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Reason, Morality, and LawThe Philosophy of John Finnis$

John Keown and Robert P. George

Print publication date: 2013

Print ISBN-13: 9780199675500

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: May 2013

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199675500.001.0001

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John Finnis on Thomas Aquinas on Human Action

John Finnis on Thomas Aquinas on Human Action

(p.118) 8 John Finnis on Thomas Aquinas on Human Action
Reason, Morality, and Law

Kevin L. Flannery, SJ

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter argues that Finnis' understanding of the object of the human act and its bearing upon intention is not Aquinas'. Aquinas' assertion in ST 1-2.15.3 ad 3 that consent [consensus] might involve just one attractive option is incompatible with Finnis' thesis that it must include at least two. It is argued that in ST 1-2.13.4 Aquinas does not (as Finnis maintains) exclude instruments and set procedures as objects of choice. Moreover, in the first lectio of his commentary on the Nicomachean Ethics, Aquinas does not maintain that the order pertaining to crafts is ‘irreducibly distinct’ from the order pertaining to human acts. Finally, the chapter argues that Finnis' attempt to align Aquinas'understanding, as set out in a number of places, of the term obiectum with his own concept of a proposal is unsuccessful.

Keywords:   Aquinas, object, intention, proposal, choice, consent, human act, means, attractive option

After seven centuries of interpretation, a common—if not terribly profound—reaction to those who put forward theories as Thomistic is to say that the writings of Thomas Aquinas accept of various interpretations and to leave the matter there, suggesting thereby that one can simply take one’s pick: the various interpretations are all equally respectable. Neither John Finnis nor the present writer is party to this attitude. While acknowledging the possibility of a change of position over Aquinas’s relatively brief intellectual career, we both believe that it is usually possible to determine what he holds on a particular issue that interests him, especially (but not only) when it is a matter of studying a single work or works written within a few years of each other.

We both also realize that interpreting an author as rich and as precise as Aquinas is not only a difficult task but one that is chock full of occasions for error and self-deception. Although there are interpreters of Aquinas even in our own day who have achieved a familiarity with his way of thinking that greatly reduces the incidence of misinterpretation, the rest of us—and indeed even they—must acknowledge that returning to a text even after a few hours, perhaps in the meantime having read other texts or consulted other scholars, one often sees that previously one was putting upon an argument a construction not intended by the Angelic Doctor. Acknowledging in this way the possibility of misinterpretation is the very opposite of the thesis that various interpretations are equally respectable, for it is to acknowledge that there is a standard against which any interpretation can be measured and possibly rejected: the text in question, properly understood.

I do think that Finnis has misinterpreted Aquinas’s theory of human action and in particular his understanding of the object of the human act and its bearing upon the intention with which an agent acts. I offer, however, my criticism of Finnis’s interpretation as a friend and as a colleague in the continuing effort, by us and by others, to understand Aquinas correctly and to apply his ideas to contemporary problems. The contemporary importance of this common enterprise is apparent, given that the church has associated itself so closely with the thought of Thomas Aquinas, in particular with respect to the nature and structure of human action.

Most of the texts to be examined here are cited by Finnis in an essay originally entitled ‘Object and intention in moral judgments according to St. Thomas Aquinas’. In the second volume of Finnis’s Collected Essays (CEJF II.9), it is given the title ‘Intentions and objects’ and is one of seven essays making up that volume’s ‘Part Three: Acts and Intentions’. In the introduction to the volume, Finnis describes this (p.119) essay as ‘fundamental for almost everything else in this part’.1 It will serve, therefore, as a framework for the present essay, although use will be made also of other works by Finnis. I begin, therefore, with a quick summary of Finnis’s interpretation of Aquinas’s action theory, with a special emphasis on ‘Intentions and objects.’

I. A Summary of Finnis’s Theory

Finnis characterizes the approach he opposes as one in which intention is conceived of as ‘a distinct content of consciousness’ that one might direct toward or away from aspects of one’s chosen behaviour, thereby allowing one to adopt means usually considered immoral, on the grounds that one’s intention is good. As a corrective to this mistaken approach, Finnis says near the beginning of ‘Intentions and objects’ that he will focus on two ‘controlling elements’ in Aquinas’s theory:

(1) in choosing, one not only intends as one’s end some intelligible benefit, but also prefers one proposal offering such benefit to one or more alternative available proposals offering the same or some other intelligible benefit; (2) in choosing means (adopting one proposal for the sake of its intelligible benefit), one not only constitutes that means as the (proximate) end for any technique, procedure or performance one may use to do or carry out one’s choice, but also settles the end (the benefit) one intends.2

In order to understand these controlling elements, it is necessary to understand what Finnis means by two key terms. The first is ‘choice.’ Finnis states in the opening sentence of the essay that ‘Intention is of end, choice is of means.’ Bearing in mind that ‘intention’ refers to the proper act of the will, which is for the end, this statement corresponds, more or less, to what Aristotle says in Nicomachean Ethics 3.2.1111b26–27: ‘will is of the end, choice is of those things that are for the end’.3 One of Finnis’s points in (2) is that there is a mutual and interactive relationship between intention and choice, so that, even though it is true that choice is of the ‘means’, that choice is an act of the will not separate from the act of the will with respect to the end (the intention).

