heart will pump blood well. Another place we see this is in social roles. A cook’s purpose is to cook food, so a good cook will cook food well. A king’s purpose is to rule his people, so a good king will rule his people well. And so on. To act well, each of these things must obtain a certain quality or qualities that enable them to act well. A good knife will be sharp because the quality of sharpness enables the knife to better perform its function of cutting.
We can see that all of these goods are intrinsic goods, goods describable using an analogy of proper proportionality. Extrinsic goods, by contrast, are those goods describable using an analogy of attribution. The extrinsic good of a knife is a thing’s being cut in half, the extrinsic good of an eye is a given view, the extrinsic good of a cook is food, etc. Sliced things, views, and food are each the object of a thing’s activity, its goal.
By this pattern, a living thing’s intrinsic good is living well. A good living thing will have certain qualities that allow it to live better as the kind of thing it is. For example, a good squirrel will have senses keen enough to detect food and predators and reflexes fast enough to evade the latter. The squirrel will then use these qualities to obtain certain extrinsic goods like shelter and food. If this squirrel tends to acquire such extrinsic goods, it is intrinsically good. The squirrel overall flourishes.
Flourishing is the overall goodness of a living thing. Living things, unlike inanimate objects, are capable of immanent (self-perfective) activity. To do these self-perfective activities well is their intrinsic good while the objects that help it self-perfect are extrinsic goods. Flourishing is objective and based on a thing’s nature. A thing’s nature inclines it to pursue what’s good for them, and the natures of things cannot ultimately be matters of opinion, or else health would not be a science that gives us real information about organisms. We cannot flourish doing any old thing because flourishing is a real state of being.
Human Flourishing and Morality
Humans are animals. We take in nutrients, undergo a growth cycle, and reproduce through sexual intercourse with another of the opposite sex. We take in information about the world through specialized sense organs, allowing us to create an inner representation of the world within us. We are then attracted to the objects our inner representations show us by our animal appetites and react to them by moving from place to place. Our possession of these powers is what makes us animals.
This is not the end of the story, however. Humans are a special kind of animal: a rational animal. We, unlike other animals, can form abstract concepts, put these concepts together into propositions, and order these propositions logically. The information we gain from this process is infinitely more in-depth than anything non-rational animals can obtain. Even a hypothetical animal whose senses and memory were perfect would be unable to obtain the knowledge available to the most dimwitted humans. This information also adds another layer to our attraction to external objects on top of our base animal appetites, allowing us to act on more than simple instinct.
Naturally, this makes human flourishing (what Aristotle called “happiness” or eudaimonia) more complex than that of other animals. Unlike other animals, we can gain abstract knowledge of the natures of things, including the nature of goodness, by classifying, generalizing, and recombining concepts to reach new insights. To our knowledge, animals do not possess these cognitive abilities. It is because of these abilities that we can pursue our good knowing that it is good and choose to do it for that reason – in a word, we can act morally. While there are involuntary parts of human life – we have certain automatic processes like digestion that occur without our consent – all the voluntary aspects of life are governed by imperatives we’re bound to obey. The voluntary pursuit of what is good is what morality consists of. Humans, in studying morality, can then organize what is moral into a set of general principles. The science by which we do this is called ethics.
The Five Natural Inclinations
Sound ethics teaches that all moral principles are based on our natural inclinations. This is because what is moral is synonymous with what is good for us, and what is good for us is determined by our nature. Since our nature inclines us toward certain extrinsic goods, achieving happiness is a matter of following these natural inclinations toward their end. These natural inclinations form the precepts of the natural law – our voluntary participation in the natural order.
Now, it’s important here to emphasize that by “nature” I mean the essence of a thing, and by “natural,” I mean what follows given that essence. One of the mistakes moderns make when thinking about natural law is their equivocation of the word “nature.” In response to arguments from natural law, they might ask “If what is unnatural is wrong, then aren’t eyeglasses and prosthetic limbs wrong?” or “Since everything follows the laws of nature, isn’t everything natural?” or even “If I was born this way, then isn’t it natural?” The answer to all of these questions is “no.” Only actions that conform to a thing’s essence and the inclinations of that essence are natural in the morally relevant sense. Artifacts like prosthetic limbs can assist one in pursuing one’s natural inclinations. Things like cancer may be subject to the laws of nature but they go against one’s natural inclinations. Defects at birth may cause one to actively frustrate one’s natural inclinations, as is the case with those with alcoholism. It’s important to keep in mind the correct understanding of nature to better understand the natural law.
