Philipp W. Rosemann

title.none: Flannery, Acts Amid Precepts (Philipp W. Rosemann)

identifier.other: baj9928.0202.009 02.02.09

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Philipp W. Rosemann, University of Dallas,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2002

identifier.citation: Flannery, Kevin L. Acts Amid Precepts: The Aristotelian Logical Structure of Thomas Aquinas's Moral Theory. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2001. Pp. xxiv, 327. ISBN: 0813209889.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 02.02.09

Flannery, Kevin L. Acts Amid Precepts: The Aristotelian Logical Structure of Thomas Aquinas's Moral Theory. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2001. Pp. xxiv, 327. ISBN: 0813209889.

Reviewed by:

Philipp W. Rosemann
University of Dallas

"The idea from which this book has grown has been with me for as long as I have been interested in philosophy," Father Flannery writes at the beginning of his introduction. "It is the idea that, in certain circumstances, an act can be morally upright, even if the agent knows that it will be accompanied by an unwelcome and (in some sense) evil effect" (p. xiii). The author's paradigmatic example of such an act is hysterectomy, the surgical removal of a mother's gravid womb as the only way to save her life--when, for example, the womb has been attacked by cancerous growth whose removal cannot wait until after the birth of the baby. Although the removal of the uterus leads, almost ineluctably, to the death of the fetus growing within it, hysterectomy is said to be morally permissible, whereas a similar procedure, craniotomy, is not. Indeed, the Holy See has issued a ruling against craniotomy. Yet a procedure involving craniotomy (that is to say, the crushing of the skull of a fetus) could be as necessary to save a mother's life as a hysterectomy--in a case, for instance, in which a baby's skull is unable to pass through the pelvic cavity. It is not surprising, then, that even Roman Catholic, Thomistic ethicists have been divided on the permissibility of craniotomy, in a debate that started over a century ago, but does not seem to have come to any firm conclusion.

According to Father Flannery, debates involving the principle of double effect will remain "inherently interminable" (p. 176) as long as they fail to take into consideration a basic factor: namely, that in order to analyze a morally relevant act satisfactorily, and in authentically Thomistic fashion, "we have to set it within the culture within which it is performed" (p. xiii). I am not sure "culture" is the most felicitous term for what Flannery's argument is about. In fact, he argues that Thomas Aquinas's ethics places moral acts within the framework of relevant "crafts," or legally "fixed paths" of human behavior. These crafts, the argument continues, are to be understood in an Aristotelian manner, that is to say, like technai, and possess a definite logical structure of principles and precepts. While the first principles of a craft never change, some of its lower precepts may well do so. All human medicine, for instance, will pursue the health of its patients; but whether this principle involves keeping the patient's heart beating depends on the medical "culture" in which a physician's act occurs: "the very same physical act which a century ago would have constituted murder--i.e., cutting the attaching veins and arteries and lifting the patient's heart out of his body--is now part of medicine, as when, following the removal, another heart is put in its place" (p. 213).

This is the core of Flannery's book: the argument that decisions about the morality or immorality of acts cannot be made without taking into account the established human practices within which these acts occur. These practices, moreover, possess a logical structure that is modeled upon, while remaining distinct from, the logic of the theoretical sciences, for there exists a parallelism between practical reason and theoretical reason. All these points Flannery finds in the thought of Thomas Aquinas, in an interpretation that stresses the continuity between Thomas and Aristotle--not Thomas and Neoplatonism (see p. 53) or Thomas and modern thought (see p. 116). Finally, while presenting his interpretation as authentically Thomistic, Flannery does not hesitate to cast some of his arguments in the terms of contemporary logic, especially in his last chapter. For, "[t]his book is not an exercise in antiquarianism. We read--and write--books of philosophy in order to help us deal with philosophical questions which concern us" (pp. xvii f.).

