An A to Z of Theory | Thomas Aquinas:  Ethics and Anti-Capitalism

In the second of his three-part series on the medieval philosopher, Andrew Robinson examines Thomas Aquinas's ethical theory, and the virtues and principles it promotes. He also explores Aquinas's critique of usury, and its usefulness to an anti-capitalist critique of capital accumulation.

In Theory, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Sunday, September 6, 2015 18:37 - 0 Comments




This is the second of a three-part series on the medieval philosopher Thomas Aquinas. For the rest of the series, please visit the In Theory page.

Ethical theory

Within Aquinas’ frame, ethical philosophy is about deciding the best way to live one’s life. This is continuous with wider ancient and Medieval approaches. Modern theorists tend to assume that people have a vast field of options which morality pares down. In contrast, Aquinas believes people need to identify meaningful goals before they can act. As such, moral theory is a way to facilitate action, rather than to limit it.

Although Aquinas believes in religious faith and the revealed truths of the Christian tradition, his philosophy is not on, the whole, grounded in either. In other words, most of Aquinas’ arguments do not require that the reader take the Bible as true in order to accept its premises and conclusions. Rather, Aquinas seemed to think that some truths could be demonstrated in secular ways, which Christianity simply repeated or made clearer. He also thought that reasoning could be used to figure out specific things that Christian doctrine did not make clear. For instance, unlike Islam and Judaism, Christianity never had its own tradition of law. This opens space for philosophers to provide what religious doctrine did not. Aquinas’ approach, valuing empirical knowledge, entails a partial rejection of the Christian denigration of the body. For Aquinas, the body is not the prison of the soul, but a means for its expression.

Aquinas’s ethical theory involves both principles – rules about how to act – and virtues – personality traits which are taken to be good or moral to have. The relative importance of the two aspects is debated. Modern thinkers tend to work more with principles, whereas ancient thinkers work with virtues, so this question decides which way the reader positions Aquinas. People trying to make Aquinas relevant to analytical philosophy emphasise his principles, and their basis in reasoning. People trying to use Aquinas to develop a virtue ethics, which challenges the legalistic thinking of analytical philosophy, play up the virtues instead.

Both sets of attributes have an underlying goal. The purpose of principles and virtues is to direct people towards the goal of human fulfilment, or living a worthwhile life. This is both an individual and a collective goal. Modern moral theories are mostly outwardly directed – actions are deemed right or wrong based on their effects on others. Aquinas, in contrast, believes that moral thought is mainly about bringing moral order to one’s own action and will. It is only secondarily about bringing order to the world. The most significant effects of a moral action are on the actor.

This is very different from modern approaches. It seems strange from a modern perspective to think, for instance, that the main thing that is wrong with murder is that it disrupts the flourishing of the murderer. But it only seems strange because a modern reader is assuming that people have narrow self-interest. If people’s true flourishing is defined in a way which includes compassion for others, and people are nodes or hubs in a networked cosmic order, then, of course, a murderer is first of all rupturing this proper relationship, and harming another person only as an effect of this rupture. In many ways, this inner focus of older traditions of theory has a humanising, qualitative-focused influence on moral thought. This focus can also be somewhat circular, in that the pursuit of social goods reflects back as the achievement of inner goods, and vice-versa.

Aristotle thinks that each type of thing or being must have a distinct function or role which it is specially suited to or designed for. Humans are directed towards eudaemonia (happiness or living well), achieved through reason. Aquinas does not seem to agree with this view, although he thinks that particular faculties (speech, sex and so on) have a “natural” function (the function which most advances fulfilment). If people have a distinct function or optimal good (equivalent to Aristotle’s eudaemonia), it is what Aquinas calls beatitudo or felicitas – roughly, communion with God – and it can only be achieved in the afterlife. This function does not play a foundational role in his moral thought. However, Aquinas shares Aristotle’s view that everything is created with an essence or nature. He also suggests that particular virtues are ultimately paths to beatitude.

There’s some debate over whether Aquinas – like Aristotle – deduces “ought” from “is”. The debate is basically about whether Aquinas believes that certain things are observably natural, in a biological or cosmic sense, and therefore right, or whether he attaches the label “natural” to those things that he believes aid human flourishing (as deduced using reason). There are certainly instances of the latter; because Aquinas defines some things he recognises as socially learnt – such as moral virtue and political life – as natural.

Either way, Aquinas makes a false, essentialist claim. He maintains that everyone who possesses the capacity to reason and understanding of the terms will agree with him that certain things are right and wrong. These include very contentious claims – for example, that sex outside marriage (including sex outside heteronormativity) is always wrong. It is not difficult to show that these claims are socially constructed, and not self-evident effects of reason.

Aquinas also establishes an ordering of spheres of life. Moral thought is about fulfilment in human life as a whole, as distinct from the specific goals of particular practices or arts. He treats it as transcendent, so that other passions and reasons should be seen as subordinate and suppressed if they clash with it.

The field of ethical theory is also limited. Moral choice applies only to freely-willed actions, which are not subject to outer or inner compulsion. Without free choice, there cannot be responsibility. Aquinas is thus refreshingly dismissive of the extended forms of responsibility often found in contemporary thought. He is far more reasonable than most modern people about how many of a person’s acts can be morally judged.

