On Doing What Comes Naturally

Monday, 11-20-2023



The sources I’ve read say that according to Thomas Aquinas, human nature is characterised by certain natural dispositions or inclinations which need to be realized.  Would you say that this accurately characterizes his view?  The reason I ask is that it follows that whatever impedes the fulfilment of natural capacities is inherently evil.  But this seems to prove too much.  For instance, on this account the celibacy of a nun or a priest would be inherently evil, because it impedes the fulfilment of the natural tendency to procreate.

If the view I’ve described is correct, then it might illuminate a key difference between Protestant and Roman Catholic approaches to sexual ethics. For instance, it seems to me that it is good to have children, and we have a natural tendency to do so, but it does not follow that every sexual act must be procreative or potentially procreative.



As to your first question:  Thomas Aquinas does hold that for any given nature -- such as a human being -- the good is that to which it is naturally inclined, that which its very nature disposes it to seek.  So far, so good.  However, the language of “impeding fulfillment” is dangerously imprecise.  Thomas Aquinas doesn’t think we must all be having sexual intercourse all the time just because there is a procreative inclination, any more than he thinks we must all be eating all the time just because there is a nutritive inclination.  Let’s work through this.

A power isn’t thwarted because I don’t use it, but because I don’t use it when I should use it, or because I use it at a time, or in a way, which frustrates its end or ends.  Thus, going on a diet does not undermine the purpose of the nutritive inclination – but it would be would be wrong to overeat, induce vomiting, and then eat some more.  Similarly, sexual abstinence does not undermine the purpose of the procreative inclination – but it would be dreadfully wrong to have sexual intercourse, but in a way which deliberately renders the act sterile.  That would be something like eating and vomiting.

Now as to your conclusion about Protestantism and Catholicism:  I think you are blurring the distinction between not trying to have a baby, and trying not to have a baby.  Catholic ethics does not teach that my wife and must be trying to conceive every time we enjoy marital intercourse; we may be simply expressing the love of our procreative union.  Nor does it teach that we may never abstain; but when we do have sexual intercourse, we must be open to the possibility which it carries.  We must never intentionally close the door to new life.

Incidentally, you call this the Catholic approach to sexual ethics, but until the Anglicans broke ranks in the early 1930s, it was the Protestant approach too.  Martin Luther agreed with it; so did John Calvin.



Tabula Rasa?

Monday, 11-13-2023



In the First Part of the Summa theologiae, Thomas Aquinas cites Aristotle to the effect that the intellect is like “a tablet on which nothing is written."  That’s in the sed contra, his restatement of the traditional view.  But then in his own response, he agrees:  Man's potential knowledge is transformed into actual knowledge "through the action of sensible objects on his senses," so that the soul "has no innate species" (no innate knowledge of forms).

WHAT?  My whole academic life, I have been hearing that Locke rejected the innate ideas in which his predecessors supposedly believed, calling our minds a tabula rasa or blank slate.  I must be missing something, because surely those critics had read this passage in Aquinas.  Would you be so kind as to enlighten me as to why Locke is so different from Aquinas here?



Yes, I had the same reaction when I was first studying Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas!  However, the notion of innate knowledge does not come from those two luminaries – I don’t know why people say this.  And really, the notion is crazy.  If there were such a thing as innate knowledge, then even the baby freshly popped from the womb would have it.  Fancy a newborn thinking to himself, “I must never do anyone undue harm -- whatever doing is, whatever harm is, and whatever it is to be undue”!

St. Thomas certainly believes in natural knowledge.  He says so in the very section you quote.  Of course he doesn’t think all our knowledge is natural, or else we would never forget anything, and even a blind person would know what color is.  Now here’s the kicker.  According to him, not even natural knowledge is innate.  Even natural knowledge depends, in a way, on sense experience.  Someone who had never had sense experience wouldn’t know anything.

Let’s think about this.  There are certain things that a person who has reached the age of reason naturally knows, but he isn’t born with this knowledge.  For example, an infant doesn’t innately know that two things equal to a third thing are equal to each other.  But when the proposition is taught to a twelve-year-old who understands the meanings of such terms as “equal,” he can’t help but see that it is true.  The knowledge is per se nota, “known in itself.”

Does he know it just because someone has taught it to him?  No.  Your mother and father taught you the Golden Rule, but you didn’t believe it just because they said it was true; you believed them because when they said it, you could see for yourself that it was true.  What they did by their teaching was call your attention to this truth, and what they said made sense to you.

