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AQUINAS ON THE EVALUATION OF HUMAN ACTIONS WILLIAM H. MARSHNER Christendom College Front Royal, Virginia AMONG THE questions dealt with in the Prima Secundae are those of what moral goodness "is" and on what basis it is attributed to some human actions but denied of others. Aquinas's answers are currently a matter of contention between the proportionalists and their critics, as is his answer to the question of how human actions are classified. The presentation in the Prima Secundae does give rise to problems, thanks in part to Aquinas's pedagogical procedure. That procedure can be described as bit-by-bit exposition. Rather than set forth his whole view of a topic in one place, in a synthesis of some sort, and applying it piecemeal thereafter as subsequent questions may demand, the Common Doctor keeps his whole view back, exposing no more of it than is needed to resolve the particular issue at stake in a given article. The result of this, quite often, is that qualifications crucial to a fair comprehension of what he holds are scattered over places far removed from each other. Because what he holds on the classification and evaluation of human actions consists of several parts, each complicated, and all connected, his solution is unsuited to bit-by-bit exposition. Genuine doubts as to what the parts are, and how they come together, can arise. The purpose of the present paper is to present a synthesis that lets the whole picture emerge; as it emerges, certain attempts to read Aquinas in a manner supportive of the proportionalist position will be shown to conflict with the design of the whole. In his preface to qq. 18-20 in the Prima Secundae, Aquinas 347 348 WILLIAM H. MARSHNER describes their subject matter as the goodness or badness (bonitas vel malitia) of human actions. These abstract nouns are derived from the corresponding adjectives, "good" and "bad," and the very first thing Aquinas tells us (in the first sentence of q. 18, a. 1) is that "good" and "bad" are to be asserted of human actions in the same way as they are asserted of other things.' So how is that? A BACKGROUND TOPIC: 'GOOD' AND 'BAD' IN GENERAL If one should take up any item at all-an apple, a shoe-and say that the item is good, would one be purporting only to describe it as it is, or would one be purporting also to evaluate it in light of how it ought to be? Differently posed, does a proposition of the form "x is good" represent a product of speculative reason alone, or does it include an element, at least, from practical reasoning? Recent analytical philosophy is quite clear that the latter option is correct. "Good" and "bad" are terms which express evaluation rather than some sort of disinterested, theoretical description. 2 Aquinas can be read, at least, as holding the same view. In a text in which he defined a completely general sense of "good" (more general, for example, than just "human good"), he said: ratio boni est quod aliquid sit appetibile.3 To make out what this dictum means, two remarks are in order. First, the ratio of a term "T" is the reason anything is called T. Aquinas identified it as the aspect of things which the mind grasps and signifies through "T."4 He meant the aspect which would be "what it takes" for a thing to merit or verify the term, in case the term is applied to it. Thus the ratio of "good" is what it takes for 1 Respondeo dicendum quod de bono et malo in actionibus oportet loqui sicut de bono et malo in rebus.... ' The analytical philosophers derive a portion of their clarity on this issue from the celebrated remarks of David Hume on the difference between "is" and "ought": A Treatise on Human Nature, III, i,l. 3 See ST I, q. 5, q. 1. corpus, and many other places. Aquinas often quoted Aristotle's definition of "good" as what all things seek or tend toward (appetunt); the Stagirite's text is in the Nicomachaean Ethics, book I, chapter 1. 4 Ratio enim significata per...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2473-3725
Print ISSN
0040-6325
Pages
pp. 347-370
Launched on MUSE
2017-04-05
Open Access
No
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