Aldo Vendemiati




In the First Person

An Outline of General Ethics




- Expanded Second Edition -









Translated by

Cynthia R. Nicolosi






1. What is Ethics?

            1. 1. Why Study Ethics?

            1. 2. Isn’t Faith Enough?

                        1. 2. 1. “Handmaiden” Philosophy in the House of Theology

                        1. 2. 2. Philosophy as “Mistress” of Her Own House

            1. 3. Philosophical Method

                        1. 3. 1. Fundamental Attitudes

                                    1. 3. 1. 1. Wonder

                                    1. 3. 1. 2. Reverence

                                    1. 3. 1. 3. Desire

                        1. 3. 2. Starting from Experience

                        1. 3. 3. Awareness of Conditioning

                        1. 3. 4. The Obvious and The Evident

            1. 4. Specific Characteristics of Philosophical Ethics

                        1. 4. 1. Ethics is Concerned with Moral Experience

                        1. 4. 2. Is Ethics merely a Descriptive Science?

                                    1. 4. 2. 1. Positivism and “Weak Thought”

                                    1. 4. 2. 2. Critique

                        1. 4. 3. Ethics is a Normative-Categorical Science

                        1. 4. 4. Ethics and Happiness

2. The Phenomenology of Morality

            2. 1. Moral Experiences

                        2. 1. 1. Attempts at Negation

                        2. 1. 2. Judging the Behavior of Others

                                    2. 1. 2. 1. Scandal

                                    2. 1. 2. 2. Admiration

                        2. 1. 3. Judging Our Own Behavior

                                    2. 1. 3. 1. Remorse

                                    2. 1. 3. 2. Gratification

            2. 2. Essential Characteristics of Moral Experience

                        2. 2. 1. Experiences that Concern the Will

                        2. 2. 2. Experiences that Obligate the Will

                        2. 2. 3. Duty, Freedom, and Responsibility

                        2. 2. 4. Duty and Happiness

                                    2. 2. 4. 1. Living Fully

                                    2. 2. 4. 2. Positive and Negative Values

                                    2. 2. 4. 3. Good, Useful, and Delightful

                                    2. 2. 4. 4. And What about Evil?

3. Voluntary Behavior

            3. 1. Conditions of Voluntary Behavior

                        3. 1. 1. Acts of Man and Human Acts

                        3. 1. 2. Phenomenology of Voluntary Action

                        3. 1. 3. Intelligence in the Human Act

                        3. 1. 4. The Will in the Human Act

                                    3. 1. 4. 1. Voluntary and Involuntary

                                    3. 1. 4. 2. Simple Voluntary and Relative Voluntary

                                    3. 1. 4. 3. Willed Voluntary and Tolerated Voluntary

            3. 2. Emotions and Feelings in Human Action

            3. 3. Freedom in Human Action

            3. 4. Human Action as Immanent Activity

3. 4. 1. Human Acts Modify the Personality of the Acting


3. 4. 2. Habitus

4. The Virtues in General

            4. 1. Importance of the Virtues in Ethical Discourse

                        4. 1. 1. Acting Manifests Being

                        4. 1. 2. The Discourse on Virtues

            4. 2. Virtues and Vices

                        4. 2. 1. Good Habitus and Bad Habitus

                        4. 2. 2. The “Mean”

            4. 3. Classification of the Virtues

                        4. 3. 1. Intellectual Virtues and Moral Virtues

                        4. 3. 2. The Cardinal Virtues

4. 3. 2. 1. Reason, Will, and the Irascible and

                Concupiscible Appetites

4. 3. 2. 2. Practical Wisdom

4. 3. 2. 3. Justice

4. 3. 2. 4. Fortitude or Courage

4. 3. 2. 5. Temperance

4. 3. 2. 6. “Annexed” Virtues

                        4. 3. 3. The Connection between the Virtues and Love

            4. 4. Virtue, Freedom, and Happiness

5. Wisdom

            5. 1. Terminology

            5. 2. Primacy of Wisdom

            5. 3. The Operations of Wisdom

            5. 4. Wisdom’s Presuppositions and Their Opposites

                        5. 4. 1. Wisdom as a Cognitive Virtue

                        5. 4. 2. Wisdom as a Commanding Virtue

6. Justice

            6. 1. The Concept of Justice

            6. 2. Rights

            6. 3. General Justice and Particular Justice

            6. 4. The Parts of Justice

                        6. 4. 1. Commutative Justice

                        6. 4. 2. Distributive Justice

            6. 5. Injustice

7. Fortitude or Courage

            7. 1. Terminology

                        7. 1. 1. Courage

                        7. 1. 2. Tenacity and Patience

                        7. 1. 3. Magnanimity

            7. 2. Cultural Aspects

            7. 3. Fortitude and Vulnerability

            7. 4. Endurance and Aggression

8. Temperance

            8. 1. Terminology

            8. 2. The Essence of Temperance

            8. 3. Virtue of Personal Integration

Excursus 1. – Historical/Philosophical Panorama on Corporeality

A. Materialistic Monism

B. Spiritualistic Dualism

C. Ontologically Based Personalism

8. 3. 1. Division between Body and Person

8. 3. 2. A Unified Whole

9. The Foundation of Morality

            9. 1. The Good: Objective or Subjective?

Excursus 2. – Morality and Contemporary Thought

A. Universalisms

                                                A. 1. The “State of Nature”

                                                A. 2. Reason and the Passions

                                                A. 3. “Pure Duty”

                                                A. 4. The State

                                                A. 5. Utility and Consequences

B. Relativism

                                                B. 1. Emotivism

                                                B. 2. Historicism, Sociologism, Psychologism

                                                B. 3. Genesis, Evolution, and the Dissolution of


9. 2. The True Good

                        9. 2. 1. Man’s “Humanity” as Source

                        9. 2. 2. Natural Inclinations

                        9. 2. 3. Man’s Ultimate End

                                    9. 2. 3. 1. Happiness and the Good

                                    9. 2. 3. 2. Perfect and Imperfect Happiness

            9. 3. The Basis of Human Rights

                        9. 3. 1. Nature and Reason

                        9. 3. 2. Human Rights and Their Order

            9. 4. Sources of Morality

                        9. 4. 1. The Objective Structure of the Act

                        9. 4. 2. The Motive

                        9. 4. 3. The Circumstances

10. The Moral Law

            10. 1. Attitudes toward Law

            10. 2. The Essence of Moral Law

                        10. 2. 1. Law as Rational Order

                        10. 2. 2. Law and the Common Good

                        10. 2. 3. Law and Legitimate Authority

                        10. 2. 4. The Law’s Promulgation

                        10. 2. 5. Effects of the Law

            10. 3. The Natural Law

                        10. 3. 1. Precepts of the Natural Law

                        10. 3. 2. Universality and Immutability of the Natural Law

                                    10. 3. 2. 1. The Unity and Mutability of Human Nature

                                    10. 3. 2. 2. Mutability of Some Precepts of the Natural


                        10. 3. 3. Relationship between Natural Law and Human Law

                        10. 3. 4. Natural Law and Eternal Law

            10. 4. The Law’s Limits

                        10. 4. 1. Unjust Law

                        10. 4. 2. Exceptions to the Law

                        10. 4. 3. Epikéia (Equity)

11. Conscience

            11. 1. Anthropological Value of the Moral Conscience

            11. 2. The Judgement of Conscience

                        11. 2. 1. Potential Conscience

                                    11. 2. 1. 1. Synderesis

                                    11. 2. 1. 2. Moral Knowledge

                        11. 2. 2. Actual Conscience

            11. 3. Types or Forms of Conscience

                        11. 3. 1. Types of Potential Conscience

                        11. 3. 2. Types of Actual Conscience

                                    11. 3. 2. 1. In Respect to the Act: Antecedent,

      Concomitant, and Consequent Conscience

                                    11. 3. 2. 2. In Respect to Moral Quality:

                                                      Right or Negligent

                                    11. 3. 2. 3. In Respect to Subjective Certitude:

                                                      Certain, Sufficient, Doubtful

                                    11. 3. 2. 4. In Respect to Objective Truth:

                                                      True or Erroneous

            11. 4. Law, Virtue, and Conscience






This volume is the second, expanded edition of a book that appeared in this series in Autumn 1999, crowned by a publishing success for which I would like now to thank the readers.


The book was born from my experience in the chair of moral philosophy at the Pontifical University Urbaniana in Rome. Several years ago, upon being asked to teach a course on general ethics, I felt it necessary to suggest to my students a “handbook” that would respect two conditions: first, that it be adapted to the students’ needs, and second, that it be consistent with the “perennially valid philosophical inheritance” that would serve as the constant reference point for our activity.


While texts were not lacking with respect to the second condition (the reader will find a “minimal” listing at the end of this volume), I did not find a similar concordance with respect to the first.


Our students, in fact, hailed from the most diverse cultures and formative experiences. Some had studies of a “western” variety behind them, while others came from completely different horizons. As a young professor of philosophy, I thought that my first duty was to examine these different cultures in order to “incarnate” my teaching into the lives of the students . . . But my students came from every continent on earth – and more than a hundred different countries. Further, as is well known, a single country can be home to multiple cultures and traditions. Where was a philosophy teacher to start?


 Clearly, there had to be another way: the phenomenological option. This meant not beginning with theories (even the most important ethical notions elaborated over the long course of the history of philosophical thought), and not stopping short at cultures (while nevertheless admiring their richness), but going behind all this, back to the things themselves, concentrating on the moral experience of every human being, soliciting from it the moral principles that can serve as its guide. The challenge, then, was to describe the humanum in terms comprehensible to every person.


In doing this, I also wanted to be of help to other philosophical and theological institutes in which the multi-ethnic and multi-cultural dimension of our “globalized” society is beginning to manifest itself. Such institutes, which up until a few decades ago were attended by students formed in the “classical” tradition of the lyceum, now welcome students from very different kinds of educational backgrounds. These students, though commonly lacking in historical-philosophical instruction, are nonetheless very motivated to learn. Hence, this book was conceived to be useful to students with a classical formation, as well as those who do not possess such a background but greatly desire to learn.


Such considerations led me to give this exposition a rather “midwifery” style. The book has a very conversational tone, like a dialogue. I believe this to be the best method, not only for an introductory text such as this one, but also as a philosophical approach tout-court. I want to involve readers in a kind of Socratic dialogue by calling forth that “minimum-of-philosophy” within every person. I want to move readers to reflect on their own experience by encouraging a critical awareness of their own thoughts – without ever uprooting them from the “life-world.”[1] Consequently, this text humbly seeks to insert itself within that multi-millennial tradition that, from Socrates to Kierkegaard, from St. Augustine to G. Marcel, has been at the service of the concrete human being, putting such a one in contact with the truth that dwells in the intimacy of his or her own heart.


For this reason, on nearly every page of this book, I have sought to highlight the necessary existential meaning of moral-philosophical research: I am, in fact, deeply convinced that philosophy is sapientia vitae and, precisely for this reason, can and should be cultivated with love.


All this is intrinsically connected to the formulation of moral philosophy as an “ethics of the first person,” as the title of this volume attests.


In this regard, a decisive contribution has been made by the work of Giuseppe Abbà,[2] who has shown how classical and modern ethics are separated by a distinguishing difference due to an alteration in the principle point of view from which the discipline was developed. In classical ethics – a paradigm of which can be found in the thought of Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas – the principle point of view is that of the acting subject who seeks the “good” or “virtuous” life in which true happiness consists. In modern ethics – for which we can take as a paradigm the morality of Hobbes – the point of view moves to an external observer, legislator, or judge, who seeks criteria, principles, and the norms of just action. Modern ethics, then, is an ethics of the third person, while classical ethics is an ethics of the first person.


Ethics of the third person aims at creating a social order where man as a being of desires or as autonomous subject can do what he wants without hurting others, or hurting them only with a better end in mind. Concerning what each person does to satisfy his own desires, or the use that each person makes of his own freedoms, modern ethics refuses to speak, since this is supposed to be a purely private and subjective question. Everybody can manage his own life however he wants. In this way, however, a system of principles and norms is tacitly at the service of the interests of individual, free subjects, for whom one wishes to guarantee satisfaction – the maximum satisfaction. This is tantamount to recognizing that the importance of individual subjects – of their freedom and their desires – is primary. But silence reigns concerning the meaning of the life of these free subjects. If no consideration is given to this subject, the question “Why be moral?” remains without an answer. Why, should the utilitarian rules of justice be observed? . . .

The principle of the intelligibility of a normative ethics of the third person must be located in the ethics of the first person. Human conduct, in fact, in as much as it is constructed and produced by the acting subject, contains an original, practical knowledge that is not reducible to the knowledge of the legislator, the judge, or the critic; an operative knowledge that has its own logic. It was exactly this practical knowledge that Aristotle in his Ethics and Aquinas in the II Pars [of the Summa Theologiae] explicitly intended. Such practical knowledge focuses on the problem of the meaning a person should give to his own life.[3]



            Hence, the option for a first person ethics is justified primarily not so much by fidelity to a tradition (the argument ex auctoritate is first in theology but last in philosophy), as by the exigency of moral discourse itself, by its very essence. This has not only theoretical consequences (in the sense of a moral science that is theoretical-practical), but also existential, pedagogical, didactic, and social.


The division of the material presented here serves this approach. Chapter 1 constitutes a “presentation” of the discipline, its ends, and its method. In chapter 2, we proceed to a close, phenomenological examination of moral experience presented in such a way as to grasp its constitutive elements. Chapter 3 continues with a study of voluntary behavior, shedding light on the structure of human action. Chapter 4 presents the central theme of the good life: virtue. After an explanation of the general characteristics of virtue, there follows an in-depth study of each cardinal virtue. Hence, chapters 5, 6, 7, and 8 are dedicated respectively to wisdom, justice, fortitude, and temperance.[4]  Only at this point, in chapter 9, does the discussion take a more “theoretical” turn (without, however, abandoning its aim to remain rooted in experience), concentrating on the determination of the “foundation” of morality, in dialogue with contemporary thought. Chapter 10 then presents the essence and function of the moral law, with particular reference to natural law. Finally, in chapter 11, we examine the role and dynamics of the conscience in morality.


            It should be added that the expository “style” of this work – the fact that the “I” of the author is clearly in evidence and calls repeatedly upon the “you” of the reader, pressing him with questions and provoking him to react – is the direct consequence of our option for the “first person” which, I hope, will find its ultimate justification from the text as a whole.


The objective I have pursued here is clarity and essentiality, simultaneously combined with the exigency of the thoroughness expected in a course of instruction.


Perhaps it would have been easier to adopt sophisticated language for those who are “adepts” in this subject. But I would then be speaking to colleagues rather than students. Certainly, using a cryptic, esoteric tone, I would be better able to avoid objections . . . but I would have betrayed my professional conscience (my human conscience, in the final analysis). I preferred, rather, to put my own thought at stake, without dissimulation.


Perhaps with double the number of pages the book would seem “more important” and – paradoxically – I would have spent less time writing it. I preferred, however, to submit myself to the effort of synthesis, to the thankless work of “slicing” and “filing down,” so as to place in the hands of my students a flexible and really useful instrument, without ever renouncing the rigor of argumentation, scientific effort, and completeness. Obviously, it is up to the reader to judge if and to what extent I have succeeded in reaching my goal.


My gratitude remains the same for all those who have contributed to the publication of this Outline of General Ethics in both the first and second editions: my colleagues, for their precious suggestions (special thanks to professors G. Mazzotta and L. Congiunti), the Urbaniana University Press, the academic authority of the Pontifical University Urbaniana, and my students, thanks to whom I have been able to focus on the themes here delineated with an ever more profound understanding of the necessity of anchoring moral reflection in the “life-world.”

Last but not least, I want express my appreciation to the translator, Cynthia Nicolosi.











References to and citations from classical texts in the history of thought are given in essential form in the footnotes. The bibliography printed at the conclusion of this volume suggests specific editions of these sources.[5]


Contemporary texts to which I refer have sometimes been very helpful instruments in the understanding and exposition of the different themes treated here. In citing them, I recognize my debt to their authors and, at the same time, invite the reader desirous of further study to have direct contact with them.


Many cross-references appear in the course of this volume. I hope that these will not weigh down the reading of the book, but rather, will serve to highlight the unity of ethical discourse as a whole.


The text also includes two excursus. The first, in chapter 8, constitutes a brief digression into anthropology, motivated by the awareness that sometimes students of ethics have not yet encountered the study of the philosophy of man. The second, in chapter 9, is an historical synthesis of ethical thought from the Enlightenment to our own time. In the event it should be necessary to abbreviate the reading of these pages, these excursus can be skipped without prejudice to the understanding of the whole.


A very brief reading is also possible by skimming over chapters 5-8, given that the essential traits of the cardinal virtues are explained – in extreme synthesis – in chapter 4.







1. What is Ethics?


Dear Reader,


For the first time, perhaps, you have stumbled upon a book about ethics. Do you remember Raphael’s splendid fresco entitled The School of Athens? At the center of the painting, surrounded by all the major philosophers of antiquity, are the figures of two men walking. On the left is the old Plato (428-347 B.C.) with his finger pointed toward heaven; on the right is the young Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) with his hand extended, palm turned down toward the earth. Each has a book with him. Under his arm, Plato carries the Timeus, the work that more than any other represents his vision of heaven and the world; Aristotle holds a volume marked “Ethica.” It is significant that the artist chose these two figures and these two volumes to depict the summit of philosophy.


            I am not trying to compare the present volume to the Nicomachean Ethics of Aristotle which, I hope, you will soon have the chance to study)! I only wish to introduce you to this discipline. To do so, I will begin by asking what interest guides ethical research (1.1). Secondly, we will define the relations between this study and faith (1.2). We will then describe our method (1.3). And lastly, we will concentrate on the object of our research (1.4).



1. 1. Why Study Ethics?


            Allow me to proceed from a “presumption”: I presume I am engaged in a discourse that interests you very concretely, very closely. In fact, philosophical ethics (or “moral philosophy”) is commonly understood as “the science that indicates what man must do to be good, that is, worthy of his own humanity.” This already opens up an interesting perspective. But maybe it would be more appropriate to define our discipline as “the science of what man should be, since the moral life does not consist only in doing in a strict sense, but in the orientation of all our activities . . . in a determined way, toward a determined human ideal.”[6] This approach is decidedly exciting: to seek a meaning for human existence.


            Perhaps, like me, upon leaving childhood behind, you had a certain “intuitive” sense of being an unrepeatable subject. Certainly, the number of men and women is in the billions and billions – but only you are “you.” It’s true that the lives of all these people follow the same rigid cliché: we are born, we go to school, we work, we get married, we have children, we grow old, we die . . . But is “your” existence obliged to submit to a cliché? Is your personal identity reducible to that of everyone else? Don’t you feel the desire to take your own life in hand, to be the protagonist of your own personal development, to realize your own desires? Well, these are the questions and desires from which the study of morality proceeds. They are questions that can be synthesized into one single question:


·        How must we be to fully realize our human personality?



1. 2. Isn’t Faith Enough?


            At this point, you might be asking yourself: What does posing these questions mean for a Christian? Didn’t Jesus Christ give us every answer necessary? From the point of view of morality, isn’t the law of the Old and New Testaments enough? What else can philosophy add?[7]



1. 2. 1. “Handmaiden” Philosophy in the House of Theology


            Certainly, philosophy can’t “add” anything to Revelation. It can, however, help us understand Revelation better and penetrate its meaning more profoundly. In this regard, Christian tradition has taught that philosophy is “at the service” of theology (philosophia ancilla theologiae). This concerns a service rendered on two fronts: on the one hand, philosophy discovers certain truths that facilitate the reception of the Gospel; on the other hand, philosophy unmasks certain errors that impede this reception.


            To do philosophy means to embark on a rational investigation of man, the world, and God, seeking to know the truth. Now, some truths discovered through reason serve to “prepare the road” so that other truths, those revealed by God through Jesus Christ, can be better received (hence, these preliminary truths are called preambula fidei). Let us recall, for example, Plato’s great discovery that there must be a “supra-sensible” reality, that is, something beyond the world grasped by the senses. This is a philosophical discovery – rational – yet, very helpful to understanding and accepting God’s revealed message.   


Clearly, knowing a single truth “opens the road” to knowing other truths. But it is equally clear that error “blocks the road” to knowledge of the truth and leads inevitably to other errors. Let us take, for example, the idea, rather prevalent today, that each person’s individual freedom is the source of every value (there is even a philosophical movement – “subjectivism” – based on this belief). According to this view, good and evil are simply ways of seeing things: To me, a certain behavior looks good, to you it looks evil. I must leave you free to do what seems good to you, and you must leave me free to do what seems good to me. Assuredly, whoever thinks like this, as along as they continue to think this way, cannot receive the Christian moral message. If my freedom is the only criteria of good and evil, why would I ever submit to the law of God? It’s understandable, then, how a philosophical error can close the road to faith.


            Our task, therefore, is to push rational knowledge onward in the search for truth and the refutation of error. In so doing, we also render a service to theology. As it is, we feel ourselves invited by faith toward a profound exercise of our reason. A classic theological axiom says: “Grace does not destroy nature, but supposes it.” For our purposes, we could express the same notion thus: “Faith does not destroy reason, but supposes it.” Faith does not substitute for reason, but rather, completes and elevates it; hence, it is necessary that there be something to complete and elevate: a rational activity that is not replaced by faith.



1. 2. 2. Philosophy as “Mistress” of Her Own House


            But does this mean, then, that philosophy should content herself with serving theology, furnishing her with tools and preparing the road before her? Or that theology lays down the obligatory routes which philosophy must follow?


            Not at all. Philosophical knowledge has its own specificity which can never be diminished. This is particularly evident today in the complex and secularized society in which we move. In the debate on subjects that are tearing to pieces the consciences of nations, indeed, of the whole world (e.g., euthanasia, abortion, political economy, etc.), we Christians cannot argue on the basis of Gospel authority since we find ourselves in dialogue with people (the majority) who do not recognize this authority. As a result, we must learn to give our arguments a philosophical basis.


            This can be rather challenging considering that some “secular” thinkers (it would be better to say “secularists”) deny Christians the right to call themselves philosophers. These people maintain that our faith obstructs the freedom and scientific nature of research because it is a collection of prejudices (that is, judgements formulated before rational investigation) that corrupt the comprehension of things.


            Other thinkers “concede” to Christians the right to be philosophers, but on the condition that they put their faith “between parenthesis” and do “neutral” philosophy.


            What can we make of these criticisms? For my part, before declaring that Christians can or cannot do philosophy, I believe we should ask ourselves what it means to be a philosopher.[8] What is a philosopher?


            The philosopher is a thinker who seeks a rational basis for his judgements without making an appeal to myth, faith, or majority opinion. As long as his judgements are founded on rational arguments, his discourse is scientific. A philosopher does not have to bracket his faith (be it Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, or any other). The only thing required is that he not draw arguments from the truth of faith, that is, that he keep his discussion on a rigorously rational plane.[9]


            Therefore, the Christian (like every other person) can be a philosopher.


            It’s true that we Christians consider philosophy the “handmaiden of theology.” But, to be a good handmaiden, philosophy must first be good philosophy, that is, an “in depth philosophy” that avails itself exclusively of its own method “without casting a sidelong glance toward theology and its exigencies, and without falling into the mistaken idea of having to reach, at all costs, the same place where the philosopher, as a believer, already finds himself.”[10]


As for what concerns us here, it should be noted that there does exist a discipline called “moral theology” or “ethical theology.” However, philosophical ethics is an autonomous discipline in respect to moral theology. Though it can be integrated with moral theology, it nonetheless possesses its own validity, a validity which theology must recognize. In other words, philosophical ethics is mistress of her own house.



1. 3. Philosophical Method


            Having thus defined the relationship between philosophy and moral theology, we may now occupy ourselves more closely with the method of our philosophical research. How should we conduct our study in order to be true philosophers? First of all, we must cultivate certain fundamental attitudes, specific “virtues,”  which dispose us adequately toward our work (1.3.1). We must then identify the point of departure for our investigation (1.3.2), all the while remaining aware of the prior conditioning we “carry along” with us (1.3.3). Finally, we will   define the objectives and method of our research (1.3.4).



1. 3. 1. Fundamental Attitudes


            Among the basic attitudes or virtues that allow us to dispose ourselves in a way consonant with moral/philosophical work, three seem to me absolutely indispensable: wonder, reverence, and desire. Let’s look at these in order.



1. 3. 1. 1. Wonder


            Many Ancient Greek philosophers taught that philosophy is born from the experience of wonder in front of being.[11] Natural phenomena, with its explosive power, its sublime beauty, its delicate tenderness, the order of the cosmos, the precision of the astral movements, the miracle of life, the mystery of the heart of man . . . All this makes the mind marvel and gives birth to the philosophical question:  “Why is there something and not nothing?”


            While the experience of wonder can be very exciting, it can also lead to excessive stress. To be amazed means not being able to explain the why and how of certain phenomena. When it comes to the universe, being, or man himself, I must confess that I cannot understand everything about myself or my surroundings. This is rather frustrating! Not only frustrating – it can produce a true and proper anguish. The unknown, the mysterious, attracts and frightens me at the same time.


            At this level, the greatest temptation is to try to “tame” our anguish by taking “mental shortcuts,” that is, by reducing reality to something already known. “Mental shortcuts” are pre-constructed schemes on the basis of which we seek to explain everything, including what we do not know. Following such a plan, we can avoid the always “hard” confrontation with reality. We can side-step the sometimes disquieting path we must walk with the object we wish to know. In so doing, we may escape anguish . . . but we would cease to do philosophy. Instead, we would be devoting ourselves to that most dangerous of human mental activities: ideology.[12]


            If the philosophical question is born from wonder, its answer will not be found by fleeing or denying wonder. On the contrary, we must continue in a state of wonder!



1. 3. 1. 2. Reverence


            For wonder to be possible, we must cultivate in ourselves the virtue of reverence for reality. We must have a kind of “respect” for the objects of our thoughts, a respect that allows things to manifest themselves in all their richness. Reverence implies the availability to listen thoroughly, the effort to be quiet in order to understand (rather than prepare our own discourse while the other is still trying to speak), and the renouncement of any attempt to imprison an object in something already known.


            The greatest enemy in this regard is represented by “the will to power,” to borrow a phrase from the German thinker F. Nietzsche (1844-1900). Such an attitude aims at dominating reality in order to enslave it to oneself.


            In the Bible, we find a commandment on which there has been silence for centuries: “You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.”[13] It seems to me that it is possible to read this text in a philosophical key: You must not construct for yourselves an image of reality that substitutes for reality, such that you would have the misfortune to connect, not with things, but with your own mental images, with your own fantasies, with your own ideas. All this assumes an enormous gravity when it concerns not just inanimate things, but human beings. As a profound contemporary novelist has said: “. . . it is a sign of non-love, that is to say a sin, to form a finished image of one’s neighbor or of any person, to say ‘You are thus and thus, and that’s all there is to it.’”[14]


            The philosopher must maintain himself in an attitude of delicate and sensitive reverence for reality in itself.




1. 3. 1. 3. Desire


            The third virtue we must cultivate in our training for philosophy is firmly joined to wonder and reverence: loving desire.


The Greeks spoke of philosophical eros. This expression probably sounds a bit strong and scarcely comprehensible to our modern mentality. We are used to understanding “eros” as a kind of longing for enjoyment. Clearly, this is not what we mean here, nor do we take the word to indicate an intellectual concupiscence tending toward the “possession” of an object. Such thinking would be opposed to wonder and respect!


            What is meant, rather, is a “thirst” for truth, an interior “yearning” that could almost be described as “visceral,” toward the mysterious message enclosed in reality.



1. 3. 2. Starting  from Experience


            So, wonder in front of reality, reverence for reality, and a loving desire for the truth constitute the fundamental attitudes of philosophical inquiry.


            We must now ask ourselves what the point of departure for our investigation should be. Where does philosophy “begin”?  With philosophers’ books? Should we start with the Pre-Socratics and then work our way up to our own time to see how the problem of morality has been treated in the history of Western thought? This is a legitimate kind of study. . . but we would then be doing the history of philosophy and not philosophy!


            Someone has said that philosophy does not dwell in books because it can’t fit into so tight a space. Clearly, philosophy does not begin with books. Books themselves are the product of the activity of human beings who have put their thoughts into writing. But these thoughts are not born out of thin air; they are the result of a reflection on experience.


            The point is this: Philosophy can proceed from no other place than what is “immediately given, that is, from the data of experience.”[15]


            Each of us has life experience – in particular, moral experience – something personal and yet common to others. From childhood, we have reflected on these experiences and formed certain ideas concerning what is right and what is wrong, what is beautiful and what is ugly, on good and evil, on man, the world, and God . . . Now, all this together constitutes that “minimum-of-philosophy”[16] which each human being more or less consciously carries within himself. It is from this “minimum” that we begin, reworking our experience to reach the clarifications and the in-depth study proper to ethical/philosophical research.[17]


            But “no man is an island.” None of us can live in a truly human way if not inserted within a social context: a family, a group of friends, a city . . . a web of relations and contacts with other people like us. And these contacts are realized in dialogue. So, philosophical reflection on our own life is enriched and enlivened thanks to dialogue with our neighbor, be it spoken or written.



1. 3. 3. Awareness of Conditioning


            Let’s reflect a moment. We have said that we should let ourselves be guided by wonder, reverence, and loving desire; we have said that it is necessary to proceed from experience and that we ought to re-work the “minimum-of-philosophy” that each of us has within himself. But then, if we think about it, couldn’t this “minimum-of-philosophy” detract from our wonder, transforming it into ideology? Couldn’t it lead us to lose respect for reality by imprisoning it in a pre-conceived schema? Couldn’t this “minimum-of-philosophy” extinguish the love and desire for truth?


            In some cases, yes. But not necessarily.


            It’s clear that we don’t begin our ethical/philosophical reflection as tabulae rasae or blank sheets of paper on which nothing is yet written. In the shaping of that “minimum-of-philosophy,” each of us has been conditioned by his own cultural formation in a wide sense according to the education he has received, the social models that have been proposed to him, his religious tradition, the language he speaks, the economic situations in which he has lived, etc.


In addition, such conditioning is the stronger for not being recognized. If someone deceives himself into thinking that he is totally free, that he has a pure and virginal intelligence of things as they are . . . well, then, he is inevitably destined to remain a slave to prejudices, ideologies, and mythologies that he does not recognize but nonetheless work within him. Plato describes the condition of such a man with the image of a prisoner chained in a cave who sees shadows projected on the back wall and believes that the whole world is there before him.[18]


            No prisoner can free himself if he does not first understand that he is a prisoner! If you want to be free from conditioning, you first have to admit that you have been conditioned. You must first of all recognize the traditions in which you have lived. I myself grew up in a context marked by a western, neo-Latin, Italian mentality; I am a Catholic Christian and I live in a country that declares itself to be Catholic in majority; I was brought up in a family where some behaviors were applauded and others stigmatized; I attended certain schools, etc. What is required is a critical examination of these traditions in their components, at times homogeneous, sometimes contradictory, confronting the way in which they link certain elements to “the things themselves,” to the objective reality of our experience.


