Well, it’s been a while since I wrote a post, and this is not a beginning of regular posting again. I’ve started my PhD program and between work, family, and study I’m incredibly busy. However, I do need a place to write down some thoughts and simply get things in print (rough ideas and drafts if you will) and this is as good as any.

This evening I was grading a paper on Thomas Aquinas’ connection between virtue and natural law and some questions a student raised got me thinking. The students critique of Aquinas was that he provided no clear way to begin the process of growing in virtue, and that he saw the law–and specifically punishment under the law–as somehow leading to virtue. This is a common critique of both Aquinas and Aristotle. With Aristotle’s work I happen to think that it is a valid critique, but Aquinas provides a meaningful and in depth answer to it. Aquinas’ answer, found spread across Summa Theologica Volume 2 questions 49 (A1), 51 (A2), 52 (A1-3), 61 (A5), and 63 (A2) is complex. He argues that virtue is a habit, and thus a virtue (the origin of which is natural) is increased by consistent practice. As a quick picture, Aquinas’ conception of a vice-virtue relationship can be imagined as a spiral. The center of the spiral is the ‘seed’ or ‘null point’ where one is perfectly between virtue and vice. The bottom end of the spiral is perfect vice and the top end of the spiral is perfect virtue. The spiral itself represents two contrasting habits of action (i.e. courage vs. cowardice) and one moves along the spiral in either direction by performing consistent actions of X kind (courageous actions move one up the spiral while cowardly actions move one down the spiral).

However, Aquinas also sets out four levels of virtue. For our purposes here only the first level matters. The first level of virtue is ‘social virtue’ in which I engage in virtuous actions because they bring desirable consequences in this world. Now, Aquinas here distinguishes between that which is truly desirable and that which merely seems desirable. So, there is an objective good that is truly desirable, and virtuous action leads me to it (or goods/them if you prefer). Thus, the social virtue is effectively egoistic: I do what is virtuous because I realize that it is the best way to achieve what is truly desirable in the world. Punishment can instill this level of virtue in men precisely because avoiding harsh punishment is an actual good in this world. It is truly desirable to stay out of prison, and thus I act in ways that keep me out of prison. However, the brilliant part of this is that Aquinas connects an egoistic good (good for me) with a social good (good for others) with an objective reality (good in actuality). Thus, what is truly good for me is also truly good for others because it actually reflects a real, objective good.

Plato makes the same move in his metaphysics in books 4-7 of Republic. He argues that that which is good for the city is inevitably good for the individual, and this is so because it actually images the form of the good. Interestingly, though, while it shouldn’t surprise us that Aristotle and Aquinas follow Plato in this, Thomas Hobbes and Ayn Rand also make the same move. Hobbes argues that individuals should submit to a government because it maintains a social good that is in everyone’s best interest. For Hobbes, avoiding a state of nature is the ultimate and actual good (i.e. good reality) and he connects this to both a social good and an individual good in founding his social contract theory. However, while Plato et al essentially argue that what is good for me is good for society as well because it is good in reality, Hobbes effectively argues that what is good in reality is good for society because it is good for me. Ayn Rand follows similar in her argument for objective self-interest. Rand argues that we should all do what is in our objective self-interest, but she believes that if everyone actually does what is in their own best interests then it will inevitably be good for society because having a stable society is in everyone’s best interests. Thus, Rand argues that what is actually good for me is also good for society. This line of reasoning is similar to that of Plato et al in some important ways, but is also effectively inverted.


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