The second term is ‘proposal’. A proposal is closely associated with choice, for to choose is to adopt a proposal in preference to another (or others), as in controlling element (1).4 A proposal will not be involved in cases in which just one option is of any interest at all:

For example, a traveller spontaneously responding to nature’s call may follow signs towards a toilet. Common speech, attending to the fact that he is pursuing an intelligently guided causal process, will say he is acting intentionally (and ‘rationally’). But (p.120) his actions, insofar as they are spontaneous (rather than deliberately chosen by him for a reason, in preference to some rationally appealing alternative such as catching his plane), do not instantiate choice and intention in their focal senses and should not be confused with rationally motivated action; he is not acting for a reason…5

A proposal will also not include things that Finnis regards as ‘side effects’, such as wearing away the leather on one’s shoes as one walks to the store but also the killing of a baby whose skull is crushed by a doctor in an effort to save the life of its mother.6 The term ‘proposal’ is also primarily to be associated with the will rather than with the intellect, although Finnis does not deny that intellect (or reason) also plays an important role in a proposal.

In section I of ‘Intentions and objects’, Finnis considers ‘a schema of 12 terms signifying a sequence of psychological acts involved in willing and doing something’,7 which he calls the ‘neo-scholastic schema’.8 He takes particular issue with the ordering of certain stages in this schema, maintaining that it shows that these commentators did not appreciate the importance of choice in Aquinas’s action theory—choice, that is, among (or between) proposals.

In section II of ‘Intentions and objects’, Finnis discusses the nature of means, maintaining first of all that ‘choice is of human actions’ and so means (the objects of choice) are human actions. A consequence of this would be that ‘technical means’, including instruments and procedures that ‘could in principle be replicated by machines or other devices’, are not means ‘in the sense intended when we say that choice is of means’. This exclusion of technical means from the realm of human action is closely connected with Finnis’s concept of a proposal, such as would allow him to exclude from the same realm the procedure that kills the baby whose skull is crushed in the effort to save the life of its mother. But, as Finnis acknowledges, this thesis is also connected with his elaboration of remarks, found at the beginning of Aquinas’s commentary on the Nicomachean Ethics, about the four orders or types of science. He does not go into this matter at any length in ‘Intentions and objects’ but rather (or especially) in Aquinas.9

In the same section of ‘Intentions and objects,’ Finnis also argues—indeed, shows—that ‘to the extent that some prior activity empowers one to carry out [some] means, that means stands to that prior action as end stands to means’. This concept of ‘nested ends’, is bound up with controlling element (2), for it not only gives Finnis a basis for arguing that choice and intention are mutually dependent but also that the choice (or proposal) to adopt certain means ‘constitutes that means as the (proximate) end for any technique’. This in turn is bound up with the notion that technical means, qua technical means, are not within the realm of human action.

(p.121) In section III of ‘Intentions and objects’, Finnis takes up the thorny issue of the object, which, according to Aquinas, specifies the moral act. As part of his explanation of how he understands the object, Finnis introduces the standard distinction between the per se and the per accidens, associating the former (in the moral realm) with what is intended: ‘…for moral assessment and judgment, the act is what it is just as it is per se, that is, just as it is intended, under the description it has in the proposal which the agent adopts by choice…’ He also quotes a passage in which Aquinas says that an action receives its species from its per se object and ‘not from what is only incidentally [per accidens] its object’, which is praeter intentionem or ‘outside the intention’.10 The position defended in this section is, therefore, that the object that specifies the moral act is the proposal adopted by choice: anything excluded from the proposal is excluded also from the object and from the specification of the act.

II. The Neo-scholastic Schema

It will be useful to have the neo-scholastic 12-stage schema before us:11



Concerning the end

1. Simple understanding

2. Simple volition

3. Judgment: end is attainable

4. Intention

Concerning the means

5. Deliberation (consilium)

6. Consent (consensus)

7. Judgment on means (sententia/iudicium)

8. Choice (electio)

Executing the choice

9. Direction (imperium/praeceptum)

10. Application (usus)

11. Application of intelligence in executing choice

12. Enjoyment (fruitio)

As already indicated, Finnis’s central criticism of this schema is that it was used by certain neo-scholastics to eliminate true choice; they designed the schema, he says, ‘as if deliberation must conclude to only one acceptable means, that is, as if the role of choice were really played by practical reasoning and judgment’.12 This ‘defiance of Aquinas’s account’ they effected by placing judgment on means (iudicium) between consent (p.122) (consensus) and electio (choice). This does not mean, however, that Finnis would change this ordering. He says in a note that ‘I am not suggesting that iudicium should be removed from its place immediately “prior to” electio’.13 He then cites favourably the interpretation by Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange of a thesis approved in 1914 by the Vatican’s Congregatio Studiorum. The thesis concludes with the words: ‘choice…follows the last practical judgment, but that it is the last, this the will effects’.14 So, according to this interpretation, iudicium and electio interact with one another: a decision in favour of one possible means to the end has not already been made when an action arrives at stage 8 (electio).

Moreover, according to Finnis, for this joint activity of iudicium and electio to be the essential part of human action that it is, consensus (stage 6) must involve at least two options; otherwise there would be no choice.