            Proceeding in this way, we can attain an ever greater level of objectivity. Whoever is aware of the risk of being conditioned is already potentially free from conditioning.



1. 3. 4. The Obvious and The Evident


            To free ourselves from conditioning, to be as objective as possible, we must distinguish between two concepts that are very often confused and confusing: the obvious and the evident.[19]


            In every tradition, there are elements that are often taken “for granted,” the so-called “obvious” notions commonly admitted in an uncritical way without reasoning about them, without even asking if they are the fruit of knowledge, fantasy, or prejudice . . . For men who lived before Copernicus, for example, it was “obvious” that the sun traveled around the earth. Obvious for them, but mistaken in itself! From the moral point of view, it’s easy to find past examples of “obviousness” that are today repulsive to our thinking: the idea that there exist superior or inferior human races, that women ought to be subject to men, that it is licit to hold some human beings in a state of slavery, and so forth. All these “obvious truths” are recognized now as “obviously false”! How many things are “obvious” to us today that people of the next century will find repugnant?


            Clearly, the fact that a certain position is held to be “obvious” is not alone sufficient criteria for admitting that it is true. Knowing becomes worthy of the name when it abandons “obviousness” and turns toward evidence.


            Something is “evident” to me when it is present to my act of knowing. What I know, I know in as much as it is present to me. I will explain: It is true that there are craters on the moon, but this is not evident to me because I have never had the chance to see them. I “know” that there are craters on the moon because I trust other men who have seen them. Therefore, for me, the proposition:


1. “There are craters on the moon.”


is not evident, since I do not know it in as much as the craters of the moon are present to me, but as they are present to others in whom I trust. On the other hand, the same proposition is evident to an astronomer because craters for him are “present to the act of knowing” thanks to the telescopic observations he has made.


            In the case of craters observed with the telescope, this concerns sensible evidence, as in the case of the proposition:


2. “This page has printing on it.”


This is evident to your senses, to your vision. But there also exists evidence of an intelligible kind, as for example the proposition:


3. “Every closed polygon of three sides necessarily has three angles.”


This is evident to your intellect.


            Examples 2 and 3 are cases of immediate evidence, that is, of evidence gathered directly from reality (sensible in the case of the printed page, intelligible in the case of the triangle). There also exists, however, mediated evidence which is attainable thanks to the mediation of a defined series of immediate evidence. To understand this, think of the theorems of mathematics: you know that the sum of squares constructed on the sides of a right triangle is equal to the square constructed on the hypotenuse. Is this evident? Certainly! Is it immediately evident? Certainly not. It must be demonstrated. I can demonstrate a theorem because I proceed from an immediately evident proposition from which other evidence is obtained, and then other evidence . . . until I arrive at a conclusion. This conclusion at the end is also evident, but thanks to the demonstration, that is to say, in a mediated way.


            Thus, in philosophy, there are some kinds of evidence that are immediate, for example, that moral values can be realized only by persons (can you imagine an honest brick or a prudent salad?), and there are some kinds of evidence that are mediated, for example, that humility is a virtue (it can be demonstrated, but some rather complex reasoning is required).


            In synthesis, to embark on our moral/philosophical inquiry, we need to open ourselves to wonder in front of being, respect reality, and have a loving desire for the truth. The point of departure for our investigation can be nothing other than experience and that minimum-of-philosophy which each of us carries within himself. Nevertheless, so that our work be scientific, we must be aware of the conditioning deriving from our culture and education. Hence, the task of philosophy is that of dismantling the obvious to gain access to the evident.



1. 4. Specific Characteristics of Philosophical Ethics


            We have seen in what relation philosophical research stands to faith, and we have explained the salient characteristics of philosophical method. At this point, we must apply what has been said to the specifically ethical research that we are doing.







1. 4. 1. Ethics is Concerned with Moral Experience



The term “ethics” comes from the Greek éthos, éthous, meaning “use, custom, way of behaving, character,”[20] and corresponds to the Latin mos, moris. For this reason, we make no distinction here between the terms “ethics’ and “morality” but retain them as synonymous. As we have done already, we will use both words indifferently, moved only by stylistic exigency. 


            Let’s try now to better define the task of philosophical ethics. We have said above (1.3.2) that experience is the object of all philosophical reflection. The specific experience of moral/philosophical reflection lies in moral experience. The first step of our research, then, will be to discover in ourselves and in dialogue with our neighbor if an experience of this type exists, essentially distinct from all other types of experience and irreducible to them. We will then describe this experience, penetrating into its essential nucleus, so that we may begin to draw from it the first consequences for human action.


            So, we are to occupy ourselves with moral experience. But from what point of view? What type of knowledge do we intend to have of this object? Do we limit ourselves to describing it? Or do we extract certain practical indications for our way of living, that is to say, certain regulations and norms? And, if so, what type of norms will these be?



1. 4. 2. Is Ethics merely a Descriptive Science?


            There are various currents of thought which hold that ethics is a merely descriptive science and, consequently, non-proscriptive. Let’s take a brief look at the two principle representatives of this thinking: positivism and weak thought.






1. 4. 2. 1. Positivism and “Weak Thought”


            Positivism is a current of thought that arose in the 19th century following the enormous progress achieved by the experimental sciences. As the positivists saw it, the method of the experimental sciences – so valid and fruitful – had to be extended to all other branches of knowledge. However, the experimental sciences limit themselves to “describing” reality without “proscribing” anything. Therefore, in positivist systems, there is no room for a “proscriptive” science: ethics does not teach how a person should behave, but only how people do behave. Moral science has no other end than the description of the practices and customs of different peoples. Ethics is thus transformed into human ethology or cultural anthropology.


            Weak Thought, a very recent movement and still rather prolific, has little or nothing to do with positivism. And yet, in its encounter with ethics, it reaches strangely similar conclusions. According to the proponents of this position, philosophy’s role is that of describing different “models” of behavior: different cultures, different religions, different political orientations, different opinions on good and evil, etc. This description has the end of facilitating dialogue between different models so that we can pass from one to the other in a sort of “round table” that does not arrive at (and cannot arrive at) any conclusion. It seems that the presuppositions of this kind of thinking have been carried away by the exigency of being “democratic.” There is diversity of thinking, diversity of customs, diversity of opinions . . . but, since “all men are equal,” it appears “anti-democratic” or “politically incorrect” to affirm that one person is right and another person wrong. Further, many exponents of this way of thinking define themselves as “libertarian,” that is to say, they believe that individual freedom is the highest value, or precisely, the source of all values. As a result, every normative ethic is defined as “liberty-cide” because it imposes norms to which the freedom of the individual must submit.


            Though originating in different interests, both positivism and weak thought negate the possibility of constructing a normative ethics. As to the question with which we began our inquiry (“How must we be to fully realize our human personality?”), both these positions would maintain that no answer is possible. What can we make of this kind of thinking? I think, Dear Reader, it gives us the opportunity to start using our heads in a critical way!



1. 4. 2. 2. Critique


            Let’s critically examine, therefore, the arguments of both positions.


            Beginning with the positivists, we can schematize their way of arguing thus:


a) The experimental sciences are descriptive and non-normative.


b) Every science (ethics included) must conform itself to the model of the experimental sciences.


c) Therefore, ethics also must be descriptive and non-normative.


            Anyone who knows a minimum of logic will recognize here a formally correct syllogism.[21] But . . . is it true?


            Is the minor premise of this syllogism (the “b”) true? I would say that it is taken arbitrarily for truth. Why should ethics (or philosophy in general) conform itself to the model of the experimental sciences? How can one justify the choice of a determined type of science (experimental) as a paradigm and model for all the sciences? Such an affirmation implies a philosophical position (and, precisely, an “epistemological” affirmation, that is, of the philosophy of science), which is not discussed by those who insist on imposing it. Note well, too, that this affirmation cannot be justified in any way with the methods of experimental science, the supposedly only valid methods available. I mean to say: there does not exist any experimental, scientific procedure which can demonstrate that every science must conform itself to the model of experimental science.[22]


            The conclusion of the syllogism (the “c”), arising thus from an arbitrary premise, is arbitrary in itself. Moreover, it is clearly false because it is self-contradictory (that is, it simultaneously affirms and negates the same thing). It affirms that science must be non-normative while at the same time imposing a norm: the norm of not imposing norms! This norm, thus declared, negates the norm itself. It’s as if someone said: “It’s prohibited to prohibit.” If it’s prohibited to prohibit, how can you prohibit prohibiting? If it’s “prohibited to prohibit,” it’s also “prohibited to prohibit prohibiting”!


            As a sharp thinker has noted: “As a matter of fact, positivism in its various guises is not a wrong philosophy for the simple reason that it is not a philosophy at all.”[23]


            Let us pass now to examining the attitude of weak thought. Here, also, the reasoning proposed can be schematized thus:


A) We are all equal.


B) You and I have different opinions.


C) Hence, your opinions are as worth as mine”.


            This time, the syllogism does not work even at a formal level. In order for it to work, it would be necessary to insert an intermediate demonstration (probatio media), admitting:


B1) Opinions are worth as much as the man who expresses them.


            But I do not see how this affirmation can be acceptable. Frankly, it seems absurd to consider as criteria for evaluating an opinion, not the relationship between thought and the reality of the object of thought, but the relationship between thought and the subject thinking.


            And what of a proof for “A”? Is it really true that you and I are equal? If you are a saint and I am a vicious pervert, do we really have the same worth? Was the wise Socrates as valuable as the brutish despots who condemned him? Was Adolph Hitler as precious as “Mahatma” Gandhi?


            We noted above that libertarians are the self-appointed advocates of these ways of thinking, in the name of the democratic spirit. Alas, they do not take into consideration that democracy itself is put in serious danger by this type of reasoning. To cite again the sharp thinker noted above: “Democracy as a form of political and social life implies not only the recognition of certain objective values put above every discussion, but also immutable obligations. True democracy is conditioned by the clear distinction between freedom and arbitrary act.”[24]


            Hence, the arguments of positivism and weak thought, claiming that ethics must be a merely descriptive and non-normative science, are fallacious.



1. 4. 3. Ethics is a Normative-Categorical Science


            We can assert, therefore, that moral philosophy is not a descriptive science (even if description plays an important part within it). It is fundamentally a normative science: it prescribes certain obligations and imposes certain prohibitions.


            Certainly, there are other normative sciences (maybe it would be better to call them “technologies”), such as engineering or medicine. The engineer says: if you want the roof to stay up, you must support it with beams of these dimensions. The doctor says: if you do not want to die of cirrhosis of the liver, you must stop drinking alcohol. In short, if you want to obtain such an end (and it’s not necessary that you want it), you must have recourse to certain means.


            What distinguishes science or technology from morality is that the former regard certain particular ends that man can choose for himself – or not. Morality, on the other hand, concerns itself with the end of human action as such, that is, the end which man cannot determine for himself.


            Thus, technologies express hypothetical norms: “If you want x, then you must y.” If you want the roof to hold, you have to . . . But it isn’t required that I construct a roof that holds: If I’m building the set for a comic film, for instance, and must prepare a gag in which a fat man breaks through the floor, I have to build a roof that doesn’t hold! If I do not want to die of cirrhosis of the liver, I have to . . . But why should I try to avoid death? Can’t I commit suicide, albeit slowly?


            Morality, on the contrary, expresses categorical norms: you must behave in this or that manner, not only to obtain a particular end, but to realize the end of human existence as such.


            Technologies prescribe how someone should act to be a good engineer, a good doctor, etc. Morality prescribes how someone should act to be a good human being, that is, to be worthy of one’s own humanity.



1. 4. 4. Ethics and Happiness


            From what we have said,  it should be clear that moral philosophy is not limited to furnishing a list of norms, proscriptions, and prohibitions. An ethics reduced in this manner immediately provokes a radical question: Why should I submit myself to such norms? The usual response to such a query is: Because this is the way to be morally good. To which it is easy to reply: But why should I be morally good?


            Hence, before arriving at the formulation of norms, moral philosophy is called upon to reflect on the foundation of the norms themselves. Moral norms are indications; by following them, we can “guide” our life, we can govern our existence in such as way as to develop our personality in relation to God, other people, and the world.


            Thus, the exigency of developing our human personality is the basis of morality. As we will see, the full realization of this development constitutes a happy life, while the means of this development are the virtues.[25]


            In synthesis, we can say that moral philosophy is the science of the good or virtuous life, and therefore, precisely for this reason, it is the art of happiness.






2. Phenomenology of Morality


            The term “phenomenology” may sound strange to someone who has never studied philosophy. Anyone who has followed a course of philosophy in high school, however, will find the sound of this word familiar . . . though very likely its meaning remains somewhat confused. For this reason, I will begin right away with clarifying the meaning of phenomenology for us. I intend to take very seriously the invitation of the founder of the “phenomenological school,” the German philosopher E. Husserl (1859-1938), who responded to the extreme abstraction of the philosophical debate at the beginning of the 20th century by launching the appeal: “Back to the things themselves!” (Zurück, zu den Sachen selbst!). In my opinion, then, phenomenology consists in letting the object which concerns us speak for itself so that we may discover what it is, its essential nucleus, and gather truths rooted in its essence.[26]


            As was noted in the previous chapter, the object which concerns us here is moral experience. We must ask ourselves, then, if specifically moral experiences, distinct from every other type of human experience, actually exist (2.1) and, if so, how they are different from other experiences (2.2).



2. 1. Moral Experiences


            We will begin, first of all, by discussing the positions of those thinkers who negate moral experience, asserting that it can be reduced to other spheres of human experience (2.1.1). We will then take into consideration various moral “phenomena,” such as our judgement of others’ behavior (2.1.2) and our judgement of our own behavior (2.1.3).



2. 1. 1. Attempts at Negation


            A few decades ago, the trend was to refute any kind of morality, labeling it with the pejorative term “moralism.” This cultural attitude received its impetus from the thinking of the so-called “masters of suspicion”: Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Sigmund Freud.


            According to Marx (1818-1883), morality is nothing other than a superstructure that depends on the economic power relations. The only real structure for Marx is the relationship of production and work. This structure necessarily generates a complex of superstructures capable of supporting and defending the structure itself, such as religion, morality, metaphysics, law, the forms of government, etc.[27] Morality, therefore, would have no other end than the defense of the “establishment,” prohibiting anything that disturbs the economic order (e. g., if this order is based on private property, theft will be considered a sin) and imposing whatever supports it (e. g., work, submission to employers, etc.). On the horizon of Marxist thought, then, moral experience – analogous to religious experience – is seen as a sort of alienation (man seeks himself in a mistaken direction) or mystification (power invests with mystical significance that which is purely and simply instrumental for the conservation of existing relationships).


            Nietzsche (1844-1900), for his part, held that traditional morality – what he called “ascetic morality” or “the morality of slaves,” identifying it with Christian morality – is a consequence of the resentment of the weak  and powerless. Humiliated by the very existence of the strong, unable to redeem themselves by the force of arms, the weak and powerless overturn the perception of values calling what is good, “evil” (i. e., strength, pleasure, earthly attachments . . .), and what is evil, “good” (i. e., humility, temperance, renouncement . . .).[28]  Though Nietzsche theorized his own morality, what he called an “aristocratic morality,” culturally his thought led to the belief that moral experience as such is nothing other than the product of the resentment of the weak toward the strong.


            Freud (1856-1939) was the great discoverer of the unconscious. He revealed that a great part of what happens at the level of our awareness is the result of something inside us, in our depths, of which we are unaware. Consequently, moral experience, in particular, is the result of unconscious mechanisms of repression and censure, above all regarding sexual desire (or libido).[29] Our “ego” is determined by the conflict between, on the one hand, an instinctive part, called the “Id,” regulated by “the pleasure principle” (that is, oriented compulsively toward what is pleasurable) and, on the other hand, a rational part, called the “super-ego,” regulated by the “reality principle” (that is, by the consideration that determined pleasures cannot be pursued here and now). The “Id” is man in his natural state – the child that pursues pleasure without remorse. The “Super-ego” takes shape primarily through the intervention of the father figure when the child is prohibited the pleasure deriving from the possession of the mother. The libido is thus repressed, sublimated, and censured. Morality (the entire ensemble of rules, norms, and models of behavior) is the result of this repression and its consequent identification with the father figure. With such a schema, it’s easy to conclude that moral experience is nothing other than the product of repressed sexuality.


            On the basis of ideas such as these, some thinkers have theorized the end of any kind of morality.


            Nevertheless, morality is not dead. A good observer has noted: “The critique of morality has often been maintained by militant attitudes that in their turn uncovered the moral inspiration at the base of the moral criticism itself.”[30] This is tantamount to saying that, in their effort to destroy morality, protesters have demonstrated a notable amount of . . . moralizing! It’s as if they thought (if I may make use of a play on words): It’s immoral to impose morality, therefore, we have the moral duty to impose amorality.


            While traditional models of behavior have been put in crisis, other no less “moralistic” models have entered in to take their place. In the unconscious, taboos tied to sexuality have been supplanted by other taboos, for example, that of death or suffering. In place of a resentment against life and strength, there has been substituted a resentment against the weak which seeks their liquidation, be they fetuses, deformed children, the sick, the aged, etc. Moreover, the economic structures of society continue to produce their super-structural models, making use of the powerful means of mass communication to impose rules of behavior that serve the system.


            Yet, notwithstanding all this, there persist true moral attitudes that bear witness to how much moral experience is rooted in the essence of human life. We will examine these experiences first in reference to our judgement on the behavior of others, and then in reference to the judgement we make on our own behavior.



2. 1. 2. Judging the Behavior of Others


In front of the behavior of others, spontaneous reactions of approval or disapproval arise within us. 



2. 1. 2. 1. Scandal


            A first phenomenon to take into consideration is that of scandal. The word (French: scandale; Spanish: escandalo; Italian: scandalo) derives from the Greek skàndalon meaning “an obstacle that causes someone to fall.” In current language, the word expresses a reaction of indignation and vibrant moral protest against situations or events viewed as intolerable. The sense of irritation and resentment implicit in scandal is expressed clearly by the German term Ärgernis.


            In the past, people were scandalized by an action that transgressed the dominant canons of behavior.[31] Later, paradoxically, such a transgression could “come into fashion.” I say “paradoxically” because fashion itself is constituted by canons (rules) of behavior. Hence, to suggest a “fashion of transgression” is a contradiction in terms, like a canon calling for the refutation of all canons or a custom denying custom. As a matter of fact, however, this is just how things are proceeding. You would think that nothing could scandalize us anymore. Yet, in reality, we continue to be scandalized by many things. We express this experience more or less explicitly by saying: “No one should ever act that way! It shouldn’t be allowed!”


            Clearly, the existence of scandal affirms the permanence of moral sense. “To be scandalized, in fact, means still being able to be surprised that certain deeds can happen. It means bestowing on these deeds, even implicitly, a negative value judgement. This not only supposes that there is no moral apathy; it implies reference to an axiological horizon [i. e., a framework of values] in the light of which some deeds provoke scandal differently than others.”[32] In the past, libertinism scandalized; today, intolerance scandalizes. The framework of values has changed (this mutation must be examined critically), but moral sense remains. This is to say that the attitude persists by which we judge a certain type of behavior “inadmissible” because it is “incompatible with human dignity” or “unworthy of man.”



2. 1. 2. 2. Admiration


            Another phenomenon to consider is admiration. The term (visually identical in French and English: admiration; in Spanish: admiración; in Italian ammirazione) derives from the Latin ad-mirari: to behold. The Latin word expresses the esteem and wonder that is felt in front of things that are both beautiful and extraordinary. This sense of wonder is underlined by the German expression Bewunderung, from Wunder: marvel, wonder.


            We feel admiration before very different objects. In fact, our admiration changes essentially according to the type of object eliciting it. In classical terms, we can say that the concept of admiration is not univocal, but analogical. I can admire a natural spectacle (an alpine panorama, a sunset on the sea, etc.), or I can admire a work of human hands. Clearly, the meaning of admiration is different in both cases: in the first, it turns exclusively on the consideration of the beauty or sublimity of natural scenery; in the second, there also enters in esteem for a person or his accomplishment.[33]


            Let us concentrate, then, on the second case. Admiration for a human work includes appreciation for its author. We can call this appreciation an “admiration-of-esteem.”


            Nevertheless, this admiration-of-esteem does not have a univocal meaning, either. For example, I can admire the work of an artist and appreciate him in as much as he is an artist without admiring and esteeming him as a man. Indeed, a man can be a great painter and at the same time be given to violence and thievery! The same can be said of the work of a technician, a scientist, a man of letters, etc. I can say: “John is great in his field, but as a human being he doesn’t amount to anything.”


But a person’s conduct can also elicit admiration for its originator as a man. When we read Plato’s Crito or the Apology of Socrates, for example, we feel esteem not only for Socrates’s behavior as someone accused, imprisoned, and condemned, but for Socrates as a man.


            This admiration-of-esteem for a man as a man is a moral experience. We have said (1.1) that morality is born from the question: “How must we be to fully realize our human personality?” Well, when we admire someone as a human being, we are implicitly on the way to responding to this question since we are in front of the concrete evidence of a human personality fully realized.


            Clearly, we cannot be scandalized by something or admire someone if we have no idea, even if only embryonic, of how a human being should be and  behave. Such a sentiment would be impossible if we did not have a framework of values on the basis of which to judge. But let us proceed with our analysis.



2. 1. 3. Judging Our Own Behavior


            Not only our neighbor’s behavior can give rise in us to reactions of approval of disapproval. Our own behavior is also subject to the judgement we make of ourselves and generates diverse phenomena.



2. 1. 3. 1. Remorse


            Let us begin with the phenomenon of remorse. The word (French: remords; Spanish: remordimiento; Italian: rimorso) derives from the Latin remordere, to bite again, signifying the interior torment consequent on the awareness of an evil that has been committed. The Jewish Dutch philosopher B. Spinoza (1632-1677) called remorse “the bite of conscience” with a Latin expression (conscientiae morsus) which translates literally in German as Gewissensbiss.


The feeling of interior suffering . . . is so profound as to subtend, condition, and bring about a complex range of other sentiments, such as anguish, sadness, fear, awe, despair, etc., so well expressed in the biblical narration of the fratricide of Cain at the dawn of guilty humanity (Genesis 4:9-12) and in the vast literary production of every time period, from Euripides’s Orestes (vv. 385-447) to Shakespeare’s Macbeth, to Dostoevskij’s Crime and Punishment.[34]


            Remorse is the tragic experience par excellence in which a guilty past raises itself against the present, creating fractures in the soul of the subject. What is it that creates this inner division? The awareness of having “done evil,” that is, of having broken, by one’s own actions, the right order of things; of having contradicted “pleas and appeals of value that resound strongly within us.”[35] Implicit in the experience of remorse is a sense of absoluteness: accusation comes from the intimate depths of our soul and yet transcends us. We cannot manipulate or eliminate it. The right order that we have broken is not “posed” by us, but “im-posed” upon us, that is to say, from on high. In fact, if I myself had determined this order, I would be able to change it, adapting it to what I have done in such a way as to no longer stand condemned by it . . . Yet, despite whatever I do, judgement is rendered in virtue of a law that I do not give myself – a law which transcends me.[36]



2. 1. 3. 2. Gratification


            The experience opposite to remorse is that of gratification. We feel this in ourselves when we are aware of having acted (or of acting) rightly. We commonly express this experience with words such as “serenity,” “satisfaction,” or “joy.” Perhaps the action for which I now feel gratified was rather difficult; perhaps it “cost” me fatigue or pain. Probably I have lost some benefit by behaving in this way . . . But “it was worth it!” The price paid has bought me an incomparable good: I was “myself.” I did not sell myself. I continued to direct my life toward the ideals in which I believe. I can walk with my head held high. I can return my own gaze when I look in the mirror.


            The significance of this experience emerges by contrast when someone accuses us falsely. For example, if someone tries to lay the blame on me for a fault I have not committed, I might be bothered by the accusation, but it cannot rob me of my deepest interior serenity because I know that I didn’t do anything wrong. And again, if someone maliciously interprets my innocent behavior, I still do not lose my peace of mind because I know that I have acted honestly. When Socrates was accused of impiety and corrupting the youth, he responded: “What do I deserve for behaving in this way? Some reward, gentlemen, if I am bound to suggest what I really deserve, and what is more, a reward which would be appropriate for myself.”[37] And then he asked to be maintained as a champion, with room and board at the expense of the city!



2. 2. Essential Characteristics of Moral Experience


            Let’s go deeper now into the meaning of these experiences, examining their essential contents. First of all, we will look at how these experiences always have some voluntary behavior as their object (2.2.1). We will than see that in these experiences the will is moved in a very special way: it is obligated by duty (2.2.2). We will then explain how this duty, far from being “against” man’s freedom, presupposes and involves it. Consequently, we will consider the dimension of responsibility inherent in duty (2.2.3). Finally, we will describe the rapport between duty and happiness (2.2.4).



2. 2. 1. Experiences that Concern the Will


            A first, evident characteristic of moral experience is that it regards the will. This becomes clear if we reflect on the “positive” experiences described above: admiration and gratification.


            The object of moral admiration is precisely the will of the admired subject.


            We can admire someone because they have beautiful eyes – but clearly this is not an admiration-of-esteem since there is nothing “meritorious” in having beautiful eyes. Possessing a beautiful quality does not depend on the will of the subject; hence, there can be no merit attached to it. A quality can be appreciated, but not esteemed in a moral sense.


            Similarly, I can admire and appreciate someone’s intelligence. Yet, if this intelligence is simply a gift of nature, something the person himself has never cultivated or put at the service of the community, my esteem – which perhaps here would better be called “appreciation” – regards only the intelligence and not the person. There is no merit in having a “gift of nature.”


            I can admire and esteem someone who is very capable in his work or art. But here, even if my esteem should not extend to the whole personality of the subject, it is clear that admiration also regards what the subject, through his voluntary behavior, has accomplished to become the professional or artist that he is. It is for this that he deserves merit.


            In the case of genuine moral admiration, the kind we experience when we consider the actions of Socrates, or M. Atilius Regulus,[38] or Maximilian Kolbe,[39] etc., what we esteem – as has already been said – is the person of these heroes as such. The motivation for our admiration, if we reflect well on it, is nothing other than their voluntary conduct.


            Socrates could have escaped his condemnation by means of the flight prepared for him by his disciples, or by agreeing to compromise with his accusers. He did neither. To his disciples, he offered this explanation:


Gentlemen, I am your very grateful and devoted servant, but I owe a greater obedience to God than to you, and so long as I draw breath and have my faculties, I shall never stop practicing philosophy and exhorting you and elucidating the truth for everyone that I meet.[40]


He draws an admission out of the friend who proposed flight to him:


SOCRATES: Do we say that one must never willingly do wrong, or does it depend upon circumstances? Is it true, as we have often agreed before, that there is no sense in which wrongdoing is good or honorable? Or have we jettisoned all our former convictions in these last few days? Can you and I at our age, Crito, have spent all these years in serious discussions without realizing that we were no better than a pair of children? Surely the truth is just what we have always said. Whatever the popular view is, and whether the alternative is pleasanter than the present one or even harder to bear, the fact remains that to do wrong is in every sense bad and dishonorable for the person who does it. Is that our view, or not?

CRITO: Yes, it is.

SOCRATES: Then in no circumstances must one do wrong. . . . Well, here is my next point, or rather question. Ought one to fulfill all one’s agreements, provided that they are right, or break them?

CRITO: One ought to fulfill them.[41]


            Hence, Socrates’s greatness, the thing that moves us to admiration, lies in his will not to betray his mission for wisdom and justice.


            In the same way, M. Atilius Regulus could have escaped the horrendous torture that his enemies prepared for him either by encouraging the Roman Senate to accept terms favorable to Carthage, or by not returning to the city of his imprisonment. But he willed to remain faithful to the oath he had made.


            Maximilian Kolbe could have avoided the “starvation bunker” of Auschwitz if he hadn’t offered himself voluntarily to die in the place of his fellow prisoner.


            An analogous discourse could be made for the experience of gratification of conscience: we “feel good” because we have willed to act one way rather than another. Our will was stronger than the flattery and seduction of improper behavior.


            We can conclude, then, that moral experience arises only in the presence of voluntary behavior.



2. 2. 2. Experiences that Obligate the Will


            Moral experience also has to do with a peculiar “movement” of the will. We can see this more clearly by comparing it with other kinds of experience.


            There are human experiences that do not move the will. Knowing some truth of mathematics or natural science, for example, can leave the will completely indifferent. Does knowing that the square root of 196 is 14 move you to want or not want something? And when you know that water reaches its greatest density at 4° centigrade, is there any movement of your will? Probably not.


            Now, compare these experiences with some others. Take, for example, the aesthetic experience of contemplating something beautiful. Looking at a landscape or work of art, or listening to music, does not only involve the senses (vision, hearing) or the intelligence (understanding the meaning, the “message” of what the senses perceive), but also the will. In fact, the experience of the beautiful gives rise to a desire to prolong or extend the experience.


            It’s not difficult to see that this involvement of the will is very different from what happens in moral experience. In aesthetic experience, the will is attracted by pleasure, while in moral experience, it is obligated by duty.


            This becomes clear if we compare these “positive” moral experiences with the “negative” moral experiences described above, particularly scandal, remorse, and the objection of conscience. We are scandalized by deeds that should not happen, that cannot be permitted, that someone (society, the authorities, etc.) has an obligation to stop. We feel remorse when we understand that we have betrayed our duty to do or to avoid something. We were obligated to do something, but we willfully fled from this obligation. Before the prospect of consenting to an injustice, a voice rises within us that shouts firmly: You must not! You are obligated to deny yourself no matter what the cost!


            The drama and fascination of ethical experience consist precisely in this appeal of duty to the will, an appeal we call “moral obligation.”



2. 2. 3. Duty, Freedom, and Responsibility


            Let us concentrate now on the phenomenon of moral obligation. In appearance, obligation or duty seem to be realities that exclude the freedom of the subject: I am free if I am not obligated. I feel free when I have no duty to fulfill.


            In reality, this is a very superficial way of looking at things.


            Let us consider our experience somewhat more attentively. In what circumstances do we perceive a duty? I have no sense of duty in regard to being tall, or being born on such and such a day, or having had these parents . . . I cannot perceive these things as “duties” because I am not free in their regard!


            We see easily enough that the perception of a duty obligating us to behave in a certain way would be impossible if we were not simultaneously aware of our capacity to behave in another way.