From Aquinas’ point of view, the motive of an action is also crucial, and two apparently identical acts may be right and wrong because of their motives. For example, deliberately killing someone in self-defence because of hatred towards them is wrong, whereas killing someone as a side-effect of fighting off their attack is justified. It follows from this that morality is fundamentally an inner question, operating mainly in the field of the qualitative, and not primarily a question of social norms or legal prohibitions. This emphasis on the meaning of an act to the actor resonates with approaches in qualitative sociology such as labelling theory. It is an important counterbalance to the authoritarian emphasis on “behaviour” as classified by an observer.

Context and relations are crucial to ethical thought. In contrast with consequentialist thought, Aquinas maintains that good and bad are different in kind. A good act is good in its motive, appropriateness to context, and object; it is bad if any of these is wrong.

Aquinas’s ethical principles

The first principle of Aquinas’s moral thought is that good should be done or pursued, and evil (or badness) avoided. Without this principle, other moral rules would have no force. The maxim “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is also quite fundamental, and sometimes interpreted as a rephrasing of the first principle. Others have interpreted it as an orientation to the fulfilment of everyone, now and in the future.

Personally, I find “do unto others” unsatisfactory as an ethical principle. I feel it ignores difference, and it can lead to absurdities when acting towards others who are different in some way. If someone happens to like eating roast pork, and they “do unto others”, they should serve pork to their vegetarian and Muslim friends. If someone likes toy trains, then they should buy all their friends toy trains as gifts, whether they like them or not, because they would like others to buy them toy trains. If someone enjoys being tortured for sexual pleasure, they should torture other people, and so on.

These conclusions are absurd, and show the underlying assumption of sameness on which the principle is based. On the other hand, the basic idea of valuing the flourishing of others makes sense as a way of humanising social life. I do not feel that the flourishing of the self is necessarily a good guide to the flourishing of the other, but I’m attracted to the view that one should value everyone’s flourishing in the same way as one’s own, since we are all emanations of the same flow of becoming and difference-production. Of course, this also requires that one has some kind of experience of flourishing from which to begin.

Aquinas’ basic principle is unpacked into a range of specific imperatives based partly on knowledge of human life.  Moral thought should aim towards six basic human goods: life, knowledge, fellowship or friendship, marriage and child-raising, religion, and practical reason (These are surprisingly concrete compared to modern lists of primary goods, such as Rawls’s: income and wealth, state-recognised rights, and social bases of self-respect). The use of a list of basic goods sidesteps utilitarian maximising dynamics, instead focusing on concrete beings with diverse needs. It is easy to see how the latter move towards abstract views of human goods as aggregate utility or welfare are effects of the commodity fetish, with its conflation of diverse needs, products and types of labour into a single economic calculus.

Aquinas’ approach is politically positive in aiming for the full development or flourishing of qualitative people, rather than quantitative criteria such as maximising Gross Domestic Product or economic efficiency. However, the way he defines human people is sometimes essentialist and repressive. Flourishing (or free becoming) can turn into moulding (or the repression of free becoming) when false assumptions are made about what human flourishing entails.

Hence, Aquinas’ arguments for the state and marriage deploy a functionalist kind of argument in which the supposed social benefit of an institution justifies whatever is necessary to sustain the institution. Specific moral norms are ways of specifying the meaning of the primary maxim in such a way as to satisfy all these six primary goods. Some norms are derived simply from the basic goods. For instance, murder clearly removes the good of life. Other norms, such as those against theft and usury, require more complex derivations.

The case of killing is complex, because Aquinas allows both incidental killing in self-defence (provided the intent is not to kill), and exceptions for statist practices such as war and the death penalty. Later interpreters have generally found the latter exceptions arbitrary, and argued that military and police killings are only justifiable on similar terms to self-defence. In other words, it’s OK to kill as a side-effect of some other goal (such as winning a battle), but not as a deliberate goal. I’d argue, however, that there’s an inherent danger in trying to allow some social forces to use violence while prohibiting it to others. This type of discourse contributes to concentrations of power, which necessarily lead to domination and injustice.

In another of Aquinas’s arguments, lying is wrong, either because it violates the basic purpose of the tongue or speech, or because it creates a dissonance between the real self and the socially-presented self. Critics suggest that situations involving an unjust adversary might override this prohibition. However, it would also seem to apply to other kinds of false social performance, including self-branding, image management, public relations, and possibly the entire field of the external persona. In other words, the basic dynamic of semiocapitalism is here condemned.

As with many Christian thinkers, Aquinas’s views on marriage and the family are typically reactionary. Marriage has two goals or ends: giving birth to and raising children (to pursue their own fulfilment), and fides (meaning faithfulness, love, life-partnership, and interpersonal unification). Sex is allowed as a means to these ends, but not otherwise. Not only is sex with someone other than a husband or wife prohibited, but so is sex with a husband or wife which lacks fides. For Aquinas, these are wrong because they go against the “good” of marriage, which is one of the primary goods.

