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Natural Virtue

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  13 April 2010

Hayden Ramsay
La Trobe University


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1 Aquinas, Thomas, Swmma Theologiae (hereafter ST), edited by English Dominican Fathers (New York: Benziger, 1948), 12, 31, 7.Google Scholar

2 Plato Protagoras 369e4; see also Xenophon Memorabilia 3, 9.

3 See, for example, the discussion of courage at the end of Platoés Laches.

4 Aristotle Eudemian Ethics 1234a25, in Complete Works of Aristotle, edited by Barnes, Jonathan (New York: Princeton University Press, 1984).Google Scholar

5 Although they do not involve intelligence, the natural virtues do imply choice, and so deliberation, which is a part of intelligence; however, they do not involve deliberation of the best sort: “the man who is without qualification good at deliberating is the man who is capable of aiming in accordance with calculation at the best for man of things attainable by action” (Aristotle Nicomachean Ethics [hereafter NE], 1141b12–14). The deliberation implied by natural virtue merely concerns the variable, the human, and that which can be changed through action, i.e., the minimum conditions necessary for intelligent pursuit of human goods (NE 1141b8–11), whereas the deliberation implied by perfect virtue concerns not just the intelligent pursuit of some good but pursuit of the highest good (thus, perfectly virtuous choices require a certain wisdom—Magna Moralia [hereafter MM] 1197b11–18; and cf. NE 1140a28–30). I will refer to the intelligence which perfect virtue involves as “practical intelligence” in order to distinguish it from the purely deliberative aspect of intelligence which natural virtue involves.

6 NE 1144b1–17

7 MM 1197b37–1198a21.

8 NE 1103a19–20.

9 “[R]ather we are adapted by nature to receive them, and are made perfect by habit” (NE 1103a24–25).

10 NE 1144b4–14; and cf. Politics 1260a31–33.

11 NE 1144a25.

12 NN 1144b1–170.

13 The classic source for Aristotle on nous of first principles is Posterior Analytics 2, 19. For theoretical and practical nous in the domain of ethics see NE 1143a35ff., and for the relationship between nous and the virtue of wisdom 1141a16–20.

14 See Reeve, Christopher, Practices of Reason: Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), chap. 1, for a good analysis of this.Google Scholar

15 NE 1098a18.

16 NE 1145a1. Possession of perfect temperance, the theory runs, entails possession of the perfect forms of all virtues, for no one whose behaviour is temperate but unjust, cowardly, etc., can be practising temperance for the sake of the final human good—which is to say, they cannot be being temperate with the right motive, which nous supplies and practical reasonableness specifies.

17 Aquinas's account of perfect, habituated virtue has both similarities and differences with Aristotle. For good accounts see Porter, Jean, The Recovery of Virtue (London: SPCK, 1990)Google Scholar, and Nelson, Daniel, The Priority of Prudence (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1992).Google Scholar

18 ST 1, 29, 1 ad 4, and ST 3, 2, 1.

19 ST 3, 2, 12.

20 ST 1–2, 51, 1.

21 ST 1–2, 55, 2. Kenny, Anthony, Aquinas on Mind (London: Routledge, 1993), p. 91Google Scholar, sees the discussion of natural habits as not only relevant to the possibility of innate dispositions, but also as a continuation of the attack on innate ideas (1, 83, 3).

22 ST 1–2, 63, 1.

23 This interpretation of Aquinas's natural law theory is dependent on that of Germain Grisez, John Finnis, Joseph Boyle, Robert George, and others. The closest to a definitive statement of this theory to date is Grisez, Germain, Boyle, Joseph, and Finnis, John, “Practical Principles, Moral Truth and Ultimate Ends,” American Journal of Jurisprudence, 32 (1987): 99151CrossRefGoogle Scholar. It is based on a seminal interpretation by Grisez of a key text of Aquinas on the natural law, and proceeds with many changes along the way through a vast number of articles and several books. See, for example, Finnis, John, Natural Law and Natural Rights (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980)Google Scholar; Grisez, Germain, The Way of the Lord Jesus, Vols. 1 and 2 (Quincy, IL: Franciscan Press, 1983 and 1993)Google Scholar; Finnis, John, Boyle, Joseph, and Grisez, Germain, Nuclear Deterrence, Morality and Realism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987)Google Scholar. Of course, this is merely one among a number of interpetations of Aquinas. An alternative version—though it is largely inspired by criticism of Grisez et al.—is that of Russell Hittinger, Ralph McInerny, Mortimer Adler, and others.