            Let us take a banal example: On a deserted street, I find a wallet containing a notable sum of money and the identifying documents of the owner. I know very well that I have a duty to return the wallet, a duty that startles me because I realize I also have the power to keep the money for myself. I must do something, but I must to it freely – meaning that I could just as well not do it.


            Hence, the experience of moral obligation involves freedom. Where freedom is lacking, there is no moral experience.


            Moral duty presents itself, then, as an appeal, a call that we must freely answer. This means that moral experience is always an experience of responsibility (from the Latin respondere, to answer).


            Responsibility, however, makes sense only insofar as it regards a subject who calls and “asks an accounting” in the form of determined behavior. For believers, moral responsibility is distinguished first of all before God, to whom we must “answer” for our actions. But we are also aware that our lives unfold in a context of relations with other people, in a society. Hence, we must all render account for our conduct to other human subjects and to the community as such. And finally, each of us is ultimately responsible to himself, to his own conscience, with regard to the “outcome” of his own life, to the attainment of that exceedingly desirable end which we may call “the good life” or happiness.   



2. 2. 4. Duty and Happiness


            If it is true that duty obliges my will, it is also true that I can perceive a duty only if a good is presented to me. I mean to say that a certain action (for example, to return the wallet to the legitimate owner) presents itself as good, and therefore, I feel that I must do it.


Everything depends on understanding why some actions present themselves as good (and their contraries as bad). We must take this discourse a little further, entering again into the depth of the conscience, asking ourselves about our desires, our aspirations, our hopes, and our plans ( We can then clarify the concept of good in view of moral action ( Lastly, we will consider what approach to take to the problem of moral evil (



2. 2. 4. 1. Living Fully


            It’s possible to spend our days in boring, banal monotony with nothing to engage us, nothing “worth it” to which we can devote ourselves – just existing.[42] Living this way makes it easy for the will to be moved by the attraction of the moment, by the desire for immediate pleasure.


            There are those, in fact, whose sole aim is to satisfy every impulse as quickly as possible. After a while, however, this way of life ends up being . . . unsatisfying! I can’t help but think of the future: How long can I keep living like this? What do I have to look forward to when I’m old? Why live at all? The search for an end begins, and many hopes come to mind.


            The fact is that behind the many kinds of desires we have there is one fundamental desire that motivates them all and gives sense to our very capacity to “aspire” to something: the desire to be happy. But the concept of happiness is one of the most vague and undetermined to appear on the horizon of our minds. What does it mean to be happy? For some, it means simply “to enjoy,” to go in search of pleasure wherever it is found. From this perspective, the good life is simply the “pleasurable” life, the “dolce vita” (sweet life). Søren Kierkegaard described this kind of life with the theatrical image of Don Giovanni, the seducer who always succeeds in his libertine pursuits but is forced to fulfill them again and again in different ways because as soon as he grasps the object of his desire, it dies in his hands, leaving him with an always greater void to fill.[43] In effect, pleasure is fleeting, and when it is sought for itself, inevitably disappears, leaving us a profound sense of frustration that leads to a disgust for life, as well as mental illness – as clinical psychology demonstrates.[44]


            On the other hand, as everyone knows, technology today has made possible the “virtual experience”: A subject is linked to a certain machine that stimulates him in such a way as to transmit all the sensations he desires without the presence of that reality which normally procures them for him. Let us imagine that someone suggests we live out our existence in a very pleasurable “virtual reality.”[45] Would we consider this a happy life? I don’t think so.


            The fact is that the object of our desire is not pleasure but the thing that procures pleasure! Certainly, we want to enjoy . . . but enjoy something! Or better said, we want “something,” and we welcome the pleasure that it brings. We can define this “something” that we desire as “the good.”


            What we hope for is something desirable. But even something scarcely desirable in itself can be considered attractive in view of a further end. For example, a long journey on a train can be boring in itself, but very desirable if it leads me to the embrace of someone I love.


            And you, Dear Reader, as you read these pages, perhaps you are finding it a bit tiring or boring . . . What keeps you going? Maybe the desire to learn – or the fear of exams? But why learn – or why pass exams? Perhaps to carry out a certain service? You see, we return to the central question: “Why live at all?” I can face an experience that is unpleasant (having a cavity filled) or tiring (getting up early in the morning to study) or boring (reading certain books . . .), provided that it forms part of the global end of my life.


            In effect, there is something for which I must desire and hope, something which represents the meaning of every one of my desires: I want to be happy. I want to realize fully my existence, that is, to develop completely my personality. All that I desire, all that I hope for, I desire and hope for because I believe that it can contribute to my true happiness.[46]



2. 2. 4. 2. Positive and Negative Values


If we think about it, the things that we know and the things that we do appear to us as desirable and attractive, as positive values, when we find some merit in them that attracts our desire. In other words, something presents itself to me as a value by appearing to me as an end or goal of a certain tendency of mine. This end is desirable if I don’t have it yet, or satisfying if I possess it already. In every case, it in some way contributes to my happiness.


            Something presents itself as a negative value if it constitutes an impediment to the acquisition of a positive value, or if I recognize it as repugnant to one of my tendencies or plans. A negative value foreseen in the future elicits fear; experienced in the present, it entails disablement or pain.


            At this point, we can formulate some first definitions:


·        Whoever acts does so in view of an end. This indicates the intentionality of human action.


·        What appears as an end manifests some good which attracts my desires (a value).


·        What we desire, we call “good.” This good presents itself as the end of action. We call its contrary “evil.”


We should note that the concept “good” we are describing here is slightly different from that of everyday language. For example, the goal of an assassin is murder. Objectively, such an end is evil, but the assassin could not desire it if it did not appear to him (hence, subjectively) as a good for him (that is, he hopes to profit from it). In effect, everything that is desired, that moves the will, must necessarily appear, at least under some aspects, as a good.



2. 2. 4. 3.  Good, Useful, and Delightful


            From what we have said above, it is clear that the concept “good” is not univocal, but analogous.[47] It indicates something that corresponds to desire . . . but we can desire something in very different ways. This is evident in the example described above: I can desire to track down the owner of a wallet that I have found. I can desire to return to him what he has lost. I can desire the gratification of my conscience which will come out of this act of restitution.


To track down the wallet’s owner is a useful good, that is to say, a means through which I realize a further end: the end of returning the wallet. Therefore, whatever is useful is called “good” in function of some other good.


On the other hand, to experience the gratification of my conscience is a delightful good. Here also, the gratification arises from the presence of another good, that is, the returning of the wallet. Therefore, whatever is “delightful” is called “good” in function of some other good.


However, to return the wallet is a good in itself, that is, a good not as a means or a consequence of something else. It is good in itself as an action that corresponds to the truth of things, to the dignity of the human person. For this reason, this action is a “duty”: it elicits in the conscience the obligation to submit to it. As soon as an action concerns a true and proper good, it is designated a virtuous good.


      We have, then, some definitions:


·        A useful good is a means to reaching a further end.


·        A delightful good is that which procures pleasure.


·        A virtuous good is that which is an end in itself.


Furthermore, it’s evident that among these three analogues there is a hierarchical and dependent relationship:


·        We can be delighted by something. It follows that whatever procures delight is more important (= it is good in a stronger sense) than the delight itself.


·        A thing can be useful for another thing. Hence, the end is more important (= it is a good in a stronger sense) than the means of reaching it.


Consequently, the “good” in a full sense is the virtuous good – that which is desired for itself and not in relation to anything else.



2. 2. 4. 4. And What about Evil?


But if everything we want is wanted because it represents a good for us, what then is evil?


We must distinguish two levels: that of being (the ontic level) and that of acting (the moral level).


On the plane of being, everything, in as much as it is, is good in itself. Its being, in fact, constitutes its perfection. The in-depth investigation of this concept is the job of metaphysics; here we can only give a brief illustration of it.


What kinds of things can be defined “bad”? Can a material object (a stone, a liquid, a gas) be bad? Certainly, a stone can be a bad conductor of electricity, that is, bad in as much as it is little or no use for a determined end. But this end (to conduct electricity well) is a finality that we ourselves impose on the stone. It is not that of the stone itself! A liquid can be bad as a drink; a gas can be bad because it is toxic for man – but neither of these material objects is bad in itself in as much as it is.


Perhaps, then, a living being (an animal, a plant, a virus) can be bad? Our fables our full of “big, bad wolves,” for example . . . But why are these creatures bad? Because they are damaging for man, or for sheep, but certainly not because in themselves and for themselves they constitute any evil. If fables were written by wolves, they would be full of big, bad hunters!


Assuredly, we can express certain “value judgements” (which are not, however, moral judgements) on objects. For example, we can say that a chair is a bad chair if it has one leg shorter than the others; or that an eye is a bad eye if it does not see well. But let us understand in what the “evil” of these objects consists: in a privation of order, form, or measure that renders them in some way lacking or deficient.[48] At this level, moralists speak of ontic evil, not in the sense that evil is something, but that it is the privation of some element that contributes to the perfection of a determined being. Illness and death are evils in this sense.


Returning again to the moral plane, we should recall that the good and evil we are considering regard man’s voluntary behavior. We have said that everything we want and choose, we want and choose because it appears to us as a good, that is, as desirable. Consequently, bad human behavior does not consist in choosing what is bad, but in choosing badly. We have observed that there is an analogy and a hierarchy among goods. Evil, then, consists in choosing an inferior good instead of a superior good, that is, in giving priority to the useful or the pleasurable to the detriment of the true good, since the good of man, the good of life, consists  precisely in a virtuous life.


From this perspective, it is clear that an action which involves an ontic evil can be good (for example, Socrates drinking the Hemlock). In fact, in the qualification of human behavior as good or bad, it is completely misleading to limit oneself to the consideration of the ontic goods involved.


At this point, we have described the essential elements of moral experience. We are still very far, however, from determining what constitutes a good and virtuous life, a life that realizes true and proper happiness. This will be the theme of the chapters to follow.







3. Voluntary Behavior


The phenomenology of moral experience described in chapter two has shown us that moral experience arises before voluntary behavior. We must now take a close look at this latter notion. We will do so first of all by asking ourselves under what conditions we can define a behavior as “voluntary” and by studying the role intelligence and will in our behavior (3. 1). Since our being cannot be reduced to intelligence and will alone, important though they may be, we will also examine the role of emotions and feelings in our actions (3. 2). At this point of our investigation, we will be able to tackle the fascinating and complex theme of freedom (3. 3), a freedom that builds itself up, act after act, through our own action, thus enabling us to change not only the world around us, but our very own personality (3. 4).



3. 1. Conditions of Voluntary Behavior


Under what conditions can our actions be defined as voluntary? This might appear to be an idle question with an all too easy tautological response: A behavior is voluntary when we want to do it! This is true . . . but not enough. We will try to bring some light to the subject by first of all introducing a classical, terminological distinction between acts of man and human acts (3. 1. 1). We will then do a phenomenological analysis of voluntary action (3. 1. 2) in order to prepare ourselves to examine the respective roles that intelligence (3. 1. 3) and will (3. 1. 4) play in it.



3. 1. 1. Acts of Man and Human Acts


It’s very easy to see that not everything we do depends on our will. Think, for example, of all the operations relating to vegetative life (digestion, respiration, sleep, dreams, etc.), the neuro-motor reflexes, the tic (which is precisely an “uncontrolled movement”), and so forth. I am truly the subject of these processes insofar as I am the one who digests, who dreams, etc. However, such processes occur in me without the cooperation of my will. On the same plane, though in a qualified sense, we can speak of acts performed under psychological compulsion (sleep walking, hallucinations, raptus, hypnosis, etc.) or pharmacological influence (drugs, alcohol). A person who is “not himself” can perform determined acts, but – precisely because he is “not himself” – he performs them without having any real power over the acts themselves.


We have seen in the preceding chapter that one of the characteristics of moral experience is the possibility of judging behavior as worthy or not worthy of the human person. Let us consider, then, the case of a sleepwalker who, in his sleep, throws himself from a balcony and dies. Would we say that he committed suicide? Obviously not! He really killed himself, but he did not do it voluntarily.


      With this we reach a first terminological and conceptual clarification:


·        Only voluntary acts are moral acts (that is, morally qualifiable as good or evil.)


Properly speaking, non-voluntary acts, even though accomplished by a human being, are not qualifiable as human. We can make two classical distinctions in this regard: 


·        acts of man = every act of a human subject (thus including non-voluntary acts).


·        human acts = every act in which man expresses himself as man, that is, every act that bears the specific imprint of humanity.


But what is the specific imprint of humanity? What renders man different from all other beings? Man is a rational animal: “animal” is the proximate genus to which man belongs (it indicates that man is not mineral or vegetable or pure spirit); “rational” is the specific difference that distinguishes the human species from all other animal species.


Now, by saying man is “rational,” we basically want to affirm that he is endowed with those characteristics that are called, in everyday language, intelligence and will. This is to say that man is capable of understanding and willing. Hence, we can conclude:


·        When an action is performed with both intelligence and will, it is a human act, that is, a moral act.


In the preceding chapter (2. 2. 4), we said that our actions aim at something, and it is precisely from this fact that the concept “good” is born: the “good” is that to which a person tends or aspires. This aspiration or willing is defined as intentionality (from “in-tend” = to tend towards).


“Good” is something that appears “worthy of being desired, worthy of being an object of aspiration,” insofar as it is judged such by the acting subject. Clearly, this judgement is correct when it is rational.


We have, then, the two sides of the question: on the one hand, the human faculty of aspiration (will); on the other, that of judging (intelligence). We must now look at the relationship between these two realities.



3. 1. 2. Phenomenology of Voluntary Action


If I reflect on my actions, I notice some constant characteristics[49]:


1. Before acting, I more or less represent to myself what I am about to do. For example, if I think about getting a degree in philosophy, this goal appears to my mind as a good.


2. My will adheres to this good: obtaining a degree in philosophy seems to me desirable. But I have not yet decided anything in its regard.


3. I then ask myself if it is effectively possible that I pursue such a degree. I reason about it, asking myself if I am up to it, if I have the means, and so forth. If I make a positive judgement on the possibility of attaining my goal, then I proceed.


4. I decide to earn my degree in philosophy: I am seriously bent on doing it.


5. I think of all the steps I have to take to graduate (applying, getting registered, attending classes, studying, taking exams, writing the dissertation, etc.), that is, I look into the necessary means for reaching the end I have set for myself, the actions that will permit me to acquire the degree.


6. In the face of all that must be done, I could be discouraged . . . But, I express my consent: I commit myself to making the effort.


7. Then comes the moment when I must get down to work. Where do I begin? I have to think about it. Of the different possibilities before me I judge one better than the others.


8. I choose, then, to put the preceding judgement into practice.


9. In front of the means chosen (to attend lessons on these certain days, to study at these hours, etc.), reason then commands me to make use of them.


10. I use the means necessary to obtain my end.


11. At last, I obtain the degree and I enjoy the results of my efforts.



In the first part of this process (1-4), the acts performed regard the end; in the intermediate part (5-10), they regard the means. The final act (11) is the accomplishment of the end – that which was willed from the beginning and set the entire process in motion.


·        What is first in intention is last in execution.


Note that in the acts listed above there is an alternation between intelligence and will. This is represented in the following schema[50]:










1. Simple thought of the good



2. Simple inefficacious will of the good


3. Judgement by which the end is presented as possible



4. Efficacious intention of this end


5. Deliberation



6. Consent


7. Practical judgement on the most suitable means



8. Choice of such means


9. Command of the reason



10. Use of the means




11. Enjoyment of the good




            Let’s go deeper now into the specific role of the intelligence and the will in human action.



3. 1. 3. Intelligence in the Human Act


            Intelligence contributes to the realization of the human act in as much as it allows us to know both the end of an action and the means to pursue it. A principle of classical ethics says:


·        Nothing is willed that is not first known (nil volitum nisi praecognitum).


This is a self-evident principle that has no need of demonstration; in fact, a demonstration in the strict sense would be impossible. On the other hand, it is possible to present some evidence in support of this principle. Take the case of finding yourself in a foreign restaurant. You are given a menu written in a language that you do not understand. The waiter asks you to choose among the dishes indicated. Can you really make a choice? Clearly not, since you do not know the items from which you are asked to choose. You could “want” this dish rather than that dish only if you received some explanation, even summarily, on their composition. It is clear, then, that the will wants something in response to the intelligence that knows this something and recognizes it as a good.


To clarify the moral relevance of this principle, let’s look at some examples. It can happen that a woman is sterilized under different conditions:


a) The woman herself submits to the operation knowing what it will mean for her and knowing also that such an action in itself is gravely disordered. Nevertheless, she judges that in her condition it would be convenient to be sterilized.


b) The woman submits to the operation knowing its end, but without any awareness that it is a morally disordered act.


c) The woman submits to the operation without knowing the end, simply trusting in her doctors who profess they have her best interests at heart.


d) The woman is sterilized without her knowledge after having been given narcotics.


            In cases “a” and “b,” the subject performs a human act because she knows what she is doing, that is, she understands the physical nature of the act. Hence, she acts knowingly. Full moral responsibility, however, is present only in example “a” since the subject understands the moral quality of the act, something lacking to the subject in example “b.”


            In cases “c” and “d,” the subject does not perform a human act at all and clearly cannot be considered morally responsible for her own sterilization. In example “c,” the woman’s condition is one of ignorance: she does not know what the operation will mean for her. In example “d,” the woman’s condition may be called inadvertent since she is not aware of being sterilized.


            We can give the following definitions:


·        Knowledge = the awareness of an act in its physical consistency and its end, as well as its moral quality, that is, its rightness or wrongness. The opposite of knowledge is ignorance or doubt.


·        Advertence = the awareness of accomplishing a determined act, an awareness that appears and disappears together with the act itself. The opposite of advertence is inadvertence.


·        A human act necessarily requires both knowledge and advertence.



 3. 1. 4. The Will in the Human Act


            We have said that the will acts in response to a known good. It should be stressed, however, that the will has its own way of responding and its own characteristics in responding which are not to be confused with the acts of intelligence. As we can easily verify, it’s one thing to see and know the good, and quite another to want that good and tend toward it with the appropriate action. As Ovid said: “I see the right way and approve it, but follow the wrong” (Video meliora proboque, deteriora sequor).[51] I know, for example, that it is good to study . . . but that doesn’t necessarily mean that I want to study!


            We have said that an act can be called moral or human only in so far as it is voluntary. We must now define this concept more precisely by first of all distinguishing what is voluntary from its contrary (the involuntary), and then by distinguishing the different species of the voluntary (simple or relative, willed or tolerated).



3. 1. 4. 1. Voluntary and Involuntary


            The will guarantees that an act I perform is “mine,” that is, that my behavior proceeds from me myself, from within me. It ensures that I am the “author and protagonist” of my actions and not the passive object of the actions of others.


            To return to the preceding example of the woman being sterilized, let’s take the case of the woman who fully understands the nature of the operation she is having but is compelled by force to submit to it. Who would say that such a woman has committed a human act? Who would consider her responsible for being sterilized? She is not, in fact, the one acting; she is only submitting to an action, and doing so against her will. We can speak of voluntary sterilization (hence, a human act), only when the woman herself asks for such an operation because that is precisely what she wants.


            But what about this case: Due to an operation, a woman is rendered sterile in a non-voluntary way. Once aware of her condition, however, she approves it with her own will. In this case, the sterilization, even though involuntary, is nevertheless willed. Such would be the case for a husband who wishes his wife to be sterilized but does nothing to induce her to submit to the operation. In this instance, the wife’s sterilization is willed by the husband, but it is certainly not voluntary on the husband’s part because he has not acted.


            Hence, we can formulate the following definitions[52]:


·        An act is called voluntary when it is caused by the will of the subject.


·        An act is willed when it is approved by the will (even when not caused by it).


·        An act is involuntary when performed against the will of the subject.


·        An act is non-voluntary when it is done without the approval of the subject’s will.



3. 1. 4. 2. Simple Voluntary and Relative Voluntary


            We have arrived, then, at a definition of “voluntary action.” However, we should note that in the realm of this category of acts important differences exist.


            Let’s consider two cases:


a) A man meets a child, the son of his worst enemy. On whatever pretext, he slaps him in the face.


b) A father sees his son do something wrong, something for which the child has been admonished many times. To correct him, he feels compelled to give him a slap – though he does so with a heavy heart.


            We have here two voluntary actions, but there is a substantial difference.


            In the first case, the man’s will tends directly to striking the child. In his senseless anger, he wants to slap this boy whom he takes for an enemy. In the second case, however, the father does not want to hit his son since this means suffering for both the child and the parent; nevertheless, given the unfavorable circumstances, the father wants to strike the boy because otherwise, uncorrected, the child would be on the path to even greater suffering.


            In the first case, we are looking at the simple voluntary, that is, an action to which the will of the subject fully adheres. The second case, on the other hand, illustrates the limited voluntary, that is, an action to which the will of the subject adheres only in relation to a determined, unwilled circumstance.


            We can define, then:


·        the simple voluntary as an act that constitutes in itself the object of the tendency of the will of the subject;


·        the relative or limited voluntary as an act to which the will of the subject tends, much to his regret, in order to respond to a particular situation.



3. 1. 4. 3. Willed Voluntary and Tolerated Voluntary


            Let’s examine two other cases, very similar in appearance, but very different  in substance:


a) A pregnant woman with serious health problems procures an abortion so as not to aggravate her condition (an act rather incorrectly labeled “therapeutic abortion”).


b) A pregnant woman discovers that she has cancer of the uterus and has her uterus surgically removed, with the consequent death of the fetus.


            These cases seem similar because the effects are analogous: the health of the mother and the death of the child. In reality, however, they are very different in terms of the central point. In the first case, the will of the woman tends directly to the killing of the fetus. One could say that it concerns a “relative voluntary” because the abortion is willed as a means to obtaining a further end, that is, the improvement of the woman’s health.[53] Nevertheless – in fact, exactly for this reason – the abortion is willed and procured in a direct way on a healthy fetus and not the sick organs of the mother.


            In the second case, on the other hand, the will of the woman tends directly to the removal of the cancer. The removal of the uterus has no other end than this: it is an infected organ that cannot be cured and must be taken out. The death of the fetus is foreseen from the start as the result of a voluntary action (the removal of the uterus); however, the fetus’s death is not pursued by the will, neither as a means nor much less as an end. It is tolerated as a “collateral effect.” In the language of moralists, this “collateral effect” is called “the indirect voluntary.” Such a designation may cause some perplexity since the will of the surgeon removing the cancerous uterus does not intend to kill the fetus! For this reason, I propose to qualify this effect “unwilled voluntary” or “tolerated.”


            Hence, we can state the following definitions:


·        In the direct voluntary, the effect constitutes the true end of the will either as an end or as a means to an end that is willed.


·        In the indirect voluntary, the will tends directly to another end and is limited to tolerating the collateral effects of its action.


We have, thus, given some precision to the concept of “voluntary” according to the principle shades of meaning it assumes. This treatment has resulted in certain distinctions which may seem a little too “technical”; nevertheless, Dear Reader, you will find them useful when you examine the problems of special ethics.


            For now, I am content with having given you a sufficient overview of the role of intelligence and will in human behavior.



3. 2. Emotions and Feelings in Human Action


            Intelligence and will manifest the rational nature specific to man. But we should remember that man is not an angel!  I mean to say, we are not reducible to our rationality alone. Our intelligence and will are incarnate in a body with structures and operations that in varying degrees work in synergy with the faculties of the spiritual/rational order.  As the great French thinker, Blaise Pascal (1623-1662), has remarked: “Man is neither angel nor beast, and it is unfortunately the case that anyone trying to act the angel acts the beast.”[54] 


            Consequently, when we place ourselves in front of a good to perform or an evil to avoid, not only intelligence and will enter into play, but also our sensibility. For a comprehension of the human act, therefore, we must take into account the interaction between our sensible, corporeal life and the life of the spirit. Such interaction is called psychicism and its most important natural components for the comprehension of the human act are the feelings or emotions (in classical language these are called sensible motions or passions).


            Consider, for example, the decision made by Gianna Beretta Molla, a mother who, though ill with a uterine tumor, renounced her own healing so as not to damage the child she carried in her womb. She died a short time after giving birth.[55] Can a person humanly make a choice of this kind only on the basis of rational considerations? I think it is nearly impossible. An emotional, sensitive – I would almost say “visceral” in the noble sense of the word – component enters into play: a profound love for the child in the womb and a desire that it live (though, of course, this is not the only component that determines behavior).


            We can see this in some other common examples: Can the choice to marry this person be dictated exclusively by rational considerations? Clearly, the sentimental component plays an important role! Would we say that the act of defending our life or the lives of those we love is motivated only by reason and not also by fear, which is – precisely – an emotion?


            Feelings and emotions act as go betweens assuring the link between sensible life and the life of the spirit. They influence action to various degrees. They can enjoin and contribute to some kinds of behavior while restraining and obstructing others.


            Emotions, sentiments, and the movements of our sensibility are many and varied; yet, they can be traced back to two common roots: love and hate.


            Love concerns something presented to us as a “good.” When this good is absent, we experience desire; when present, we feel joy. Hate concerns something presented to us as  an “evil.” When this evil is imminent, we are afraid; when present, sad or angry. A very varied range of nuances articulates these fundamental “passions.” 


            Ordinarily, emotions and feelings are accompanied by somatic alterations in blood circulation, neuro-motor reflexes, hormonal secretions (the famous “rush of adrenaline”), and so forth. These are spontaneous responses in front of determined objects and, as such, are not voluntary in themselves. Nevertheless, they can become voluntary either because they are commanded by the will or because the will does not resist them.


            But let’s look at some examples of passions commanded by the will. Whoever makes use of pornographic materials wants nothing other than to procure sexual excitement. Certainly, the excitement in itself is an involuntary motion of sensibility; nevertheless, to the measure in which it is sought, it becomes voluntary. Another example is music played beyond a certain number of decibels, marked by frenetic rhythms, and accompanied by “psychedelic” lights and dancing (in addition to the consumption of alcohol or other “substances”). What is sought in this environment if not emotion? We could continue to multiply examples, as you like.


            Let’s also take into consideration an example of passion which the will does not want to resist: I know that I am getting angry, but I let my anger increase without stopping myself to think until finally I give vent to it without restraint . . . The anger itself, in origin, was not voluntary, but my choleric behavior is voluntary because I do nothing to oppose my accumulating wrath.


            In what way do emotions, sentiments, and the movements of our sensibility influence voluntary behavior?  Clearly, when these states of soul arise without the will, or precisely against the will, they can diminish the voluntariness of an act even to the point of eliminating it completely. Take, for example, a soldier who has decided to obey the order to defend his position. In the heat of battle, however, seeing himself assailed by the enemy, he panics and, gripped by terror, flees. Is his flight “voluntary”? In a certain sense, yes, because the action depends on him, but in another sense no, because the terrorized subject is not fully “master” of his actions. This kind of behavior could be called semi-voluntary. What if this soldier loses consciousness from terror? Such a faint, and the following omission of duty, are clearly involuntary!


            It is very different in the case of passions that a subject wants to procure or  decides not to oppose. Whoever decides to make use of psychotropic substances to provoke particular emotions and then, on the wave of these emotions, accomplishes acts of vandalism is afterward responsible for these acts because he has performed them and because he has voluntarily put himself in the condition to act in a rash way. Therefore:


·        When the passions arise without or against the will, they can render the acts of the subject semi-voluntary or even involuntary.


·        When the passions are commanded by the will, they make the voluntary act more complete, that is, they augment the voluntariness.


Human maturity requires discernment and control of ones emotions and feelings – though certainly not their indiscriminate repression. An individual who lets himself be guided blindly by passion does not behave in a manner worthy of his humanity; but neither is it truly human to behave with cold rationality alone, deprived of feeling. We must differentiate and choose between those emotions and sentiments that incline us toward behavior worthy of a human being and those that do not. In this way, we can direct the proper emotions and sentiments to the true good of the person.



3. 3. Freedom in Human Action


            Having discussed passion, we can now pose the problem of freedom. First of all, it should be said that an essential characteristic of human volition is that it can become the object of reflection. This fact distinguishes human behavior from that of irrational animals who cannot reflect on their own inclinations. A hungry wolf finds some food and tends immediately toward eating it with a simple and un-reflected act which it does not have the power to oppose. On the contrary, man has the power of “reflection,” that is, of returning by an act of the will to acts previously posed by the will itself.


            Let’s take an example. At first, on the basis of certain criteria, I make an act of the will:


1a) I see something sweet that delights me and I want to eat it.


2a) I smell the odor of bitter medicine and I do not want to take it.


In a second moment of reflection, on the basis of other criteria, I persist in my previous act of will or I do not will it anymore. For example:


1b) I know that this sweet will not be good for me, so I renounce my desire to eat it: I do not want to want it!


2b) I know that this medicine is good for me, so I want to take it notwithstanding its bitterness: I do not want my not-wanting it, that is, I want to want it!


This capacity of reflection is the foundation of human freedom. Yet, such freedom is exercised in different forms and grades. Let’s look at some other examples[56]:


I break a pen in three different ways:


a) I inadvertently step on the pen and break it.


b) Yesterday, I noticed that the pen was “used up,” so today I decide to throw it out, and do so.


c) I want to write quickly, but the pen doesn’t work well. In a fit of rage, I break the pen.


            By now it should be clear that case “a” does not represent a human act since the breaking of the pen does not proceed from my intelligence or my will.


            Case “b” does represent a human act because my intelligence moves me to judge it better to throw the pen out. Thus, I decide with my will and I do it. My decision is, therefore, entirely free; so also is my gesture of throwing out the pen.


            Case “c” also represents a human act since the breaking of the pen is determined according to my will (it is a voluntary act) and my intelligence is aware that, using my hands in a certain way, the pen will be broken. Is this still a free act? Yes, but only in part. It is a free act because it springs from my interiority without any constrictions. Nevertheless, my anger (a passion) is, so to speak, blinding my intelligence and dragging my will along with it. Consequently, this act is rather less free than others which, on the contrary, are fully dependent on the respective acts of judging and willing.


            It can also happen that I “lose my patience” unexpectedly but then succeed in putting a break on my reaction. In a second instance, as soon as I reflect on the situation, I master my emotion by an act of will. The first, sudden movement escaped my thought and will and was not, then, a human act in as much as it was not willed by me. Hence, I am not responsible for it. Classical morality speaks of these movements as moti primi primi which in themselves do not represent morally qualifiable behavior.


            However, it is also possible that I have allowed myself to be dragged along by the tendency to “lose my patience” and have thus acquired an uncontested tendency to wrath. For my preceding acts, I am, yes, responsible. I am responsible for this present fury also, but as a cause, since I have allowed the cause, the motive, to be produced. 


            Recapitulating, we can say:


·        The human act is always free, though it can be more or less free.


·        The level of freedom in a human act is directly proportional to the lucidity of the intelligence and the dominion of the will.


·        Freedom implies responsibility: the subject can be asked to “give a response” for his acts.


