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Reviewed by:
  • Thomas Aquinas and the Philosophy of Punishment
  • Anthony J. Lisska
Peter Karl Koritansky. Thomas Aquinas and the Philosophy of Punishment. Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 2012. Pp. x + 209. Paper, $24.95.

This short monograph is a well-developed, thorough account of the mixed retributive/deterrence theory of punishment gleaned from the many texts of Thomas Aquinas. Koritansky [End Page 121] begins with critical reflections on both the deterrence/utilitarian theory, using Bentham as a paradigm, and the retributive position, with Kant playing the role of paradigm figure. Students of jurisprudence and political philosophy will easily recognize these philosophers, as well as several standard objections to each theory, in the debate on punishment. These first two chapters serve as a propaedeutic exercise for the author’s voyage into Aquinas’s theory. Koritansky argues that Aquinas’s analysis offers a substantive alternative to the modern punishment positions noted above, but is dependent on his metaethics of ethical naturalism.

Koritansky begins with a thorough exposition of Aquinas’s realist—and externalist—metaethical theory. Koritansky defends what one might call an “ontological foundationalist” position on Aquinas, in which moral theory requires as a necessary condition an appropriate philosophical anthropology. This account accords with the interpretations of Aquinas’s metaethics discussed by Ralph McInerny, Alasdair MacIntyre, Henry Veatch, and this reviewer; it is opposed in principle to what is called “the New Natural Law Theory” developed by Germain Grisez and John Finnis. The force of this review is not to debate these metaethical differences but to articulate Koritansky’s realist account of Aquinas on punishment. Aquinas’s metaethical theory is rooted in a theory of dispositional properties grounded in the human person; Koritansky’s analysis is, for the most part, in good order. One quibble is with Koritansky’s refutation of contraception on this natural law theory, which to this reviewer is problematic; a far better account of how Aquinas’s natural law theory works regarding human sexuality is Columba Ryan’s magisterial essay in Light on the Natural Law (Helicon, 1965).

Aquinas’s metaethics, accordingly, is a second-order inquiry rooted in the philosophical anthropology found in Aristotle’s De Anima. There are two further reductive moves that Aquinas makes: the political theory based on the moral theory, and jurisprudence—where a theory of punishment comes to the fore—based upon the political theory. There is a firmly established architectonic that reduces to Aquinas’s theory of human nature—hence, the theory of punishment is a derivative of his natural law theory. In contrast to Hobbes, for Aquinas humans are naturally social/political beings.

Koritansky suggests that Aquinas’s working principle for punishment is that legal violations are attacks on the justice of the proper workings of society. He interprets the common good—what Finnis has adroitly referred to as “the public interest”—as being more than the combined goods of each individual, but also not reducible to instrumental means enabling each person to develop one’s eudaimonia in the community. Finnis articulated this instrumentalist account of the common good in his Aquinas (Oxford, 1998). Given that an act of injustice—a violation of duly constituted laws—has taken place, restitution is required; restoring the equality of justice denotes a retributive aspect to Aquinas’s account of punishment. This has a certain Kantian ring to it. Yet Koritansky argues that Aquinas avoids Kant’s lex talionis by focusing on retribution rooted in the human good founded on natural law, which is human nature, and the degree to which the criminal action encroached upon the common good. Natural law transcends the limits of the categorical imperative.

The final part of this study discusses Aquinas on capital punishment, with two parts to this discussion: (a) Aquinas’s texts on capital punishment, which are spread thinly over his writings, that are congruent with restoring the equality of justice; (b) texts in which Aquinas appears to reduce his position to deterrence, in which the punishment has a “medicinal” purpose for society itself. It is difficult to render these two positions consistent theoretically.

The last chapter goes beyond philosophical analysis and broaches the Roman Catholic Church’s position on capital punishment, as expressed...


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