Even per se nota knowledge depends on sensory experience, because if you had never perceived any things which were equal, you wouldn’t understand what equality is, and so you wouldn’t grasp that two things equal to a third thing are equal to each other.  Yet in another sense such knowledge transcends sensory experience, because even though you haven’t seen all equal things, you know that the proposition “two things equal to a third thing are equal to each other” must be true – even of the equal things you haven’t seen!

According to St. Thomas, the reason your mind can know such a thing is that the universal forms of things are implicit in sense experience, and the rational mind extracts them.  A bird, which is not rational, knows only particulars:  This worm, this branch, this nest.  In fact, since it doesn’t possess the concepts of worm as such, branch as such, or nest as such, even that way of putting it falsifies the bird’s knowledge.  All it really knows is this, this, this!  By contrast, when you see a worm, you recognize it as an individual instance of worm.  This is stupendous.

Our power to grasp universal forms is what makes it possible for us to formulate predications:  To say, for example, that man is a rational animal, or that undue harm must not be done.  When a proposition is per se nota, the mind recognizes that the predication expressing it has to be true, just from the meanings of the terms it employs.  The subject, man, contains the meaning of the predicate, rational animal, so of course “man is a rational animal” is true.  The subject, undue harm, contains the meaning of the predicate, something that must not be done, so of course “undue harm must not be done” is true.  By contrast, the proposition “the table is made of brass” is not per se nota, because the subject, table, does not contain the meaning of the predicate, made of brass.  The table might be made of wood, plastic, dark matter, pixie dust, or something else.

Now Locke doesn’t differ from Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas merely because he believes that the mind learns from experience.  Locke differs from them because he and the other empiricists radicalize the idea, trying to make sense of it without recourse to real forms or essences.

Aristotle and St. Thomas would have considered that impossible.  And I think it is. 

You might think of it this way.  The mind of a bird is a blank slate, and the mind of a human being is also a blank slate.  But what can be written on the bird and the human being slates differs radically, and so does the way it is written there.  The mind of a bird takes in only the particulars of a thing; the mind of a rational being takes in its form or essence.

And just for that reason, the slate is not blank in the peculiar sense that some people give to the expression tabula rasa, for not just anything can be written on it – and some things can’t help but be written on it.  There are some things that a rational being of the age of reason can’t not know, and cannot disbelieve even if he tries.


Commentary on Thomas Aquinas's Treatise on Law

What We Can't Not Know: A Guide



If Conscience Is Real, How Can We Believe Foul Things?

Monday, 11-06-2023



In my country, lower caste Hindus feel inferior in relation to Brahmins, so that if a Brahmin were to rape the daughter of a lower caste Hindu, this would be considered a privilege.  Doesn’t this cast doubt on the idea that conscience is available to all humans?

It seems that humans can believe anything.  Whatever is put into them by external authority, they seem to consider true.  What is going on?  Is their will truly not free?



One would think that since humans often both commit and comply with wrongdoing, conscience must be very weak.  On the contrary, our deepest moral knowledge is incredibly strong, but we can go to great lengths in the attempt to escape it. 

To begin with the perpetration of wrong:  The most interesting thing is not that we can tell ourselves that wrongdoing is right, but that we have to tell ourselves:  Our consciences will not simply overlook what we have done.  Moreover, the only way we can make wrong look right to ourselves is to take genuine moral truths and misapply them.  I like to say that rationalization is the homage paid by sin to guilty knowledge.

For example, it is impossible not to be ignorant of the wrong of theft, but I might rationalize the deed by telling myself that the person from whom I stole did not deserve what he had.  I reason that what might look like an act of stealing was really an act of restorative justice.  Similarly, we can’t not know that we must never take innocent human life, but the abortionist tries to convince himself that the unborn child wasn’t innocent, wasn’t human, or wasn’t really alive.  Such excuses don’t erase the awareness of wrong; rather they suppress it by misapplication.

Can the awareness of profound wrong be suppressed to the point of extinction?  I don’t think so.  For example, some abortionists who have written about their grisly trade admit that they have nightmares of their victims accusing them.  This wouldn’t happen unless at some level, they knew that their lies were lies.  Moreover, even in the case of the most hardened perpetrator of wrong, there can be such a thing as repentance and change of heart.  Repentance is difficult, of course, because once we have done wrong, we “dig in” to evade the accusations of conscience – something that would hardly be necessary if conscience did not exist.  But if there were no free will, repentance would not be merely difficult.  It would be impossible.

