“Some outward acts can be called good, or bad, in two senses.” (Aquinas, ST1a2æ 20.1c). Explain the two senses, and discuss Aquinas’s view in this area.
In his suggestion about the judgement of the external actions, Aquinas elaborates on the division of an act on two separate components. These constituents are the circumstances or conditions of an act and the end toward which this act is intended. The first component involves the details of what actually was done and in what circumstances, consider the example which he presents – giving alms. Giving alms, assuming that the circumstances are appropriate is the morally good act. The second component – the end of an act encompasses the objective which the agent wants to achieve. Aquinas further elaborates on the example of giving alms – if the act is performed for vanity, then the end is morally bad, if, in contrary, the act is performed in order to help the poor then the end is morally good. Goodness and evil of the whole external act are decided by the moral content of its two constituents. Aquinas suggests that an action can be considered morally good only in the case when both of the components are good. It is not sufficient for only end or circumstances to be good for an action to be good – they both have to.
Aquinas's position on this topic can be very distinctively divided from other positions regarding the morality of the actions. It should be noted that Aquinas's morality is not symmetrical. In his system of views, there are much more options for an agent to make a bad action than to make the right one. This follows from the fact that for an act to be good, it has to be good in both senses – the end and circumstances while the other three cases - acts having either of the components good or both bad fall into the category of bad acts. Such position comes from his understanding good and evil and is evident through that prism. In his considerations on the nature of good and evil Aquinas follows Augustine suggesting that all that exists is good. So, there is no such entity as evil in existence – evil is only the lack or deprivation of good. So, what lacks some traits and characteristics pertinent to what is considered good is, therefore, bad. Accordingly, the external action deprived of either good end or good circumstances or both are bad.
Aquinas explains that the twofold judgement should be applied to the actions because the components of an action are caused by two different species in one’s mind. He suggests that the intention of the act or the end towards which the act is aimed is the product of the will – an appetitive power of the soul. While, the circumstances or the matter of the act itself are decided by reason.
Aquinas argues that neither the good will, nor the good external action cannot be the single criterion for the act’s moral worth. He states that the matter of the act or circumstances cannot be the only source of evaluation because the end towards which the action is aimed is also decided by exercising one's reason and is voluntary. Thus, the right end is necessary for an act to be good. He also calls that will for a good end alone is not sufficient for a morally good act. Aquinas supports Augustine in his notion that there are certain acts which cannot be justified even by the best intentions and argues that it is not only the will for a good end which matters but the will for a good act too.
Aquinas holds that the external act can exert influence on the goodness or badness of the agent’s will towards the end and by this the whole goodness or evil of an act can be altered. He states that this effect lies in three ways – number, extension, and intensity. In terms of number, he explains, the matter of act increases the goodness or evil of the act when the will is applied multiple times to the same act. For example, if someone wills to perform a specific act but does not do it immediately but after a while wills and performs it, then it is evident that extra amount of will had to be added to the initial one and, thus, the initial goodness or badness contained in the will is empowered. Aquinas suggests that the extension of will is shown in whether someone willing to do an action is hindered by some obstacle or perseveres in accomplishing his end. The more persistent the will is, the better or worse it is. The third way – the influence of intensity on will occurs when the realization of the willed action involves pleasure or pain. It is evident that such stimuli strengthen or, in contrary, weaken one’s will. The stronger the will is inclined, the better or worse will the act be.
It is held by the consequentialists that the consequences of the action are what define whether the act is morally good. Concerning the influence of the consequences of the actions on the goodness or malice of the acts Aquinas holds equivocal position. While it is evident that he does not recognize the consequences as the measure of the moral worth, he suggests and argues that there are two possible types of effect which consequences might produce on the moral component of an action. If the consequences are foreseeable for the one performing an act, and he completes a particular action aware of the outcome it might produce, then such consequences increase either goodness or malice of the act because the choice of an agent to act is voluntary. If the results are unforeseen, then the twofold solution is offered by Aquinas. He states that if the consequences of the action are produced most of the time such actions are performed and follow from the nature of the action itself, then such consequences also affect the goodness or evil of an act. This he infers from the notion that the actions are judged as being good or bad by the results they tend to produce. Accordingly, the act yielding better results most of the time is better than the act giving worse results most of the time. However, if the consequences are unforeseen, and they do not follow from the nature of the action itself or appear seldom, then such consequences do not change the goodness or evil of an act. The main reason for that is that Aquinas in his moral doctrine gives value only to the acts which are performed voluntarily or consciously or the acts which the agent decides for himself. So, if the actual results of the action were highly unpredictable, then such consequences have no relation to the agent's voluntariness and, therefore, do not affect the goodness or badness of a specific act.
Aquinas thinks we have both conscience and synderesis: explain what they are, why he thinks we have them and decide on the correctness of his views.