The Scholastics identified five basic natural inclinations which they placed into three categories. The first category consists of inclinations we share with all substances, foremost being the inclination toward the good. To do and pursue what is good and to avoid evil is the foundational precept of the natural law. From this one, all the others follow. To act is to act toward some end, and, given the metaphysics of goodness, we naturally attribute goodness to any end that we pursue. Even those who choose to do what they know is wrong or reject the very idea of morality still choose to do what they believe will provide them some benefit or would otherwise be worthwhile.
“Good is to be done and pursued, and evil avoided” is as axiomatic to practical reason as the laws of logic are to speculative reason. Humans are teleologically inclined to do what is good for us by our nature. To ask “Why should we do what’s good for us?” is useless because we are always trying to do what is good for us. Given complete rationality and knowledge of what is good for us, we would do what is morally right. Such is the teleology of reason, of intellect and will. Since we are always pursuing what’s good for us, we ought to do what’s good for us. Knowingly doing evil would be contrary to reason’s telos and thus irrational.
As an aside, there’s a special connection between this basic inclination and love, since to love something is to will what is good for that something for its sake. Modern people tend to associate love with a passion or a pleasant feeling, but while these things are important and often concomitant to love, they aren’t essential to it. One can feel passionate or pleasant while doing some evil too. Love itself involves seeing another person’s good as yours and willing it. The less perfect one’s orientation toward the good, the less perfect one’s love will be.
The second inclination we share with all other substances is the inclination toward self-preservation. Everything from inanimate objects to humans tends to remain in existence and resist destruction. This is more evident with living creatures who work actively to gain advantages over one another in the struggle to survive, as Darwinian theory shows. Some might argue, however, that the existence of people who wish to end their lives is evidence against this being a natural inclination. The problem with this is that, while conscious desires tend to align with our natural inclinations, the inclination is deeper than any conscious desire. Imperfections and disorders sometimes cause our conscious desires to come apart from the teleology of our various faculties. The suicidal will, by spontaneous tendency, initially duck if you fire a gun at them, struggle if you try to drown them, etc., and their bodies will naturally function to keep them alive for as long as possible.
The second category of inclinations is those we share with living creatures generally and other animals specifically. Within this category is the inclination toward reproduction, the process by which a child that’s the same kind as its parents comes into the world. Reproduction can be seen as an extension of self-preservation, as part of the organism (specifically its nature) lives on in its offspring. Children reproduce the nature of their parents.
In the animal kingdom, reproduction takes the form of sexual intercourse with the opposite sex followed by child-rearing. Just like the previous cases, there appear to be exceptions to this: those with same-sex attraction, those uninterested in sex, people who don’t want children, and the like. Like the suicidal, these are cases of conscious desires coming apart from one’s natural inclinations. Those with unusual sexual appetites still required a mother and a father to bring them into the world and, if they are otherwise healthy, possess a reproductive system that’ll create new children should they have sexual intercourse with another person of the opposite sex.
The third and final category of inclinations is those that are specific only to humans given their rational nature. The first of these rational tendencies is the inclination toward knowledge of the truth. Humans are affixed with a desire to learn about the world around them and specifically to learn the essence of things. We consider it to be progress when our knowledge of the world expands and decline when that knowledge contracts. Once again, some counterexamples present themselves – people who reject the notion of objective truth, people who engage in willful self-deception, etc., but these people only have these opinions because of something they believe to be true. Relativists and other anti-realists believe it is the case that there is no objective truth and that those who suppose otherwise are mistaken. It is for this reason that such beliefs are incoherent. And those engaged in willful self-deception believe it is the case that knowing some particular truth would be bad for them. The very act of attempting to frustrate our inclination toward truth presupposes that inclination.
Our inclination toward knowledge of the truth especially pertains to religion and God. Since we are inclined toward finding the explanations of things, we tend to look for a cause whenever we see some given effect. As the First Cause, God is the ultimate explanation of things, so knowledge of God and His nature is the ultimate fulfillment of this inclination. This is one of the reasons that our medieval ancestors crowned theology “the queen of sciences.”