Any deliberation which ends in choice must have yielded, not one judgment affirming the choiceworthiness of an option awaiting adoption by the will, but (at least) two judgments. (One of these judgments may be no more than: there is reason not to act on the other.) And there is need for choice because one responds to the attraction—the different attractions—of the respective alternative options which one judges to be, each in its own way, a suitable way of doing or getting or carrying on something one is interested in. Each of those options, those eligibilia, arouses in one that form of willingness which St Thomas calls consensus.15

Notable here is Finnis’s insistence not only that consensus presents more than one option but that each of these is attractive. A page later, Finnis will say that choice demands that matters not be settled at the stage of consensus. ‘There is a practical judgment or judgments affirming the suitability of an option or options eventually rejected. And there is an interest in (consensus to) an option or options which one does not adopt, make one’s own, act upon.’

There are a number of issues connected with what Finnis says about the neo-scholastic schema, but two merit at least some attention here. First of all, Finnis provides no evidence that any interpreter of Aquinas (neo-scholastic or otherwise) ever placed iudicium between consensus and electio for the reasons he gives. That is, he cites no such interpreter who defies the plain sense of the word electio—not to mention Aquinas’s statement to the contrary (see, for instance, ST 1–2.13.2c)—by maintaining that, when any action arrives at the stage of electio, matters have already been decided. In a note, Finnis does mention as setting out the schema three fairly recent authors, but none of them holds the position he describes.16

If an author claiming to be interpreting Aquinas were to deny that electio regards options, that would indeed be controversial and worthy of refutation; but it is rather (p.123) Finnis’s position that is controversial—the position, that is, that in human action there must always be plural options that are attractive, suitable, and practically interesting. This is the second issue that merits our attention. The third objection in ST 1–2.15.3 argues that consensus cannot be of that which is for the end since then consensus would be the same as electio and John of Damascus says that they are not.17 Aquinas’s answer is that sometimes and in a certain sense they are the same thing: ‘But if there is only one [thing leading to the end] that pleases, consensus and electio do not differ in reality but only in our way of looking at them, so that it is called consensus in as much as [the one thing] pleases with a view to action, but electio in as much as it is preferred to the things that do not please.’

It is true that here at the very end of his response, Aquinas appears to make a concession to the suggestion that the case of the one option involves a choice (that is, an electio, as at stage 8). But that which is called here both consensus and electio is essentially consensus and only derivatively electio. One readily accepts the idea that an electio involves consensus; one balks at the unqualified assertion that consensus necessarily involves electio—in the sense of a choice among desirable options—since the things that do not meet with consensus do not do so precisely because they do not please. A human act does not require such a choice; it can be simply seeing (being presented with) a thing to be pursued and consenting. Consent is a favourable assessment of—a sententia regarding—what is set before a person by judgment.18 If just one thing is set before the person, he can assess it favourably all the same. It would appear, then, that much more important than choice (in the sense of making a selection among options) is apprehending that one has been presented with an object and going toward it.19

ST 1–2.15.3 ad 3 is a problem for Finnis since he makes proposals so central to his theory and a proposal is an activity of choosing among options that are attractive, (p.124) suitable, and practically interesting. In the case of consensus under consideration, however, there is just one acceptable ‘thing leading to the end’. It is true that occasionally Finnis speaks in a way that, apart from a certain verbal inconsistency, might be considered unexceptionable. At one point, for instance, he says that the case in which one finds many things leading to the end is the ‘standard case’, that in which ‘only one possible course of action is attractive is perhaps rather rare’20; and at another point he speaks of a human act in which ‘one chooses (or perhaps spontaneously decides, by consensus without need for choice)’.21 But his willingness to speak in this way depends on his misinterpretation of ST 1–2.15.3 ad 3, that is, his position that even consent to one option involves a choice between attractive options.

III. The Nature of Means

As mentioned, Finnis goes on in section II of ‘Intentions and objects’ to discuss the nature of means to an end, developing the first clause of controlling element (2), according to which (as he says here) ‘in choosing means one constitutes that means as the (proximate) end for any technique, procedure, or performance used to do or carry out that choice’.22 One notices here that the means chosen would not be the technique (procedure or performance) itself; rather the means becomes (is ‘constituted’ as) the proximate end of the technique. This does not correspond to normal speech where it is perfectly legitimate to say, for instance, that ‘my means of extracting the organ will be the technique developed by my colleague here’; but Finnis bases his thesis on a remark in Aquinas.

In discussing intention and choice, Aquinas makes clear that the means referred to when we say that choice is of means are human actions: electio semper est humanorum actuum [ST 1-2.13.4]. Technical ‘means’, viz. implements, instruments, devices, systems and ‘procedures’ as such (that is, just insofar as they could in principle be replicated by machines or other devices), are not means in the sense intended when we say that choice is of means. Rather, technical means are means in a derivative, participative sense, insofar as they are used in the acting which is the (carrying out of) means properly so called.23

ST 1–2.13.4, however, does not support Finnis’s thesis. The question posed there is whether choice is ‘only of those things done by us’, or, as Aquinas puts it just before introducing objections, whether choice is ‘only with respect to human acts’ [solum respectu humanorum actuum]’. He begins his reply by saying that we must treat things chosen as we treat ends.

