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St. Thomas on the Nature of Human Action

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INTRODUCTION In moral theory, understanding the concept of human action is significant. While contemporary moral philosophers tend to address these subjects as discrete topics of study, St. Thomas Aquinas’s treatment of them yields a bracing, comprehensive view of the moral life. Though at times it is not necessary for someone to be a trained moralist just to determine whether an act is good or bad, in some cases, this task can be challenging. Essential to identifying a correct moral action is recognizing what in this action is relevant to making this determination.

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The following essay will focus on the role of the reason and will to human, voluntariness, a feature that distinguishes human acts from acts of a different kind, and specifications of human actions and the cardinal virtues that govern actions and guide conducts according to faith and reason. All actions that are conducive to the attainment of man’s final end are considered morally good. Thus, an account on this ultimate end of human acts will be illustrated on the grounds of Aquinas’ writings.


An action is human just as it is rational for it was stated that through reason, man is the master of his acts. However, in order to fully understand the nature of human action and the end in which an action is aimed, we must understand what consists rationality. In the second part of Summa Theologiae, Aquinas explains that reason in comprised of two powers: the cognitive and the appetitive. The cognitive power of reason refers to the intellect. This power enables us to know, understand and apprehend the goodness a thing has. The appetitive power is the will.

This power responds to the intellect’s judgment of what is good or choice worthy. Aquinas holds the superiority of the intellect over the will. The first formal principle is universal being and truth which is the object of the intellect and therefore by this kind of notion the intellect moves the will, as presenting its object to it. He applies this law even to God and the Creation which is founded upon the essence of God in so far as this essence is known by God’s intellect and can be produced through the creative act. The divine will freely selects from among the possibilities in the divine essence.

Thus even in God this present order of creation has been willed because it was reasonable, and not vice versa. Parallel to man, the act of understanding precedes the movement of the will. However Aquinas also points out that the will is free and is not limited to select necessarily what the intellect presents to it as reasonable. Good determines the will as the truth determines the intellect. The will is dependent on the intellect while the intellect is dependent on sensations which are objects that may vary from a good stance to an evil point of view.

In this case, the will is free to select from among these various objects presented to it by the intellect. It was stated in the second part of Summa Theologiae that choice is substantially not an act of the reason but of the will: for choice is accomplished in a certain movement of the soul towards the good which is chosen. In our life, we are presented with competing goods between which we must choose but our intellectual limitations prevent us from deciding what is good. The careful analysis of the will and how it is used by man to create a free human action is a significant contribution of St.

Thomas to moral theory. He identified six stages of the will’s involvement from the time a person realizes a goal to the time he achieves it. To further understand each stage, Pilsner used a situation as an example. A man of modest means reflects that it might be appropriate for him to do something to help the poor. Though he is uncertain at first how this might be accomplished, he recognizes that his idea is worthwhile. The illustration exemplifies the first stage which is willing simply considered. In this stage, the man visualizes a possible end which is helping the poor and is attracted by this end’s goodness.

Although the action to attain the end has not been started or even the determination to pursue the end has not yet been made, the fact that he recognizes the plan to help the poor holds merit for he possesses a will that draws every man to a clear good. After considering the matter, the man decides that making a financial contribution would be more sensible for him than doing volunteer work. He sets out to find a suitable recipient for donation. On a community bulletin board, he sees two requests for assistance posted: one from a drug rehabilitation centre and another from a scholarship fund for schools in impoverished countries.

After reading more carefully, the man discovers that the campaign for the scholarship fund is a special drive for elite donors willing to give L10,000 or more. Since such a sum is beyond his resources, he discounts a gift to this initiative. He judges, however, that a donation to the rehabilitation centre is suitable: it would meet his purpose admirably and any further means necessary to make the donation could easily be arranged. The man recognizes that the end of helping the needy is now practically possible for him, for even if no other suitable means can be found, he can always give to the rehab centre.

Realizing he can commit to what is practically possible, the man resolve then and there to help the needy. But he also continues his search for additional charities in case another appeals to him more. After asking some friends, he discovers another potential recipient which meets his approval: a local homeless shelter which relies on community support. The second and third stages of willing, consent and intention are shown in this part of the illustration. In order to accomplish an end, a man must first identify means to achieve it. In the situation given, the man was presented with channels to help the poor.