So far I have been speaking of those who perpetrate wrong, but conscience can also be distorted in the case of those who unjustly suffer it.  Conviction of fault arouses in us an impulse to atone, to pay a price.  Unfortunately, this impulse can arise not only when the fault is real, but also when it is imaginary.  For example, a child who has been sexually abused may feel ashamed about the experience, telling himself that he was to blame for what happened to him.  If he does, then the abuse may seem to him as though it were a deserved punishment.  Or if people are constantly treated as inferiors, as in the cases you describe, they may come to think that they really are inferiors, and even that their inferiority is their fault.  In this case they may believe that they deserve to be treated badly.  Again, what drives submission to injustice is the misapplication of a real moral truth – in this case, the principle of desert.  

When people have been abused or mistreated, they often find it difficult to believe that they are made in the image of a loving God.  Yet if only they can believe it, they rejoice to learn it.  Moreover, although they may need help to understand that the things for which they blamed themselves were not really their fault, they experience this discovery as a liberation.  So again, free will is vindicated – but its vindication comes through struggle and God’s grace.

Perhaps these reflections help to explain what is going on when people seem to acquiesce in their oppression.


"The Revenge of Conscience"


Children Raised by Wolves

Monday, 10-30-2023



Professor, does the fact that children raised by wolves cannot function in human society show that there is no human nature?



There are said to have been a few cases of this sort of thing, but no, you are working with a flawed definition of “nature.”  As you are using the term, our nature is merely our innate behavior, fixed patterns of action which do not have to be learned.  If you use the term that way, then just because there are so few such patterns – just because we might learn to act all sorts of ways, or fail to learn to act in the ways expected -- it seems that we haven’t any nature.

However, our nature includes much more than innate behavior.  It is better to think of it as a bundle of natural potentialities, distinct to human beings, which must unfold if we are to attain our full development and live well.  In a properly human environment, these potentialities can fully unfold, but in a subhuman environment, they can’t.  That is why children raised by wolves cannot function in human society.

If there were no human nature, then children would flourish equally whether they grew up among humans, wolves, or ants.  In ant society, they would thrive as though ants; in wolf society, as though wolves; and in human society, as humans.  What we find is that in an ant society, they can’t function at all.  In a wolf society, they can function but not thrive, for although they may be able, say, to catch rabbits, natural human potentialities such as language, rational inference, and the desire for truth and beauty have no chance to develop in them.  Only in a human society can they flourish. 

Another way to think of this is that the natural habitat for human beings includes not only physical features of the environment, such as food, oxygen, dry land, and a certain range of temperature, but also social features of the environment, such as parents, friendship, conversation, and worship.  Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas rightly say that man is “by nature” a social and political animal – “social” meaning that we live together and cooperate, “political” meaning that we provide for justice and take thought for the common good.  When they say this, their claim isn’t that we form our communities by instinct, or even that we cannot live without them.  Rather they mean that these communities are our natural habitat, so that without them, we cannot live well.  A good life for wolves is not a good life for us.



Blessing Israel

Thursday, 10-26-2023


Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.   And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.  I will bless those who bless you, and him who curses you I will curse; and by you all the families of the earth shall bless themselves.”

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem!

“May they prosper who love you!

 Peace be within your walls,

and security within your towers!”

 For my brethren and companions’ sake

I will say, “Peace be within you!”

 For the sake of the house of the Lord our God,

I will seek your good.

-- Genesis 12:1-3; Psalm 122:6-9


My Woke Professor

Monday, 10-23-2023



Ever since one of my professors found out I didn’t share his woke opinions, I’ve been having a hard time sharing my interests with them.  Suffice it to say, those who preach tolerance can be quite intolerant!

Anyway, I would like to have a research plan for studying culture that they can’t dismiss as “racist” (because I believe in being colorblind instead of practicing reverse discrimination), “homophobic” (because I don’t believe all forms of sexual behavior are equivalent), “xenophobic” (because I don’t believe every way of life is equally good), or offensive in some other way, just because I don’t march to their drum.



I get this question often.  What can you do?

First, don’t expect to be able to share your interests with each of your professors.  Be discrete.  Learn with whom you can talk freely, with whom you can’t, who will respect your confidences, and who will gossip.  This applies to conversations with fellow students, too.

Second, choose your mentors carefully.  This is important not only for those already in a graduate program, like you, but also for those who are just choosing one; they shouldn’t go just by ranking or reputation, but should research the faculty in the program first.  Having to defend yourself is normal and good for you, and it isn’t necessary that all of your professors be sympathetic to your point of view.  However, you need to find at least one or two of the faculty who will be sufficiently likeminded to help you with your projects instead of tearing you down.  Naturally, you should expect to be criticized for laziness or sloppy reasoning!  But you shouldn’t have to do daily battle just because you don’t hold woke views.