An end is either an action or some thing [res aliqua], and when some thing is the end it is necessary that some human action intervene, either in as much as a man brings about that thing [illam rem] which is the end, as when a doctor brings about health, which is his end (so that to bring about health is called the end of the doctor), or in as (p.125) much as a man in some way uses or enjoys the thing which is the end, as when the end for a miser is money, or the possession of money.

Notable here is that, in the second case considered (where the end is a thing [res]), the thing (the object) is not the human action; the human action rather ‘intervenes’. For this reason Aquinas says that ‘to bring about health is called the end of the doctor’; the argument itself, however, presumes that strictly speaking the end is res aliqua (for example, health). One also notes that the human action that intervenes is whatever the doctor does in order to bring the patient to health. This would certainly include technical means and procedures.

Aquinas goes on to apply these ideas to ‘that which is for the end’, saying again that this might be either an action ‘or some thing, provided some action intervenes through which the man brings about that which is for the end or uses it’. He adds then in conclusion: ‘And it is in this way, that choice is always of human acts’ [Et per hunc modum electio semper est humanorum actuum]. So, Aquinas’s assertion that ‘choice is always of human acts’ is a limited one: choice is of human acts in the sense that that which is for the end is always part of a human act. He does not, as Finnis would have it, exclude ‘implements, instruments, devices, systems and “procedures”’ as the objects of choice.

Aquinas’s basic approach comes, in fact, from Aristotle, who, in his Physics, speaks of objects as things or states of affairs but then qualifies this, saying that a full understanding of objects requires that we understand also the context within which they serve as objects.24 When an object is the object of a human act (such as are often used in Physics as examples of movements), that context includes knowledge of what one is doing and the intention one has when doing it.

IV. The Four Orders

This is an opportune moment to consider Aquinas’s treatment of the four orders, for it is at this point in ‘Intentions and objects’25 that Finnis refers us to that treatment. The four orders, Finnis tells us, are ‘irreducibly distinct’.26 But does Aquinas hold that they are distinct in quite the sense Finnis suggests? In the sense, that is, that would separate the fourth order (‘of things used or made’) from the third (‘of human acts precisely as chosen’)?27

Aquinas’s presentation of the four orders comes near the beginning of the first lectio of the first book of his commentary on the Nicomachean Ethics.28 Some 50 lines after his treatment of the four orders and in the same lectio, following his usual methodology, he identifies various divisions within the text to be commented upon.29 Regarding the piece that reads in full, ‘Since there are many actions, crafts, and teachings, there are also many ends—the end of the medical craft being health, that (p.126) of shipbuilding a ship, that of strategy victory, that of economics wealth’,30 Aquinas remarks that it has to do with the ‘relation of human acts to an end’ (habitudinem humanorum actuum ad finem).31 So, even before getting to the passage that most interests us, it is apparent that Aquinas regards crafts such as medicine and shipbuilding—which belong to the fourth order—as human acts.

A few lines later,32 he begins his comment upon the opening two lines of NE, where Aristotle writes: ‘Every craft and every teaching, and similarly [every] act and choice appears to desire some good.’33 Aquinas understands his task to be to explain the presence here of the four terms ‘craft’ [ars], ‘teaching’ [doctrina], ‘act’ [actus], and ‘choice’ [electio]. He does so in the following passage (which I have divided into four paragraphs for easier reference):

Regarding the first division [NE 1.1.1094a1-3], one ought to consider that the principles of human acts are two: intellect (or reason) and appetite, which are the moving principles, as is said in De anima 3 [10.433a9].

Considered in intellect or reason is the speculative and the practical; in rational appetite, choice and execution. All of these are ordered toward some good as towards an end, for the true is the end of speculation.

So, with respect to speculative intellect, [Aristotle] mentions teaching, by means of which knowledge is transmitted from teacher to student; but with respect to practical intellect, he mentions craft, which is right reckoning regarding things to be made, as is said in Nicomachean Ethics 6.34 With respect to the act of the appetitive intellect, he mentions choice; but with respect to execution, he mentions act.

He makes no mention of prudence, which, like craft, is in practical reason, for choice is directed properly through prudence. He says, therefore, that each of these clearly desires some good as an end.35

In the first paragraph, Aquinas says that human acts are human acts in so far as they depend upon two principles, intellect (or reason) and appetite. He refers to De anima 3.10, where, as he is well aware, Aristotle indicates that will is an appetite, that is, a rational appetite. One notes that both principles—including intellect—are described as ‘moving principles’. Eventually the first two of the four terms—‘craft’ and ‘teaching’—will be assigned to intellect; the other two—‘act’ and ‘choice’—to rational appetite. All of them, however, even within the practical realm, fall under intellect, which ‘picks up’ the end (or ends) for the human person who acts. As Aristotle says in De anima 3.10 (433a17–23), the thing desired, the appetibile, moves the intellect, which is bound up with appetite. The moving principles are moving principles only in so far as they encounter things desired.

(p.127) In the second paragraph, Aquinas divides each of the two moving principles into two, immediately associating the second pair with the third and fourth terms: action and choice. That is, intellect is divided into speculative and practical, while rational appetite is divided into ‘choice’ and ‘execution.’ (In paragraph three, he will identify ‘execution’ as ‘act’.) But although Aquinas puts ‘choice’ and ‘execution’ under appetite, he also points to their connection with intellect: ‘All of these’, he says—that is, reason, both speculative and practical, choice and execution—‘are ordered toward some good as towards an end, for the true is the end of speculation’. The appetibile moves the intellect as a good.

