Monday, May 22, 2006

Aquinas and Kant on Law

OK, this paper is pretty horrible. I'm posting it here as an act of humility. This time, I include Dr. Seaton's corrections in brackets. Here goes nothing... St. Thomas Aquinas and Kant on Law

Ralph McInerny, in his Introduction to St. Thomas Aquinas’ Treatise on Law, states that what makes the treatise seem foreign to a modern reader is “Thomas’s understanding of what the human agent is and how we can know what is good for him.”[1] Thus, we can infer that the modern reader has been formed by an understanding of the human agent, and his ability to know the good, that is contrary to Aquinas’ understanding. Few things have formed our misunderstanding more than modern philosophy qua modern science. A key figure in this formation is Immanuel Kant. Here, prompted by McInerny, we will take a brief look at Kant’s thought on law and then bring it into the light of Aquinas so we that can gain a correct understanding.

McInerny states, following the above, that “The human agent for Thomas is not an isolated, unencumbered individual whose task it is to define what he is and decide what will be fulfilling of him.”[2] Does Kant indeed provide such a view of the human agent? [DR. SEATON: No, but he's one of the sources of this view.] How exactly would Aquinas respond? Let us first look at how each would define law and then we will be able to answer these questions.

The classical definition of law is given by St. Thomas Aquinas in the Summa Theologiae: “it is nothing else than an ordinance of reason for the common good, made by him who has care of the community, and promulgated.”[3] But, its location in the Summa gives it meaning as well. McInerny points out that Aquinas’ discussion of law is part of a larger discussion of morality in the first part of the second part of the Summa (the Prima Secundæ Partis). In particular, its own nineteen articles are located after a nineteen-article treatment of Vice and Sin and before a six-article treatment of Grace. We will see that Kant eschews any similar contextual meaning of law in his definition.

It would be suffice to turn now to Kant’s famous “categorical imperative” for his understanding of law. In Foundation of the Metaphysics of Morals,[4] he states that in moral law one must “Act so that the maxim [determining motive of the will] may be capable of becoming a universal law for all rational beings.” And of the will, it must be stressed, he says: “Nothing in the world – indeed nothing even beyond the world – can possibly be conceived which could be called good without qualification except a Good Will.” This statement, the first sentence of the Foundation, could alone expel any moral context as understood in Christian philosophy.[5] But more must be said to this effect.

Kant also says that the good will is “good not because of what it effects or accomplishes [non telos], nor because of its fitness to attain some proposed end; it is good only through its willing, i.e., it is good in itself.” Furthermore, it is “to be esteemed very much higher than… even the sum total of all inclinations.”[6] Also in his moral framework we see “the ground of obligation here must not be sought in the nature of man or in the circumstances in which he is placed but a priori solely in the concepts of pure reason.”[7] Finally, “the only object of respect is law, and indeed only the law which we impose on ourselves and yet recognize as necessary in itself.”[8]

Because law is self-imposed – not just for the actor but necessarily for all “rational beings” – and because this law demands respect, Kant concludes that we must always act in a way that “uses humanity” as an end, and never as a means:
Hence Kant infers, first, that the will of every rational being, by commanding respect for humanity as an end in itself, lays down a universal law, and is therefore a law unto himself, autonomous, and subject to no external lawgiver; secondly, that morality consists in obedience to the law of our own reason, and immorality, on the contrary, in heteronomy, that is obedience to any, even Divine, authority distinct from our own reason, or in action from any other motive than respect for our reason as law.[9]
Now we can safely answer that Kant establishes the view of the human agent that McInerny has in mind. [DR. SEATON: not exactly, not really, not yet!] Let us look now at Aquinas’ correction.

