Issue 38 (December 2013)
Reasoning about Nature in Virtue, Action and Law: The Path from Principles to Practice
Eileen C. Sweeney
Professor of Philosophy
Chestnut Hill, MA 02467
Eileen C. Sweeney is Professor of Philosophy at Boston College. She is the author of Logic, Theology and Poetry in Boethius, Abelard, and Alan of Lille: Words in the Absence of Things (2006) and Anselm of Canterbury and the Desire for the Word (2012) and numerous articles on Thomas Aquinas and other Medieval thinkers. She is presently working on several topics -- the development in the notion of science from the 12th to the 13th century, the history of the theory of the passions from the Middle Ages to Kant, and the notion of ‘nature’ in the work of Thomas Aquinas.
Eileen C. Sweeney, Reasoning about Nature in Virtue, Action and Law: The Path from Principles to Practice, Diametros 38 (December 2013)
This paper argues that the role of nature in Aquinas’s account of virtue, action and law does not require the kind of adherence to Aristotle’s ‘metaphysical biology’ that is refuted by Darwin because of the way Aquinas transforms nature as applied to a rational being and as an analogy to elucidate virtue, habit and law. Aquinas’s grounding of ethics and law in the notion of nature is also not a kind of intuitionism designed to answer all moral questions and stop all ethical debates but a model which gives principles; these principles in turn are not that from which all conclusions can be derived with universality and certainty but are principles which are the topic of reasoned and ongoing debate about their interpretation and application in particular laws or practices. The paper then examines Aquinas’s application of the principles of natural law to evaluate human law as an example of this reasoned debate, which is both subject to error and correction, showing how Aquinas’s notion of nature can work in practical applied ethics.
Key words: Thomas Aquinas, virtue, nature, principles of natural law.