However, he could not use all these means. The scholarship fund was disregarded because it would be impractical since he has limited resources. On the other hand, the drug rehabilitation centre and homeless shelter are considered because he can afford the donation sum in these recipients. Before a person gives his consent to facilitate a means, it must be attractive or appealing for him. Questions like, “Is this mean conducive to the end I am aiming for? ”, “Is this mean feasible? ” must be asked. No intelligent being will desire a goal and then consider what will permit him to achieve it as unappealing or unworkable.

Intention, the second stage, is also depicted in the situation. At first, the man simply recognizes the goodness of helping the poor, now; his will is set to help the poor. This is intention, the determination to act in a certain way to achieve an end. Consent and intention are significantly related. The latter is initiated when a means to achieve an end is found. The former is given when there is one viable means identified. The man now mentally places before himself the drug rehabilitation centre and the homeless shelter. Each appears good in its own way, and there seems o be no overriding reason for judging one to be a more worthy recipient than the other. After some deliberation, the man decides that the rehabilitation centre is the charity he would prefer to assist. This part illustrates the moment of choice. There is similarity in the concept of consent and choice since they both have to do with the mean. Consent is the will’s approval of each means deemed conducive to an end, choice is the will’s definitive movement to that one means by which the agent seeks to achieve an end in this instance.

After sitting at his desk and taking out his pen, the donor writes a cheque for the rehabilitation centre and places it in an envelope. He puts on his coat and walks to the shelter, gift in hand. Upon his arrival, he seeks out the business manager, hands him the envelope, and explains that a donation is enclosed towards the centre’s work. This part of the illustration describes the fifth stage which is use. Thomas affirms that the use of something means the application of that thing to some operation. The means recognized, deemed as appealing and chosen by a person are brought to actuality by the use.

Looking at the situation given, the man donates to the rehabilitation centre after seeing the fact that it is within his capability thus he carried out by using his hand and pen to write and sign the cheque, his legs to walk, etc. Everything that is within a person’s capability and can play a part on the achievement of an end can be used. The donor returns home. Several days later, he receives a note of thanks from the centre’s director who tells him that he has received the money and used it to replace ten old mattresses with new ones.

Though the donor realizes that he has made a sacrifice, he experiences a sense of satisfaction that he has contributed to the lives of the poor who come to the centre. His goal has been achieved. This part illustrates the stage of enjoyment which characterizes the climax of the human action. Enjoyment is the gratification that is experienced by a person when his desired goal has been achieved. It is the satisfaction that the man in the illustration felt when the aim to help the poor is no longer a vision but has actually happened. The claim that an action is human just as it is rational is no doubt true.

But Aquinas goes beyond this simple claim. He further described human actions as that over one have voluntary control. The word voluntary, according to Aquinas, implies that their movements and acts are from their own inclination. This feature serves to distinguish human acts from acts of a different kind. Human actions are not results of deterministic causal forces but are products of a rational account of what they think are good. Unlike in non rational animals, human can exercise free judgment (utility of intellect and will) can choose what is good and can move themselves towards it.

Voluntariness is also defined as a condition in virtue of which an act proceeds from an intrinsic principle with knowledge of its end. “Condition from an intrinsic principle” means that the principle of some acts is within the agent. They move or act “in itself” or “for its own sake”. When a stone is thrown upward, the principle of motion is from outside the stone. But when it is moved downward, the source of motion is from the stone itself. Moreover, “knowledge of an end”, is needed for something to be done for the sake of its end.

An agent that is moved by an internal principle and also possesses the knowledge of its end does not only move because of a principle of action but also because it moves for the sake of an end. Therefore, an action or movement that is from an inner principle, with the foreknowledge of the end and are done for the sake of this end is voluntary. Voluntariness can be absolute or relative. Absolute voluntariness is the voluntariness of an act as it exists in itself. Relative voluntariness is the voluntariness of an act as it exists only in the mind.