The other inclination that belongs to humans specifically is the inclination to live in society. Humans are social and political animals. We naturally tend to organize into families, clans, villages, and the like, and to set up institutions with the authority to govern these social organizations. These governing institutions derive this authority from natural law, which preexists any social contract. Human sociality is not reducible to the herd behavior of some non-rational animals, which is something that generative anthropology (GA) goes a long way toward showing. GA shows us that human beings have mimesis, and that from mimesis comes language, culture, religion, science, and all the other social institutions. These institutions constitute us as much as we do them. This aspect of GA coincides nicely with the Aristotelian-Thomist (A-T) philosophy of the common good. The goodness of social animals is a common good in the sense that it’s not reducible to the aggregate of different individuals’ private goods. Both GA and A-T philosophy agree that depriving an individual of language, culture, etc. would be like depriving them of their physical organs. This gives the larger social whole an organic character that is over and above the private goods each individual could enjoy on his own.
In review, the list of goods above are as follows:
1. The inclination to the good
2. The inclination to self-preservation
3. The inclination to reproduction
4. The inclination to knowledge of the truth
5. The inclination to live in society
This list orders these inclinations hierarchically from lowest to highest. Everything on the list is reducible to our inclination to the good. For the other inclinations, higher inclinations require the fulfillment of the lower ones to be fulfilled – one must first preserve one’s life before one pursues the truth. At the same time, the lower inclinations exist so that we may pursue the higher ones – one preserves one’s life for the sake of pursuing truth. This means that lying to better one’s chances for survival defeats the very purpose of surviving and is thus evil.
The higher goods also transform the pursuit of lower goods qualitatively. To give some examples, being alive makes acts of self-perfection like taking in nutrients or engaging in reproduction necessary for maintaining one’s existence. Rationality in turn changes how one lives. All animals eat, but humans treat meals as social occasions and develop cuisines that are part of a given culture. All animals have sex, but humans romanticize the “right one” and put on adornments to enhance their beauty. And so on.
Because these inclinations flow from our nature as humans, they can never be extinguished. For sure, they can be frustrated, distorted, denied, or obscured. However, neither personal defects nor ideology nor contingent circumstances can destroy them any more than they can change human nature.
The Four Cardinal Virtues
While the ends of the five natural inclinations are our extrinsic goodness, our intrinsic goodness consists of moral living. Recall that a good living thing will have qualities that allow it to live well just as a good knife will be sharp to better perform its end of cutting. The qualities that allow a human to live his life well are virtues. Thus, we can more accurately say that our intrinsic goodness – to live our life well – requires us to have the qualities that let us live well.
A virtue is a habit that perfects a different faculty or power we possess while a vice is a habit that detracts from the perfection of a given power. Virtues and vices concern the ways a person’s inner self or character might be morally good or bad. They describe general and stable behavioral tendencies. All vices are either vices of excess (too much of a given trait) or vices of deficiency (too little of a given trait) while virtue lies in the golden mean between the two. For example, too little fearlessness can cause a man to lose his nerve at the sight of some difficulty and fail to uphold his duties. On the other hand, too much fearlessness can cause a man to lose sight of the danger and make bad decisions. Only the right level of fearlessness can make a man truly courageous.
There are two main types of virtues – intellectual and moral. The intellectual virtues perfect our ability to use our intelligence. These virtues are further divided into those that perfect the speculative intellect (understanding, science, and wisdom) and those that perfect the practical intellect (art and prudence). The virtue of understanding is the habit of possessing knowledge of first principles – the principles of identity, non-contradiction, and so on. Science is the habit of possessing knowledge of the necessary, intelligible connections of things in the world, like arithmetic, biology, and physics. Wisdom is the habit of possessing knowledge of deeper, intelligible structures, like philosophy. Art is habitual right reasoning about things to be made, whether it be useful arts or fine arts. Finally, prudence is habitual right reasoning about things that should be done.
Moral virtues perfect our ability to act on our moral knowledge. Although prudence is technically an intellectual virtue since it perfects the intellect, it can also be considered a moral virtue because it is directed toward moral matters. Among the various moral virtues, prudence is the “master virtue” that rules them all. Our desires and impulses would be blind to their limits without prudence to reign them in. With prudence, we contemplate what is good based on both experience and the lessons of friends, parents, and teachers, judge what is good based on this knowledge, and then apply that judgment to our lives. Opposed to prudence are vices of excess like astuteness (using prudence to evil ends, e.g., a robber setting up a clever plan) and vices of deficiency like rashness (judgment without sufficient reflection or care) and inconstancy (the inability to carry out the judgments of prudence).