In the third paragraph, Aquinas turns his attention more directly to intellect and its two divisions, associating the first two terms (teaching and craft) with the speculative and the practical, respectively. But again nothing is ever wholly withdrawn from the influence of any principle. The term ‘teaching’ is referred to speculative intellect, although even this involves human action: ‘knowledge is transmitted from teacher to student’. ‘Craft’ is referred to practical intellect, which is, certainly, less speculative than teaching but is still described by Aquinas as ‘right reckoning’ (‘recta ratio’). ‘Choice’ is referred to the act of rational appetite, which he calls here—not by accident—appetitive intellect, while ‘act’ is identified as the act’s execution.36 Since this falls under ‘appetitive intellect’ (or rational appetite), it too has a ‘speculative’ aspect—which is to say no more than that it too ‘desires’ some good as an end.

Aquinas does not offer an explanation of why Aristotle does not mention prudence (phronēsis); he says only that it directs choice, in the manner of a craft.37 This too, however, amounts to a combining of the speculative and the practical, the intellective and the appetitive. Prudence is an intellectual virtue,38 but it is said here to be like a craft. And prudence directs choice, which has previously been put under rational appetite.

Although none of this contradicts the idea that the four orders are distinct—what it is to be a human act is distinct from what it is to be, for instance, a technical process—the quoted passage is difficult to reconcile with any suggestion that the four orders, and in particular the third and the fourth, are ‘irreducibly distinct’, as Finnis maintains.39 Not only does Aquinas say that ‘actions, crafts, and teachings’40 all belong to the category of human acts, but he also expends considerable ingenuity in order to connect not only teaching, act, and choice, but also craft to the moving principles of human action.

(p.128) V. The Nature of Objects

As we have seen, in controlling element (2) Finnis maintains that between the choice of means, which is the adoption of a proposal for the sake of an intelligible benefit, and the end (the benefit one intends) the relationship is very close. A consequence of this is that, in the analysis of particular human acts, only that which is within this relational area—this line of intelligibility between the end and the means and back again—has an immediate bearing upon the moral character of the act, although other factors can affect this character as circumstances. Or, in other (more technical) words, only that which is intended per se (either as a means or an end) contributes to the act’s species; everything else is per accidens or (equivalently) praeter intentionem (beside the intention).41

This thesis has an immediate bearing upon how Finnis conceives of the object, which Aquinas says gives an act its species. Whereas Aquinas, adhering to the theory set out in De an. 3.10, understands the object as something presented to the intellect (which is inseparable from rational appetite) as an appetibile (or desirable thing),42 Finnis understands it as a proposal: as something coming from the agent.

A place in which one can see Finnis reading Aquinas in this way appears in the essay found now just before ‘Intentions and objects’ in the Collected Essays (CEJF II.8). There he writes, ‘To choose is essentially to adopt a plan or proposal which one has devised and put to oneself in one’s practical reasoning and deliberation on the merits of alternative options, i.e. plans or proposals’.43 In a note appended at this point, Finnis cites two texts in support of this thesis, the first of which mentions the object and employs the word propono. The note now reads as follows (the words in square brackets being found only in the Collected Essays version):

Objectum voluntatis est id quod proponitur a ratione [‘one’s will’s object is what is proposed’, reasonably or unreasonably, rightly or wrongly ‘by one’s reason’]: ST 1–2.19.5c; actus dicuntur humani, inquantum procedunt a voluntate deliberata: ST 1–2.1.3c.44 [proponitur = is proposed; propositum = that which has been proposed—a proposal.]45

All of the bracketed material pertains to the first text (1–2.19.5c) rather than the second (1–2.1.3c). Translating Objectum…ratione as ‘one’s will’s object is what is proposed by one’s reason’ is fair enough, although speaking of ‘one’s reason’ makes it sound as if one is making the proposal to oneself by means of one’s reason. And indeed this is what comes out in the second bracketed remark (or equation): ‘proponitur = is proposed; propositum = that which has been proposed—a proposal’. This begins well enough with (p.129) something proposed (and received passively) but finishes with a proposal (something ‘which one has devised and put to oneself’46). There is nothing in the cited passages that would support this shift from propositum to proposal.

One encounters a similar reading in a note in ‘Intentions and objects’. In the note, Finnis is considering Aquinas’s criticism of how presumably Peter Lombard would analyse an act of forging a document (a testament) in order to have money to give to the poor. The question asked in the pertinent article is, ‘Whether an action is to be judged good or bad simply by looking to the will.’ Finnis writes:

Such acts, says Aquinas, are wrongful by reason of the acting person’s will. There need be nothing wrong with his intentio or voluntas intendens, his ultimate motivating purpose (finis ultimus), e.g. to give money to the poor. What is wrongful is, rather, his choice, his electio or voluntas eligens, his immediate purpose (obiectus proximus or finis proximus) e.g. to forge this testament: Sent.