Voluntariness is a condition common to all human acts and so is involuntariness. Involuntariness is defined as privation of voluntariness. There are actions that are done against the inner principle of the will. These are positively and contrarily involuntary. There are also acts that are done through ignorance or without the knowledge. These are negatively and privatively involuntary. Voluntariness is invalidated since there exist violence and fear that are products of man’s action contrary to the inclination of his will, concupiscence and ignorance.

There are four sources of involuntariness namely violence or force, fear, concupiscence and ignorance. Violence is the expression of physical or verbal force against self or other, compelling action against one’s will on pain of being hurt. It has two conditions that substantiates that violence is involuntary; first, the principle is external meaning, it is done by an extrinsic agent and second, it is done against the will and without the cooperation of the victim. Fear is an emotional response to a perceived threat wherein the danger or evil feared, the cause of the fear and the influence of the fear on action are considered.

There are fears (antecedent) that move a person to act. These actions are caused by fear and proceed from fear. There are, on the other hand, fears (concomitant) that do not cause but only accompanies an action. An action done as a result of fear is considered as absolutely voluntary and relatively voluntary. Concupiscence is selfish human desire for an object, person, or experience. It refers to what is understood as the orientation, inclination or innate tendency of human beings to do (bodily Appetites) evil. Ignorance is a state of being unaware or having a lack of knowledge.

There is a kind of ignorance that completely absolves a person from an offense but there is also a kind that only partially excuses and another kind that doesn’t excuse at all. Ignorance can be ascribed to three: the knower himself, to the object and to the cause of the act. First, a knower can be acquainted with some things but there are also things that he cannot know. Ignorance to the things that he can know is called vincible or affected. The thing that he cannot know is called invincible ignorance. Second, there are objects that an agent is compelled to know.

This however, is a case to case basis because there are things one man is compelled to know wherein another man is not compelled to know. An example of this is the law. There are also objects that an agent is not obliged to know and this deals with the knowledge of certain condition of an act. The third assertion of ignorance is related to the act. There are some acts that are done because of ignorance and there are also some acts which may not be the direct result of ignorance but may be related to it. But there are some acts that are associated with sin, unsuppressed by the will and makes every evil person ignorant.

An example of such an act is concupiscence wherein the pleasure corrupts judgment. This is called ignorance of choice. Aquinas uses five different terms to specify the human actions. These are the end, object, matter, circumstances and motive. End can be distinguished into two kinds, the proximate end and the remote end. The proximate end refers to the immediate goal. The remote end is the further goal for the sake of which immediate goals are pursued. A single proximate end can be pursued for the sake of numerous kinds of remote ends thus it can be held responsible for human actions.

For example, a man earns money for the intention of giving alms, paying debts, bribing, etc. However Aquinas upholds the claim that the remote end not only specifies the human action but even cause bearing on its identity more than the remote end. For example, a person is giving alms out of love for God. This example shows that one end is desired for another end. Loving God, which is the remote end is superior over giving alms, the proximate end. The second specification is object. A distinctive defining object is found in each human power and its proper action.

For example, color is the object of sight and any acts of seeing as truth is the object of the power of intellect and any acts of knowing. Human actions are primarily related to the human power of will and the object of the will is intelligible goods. The third specification is matter which is commonly used as an alternative term for object. Aquinas refers to it as the matter about which an action takes place. The fourth specification of human action is circumstance. It is considered as attendant or external properties for these are the facts that surround an action or event.

For example, in a murder, the attendant circumstances are the time, place and the type of weapon used. Motive, the fifth specification, refers to the cause that moves people to induce a certain action. A concern about the goodness and evil of human acts exist based on an assertion that every human act is good because it proceeds from a cause in act. Aquinas believes that human acts can’t only be good but can also be evil. The very nature of human acts can prove this. Human acts are either good or evil as much as they possess or do not possess the plenitude of being due to them.

Therefore, it is true to say that morally good action is that which is conducive to man’s attainment of his ultimate end. CARDINAL VIRTUES A virtue is a habit that disposes an agent to perform its proper operation or movement. Because we know that reason is the proper operation of human beings, it follows that a virtue is a habit that disposes us to reason well. This account is too broad for our present purposes. While all virtues contribute in some way to our rational perfection, not every virtue disposes us to live morally good lives.