·        The responsibility for a determined action can be in act or in cause of an act.








3. 4. Human Action as Immanent Activity


            Reflecting on our behavior, we begin to see that a human act does not end at the object of its action but “bounces back” on the subject.


“Moral action” is not “the way we behave with objects,” “realizing something outside of us,” “producing,” but the “realization of that which we can be, the realization of our own human being.” Acting well makes the agent a good man . . . Through moral action, we first of all and above all transform that part of the world which we are ourselves.[57]


            We will now focus on the first of the phenomena included in this transformation of the self (3. 4. 1); then, we will make explicit its extent by clarifying the concept of habitus or stable disposition as a thing in itself and in the order of moral action (3. 4. 2).



3. 4. 1. Human Acts Modify the Personality of the Acting Subject


            Every human act – even certain acts of man that are not fully human – leaves a trace in us and modifies to a certain degree our tendencies, will, thinking, and even our bodies.[58]


            If, for example, I eat and drink something that I like, I am inclined to eat and drink it again. If I always follow through on a series of gestures under the same circumstances (e. g., making myself a cup of coffee as soon as I get up in the morning), I take on the habit of these gestures even to the point that it is difficult for me not to repeat them. Think of what has happened to many people in regards to the television: as soon as they enter a room, they pop in a video without even thinking – precisely “by habit.” These people would probably find it difficult to recognize that at bottom they themselves are the ones wanting to turn on the television. And when we imagine something or someone that attracts us and give ourselves up to the thought and desire of that object, this desire and the image that provokes it will come back to us again easily, influencing our successive decisions.


            Why and how does all this happen? Every one of my acts of thinking, sensing (seeing, hearing, touching . . .), and imagining expresses a certain meaning (an idea, an image, etc.). This meaning is in me, in my thinking or imagining, in such a way that it can present itself to my memory and be remembered. And if, with a human act, I will to give myself up to that idea or that image, then my tendencies toward the meaningful object presented to me are reinforced.


It is clear, then, that my acts “flow back” on the very faculties that set those acts in motion. There is a kind of retro-activity, a feed-back, that shapes me and causes my faculties to acquire a stable orientation to act in one way or another.



3. 4. 2. Habitus


            These modifications are not only inevitable, they are also indispensable for existence. Experience teaches us that human activity would not be possible without the adequate training of different faculties.


            The word “training” makes us think immediately of sports. Everybody knows that when someone begins regular athletic activity, his muscular strength increases, eventually putting him in a condition to do things he could not do previously.


            We can also speak of the training of the senses. If an experienced musician and a non-musician hear an orchestra play, they will both take in the same sounds, but the first will perceive the shadings of timbre, along with any embellishments or mistakes, while all of this will be lost on the other. It’s merely a question of “training”! The same can be said of a painter regarding colors, etc.


            But we can also speak of “training” in regard to our intellectual capacity. Consider what happens when we study arithmetic or the grammar of a foreign language. At first, we learn certain rules and try to apply them. Our early efforts require a lot of time, and we often make mistakes. But then we pick up the rhythm of what we are doing: we can go more quickly, with greater facility and precision.


            The same can be said of our will. If we are not habituated to sitting in a room and studying, the first few days of doing so will seem long and unbearable. We will have to make hard and repeated efforts of will to resist ourselves and not go wandering. With perseverance, however, we will acquire the capacity of self-domination and, in time, self-control will become easy – even pleasurable.


            To what can we owe this greater facility of action? It is commonly said that it depends on habit. But what is habit?


On the experiential plane, from the phenomenological (descriptive) point of view, we can only say that something exists that is beyond singular repeated acts, but comes from them and prepares other similar successive acts easier to follow with respect to the preceding. To call this “something” habit is not enough. In our lives, in fact, we notice a vast typology of what are usually called “habits.” We often experience a certain conflict between habit and freedom. Consider such statements as: “What do you want? I’m used to using obscene language. I couldn’t control myself even if I wanted to.” Moreover, we judge various habits on the basis of their utility and morality. Hence, there are useful habits and damaging habits, good habits and bad habits.[59]  


            On this subject, contemporary psychology prefers to speak of aptitudes rather than “habits” to designate what we are describing. This is certainly a fortunate choice of words. We could also call them “stable dispositions” of the subject (or better: of the faculties of the subject, that is, his senses, intelligence, will . . .) to effect this or that operation. In classical terms, such an aptitude or stable disposition is called a habitus.


·        A habitus is an aptitude or stable disposition of the faculties of the subject toward a determined type of act.


·        A habitus is acquired through the repetition of a determined type of act.


This being the case, it is clear that science, art, technical ability, and so forth, are also habitus. Scholastic, Latin language designates these habitus with the word virtutes (virtue). We have preserved a trace of this notion in common parlance when we say, for example, that Paganini was a “virtuoso” violinist, that is, that he was very good at playing the violin. Still, in modern language we use the term virtue to refer only to good moral habitus.


It is clear, in fact, that science, art, technical ability, and so forth, are not moral virtues since in these disciplines habitus perfects only specific faculties of man, finalizing them to a limited and particular good (right judgement in a branch of science, artistic expression, etc.). In other words, they render the subject a good scientist or artist. But a good scientist or artist is not necessarily a good man!


It is also evident that not every habitus “perfects” our personality. If a certain behavior “damages” our personality, yet we nonetheless have procured for ourselves the stable disposition to behave in that way, clearly we have acquired a bad habitus, or vice.


In summary, by our actions we construct our own personality, that is, we acquire certain habitus that “stabilize” us to behave in a certain way. It is clear that if we “habituate” ourselves to acting freely, responding with the will to a known good, we become ever more free, ever more capable of knowing the good, and ever more resolved to pursue it. Virtue is an aptitude that develops the personality in a way worthy of being human. On the contrary, if we “habituate” ourselves to loose living, to letting ourselves be guided by irrational motives, to not exercising control over our actions, then we become ever less free, ever less able to recognize the good, and ever more lethargic in tending toward it. This is what is meant by vice.






4. The Virtues in General


At this point in our journey, Dear Reader, I would like to remind you of the question with which we began: How should we be to fully realize our human personality? In light of our discussion in the preceding chapter, I think we can give a first answer to this question: we must be virtuous.


On its own, this affirmation doesn’t get us very far in our inquiry. As a matter of fact, it sounds almost tautological since we have already defined virtue as a habitus that develops our personality in a way worthy of a human being.


And yet, if you think about it, we have taken a substantial step forward. We have seen that human behavior is worthy of man insofar as it responds to the exigencies of reason and is controlled by the will. Moreover, we have shown that it is precisely because of these elements that human action can rightly be called “free.”


In light of all this, we have come to see virtue as an attitude or stable disposition of authentically free behavior, that is, of action that responds to the exigencies of reason through the willful mastery of one’s own conduct.  


In this chapter, then, we will look at this subject in more detail. First of all, we will underline the importance of virtue in ethical discourse (4. 1). We will then point out the essential elements of virtue and vice (4. 2) and classify individual virtues (4. 3). Lastly, we will see how the virtues enter operatively into human action, thus reinforcing freedom and leading to happiness (4. 4).



4. 1. Importance of the Virtues in Ethical Discourse


            In the not-too-distant past, there existed a somewhat “juridical” way of presenting morality which tended to concentrate on singular human acts alone, classifying them as licit or illicit, good or bad. But, as the great thinkers have always noted, human acts are incomprehensible in isolation and abstracted from the whole life of the acting subject.



4. 1. 1. Acting Manifests Being


            A classical principle affirms that acting manifests being. This can be taken in at least two ways relative either to the choice of actions to be carried out or to the fulfillment itself of these actions.


            Choice, says Aristotle, is a deliberate desire.[60] We choose to behave in one way rather than another because we are disposed to recognize and give precedence to certain values rather than others. For example, we choose to earn a living working rather than stealing because we recognize the value of honest earnings and the idea of theft revolts us. When such a disposition is deeply rooted in us, even if the chance to earn ourselves an illicit living should come along, we easily recognize such a deed as dishonest and not to be undertaken. 


            Ethics scholars can sometimes expend rivers of ink demonstrating that a certain kind of behavior is or is not licit, while a virtuous person can reach the same conclusion at once without any great study or argument. He does so by means of  a certain “connatural” knowledge: being good himself, he recognizes the good when he sees it.


            On the other hand, as we have seen, to choose to behave in a certain way does not yet mean to perform the actions we have chosen! To accomplish a known good (or resist a known evil) requires interior strength, determination, and tenacity to help us overcome the inevitable difficulties and temptations involved.


            From what we said in the preceding chapter, it is clear that the repetition of certain acts reinforces our tendency to behave in a particular way. If we have habituated ourselves to eating in a disorderly and excessive fashion, and are then forced to follow a strict diet, we will suffer a great deal and face many difficulties in our efforts to realize our goal. If, on the other hand, we are used to eating with moderation, mastering our desire for more food, it will not be difficult to resist the temptations of gluttony. In fact, it will be more difficult for us to overeat and thus abandon the wise equilibrium we are accustomed to following. 


            Hence, the best and worst of our dispositions in regard to moral values, as well as the degree of interior effort we show in tending toward a recognized value, depend on “how we are inside,” that is, on the habitus, good or bad, that we have acquired.



4. 1. 2. The Discourse on Virtues


            Now, as we have seen, the “habitual interior dispositions” that allow for the appearance of particular acts in the course of our moral life, enabling us to choose the good and follow through on it, are classically called virtues.


            We will continue to use this word, though we should be mindful of an erroneous idea that has crept into common language. This is the notion that the “virtuous” person is someone “who doesn’t” – someone who doesn’t drink, doesn’t smoke, doesn’t betray his or her spouse, doesn’t give in to gluttony, etc. Taken in this sense, virtue means “putting the break” on disordered passions.


            Certainly, virtue entails “not doing” some things – but this is not its principle function. The Latin term virtus derives from vis which means “strength.” Hence, virtue is first and foremost the “motor” of the moral life, rather than its “break”!


            Furthermore, common opinion tends to think of virtue as a “possession,” that is, something you have and can use. Virtue, rather, is a “way of being.” It is our most intimate way of being  as far as our morality is concerned.


            When we act virtuously, we relive our past and anticipate our future. In fact, we act in a certain way because we are a certain way. We have become what we are thanks to the actions we have performed up to this very moment. Moreover, with the action we undertake now, we further dispose ourselves to become a certain way and to repeat a certain kind of action.



4. 2. Virtues and Vices


            In light of what we have said above, we can understand the definition of virtue inspired by St. Augustine:


·        “Virtue is a good spiritual quality, by which we live rightly, and which no one can put to bad use (virtus est bona qualitas mentis, qua recte vivitur et qua nemo male utitur).[61]


We already know that such a “quality” is a habitus. We must now distinguish between good and bad habitus and then ask ourselves on the basis of what criteria such discernment is possible.



4. 2. 1. Good Habitus and Bad Habitus


Of themselves, man’s natural faculties are indeterminate, that is, they can be directed toward good or bad behavior. Thus, we can use our intelligence to promote our humanity and the humanity of others, or drag it down; we can use our will to build up or to destroy; we can allow our passions to incite us toward the good with enthusiasm and energy, or toward evil . . .


Virtue is a habitus that perfects our operative faculties, orienting them toward the good. It is, so to speak, a supplementary inclination, almost a “second nature,” that makes these faculties able to tend habitually toward the good, simplifying its performance. Vice, on the other hand, is a markedly contrary habitus which orients the faculties toward evil, rendering it more attractive and easier.


But – and with this we come to the central point of our inquiry – on the basis of what criteria can we discern what is good and what is evil? How can we distinguish between virtue and vice?


We have already seen how reason is the criteria of human good. We have also seen how the will, illumined by this criteria, must exercise dominion over human behavior in order for it to be free (and, therefore, worthy of man). Hence, virtue’s task is to put reason and will in a position to govern the passions and the sensitive realm, notwithstanding the conditioning that can be derived from this. 


. . . [S]ince moral virtue is a state of character concerned with choice, and choice is a deliberate desire, therefore both the reasoning must be true and the desire right, if the choice is to be good, and the latter must pursue just what the former asserts.[62]      



4. 2. 2. The “Mean”


            To say “virtue,” then, is tantamount to saying “governance by the reason.” This already gives us a first point of reference.


            Nevertheless, to govern you need some kind of criteria, a “plan.” According to classical tradition, the plan for the moral life is found in “the just mean.” To better understand this reality, let’s go back to the Aristotelian definition of virtue:


·        “Virtue, then, is a state of character concerned with choice, lying in a mean, i.e., the mean relative to us, this being determined by a rational principle, and by that principle by which the man of practical wisdom would determine it.”[63]


This definition indicates that bad behavior is such because of excess or defect, for example, eating too much or too little, while virtue, on the other hand, consists in eating in the right measure. Similarly, you can be fearful (refusing any kind of risk) or reckless (exposing oneself to excessive risk), whereas virtue lies in courage – the just mean between fear and recklessness.


Further, Aristotle emphasizes that the mean is not something abstract since it must be determined “in relation to us.” What does it mean to eat according to a just measure? If, by hypothesis, 5000 calories a day are too much and 500 are too little, this doesn’t mean that everyone should consume 2750 calories daily (that is, the mathematical mean between 500 and 5000). Such a quantity might be too little for an athlete and too much for a sedentary person.[64]


Moreover, reliance on “the mean” as the criteria of moral action must not be confused with that of a mediocre, bourgeois morality that advocates the avoidance of extremes. In some cases, “a lot” cannot be “too much” (for example, to desire one’s own wife “a lot”), while in other cases “a little” can be “too much” (for example, to desire someone else’s wife “a little”!). 


We should note here that the concept of the mean doesn’t get us very far in our inquiry. In fact, Aristotelian ethics ends in a kind of vicious circle: the “mean relative to us” is determined by a rational principle – not just any kind of reasoning. Aristotle tells us that it must be the reasoning of a “man of practical wisdom.” But wisdom is the virtue of the reason. Consequently, it’s as if Aristotle were saying, “virtue consists in being guided by virtue” or, in other words, “the virtuous person is guided by right reason” – and what does “right” mean? It means . . . “virtuous”!


This inconsistency in Aristotelian ethics was revealed by St. Thomas Aquinas. He closed the circle by affirming that right reason points out the appropriate means for attaining the end (i.e., the good life). Moreover, the meaning of  “the good life” is not arbitrarily determined by human reason, but established “by nature.” Reason, then, does not make arbitrary judgements concerning means, but bases itself on certain indications present in a person’s humanity.[65]


We will consider the above notions in detail in chapter 9. For the moment, it is enough to say that, thanks to Aristotle, we have reached an understanding of virtue as equilibrium or harmony, understood in a rational way. In other words, virtue is a state of harmony, under the guidance of the reason, which makes for a balanced relationship with the object of our actions. 


Vice, on the other hand, is disharmony and a lack of equilibrium because it consists in an habitual usurpation of the rule of right reason. Consequently, vices are often at odds with themselves (for example, avarice vs. prodigality, or recklessness vs. cowardice), while the virtues, directed by reason and finalized to the good of the person as such, are always in accord with each other.


Thus, the harmony produced by virtue constitutes the “good life,” that is, the realization of the human person.





4. 3. Classification of the Virtues


            We should now take a closer look at the different virtues.


We have said that the essence of ethical virtue consists in the dominion of reason over the inferior faculties. Does this mean, perhaps, that it is enough to have a strong, well-trained intellect in order to possess the moral virtues? Certainly not. It’s not enough to know the good to carry it out. Knowledge is a necessary condition, but in itself it is not sufficient.


            To clarify this point, we will first separate the intellectual virtues from the moral virtues (4. 3. 1); then, we will concentrate on the most important moral virtues: the “cardinal” virtues (4. 3. 2); finally, we will see how these virtues are intrinsically connected among themselves, and how they find their full coordination in love (4. 3. 3).



4. 3. 1. Intellectual Virtues and Moral Virtues


            Let’s begin by recalling Ovid’s words: “I see the right way and approve it, but follow the wrong.” As you will remember, we used this quote to point out that it is not enough to know the good – we must also want it (3. 1. 4). This means that there can be a conflict between the reason and the will. To understand how this is possible, let us take a somewhat distant example.


            When the mind orders bodily movement, the muscles obey without offering any resistance other than that of their physical limitations. Aristotle says that the mind governs the body “with despotic power,” that is, as a tyrant who commands subjects who do not have the power to contradict his orders, only to follow them.


            Some philosophers, Socrates among them, held that the reason can exercise this despotic rule over all the operative faculties of man, that is, the will and the “sensitive appetites” (i. e., sensual desires). From this perspective, if a man’s reason were perfect, his behavior would necessarily be good. As is well known, Socrates believed that a man in possession of knowledge cannot sin. Anyone who sins does so out of ignorance. A conclusion of this way of thinking is that there exist only intellectual virtues. 


            This affirmation presupposes an insufficient anthropology since, in reality, our desires do not promptly and blindly obey the reason the way the body obeys the mind. As Aristotle says, the power of the reason over the desires is of a “political” and not a “despotic” kind. The situation is similar to that of a governor who rules over free citizens who can contradict his measures. The governor must persuade and educate the citizens to follow his directives.[66] In other words, the intellectual virtues are not sufficient. We also need moral virtues, that is, the good dispositions of our desiring faculties.[67]


            The intellectual “virtues” are not in themselves moral virtues but simply habitus of the reason by which it tends correctly to its own object, that is, the truth. “Intellectual habits can be called virtues not in as much as they themselves bring about the good, because that is properly of the will, but in as much as they procure the capacity to realize the good.”[68]


            All of this is evident in St. Thomas’s classification of the intellectual virtues. First of all, St. Thomas distinguishes the virtues of the speculative intellect from those of the practical intellect: the former are oriented to the contemplation of truth, the latter to the knowledge of the principles suitable for guiding action. It is clear that the virtues of the speculative intellect (intelligence, knowledge, and speculative wisdom), not being oriented to action, are not moral virtues. As for the virtues of the practical intellect, St. Thomas distinguishes between art (or technique) and practical wisdom. Clearly, art is not a moral virtue since it can be abused. As we have noted (1. 4. 3), art and technology can either promote or degrade human dignity. But practical wisdom (as we will soon see) is a moral virtue since “it occupies itself not so much with the conformity of the intellect with things known (that is, with truth), as with conformity to right desire.”[69]


            In conclusion, we can say that the criteria for distinguishing moral virtues derives from this aspect of “willing rightly,” that is, as habitual dispositions to choose and pursue what is worthy of man.



4. 3. 2. The Cardinal Virtues


            Classical philosophical tradition has specified certain moral virtues as the “cardinal” virtues (from the Latin word cardo, cardinis = hinge) because all our actions turn upon them like a door on its hinges. In fact, our actions are more or less good in so far as they are governed by these virtues. There are four such cardinal virtues: wisdom, justice, fortitude (or courage), and temperance. We can also speak of “annexed” virtues which constitute a kind of offshoot or articulation of the virtuous life. In the following chapters, we will examine these virtues in detail. Here, we will take a first look at them, beginning with the reason for this subdivision in relation to the human faculties that render action possible.



4. 3. 2. 1. Reason, Will, and the Irascible and Concupiscible Appetites


            The reason for the four-part division of the cardinal virtues becomes clear if we consider the faculties that render us capable of moral action. On the one hand, we have reason and will which express our specifically human potential; on the other hand, we have a passionate component called the “sensibility” or the “sensitive appetite.”


            But the sensitive appetite, in its turn, includes two, distinct appetitive powers: the concupiscible appetite which directs us to pursue what is suitable to our senses and to flee that which appears harmful, and the irascible appetite which moves us to resist whatever may inflict harm on us or hinder or deprive us of the things we find pleasant.[70] These powers cannot be reduced to one principle in as much as they can sometimes oppose each other. For example, we can compel ourselves to accept suffering (contrary to the inclination of the concupiscible appetite) in order to triumph over something hindering us (in accord with the irascible appetite). Also, we can observe that on some occasions when the powers of concupiscence are aroused, wrath (the typical passion of the irascible appetite) diminishes and, vice versa, when wrath is aroused, concupiscible desire diminishes.


            The irascible appetite is usually defined as a tendency toward goods which are difficult to obtain, thus requiring of us both struggle and commitment. The concupiscible appetite, on the other hand, is defined as a tendency toward goods that are easily attainable.


            We have, therefore, four faculties that make action possible: reason, will, irascible appetite and concupiscible appetite.


            Now, virtuous action lies in the harmonic inclination to the good of all these four faculties under the guidance of reason. In common experience, however, the passions of the sensitive appetite tend to follow their own impulses to the detriment of the governance of reason and will. The will, for its part, always tends to what is (or, at least, what the reason presents as) good for the subject and can have notable difficulty in promoting the good of others. Passion, moreover, can overcome reason and will, distracting or even opposing the higher faculties, swaying and disturbing the organism to such a point that a person can “lose his head.”  


Thus, each of these faculties must be regulated by a special virtue. All these virtues, working together, lead us to the good life.



4. 3. 2. 2. Practical Wisdom


            Reason must be firmly oriented toward the true good. It must also have the capacity – the aptitude – for choosing the appropriate and concretely available means for achieving its end in any given situation. This capacity or aptitude is called “practical wisdom.” Practical wisdom ensures that man acts rightly in the choice of those means that serve the end.[71]


            Virtues are virtues because they are guided by wisdom and oriented by it to concrete acts. For example, paying back a loan is a just act (hence, virtuous) in as much as wisdom (the right orientation of the reason) tells me that I must perform this act, here and now, to realize a just end. Indeed, the acts of all the virtues can be labeled “virtuous” only if and in so far as they are directed by wisdom. For this reason, practical wisdom has been defined as the forma virtutum (the form of the virtues).


            If we recall what we said in chapter three (3.1.2) concerning the phenomenology of voluntary action, it will be clear that practical wisdom consists in right deliberation, in the right practical judgement concerning the most suitable means available, and in the command to act. Deliberation prepares judgement, and judgement leads to action. Whoever judges rightly but does not act is not really wise. The wise person is the one who puts what is appropriate and right into effect.



4. 3. 2. 3. Justice


            The will is spontaneously oriented to a good that is known. By nature, it possesses an habitual orientation toward a person’s own good. This is not a problem as long as the pursuit of one’s own good does not conflict with the good of others. The fact is that the will’s spontaneous direction entails the preference of one’s own good to that of another. And yet, a more profound analysis reveals that it is not worthy of man (= it is not good) to prefer one’s own good if in so doing an evil (= the privation of a good) may result for another person. St. Thomas speaks of a “natural instinct” that leads us toward others and urges us to support each other.[72] But it is above all the reason that enables us to recognize the good of others as something to do and to realize as much as our own good (“Do unto others what you would have done to yourself”; “Love your neighbor as yourself”). While the will does not need a special habitus to tend toward ones own good, it does need one to tend toward “the good of the other.” The virtue that renders the will firm, constant, and joyful in giving “to each his own,” that is, the good that is due to each person, is called justice.


            If practical wisdom is the virtue par excellence, one can say that injustice is the vice par excellence, the perversion of the will itself. And since the will is always interacting with the reason, and can condition it profoundly, “then the unjust man is not only one who habitually inclines to committing unjust actions, but also to considering good that which is unjust . . . True wickedness is injustice.”[73]



4. 3. 2. 4. Fortitude or Courage


            The irascible appetite, for its part, tends toward a particular good with two types of actions. On the one hand, it faces up to the work to be done, “putting the hand to the plow,” so to speak. On the other hand, it steels itself to the hard work and difficulties that arise in the realization of the good. The task of fortitude or courage consists in perfecting these actions. It is manifest in the habitual readiness to avoid both fear of effort and cowardice, as well as the recklessness that exposes an individual to unnecessary or disproportionate dangers. Patience and perseverance are two essential dimensions of this virtue.


            “The strong person is characterized by serenity. He is capable of giving support and assurance to other people. He can control his imagination, which sometimes induces fear, and maintain himself calm and above trifles so as not to be distracted from the essential. He does not act to win eulogies and praise, but because he wants what is truly good.”[74] Fortitude protects a person from despair and keeps him open to hope; it distances him from anger and leads him toward meekness.


            Without the virtue of fortitude, a person cannot become wise, just, and temperate. In fact, if a wise person is someone who effectively does the good, anyone who is fearful and impatient cannot be wise. Moreover, it should be noted that not every form of courage or perseverance is virtuous. A person who has no fear of danger while committing injustices might be a “hero” in the eyes of many, but he is not a good person. True fortitude will always be found in the company of courage and justice.



4. 3. 2. 5. Temperance


            The concupiscible appetite needs to be disciplined in such a way that it submits to the measure of reason and does not take the upper hand over the will. This is the task of temperance. The concupiscible appetite directs itself to that which, according to the estimation of the senses, appears pleasurable. Temperance consists in the stable disposition to maintain the order of desire in the entirety of man’s personal unity, both corporal and spiritual. If this equilibrium is conserved, the passions are not repressed, but ordered. Thus, the enjoyment of pleasure has its place in a truly satisfying life.


            On the contrary, intemperance destroys pleasure itself. The fact is that human reason is characterized by a desire for the infinite. In letting ourselves be dragged down by sensuality, we seek the infinite where it cannot be found: in the experience of sensible pleasure, which by its very nature is always limited. We go from one desire to another, from one pleasure to another, in an endless spiral where desire increases while pleasure constantly diminishes. We seek out ever more “intense” experiences, even perverse experiences, at the same time deriving less and less enjoyment from them. The inevitable outcome of this process is an abyss of despair.


            Aristotle defined temperance as the “custodian of wisdom”[75] because sensibility, left to itself, can corrupt reason, dragging it into the vortex of the passions. “Whoever is truly, viciously intemperate will finally be convinced that it is good in principle to follow the purely sensible appearance of the good even at the level of principles. Thus, he also becomes unjust.”[76] And clearly, the intemperate person, being habitually oriented toward easy pleasure, will be incapable of courage and fortitude.



4. 3. 2. 6. “Annexed” Virtues


            The cardinal virtues are the principle virtues to which all the other moral virtues can be traced back. However, the expression “to trace back” can be understood in three ways[77]:


a) Some virtues are subjective parts of a cardinal virtue, that is, they constitute different aspects of that virtue. For example, practical wisdom is the virtue of good governance, but clearly it is one thing to govern oneself, another to govern one’s family, and still another to govern a people. We can say, therefore, that self-governance, the good administration of a home, and political prudence are subjective parts of the cardinal virtue of wisdom. The same thing can be said of sobriety (which concerns the use of alcoholic beverages) and chastity (which concerns the enjoyment of sexual pleasure) in that they are both subjective parts of temperance, and so forth.


b) Some virtues are integral parts of a cardinal virtue in as much as they constitute elements of its essential structure to such a degree that, if lacking, the virtue itself would not exist. For example, docility (the capacity to learn and the humility to accept the judgements of those who have more experience than we do) and diligence (the capacity to welcome with promptness the good to be realized) are intrinsic dimensions of wisdom. A man who is lazy or lacking in docility will never be wise! In the same way, magnanimity, patience, and perseverance are integral parts of fortitude, and so forth.


c) Finally, some virtues are potential parts of a cardinal virtue, that is, they are ordered to certain behaviors which have some connection with that virtue, though they do not entirely realize its essence. For example, the capacity of giving good advice (called “eubulia”) is strictly linked with practical wisdom, even though it is not necessary that a wise man be a good counselor. Also, “piety” as a virtuous attitude toward parents is a potential part of justice in as much as it concerns, so to speak, reciprocation to those who have given us life . . . But clearly our relationship with our father and mother cannot be reduced simply to “give and take.” While having something to do with justice, this relationship at the same time greatly surpasses it. 



4. 3. 3. The Connection between the Virtues and Love


            From what we have said, it is clear that a connection exists between the virtues. In fact, it is not possible to cultivate one of the virtues without cultivating the others; it is not possible to neglect one of the virtues without neglecting the others. For this reason, the singular word “virtue” is used very often in ethical discourse to indicate the entire spectrum of virtuous dispositions and practices.


            But maybe we can give a name to this single “virtue” which embraces every virtue. St. Augustine teaches that what orders the virtues – the very principle and substance of their connection – is love. We can say, then, that the virtues themselves are nothing other than the order of love.[78]


            Virtue, as an ordered love of self and neighbor, makes us worthy and able “to live in harmony with others and with God, knowing how to be in their presence, communicate with them, and receive from them those experiential and substantial goods which, beyond being appreciated and desirable in themselves, are even more so when they are gifts of true love between persons and on the part of God, and when they are understood, appreciated, and desired as such.”[79]



4. 4. Virtue, Freedom, and Happiness


            We never see virtues in their pure state. No one walking along the road has ever met Mrs. Wisdom or Mr. Courage. It happens, however, that some people’s actions can make wisdom and courage visible. When we realize that these actions are performed with habitual readiness, with a certain facility – notwithstanding the difficulty they involve – and with joy, we know that we have found a virtuous person. This experience provides us with a direct route to knowing virtue: proceeding from virtuous behavior to recover the fundamental attitude from which it springs.


            As we have said, virtuous habitus are the result of choices and actions that leave a mark on the subject. They orient a person’s faculties to function in a certain way; hence, they constitute that person’s “moral character,” assuring the prompt, safe, joyful, and regular execution of good acts. In this wider view of virtue, a single act is no longer just a “one shot deal.” Rather, it is inserted into the whole of a subject’s moral life as the fruit of his past and seed of his future. The virtues as stable dispositions permit human behavior to remain one and continuous through the incessant variations of a diversity of choices in concrete circumstances.[80]


            We can see, then, the difference between habitus and habit: a habit is the tendency to repeat certain actions in an almost “automatic” way. Anyone acting “by habit” does not stop to consider the reasons for his behavior. Habit leads directly to thoughtless acts, thereby making those acts less free.


            A virtuous habitus, on the contrary, strengthens the subject’s awareness, his capacity for choice, and his comprehension of the reasons for his choice. First of all, it orients the intentions toward good and responsible ends (to act wisely, to realize justice, to behave oneself in a strong and courageous way, to be temperate, etc.). Then, it enables us to specify the acts that will realize these ends in concrete circumstances and to choose them for exactly this purpose. The result is a good and virtuous life.


The stability realized by virtue, then, far from diminishing freedom (and responsibility), augments it.[81] On the other hand, true freedom does not consist in “doing whatever you want” but in tending unrestrictedly toward the true good. From this perspective, it is clear that virtue, as a disposition for the good, constitutes a reinforcement of freedom, while vice constitutes a true and proper slavery.[82]


            Man is free when he knows the end for which he acts and directs himself fully toward its realization. Man is fully free when he knows the ultimate end of all his actions, of his whole life, and when all his faculties are mobilized in readiness to act in view of that end: “To live a truly good life does not require only the exercise of reason and free will, but also the exercise of educated passions. A truly good life is that of a subject who not only knows how to choose rightly, but participates emotionally in good conduct, who is passionate about moral good and evil, desiring or refusing it passionately, for he feels love or hatred, pleasure or sadness, hope or fear, etc.”[83]


            We can understand, then, the link between happiness and the good life. The virtuous man is happy because, realizing the good in his life, he obtains exactly what he wants, what he desires in the depths of his being – what he really loves.


