- Sin: A Thomistic Psychology by Steven J. Jensen
This is the latest book-length contribution from Steven Jensen to his excellent scholarly work on the ethics of Aquinas. Like Good and Evil Actions (2010) and Knowing the Natural Law (2015), Sin: A Thomistic Psychology is a careful and clear exposition and defense (with some creative development) of central elements of the ethics of Aquinas and is required reading for any scholar working in this area.
"The focus of this investigation is upon the psychological aspects of sin, rather than upon what might be called the ontological or metaphysical aspects." More specifically, Jensen is principally interested in the psychological interplay of knowledge and ignorance in the moral life. "A person must be ignorant in order to pursue a false good; at the same time, he must have knowledge in order that he might be responsible for his evil choice. Such is the corner into which Thomas is backed on account of his vision of the nature of the will."
Jensen's response to this problem has three parts. He begins with our ultimate end and the order of our actions to that end (chapters 2 through 6). Then he examines how ignorance makes possible our failure with respect to our ultimate end (chapters 7 through 11). Finally, he considers how we can be responsible for sin, despite our ignorance (chapters 12 to 14).
Although there are substantive and important discussions of a wide range of themes, including the first moral act, our shared overall good, weakness of will, and compatibilism versus libertarianism, the two most critical sections are chapter 2 ("The Order of Actions to the Ultimate End," which begins the first section on the ultimate end) and chapter 12 ("The First Cause of Moral Evil," which begins the final section on responsibility for sin).
In chapter 2, Jensen prepares his ground by developing his defense of Aquinas's claim that all we do is done for the sake of a single final end. His principle interlocutors are Germain Grisez and Peter Ryan, who argue that Aquinas's claim is manifestly false, in large part because of the existence of venial sins that, as such, cannot be fully ordered to our ultimate end (though Jensen never says this, one wonders if the book as a whole began by way of reflection on this objection to Aquinas).
Jensen's solution is an attractive one, though it raises some deep questions that remain unanswered. He argues that we can make sense of this problem and consequently Aquinas's larger claim by (1) distinguishing between the final end formally considered and the specific concrete realization of the final end and (2) carefully applying the habitual, virtual, and actual orders of acts to an end. All my actions are ordered actually or virtually to a single final end formally considered (my overall perfection). On the other hand, all my actions are habitually ordered to a single concrete final end (let's say in this case, union with God). Venial sins are therefore ordered habitually to our concrete final end and, claims Jensen, virtually ordered to our formal final end. In this way, we are always fully [End Page 615] ordered to our final end formally considered, but can at the same time exhibit significant disorder with respect to our concrete final end.
In chapter 12, Jensen turns to the problem of moral responsibility for sin and argues that the full explanation of sin requires five elements: "(1) The person must have a desire for the overall good; (2) the person must be aware that this action is ordered, at least by itself, to this desired good; (3) the person must be ignorant that the action is opposed to his chief good; (4) the person must be aware that he is ignorant of the order of his action in relation to the chief good; (5) the person must be aware that he should discover the order of his action in relation to the chief good." Although ignorance is a...