A superficial look at the second part of the Summa Theologiae would reveal a multitude of virtues that are indicative of human goodness. But there are essentially four virtues from which Aquinas’s more extensive list flows, those that are related to moral decision and action. These virtues are prudence, justice, temperance, and courage. Aquinas refers to these virtues as the “cardinal” virtues. They are the principle habits on which the rest of the virtues center. The exercise of a sound decision in practical affairs is prudence. In order to act well, we need to make good judgments about how we should behave.

This is precisely the sort of habit associated with prudence, which Aquinas defines as right reason with respect to action. In order to make good moral judgments, one must know the general moral principles that guide actions and the particular circumstances in which a decision is required. According to Aquinas the virtue of prudence is a kind of intellectual aptitude that enables us to make good judgments about what will facilitate our proper end in specific situations. Prudence does not establish the end at which we aim because our end, which is the human good, is predetermined by our rational nature.

It also doesn’t desire that end because whether we desire our proper end depends on whether we have the rights sorts of appetitive inclinations. According to Aquinas, prudence illuminates for us the course of action deemed most appropriate for achieving our end. It does this through three acts: counsel, whereby we inquire about the available means of achieving the end; judgment, whereby we determine the proper means for achieving the end; and command, whereby we apply that judgment. As a cardinal virtue, prudence functions as a principle virtue on which a variety of other excellences hinge.

Those excellences include memory, intelligence, docility, shrewdness, reason, foresight, circumspection, and caution. Temperance control of physical pleasures, especially those associated with eating, drinking, and sex. Human displays a common tendency to forgo their well-being for the sake of these temporary goods. Thus we need some virtue that serves to restrain concupiscible passion. Temperance is that virtue, as it denotes a restrained desire for physical gratification. Aquinas does not think that temperance eradicates our desire for bodily pleasure.

Nor does he think that temperance is a matter of desiring physical pleasure less. The purpose of temperance is to refine the way we enjoy bodily pleasures. Specifically, it creates in the agent a proper sense of moderation with respect to what is pleasurable. For a person can more easily submit himself to reason when his passions are not excessive or deficient. For the moderated enjoyment of bodily pleasure safeguards the good of reason and actually facilitates a more enduring kind of satisfaction. There are a multitude of ancillary virtues that fall under temperance because they serve to modify the most insatiable human passions.

Examples are chastity, sobriety and abstinence. Humility is also a part of temperance. Humility aims to control the immoderate desire for what one cannot achieve. Meekness, clemency, and studiousness are also parts of temperance. They, too, restrain certain appetitive drives such as anger, the desire to punish, and the desire to pursue vain curiosities, respectively. Sometimes, the difficulty in achieving or avoiding certain objects can give rise to various degrees of fear and, in turn, discourage us from adhering to reason’s instruction.

In these cases we may refuse to endure the pain or discomfort required for achieving our proper human good. In these cases, we need a virtue that moderates those appetites that prevent from undertaking more daunting tasks. According to Aquinas, courage is that virtue. We need courage to restrain our fears so that we might endure upsetting circumstances. Courage does not only pacifies our fears, it also combats the unreasonable enthusiasm to overcome them. An excessive desire to face fearful circumstances constitutes a kind of recklessness that can easily hasten one’s demise.

Thus we need courage in order to both control too much fear and modify unreasonable boldness. Like prudence and temperance, courage is a cardinal virtue. Those with courage will also have a considerable degree of endurance. The courageous person must also be confident so he will not only have to bear pain and suffering, he will also aggressively confront the obstacles that stand in the way of achieving his proper good. The courageous person must also display magnificence, that is, a sense of nobility. Lastly, the courageous person must have patience and perseverance.

That is, he will not be broken by stress or sorrow in the pursuance of his endeavour. The virtue of justice presides over a person’s relationships with others unlike the first three virtues which concern a person’s own state. Specifically, it denotes a sustained or constant willingness to extend to each person what he or she deserves. There are two distinctions of justice, namely, legal (or general) and particular justice, and commutative and distributive justice. The purpose of legal justice is to direct our actions towards the common good.

Seen this way, justice is a general virtue which concerns not individual benefits but community welfare. Legal justice must govern all acts of virtue to ensure that they achieve their end in a way that is commensurate with the good of others. Particular justice, on the other hand, is the virtue which governs our interactions with individual citizens. Unlike general justice, particular justice directs us not to the good of the community but to the good of individual neighbours, colleagues, and other people with whom we interact regularly.

