Monday, November 10, 2003

Thomistic Reflections


(Don't you love when a lecture or article is titled "reflections?" What that means is that there will be no discernible structure to the lecture. You have been warned.)

I've been reading lots of Aquinas recently, especially the Prima Secundae of the Summa. Aquinas makes the point repeatedly that the end or telos in practical reason plays the role of first principles in speculative reason: "For in morals the end is what principles are in speculative science." (link) Just as in mathematics we start with certain axioms about number in order to draw conclusions, in morals we start with the end to be gained, and then draw conclusions about particular actions that lead to the end.

Now, as Aquinas says in De Ente et Essentia, "parvus error in principio magnus est in fine" (A small error in the beginning is a great error in the end), any error in the determination of the principle of morals, the human end or telos, will lead to great errors in determining what the content of morality is.

Now, if the end of human beings is union with God, any system of ethics that fails to recognize this end must necessarily be false, mustn't it? If what Aquinas says is true (which it seems he believed it to be, since he starts writing on morals with figuring out the human end), then any attempt to figure out what is right and wrong without explicit reference to God is doomed to failure.

Now, this has consequences for people such as Finnis and Grisez, who think that a natural law ethic can be developed without talking about God, on the basis of certain self-evident goods. But the way to instantiate these goods will have ultimate reference to the end, wouldn't it? Such an attempt would fail before it started, because the whole goal of human action (union with God), wouldn't be recognized.

Question: if all this is true, what is a philosopher to do? How can a Christian confront a secular world, a world that rejects common starting points? This is the root of our disagreements: we argue over conclusions such as how to treat Terry Schiavo, where Christians argue on the basis of the intrinsic dignity she has as a child of God destined for union, and the world argues on the basis of maximizing utility or pleasure and minimizing pain. We may occasionally reach the same conclusions as the seculars, but our ways of reaching conclusions are radically incompatible. This incompatibility is based on the fact that we start from different principles. What to do?

I suspect an Augustinian approach may be necessary: one must do what he does in the Confessions (go read it): show the utter poverty of a world without God. Nietzsche may be helpful as well, to show the ultimate consequences of the positions the world advocates.

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