Let us follow Flannery's line of thought in more detail. In chapter 1, the author begins to explore the parallelism between theoretical and practical reason that constitutes one of the major pillars of his interpretation. Both Aristotle and his commentator Thomas Aquinas suggest that practical deliberation follows patterns similar to those of theoretical reasoning; that is to say, syllogistic patterns. As Flannery shows, however, both Aristotle and Thomas also recognize that the practical syllogism is markedly different from the standard deductive syllogism of theoretical science. The two kinds of syllogism differ, first, with regard to their goals: the theoretical syllogism aims to preserve truth; the practical syllogism aims to preserve a good. This fundamental difference plays itself out, secondly, in different directions: while the theoretical syllogism moves "downward," from the major term through the minor to the conclusion, the practical syllogism is directed "upward." Its conclusion as it were "serves" the major premise, which spells out a fundamental human need or good; for example: "Life is part of human flourishing; protecting children promotes human life; protect children" (p. 10). Thirdly, the practical syllogism, unlike the theoretical, is "defeasible," in the sense that its conclusions do not hold under all conceivable circumstances. Father Flannery offers the example of the practical syllogism "covering meets my need; a cloak gives me covering; I get a cloak" (p. 10). "But suppose also," he continues, "that all the cloaks are contaminated by poisonous insects" (ibid.). In such a case, the conclusion "I get a cloak" is suspended. To summarize his description of the practical syllogism thus far, Flannery speaks of a "certain welcome looseness" (p. 12). This looseness, however, by no means entails that anything goes in Aristotelian ethics; in other words, that there are no moral absolutes. In the Nicomachean Ethics, the Philosopher identifies cases that admit of no ethical vagueness whatsoever, for example in chapter 6 of book 2, where he insists that adultery is always wrong; for there is no adultery "with the right woman, at the right time, and in the right way" (quoted on p. 15). Ethical indeterminacy diminishes in function of the closeness of a particular case to the first principles of ethical deliberation, that is to say, ultimately, to the pursuit of the highest human good, which is happiness.

If chapter 1 focuses on Aristotle, with parallel Thomistic texts only indicated in footnotes, in chapter 2 Flannery turns toward the analysis of an article from the Summa theologiae: Ia-IIae, question 94, article 2 ("Whether natural law contains many precepts or one only"). Appendix A offers a literal English translation of this article with facing Latin text. Chapter 2 further develops the argument of chapter 1, in that it attempts to shed light upon the parallelism between theoretical and practical reason from the point of view of the overall structure of the natural law. Flannery's thesis here is that Thomas "depict[s] natural law as possessing the same general structure as an Aristotelian science" (p. 26). In other words, just as the first principle of theoretical reason is the principle of non-contradiction, so in the realm of practical reason "good is to be done and pursued and evil avoided" grounds all the other precepts. Both the principle of non-contradiction and the first principle in practical reason are founded metaphysically, in the intelligibility of being and the good, respectively. They are known per se quoad nos, which means that they are "grasped by all in an indeterminate way . . . without the knowers necessarily having a very scientific understanding of that which they have grasped in an initial way" (p. 35). (Appendix B provides a detailed discussion of the meaning of per se in Thomas.) But the parallels continue. In the sphere of theoretical reason, the principle of non-contradiction finds expression in common axioms such as "if equals are removed from equals, the remainders are equal"; beneath this level of axioms common to several sciences come the first principles of particular sciences, for instance, geometry; and finally, there exist further principles that do not qualify as first. Similarly, in the practical order, we can identify two more levels of precepts: common precepts such as love of God and neighbor, and more specific ones such as the preservation of life and the union of male and female. Thus, the answer to the problem Thomas sets out to resolve in S.T. Ia-IIae, 94, 2 is that "natural law is a complex but ordered whole" (p. 48); in other words, although it comprises more than one precept, its precepts form a system that is clearly structured and founded upon the first principle of practical reason. And to know the system of natural law as Thomas envisages it helps us determine where a particular act belongs in the overall structure of morality, which in turn facilitates its evaluation.