Most of the Latin terms employed in this note come from Aquinas’s answer to the article’s third objection, which puts forward a position that looks only to the object—the word used is obiectum—of the intending will [voluntas intendens]. Aquinas replies:

With respect to the third objection, it must be said that the goodness of something requires not only the goodness of the final end towards which the intending will [voluntas intendens] looks but also the goodness of the proximate end [finis proximi] towards which the choosing will [voluntas eligens] looks; and so, it does not follow that the goodness of the intending will suffices for the goodness of the act [Sent. ad 3].

At variance with what Finnis says in his note, Aquinas is not saying that what makes the difference ‘is, rather, [the agent’s] choice, his electio or voluntas eligens, his immediate purpose (obiectus proximus or finis proximus)’. Aquinas is speaking here about just one act of the will, under two aspects: as (1) intending and therefore bearing upon the ultimate end and as (2) choosing and therefore bearing upon what he usually calls simply the objectum but here calls the obiectum proximum, ‘which is ordered toward the ultimate end’.48 What makes the act of the will wrong is this obiectum proximum, the finis proximus.49 The expression employed by Finnis, obiectus proximus, which might indeed be translated ‘immediate purpose’ (or even ‘immediate proposal’) never appears in Sent. In fact, the word obiectus (the fourth declension noun), as opposed to obiectum (the passive participle of obicio) never (p.130) appears in Aquinas’s works.50 The finis proximus is certainly not an obiectus proximus. Finnis discusses the same article from the Sentences commentary elsewhere, and in both places he speaks not of an obiectus proximus but of the obiectum proximum; the fact, however, that in ‘Intentions and objects’ he uses the expression obiectus proximus is revealing.51 Finnis does understand the object of the external act (the finis proximus of the act) to be a proposal, an obiectus; Aquinas would never have said such a thing.

At one point Finnis cites the one article that (probably) most goes against his theory—ST 1–2.20.1, in which it is asked whether the goodness or badness of an action is present first in the act of the will or rather in the exterior act—but again he misinterprets it. In the course of an argument to the effect that ‘acts are morally significant and are morally assessed in terms of their type, their intrinsic character, just insofar as they are willed’52, Finnis quotes a piece of ST 1–2.20.1 ad 1, as follows: ‘The exterior act is the object of the will, in as much as it is proposed to the will by reason as some good apprehended and ordered by reason, and thus is prior to the act of the will’.53 This quotation itself would seem to go against his thesis (for the first emphasized portion says that a good is proposed to the will), but Finnis understands it as limiting the sense in which the good of the exterior act is prior to the act of the will: that is the reason for the emphasized ‘thus’ (which translates sic).

It is true that the article does limit the sense in which ‘goodness or badness is present in the exterior act prior to its presence in the act of the will’ (as the objections of ST 1–2.20.1 go on to argue), but it does not do this in any sense that helps Finnis. In order to understand why, it is necessary first of all to know that Finnis has left a crucial word out of the above quotation: the last section should read, ‘and thus [the exterior act] is prior to the good of the act of the will’ (my emphasis).54 Not only does Aquinas hold that some good thing serves as the object of the exterior act, but there is also a good presented to the will (the intending will) as its object.

Aquinas’s argument in the body of the article is that, if one attends to the goodness of the exterior act as it presented to the will, that is, as its object, that goodness is prior to the good pertaining to the act of the will. But if one attends to the same not as an object but as a deed to be performed, the goodness of the exterior act ‘follows the goodness of will, which is its principle’. Or, as he says in ST 1–2.20.1 ad 1 (now quoted in full):

The exterior act is the object of the will, in as much as it is proposed to the will by reason as some good apprehended and ordered by reason, and thus is prior to the good of the act of the will. In as much, however, as this is present in the performance of the deed, it is an effect of the will and follows the will.

(p.131) The thing to note here is that in both cases—the good of the exterior act and the good of the interior act of the will—these object (or goods) are presented to the agent. Aquinas states this explicitly in the case of the exterior act: ‘the goodness or badness which, as itself, the exterior act has on account of the appropriate matter and appropriate circumstances, is not derived from the will but rather from reason’.55 But it is apparent also, from Aquinas’s frequent use of De anima 3.10, that he recognizes that the principle or starting point of the will is distinct from the will itself. Aristotle says there, ‘Every appetite is for something, since that for which it is an appetite, this is the starting point of practical reasoning.’56 Commenting upon this remark, Aquinas says: ‘It is apparent that every appetite is for something, for it is nonsense to say that someone desires for the sake of desiring, since desiring is a certain motion tending towards another thing.’57

VI. Conclusion

I conclude, therefore, that Finnis’s interpretation of Thomas Aquinas’s theory of human action is incorrect. Among other things, it does not square with what Aquinas says about the nature of consensus in the case in which the latter consists of the favourable assessment of a single option. It misinterprets Aquinas’s remarks in Summa theologiae 1–2.13.4 about the connection between human acts and their objects. It puts a construction upon Aquinas’s remarks about the ‘four orders’ in his commentary on the Nicomachean Ethics that is incompatible with remarks coming a few lines later in the same commentary. It finds a particular understanding of the moral object (as proposal) in Aquinas’s commentary on Peter Lombard’s Sentences, that is, in Sent. ad 3, a passage that will not bear this reading. And, finally, it misinterprets Summa theologiae 1–2.20.1 in a way that overlooks Aquinas’s position that the object of an act is not the agent’s own proposal but is presented rather to the agent by way of his own intellect.58


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(1) CEJF II Introduction 14.