Commutative justice points to the shared dealings between individual citizens. Specifically, it seeks to ensure that those who are buying and selling conduct their business fairly. There should be a kind of equality whereby one person should pay back to the other just so much as what he gained the other. Distributive justice concerns the way in which collective goods and responsibilities are fairly distributed among people in a social community. The concept of Aquinas on justice doesn’t only concern a person’s relationship to others but also with God.

Aquinas insists that religion is a virtue that falls under justice, since it involves offering God his due honour. The same can be said for piety and observance, since they seek to render to God service and deference, respectively. Other virtues annexed to justice include truthfulness, since the just person will always present himself to others without pretext or falsehood; gratitude, which involves an appreciation for others’ kindness; and revenge, whereby we respond to or defend ourselves against others’ injurious actions. Both liberality and friendship are also parts of justice.

The former is a virtue whereby we help others by giving or sharing with them the goods we possess. The latter involves caring for those who live among us well. HAPPINESS AS THE ULTIMATE END OF HUMAN ACTION We have established that human actions are actions that are governed by a reasoned consideration of what is good. Aquinas also thinks that the good in question functions as an end—the object for the sake of which the agent acts. Some human actions are performed routinely such as reading a newspaper, drinking a cup of coffee, or walking along the neighbourhood.

In these routine actions, an agent is usually more concerned not on the ways the will is involved in these actions but on what they want out of the action. For example, a person walks without considering the complexities of muscle coordination and balance but is more concerned on reaching his destination. Aquinas does not simply wish to defend the claim that human acts are for the sake of some good. Following Augustine, he insists that our actions are for the sake of a final good, a last end. If there was no such end, we would have a hard time explaining why anyone chooses to do anything at all.

The reason for this is as follows. Aquinas argues that for every action or series of actions there must be some end or good that is intrinsically desirable and serves the will’s final cause. According to this view, such a good is a means for desire and is therefore necessary in order for us to act for the sake of what we desire. If you take away the intrinsically desirable end, then you would take away the very principle that motivates us to act in the first place. In the absence of any good, we would not desire anything and thus never have the necessary motivation to act.

So there must be a last end or final good that we desire for its own sake. This last claim still does not capture what Aquinas ultimately wishes to show, namely, that there is a single end for the sake of which all of us. Aquinas wants to argue that every human act of every human being is for the sake of a single end that is the same for everyone. The previous argument did not require us to think that the final end for which we act is the same for everyone. Nor did it show that the end at which every human being aims consists in a specific, solitary good.

What, exactly, is this last end at which we aim? All of us seek after our own excellence. We do so by performing actions we think will—directly or indirectly—contribute to or facilitate a life that is more complete or fulfilling than it would be otherwise. In other words, the last end—the end or good that we desire for its own sake—is happiness, whereby “happiness” Aquinas means the sort of perfection or fulfilment. However, this claim is fairly intangible and uncontroversial. After all, Aquinas does not say what happiness consists in–the thing in which it is realized.

He simply wishes to show that there is something everyone desires and pursues, namely, ultimate fulfilment. He says that all desires the fulfilment of their perfection, and it is precisely this fulfilment in which the last end consists. But while everyone acts for the sake of such an end abstractly conceived, Aquinas recognizes that there is considerable disagreement over what it is in which happiness consists. After all, there are two kinds of happiness. First are the natural and imperfect happiness that are proportionate to human nature because natural powers are adequate to achieve it.

Second are the supernatural and perfect beatitude. Attainment of which is beyond man’s natural powers and can only be achieved through God as his gift to man. These give us an thought that there is a difference between the idea of the last end (an idea for the sake of which everyone acts) and the specific object in which the last end is thought to consist. Some people think that the last end consists in the acquisition of external goods, like riches, power, or fame. Others think it consists in goods of the body, like comeliness or physical pleasure.

And still others think that happiness consists in acquiring goods of the soul such as knowledge, virtue, and friendship. But as laudable as some of these good are (particularly those of the latter category), they are all beset with unique deficiencies that preclude them from providing the kind of complete fulfilment characteristic of final happiness. What is it, then, in which our last end really consists or is realized? For Aquinas, the last end of happiness can only consist in that which is perfectly good, which is God.

