Since Thomas Aquinas defines virtue as a quality or habit of the soul, the person that is virtuous must be habituated rightly. Thomas reasons this way because he understands ethics as something natural to human nature. Human nature comes endowed with certain powers. These powers act toward objects. Here’s a diagram for clarity.
nature > powers > actions > objects
Now habits perfect the powers belonging to human nature. The intellect is rightly formed by the virtue of prudence. The virtue is rightly formed by the habit of justice. The irascible passions are rightly formed by the virtue of fortitude, and the concupiscible passions are rightly formed by the virtue of temperance. A good person is not merely one who does a good deed— he is one who is practiced in good deeds.
Ethics is thus a learned and applied life of virtue. Nowadays, college freshmen are typically exposed to situational ethics in introductory philosophy courses. They are usually given difficult, even impossible, moral dilemmas and then asked to solve them. For example:
An out of control train containing one thousand adults is heading toward a cliff. Yet the train track leading to the cliff forks. However, at the opposite fork there are one hundred infants tied to the tracks. You stand at the fork with a lever. If you leave the lever in the original position, the runaway train will fly over the cliff and the one thousand adults will die. If you move the lever to the opposition position, you will divert the runaway train away from the cliff, but this will lead to the train running over the one hundred innocent infants. What do you do?
These kinds of “philosophical experiments” are misguided and juvenile. Their ultimate aim is to lead students into a form of utilitarianism— choosing the most useful option— or into a form of consequentialism— choosing the option with best-foreseen outcome. Both schools are very dangerous.
The fact of the matter is that human persons are rarely presented with an extreme moral dilemma like the one depicted above concerning the runaway train. The moral life is one of small everyday decisionsthat add up over time to big decisions. According to Thomas Aquinas, virtuous people are the only ones who can rightly make the big moral decisions of life, because only virtue allows someone to perceive and act according to virtue. This is because every moral act involves up to hundreds of bits of information and several different options— not merely two. These decisions also require experience.
If Thomas Aquinas were teaching a class full of college freshman, he would not present them with a simplistic runaway train dilemma with two limited decisions. Rather, he would likely state the following:
Listen, as you grow older you will be faced with many difficult challenges in life. You will be required to make difficult moral decisions. How will you know what to do? You begin now by making small right decisions every single day. It’s like lifting weights. Do not worry yourself with the question: “Will I be strong enough to bench press a five-hundred-pound telephone poll to free a pinned child?” Instead, begin by bench pressing 135 lbs. three times a week to build your strength for anything that might happen. Do not ask yourself, “How will I win the Olympic gold medal in the mile?” Instead, begin running every day. Then you will come closer to attaining it. This is the moral life. Begin by doing small things well. Actively form your conscience. Seek the truth. Do not darken your intellect. Submit your passions to right reason. Do this every day, 365 days per year. If you fail, keep trying. Forty years from now, if you are a general of an army in a tough spot, then and only then will you know what to do and when to do it. But the ability to make that right decision begins with the ability to make small right decisions.
This is virtue ethics. How do you keep your temper from flaring up? You begin by doing things you do not like to do so as to learn patience. How to you become prudent? Start by making a prudent decision— do not sleep in and skip class. Get up and get dressed. Start exercising. Do you want to become just? Do not ever lie. Say “thank you” to your waiter. Open the doors for people. Soon you will become habituated to performing good deeds. Over years, you will become virtuous and see more clearly than others. These virtues will have strengthened your natural human faculties.
The virtues are as old as Aristotle. However, Thomas Aquinas integrated the cardinal virtues and the theological virtues by applying his maxim “grace perfects nature.” The four cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance are perfected by the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity. In the Summa theologiae, Thomas begins with the three theological virtues and then descends to the four cardinal virtues. This ordering and integration amplifies the reality of grace perfecting nature. That which is supernatural provides fulfillment for that which is natural.
By Taylor Marshall, Thomas Aquinas in 50 Pages: A Layman’s Quick Guide to Thomism.