Third, although you should try to get along with everyone, you should reconcile yourself to the fact that with some people this is impossible.  Avoid them.  When you have to deal with them, find things to talk about that interest them, not you, and do your work so impeccably that they find it difficult to criticize.  But of course this is good advice even if you aren’t dealing with hostile critics!

Fourth, remember that although you must never be complicit with what is unconscionable, there are all sorts of interesting questions about race, family, and culture which don’t even raise issues about reverse discrimination, sexual disorder, or the evaluation of different ways of life.  If – as I suspect – you don’t want to study one of the safe questions, but one which is inescapably risky, more power to you!  As G.K. Chesterton said, only living things can go against the stream.  But find ways to frame your question which intrigue even those whose views are radically different than yours.  To do this, you will have to understand them as well as you possibly can.

Fifth, plan for the future.  One of the most brilliant graduate students I’ve taught framed his research question in the way I’ve just urged, and did his work so well that he disarmed his critics, whose reasons for being interested in his project were quite different than his own.  He used his doctoral research to lay the groundwork ahead of time for his next project after getting his PhD.  It was much more controversial – but by that time, he had strengthened his position.

Finally, have fun.  You’re still a young man.  Young men like to fight.  Learn which things are worth fighting for, and fight prudently:  Not with your fists, but with your mind.



No Such Thing as Virtue?

Monday, 10-16-2023


The Good Samaritan is a model of virtue because he gave assistance to a stranger who sorely needed it, at significant cost to himself, after several who might have been thought to have a greater duty to help passed the sufferer by.

But what if there is no such thing as virtue?  What if the Samaritan wasn’t really good?  What if the he merely happened to relieve suffering that time, but another time might have turned a blind eye to it?  What if it all depends on the occasion?  Maybe even Caligula acted kindly at times.  Maybe even Mother Theresa sometimes didn’t.

That’s what I hear occasionally from students who are learning of the classical doctrine of the virtues for the first time.  They tell me that there is no such thing as stable moral character.  Virtue is non-existent, like ghosts and unicorns.  How do they know?  Because that’s what some of their psychology professors tell them.

After a certain number of students told me this, I did a little digging.  Yes, some psychologists really do propound such a theory, and it’s a convenient excuse if one is considering kicking the dog, cheating on the test, or flipping off the driver in the next lane.  But there is much less to it than meets the eye.

The experiments on which these psychologists base their hypothesis are actually somewhat interesting, but what they show is another question.  In the first and most famous such experiment, by John M. Darley and C. Daniel Batson, seminary students were recruited under the pretext of having them give talks on assigned topics – some on seminary employment, others on the Good Samaritan.  The researchers had the students fill out personality questionnaires covering their views and attitudes toward religion.  At a certain point, under another pretext, the students were asked to walk to a different building.  Some were told to hurry; some weren’t.  On the way, each student passed a confederate of the experimenters who was slumped in an alleyway, moaned, and gave a few coughs.  The question was:  Would the passerby stop to give assistance to the supposed sufferer?

Of the seminarians who were not in a hurry, most stopped.  Some, in fact, were so eager to help that the person who was feigning distress had a difficult time getting them to leave before another experimental subject came along.  On the other hand, of the seminarians who were in a hurry, most did not stop, and there was very little correlation between whether they stopped and what they had said in their questionnaires.  From this finding, many psychologists have concluded that morally irrelevant situational factors like being in a hurry matter far more than supposed virtue in determining how people will behave.  Ergo, stable moral character is a myth.

When I returned to the original experiment, I was surprised to find that Darley and Batson did not actually draw such a silly conclusion.  Their discussion of what their experiment meant was much more thoughtful, and rightly so, for everyday life constantly reminds us of the importance of differences in character.  One man is a good husband, another is a louse.  I can loan my car to my daughter-in-law, but I had better not loan money to my brother-in-law.  The hypothesis that there is no such thing as stable moral character is also contradicted by the experience of banks, insurance companies, and law enforcement.  That’s why we have credit records, actuarial scores, and rap sheets.  We therefore have excellent prima facie reason to that there really is such a thing as stable moral character, and that it is very important.

So what is wrong with the no-such-thing-as-virtue school of thinking?  Why shouldn’t such experiments be taken as showing that stable character is nonexistent?