Because God is perfect goodness, he is the only one capable of fulfilling our heart’s deepest longing and facilitating the perfection at which we aim. Thus he says that human beings attain their last end by knowing and loving God. Aquinas refers to this last end—the state in which perfect happiness consists—as the beatific vision. The beatific vision is a supernatural union with God, the enjoyment of which surpasses the satisfaction afforded by those goods people sometimes associate with the last end.

But if perfect happiness consists in the beatific vision, then why do people fail to seek it? Actually, all people do seek it—at least in some sense. As we have already noted, all of us desire our own perfection, which is synonymous with final happiness. Unfortunately, many of our actions are informed by mistaken views of what happiness really consists in. These views may be the result of some intellectual or cognitive error as a result, for example, of ignorance or ill-informed deliberation. CONCLUSION The thought of St.

Thomas Aquinas on moral life is bracing and comprehensive in the sense that it emphasizes the collaboration of human action and faculties under the guiding interaction of reason and will as a response to the question of happiness or the ultimate end. Through reason and will, man is the master of his acts, and, consequently, free choice is spoken of as the “power of will and reason. ” Hence, acts properly called human are those proceeding from a deliberate will act. Things that possess reason and free will can lead themselves to an end because they have control over their actions.

Things that don’t possess reason are led to an end by natural inclination or by being moved by another. This is how human actions differ from others, particularly acts of irrational creatures. Aquinas further described human actions as that over one have voluntary control. This is moving or acting according to one’s own inclination. The role of the cardinal virtues on human actions is substantial as these are guide to reason well. On one hand, Aquinas follows Aristotle in thinking that an act is good or bad depending on whether it leads to or hinders us from our human end or final goal at which all human actions aim.

That final goal is happiness, where it is understood in terms of completion, perfection, or well-being. Aquinas believes that all men are naturally inclined towards their highest good or happiness. However, achieving happiness requires a variety of rational and moral virtues that enable us to understand the nature of happiness and motivate us to seek it in a reliable and consistent way. The careful selection and use of actions to attain the final end is considered a difficulty in a man’s moral life. On the other hand, Aquinas believes final happiness involves a supernatural bond with God.

We can never achieve complete or final happiness in this life without this union because an end lies far beyond what our natural human capacities can attain. BIBLIOGRAPHY Aquinas, St Thomas. Commentary on Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics. Notre Dame, IN: Dumb Ox Books, 1993 Aquinas, St Thomas. Disputed Questions on the Virtues. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005 Aquinas, St. Thomas. The Summa Theologiae. Westminster, MD: Christian Classics, 1981 Bourke, Vernon. The Pocket Aquinas. NY: Washington Square Press, 1960 Brock, Stephen.

Action and Conduct: Thomas Aquinas and the Theory of Action. T & T Clark International, 1998 “Cardinal Virtues. ” New Advent, http://www. newadvent. org/cathen/03343a. htm Clark, Mary. An Aquinas Reader. NY: Fordham University Press, 2000 Elders, Leo. The Ethics of St. Thomas Aquinas: Happiness, Natural Law and The Virtues. Frankfurt am Main, NY: Peter Lang, 2005 Finnis, John. “Aquinas’ Moral, Political, and Legal Philosophy. ” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, http://plato. stanford. edu/entries/aquinas-moral-political/ Floyd, Shawn. “Thomas Aquinas: Moral Philosophy. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, http://www. iep. utm. edu/aq-moral/ Grenier, Henri. Thomistic Philosophy: Moral Philosophy. Charlottetown, Canada: St. Dunstan University, 1949 Magee, Joseph. “Law and Virtue in Aquinas. ” Aquinas Online, http://www. aquinasonline. com/Magee/virtlaw. html Mcinerny, Ralph. Thomas Aquinas: Selected Writings. NY: Penguin Books, 1998 Pilsner, Joseph. The Specification of Human Actions in St. Thomas Aquinas. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006 “Summa Theologica. ” Sacred Texts, http://www. sacred-texts. com/chr/aquinas/summa/ index. htm

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