5. Wisdom


            We have said that practical wisdom is a habitus that firmly orients the reason toward the true good, conferring on it an aptitude to choose the suitable and concretely available means for reaching the end in a given situation. After some terminological clarification (5. 1), we will examine the reasons for the primacy of wisdom in the order of the cardinal virtues (5. 2), its operations (5. 3), and, finally, its presuppositions and opposing vices (5. 4).[84]



5. 1. Terminology


            We are using the term “practical wisdom” for that virtue which Aristotle called phrónesis, and Latin tradition has denominated prudentia, a term often translated simply as “prudence.”[85] I prefer to speak of “practical wisdom” because the meaning of the word “prudence” has unfortunately suffered many alterations. In everyday language, prudence has come to be synonymous with caution, circumspection – the propensity to avoid risks . . . The expression “excessive prudence” is a clear indication of the misunderstanding of which I speak. From the perspective of an ethics of virtue, such an expression has no meaning whatsoever. True prudence cannot be “excessive” – if it is excessive, it is not “prudence”! Virtue, as we have said above (4. 2. 2), is the aptitude for choosing the “just mean,” which is, by definition, contrary to every excess.


            Even a great philosopher like Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) fell prey to serious equivocation concerning prudence. He defined it as “the maxim of self-love” and confused it with that ability or dexterity of the reason (which all of us more or less possess by nature) to find ways of reaching the ends we desire.[86]  From this perspective, we could call “prudent” the behavior of a very clever thief who pulls off a job without getting caught. But this use of the word is clearly absurd. The thief’s natural ability or dexterity of mind is not prudence because it is not a virtue, that is, it does not make the acting subject a good person. What I mean to say is, although such ability can improve a person’s performance in a particular area (i.e., as a good musician, a worthy builder, an excellent . . . thief!), it does not improve him as a man.


            For this reason, I prefer to use the term “practical wisdom” to indicate the true virtue of prudence as that which makes us capable of choosing the means adapted to the attainment of those ends by which we realize our personality in a way worthy of our humanity. To put it more simply, practical wisdom is the virtue that guides our choices, orienting them toward the full realization of a meaningful life.



5. 2. Primacy of Wisdom


            There is an end that gives meaning to all the other ends of our life – an “essential” good for which all other goods are sought. This end, this essential good, is nothing other than to live humanly or, to put it another way, to be truly human.


            Reflecting on this statement, we may notice that it implies reason twice: at the level of being and at the level of knowing. Reason is implied at the level of being because it constitutes the specific characteristic of the animal-man; hence, we can say that human good consists in living according to reason. Further, at the level of knowing, reason allows us access to truth in general and the truth of the human being in particular.


            What, then, is the behavior that is good and worthy of man?


The good of man as man is: that reason be perfect in the knowledge of the truth, and the inferior desires be regulated according to the rule of reason; in fact, the essential characteristic in force of which man is man, consists precisely in his being rational.[87]


            This phrase basically says two things: first of all, for the good of man, human reason must perfect itself in the knowledge of truth; second, reason thus perfected must be the rule of the lower desires. Let’s examine these two ideas in order:


1. Reason must perfect itself in the knowledge of the truth. Why? Because this is precisely the essence of reason! Reason is the specifically human regard on reality; it is an openness to reality. And truth reveals reality. The necessary premise of every morally good action is the truth. How can someone be “just,” for example, if he rejects the truth? It is only in virtue of a true right that we can render true justice (that is to say, “justice” tout court, because untrue justice – or false justice – is simply “injustice”). Reason is measured by reality: the “wise” person is the one who conforms his mind to objective reality.[88]


2. Reason, improved by the knowledge of the truth, must become the form and intimate rule of the desires. Consequently, practical wisdom – the virtue of the practical reason – is the first cause thanks to which the other virtues are truly virtues. In other words, the acts of all the virtues can be called “virtuous” only if and in as much as they are directed by wisdom. For this reason, as we noted before, practical wisdom is called “the form of the virtues” (forma virtutum). Virtue in general, as well as every single virtue, is a perfection of man as a rational being. Justice, fortitude (or courage), and temperance reach such perfection (that is, they are properly virtues) only when they are founded on wisdom.


            For example, the sensitive appetite for food and the tendency to eat in sufficient quantity and not to excess is undoubtedly a spontaneous inclination toward the good that is present even in irrational animals. This tendency, however, is elevated to a spiritual dimension when it enters into the dynamic of human acts by way of man’s rational decision. Thus, we can speak of “the virtue of temperance” only when wisdom embraces the instinctively just and impulsive predisposition of the sensitive appetite in order to complete it in a specifically human – that is, rational – way.


            The analogy between moral act and artistic creation is instructive in this regard.[89] At the beginning of a work of art, an artist elaborates on an idea in his mind. It is precisely this idea that gives to the work its “form.” The form that exists in the creative mind of the artist is the model and the archetype of the work to be made. Hence, we can say that the work is true and real when it accords with the prototype image that is in the mind of the artist. Similarly, the command of wisdom is the idea in virtue of which the moral act is what it is. The command of wisdom is the model and the archetype of every morally good action. An action becomes just, courageous, or temperate only in view of the fundamental resolve of wisdom.


            Wisdom gives form to the other virtues by conferring on them that “measure” (Aristotle’s “mean relative to us”) without which virtue is unthinkable. It is understandable, then, why classical tradition has said: Prudentia auriga virtutum, meaning that the virtues are such because they are guided by wisdom, receiving from wisdom their orientation to the concrete act.



5. 3. The Operations of Wisdom


            Wisdom is primary because you have to know reality before you can do what is good. As we said above, practical wisdom is essentially an intellectual virtue. But its object – choice – touches directly on the moral virtues. In short, we can say that practical wisdom’s task is that of “finding the just mean in the moral virtues.”[90]


            We have said that it is not possible to want something (an object, an activity, a relationship, etc.) if we don’t know it first. We can want this “something” as an end in itself or as a means.[91] When something attracts us, presenting itself to our reason as an end in itself, desirable for itself, wisdom enters into play concerning the means necessary to obtain it (deliberation), as well as the most suitable means presently available (practical judgement concerning means). Practical wisdom’s principal act, then, is commanding the effective use of these means.[92] Hence, deliberation prepares judgement, and judgement leads to action. As we have said, whoever judges rightly but then does not act is not really wise. The truly wise person is the one who puts what is right and appropriate into effect. Consequently, it is practical wisdom’s final act that is decisive, that is, the command to act. Wisdom reveals herself in the command of the practical reason that tells us, “This is good. This must be done here and now.”


            Wisdom shows us the means that we should desire and use. And what about the end? Certainly, some ends are merely means ordered to greater ends (for example, graduation is an end for a student, but also a means to the further end of getting a job). Since, however, we can’t go on to infinity with ends and means, there must inevitably be some ends that are desirable in themselves: “virtuous” goods, as we noted above.[93] This concerns the ends of virtue: just, courageous, and temperate behavior. These exist before wisdom itself and are recognized habitually thanks to the intelligence:


The end belongs to the moral virtues not because they establish it, but because they tend to the end pre-established by the natural reason. In this they are helped by [practical] wisdom that prepares their way, disposing the opportune means. Therefore, wisdom is more noble than the moral virtues and puts them in motion. But the practical intellect puts wisdom in motion.[94]


            The “material” on which wisdom works is precisely the indication of the “mean” which comprises virtue, as well as the use of the “opportune means” for its fulfillment. Therefore – paradoxically – wisdom does not have its “own” matter, but is applied to the matter of the other moral virtues that are regulated and measured by it.[95]



5. 4. Wisdom’s Presuppositions and Their Opposites


            Wisdom has, thus, an essentially cognitive yet immediately practical dimension in regard to the concrete realization of a possible good.[96] In order to exercise properly these two dimensions, wisdom requires certain dispositions which we can better understand if we contrast them with their opposing vices.



5. 4. 1. Wisdom as a Cognitive Virtue


To properly understand a situation and identify the concrete means available for reaching the virtuous ends it entails, there must be reflection, silence, a patient questioning of the reality involved, and an acceptance of the effort required. The contrary disposition would be that of recklessness, that is, the thoughtless attitude of someone who rushes headlong into action, exposing himself to every kind of disorder and failure.    


            But take note! Another contrary disposition is possible: irresoluteness, a very neglected form of imprudence that consists in prolonging indefinitely the estimation of problems and putting off their solutions, resulting in overdue and, consequently, fruitless decisions. The speedy evaluation of a situation and its requirements is, in fact, an eminent form of wisdom called in Latin solertia. This activity implies a capacity for “clear headedness” in front of unforeseen events that can happen without warning. In such instances, the fool flees or falls into paralysis, or closes his eyes and decides for the first thing that comes into his mind without any consideration. On the contrary, the diligent, wise person maintains objectivity, knowing how to decide quickly for a concretely realizable good.


            The objective knowledge of concrete, workable reality must become the norm of action; the truth of things must become the criteria for orienting our lives. For this reason, we need what is commonly called experience. Aristotle says:


Nor is practical wisdom concerned with universals only – it must also recognize the particulars; for it is practical, and practice is concerned with particulars. This is why some who do not know, and especially those who have experience, are more practical than others who know . . .[97]


            A science that has only universals for objects (mathematics, for example) can be practiced brilliantly by the young if they possess mental agility and intelligence. But when a knowledge of particulars is required, the young will inevitably be found lacking. Wisdom requires a knowledge that is accumulated over time. Hence, it is an eminently “senior” virtue.


            On the other hand, the simple passage of time is not enough to transform an imprudent person into a wise person. “Expertise” consists in conserving the memory of past experiences, authentically storing them up in their truth. This is not an easy thing to do since memory can be altered: We may have some unrevealed interest in deforming our memory of the facts; we may be victims of an uncontrollable mechanism that brings about “slight retouches, displacements, discolorations, omissions, shifts of accent.”[98] Vigilance over the truth of one’s own memories is an indispensable premise to becoming wise. As a corollary, the habitual practice of the examination of conscience is a very valuable means of ensuring such fidelity.


            The great number of situations we must face, and the almost infinite diversity of particulars we must take into account before acting, mean that no one can presume to be self-sufficient in acquiring wisdom:


Hence in matters of prudence [practical wisdom] man stands in very great need of being taught by others, especially by old folk who have acquired a sane understanding of the ends in practical matters. Wherefore the Philosopher says: “It is right to pay no less attention to the undemonstrated assertions and opinions of such persons as are experienced, older than we are, and prudent, than to their demonstrations, for their experience gives them an insight into principles.[99]


            Therefore, whoever wishes to become wise must begin by showing some proof of . . . being wise! This is to say that a person must let himself be taught. He must renounce self-conceit (the presumption of already knowing everything) and cultivate the virtue of docility – an integral part of the very wisdom he is seeking.



5. 4. 2. Wisdom as a Commanding Virtue


            The cognitive dimension of practical wisdom regards the past and the present as already being real. This virtue’s imperative dimension, however, looks to the future, that is, to the “not-yet-existing” from the point of view of “having-to-be-realized.”


            From this perspective, wisdom consists essentially in farsightedness. The far-sighted person is one who pre-sees future necessities and provides in the present what he will need to obtain pre-determined ends. Farsightedness is undoubtedly the principle aspect of practical wisdom since all the dimensions enumerated above (reflection, diligence, memory, docility, etc.) are necessary to reach this goal: pre-disposing means ordered to ends:


For it is the chief part of prudence, to which two other parts are directed – namely, remembrance of the past, and understanding of the present; inasmuch as from the remembrance of what is past and the understanding of what is present, we gather how to provide for the future. Now it belongs to prudence, according to the Philosopher, to direct other things towards an end whether in regard to oneself – as for instance, a man is said to be prudent, who orders well his acts towards the end of life – or in regard to others subject to him, in a family, city or kingdom; in which sense it is said, “a faithful and wise servant, whom his lord hath appointed over his family.”[100]


            We must remember, however, that from a moral perspective “the means”  are always actions. The farsighted person is capable of predisposing suitable actions for the attainment of specific ends.


            It is precisely here that farsightedness shows its dramatic side since it regards concrete, contingent, future objects around which we can never have absolute certainty such that we can avoid every worry.[101] In these matters, to expect a kind of mathematical certainty – clear and distinct ideas – is the sign of foolishness and leads to indecisiveness. The wise man “does not expect certainty where it cannot exist, nor on the other hand does he deceive himself by false certainties.”[102] 


The type of certitude required by practical wisdom is moral certainty. In some cases, this certainty can be total (as happens primarily in cases where we know what we should not do: kill, steal, etc.). In other cases (more numerous), we must be content with only relative probability. Even in these cases, however, the sage acts in a secure and decisive way, drawing confirmations from his life experience, personal vigilance, and awareness of the uprightness of his own inquiry into the true good.


            Im-prudence and in-decision are defects that oppose the virtue of wisdom. Moreover, this virtue is also opposed to excesses, that is, to dispositions bearing an apparent similarity to wisdom, but only as a caricature resembles the original by greatly distorting its substance. St. Thomas gives us an interesting description of this false wisdom at work:


Even so a sin may be against prudence, through having some resemblance thereto, in two ways. First, when the purpose of the reason is directed to an end which is good not in truth but in appearance, and this pertains to prudence of the flesh; secondly, when in order to obtain a certain end, whether good or evil, a man uses means that are not true but fictitious and counterfeit, and this belongs to the sin of craftiness.[103]


            Hence, there can be a pseudo-wisdom that consists in cleverly seeking means for the attainment of dishonest ends. The means themselves could even be good; nevertheless, the action as a whole will be evil. There also exists a pseudo-wisdom that pretends to be obtaining a good end, but with bad means. In this case also, the action is necessarily bad. Not only the ends of an action, but also the means of its realization must conform to the truth of the subject and the actual situation.


            It is interesting to note how, according to St. Thomas, faults “by defect” against wisdom are the fruit of the uncontrolled desire for sensible goods which dulls our rational capacities. This is particularly true of lust; hence, chastity is necessary in the cultivation of wisdom.[104] Moreover, the defects of the young are opposed to the excesses of “prudence” typical of older people. These excesses arise primarily from avarice, from that surplus of farsightedness that tends to the anxious conservation of ones goods.[105] Therefore, wisdom requires the experience, memory, and chastity of the older person, as well as “a youthful spirit of brave trust and, as it were, a reckless tossing away of anxious self-preservation . . .”[106]   Wisdom, then, requires the virtue of courage.







6. Justice


            As for wisdom in the preceding chapter, we will start our consideration of justice with a premise of a conceptual kind and then go into detail on the principle parts of this virtue. 



6. 1. The Concept of Justice


            Few words generate so strong a positive feeling as the word “justice.” This should not make us forget, however, that justice is not a univocal, but an analogical concept.


            The root of the word “justice” embraces notions of “fairness,” “proportion,” and “equality” which are well represented in traditional iconography by the image of a balanced scale. St. Thomas notes that in everyday language things are said to be adjusted to each other when they are “made equal.”[107] Everything depends on our understanding of this adjustment.


            In the Platonic system, the “just” man is someone who conforms in the greatest way possible to the perfect idea of man, in other words, someone who fully realizes his humanity. Plato teaches that justice consists in a harmonic relation in the soul of the good man between temperance, fortitude (or courage), and wisdom. In a parallel way, Plato sees the city as composed of three social classes, each with their own proper virtue. In the productive class (i.e., farmers, artisans, and merchants), the concupiscible element is predominant; thus, the virtue of temperance must be cultivated. The guardian class, in which the irascible element prevails, must be guided by fortitude or courage. Lastly, the governing class must operate according to wisdom. The good society is one in which every citizen acts according to the virtue that is proper to him, while justice consists in the harmonic orientation of every social component to the common good.[108]


            If we consider that the rule or norm of this ideal should be expressed by the law, we can say, with Aristotle, that justice consists in conformity to the law. Now, the end of the law is the common good, but sometimes the common good requires the practice of personal virtue:


And the law bids us do both the acts of a brave man (e.g., not to desert our post nor take to flight nor throw away our arms), and those of a temperate man (e. g., not to commit adultery nor to gratify one’s lust), and those of a good-tempered man (e. g., not to strike another nor to speak evil), and similarly with regard to the other virtues and forms of wickedness, commanding some acts and forbidding others; and the rightly-framed law does this rightly, and the hastily conceived one less well. This form of justice, then, is complete virtue, but not absolutely but in relation to our neighbor. And therefore justice is often thought to be the greatest of virtues, and “neither evening nor morning star” is so wonderful; and proverbially “in justice is every virtue comprehended.” And it is complete virtue in its fullest sense, because it is the actual exercise of complete virtue. It is complete because he who possesses it can exercise his virtue not only in himself but towards his neighbor also . . . [109]


            Now, it is exactly this “relation to our neighbor” that brings Aristotle to recognize, along with the general concept of justice as the application of all the virtues within society, the particular virtue of justice which regulates the fair distribution of goods and their peaceful exchange between men.


In the Latin world, the most famous definition of justice, subsequently adopted by St. Thomas, was that of Cicero: “. . . justice is a habit whereby a man renders to each his due by a constant and perpetual will.”[110]


            From this perspective, right (ius) appears prior to and more fundamental than justice (iustitia). For this reason, we will look first at rights (6. 2); then, we will consider the virtue of justice in general (6. 3), the kinds of justice (6. 4), and lastly, the vices opposed to justice (6. 5).



6. 2. Rights


            “Right” is a primordial notion impossible to define in the full sense of the word.[111] Nevertheless, we can describe it as the consonant relationship between a certain good and the person entitled to that good, who is said to have the moral faculty to claim it as his own.


            In the first place, the notion of “right” indicates a particular relationship between a person (or community of persons) and a thing or service. This thing or service constitutes the object of the right (passive right) as that for which the entitled subject has an active right. Considered from this perspective, right consists in the moral faculty of claiming a thing as one’s own (possessing it, disposing of it), of acting in a certain way, or of requesting a service from others. This schema can be represented thus:




            Person (or Community)                                     Thing/Service

Subject of Right                                                            Object of Right

Active Right                                                                  Passive Right




            Moral Faculty of Claiming Ownership



In this sense, it is easy to understand that only persons can be holders of rights, whether as individuals or associated in community, since only persons have moral faculty. Animals, for instance, do not have rights in a proper sense. Certainly, we can recognize that in our dealings with animals we have specific duties; however, these duties are always in relation to persons: the abuse of animals damages the dignity of the person who inflicts it; the uncontrolled extermination of certain species infringes on the right of future human generations to a beautiful, complete world, etc.


            It should be noted that the existence of a right implies the existence of a subject (a person or community) who holds that right, as well as a subject (a person or community) from whom the right may be demanded and who is capable of delivering it. From this perspective, a right appears as the vital space necessary for the development of the person.



            Person/Community                                           Person/Community

            Holder of the Right                                           Holder of What is Due





                         Vital Space Necessary for Personal Development



            Society exists to create, conserve, and develop, with the help of all its members, the conditions necessary for every person to live well and reach his end, that is, perfection or happiness. We can define the common good as the matrix of conditions by which each person, if he so desires, can reach his end.[112] The different conditions or situations to which I refer constitute the objects of rights. At the worst, an individual could choose not to avail himself of these objects and renounce his own attainment of the good, but he cannot and must not damage the personal and communal goods which are the rights of others.


            By logical necessity, a subject’s right corresponds symmetrically with another subject’s duty.



6. 3. General Justice and Particular Justice


            A just person is someone who has a duty and fulfills it. Having clarified the notion of right, we can now take a closer look at justice as the virtue which makes possible the habitual performance of duty as respect for other people’s rights: “It is proper to justice, as compared with the other virtues, to direct man in his relations with others . . . On the other hand the other virtues perfect man in those matters only which befit him in relation to himself.”[113]


            Justice constitutes an openness to others in as much as it brings order to my relationship with them and their rights. This has a double significance since “the other” can be an individual or the whole community of which I am a part. In the first case, the virtue of justice consists simply in giving to each person what is owed to him. In the second case, things are more complicated because I myself am part of the whole toward which I have duties. These duties concern me also as a member of the community since my good is ordered to the common good. This means that my “private” virtues . . . are not so private!


It follows therefore that the good of any virtue, whether such virtue directs man in relation to himself, or in relation to certain other individual persons, is referable to the common good, to which justice directs: so that all acts of virtue can pertain to justice, in so far as it directs man to the common good.[114]


            As we said at the beginning of this chapter, Plato and Aristotle had in mind this general dimension of justice which, as St. Thomas says, “comprehends together every virtue, and is itself the maximally perfect virtue.”[115] Taken in this sense, justice has a global dimension which cannot be inserted next to fortitude and temperance as a cardinal virtue since it enfolds these virtues, ordering their acts to the common good.[116]


            This does not mean, however, that general justice can substitute for the other virtues which are necessary for man to be ordered directly to particular goods, both in regard to himself, through temperance and fortitude, and in regard to the rights of others, intended here as other people, by way of particular justice.


            In synthesis:


·        General justice includes all the moral virtues (including particular justice) and directs them to the common good.


·        Particular justice gives to each his due, taking into consideration the common good.[117]


The special importance of justice emerges in the phenomenon of moral obligation. Certainly, all the virtues oblige us to specific kinds of behavior in as much as they create a moral duty. This is to say that I must act in a wise, strong, courageous, and temperate way in order to realize my human personality and live well. I have, then, a responsibility first of all to myself in the fulfillment of these duties. This reality has a certain resonance at the social level in the construction of a better and more humane community. But particular justice also adds to this duty another element: I must act justly also because my neighbor is entitled to it; he has a right that creates in me a responsibility toward him whereby he can ask me to act in a certain way. My moral duty to be just corresponds to a juridical debt in regard to another person.


To clarify this concept, let’s compare two different cases of duty in relation to our neighbor:


a) A friend has treated me badly, but then repents and asks me to accept his apology. I know, in conscience, that I must pardon him.


b) In a moment of financial difficulty, I receive a loan from a friend. The crisis is now behind me and I know that I must repay the loan.


            Certainly, in both cases a and b, I perceive a moral duty. The difference is that the friend in case a can ask for my pardon, but he cannot demand it. In fact, he has no deed of ownership that allows him to claim pardon as something owed. Not by chance, the word “pardon” comes from the Latin per-donare, “to give a great gift,” indicating the dimension of gratuity and love in the act of pardon. Thus, I have a duty to pardon my friend, but he does not have – properly speaking – the right to be pardoned. If I do not forgive him, I commit a moral fault against the order of friendship, but I do not infringe on the order of justice.[118]


            In case b, however, the friend can not only ask me to return the sum I have borrowed, but he is also juridically entitled to demand the money as his. Therefore, I must restore the loan not only because I am his friend, but because the money is his and due to him. If I do not restore the loan, I infringe on the order of justice in addition to that of friendship.


            We can see, then, that in considerations of justice exterior things (e.g., merchandise exchanged) and exterior actions (e.g., the performance of a service to which I am held by contract) play a role of fundamental significance. Respecting the rights of others implies a certain measurability: I must be able to determine if and in what measure I have respected someone’s right and what I must still do or give to fulfill its exigencies. The material nature of the action to be performed or the things to be given provide an objective reference point for what is just.


            Notwithstanding this, at the base of just action there must be respect for the other person, an attentiveness in his regard without which the virtue of justice does not subsist. If I lack respect for another person, even though I perform just acts towards him (externally conforming to what is right), I myself would not be just! Justice, in fact, is a virtue of interpersonal relationship; consequently, though external things and actions are the immediate object of just behavior, respect for the other person is its formal cause.


·        The matter of justice consists of external things and actions which constitute the object of a right or debt.


·        The form of justice is respect for another person.


This regard is classically called aequitas and is a constitutive part of the virtue of justice. Further on (10. 4. 3), we will see that equity entails the right interpretation of the law and, from this point of view, is linked in a particular way with general justice. For the moment, we will limit ourselves to considering the formal aspect of respecting and caring for another person, without which justice cannot subsist. In this sense, considerations of equity may demand surpassing the rigorous materiality of the exigencies of rights. This could mean, for example, postponing the deadline for repayment of a loan when strict observance of the terms agreed upon would place the debtor in great difficulty. The consideration of rights alone, without aequitas, necessarily translates into injustice: summum ius summa iniuria.






6. 4. The Parts of Justice


            From what has been said, it is clear that particular justice indicates three conditions:


a) First of all, there must be at least two subjects facing each other. To the first belongs a right – to the second a corresponding duty. 


b) The object must be an authentic right, creating in the correspondent a juridical debt.


c) It must be possible to give what is owed.


            Where all three of these conditions are met, we can speak of the “subjective parts” of justice, commutative justice and distributive justice, which we will examine in the following paragraphs. If one of these conditions is lacking, however, we have what may be called the “potential parts” of justice. For example, as we noted earlier (4. 3. 2. 3), there is a certain exigency of justice in the duty of assisting aged parents. They have the right to our help since they brought us into the world, nourished us, and educated us. Nevertheless, the parent-child relationship lacks the first condition in as much as the link uniting the subjects goes beyond mere “otherness.” We can say that in the regulation of this relationship, “piety” is only a potential part of justice. To give another example, in the case of gratitude, the second condition is lacking. Certainly, there exists a moral duty to show gratitude to those who do us good since in a certain sense they have the “right” to expect our gratitude . . . Nonetheless, if gratitude does not arise freely, it cannot be demanded on the juridical level. Here also, then, we can speak of a potential part of justice.



6. 4. 1. Commutative Justice


            Let’s examine now the subjective parts of this virtue, beginning with the most basic: commutative justice. We can say “basic” because this form of justice is strictly dependent on the one-to-one relationship in which subjects exchange (“commute”) something (the first condition of justice). Some common examples of this relationship are loans, trades, sales, and services.


            The aspect of exchange makes it fairly simple to identify the object of a right and the measure of a debt. At issue is a relation of “giving/having” in which what is given must equal exactly what is received or owed. The measurement of this relation can be figured in terms of arithmetic equality. It is usually evident right from the beginning of a transaction, making clear the duty of restitution-compensation when it is not respected.


            In fact, rights persist even when injustice is committed. If I steal something, I have a duty to make restitution equal in value to what I have stolen. If I damage someone’s property, I have the duty of compensating the owner. In this regard, St. Thomas maintains an apparently paradoxical thesis: restitution is the most perfect act of commutative justice.[119] The reason for this is that, in a world marked by the struggle between competing interests, injustice seems the most prevalent condition. As a result, justice inevitably assumes the connotation of  a “reparation” or “restoration” of equal value.


This means that the dynamic character of man’s communal life finds its image within the very structure of every act of justice. If the basic act of commutative justice is called “restitution,” the very word implies that it is never possible for men to realize an ideal and definitive condition. What it means is, rather, that the fundamental condition of man and his world is provisory, temporary, non-definitive, tentative, as is proved by the “patchwork” character of all historical activity, and that, consequently, any claim to erect a definitive and unalterable order in the world must of necessity lead to something inhuman.[120]



6. 4. 2. Distributive Justice


            Distributive justice regulates the relationship between the community and its members. Consequently, its subject is the ruler, that is, the administrator of the common good. What is “distributed” is that portion of the common good which touches the individual. Social organizations, professional bodies, and individuals collaborate with each other so that a people, a “social whole,” has access to nourishment, clothing, lodging, the possibility of transport and communication, health care, education, schools, etc. Distributive justice requires that all these goods be divided and “distributed” equally among all the members of the community.[121]


            Distributive justice is commonly understood as impartial, equal, and appropriate behavior that takes into account what is owed to each person. In fact, the concept of distributive justice was developed to resolve problems due to a scarcity of resources in competitive situations, problems of a political and organizational nature at the level of both “macro-division” (the distribution of resources on a large scale) and “micro-division” (the distribution of resources to some people rather than others). Different criteria have been proposed for the solution of these problems.


Distributive justice has been the focus of different, even rival, theories which have, nonetheless, commonly maintained the formal Aristotelian principle that equals must be treated equally and un-equals treated un-equally.


            The problem lies in determining who is equal and who unequal, and how inequality is to be treated.


            Numerous material principles have been proposed for distributive justice:


1. To each person an equal share

2. To each person according to need

3. To each person according to effort

4. To each person according to contribution

5. To each person according to merit

6. To each person according to free market exchanges[122]


            Some contemporary authors maintain that each of these material principles indicates prima facie duties that always apply, except in those cases where they conflict with greater or equal duties. Hence, the effective duty of a subject is determined by balancing the weight of these juxtaposed prima facie duties.[123]  


            Material principles specify what properties a subject must have to enjoy some part of the available resources. Many people are skeptical about the necessity (or even the possibility) of adhering to a single criteria: “No obvious barrier prevents acceptance of more than one of these principles, and some theories of justice accept all six as valid.”[124]


            Different theories of distributive justice have been elaborated with a view to specifying and making coherent different principles, rules, and judgements. These have tried to “connect properties of persons with morally justifiable distributions of benefits and burdens.”[125]


            This is not the place to go into depth on the different models available for understanding this form of justice. It is enough for us to note that these theories have meaning only in as much as they preserve an essential regard for the person and his dignity. Such a regard provides an objective base that is equal for everyone. Hence, it is just that each person be guaranteed an equal portion of essential goods (principle 1). Where this is threatened, special concern must be shown (principle 2). Worthiness is increased by subjective effort (principle 3), objective contribution to the common good (principle 4), and special qualification for an office (principle 5). These differences must be recognized and adequately prized. With all this assured, there must yet remain a “free” margin in which contractual exchanges can take place, regulated by commutative justice (principle 6).



6. 5. Injustice


            As we noted above (4. 3. 2. 3), injustice is the vice par excellence because it is the perversion of the will itself. But the story does not end there. By its continual interaction with reason, the will can so condition reason that the unjust person becomes inclined to consider “good” what is really “unjust.” 


            This is clear if we recall that general justice commands the acts of all the virtues, maintaining them and coordinating them. Where general justice is lacking, for that very reason, the virtues are lacking.