(2) CEJF II.9, 153. Emphases in all quotations are in the original, unless otherwise indicated.

(3) ST 1–2.13.4c. At 13.3 sed contra, Aquinas attributes the quotation to Aristotle. Some contemporary scholars will object to translating Aristotle’s boulēsis as ‘will’, but the English translation offered here is of the Latin that Aquinas was reading: voluntas est finis, electio autem eorum quae sunt ad finem. When speaking of choice, Aquinas does not speak of means (modus or modi) but uses the much more open-ended Aristotelian expression, ‘things that are for the end’.

(4) CEJF II.11, 198–9.

(5) CEJF II.10, 179; at this point, Finnis refers to the ‘strict sense’ of ‘acting for a reason’, set out later in the concluding section of the same essay.

(6) CEJF II.13, 255.

(7) CEJF II.9, 152.

(8) The schema is presented below.

(9) In the index of Aquinas, see the long list of references under the entry ‘four types of order/science/theory’. Below, I consider the four orders, as they are presented in Aquinas.

(10) ST 2–2.59.2c. The quoted passages are from Finnis’s translation (CEJF II.9, 162).

(11) This schema is found in CEJF II.9, 154. A similar but more articulated schema is found in Aquinas, 71.

(12) CEJF II.9, 156.

(13) CEJF II.9, 155, n. 7.

(14) Sequitur…electio iudicium practicum ultimum; at quod sit ultimum, voluntas efficit (AAS 6 (1914) 386). The emphasis is in my translation, although the syntax of the Latin seems to call for it. Garrigou-Lagrange discusses this thesis in Garrigou-Lagrange (1951), 253–4.

(15) CEJF II.9, 155.

(16) The three authors are Servais Pinckaers, Thomas Gilby, and Tito Centi (CEJF II.9, 154, n. 5). For Pinckaers, see Pinckaers and Gardeil, Saint Thomas d’Aquin, Somme théologique, 423. For Gilby, see Gilby, St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae, 216. For Centi, see Centi, S. Tommaso d’Aquino, La somma teologica, 172. Finnis acknowledges that Centi has ‘reservations’ regarding the schema.

(17) The passage in John of Damascus—which in fact determines a number of the ‘stages’ in Aquinas’s analysis of the human act—reads as follows: ‘“Counsel [consilium] is an enquiring appetite coming about with regard to those things that are up to us” [Maximus Confessor, Patrologia graeca 91.16B]. One counsels whether one ought to go through with something or no. Then one judges what is best, and this is called judgment [iudicium]; then one becomes disposed toward [disponit] and greets with affection [amat] that which was judged by counsel, and this is called positive assessment [sententia]. For if one judges but is not disposed toward that which is judged, that is, if one does not greet it with affection, it is not called positive assessment [sententia]. Then, after the disposition, there is choice [electio]; “choice”, however, is to choose with respect to two things set before one [praeiacentibus] and to opt for this one rather than the other.’ The Latin can be found in Buytaert, Saint John Damascene, De fide orthodoxa, Ch. 36, lines 91–8; the corresponding Greek can be found in the work entitled Expositio fidei in v.2 of Kotter, Die Schriften des Johannes von Damaskos, Ch. 36, lines 75–82. The word consensus does not appear in this passage, but ‘becoming disposed toward’ and ‘greeting with affection’ together constitute the equivalent. The Greek word corresponding to the Latin amat is agapai (from agapaō). (The first definition for agapaō given by the Liddell-Scott-Jones Greek-English Lexicon is ‘greet with affection’.) The Greek word corresponding to the Latin praeiacentibus is prokeimenōn (from prokeimai). Below we shall see the importance of this latter concept.

(18) See note 17.

(19) That the will is free even in such instances is stated at ST 1.82.1c: ‘Necessity, however, with respect to the end is not repugnant to the will, when it is not possible to arrive at the end except in one way: for instance, from the will to cross the sea there comes about in the will the necessity of willing a ship.’ Also important here is the concept of particular (as opposed to universal) judgments and the distinction between liberty of exercise and liberty of specification—on which topics see Aquinas’s Quaestiones disputatae de malo 6, passim.

(20) CEJF II.9, 156, n. 13.

(21) CEJF II.9, 157.

(22) CEJF II.9, 159.

(23) CEJF II.9, 159.

(24) Aristotle, Physics 5.1.224b7–8, but then 5.4.227b14–29. On these matters, see Flannery, Action and Character According to Aristotle, Chs 2 and 4.

(25) CEJF II.9, 159, n. 24.

(26) Aquinas, 21.

(27) CEJF II.9, 159, n. 24.

(28) In Eth. 1.1.

(29) Aristotle, NE 1.1.1094a1–18.

(30) Aristotle, NE 1.1.1094a6–9.

(31) In Eth. 1.1.118–119.

(32) In Eth. 1.1.128.

(33) Aristotle, NE 1.1.1094a1–2. The Latin Aquinas was reading would be: Omnis ars et omnis doctrina, similiter autem et actus et electio bonum quoddam appetere videtur. Since, when interpreting Aristotle, Aquinas is always dealing with a Latin, and not a Greek, text, I will not be giving Greek equivalents for the terms that Aquinas employs.