First of all, man is not an end in himself:

Now it is impossible for the very act elicited by the will to be the last end. For the object of the will is the end, just as the object of sight is color: wherefore just as the first visible cannot be the act of seeing, because every act of seeing is directed to a visible object; so the first appetible, i.e. the end, cannot be the very act of willing. Consequently it follows that if a human action be the last end, it must be an action commanded by the will: so that there, some action of man, at least the act of willing, is for the end. Therefore whatever a man does, it is true to say that man acts for an end, even when he does that action in which the last end consists.[10] [DR. SEATON: In Aquinas' view, man is an end in himself: read the "Preface" to the 2nd Part of the Summa. Being an "end in itself" doesn't necessarily mean: subject to no other end; it means: independent or free]
As to man’s end, we remember Kant’s statement that the will is “to be esteemed very much higher than… even the sum total of all inclinations.” He later identifies the “sum of satisfaction of all inclinations” as “happiness.”[11] Here Kant stresses that man’s end is certainly not happiness. And, the quality of universality and necessity that we saw before “shows at once that the moral law has no foundation in pleasure, happiness, the perfection of self, or a so-called moral sense. It is its own foundation.”[12] Again (and also in the Prima Secundæ Partis), Aquinas argues otherwise:

Happiness can be considered in two ways. First according to the general notion of happiness: and thus, of necessity, every man desires happiness. For the general notion of happiness consists in the perfect good, as stated above (3,4). But since good is the object of the will, the perfect good of a man is that which entirely satisfies his will. Consequently to desire happiness is nothing else than to desire that one's will be satisfied. And this everyone desires.[13] [DR. SEATON: Kant agrees with this, he says it's a natural necessity for man to desire happiness]
Aquinas rightly identifies happiness with God: “Final and perfect happiness can consist in nothing else than the vision of the Divine Essence”.[14] Also, on the effects of law, from his treatise on the same, Aquinas states: “it is evident that the proper effect of law is to lead its subjects to their proper virtue: and since virtue is that which makes its subject good, it follows that the proper effect of law is to make those to whom it is given, good.”[15] Finally, we know that man is not the source of moral law; rather, he receives it through natural law (his participation as a rational human being in God’s eternal law): “Consequently every human law has just so much of the nature of law, as it is derived from the law of nature”[16]

Now, since Kant claims that the only respectable law is that which we impose on ourselves, he ignores any authority that would impose laws on us from without. The result would be the “destruction of all religion, which in its essence rests upon the subjection of the creator to His Creator.”[17] But, Aquinas argues in his treatment of Human Law that such law binds a man precisely because it comes from without, from God’s Eternal Law: “Laws framed by man are either just or unjust. If they be just, they have the power of binding in conscience, from the eternal law whence they are derived, according to Prov. Viii. 15: By Me kings reign, and lawgivers decree just things.”[18] Furthermore, “In order that a human law may be obligatory upon us we must have in ourselves from the beginning the conviction that we are to do good and avoid evil… we receive this conviction... From God, our Creator”[19]

Kant’s supporters praise his work, claiming that he

firmly establishes the reign of reason; elevates the dignity of man by subjecting in him sensibility to reason and making rational nature free, supreme, and independent; overcomes egoism by forbidding action from self-interest; and upholds morality by the highest authority.[20]

But, from our points above, we know that he was in error from the beginning – “he made a false start when he assumed in his criticism of speculative reason that whatever is universal and necessary in our knowledge must come from the mind itself, and not from the world of reality outside us.”[21]

[1] Part of the Summa Theologiae, Prima Secundæ Partis, Questions 90-108. Also, Treatise on Law: With a New Introduction by Ralph McInerny, University of Notre Dame, ©2001 (covers Questions 90-97). Hereafter referred to as “Treatise.” Here, Treatise, p. xvii
[2] Ibid.
[3] I-II.90.4 resp.
[4] Translated, with an introduction, by Lewis White Beck, Library of Liberal Arts, ©1997 by Prentice Hall Inc. Hereafter referred to as “Kant.”
[5] Of the things he says are not good or are at most conditionally good he includes: Intelligence, wit, judgment, and whatever talents of the mind; courage, resolution, and perseverance; power, riches, honor, and even health; happiness; and moderation in emotions and passions, self-control, and calm deliberation. (Kant, 393-394)
[6] Ibid.
[7] Kant, 389
[8] Kant, 401
[9], Catholic Encyclopedia, hereafter referred to as “CE.” Here, CE, “Categorical Imperative”
[10] 2
[11] Kant 399
[12] CE, “Kant, Philosophy of”
[13] I-II.5.8 resp.
[14] I-II.3.8 resp.
[15] I-II.92.1 resp.
[16] I-II.95.2 resp.
[17] CE, “Law”
[18] I-II.96.4 resp.
[19] CE, “Law”
[20] CE, “Categorical Imperative”
[21] CE, “Kant, Philosophy of”

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