The entire derivation is rather arbitrary. It is only because Aquinas has included marriage as a primary good – and not, for instance, sexual enjoyment or the performance of one’s sexuality – that the argument works. The connection of fides (which can also exist in same-sex and polyamorous relationships) to biological procreation is also more-or-less arbitrary. Ultimately, Aquinas’s mistakes on this question show how the specification of a human essence (here, the six primary goods) interferes with the process of flourishing in virtue ethics. While virtue ethicists usually value flourishing, they define the kind of being which flourishes and the paths to its flourishing in predetermined ways, which fail to capture the complexity of human life, and oppress those who fall outside the definition of the human. Clearly the arrangement Aquinas favours does not aid the flourishing of people who are gay, lesbian or bisexual, or those with fides for multiple partners, or people who enjoy sex but do not wish to procreate.

Aquinas’s moral psychology

Aquinas sees these ethical principles as effects of natural moral knowledge. Everyone has an innate knowledge of the natural law, known as synderesis. This is actualised in particular situations as conscience. Although innate, this natural law appears only in reason, and not inclinations. Inclinations obey the natural law only if they are ruled by reason. Any natural good can be pursued in inappropriate ways if it is not ruled by reason.

Conscience is a kind of operative practical intelligence which reminds people of their principles when they are relevant to real choices. Aquinas believes that we should always follow our conscience, even when it is wrong or causes great harm. Since we have no way of knowing whether our consciences are wrong, they are the best guide we have as to what is the moral thing to do. To go against one’s conscience is to go against the values of truth and reason. This position differs from modern theories, which usually prioritise social norms of laws over conscience. I feel Aquinas’s view makes more sense, because conscience is a better guide to the right thing to do than external social norms (which most often reflect dominant social power-relations).

There are four main virtues according to Aquinas:

  • Prudentia – the act of bringing moral reasoning into all decisions, and putting it before irrational desires and ego-promotion. Reason, rather than passion, is at the heart of moral decisions.
  • Justice – a disposition to give others what they are entitled to, or have a right to.
  • Courage (fortitude) – a disposition to restrain fears so as to act rightly.
  • Temperantia – the moderation of desires, especially sexual desire, in line with their “proper role”. This does not require a lack of passion, but something more like a golden mean.

Aquinas does not have a theory of human rights, but his idea of justice – in which everyone has a right to what they are justly given – comes very close to developing such an idea (Another Medieval Catholic scholar, Bartolomé de las Casas, arguably invented human rights in his dialogues on the genocide of the indigenous peoples of the Americas.  Las Casas was also an assimilationist and a supporter of slavery).

Economics: Is Aquinas an Anti-Capitalist?

Aquinas approaches economics with a view of reciprocity or people’s “due” which is basically anti-capitalist (though pro-property). Whether in compensation, law or trading, like should always be exchanged with like to avoid imbalance and maintain equality in the relationship. In addition, money has a nature or purpose as a medium of exchange. It should not have other functions beyond this, accruing value by itself.

Usury, or lending money and charging interest, is deemed unjust because it violates this kind of equality – a person is lent (say) £100 and pays back £120, a greater amount. Except in certain special cases (such as risk-sharing), this is exploitative. Similarly, it is wrong to take advantage of conditions to buy below or sell above something’s real value. Historically, it should be noted that Aquinas was writing about 50-100 years before banking became widespread in Europe (with church connivance). Christian objections to usury ultimately fell foul of the political usefulness of ready cash to fund royal and papal wars.

This argument also applies to wider dynamics of capitalism, particularly the mechanism of capital accumulation whereby capital increases in value (Marx’s M-C-M’ dynamic). This similarly produces a greater sum from a lesser sum, and so upsets reciprocity. Aquinas’ view of economics provides means to keep capitalist tendencies to indefinite accumulation in check, maintaining a kind of balance and functionality in economic relations.

Other aspects of Aquinas’s economics are also egalitarian. People have a duty to relieve poverty, grounded both in love and justice. Nature is held in common, so there is no natural basis for ownership. Aquinas allows property rights to promote economic development, but makes these rights conditional on the social redistribution of any surplus over one’s own accustomed consumption level. (This position basically prohibits capital accumulation). Each person should be able to have some property. And property which is not used can be expropriated (a view similar to Proudhon’s; squatting might be a practical example).

Aquinas’s arguments against capitalism have influenced the Catholic Worker tendency. This group is also inspired by Aquinas’s list of the Works of Mercy, which include such things as forgiveness, instruction of the ignorant, feeding the hungry, ransoming hostages, and harbouring the harbourless. The Catholic Worker movement interprets these duties as literal commands to be followed. Their implications are pretty radical in fields such as homelessness and immigration/asylum.

For the rest of the series in this column, please visit the In Theory page.

Andrew Robinson

Andrew Robinson is a political theorist and activist based in the UK. His book Power, Resistance and Conflict in the Contemporary World: Social Movements, Networks and Hierarchies (co-authored with Athina Karatzogianni) was published in Sep 2009 by Routledge. His 'In Theory' column appears every other Friday.

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