Chapter 3 moves on, logically, to address the issue of how, in the system of natural law, lower precepts are deduced from higher ones. Is Thomas Aquinas guilty of the kind of moral "deductivism" that Martha Nussbaum and other commentators have seen in his ethics? Is morality, for Aquinas, nothing but the rigid and schematic application of a priori principles of human nature to particular cases? Since Thomas's conception of practical rationality is tied to his view of theoretical rationality, discussing this issue requires first an answer to the question of the relationship between metaphysics, as the domain of the principle of non-contradiction, and the other sciences, governed as they are by their proper principles. Father Flannery interprets various texts from the commentaries on the Posterior Analytics and the Metaphysics as indicating that, according to Thomas Aquinas, the particular sciences "make sense on their own, although there is nothing to prevent--and often much to be gained by--a metaphysical investigation of their proper principles" (p. 58). Not unexpectedly, an analogous situation obtains in the field of ethics. While the entire system of natural law, right down to the most specific rules, remains consistent with its first principles, particular cases require more than the mere application of general principles. Rather, specific conditions are added to the principles, and this without being deducible from them. In this context, Flannery cites the famous example of the return of a deposited weapon to a depositor who has turned hostile or insane: the specific precepts governing such cases "are not found in the higher precepts; rather, their derivation has to do with the particular circumstances in which the higher precepts are applied" (p. 83). Father Flannery argues, in considerable detail, that the relationship between higher and lower precepts of natural law can usefully be analyzed in terms of the scientific methodology of synthesis and analysis as it was practiced in the ancient world. He cites a text from the fourth-century mathematician Pappus of Alexandria to shed light upon this methodology. I must admit that I found the connection between Thomas Aquinas's ethics and the topic of synthesis/analysis tenuous, apart from not being especially helpful in elucidating the ethical matters under consideration.

Chapter 4 is devoted to "commensurability and incommensurability." According to Thomas Aquinas, is it permissible to weigh up ethical precepts against each other, in particular by playing off higher precepts against lower ones? For instance, does the higher precept to preserve life, in cases of conflict, override the lower precept to tell the truth? Since Thomas Aquinas does not deal with the problem of commensurability, Flannery turns to Aristotle's philosophy of mathematics as developed in book 13 of the Metaphysics, where he finds a distinction between counting and ordering. After twenty pages of very technical discussion, he concludes that "[o]rdering is a different procedure from counting something as a certain thing; and it is only the latter that treats of an individual's essence" (p. 105). Therefore, "the outcome of an ordering cannot already have been determined by the state of the objects of deliberation" (p. 107). Applied to Thomas's ordered list of precepts in S.T. Ia-IIae, 94, 2, this insight means that the order of the precepts does not entitle us to draw any conclusions concerning their objective weight. Unfortunately, there is no evidence that Thomas knew Aristotle's mathematical distinction between counting and ordering, and that he had any use for it in ethics.

Chapter 4 concludes Part I of the book, which is entitled "Precepts." With chapter 5, we enter Part II, with its focus on "Acts." The first question addressed here concerns the relationship between intellect and will in the constitution of acts. Basing himself upon a close reading of the Quaestiones disputatae de malo, question 6 (to which appendices C and D are devoted, with a discussion of the date of the question and a literal English translation with facing Latin text), Father Flannery rejects readings according to which we witness a turn toward a more "modern" stance regarding the will in Thomas's later writings. Dom Odon Lottin defended an influential thesis to this effect in the 1920s, a thesis according to which Thomas increasingly limited the role of intellect in moral action. Against Lottin and those who have taken up and further radicalized his rather nuanced and "restrained" (p. 113) position, Flannery argues that Aquinas's "ethical thought was fundamentally ancient and Aristotelian" (p. 116): "voluntas does not work against intellect, nor intellect against voluntas, for the one allows the other to exist within the practical sphere" (p. 143). In fact, Thomas's position in this regard is well known. On the one hand, there obtains a certain primacy of intellect over will insofar as the former is required to apprehend the goodness of the object that is involved in the moral act; otherwise, the will would not be "moved" by the object. On the other hand, one can also speak of a primacy of will over intellect, insofar as it is the will in which the motion of the voluntary act originates. The predominance of will over intellect is the first "major idea" that Flannery singles out from question 6 of the De malo; there are three others that he lists on page 124: the connection between freedom and rationality, the distinction between liberty of specification and liberty of exercise, and the idea that God is the first mover of the will. All these ideas, Flannery proceeds to show, accord well with the philosophy of Aristotle. There is, then, no reason to assume the existence of a "modern" turn in Thomas Aquinas.