            But an analogous discourse must also be made on the subject of particular justice, that is, on our relationship with the rights of others. A “right” is something owed to another. Whoever keeps for himself what he should give to another, or takes from another what rightfully belongs to him, ends up by damaging himself. He perverts his own will – the intimate core of his own being. Such a person becomes unjust, that is to say, “inadequate” in terms of his own human dignity. By his own actions, he bars himself from the road that leads to the right development of his own personality.[126] For this reason, Socrates insisted that it is a greater evil to commit injustice, than to suffer it:


I would not wish either, but if I had either to do or to suffer wrong, I would choose rather to suffer than to do it . . .  I maintain, Callicles, that it is not the most shameful of things to be wrongfully boxed on the ears, nor again to have either my purse or my person cut, but it is both more disgraceful and more wicked to strike or to cut me or what is mine wrongfully, and, further, theft and kidnapping and burglary and in a word any wrong done to me and mine is at once more shameful and worse for the wrongdoer than for me the sufferer.[127]


            Injustice emerges from the egoistic search for one’s own good and the consequent incapacity to see the good of others. It is often born from intemperance, which leads to satisfying one’s own desires without considering the wrong that others might suffer. Sometimes injustice springs from a lack of courage and fortitude. But there is a special type of injustice, very prevalent today, which stems from a lack of wisdom. Justice, in fact, presupposes the truth: the truth about rights, duties, and restitution. Thanks to wisdom, the truth about these things is translated into decision. When, however, we lose this link with truth, we no longer try to understand whether someone has a right to something or not, or if he is mistaken or not. As a result, injustice reaches a profoundly inhuman level.[128]








7. Fortitude or Courage


            The fact that the title of this chapter requires two words instead of one for the virtue in question tells us that we must once again begin with a clarification of concepts and terms (7. 1). Following, we will take a look at the cultural aspects of this virtue in contemporary society (7. 2). We will then consider the essential link between this virtue and vulnerability (7. 3). Lastly, we will present the acts of fortitude: the endurance of evil and aggression against evil (7. 4).



7. 1. Terminology


            The word “fortitude” comes from the Latin fortitudo, a word associated with physical “force,” strength, and energy.[129] On this basis, it takes on psychological significance, being used to indicate constancy of soul, particularly in the face of effort and danger. As such, it is called courage (7. 1. 1), tenacity (7. 2. 1), and magnanimity (7. 2. 3).



7. 1. 1. Courage


             Andréia is the Greek word for courage. Literally translated, it means “virility,” the virtue by which someone acts “as a man.” The summit of this virtue is a firm spirit in the face of death in battle: “He is a man of courage who does not run away, but remains at his post and fights against the enemy.”[130] Obviously, this kind of terminology is limited by its ties to an essentially chauvinistic and warlike culture. In reality, women must be no less strong and courageous then men; in fact, they have often succeeded in being more so! 


            Plato took a step forward in determining this virtue by defining it as “the knowledge of what should and should not be feared.”[131] This definition has both limitations and merit. On the one hand, it suffers from a Socratic intellectualism that holds “knowledge” to be a moral rather than intellectual virtue (cf. 4. 3. 1). Furthermore, the meaning of the expressions “should” and “should not” requires some clarification. Aristotle noted that this definition can give rise to confusion between courage properly so-called and the special skill of someone, for example, a mercenary soldier, who doesn’t experience fear because he recognizes a false alarm when he sees one. When a real and difficult danger presents itself, a danger that should be bravely faced, such a one is usually the first to run away![132]


On the other hand, Plato’s definition succeeds in establishing a boundary between what we “should” and “should not” fear and avoid. For instance, a person should fear and avoid dishonor and should not be afraid of the heroic sacrifice of his own life. Thus, as with every virtue, courage must submit to the command of wisdom which orders flight from certain evils and the pursuit of certain goods – even to the point of enduring evil and forsaking flight in order to obtain those goods. 



7. 1. 2. Tenacity and Patience


            Along with this virtue, we can speak of the constancy of the man of character in front of difficulties. The Latins called this virtue perseverantia, though we would do better to translate it “tenacity,” a word that implies a kind of toughness, a capacity for temporal endurance in the prolonged application of oneself to a difficult task. It goes without saying that tenacity presupposes the judgement of wisdom concerning the suitability of persevering in a certain kind of action. Consequently, tenacity is opposed to “pertinacity,” that is, the “impudent tenacity” of the stubbornly obstinate person who seeks to persevere in his own opinion out of duty, pigheadedness, or pride. Contrariwise, a defect of tenacity shows itself as a kind of “weakness,” we could even say “sluggishness” or “fragility,” which tends to give in at the smallest impact or abandon the good in the face of the pain caused by a lack of satisfaction.[133]


            Perseverance includes the modest, daily virtue of “patience,” the capacity to bear without perturbation the inevitable sufferings connected with our everyday realization of the good. It should be noted that “whoever is brave is patient, but the converse does not hold, for patience is a part of fortitude.”[134] Further, the strong person does not only “passively” bear the evil that befalls him, but is also ready to act, to “jump into the fray,” so to speak, whenever necessary.



7. 1. 3. Magnanimity


            In a positive sense, fortitude (or courage) requires the ability to “think big,” to formulate demanding objectives and pursue them with energy and decision. This virtue is called “magnanimity.” It denotes “stretching for the mind to great things” – toward difficult goods, rather than easy evils.[135] Magnanimity is a desire for excellence measured by the accomplishment of grand deeds, or the excellent execution of ordinary deeds, even the smallest. Clearly, wisdom plays an important role in this virtue since it allows us to avoid the excesses due to overestimation of our own strength (presumption), disordered ambition, or vain glory. It also keeps us from falling into that meanness of spirit (“pusillanimity”) which leads to underestimating ourselves or refusing the inclination toward an involvement that, though difficult, is nonetheless proportionate to our strength.


            We should take a moment to consider the vice of pusillanimity, which someone has described as the error of an eagle who thinks he is a chicken. This vice manifests itself in the scattering of one’s energies into many little areas, to the detriment of what is really important, and in a quarrelsomeness that disputes everything, attributing relevance to every trifle and losing sight of the ends worthy of pursuit.






7. 2. Cultural Aspects


            If we examine classical and modern literature, up to and including Romanticism, we will find that fortitude was perhaps the most exalted and recommended virtue, so much so that that poetry and the figurative arts were believed to exist primarily to celebrate the deeds of the strong, thus presenting them as examples for future generations.[136]


            In more recent times, however, a “decadent” attitude has emerged which exalts cowardice and pusillanimity and derides the courage of the strong. Josef Pieper’s explanation of this phenomenon is suggestive: The bourgeois man of industrial civilization believes he has explained the world. He feels himself at home in the universe, and cannot fathom that existence implies a struggle against evil, a struggle marked by the double dimension of fault and penalty, that is, the evil we do and the evil we suffer.[137]


            From the ideology of progress and the myth of indefinite growth toward ever brighter horizons, an obtuse and disenchanting optimism has sprung up, based on the presumption that every evil can be resolved with technology. The well-being realized in industrial society has habituated people to abundance and ease, making them ever more dependent on pleasure and comfort, incapable of sacrifice or the acceptance of the smallest privation or discomfort. A “soft” society is necessarily “impatient.” 


Though contemporary culture boasts an “uninhibited” mentality, it has as yet retained one taboo that preserves every ancestral prohibition and fear: the taboo against suffering. Some young people have rebelled against this leveling off of human experience by torturing their own bodies with piercing and tattoos. They have created an aesthetic of ugliness and decay expressed most acutely in the hard, desperate life of what in Italy are called the punkabbestia (wandering bands of young people, tattered and torn, who live with their animals on the streets). Official culture pretends ignorance of the messages behind these realities. Instead, it continues to declare war on what it sees to be the only real evil for society: physical suffering. The attack on pain has two dimensions: first, the use of drugs – painkillers, anti-depressants, tranquilizers, etc. – which leads eventually to abuse and dependency, and second, where drugs fail, eugenic (“therapeutic”[138]) abortion and euthanasia.


            The immediate satisfaction of needs and the search for ephemeral pleasure – Horace’s carpe diem – are the only criteria for action which our soft, impatient culture will accept. This manifests itself in a pusillanimous spirit whose highest ideal is not virtue or happiness but, far more banally, amusement and consumption. Vice receives public recognition and favor – even to the point of being “worshipped.”[139]


            But the enthusiasm for science and technology, an enthusiasm which up until some decades ago seemed “carved in stone,” is giving way to a pessimistic disquiet: the indiscriminate exploitation of natural resources required by a consumer culture has lead humanity “to the brink of the abyss.” Phenomena such as the hole in the ozone layer with its consequent climactic catastrophe, as well as the pollution of air, water, and earth, demand that we take stock of our place in time. We cannot continue to think in brief intervals; we must have the courage to face our responsibility to the future. We must recover the ability to “think big” and be “magnanimous.”


            The “ecological bent” of our culture is post-modern humanity’s first and clearest expression of its widespread sense of uneasiness.  Awareness is growing that our actions produce irreversible effects. Consequently, the pure impulse for possible pleasure can no longer serve as the basis of our actions. “Philosophy can contribute by ensuring that education develop the sense to foresee the long term effects of human action on the very delicate equilibrium between human pretenses and nature’s efficiency.”[140] This means that philosophers today must be concretely engaged in a reflection on the virtue of fortitude – and its authentic practice.


            In past epochs, the call to “terrestrial” fortitude was powerfully sounded whenever a people were in danger and their young were mobilized, prepared to die in the defense of their country. Clearly, the willingness to face the supreme sacrifice carried with it the readiness to face every sort of difficulty. At the origins of Christianity we find fortitude in the martyrs who gave their lives for their faith, and the ascetics who, for the love of eternal life, submitted themselves to a demanding regime of worldly life. We can hope that the recovery of this virtue in our own time will be assisted by the awareness of our responsibility for planet earth and her future generations. We can hope that a healthy “fear” in front of foreseeable catastrophe will give rise to the “courage” to change our soft, pusillanimous lifestyle and lead us to acquire firm habits more worthy of our humanity.


Also, on the aesthetic level, we can hope that the twilight whining on its own “little pains” will be abandoned and the moral beauty of courage will once again shine forth to the shame of cowards’ easy ironies sprung forth from their own resentment.[141]



7. 3. Fortitude and Vulnerability


            Whoever has meditated in depth on fortitude and courage is immune from the temptation to see them as “titanic” virtues. On the contrary, they presuppose vulnerability.[142] A person who can’t be wounded doesn’t need to be brave! The strong person is one who can suffer a wound in both the physical and moral sense. By “wound” we mean here any kind of damage to our integrity, anything that causes pain, anguish, oppression – reaching its maximum degree in death.


            The concept of vulnerability presupposes a “weakness” of an ontic character. The virtue of fortitude assumes such weakness and overcomes it on the moral plane. On this subject, the stories of the martyrdoms of young Christians can be very enlightening. Even those who do not share the Catholic faith can profit from these accounts if they read them in the spirit of phenomenological research. We may recall, for example, the well known text of St. Ambrose on the martyrdom of Agnes, a child of twelve years of age:


Was there room for a wound in that small body? And she who had no room for the blow of the steel had that wherewith to conquer the steel. But maidens of that age are unable to bear even the angry looks of parents, and are wont to cry at the pricks of a needle as though they were wounds. She was fearless under the cruel hands of the executioners, she was unmoved by the heavy weight of the creaking chains, offering her whole body to the sword of the raging soldier, as yet ignorant of death, but ready for it . . .  she filled the office of teaching valour while having the disadvantage of youth.[143]


            It is clear that the suffering here was not accepted for itself as if it were a good. Such a “love of suffering” would be contradictory; it would be pathological. Wounds are accepted willingly only because to escape them would mean suffering even greater damage. In this situation, suffering allowed the person to preserve an integrity of a different and more profound character.  


            We have already said that the strong do not despise life; on the contrary, they love it profoundly, surely more than the fearful do. But this love resides not only in their sensibility, which is inclined to self-preservation, but also in the moral forces of their rationality. This covers everything that comprises the integrity of the person: joy, health, success, etc. The strong man recognizes all these things as good. He loves them and naturally seeks them. Nevertheless, he is disposed to go without them rather than renounce the higher goods, the loss of which would be a far more serious wound.


            This means that the truly courageous person knows a natural man’s fear and overcomes it not by instinctive optimism (“fortune aids the daring”), or presumptuous faith in his own capacities, or because he fears “losing face” and being considered vile, but because he remembers a greater and stronger good.


            Putting all this together, we can say that “the specific character of fortitude consists in suffering injuries in the battle for the realization of the good.”[144] From this perspective, we are not to seek after death or wounds, or even danger, but rather, the realization of a rational good. From this it follows that only the fortitude of someone guided by wisdom and justice can truly be called “virtuous.”


            Moreover, we can see that fortitude and courage are not only opposed to vileness or fear (an excessive and disordered fear), but they also stand opposed to that vice which is the insensibility to fear. “Hence it may happen,” says St. Thomas, “that a man fears death and other temporal evils less than he ought, for the reason that he loves the contrary goods less than he ought [i.e., he loves himself less than he ought].”[145]


            This happens for different reasons. You may think, for example, that suicide is the extreme act of courage. In reality, its being “extreme” reveals its vicious and contradictory character: “Wherefore even those that slay themselves do so from love of their own flesh, which they desire to free from present stress.”[146]


            Some people demonstrate an insensibility to fear when they think that the evils the wise person fears will not happen to them. For example, anyone who drives a car in a dangerous way is convinced that accidents only happen to other people! Pride and presumption are often at the root of this attitude, though sometimes it is just stupidity, pure and simple. Aristotle speaks of barbarians who fear neither “earthquake nor a storm at sea” because they are incapable of recognizing what is fearful.[147]


            The worst excess of audacity, however, is not to fear doing evil. The bandit guilty of heinous crimes, the cruel warrior, the suicide terrorist – all these may appear courageous to some people, but this “appearance” is nothing other than the corruption of true virtue. As the saying goes, the corruption of the best produces the worst (corruptio optimi pessima).


            In sum, anyone who is really courageous and authentically “prudent” is aware of his own vulnerability. Such a person does not throw himself into danger without first reflecting and wisely discerning if it is necessary. On the other hand, “a man does not expose his person to dangers of death except in order to safeguard justice; wherefore the praise awarded to fortitude depends somewhat on justice.”[148]



7. 4. Endurance and Aggression


            In our discussion of the passions (3. 2), we said that fear arises in the face of a foreseeable evil. When such an evil is present, on the other hand, we feel sadness and anger. The strong person is the one who succeeds in governing these passions in the right way, enduring the right measure of sadness and attacking evil with the right measure of wrath.


            Not to be sad over evil means not to love the good, to be dangerously insensible. To be strong (in a patient way) means not losing one’s interior peace even in the event of great sadness. It means keeping a clear head, not losing heart and becoming depressed, even under intense duress. As always, virtue is found in the just mean, not in the excess or absence of sadness, but in the measure appropriate to the present evil and compatible with the exigencies of a wise and composed dominion over self.


            Very rightly, St. Thomas affirms that endurance is the principle act of fortitude.[149] The essence of this virtue emerges in its entirety when a subject has no practicable alternatives and must simply have the spirit to resist until the end. Endurance, however, must not be taken in a purely passive sense: “Enduring comprises a strong activity of the soul, namely, a vigorous grasping of and clinging to the good; and only from this stouthearted activity can the strength to support the physical and spiritual suffering of injury and death be nourished.”[150]


            A strong person is not limited to “putting up with” evil. When it is wise to do so, he courageously attacks evil with all the energy required, as well as faith in the resources authentically available to him and the hope of success. In this regard, St. Thomas affirms that a strong person makes use of anger and wrath in his assault on evil, “since it is proper to wrath to hurl itself against that which saddens it, and, thence, in the attack cooperate directly with fortitude.”[151] We should remember here that wrath is not of itself a vice or a virtue, but a passion. It becomes a vice when it precedes the choice of the will; it becomes a virtue when the action deriving from it is deliberated and ordered to a just end.[152]


            These considerations should move us to reconsider the bourgeois model of behavior centered on a spineless mediocrity, on a passive resignation deprived of assertiveness in the real world. The classical view of fortitude presents us with an ideal that is at once wise and youthful, vital and reasonable. It can and must exercise a renewed interest in our formation.








8. Temperance


            As with the other cardinal virtues, the modern context requires us to approach temperance first from a terminological standpoint (8. 1). We will then consider the essence of this virtue in itself (8. 2) and its importance for personal integration (8. 3).



8. 1. Terminology


            Undoubtedly, the word “temperance” is out of style. Our culture of “transgression” seems bent on destroying the concept of temperance with its suggestion of regulation, measure, moderation, and sobriety. In no other area does virtue seem so much like “putting a break” on our desires, inhibiting and repressing them. The “temperate person” is thought to be “lukewarm” and incapable of great feeling – someone who doesn’t enjoy anything.


            Now, certainly, the root of the Latin term temperantia is linked to the verb temperare (to keep the right measure, to moderate) and, thus, to the substantive temperatura (the right blend, a good composition). “Temperate zones” are characterized by a climate that is neither too hot nor too cold. But this certainly shouldn’t lead to the conclusion that temperance equals tepidity! There’s really no comparison. In fact, another verbal root of this word can enlighten us on its real meaning: to temper, a material (e.g., glass or steel) is called “tempered” after it has been submitted to a thermal treatment that makes it unbreakable. The word temperance belongs precisely in this semantic realm where it indicates the connatural and in a certain way unchangeable dispositions that form the basis of character. These dispositions, as the words “character” or “temper” suggest, indicate a particular, personal energy that we describe in everyday language when we say someone “has character” or “a strong temperament.”


            However, the Greek word for this virtue, sophrosýne, reaches even further dimensions. Literally, it means “directing reason,”[153] and concerns a “con-tempering” of different parts into a harmonic and well-ordered whole. In Latin, temperatio indicates such a proportioned arrangement (e.g., the “tempered” tuning of musical instruments adjusts the commas between semitones to bring about a correspondence of notes at different octaves), while a temperator is someone who orders and governs.


            In human beings, the job of “tempering” belongs to the reason; the elements that are “tempered” are the desires arising from our natural inclinations:


Nature inclines everything to whatever is becoming to it. Wherefore man naturally desires pleasures that are becoming to him. Since, however, man as such is a rational being, it follows that those pleasures are becoming to man which are in accordance with reason. From such pleasures temperance does not withdraw him, but from those which are contrary to reason. Wherefore it is clear that temperance is not contrary to the inclination of human nature, but is in accord with it.[154]


From this, it follows that temperance can be called a “virtue” only in so far as it is ruled by the virtue of the reason: wisdom. A person who avoids pleasure because of a certain temperamental disposition or psychological inhibition may manifest external behavior that is materially “temperate,” but he does not possess the virtue of temperance.[155]



8. 2. The Essence of Temperance


            Temperance consists, then, in the rational moderation of human actions and passions.  Its essence becomes clear if we compare it with fortitude: both have to do with the passions, but – as we have seen (3. 2) – the passions themselves can be traced back to two fundamental roots: repulsion and attraction. Repulsion arises in front of something we perceive as disagreeable. Fear, sadness and anger are its fundamental expressions. As we know, the virtue of fortitude is necessary to keep us from being overcome by these feelings as we tend toward the realization of the true good according to reason. Contrariwise, attraction is aroused by what we perceive to be pleasant or agreeable. Desire and enjoyment are its fundamental expressions. Temperance allows the rational management of these experiences, resisting anything that attracts the senses in a direction contrary to the dictates of reason.


            In his treatment of virtue, St. Thomas does not weary of repeating that the sensible and corporeal goods considered in themselves do not at all repel reason. On the contrary, they serve reason as the instruments it uses to reach its proper end: a good and happy life. Hence, the goal of temperance is not to hold off evil, but to regulate (temper) the desire for the good.[156]


            Now, among the goods we desire, those pertaining to the preservation of an individual’s life (eating, drinking) and the species (mating) have a greater power of attraction. Certainly, we have a natural instinct to sensible enjoyment, particularly in the pleasure of eating and drinking and sex, instincts born of the most powerful forces for human life’s preservation. It is precisely because these energies are so strictly joined to our most radical impulses that they vehemently overcome all our other powers when they degenerate into egoism.[157]  


            Consequently, the principle task of temperance lies in these areas of human life where it manifests itself primarily as moderation in eating, sobriety in drinking, and sexual chastity. Yet, the exigency of moderation tied to temperance has even greater depths. In all areas of human action, in fact, the desires must be “tempered” according to reason. For example, instinctive pride must be moderated by humility; the natural need to avenge injustice requires the control of meekness and mildness; the natural inclination to knowledge must be disciplined by genuine studiousness so as to avoid degenerating into mere curiosity. This said, it is clear why temperance is a cardinal virtue: its activity is required in every dimension of personal virtue.[158]  


            As with all the virtues, though in a more excellent way, temperance aims at that serenity which St. Ambrose calls tranquillitas animi [159]:


It is obvious that this proposition does not imply a purely subjective state of mental calm or the tranquil satisfaction which is the by-product of an unassuming, leisurely life in a narrow circle. Nor does it mean a mere absence of irritation, or dispassionate equanimity. All this need not go deeper than the surface of the intellectual and spiritual life. What is meant is the serenity that fills the inmost recesses of the human being, and is the seal and fruit of order.[160]


            Temperance permits us the self-possession necessary to give ourselves in a free and altruistic way. Intemperance, on the other hand, is an egoistic attitude that “paradoxically” brings about the subject’s own destruction. This becomes clear if we recall that man’s interior equilibrium is not static, but dynamic. Our natural inclinations, whose aim is self-preservation, become the vehicle of self-destruction when they are inordinately indulged: “The things about which temperance is concerned have a most disturbing effect on the soul, for the reason that they are natural to man.”[161]


You may be wondering how it is that these powers of self-preservation can become so destructive. The answer lies in the dynamism of the human will. As we saw earlier (4. 3. 2. 5), the will is not made to be centered on itself, but to transcend itself and adhere to the good as such. The will is open to the infinite – but the goods that attract our sensitive appetites, precisely because of their “sensible” nature, are necessarily finite in number and duration. It is not possible to satisfy an infinite desire with a finite satisfaction![162] Temperance keeps us from getting stuck on the particular so that we can stay open to the good presented by reason. 



8. 3. Virtue of Personal Integration


The virtue of temperance, then, contributes to the integration of corporeal life with all its desires and pleasures into the whole life of the person. To better understand this fact, it will be helpful to recall some fundamental anthropological notions that shed light on the distinction between the body, with its desires, and the person (8. 3. 1). We will then return to the concept of virtue with a greater awareness of its dimensions.



Excursus 1. – Historical/Philosophical Panorama on Corporeality


            In the history of thought, we can identify two fundamental views on man which have profoundly influenced ethics: materialistic monism and spiritualistic dualism. The following is a very brief description of these two positions.



A. Materialistic Monism


            That man has corporeal existence is evident to everyone. According to the thesis of materialistic monism, however, the human person exists only as a material body. This theory evolved in the wake of positivist evolutionism from the 19th century onward. Its presuppositions were present already in antiquity in the thought of atomists such as the Greeks Democritus (5th century B.C.) and Epicurus (ca. 342-270 B.C.) and the Latin Lucretius (ca. 99-55 B.C.). It appeared again in the Middle Ages and early Renaissance in the work of the Latin Averroists and continued into modernity, above all with Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679). It passed through the philosophers of the Enlightenment to find its most theoretically articulate expression in the work of the left Hegelians, finally winding up with Marx and the Neo-Marxists.


            In the existentialism of J. P. Sartre (1905-1980), man and body are one and the same thing. There is no such thing as an experience or relationship that is not exclusively corporeal. Radical thinkers have aligned materialism with the message of liberation: H. Marcuse (1898-1979) thought that by making the body the site of pleasure and play he would pick the lock of a bourgeois hold on the organization of society, a hold based on salaried work and marriage. Historical feminism runs along the same lines (for example, S. de Beauvoir, 1908-1986) in its battle for sexual liberation, contraception, abortion, etc. We should note that the materialism of these positions is a presupposition that is taken for granted and almost never discussed theoretically. Hence, we can speak of materialistic “ideology” rather than “philosophy.”







B. Spiritualistic Dualism


            Notwithstanding cultural trends, the evidence for a reality that is fully human and irreducible to matter has never been lacking in the history of thought. Man knows many activities of a material order, such as nutrition, growth, etc., which can be understood according to material principles. But he also engages in activities of a superior order, such as the knowledge of universal ideas, freedom, and the capacity to love in a spiritual sense. If every effect presupposes a cause proportioned to it, then it is clear that there is a principle of a spiritual order in man.


In the attempt to understand the rapport between man’s spiritual and material components, the most banal consists in seeing them as two substances, one next to (or “within”) the other. The classic example of this dualism can be found in the thought of Plato, who considered the union between soul and body completely accidental and, further, the fruit of an “original fall” by which the body became a kind of prison for the soul. The dualistic conception, attenuated by  “unitarian” thinking such as Aristotelianism, never disappeared from the history of thought and re-emerged powerfully in the modern epoch. Descartes (1596-1650) maintained that man is constituted of two “things”: the res cogitans, that is, a thinking spirit, and the res extensa, that is, a body organized in every way like a machine. Putting this idea in the simplest terms, we can say that man is a robot with an indwelling angel. However, the contact between these res is rather difficult to understand: Descartes hypothesized that it happens in the pineal gland, the epiphysis, though he did not succeed in explaining how matter “touches” spirit. Malebranche (1638-1715) thought that God intervenes in every corporeal sensation to communicate the corresponding idea to the soul. Leibniz’s (1646-1716) solution was a pre-established harmony fixed by a creator God (a “clockmaker” God) between the sensations of the body and the thoughts of the soul.


            Sad to say, spiritualistic dualism has in some measure infiltrated Christian thought. Through Platonism, a legacy of contempt for the body came to influence much of Christian asceticism, as well as Cartesianism, leading – with grave consequences – to conceiving the rapport between body and soul in an extrinsic fashion. Platonism led to a distorted vision of sexuality as a negative reality that is intrinsically sinful. Cartesianism, for its part, resulted in a “disincarnated” vision of Christianity as something essentially passive and indifferent in the face of temporal realities.






C. Ontologically Based Personalism


            The writings of the Church Fathers manifest a certain polarity in their consideration of the problem of man. The Antiochian Fathers underlined unity, while the Alexandrians emphasized duality. The latter notion is to be found in St. Augustine:


The real overcoming of the Neoplatonic-Augustinian conception of man happens only in Thomas who gathers and transforms Aristotelian categories. Truly, his conception, which corresponds to the biblical idea of the unity of man, does not automatically accept Aristotelian anthropology, which remains in the sphere of Greek dualism, but corrects and radically surpasses it.[163]


It is well known that St. Thomas viewed man as a single substance with the soul as the form of the body, but what this means exactly is not always clear to everyone.[164] Let’s try, then, to give a brief explanation of it. 


            First of all, we must ask ourselves what substance means. In Aristotelian terms, substance is defined as that which is seperate from every other thing though unseparated in itself.  Looking at myself, I can see the color of my skin, I feel the beating of my heart, I am aware of my own thoughts, etc. My skin color is in me, the heartbeats are in me, my thoughts are in me . . . but the “me,” that is, my “I” – where is it? It isn’t in something else, but “in itself.” This being in itself means being a real substance, while the color, the heartbeats, and the thinking are merely accidents of this substance. By accident we mean something that causes secondary changes in a substance already constituted in its essence. We can call these accidents “accessories” to substance. My skin color can change (I can be tan, tattooed, etc.). My heartbeat changes continually – and my thinking even more so. But I remain. Moreover, I see an enormous complexity in the substance of this I. My body consists of numerous organs constituted by countless cells. My mind manifests an even great complexity. But both body and mind are me, that is, they make up the unique substance that is my I.


But what gives unity to this substance? There must be a principle that “unifies substance, organizing its components and effecting its operations.”[165] This principle, in Aristotelian terminology, is called substantial form.[166]


            Now, the substance of my I is constituted by different components which are material (i.e., bodily organs) and immaterial (i.e., my thoughts). Since the I that feels cold feet and has a headache is the same I that entertains the concepts of justice and infinity, there must be a unique substantial form that serves as the organizing principle of these spiritual and material components of my I, as well as its operations, both material (e. g., eating, drinking, sexual relations) and spiritual (e. g., acts of thought and will).


            Other living organisms are capable of material operations analogous to ours (e.g., digestion and reproduction), but they are incapable of spiritual activity. Their substantial form can be called soul (in as much as it concerns living organisms), but only a vegetative or sensitive soul destined to dissolve with the death of the living thing.[167] The living organism that I am, on the contrary, is capable of spiritual activity; therefore, my substantial form must be a principle adequate not only for the maintenance of vegetative and animal life, but also (and above all, since this is what constitutes the specific characteristic of man) for the exigencies of spiritual life. This principle is a spiritual soul which includes in itself animal functions, too.


All of this leaves us with a very important point for our inquiry: Since the human soul is the form of the body, corporeal action involves the soul; hence, when a man acts, it is the whole man as such who acts. 





8. 3. 1. Division between Body and Person


            When the link between the body and the person, between physicality and spirituality, is broken, we fall into different, equally dangerous errors. On the one hand, the body will be understood as an inferior reality so that sex is seen as something “dirty” and tolerable only in view of procreation (the error of gnosticism and puritanism). On the other hand, there will be the risk of reducing the spirit to a more or less accidental manifestation of physical reality. 


            This last notion lies behind the work of Freud and others who drew analogies between the physical manifestation of sexuality and other spheres of the person. These analogies were given the value of cause-effect with the result that all forms of religious devotion, enthusiasm, and ecstasy, no matter what their origin, were thought to constitute only a “sublimation” of sex. Such a view was destined to lead to an idolatry of corporeal pleasure detached from its profound, mysterious dimension and uprooted from the total reality of the human person. Love, every kind of love, was reduced to sex appeal.


            In the final analysis, the Freudian position can be classified as a form of materialistic monism, while gnosticism and puritanism are markedly dualistic. In our time, however, dualism has come to have different connotations. We have but to think of the contemporary practice of self-manipulation, the negation of determined human, biological realities, and extreme vitalism. When man intervenes in his own corporeality by altering sexual characteristics (sterilization, transsexual operations), when he excludes one of the poles of the sexual act (love and fecundity, sex and generation), when he pursues physical pleasure in a unilateral way as if it were an end in itself without any reference to his own spiritual component – what is he doing if not rejecting totally the link between sex and the person, between the “spiritual I” and the “physical I”? Isn’t this the same thing that happens in pathologies tied to conflicts with food, for instance, anorexia and bulimia? Isn’t it this link that is tragically ruptured in toxic dependence and alcoholism?


            In the light of an integral view of the human person as a “unified whole” of soul and body, we can appreciate two things: Corporeality does not exhaust the essence of the person, and the person does not arbitrate the corporeality of his pleasures.


            We use the expression “body language” to describe a means of communication between people. “We can accept the meaning of this expression on condition that we understand ‘language’ in a derived sense. In fact, language, primarily and properly, is a system of signs. Hence, a language is the more perfect for possessing the adaptability and transparency of pure signs that perform in the best way possible their instrumental function in relation to the spirit.”[168]


            Now, corporeality cannot be reduced to this function of pure sign and linguistic instrument because it has its own natural finality. It is guided by powerful instincts over which the spirit is always at risk of losing control since the unconscious also plays an important part. Nevertheless, human beings have a profound desire to realize their corporeal life with its desires, its goods, and its pleasures, without obstacle or opacity, in the transparency of the moment. To this end two lives are possible. The first is that of virtue. The second – an aberration full of illusions – consists in treating the body as if it were in itself the totally transparent language of the spirit. From this perspective, which ignores elementary and evident data, there is a tendency to go to extremes in the negation of every similarity between animal corporeality and human corporeality.