One of the central concepts in the Aquinas's philosophy is the natural law. He holds that the natural law is what is pertinent to every being due to its nature. Aquinas claims that the law is the rule and measure of acts. The laws are bestowed by the ruler upon his society. He states that a good ruler thinks about his society and bestows only the principles and rules which will make the lives of the society members better. Such ruler would design the law in such way that it would promote the growth and development of his society and bring it to the highest level of harmony and prosperity. First of all, the ruler has the concept of the law within his mind. When he bestows it upon his society, all of its members inherit and incorporate it within their nature. Aquinas proceeds with explaining that the world we live in is ruled by God – a kind and wise ruler. The principles according to which the world works are contained only in His mind and them Aquinas calls the Eternal law. The reflection of the Eternal law in all the beings in this world are the natural law. Aquinas states that the natural law contains the moral precepts that stand as the basis for human reason. These principles are indemonstrable in the sense that they are not learned through observation, but they are pertinent to every human from birth. The natural law is all towards what humans have natural inclination.
Concerning all mentioned above about the natural law, Aquinas makes a distinction between two entities present in human mind. The first one is conscience, the second – synderesis. The conscience is described by the philosopher as the totality of our judgements, decisions, intentions, and active thinking. So, using conscience, humans will, intend, and make judgments. Conscience itself does not contain the inclinations to virtue or moral sense, although it can use them in the process of judgement. On the other hand, synderesis is the capacity within human mind that contains the precepts of the natural law. It is the basic knowledge which human reason and inclinations ground on.
As prescribed by definition, natural law in the form of synderesis is present in all humans without exception. The principal precept for a practical reason contained in the synderesis is that “good is to be pursued, and evil is to be avoided”. Other indemonstrable principles which are essential to human nature include “one same thing cannot be at the same time accepted and denied", or "if the first equals the second and second equals the third, then the first equals the third," etc. Aquinas further elaborates on syderesis and specifies that it has primary and secondary principles. The primary principles are the ones stated above. They are the basis of life and reason. Apart from the first principles, there exist secondary principles which are the specifications of the first principles developed by reason and human activity. These principles are the applications of the first precepts towards different objects and circumstances. The primary principles, Aquinas suggests, are the same in all humans, they exist in all of us in unaltered and same form. The secondary principles may vary from person to person, as they are the consequences made from the first principles.
The content of the synderesis in humans involves the content pertinent not only solely to human nature. Reason apprehends the subject of the inclination as being good. And, thus, the principles that are characteristic to the natural law for all creation are present in humans. As every other substance seeks for its preservation, humans also are inclined towards the preservation of their lives, avoid danger, and protect themselves. According to what humans have in common with other animals, they are inclined towards sexual intercourse, educating and protecting their offspring.
Aquinas also answers an important question, asking whether the principles of the natural law contained in the synderesis can be changed. He distinguishes two possible types of change – addition and subtraction. Aquinas asserts that the first principles are the basis of life and reason and, thus, cannot be taken away or altered. The secondary principles, in their turn, are not as hard as the first and under certain conditions can be abolished from the human mind. The addition of new principles also happens only in the field of secondary principles as the primary ones always remain intact. The addition of secondary principles occurs naturally over the course of life as new knowledge is apprehended, new experience is gained, and new conclusions are drawn from the first precepts.
Aquinas explains that natural law cannot be changed by the introduction of new human laws. Rather human law adds up the natural law's secondary principles.
In this light, the question arises, why then humans do acts that are morally bad? Aquinas answers that the synderesis is only a natural inclination or knowledge of what is right. There is no mistake in assuming that humans always follow the first precept – follow what they consider to be good for them and avoid what they think is bad. The bad acts come out of the lack of virtue in making judgements and of the errors in conscience.
Aquinas states that the natural law helps humans fulfill their end. And while the natural law is the same for all the members of the human species, the end towards which all our acts are aimed is also the same. This end is the ultimate good in the first precept. Aquinas follows Augustine in saying that this ultimate good is universal for all humans. He asserts that for humans as rational beings the final objective is to know and love God.
The concept of the natural law that Aquinas utilizes is indeed a well thought out idea. It is evident that there are in humans some basic principles which are the basis for human intelligence which are given to humans with birth. It is evident at the present time that there is a large scope of information, inclinations, and principles passed down genetically, which are common to all the humans. The first principle of the natural law cannot be argued while the secondary principles can be since it is possible to make inferences contrary to one another from the same notion under different circumstances. The moral knowledge is indeed present in all of us, however, this is more evident in the humans who are more morally and rationally developed. As Aquinas defines synderesis as the capability of a mind to contain and grasp the moral precepts, his concept goes along with the conventional understanding of how human mind works.
Thomas Aquinas, St. Summa Theologiae (ST ). 1981. Trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province. Westminster: Christian Classics.