Chapter 6 has one principal purpose: to develop an elenchic demonstration of the first principle in practical reason, modeled upon Aristotle's own such "proof" of the principle of non-contradiction in book 4 of the Metaphysics. Again, Father Flannery's argument seems to be philosophical and speculative, rather than aiming at a reconstruction of the historical thought of Thomas Aquinas. "Thomas would not resist such an effort to demonstrate" the first principle of practical reason (p. 145), the author asserts, but there is no evidence of such a demonstration in his writings. Note that an elenchic demonstration does not constitute a deductive proof, which for obvious reasons is not possible in the case of first principles. Rather, an elenchic demonstration has the goal to show that those who are engaged in denying a principle are implicitly invoking it in their very denial. Thus, someone denying the principle of non-contradiction would have to do so by uttering a meaningful statement; but, as Aristotle shows in the Metaphysics, any signifying expression in fact presupposes the principle. Flannery transposes this demonstration onto ethical terrain. He imagines a certain "Antipraxis" who denies the first principle in practical reason, to wit, that "good is to be done and pursued and evil avoided." Antipraxis therefore maintains that it is possible to pursue an object without considering it under a positive aspect. However, when Antipraxis is challenged to provide an example of something that could be pursued without being perceived as good, any example possible forces him to "acknowledge that, if he were to decide to do something, he would have to decide upon it as good and not bad or indifferent" (p. 156).

In chapter 7, Father Flannery is ready to embark upon a discussion of the principle of double effect, which, as we will remember, provided the original motive for his reflections on Thomas Aquinas's moral theory. The starting point of the chapter's argumentation is furnished by an exegesis of Summa theologiae, IIa-IIae, question 64, article 7 ("Whether it is lawful to kill a man in self-defense"), which is the Thomistic locus classicus for the principle of double effect. In this article, Thomas argues that a person is not obliged to "omit the act of moderate self-defense in order to avoid killing the other man," because the successful act of defending oneself produces two effects: a first, intended one, which is to preserve one's own life, and (possibly) a second, unintended one, which is the death of the assailant. Although the second effect is connected with the first, it remains morally distinct from it, precisely insofar as this second effect lies "beside the intention" of the person defending him- or herself (praeter intentionem). By contrast, if a person engaged in self-defense were to intend the death of his or her assailant, (s)he would be acting immorally. This idea seems clear enough in principle, but matters become far less obvious when we turn to particular cases. This is the point where Flannery discusses the paradigmatic examples of hysterectomy and craniotomy, as well as the impasses which the debates about them have exposed.

Surprisingly for an author who likes to make "anti-Platonic point[s]" (p. 42 n. 51), Flannery turns to Plato for assistance. We know the famous phrase from the Republic, often repeated, according to which justice consists in "doing one's own business," to ta heautou prattein. Doing the right thing, for Plato, amounts to adherence to the established practices of a craft. According to Flannery, Aristotle agrees: "The idea of 'practicing one's own business' also comes into Aristotle but in a more global way. Like Plato, he assumes that human goods always come as part of a package (i.e., a practice), there being no such thing as a good that is not so embodied; but he expands this notion to encompass change in general" (p. 180). The advantage of associating the human pursuit of the good with craft-like structures is that crafts provide "fixed paths" of moral conduct that are "not immediately dependent upon decision" (p. 183). Thus, an action is morally sound if it corresponds to one of the accepted paths of the craft to which it belongs; if it does not, its ability to lead to the good is questionable.

Equipped with the concept of fixed paths, Father Flannery proceeds to resolve the craniotomy/hysterectomy controversy. Craniotomy, he argues, is simply not part of the intelligible procedures of the medical craft; for medicine, by definition, is the craft aimed at the good of its patients: "The action engaged in by the doctor who performs a craniotomy may indeed be defined by a good--in fact, it has to be defined by some good, otherwise it would be unintelligible as a human act--but a craniotomy is not part of the medical profession whose practices are, by definition, aimed at the good of the patient" (p. 185). The viability of this argument evidently hinges on who is identified as the patient of the physician performing the craniotomy. For Flannery, "the object of a medical procedure . . . is the person 'under the knife' (or scalpel)" (p. 184), that is to say, in the case of a craniotomy, the fetus. Would the physician contemplating a craniotomy see the situation in the same way? I am not sure. It seems quite conceivable that (s)he would identify the mother as his or her patient, just like the physician performing the hysterectomy. Why would this point of view be mistaken? Father Flannery does not address this obvious objection, which leaves his argumentation unconvincing. This reservation notwithstanding, the evaluation of moral acts within the context of craft-like structures seems a very promising avenue, perhaps one not totally unlike MacIntyre's approach of ethics in terms of traditions of rationality (see p. 176 n. 18).