8. 3. 2. A Unified Whole


            Let us turn to virtue, then, as the only organic means of integrating corporeality and spirituality. In this regard, we can define temperance as the “stable and growing submission of the sphere of the senses and instincts to the influence of the will,”[169] provided that we do not mean by submission the subjection of one element (the sensual and instinctual sphere) to another (the will) which is extraneous to it. In such a case, we would not have integration but only obedience, perhaps heroic obedience, but rife with moralism and, ultimately, frustration.


            On the contrary, when we speak of virtue, we mean the stable dispositions that orient the intimate center of the person toward the moral good. In this way, the moral subject himself is rendered integrally good.


Temperance’s task is the full integration of the sensual, instinctual sphere into the life of the person, thereby revealing corporeality as a specifically human reality and not just a generically animal reality. The innate, consuming power of sensuality can take hold of the spiritual person, “swallowing him up” in the body. In the face of this threat, the will may manage to preserve itself from fault, but it cannot transform this negative “being swallowed up”  into positive  “growth” or “self-giving.” Such a transformation is the special work of virtue which orients the person to total “self-giving” without “self-dissipation.”[170]














9. The Foundation of Morality


            We have “turned a corner,” so to speak, in our search for an answer to the question with which we started: How must we be to fully realize our human personality? 


            So far, we have seen that virtue is the key concept in our response to this question. Virtue, we have discovered, is the stable disposition of free behavior, that is, behavior ordered by the will and responding to the exigencies of right reason.


            As you may remember, Dear Reader, further back (4. 2. 2) we saw that the concept “right reason” constitutes a problem: On the basis of what criteria can we judge that reason is right or not so right? We have already indicated one attempt at an answer to this question: Right reason indicates the means necessary to reach the end of a fully realized human personality, i.e., the good life.


            Even so, it doesn’t seem as if we have taken a great step forward since we still don’t know in what the good life consists! We know it must represent the “fullness” of life, that is, happiness (cf. 2. 2. 4 and 4. 4), but even this doesn’t seem sufficient. Pascal once remarked that everyone wants to be happy – even people who hang themselves.[171] We might add to this those who want to hang other people! So, are we to conclude that the good life consists in hanging ourselves and others?[172]


            Clearly, the good life consists in realizing what is good. But we have seen that the concept good is used analogously according to what is useful, delightful, or good. When we talk about “the good life,” then, we mean a life desirable for itself and not in view of something else. 


            We have learned that a good life is characterized by the repetition of morally good acts, guided by right reason, that express, generate, and reinforce the virtue of the acting subject. Nevertheless, we still do not know what constitutes this good life, that is, in what way it is moral, right, and virtuous.


            The moment has arrived to face this problem. We will begin by asking ourselves if the foundation of morality, the good, is something objective and, thus, valid for every human person – or if it is something every person determines for himself on the basis of subjective choices (9. 1). This reflection will put us on the trail of the true good (9. 2). We can then introduce a subject of capital importance in moral research: human rights (9. 3). Lastly, in the light of all this, we will be able to understand how a human act can be judged good or bad (9. 4).



9. 1. The Good: Objective or Subjective?


            Moral theories can be divided into two large camps: On the one hand, we have the view that good and evil are valid categories for all men and all times (i.e., universalist theories). On the other hand, and to the contrary, we find the notion that good and evil are categories depending on the historical, social, and cultural context (i.e., relativist theories).



                                                *                      *                      *



Excursus 2. – Morality and Contemporary Thought


A. Universalisms


            “Modern philosophy,” in its maturity, took a strongly universalistic approach to the question of morality. It is enough to remember the great manifestos of the Enlightenment, the Bill of Rights of the American Revolution (1776), and the Déclaration Universelle des Droits de l’Homme et du Citoyen of the French Revolution (1789). These documents affirmed that all man have the same rights. From this belief, a series of ethical and juridical norms could be deduced to regulate human behavior.


            The problem is that in reality not everyone enjoys these rights. Some people are slaves; others live without a roof over their heads or food to eat . . .   Since this is so often the case, on what basis can we assert that it should be otherwise? 



A. 1. The “State of Nature”


In their reflections on morality, Enlightenment philosophers usually referred to a state of nature which, in their opinion, existed prior to the construction of society and the establishment of juridical systems. According to this view, in their natural “state” all men are equal and guided by the same moral norms.[173]


            What is good, then? It is however a “natural” man would behave! We have here the famous “myth of the noble savage” which gave birth to many an ethnographic study seeking to prove that so-called primitive societies (certain tribes of sub-Sahara Africa, the indigenous peoples of America, the aborigines of Oceania, etc.) were guided by the same moral norms and were “good.”


            Unfortunately, anthropological-cultural research destroyed this illusion. In reality, it’s not true that these societies teach and practice the same moral norms, or that the same rights are accorded to everyone.



A. 2. Reason and the Passions


            A foundation for morality was then sought for in reason. Reason would stand guard over the desires of our spontaneous nature, allowing the fulfillment of those which lead to social order and rejecting others that lead to social disorder.[174]


            But what is the criteria for this discernment? How should social life be ordered? In the manner of Louis XIV . . . of Robespierre . . . of Napoleon . . .? The fact is that there are different “systems,” each claiming its own perspective on justice and legitimacy. How do we opt for one or the other? Such a choice risks being motivated by personal interest alone in as much as preference would go to that social system which better promises to realize our individual desires.


            We see, then, the vicious circle behind this approach. We must choose which desires should legitimately govern behavior and which should be repressed or re-educated. Clearly, the desires themselves cannot act as criteria for this choice!  


Just because all of us have, actually or potentially, numerous desires, many of them conflicting and mutually incompatible, we have to decide between the rival claims of rival desires. We have to decide in what direction to educate our desires, how to order a variety of impulses, felt needs, emotions and purposes. Hence those rules which enable us to decide between the claims of, and so to order, our desires – including the rules of morality – cannot themselves be derived from or justified by reference to the desires among which they have to arbitrate.[175]



A. 3. “Pure Duty”


            A third approach completely excludes desire and passion from the foundation of morality. Such is the plan inaugurated by Immanuel Kant.[176] The key concepts of his moral thought are: disinterest, autonomy, duty, and the universality of the law.


            1. The idea of disinterest is fundamental in Kant. He writes: “It is impossible to think of anything at all in the world, or indeed even beyond it, that could be considered good without limitation except a good will.”[177] Hence, Kant is not interested in a good “human being” endowed with body and spirit, intelligence and will, as well as sensibility and sentiments. He is only interested in good will. “The sacredness of good will and moral intention is such that any thought of happiness, any desire for happiness entering into the motivation of our acts can only soil that intention, and cause it to fall off from the order of morality.”[178] The moral subject is a “pure agent,” who acts rightly without needing to perfect or fulfill his being.


            2. The sensible world is the reign of necessity, governed by the inexorable laws of nature. To this world belong the body, the passions, and the desire for happiness and realization. Contrariwise, the moral world is the reign of freedom since the will cannot be submitted to any law except that which it gives itself and with which it is totally identified. The will is absolutely autonomous. This totally excludes the possibility of a legislator God who would render human will “heteronomous.” But it also excludes love as moral motivation, “because love, so it seems, is irremediably heteronomous. Is there any worse heteronomy than to do the will of another, and to say to another whom one loves: thy will be done, not mine?” [179]


            3. The will so-conceived is “autonomous” and “disinterested.” It can be called good only when it adheres to duty without any other motive than duty itself. Hence, the moral life is not founded on the good, but on pure duty. At the most, one could say that the good is founded on duty. With this approach, you can’t say that you have a duty to do something because it is good; rather, you have to say that something is good because you have a duty to do it! “Duty is the necessity of an action from respect for the law.[180] And what is the “law”? Kant calls practical law a “categorical imperative,” that is, an imperative that does not say: “If you want to obtain this result you must . . .”, but rather, “You must, and that’s all there is to it – you must because you must.” Duty cannot arise from anything other than itself, and the law cannot arise from anything other than the will itself: “Hence the will is not merely subject to the law but subject to it in such a way that it must be viewed as also giving the law to itself and just because of this as first subject to the law (of which it can regard itself as the author).”[181] Kant’s duty is a form without content. It can not be otherwise since any kind of content would have to be drawn either from the sensible world (i.e., nature, the world, the body) or from God – in any case, not from the pure and autonomous will of the subject.


            4. Nevertheless, “pure duty” must claim some content for itself, otherwise it says nothing in regard to action.  I “must,” but “what” must I? The first formula of Kant’s categorical imperative says: Act in accordance with a maxim that can at the same time make itself a universal law.[182] If, for example, I am thinking about repaying a loan, I see that it is logically impossible, or contradictory, to raise to the level of a universal law the maxim that says, “It is never necessary to pay back loans.” In effect, if this maxim were held universally, there would no longer be any loans! But let’s take another example: I am deciding whether or not to kill a man who has offended me. In this case, there is no logical impossibility involved in making a universal law out of the maxim that says, “It is always necessary to kill people who offend us.” Nevertheless, according to Kant, it is a logical impossibility to want that such a maxim become universal law because I would myself one day offend someone and then I would have to want to be killed. The contradiction is in wanting a law that includes the death of the one who wants it. “In one case as in the other Kant deduces the content of the moral law from its pure universality: an act is forbidden, or contrary to the moral law, because it is logically impossible, or contradictory, either to universalize its maxim, or to will to universalize its maxim.”[183]


            Consistent with his theory of knowledge, Kant believed that morality could only be “saved” by removing it from the order of finality. Human beings should not act in view of an end. They should not seek happiness. They should not tend to anything . . . But this hyper-disinterest, beyond being literally “inhuman,” does not reach any other end than to cut morality off from existence. In fact, as we have already noted (2. 2. 4. 2), anyone who acts, acts for an end.


            We can illustrate the difficulty in Kant’s argument thus:


-         If I have no intention of repaying the loan, or if I intend to kill the person who offends me . . . why should I behave differently?

-         Kant would respond: Because otherwise you are not fulfilling your duty.

-         And why must I fulfill my duty if I’m interested in doing something else?

-         Because otherwise you would be immoral.

-         But why should I be moral?

-         Because it’s your duty . . .


As is clear, such thinking forms a vicious circle. The solution lies in showing that the content of duty, not only its form, corresponds to the true interest of the subject because it indicates a good in itself. But it is exactly this notion of “the good in itself” that Kant’s morality refutes, just as “the thing in itself” is refuted by his theory of knowledge.



A. 4. The State


With the total separation between the world of morality and the world of nature, ethics becomes an a priori system. The philosopher deludes himself into thinking that he no longer needs to reflect on human moral experience to discover the principles of morality (cf. 1. 3). He presumes to dictate for men “the articles of a legislation of Pure Reason despotically imposed on their life.”[184]


This is Idealism in full swing. The individual person is considered irrelevant since he is the bearer of all the miseries of “needs, interests, and ends.”[185] The morality of the individual is “abstract,” empty, and unreal because it is egoistic. Individuality must be overcome by acceding to the universality that is realized in the ethicity (German: Sittlichkeit) of the State: “The State is ethical substance aware of itself.”[186] The individual disappears, his only task being to adapt himself to the will of the State as expressed by the laws.


We can discern easily enough in the history of the 20th century the tragic outcome of this conception. On the one hand, it led to Nazism, and on the other, to Marxist-Leninism. In both systems, the human person serves only to advance the “cause” of the State.


But on what basis are the State’s laws determined? In vain would we seek a response to this question! Such criteria have been taken from the feeling of the Arian race, the future of the proletarian revolution, the consent of the majority, the interests of lobbies . . Given such vacillating criteria, the only important thing is that the laws be promulgated in a formally correct way. First, the State orders me to exterminate the prisoners of a concentration camp; then it orders me to execute the person who ordered their extermination. Hence, we pass from idealism to juridical positivism. If we ask whether euthanasia is good or evil, the response must be that in State “X” it is an evil but in State “Y” it is a good. Since the legislator can change, this order can be reversed: from tomorrow onward euthanasia could be a good in State “X” and an evil in State “Y.” This marks the end of universalism in ethics.



A. 5. Utility and Consequences


            The last bastion of modern universalism is to be found in the consequentialist approach. This theory has its roots in classical positivism and utilitarian morality. Utilitarianism asserts that the good is that which brings about the advantage of the greatest number of people while creating the minimum amount of disadvantage. A good act, therefore, is a “useful” act, that is, one that produces good consequences. Universal moral duty means seeking a “maximization of the good.”[187]


            We should note, first of all, a vicious circle in this formulation. An act is said to be good when it produces good consequences. But what are good consequences? On the basis of what parameters are they defined as such? Classical utilitarianism speaks of the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of people, thus identifying ethics with a kind of “social arithmetic.” The fascination that utilitarianism has exercised on contemporary culture depends precisely on this presumption that moral values can be treated as if they are goods for exchange. But soon enough it becomes clear that “happiness” is a concept that does not fall under additions and subtractions. What makes one person happy can be an object of absolute indifference to another person. Even for the same person, what he values and what he enjoys may lie on very different, incommensurable planes. And if we succeed in coming up with a preference, the criteria on the basis of which this is done is certainly not that of utility, but something else which escapes utilitarians.


            Moreover, if we apply the consequentialist theory consistently, we soon see how untenable it is. For example, let us imagine that in village “X” a horrible crime is committed. The identity of the guilty party is unknown, but he is believed to come from village “Y.” The population of village “X” threatens heavy reprisals on village “Y.” There is risk of civil war with hundreds of dead. Hence, the rulers of villages “X” and “Y” randomly select a citizen, declare him guilty of the crime, and hang him in the public square thereby restoring calm among the population. Their action, though resulting in the death of an innocent man, has as a consequence the saving of hundreds of other people. Is such behavior acceptable? It would take some kind of courage to say “yes” since everyone of us spontaneously puts himself in the shoes of the innocent scapegoat. What if he were our father, our brother, our son . . .? Moreover, we can’t allow anything to happen to someone else that we wouldn’t want to happen to us. But it’s exactly this that puts a check on “consequentialist arithmetic.” Numerically speaking, a hundred is more than one. For ethics, however, things are rather more complicated.



B. Relativism


            We are well aware these days of the complexity of moral reflection. The mass media has habituated us to debates between “experts” of various cultural extractions who hold contradictory positions on the same subjects. They build their arguments on concepts and references to values or norms that are very different, even incommensurable, with each other. Anyone listening to these exchanges can get the  impression that no objectively valid position on the matter exists. As a result, the question of what to do is relegated to criteria “relative” to every individual.[188]


            If you analyze these discourses, however, tracing their arguments back from conclusion to premises, you will find that they come apart at a certain point. Take the case of euthanasia, for instance. In a televised talk-show, two “experts” face each other. The first one, on the side of euthanasia, bases his arguments on the “right to choose.” The other one, on the contrary, founds his discourse on the “sacredness of life.” While the latter affirms that in questions of life no one has the right to choose, the former maintains that in questions of choice no one has the right to interfere. Neither party seems to have reasons that can convince his adversary his founding premise is the correct one. In the end, it looks to us as if the choice of the premises themselves is essentially arbitrary.



B. 1. Emotivism


            In fact, the use of moral language today is emotivistic.[189] It sends out messages that purport to be impersonal and objective but are in reality nothing more than expressions of subjective approval or disapproval. To say: “This behavior is bad” is the same as saying: “I disapprove of this behavior – and you should disapprove of it, too!” Since I do not have any rational argument capable of convincing you to disapprove of the behavior in question, I will try to bring you around with the most emotionally suggestive appeal possible, using subliminal messages to condition you.


            The tendency to “manipulate” the interlocutor (and, above all, the great mass of the public) is one of the most dangerous social implications of emotivism. From this perspective, there is no substantial difference between a commercial spot and an ethical argument. 


            To dialogue on the basis of rational arguments means accepting the “bi-lateral” nature of confrontation (i.e., you speak and I listen, then I speak and you listen). This procedure appeals to the intelligence and respects the freedom of others in a reciprocal contest. On the contrary, to condition someone through emotional suggestions is a “unilateral” procedure intended to coerce the freedom of others and deprive an opponent of the chance to examine a message critically and respond to it. In short, we are dealing with a real act of violence.


            And that’s not the end of it. From psychological violence we pass next to physical violence: terrorism. When it is believed that no objective truth exists as a basis for ethical judgements, brute force necessarily takes the place of law, oppression is substituted for conviction, and terror supplants truth.



B. 2. Historicism, Sociologism, and Psychologism


            Historicism is the classic relativistic theory. Its advocates maintain that every moral choice and its justifying reasons are only the expressions of a determined historical epoch. There’s no point in asking whether a certain behavior is good or bad or a certain moral judgement true or false. Rather, enormous amounts of intellectual energy are spent in pursuit of the historical background of these behaviors and judgements, that is, the factors that went into influencing them . . . But the question of truth and good is drastically eliminated.


            The form of historicism that is most in vogue today is sociologism which attempts to make every choice and every moral judgement dependent on the sociological structure in which it evolves. Here also we do not ask “what” is chosen and “how” such a choice is justified, but only what are the “social-historical motives” for which a choice is made.


            This attitude also informs the mentality of contemporary Psychologism, preoccupied with finding the connection between choices, judgements, and the lived psychological experiences of which a subject is more or less aware, while at the same time distancing itself totally from the truth or good implied by these experiences.


            This is not to negate the importance of history, the study of the socio-cultural ambience, or the lived psychological experiences that underlie specific moral attitudes. Certainly, every choice and every judgement is a “child of its history” since every person is a “child of his time.” However, we can’t help but notice that the great figures of history, such as Socrates, M. Attilius Regulus, and Maximilian Kolbe, proved their worth by breaking free of the “mediocre morality” of their epoch, rising far above it to reach a higher level of good.[190] It is this epoch-transcending criteria that interests us here. 



B. 3. Genesis, Evolution, and the Dissolution of Relativism


            How did contemporary ethical relativism come into existence? The answer lies within the complex history of the passage from modernity to post-modernity.


Until the 19th century, western culture was marked by a stable, strongly centralized social system. The “center” of this system might have been the small polis or commune, or the capital of the empire; it was represented by the temple or the cathedral, or by the municipality, the royal palace or parliament . . . In any case, there was a clear “center” around which life gravitated and in virtue of which every person had his own identity: noble, knight, cleric, middle class, servant, etc. Such identity carried with it a clear framework of rights and duties and regulated life down to the smallest particulars. We can describe this system as an “ethical totality” founded on great, shared, metaphysical-religious conceptions.


            In the nearly unanimous judgement of sociologists,[191] modernity grew out of a process of differentiation and individualization. On the one hand, society was differentiated into innumerable, partial systems (not only family-village-state-church, but companies, schools, agencies, organizations, parties, associations, unions, etc.); on the other hand, individual interests and needs began to infringe on community concerns.


            Our society, at least in the industrialized countries, is now “a-centric.” It is characterized by “weak” ties, rapid changes, individualism, shifts and fluctuations in roles, instability, and the need to adapt to ever new conditions. With no recognized center, and no shared metaphysical-religious conceptions, we have seen the dissolution of “ethical totality” and the absolutizing of the singular, individual conscience: No one can tell me what I should do (no one has the knowledge or authority to teach me). I myself must “invent” my life, my plan, my “rules.”


No one believes any more that an objective sense of the world exists, that there is a rational, objective order that human reason can understand, even if with difficulty, and realize at the personal level. Society is divided into many spheres of separate values, and neither faith nor reason has any longer the cultural resources to unify these values into a single, coherent meaning. An individual subscribes to the values of the workplace while at work (e. g., primacy of profit, competition, ambition, servility . . .), another completely different set of values when at church, and still other, even contrary, values for what concerns his leisure activities, the schools his children attend, etc. We may call the ethical framework thus erected a “polytheism of values.”


            It makes no sense to pine after the “ethical totality” of the past. Yes, that system guaranteed a certain order and security, but often at a very high price. The unity and irrepeatability of each person was strongly compromised since behavior tended toward an homologous agreement with dominant canons and, often, social hypocrisy.


            In the face of this ethical dissolution, culture at first fell prey to the wild exaltation of difference, fragmentation, and the birth of a new individualism. Horizons of potentially unlimited meaning opened up for everyone and any choice became comparable with any other. There was nothing that could not be “overhauled.” Whatever we used to do, we could now do differently. It no longer made any sense to distinguish truth from falsehood since everyone lived in a “hypothetical” condition: I think like this today, but tomorrow I may think differently. I won’t commit myself to anything or put too much at stake.


            But the intoxication of infinite possibility, as Kierkegaard noted,[192] generates anguish. In fact, the most prevalent sentiments of “postmodern” culture are disorientation, identity crises, and loss. Instead of freedom, we find disorder and an incapacity to manage ourselves or our relationships with others and the world. 


            Moreover, the enthusiasm for science and technology, which up until some decades ago seemed “carved in stone,” has given way to a worrisome pessimism. “Science and technology have ceased to be instruments in men’s hands as they become more and more ends in themselves. We could say the same, perhaps in even stronger terms, of the economy. We wanted more freedom, but have become part of anonymous processes instead . . . More and more we have the impression that things just happen on their own.”[193]


            The current “ecological turn” is a first, clear expression of a prevalent sense of uneasiness. Everyone can see that nature is rebelling, that she does not accept being treated as a mere object of arbitrary exploitation, and that to treat her in such a way results in serious injury to the population of this planet. The conviction is spreading that we must recognize a specific finality in natural things, a finality whose importance surpasses the usefulness man makes of it.


            All this has lead to the rediscovery of the ethical category of responsibility.[194] Awareness is growing that our actions produce irreversible effects; hence, we cannot operate on the basis of hypothetical, fallible theories of a relative kind. When action departs from hypothesis, failure is always possible. But it is one thing for a scientific experiment to fail in a laboratory and another for it to fail in the world of life – where failure has serious repercussions! 


            The conclusion is that we cannot move forward on the basis of flimsy, hypothetical thinking. “What we need are strong convictions, a spirit of truth, and the capacity to bear witness with firmness and without fanaticism.”[195]



                                    *                      *                      *


            The cultural-philosophical tendency that is most wide-spread today radically contests the notion that an objective response to moral questions can be given at all. There is little belief in the existence of universal and valid criteria on the basis of which we can establish what is right and wrong. Good and evil are taken to be purely subjective categories. The virtuous good is a “value”  attributed to any kind of behavior whatever by free individuals.


            But is human freedom really the source of values? In keeping with the method we have pursued thus far, let’s go back to “the things themselves.”


            Consider, for example, propositions such as these:


a) “We must defend the weak from the aggression of the strong.”


b) “Rape is never permissible.”


c) “Motor vehicles must drive on the right.”


            We may feel that such a list offends our intelligence. For one thing, it is incongruent to put proposition “c” on the same level as “a” and “b.” Why? Because proposition “c” is based on a simple convention created by human law. We would not be perturbed if the legislator had decided differently. We drive on the right because it is prescribed by law; if the contrary had been prescribed, we would drive on the left.


            Propositions “a” and “b,” on the other hand, do not depend on human convention. If there are (and there must be!) human laws that prescribe in various ways what propositions “a” and “b” affirm, it is not the laws themselves that give a positive value to the defense of the weak and a negative value to rape. On the contrary, the laws must require defense of the weak because it is “good” and prohibit rape because it is “bad.” The ideas “good” and “bad” are rooted in the essence of the human person and the nature of the actions addressed.


            When the weak are oppressed by the strong, my freedom does not establish that it is good to help them.  I can only decide to realize this good or not. Where rape is concerned, I am not free to say: “It’s permissible.” The source of these values lies outside of me, that is, it is “transcendent.” I do not create these values. I find them. I am in the truth when my thinking accords with reality. The truth of all this is evident from moral experience itself and the moral terms used in everyday language.


            However, the manner in which we know and discern the true good is a much more complex question. 



9. 2. The True Good


            We have already said that anyone who acts, acts for an end. The desired end of an action is what we have called “good.” At this point of our journey, we must ask ourselves what is the true good to which our actions should tend.


            Since we are speaking of our actions – of human acts – it is clear that the end to which these acts tend must be an end for man, that is, a good for man. Now, we should remember that the actions of man are singular and concrete, and human only in so far as they are directed by reason. Thus, the exigencies of both rationality and the concrete situation have to be reconciled.


            In the light of what we have said in preceding chapters, it should be clear that good action is rational action; hence, we must entrust our behavior to the guidance of reason. As we have often repeated, a person acts in a way worthy of his humanity when his passions are controlled by his will, and the will is right when it adheres to the good indicated by the intelligence.


            But how does the intelligence grasp what is truly good? We have seen that this good is not “created” by human reason, but simply “discovered.” Yes, but discovered where? And how?



 9. 2. 1. Man’s “Humanity” as Source


            The response that comes from the phenomenology of moral action and from traditional, classical philosophy is that the good is discovered in man himself, in the “being-such” of man, in his eîdos, in his most profound identity. In a word, the good is rooted in our humanity.


            Now, our humanity is something we find actualized in ourselves and others, but not in a static way. Humanity consists in being-human, but this in itself means becoming-human, making oneself-human, drawing ever closer and better to what we are.   


            We need to dwell on this for a moment because the foundations of classical ethics, often misunderstood by modern thinkers, can be found right here.


            It’s easy to see that human beings need many things: food, a home, company, culture . . . Man is a structurally “indigent” creature.


            Now, this “indigence” is a fact; it is an empirically observable lack of something. But to identify a lack means to discover  in the “being as it is” the “should be” that points to the removal of such a lack. Man finds himself to be “imperfect” both physically and spiritually. In discovering this imperfection, however, he also discovers what direction he should take to realize his perfection.


            This truth is commonly passed over by many contemporary authors who accept as an axiom the so-called “Law of Hume” (1711-1776) which affirms the impossibility of deriving moral judgements from judgements of fact: “Having-to-be does not derive from being” (you can’t derive “ought” from “is”).[196] But man’s needy condition is precisely a “data of fact” (an is) from which a “having to be” (an ought) rigorously follows. We are human beings, and this is a fact; but we are imperfect, and this is also a fact. Consequently, our “being-human” is not simply a fact: it is a task! Our end is to realize the potential implicit in our humanity by developing ourselves in the direction indicated by our humanity. Our indigence, our imperfection, our humanity directs us toward certain goals, certain “finishing lines,” if you will, by inclining us toward specific goods.[197]



9. 2. 2. Natural Inclinations


            What is man? He is first of all a being – “something that is.” But a rock is also said “to be.” So is God said “to be.” We have to distinguish things beyond mere being. Man, then, is a particular “being” of an animal kind. Within this kind, however, man can be even further distinguished by a specific characteristic: he is a rational animal.


            Now, we can recognize in man three types of tendency or inclination: those which are common to all beings, those which are common only to animals, and those which are specific to man.  


            A reader who is unfamiliar with classical philosophical terminology might feel perplexed: What does it mean to speak of tendencies common to all beings? Can an inanimate being – a stone – have a tendency?! Modern language creates a problem for us here because expressions such as “tendency” or “inclination” have assumed a mostly psychological connotation. Of themselves, however, they do not have this sense. They are, rather, derived from the language of physics: tendency comes from “to tend,” that is, to draw; inclination comes from “to incline,” that is, to bend toward a direction. The way we are using them here, however, goes beyond the physical. For us, they have a meta-physical meaning.


            First of all, every being tends to “continue being” according to its own nature. If beings did not have this tendency, they would not persist. A stone remains identical with itself as long as an external cause does not interfere to modify it. We could say that in inanimate beings this tendency is a passive, “static” inclination.


            Animals as beings also have the tendency to persist in being according to their own nature. However, they realize this inclination in a typically animal way. In common language, we call this “survival instinct.” Beyond the inclination to being, animals possess other inclinations proper to animal kind, such as that of reproduction and, in many species, the care of their young.


            As a rational animal, man participates in the inclinations common to all beings and all animals, but in a specifically human, or rational, manner. The inclination to preserve his being and to procreate and educate his children are manifested not only at the “static” or instinctive level, but at the particularly rational level. Further, in man we find certain specifically human inclinations, such as the tendency to know the truth (above all, the Supreme Truth) and to live in society.


            If, then, we ask what is the good to which all human existence tends, the response must be sought at the level of human rationality. This answer does not exclude but includes the level of being an animal. In other words, the preservation of life, procreation, and the education of offspring, the knowledge of the truth, social life, and all the other ends to which our humanity inclines us are “human goods.”


·        The task inherent in our humanity, therefore, is to pursue the goods to which our humanity itself is inclined.



9. 2. 3. Man’s Ultimate End


            In this way, we can come to understand that “human goods” are ordered to the “good of man.” The finalities we discover in our bodies and minds are in their turn finalized by the total good of the person.


            What is this good? It is the perfection of man as such, that is, the state in which we no longer desire anything because we are fully enjoying the good obtained: complete happiness.


            At this point, someone might wonder: So, have we worked our way back to basing the good on happiness? Didn’t we excluded such an idea at the beginning of this journey? In reality, we are not founding the good on happiness, but rather, authentic happiness on the good! We can do this once we show that the concept of authentic good is founded on the nature of man. 




9. 2. 3. 1. Happiness and the Good


            Undoubtedly, if we had no desire for happiness we wouldn’t act at all (cf. 2. 2. 4). We would have no reason for qualifying anything as “good” or “bad.”


            To put it in philosophically precise terms, we can say that happiness “constitutes the ultimate, formal motivation of choices, and precisely for this reason cannot itself be the criteria of right choice, nor can the criteria of right choice be deduced from it. Happiness, the formal end of conduct, cannot be the rule of conduct.”[198]


            In other words, everything we want, we want because we desire to be happy. But this does not mean that the concrete objects of our choices and actions should be considered as mere “means” to procure happiness! We do not decide, for example, to help a needy person because it will make us happy, but because it is good to help him. Certainly, to realize the good means making our lives “good” and, hence, “happy”; nevertheless, good remains an end in itself, something desired and pursued for itself and not as a means to anything else. It belongs to the category of the virtuous and not the useful good.