(34) The Leonine edition cites Aristotle, NE 6.3.1140a6–10, noting, however, that even there this precise idea is not to be found.

(35) In Eth. 1.1 ll.128–147.

(36) On ‘execution’, see, for instance, ST 1–2.15.2 ad 2; 16.1 obi.2; 16.4 obi.1.

(37) Summa contra gentiles 3.78.5 (§2539). On prudence as directive, see CEJF I.11; see also Irwin, The Development of Ethics, 582. See also Aristotle, NE 6.10.1143a8–10, Eudemian Ethics 8.3.1249b14–15. Gauthier points also to Magna Moralia 1.34.1197a13–15, b22–24. Given Aristotle’s various remarks, the author of that work, says Gauthier, was right to conclude that prudence directs ‘decisions’ (prohaireseis) (Gauthier, ‘Saint Maxime le Confesseur et la psychologie de l’acte humain’, 62, 85–8, especially n. 127).

(38) Aristotle, NE 6.3.1139b15–17.

(39) Aquinas, 21. In note 5, Finnis cites a number of texts where Aquinas discusses the term (diversus) which he (Finnis) understands as meaning ‘distinct’. ‘Diverse’, says Finnis, ‘means the very opposite of “same”, in as many senses as there are of ‘same’…and is appropriately used of things which differ from each other essentially…and/or in their way of originating…’

(40) Aristotle, NE 1.1.1094a6–7.

(41) Finnis acknowledges that Aquinas says that circumstances which are praeter intentionem can specify acts (ST 1–2.18.4, 10), but he sees this as ‘a source of confusion’ (CEJF II.9, 164, n. 43; also 168, n. 49).

(42) We encountered the same Aristotelian concept in the passage from De fide orthodoxa examined above, where John of Damascus speaks of choosing between things ‘set before one’ [praeiacentibus]. See note 17.

(43) CEJF II.8, 142–3.

(44) ‘Acts are called human in as much as they proceed from the will.’ The passage continues: ‘But the object of the will is a good or an end’ (ST 1–2.1.3c).

(45) CEJF II.8, 143, n. 14.

(46) CEJF II.8, 142.

(47) The reference that Finnis actually gives is ‘Sent. II d.40 q.2’ (CEJF II.9, 165, n. 44). In fact, there is no q.2 in Sent. II d.40, which contains only one question. Finnis ought to have followed the method of citation he employs in the subsequent note, where he refers to ‘Sent. II d.40 q.1 a.1c’.

(48) Sent.; see also ST 1–2.20.3c: ‘…the interior act of the will and the exterior act, as they are considered within the realm of the moral, are one act’.

(49) In ST 1–2.20.2c, Aquinas says that the goodness or badness of the exterior act can come either from its ordering toward the will (as when even an act of giving alms is bad because it is done for vainglory) or from the appropriate (or inappropriate) matter or the circumstances of the exterior act (as when an act of altruism is bad because it involves stealing from someone in order to give to another in need). In cases such as the latter, says Aquinas, the goodness or badness ‘depends upon reason—and it is upon this [that is, reason] that the goodness [or badness] of the will depends, in so far as it [the will] looks toward it’.

(50) The word does appear in one work—De demonstratione—sometimes included in the corpus but which is of dubious authenticity. The signification of the word is entirely different, however: Omne corpus naturale illuminatum a sole, privatum luce a terrae obiectu, deficit (Spiazzi, S. Thomae Aquinatis, Opuscula philosophica, §630).

(51) Finnis discusses Sent. in the essay now entitled ‘“Direct” and “indirect” in action’ (CEJF II.13), in Aquinas, 165–6, and in MA, 65–7.

(52) CEJF II.9, 165.

(53) CEJF II.9, 166 n. 46.

(54) In CEJF II.9, 166, n. 46, Finnis quotes the Latin, but as follows (including his emphases): actus exterior est obiectum voluntatis, inquantum proponitur voluntati a ratione ut quoddam bonum apprehensum et ordinatum per rationem: et sic est prius quam actus voluntatis. The last phrase should be et sic est prius quam bonum actus voluntatis [my emphasis].

(55) ST 1–2.20.1c, my emphasis. The words ‘on account of the appropriate matter and appropriate circumstances’ translate propter debitam materiam et debitas circumstantias, which remark refers to the two ways in which the object of the external act might be bad: ST 1–2.18.2, 3, and 5. See Aquinas, Quaestiones disputatae de malo 2.3c.

(56) De an. 3.10.433a15–16: Et appetitus propter aliquid omnis est; cuius enim appetitus, hoc principium practici intellectus…Key places where Thomas cites De an. 3.10 would include: ST 1.19.2, 1.80.2, 1–2.26.2; Aquinas, Quaestiones disputatae de veritate 25.1; Aquinas, Quaestiones disputatae de malo 6.

(57) Et manifestum est, quod omnis appetitus est propter aliquid (stultum enim est dicere, quod aliquis appetat propter appetere, nam appetere est quidam motus in aliud tendens) (in De an. 3.9.50–53).

(58) For their help with this essay, I thank Fr. Stephen Brock and John O’Callaghan. I also thank John Finnis for sending me to the text of Thomas Aquinas—not for the first time—with some fascinating and important questions.