24 At this point I part company with the theory of Grisez, Boyle, and Finnis. My understanding of practical reasonableness differs from theirs in significant ways; see my Beyond Virtue Integrity and Morality (London: Macmillan, 1997)Google Scholar. Their thinking on virtue is summarized at “Practical Principles,” pp. 129–31.

25 Although I will not explore the matter further here, it is important to note that, for natural law theory, it is in terms of reasonableness of choices that morally permissible and impermissible acts are distinguished. Immoral acts, like morally licit ones, are chosen ultimately for the sake of some part of human fulfilment, and so are rational; however, they are not chosen so as to achieve fulfilment in a reasonable way, and it is in this that their impermissibility consists.

26 Though note, for Aquinas, not all souls inform bodies: angelic souls never do, and separated human souls “temporarily” do not.

27 Note that this does not mean that the soul should be thought of as part of the body for Aquinas, for, though it does consist in the structuring of capacities that are physically realized, capacities are distinct from the physiological structures and processes in which their realization occurs.

28 Hume, David, A Treatise of Human Nature, edited by Selby-Bigge, L. A. and Nidditch, P. H. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978), pp. 294–96.Google Scholar

29 Baier, Annette, A Progress of Sentiments (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994), chap. 9.Google Scholar

30 See, for example, Hume, David, Enquiries Concerning Human Understanding and the Principles of Morals, edited by Selby-Bigge, L. A. and Nidditch, P. H. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979), p. 303.Google Scholar

31 Hume, Treatise, p. 579.

32 Hume, Enquiries, p. 180.

33 See “Of the Original Contract,” in Hume, David, Essays: Moral, Political and Literary, edited by Miller, Eugene (Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Classics, 1985).Google Scholar

34 See Baier, A Progress of Sentiments, pp. 188–90, on the distinction between the virtues and perfect virtue in Hume.

35 Interestingly, we might say that the practice of perfect virtue may convert x's character so that doing the good here becomes “second nature” to him or comes “naturally” to him.

36 Kupperman, Joel, Character (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), p. 103.Google Scholar

37 Pincoff, Edmund, Quandaries and Virtues (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1986), p. 92.Google Scholar

38 Geach, Peter, The Virtues (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977), p. 162.Google Scholar

39 MacIntyre, Alasdair, After Virtue (London: Duckworth, 1992), p. 186.Google Scholar

40 Foot, Philippa, “Virtues and Vices,” in Virtues and Vices (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978), p. 16.Google Scholar

41 Badhwar, Neera, “The Limited Unity of Virtue,” Nous, 30 (1996): 306–30CrossRefGoogle Scholar, agrees that it is the natural virtues that explain courageous Nazi cases. She ingeniously argues, on both textual and psychological grounds, that one can have unity of virtue in one area or “practical domain” of one's life without this implying possession of any other virtue in any other area. On this reading, the Nazi may be genuinely virtuous in his or her family life and lacking in virtue (though presumably far from completely vicious) in his or her “professional” life, which may, however, exhibit a natural courage. My account provides an explanation of just how one's courage may be moral in one domain and not in another: features of the Nazi's daily work elicit “child-like,” natural responses from him or her; features of his or her home life structure these responses rationally, toward good, well-judged ends. Obviously, for these natural and rational courageous responses to remain systematically separate within their individual domains suggests a compartmentalization verging on pathology—a problem Badhwar goes only so far toward addressing.

42 We could (rather arbitrarily) mark this distinction by saying that, although the courageous murderer has (natural) courage, what he lacks is courageousness: commitment to the pursuit of good ends in non-cowardly and non-reckless ways.

43 ST 2–2, 184, 3.

44 ST 3, 29, 2.

45 This article was prepared while supported by a grant from The Leverhulme Trust, London.

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