The other three moral virtues are temperance, fortitude, and justice. Each of these perfects a given part of our psychology. Temperance is a habit of subjecting our animal appetites to the rule of reason, chief among them being our appetites for food, drink, and sex. These drives are especially strong because they are linked to our survival instincts. Our appetite for food and drink is meant to help nourish our bodies and make them healthy, and our appetite for sex is meant for procreation. Temperance makes sure these appetites don’t decouple from their natural purposes. Opposed to temperance are vices of excess like gluttony, drunkenness, and sensuality and vices of deficiency like disregard or insensitivity to the goods necessary for reasonable well-being.
Fortitude is a habit of strengthening or moderating one’s passions to endure physical pains and face great danger reasonably. Human passions are extremely complex, involving love for the perceived good, hatred for the obstacles to that good, fear of loss, and hope for victory. All of these passions must be present to possess fortitude. The vices opposed to courage are foolhardiness (having too little fear to appreciate the dangers) and cowardice (having too much fear to face the dangers).
Prudence, temperance, and fortitude are private virtues because they are especially concerned with perfecting a particular person. However, humans are social animals who naturally find themselves interacting with others in a social environment. Thus, the virtue of justice, the habit of rendering each man his due, is necessary. Justice puts our public actions into order, allowing us to respect the good of others as we pursue our flourishing.
There are two parts to justice. The first is legal justice, which involves what we owe to society at large. We are expected to generally follow the laws laid out by a given community and only go against the law’s letter in special circumstances to uphold its spirit. For example, if the law says we ought to return all missing property to their rightful owners, then we should obey it generally and ignore it only in specific circumstances, such as the case of a drunken man and his missing loaded revolver. The second part of justice is private justice, which involves what we owe to other people. We make sure that we treat those of equal status the same and those of unequal status differently, and make sure all of our exchanges with others are free from exploitation or fraud.
The vices against justice tend to involve giving others either less than or more than they deserve. Avarice, prodigality, meanness, complaisance, lying, ingratitude, irreverence, and idolatry are all forms of injustice. Each involves either not giving people what they deserve or giving people what they don’t deserve. Avarice and prodigality involve not giving people the right amount of money owed to them for their survival. Meanness and complaisance involve not giving people the correct amount of friendliness in everyday conversation. Lying involves giving conversational partners falsehoods instead of truth. Ingratitude involves not giving people the thanks they are owed for good deeds. Irreverence involves denying due respect to sacred objects, and idolatry involves treating profane things as sacred.
Taken together, prudence, temperance, fortitude, and justice are the four cardinal virtues. The cardinal virtues are the foundational virtues of moral life. All other moral virtues are said to be variations or combinations of these four basic ones. Furthermore, these are all interrelated to one another such that possessing all of them is required for the possession of each one. To be virtuous, every action must be done with right reasoning, which requires prudence. However, the myriad sensible goods of our experience create enticing distractions for our intellect, requiring temperance to moderate those appetites so that we better judge our surroundings. But it’s sometimes difficult to make the right decision given all the hurdles we must overcome, so fortitude is necessary. Finally, our righteous actions have repercussions on the environment we find ourselves in, so they must be rightly ordered concerning both our neighbors and society at large, requiring justice.
Of course, a cowardly man can act justly, and an intemperate man can act prudently. But without all four cardinal virtues, our grasp of what virtues we do have is tenuous. Hence cowardly judges succumb to moral pressure and make biased decisions, intemperate men make imprudent decisions to satisfy their appetites, etc.
This concludes my presentation of the Thomistic view of ethics that follows from the metaphysics outlined in previous parts. I hope that this outline provides a good basic framework for analyzing ethical questions. For the ideas in this essay, I’m deeply indebted to the work of Edward Feser, David S. Oderberg, Timothy Hsiao, and Daniel J. Sullivan. I highly recommend checking out their work.
In the final essay of this series, we will discuss the relationship between universal moral principles and particular cultural practices, the role of tradition in ethics, and how to understand applied ethics in light of these background principles. Stay tuned!