Chapter 8, the final chapter of Acts Amid Precepts, integrates the findings of chapter 7 into the general thesis of the book--the thesis that Thomas Aquinas's ethical thought possesses an Aristotelian logical structure conceived analogously to the structure of the theoretical sciences. In particular, the author attempts to represent the kind of syllogistic reasoning at work in ethical deliberations in the language of formal logic. Since I am not an expert in formal logic, I am not in a position to comment on this part of the work. A detailed bibliography of primary and secondary sources, an index of Aristotelian and Thomistic passages cited, an index of names, and a subject index round off the volume.

What to think of Acts Amid Precepts? I know of no more careful and detailed study of Thomas's principle that the realms of theoretical and practical rationality are parallel. This principle is indeed central to an understanding of Thomas Aquinas's ethical thought, and Father Flannery examines its ramifications most perspicaciously. His book, therefore, constitutes a valuable and important addition to the Thomistic literature. Father Flannery's writing is lucid, if not always extremely engaging, and his arguments are well supported by references to, and quotations from, the Aristotelian and Thomistic texts upon which they are based. Last but not least, the volume is handsomely produced; I have only noticed a couple of typographical mistakes.

Yet Acts Amid Precepts is not an unproblematic book. What is the status of the reflections it offers on Thomistic ethics? If the work is intended as a contribution to moral philosophy from the point of view of a contemporary philosopher who is taking inspiration from the thought of Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas--fine. In that case, we will have to evaluate the work solely on the strength of its philosophical arguments; whether or not these arguments accurately represent the position of any past thinker is secondary. Anyone wishing to use the book to understand the historical Thomas Aquinas will make sure to distinguish assertions made in reference to Thomistic texts from others that are more speculative. There are, however, strong indications that Father Flannery would like his book to be read as a contribution to the study of the historical thought of St. Thomas Aquinas. Even when, by his own admission, projecting Aristotelian or other ideas into Thomas's thought, he claims that "Thomas would not resist" such a procedure (p. 145), or that "there is good reason to believe" that "Thomas follows" the doctrine under discussion (p. xvi). After all, the book's subtitle announces it as an investigation of "Thomas Aquinas's moral theory." As a piece of scholarship in the history of ideas, however, Acts Amid Precepts raises serious methodological questions. Throughout the volume, Father Flannery jumps back and forth between Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas as though the two thinkers had been close contemporaries and, indeed, collaborators on the same project. Where Thomas's thought leaves questions open, he turns to Aristotle in hopes of finding the solution there. As we have already seen, at one point he claims that Thomas's "ethical thought was fundamentally ancient and Aristotelian" (p. 116)--a jarring statement for any historian. Even if, as a commentator of Aristotle, Thomas borrowed many of his ethical ideas from the Philosopher, his ethical thought was fundamentally medieval and Christian. It is necessary to emphasize that Thomas was not Aristotle, despite the "McInerny identity thesis" (p. xi), of which Flannery speaks half-jokingly, half-admiringly in his introduction. This much we should have learned from the work of Thomists such as Marie-Dominique Chenu, Étienne Gilson, and, indeed, Dom Odon Lottin.

As a consequence of his unhistorical approach to the thought of St. Thomas, Father Flannery fails to pay attention to the specifically Christian character of his moral theory. Certainly, Thomas Aquinas follows Aristotle in conceiving human action as a quest for happiness, the highest human good; he agrees with the Philosopher that ethical deliberation can be analyzed by means of syllogisms similar to those of theoretical knowledge; and he adopts Aristotelian positions on a host of other issues. But there is something else in Thomas that Aristotle did not understand, and could not have understood: moral action involves an individual person's responsibility before God. To do justice to that responsibility, the moral agent has to follow his or her conscience. In cases of ethical indeterminacy, the agent can be confident that--in a certain sense, albeit not the sense of the objective requirements of the law--his or her conscience does not err: unless it is not only mistaken, but culpably mistaken, it leads the finite human agent to the Good.[1] Of course, this position in no way diminishes the seriousness and urgency of determining the moral status of a medical procedure such as craniotomy. After all, human life is at stake. Let us not forget, however, that it is the Christian faith which has the last word in St. Thomas, not Aristotelian rationality.


[1] I have attempted to show how Thomas's teaching on conscience arises naturally from his conception of the parallelism between the theoretical and the practical realm, in Omne ens est aliquid: Introduction a` la lecture du "système" philosophique de saint Thomas d'Aquin (Louvain and Paris: Peeters, 1996), pp. 163-190.