The two original experimenters themselves give the first reason for thinking so.  Post-experiment interviews suggested to them that some of the seminary students may have been torn between stopping to help the fellow in the alley, and continuing on their way to keep their promise to help the experimenter.  “And this is often true of people in a hurry,” they write.  “Conflict, rather than callousness, can explain their failure to stop.”

But the literature on such experiments not only tends to ignore this point, but cexhibits other blind spots too.  The first thing it overlooks is that although being in a hurry made a difference, it didn’t make all the difference.  A good many seminarians in a hurry helped; a good many not in a hurry didn’t.  From a failure to find a complete explanation of the difference in behavior, it doesn’t follow that the complete explanation lies in circumstances rather than moral character.

The second thing it overlooks is that it’s very hard to measure virtue independently of what people actually do.  For example, being in seminary is hardly evidential; on one occasion a student asked me for a recommendation to seminary so that he could become a minister just because his dad, a Unitarian pastor, made a pretty good income.  (The student’s other top career choice was restoring vintage cars.)  Responses to the sorts of personality questionnaires that psychologists ordinarily use aren’t much help either.  In the original Darley and Batson study, the highest correlation was between the behavior of the seminarians and whether they viewed religion as a “quest” – but what does that mean?

Third, virtue comes in degrees.  Most of us are pretty flawed, and are sorely challenged by our temptations.  We win some, we lose some.  Each time someone wins a match, it is a little easier to prevail in the next one.  Each time he loses, it’s a little harder.  So the fact that passersby often fail to help someone they really ought to help doesn’t mean that there is no such thing as virtue, but, at most, that not many of them have it to the very highest degree.

Fourth, “virtue vs. circumstances” is a false alternative, because even highly virtuous people don’t always act the same way – and they shouldn’t.  A perfectly virtuous person will always act virtuously, but the virtuous course of action is not always the same.  For example, the virtue of generosity does not always require giving everyone who asks for something what he wants.  It depends on circumstances.

Granted, the proponents of the “no such thing as virtue” theory do take a stab at it at the fourth problem.  As we saw, they argue that the differences in behavior which experimental subjects exhibit depend not just on circumstances, but on morally irrelevant circumstances, such as whether they are in a hurry.

To say this we have to overlook their admission that this particular circumstance may not have been morally irrelevant after all.  But even aside from that problem, let’s not be in a hurry to draw conclusions.

Consider that fellow in the alleyway.  Were the passing seminarians convinced that his distress was genuine, or did they wonder whether he was faking?  After all, some people do feign distress, whether for predatory or non-predatory reasons.  Besides, the fellow was faking, and it is unreasonable to assume that passersby wouldn’t sense something “off.”  It isn’t clear whether the post-experiment interviews investigated this possibility.

What kind of distress did the passersby think the fellow in the alleyway was in?  If he had fallen and banged his head, then he could probably be helped.  If he was drunk or desperate for a fix, then they probably didn’t have means to help him.  If he was agitated because he was high on PCP, it would be dangerous to try.  In many cities these days, authorities don’t even respond to 911 calls about people acting distressed.  Sometimes not responding is policy; sometimes they are just overworked.  Even people who want to be helpful can’t help everyone.  It would be impossible.  We have to make choices.

Did the passersby even notice the fellow?  Several of the seminarians obviously did – they stepped over him!  Most of them mentioned to the researchers that they wondered whether he may have needed help.  In many cases, though, it seems that this thought occurred to them only afterward, not at the time.  Being oblivious when hurrying is surely a flaw, but it is a different flaw than noticing and not giving a damn.

Not to let the passersby too easily off the hook, suppose we accept the judgments of no-such-thing-as-virtue thinkers concerning whether they did the moral thing.  This merely exposes a fifth problem:  Where are such thinkers getting these judgments?

This question is important because according to the classical view, every other virtue hinges on the virtue of practical wisdom, which involves judging well.  For example, I may have a perfect readiness to be generous – and such a disposition is nothing to take lightly – yet I may be a poor judge of who stands in need of my generosity.  Now plainly, the psychologists who say there is no such thing as virtue are confident in the stability of their own moral wisdom.  Otherwise, how could they presume to offer any judgments whatsoever about what is morally relevant or irrelevant?

But if their entire methodology is predicated upon their having the stable virtue of moral wisdom, then how can they conclude that there is no such thing as stable moral character?



John M. Darley and C. Daniel Batson, “From Jerusalem to Jericho: A study of Situational and Dispositional Variables in Helping Behavior.”  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 27:1 (1973), pp. 100-108.


Commentary on Thomas Aquinas’s Virtue Ethics