9. 2. 3. 2. Perfect and Imperfect Happiness


            Every realization of the good constitutes a partial realization of true happiness. At this point, however, we run into that “disproportion” where (to borrow a notion from Pascal) man infinitely transcends man.[199] This is to say that the human heart is characterized by a thirst for total, absolute happiness which can never be satisfied by any relative, terrestrial good – as are our actions and human virtues – since every “relative” good, by definition, still leaves room for desire. The absolute, beatific Good can be nothing other than God alone.[200]


            This truth, about which the pages of St. Augustine and many of the mystics overflow, can be phenomenologically noted by anyone who reflects dispassionately on human existence. Even atheists and unbelievers catch a glimpse of it. I cannot help thinking of the poet G. Leopardi (1798-1837) who expressed the “feeling of the nullity of all things, the insufficiency of all pleasure to fill the heart, and our tendency toward an infinite that we do not understand.”[201]


            Do we conclude, then, that we must believe in the existence of God to understand that rape is an evil and helping the poor a good? Obviously not. Our study has taken us in the opposite direction: inquiring into what is good or evil for human beings has lead us to recognize that their supreme good and perfect happiness is in God!


            Certainly, for anyone who refuses the notion of God or, in the spirit of fideism, leaves Him outside the boundaries of rational knowledge, the desire for happiness is “absurd.” It comes to be seen as a kind of curse that impedes the taste for pleasure and leads to disquiet. But isn’t this, perhaps, an intrinsic sanction to remain obstinate and closed to the truth out of self-sufficient pride? Man is made to know the truth (above all, the highest Truth) with his intelligence and adhere to the true-good (above all, the highest Good) with his will. When he refuses the truth, he deviates not only from his own dignity, but also from happiness. The “evil of living” (to cite the poet Montale), despair with its train of violence, mental illness, toxic-dependency and suicide – all this finds here its essential motivation.


            Openness to the truth, on the other hand, in keeping with the essential structure of our nature, disposes us to recognize man’s end because it has a certain “connaturality” with it. “Beatitude,” says St. Thomas, “is nothing other than the joy that comes from the truth.”[202]


            Obviously, the revelation of God in Christ opens new horizons at this level while denying nothing of what has been gained by rational reflection. On the contrary, it helps to clarify it.


            The happiness of the wise man who does not know God is the joy that comes from a virtuous life ordered by reason. It reaches its summit in human friendship and the knowledge of God through His works. This can be called “imperfect beatitude,” in contrast with perfect, supernatural beatitude.[203] But we should note right away that the concept “imperfect beatitude” is problematic since “with the name of beatitude one means only the perfect good of the intellectual nature.”[204] Imperfect beatitude, then, would be “imperfect perfection”! We might say that we find ourselves in front of a “dialectical” concept, at once full of assertion and negation, inviting us to overcome it. Undoubtedly, the concept of “natural happiness” is clearer for us as something proportioned to human nature. Man can pursue this happiness by his own effort (though not without the help of God), using his natural faculties correctly to arrive at the knowledge of humanly accessible truth. But the man who is “happy” in this way still lacks something. And let’s not forget that the natural human faculties are in a state of habitual disorder because of concupiscence, causing us to stop at transitory goods to the neglect of the ultimate good.[205]


            Perfect beatitude, or beatitude pure and simple, infinitely surpasses the capacities of human nature, making them only anticipations. Thus, happiness can only be a gift of God, that is, supernatural. Philosophy can illustrate the desire for and suitability of happiness, but only theology can describe its essence and modality.




9. 3. The Basis of Human Rights


            Our inquiry now stands on solid ground:


·        Reason grasps as human goods the objects of the inclinations (common and specific) inscribed on human nature.



9. 3. 1. Nature and Reason


            Reason enables us to know the good. To live well, then, means “to live according to reason.”[206] But this is not to say that reason draws the value and meaning of things from itself. It finds the aim of duty, the good, in human nature as a whole: corporeal and spiritual, animal and rational.


            It is nature that inclines us toward the good. But this nature is not a hypothetical stage prior to the development of society, nor is it simply the animal, biological dimension of the human being. True, the “natural” basis of ethics must be sought in the “natural” inclinations inherent in every person. But beware! These natural inclinations should not be confused with spontaneous, subjective desires or with individual taste.


            Natural inclinations are connected first of all with the anatomical structure of the body: the eye is made for seeing, the digestive system for assimilating food, the genital organs for reproduction, etc. Our somatic structure bears an intrinsic finality: to survive and propagate the species. At a higher level, we discover in ourselves the exigency of knowing the truth, forming bonds of friendship, and living in peace. These finalities or exigencies constitute inclinations whose objects are present to the reason as goods to pursue, while their contraries (death, extinction of the species, ignorance, enmity, etc.) are understood as evils to avoid.


            Thus, the pursuit of these goods is adequate to and consonant with human existence not because someone has arbitrarily decided upon them, but because human nature is made in this way. Obviously, it is reason that grasps this consonance – but it is not reason that constitutes it.



9. 3. 2. Human Rights and Their Order


            In classical terms, the consonant relationship between a good and a person is called justice. It is just that a person be allowed to seek and obtain a certain good. He has a right to that good (cf. 6. 2). And since this does not concern a relationship that is established or “put in place” by any authority, but one that is inherent in nature, we can speak of  “natural justice” or a natural right.


            This is the foundation of the famous “rights of man” which contemporary thought exalts but cannot justify! Man has the right to life and to the integrity of his members because nature inclines him to the possession of these things. The same can be said for the right to truth, to freedom of conscience and religious liberty, to the free choice of a state of life, etc. On this basis arise the precepts of natural law requiring us to respect other’s rights and avoid whatever is contrary to them (as we will see in the next chapter).


            In the notion of natural right, reason can also apprehend that there exists an order to the inclinations and the precepts flowing from them. This order is founded ultimately on the fact that the subject of these inclinations is one, that is, the same person who has the right to life and physical integrity also has the right to live in society and freely practice his religion. On the basis of this objective order of inclinations and precepts, it makes no sense to speak of a so-called “quality of life” (i.e., comfort, ease, health, etc.) when life itself is at risk. “What shall a man give in return for his life?”[207] Moreover, this order tells us that it is also possible  to renounce an inferior good (e. g., a certain food) for a superior good (e. g., to help a friend), etc.



9. 4. Sources of Morality


            Clearly, our singular choices (and the concrete actions that follow them) do not have the beatific good for their object, but rather, singular concrete goods. This is why we are free to choose. In the face of the absolute Good, our will could not NOT adhere totally; whereas, before a plurality of relative goods, it is always possible to choose one and refuse another on the basis of our own estimation and evaluation.


            If we ask ourselves at this point in our inquiry what renders a human act good or bad, we can already give a response: A good act is one that tends to a human good according to the order of natural inclinations. But what is our criteria for determining if a good is ordered or not?


            Human existence should be considered a succession of acts that have  “successive” character thanks to a particular subset of acts which permit these different moments to “hold together.” That is to say linguistic acts that prepare, represent, and recount action. Now, to describe action, minimally we need to consider three elements: the objective structure of the act, its motivation, and the circumstances. These elements are known as the “sources of morality” because they permit us to specify the essence of a moral act. 



9. 4. 1. The Objective Structure of the Act


            The first element required for the qualification of an act is its objective structure: What has been done? This is an extremely important point that is not always expressed with due clarity.


            An action can be described in impersonal terms that consider only its physical aspects (its “ontic” elements). For example: “Jim draws a banknote from his pocket and hands it to Bob who then puts it in his pocket.”


It is clear that a description of this type tells us almost nothing about the identity of the action itself! It could be payment if the money is given in exchange for goods; or compensation if it is in exchange for services rendered; or an act of corruption if it is in exchange for an illicit favor; or a gift if it is given spontaneously with nothing in return; or an act of extortion if it is given to avoid blackmail . . . 


            The mere description of an act’s ontic elements does not qualify the act’s structure. We know, in fact, that an act is a human act only when it is voluntary, guided by a chosen action and object. This means that the human act is always intentional. A description in terms of physical categories (i.e., handing-over-a-banknote) does not make an act human if it does not proceed from a will that in the accomplishment of these movements intends something.


            We need to know why Jim gives Bob the banknote: as payment, gift, restitution . . . ? Once we know, the objective structure of the act as “payment” or “gift” or “restitution” will be revealed. It would never suffice to mention only the ontic aspects of the act.


            The objective structure of an act is its fundamental intentionality, in classical terms, the finis operis (the aim of the operation). The actions described can be called “base intentional-actions.”[208]


            This constitutes the first level of intention. We can add a further level by asking again, “What for?” For example, what does Jim makes this gift for? Is it a gift out of friendship? Is it to fulfill a social duty? Is it to win over someone’s sympathies? As we will see, this constitutes what we call the motive, though others have designated it intention in a stricter sense. Classically, it is known as the finis operantis (the aim of the acting person).


            In this sense, human acts can be described as means ordered to the attainment of an end. If the end (the motive) is to win over someone’s sympathy, the means may be the giving of a gift (base intentional-action). The money, then, is not a means, but only an ontic element that enters into the base intentional-actions of the gift, as do the material objects and physical movements that constitute the action. “The means, then, are always human actions defined on the intentional plane: actions that are chosen, and as such are objects of acts of choice, that is, in as much as they are born from a will guided by the reason.”[209]


            We should note right away that there are acts that correspond to the inclinations of human nature and respect its objective order (e. g., eating), and other acts that oppose these inclinations and contradict their order (e. g., suicide). Moreover, there are acts that in themselves neither contradict nor correspond to natural inclinations (e. g., painting). An act, then, must be considered from its fundamental intentionality as a species of morality that can be good or bad.[210]



9.4. 2. The Motive


            To the fundamental intentionality of an act we may add the motive, or finis operantis, which indicates the interior attitudes or personal finalities that lead a subject to perform one action rather than another. Motive determines the ultimate finality of an act and allows us to qualify it on the basis of its fundamental intentionality as a “means” to obtaining something.


            Motives can be good or bad in themselves. Good motives are those that allow man to realize the end of a virtuous life. Bad motives, on the contrary, subordinate the considerations of a  virtuous life to what is useful or pleasurable. 


            As we have seen (3. 1. 2), “choice” is an act of the will directed toward a means. In this chapter, we have said that “intention” is an act which tends toward an ulterior end. In reality, these two elements form one object of action (or one object of the will). We choose to give a gift because we have the intention of  “expressing friendship.” Hence, the object of the will is one: to-give-a-gift-for-friendship.


            Now, since “to-choose-a-means-in-view-of-an-end” is a single act of the will which constitutes a unique intentional action, it is understandable why not every means is compatible with every end. Let us suppose that my intention concerns a just end, for example, to help the poor – but I choose to perform robbery as a means to obtain this end . . . The action taken as a whole is contradictory in respect to the global end since justice cannot be obtained by an act of injustice!


            With this we have arrived at a point of extreme importance for the comprehension of ethical discourse: An action whose objective structure conflicts with a fundamental human good can never become good. No motive and no circumstance will ever be able to justify it. To choose a behavior of this kind is always evil. Killing, stealing, betraying, and lying are a few examples of intrinsically evil acts which, not respecting the human person in his constitutive nature, can never become good.


            If the objective structure of an act is good or indifferent, a good motive will augment the goodness of the act and make it subjectively good. For example, it is objectively good to help our neighbor; however, I might have to help a family whose house is burning simply because I am a fireman. If I act only according to the obligations imposed on me by my superiors, only caring to keep my job and without any interest in the people I am helping, I would objectively (or materially) be doing what is good, but such an action would not enrich me personally nor contribute to making me a good person. If, on the other hand, my intention includes love for these poor people and concern for the common good, my action also becomes subjectively (or formally) good. I will then be not only a “good fireman,” but a “good man.”[211]


            In the same way, it can happen that an objectively good action becomes  subjectively bad if performed with a bad intention, for example, out of vainglory or hypocrisy.


            Thus, if the objective structure of an act is bad, no good motive can modify its intrinsic badness. Let us take the case of a pregnant woman who is gravely ill and chooses to abort her baby to save her own life (the so-called “therapeutic abortion”). The intention may be good, but the objective structure of the action undertaken is intrinsically bad. Consequently, the act is bad, not only materially, but also formally, because a person cannot perform direct abortion without wanting to kill the fetus, that is, without committing voluntary homicide which is always a formally bad act. The end does not justify the means.



9. 4. 3. The Circumstances


            To describe an action fully, we need to take into consideration the elements “surrounding” the act, that is, the circumstances. Without modifying fundamental intentionality, circumstances nevertheless help us to specify and qualify an act more precisely.


            In the case of theft, for example, it is clear that the moral gravity of the act will be greater if the thief is rich rather than poor. Moreover, to steal from a poor man is more serious than to steal from a rich man. Hence, the identity of the subjects involved is an important circumstance.


            Further, to steal an apple is very different from stealing a crown of jewels. Thus, the material object of the action is also very significant!


            We could also consider the place where an action is carried out. Breaking into a house for the purpose of robbery adds violation of domicile to the crime of theft.


            Penal codes attribute particular gravity to “associative actions,” that is, to those actions in which two or more people reciprocally assist each other to commit an evil. If a theft is done with the help of someone, this aspect must also be taken into consideration among the relevant circumstances.


            A man can steal because he is hungry, because of a challenge, out of avarice for money . . . These aspects are normally part of the “motive,” but they also constitute circumstances which must be taken into account.


            The way an action is performed also makes a difference and must be taken into consideration. A person can rob others with violence or with cleverness; a theft can happen “by force” or “by dexterity.” 


            Lastly, we must take into account the time in which an action is undertaken. Theft is particularly vile if perpetrated in a house that is in mourning for the death of a loved one . . .[212]


            When it concerns bad actions, we also speak of aggravating or attenuating circumstances. But the moral weight of a good act can also vary depending on circumstances. For example, it is objectively good to help a needy neighbor, but if this help is particularly difficult the goodness of the act increases. We should note that an act good in itself can become bad if done in the wrong circumstances, just as an act indifferent in itself can become good or bad, again depending on the circumstances.


            From what we have just said, I think the meaning of this classical saying should be clear:


·        “Evil results from any single defect, but good from the complete cause” [213]          

In order that a human act be good, all three elements that characterize it must be good: the objective structure of the action must be good, or at least indifferent; the circumstances must tend to the good; and the intention must be good.


If the objective structure of the action is intrinsically bad, no circumstance and no intention can make it good.


If the motive is bad, even an action that is objectively good in structure and undertaken in appropriate circumstances becomes bad.


If the circumstances are inappropriate, even an action that is objectively good in structure and pursued for good motives becomes bad.







10. The Moral Law


            In the preceding chapter, we determined the criterion for distinguishing good (i.e., virtue) from evil (i.e., vice). Now it remains for us to see how this criterion becomes the rule of conduct by being transformed into “law.”


            Since the concept of moral law is problematic in contemporary culture, we will begin with a brief examination of the most prevalent attitudes about it (10.1). After this introduction, we will probe the essence of moral law (10.2) and then concentrate on the concept of natural moral law and its dimensions (10.3). Finally, we will cast light on the intrinsic limitations of the law in regard to moral behavior (10.4).



10. 1. Attitudes toward Law


            In our time, ethical discourse, like contemporary language, is recovering the terms law and legality. This is so despite what could be described as an “allergic reaction” to such notions that arose not too many years ago in a climate of protest. One such reaction found theoretical expression in situation ethics, a moral theory which denies the value of universal norms so as to make the subject and the situation the only criteria of right action.


            Looking beyond ideology for a moment, we can find some justification for a hostile attitude toward law. In fact, in the not-too-distant past, the importance of human law in moral theory was emphasized to such a point that ethics became a kind of appendix to law or “state theory” (see above, 9. 1, Excursus 2, A. 4). That this situation would have provoked such a strong reaction is understandable. Though unacceptable in substance, theories directed against this notion of law were motivated by a noble desire to exalt personal freedom and the dignity of the conscience. 


            Ultimately, however, this effort failed to adequately express the relationship between law and freedom. If freedom means doing whatever you want, law can have no other aspect than that of an odious constriction or limitation. For the sake of what or whom is such a limit imposed? Many times the answer to this question is to be found in “the will of the prince,” a will unconstrained by law and “free” to command “whatever it wants and whatever it likes.”  This scenario is known as “voluntarism” (i.e., law as the will of the legislator), a strain of thought traceable from the nominalism of certain medieval philosophers right up to the juridical positivism of our own time.


            We do not understand “freedom” in this way. On the contrary, we are convinced that true freedom consists in the capacity to tend to the good without constrictions (cf. 4. 4). From this perspective, law is not reduced to the arbitrary will of the powerful but places itself at the service of true freedom and, therefore, personal virtue.


            We have said that law today is making a come back given the open challenge of ethical questions concerning life, politics, and the economy (to name only a few). We sense the need to recover the notion of law – but we must be very careful. If this recovery takes the direction of voluntarism and juridical positivism (as is often the case in “deontological codices” and “self-regulation codices”), it’s not too difficult to foresee that the next generation, feeling the weight of law, will once again wish to shrug it off their backs and return to the self as point of departure.


Consequently, the best way to rediscover the value of law is to rediscover the concept of law. This is precisely what we will attempt to do in this chapter.



10. 2. The Essence of Moral Law


            The concept of law is clearly analogical. We speak of “chemical laws” and “physical laws,” “sociological laws,” “state laws,” and “God’s laws”. . .  Clearly, the word “law” concerns very different realities. What is the common element in all these uses that allows us to call something a “law”? We can say that it is the reference to rules or norms according to which an event happens or should happen.


            However, “law” for the particular sciences (chemistry, physical, sociology, economics, etc.) is different from moral “law.” This is so for two reasons: First of all, scientific laws are “partial,” that is, they regard particular aspects and ends and not “the” global end of human existence. Secondly, scientific laws do not create a “duty” in the subject, that is, they do not appeal to a person’s free will.


            As we have repeated many times, morality is occupied with human acts. What concerns us here, then, are only those laws that regard human acts. Hence, we can propose a first definition:


·        Moral law is a kind of rule and measure of human acts.


Throughout our lives, we encounter many kinds of laws, from the juridical ordinances of the State to those of the Church, from school regulations to those governing our leisure activities, from codified norms to the unwritten laws on which friendship, family life, and so forth, are based. In all these instances, law concerns the rule and measure of human acts. But can we consider all these sic et simpliciter “moral laws”? Clearly not! We know that we are dealing with an authentic moral law when it presents the following characteristics:


            1. It concerns an order of reason.


2. It is an order directed to the common good.


3. It proceeds from a legitimate authority that guides the community.


4. It is promulgated.


Let’s examine each of these points in order; afterward, we will be able to determine the effects of the law.



10. 2. 1. Law  as Rational Order


            We know that moral acts bear the specific imprint of humanity: “rationality” (see 3. 1). It belongs to the reason, in fact, to order actions to their proper end. Consequently, the moral law, as the “rule and measure of human acts,” must be of the rational order.


            St. Thomas affirms that the law is “something that pertains to reason” (aliquid rationis)[214] and specifies that it concerns a universal proposition of the practical reason aimed at directing action.


            We can make this clear with an example: A man in difficulty asks for my help. I recognize that it is my duty to help him. But I also recognize that in this concrete situation – this specific man, with his specific difficulty, requesting help specifically from me – I am in front of a “form” that is realized not only here and now, but always and everywhere whenever someone asks for help. I am aware of an appeal to the realization of a value that can be rationally formulated in a universal proposition: “We should always help someone in difficulty.” Following Aristotle, St. Thomas speaks of action as the result of a practical syllogism (syllogismus in operabilibus) in which the law serves as a premise alongside a description of a concrete situation. The logic of practical reasoning can be schematized thus:


            a) We should always help a neighbor in difficulty.


            b) This man in difficulty is now asking for my help.


            c) I must help this man now.


Conclusion “c” of this argument (which in the next chapter we will describe as the judgement of conscience) arises from the application of the universal proposition “a,” which constitutes the law, to the particular and concrete situation “b.”


            In maintaining that law is of the rational order, we do not mean to exclude the role of the will; in fact, if the reason succeeds in moving a person to act, it does so by virtue of the will.[215] We want to be clear, however, that the law’s formal aspect derives from the practical reason and not the will. This is because the will cannot be the rule and measure of its own acts. Speaking metaphorically, we can say that reason without will is paralytic, while will without reason is blind. A blind man cannot find the road, and a paralytic cannot follow it.





10. 2. 2. Law and the Common Good


            Reason’s task, then, is to formulate a universal proposition that serves as a rule for action. This constitutes the “formal” element of the law. But if we stop there, we fall into the Kantian error of holding the law as an empty form, deprived of material content (cf. 9. 1, Excursus 2, A. 3). We would content ourselves with defining law as an “order” of the reason, but without understanding from where and to where the reason orders us to move. This is the great question of the “material” element of the law.


            If, as we have seen (2. 2. 4), every action is in view of an end – a good – the law’s task is to indicate the right relationship between human actions and the ends of the virtuous life.


            Man is “a person,” that is, an individual-in-relation. His social, political nature indicates that he cannot reach his end, his true good, except with other people, in community. By devoting himself to the realization of his authentic good, a person at the same time realizes the good of his community. Vice versa, pledging himself to the good of the community, a person also realizes his own personal good.


            The community, in fact, is more than the simple sum of individuals who comprise it. Community is essentially characterized by the order that reigns between the parts in view of the end to be reached. As we have already shown, in ethics the “end” is configured as “the good.” Thus, the common good is something more than the simple sum of goods for individuals in a community. It is that to which all individual goods tend in an ordered way.


            Now, since the law says order-to-the-good, this must necessarily mean also the common good.



10. 2. 3.  Law and Legitimate Authority


            If the law is concerned with ordering things to the common good, it must proceed from the subject of the common good, that is, from the community or from someone who legitimately exercises the function of caring for the community.


            This idea might seem rather banal, but it can help us understand better the relationship between rationality and law. Certainly, we could say that every rational being is “a law unto himself,” that he is “autonomous.” But this autonomy can be meant in two completely different ways.


            For some, “autonomy” means that an individual’s reason operates as an independent, absolute, regulating principle. Such autonomy would clearly lead to anarchy and chaos – in short, the destruction of the community. 


            On the contrary, the principle of autonomy must be understood in the sense that each person, by virtue of his reason, is called to direct himself toward the good life in such a way as to participate freely in the attainment of the common good. He is further called to a better understanding of that good and the order that serves it. Into this realm enters both the activity of the legislator and the obligatory critique of the order constituted by law – a critique that must be exercised by every competent citizen – to keep watch over any possible discord with the common good and to collaborate in the working out of solutions. 



10. 2. 4. The Law’s Promulgation


            It is evident that an unknown precept cannot obligate.  


            Juridical obligation follows a formal act of promulgation, that is, when the law is inserted into the official body of ordinances.


            Moral obligation, however, is linked with the complex dynamic of conscience (which we will examine in chapter 11). In this sense, the law must be interiorized within the moral experience of the subject, while its content must appear in the light of the fundamental principle “to do good and avoid evil.”



10. 2. 5. Effects of the Law


            The effect of the moral law – of a law that is really worthy of the name – is to make men good, that is, to make them virtuous.


            As we said in chapter 4, virtue is characterized by full submission to reason. The law is precisely an instruction addressed to reason to help it regulate action.


            This matters as much for the individual as for society. The individual is virtuous when all his faculties tend harmoniously to the good under the guidance of legislating reason. Society is virtuous when all its components tend harmoniously to the common good under the guidance of the legislator. The legislator of the common good, then, must show a superior degree of virtue in a more profound submission to the dictate of right practical reason for the common good.



10. 3. The Natural Law


            It’s very important to keep repeating that reason, not being an absolute principle, does not create the moral law according to its own pleasure. From the inclinations written in human nature itself, reason discovers the good as an end and formulates the law on the basis of this end. We have defined “just” (iustum) or “right” (ius) as an ordered relation to an appropriate good that is consonant with human existence and man himself (9. 3). It’s up to reason to recognize this consonance and formulate it in a practical, universal proposition. Thus, we can say that:


·        Law is the rational formulation of a right.[216]


If a right derives not from man but from nature (e.g., the right to life), its rational formulation is known as “natural law” (e.g., “Do not kill”). If, however, a right derives from human beings on the basis of convention (e.g., the right to elect representatives in assembly), its rational formulation is known as “human positive law” (e.g., an electoral law).



10. 3. 1. Precepts of the Natural Law


            At this point, we should recall what we said in the previous chapter concerning natural rights and their order (9. 3. 2). Since what is “good” has the aspect of an “end,” practical reason naturally apprehends as “good to do” everything for which man has a natural inclination and “evil to avoid” everything which is contrary to him. For this reason:


·        “According to the order of natural inclinations is the order of the precepts of natural law.”[217]


            We have seen that the natural inclinations are an ordered system of relations harmoniously directed toward man’s good.


            Inclinations inscribed in irrational animals are activated in an unconscious way and do not constitute true and proper “laws.” Wolves raise their young spontaneously following the “law of nature” within them and certainly not the moral law! In man, however, reason grasps what is just in an inclination and, on this basis, formulates a natural moral law: “Parents should take care of their children.” This law holds even for a parent who has no “spontaneous” parental feeling. It is valid because it is inscribed in human nature and, by virtue of its rationality, it must be respected.


            We have already spoken of man’s three inherent, natural inclinations: the preservation of his being (common to all substances), the preservation of his species (common to all animals), and the inclination to knowledge of the truth and social life (specific to man). Such inclinations have moral relevance in so far as they are recognized and commanded by the reason.[218]


            However, as regards the common inclinations of animals, reason can begin with the material and corporeal indications of anatomically defined organs. For example, the anatomy and physiology of the human body tells us that nature has ordered sexual relations to take place between a man and a woman (i.e., heterosexual, not homosexual or auto-erotic sexual activity). The “natural right” indicated by these inclinations has a stability and universality dependent on the biological structure of man. We can say that this structure manifests the material element of the natural law, while the intervention of reason expresses its formal element.


            On the other hand, those inclinations which are specific to man lack these somatic indications and reveal man’s spiritual dimension (i.e., his intelligence and will) which tends to knowledge of the truth and social life.


            Clearly, within the “order of precepts” based on the “order of inclinations,” higher levels presuppose inferior levels. The preservation of being, for instance, is the foundation of every value and necessarily presupposed in every well-being. But this does not concern a simple juxtaposition of levels. As we know (cf. 8. 3, Excursus 1), the human person is not “a body” in which “a spirit” dwells. On the contrary, man is a substantial unity of material and spiritual principles. The spiritual principle (i.e., the rational soul) gives unity to the composite and makes it a “human being.”


            As a rational, spiritual animal, man has certain inclinations specific to him. At the same time, he assumes all the functions and perfections of vegetative and sensitive souls, as well as inclinations of a generic nature. This does not constitute a mere overlapping of powers, but a true and proper transfiguration of the inferior powers by those that are superior.[219]


            At this point, it should be clear to us what is meant by the statement, “According to the order of natural inclinations is the order of the precepts of natural law.” There is a hierarchical order among the inclinations and, thus, between the precepts of the natural law: “The hierarchy consists in the fact that one function serves another in the measure in which the spirit regulates them.”[220]


            We can understand, then, the meaning of the affirmation that appears so often in St. Thomas: “The good of man is to be in accord with reason.”[221] The term reason in this statement has two senses:


a. a gnoseological sense by which we can affirm that man, reflecting on his own inclinations, discovers what goods he should pursue and deduces in a “rational” way the precepts of the natural law which tell him what means he should use to reach these ends;


b. an ontological sense, since reason is at the base of this activity as that which specifically differentiates man from all the other animals.


            “To live according to reason,” then, does not mean simply that the precepts of action must be deduced in a formally correct way, but above all, that human beings live in a way that conforms to the exigencies of their human existence and its perfection.



10. 3. 2. Universality and Immutability of the Natural Law


            Is the natural law one and valid for every person in every age? Or does it change according to epochs, individuals, and socio-cultural contexts?


            The concept itself of natural law as a law inscribed in human nature would indicate that wherever you find human beings the same and identical law applies to everyone.


            However, history and cultural anthropology illustrate an extreme variety of uses and costumes, enough to cast doubt on the conviction that the same moral law is valid for everyone. We can be scandalized today by a practice that was commonly accepted a few centuries ago, for example, slavery or the use of torture. On the other hand, the people of the Middle Ages would be scandalized by the way our banks lend money at interest – a practice they considered absolutely illicit. We could multiply examples.


            Moreover, these objections stand on even more radical foundations. Certain currents of thought, as old as nominalism and as recent as existentialism, deny the existence of a “nature” common to all men and, consequently, any “moral law” that would depend on such a nature.


We must ask ourselves, then, if there is a nature common to all men and if it is mutable or perennial (10. 3. 2. 1). Having settled this, we will then consider in what way the natural law can be said to change (10. 3. 2. 2).



10. 3. 2. 1. The Unity and Mutability of Human Nature


It is the task of philosophical anthropology to show the unity of human nature.[222] For our purposes, I will merely point out that even a child watching animated cartoons not only readily distinguishes Charlie Brown from Snoopy and Woodstock, but also recognizes that Charlie Brown is a human being like Lucy and Linus, while Snoopy is a dog like Pluto and Woodstock is a bird like Tweety. On the basis of their sensible form alone, each of these characters is presented to us with immediate clarity as belonging to determined species different from all other species. Each individual is perceived not only according to his own individuality, but also according to his own species which, in turn, comprehends other individuals. We will call this specific determination of individuals “nature.”


It is clear, therefore, that there is such a thing as human nature by virtue of which we call “human” anyone who manifests specific, characteristic properties, relations, and operations that we can each perceive in ourselves. Natural law is founded on this human nature.


But at this point another problem opens up: Is human nature immutable, or can it change? The question arises because we can observe that man, unlike animals, is a being “capable of history and of culture.” This is to say that man can consciously modify his own vital ambiance and, consequently, himself. While horses are born, live, and die today as they did five thousand years ago, men of the computer age think and act differently from those who lived in the age of the printing press . . .  not to mention the great divide that separates us from the men of the stone age!


This fact has caused some thinkers to maintain that human nature itself is changeable, that there does not exist anything fixed and stable, and that everything in man is open to change. On the basis of this, they deduce that everything in the moral law is mutable and there is no such thing as a permanent precept. At its very foundations, this is a manifestly absurd thesis for at least two reasons:


1. We have said that man is “capable of history” because he has the “capacity to change.” Now, this “capacity” itself is founded on certain immutable characteristics of human nature which persist despite the changes man experiences. Without these elements, man could not change at all! Briefly put, man’s power to change is itself founded on the unchanging characteristics of human nature.


2. That we can even speak of “history” and “evolution” implies a permanent subject who remains identical to himself throughout history. Certainly, man has changed since Paleolithic times – but he is always man!

            We can conclude, then, that natural law contains both permanent and mutable elements, but what is subject to change touches only the accidental and not the substantial aspects of the human being.



10. 3. 2. 2. Mutability of Some Precepts of the Natural Law


            The natural law requires that we act “according to reason.” Thus, following its own proper procedure, reason passes from the knowledge of common principles to their consequences. We see here an important difference between the speculative and practical realms.


            Speculative reason is occupied principally with necessary realities which cannot be otherwise. For this reason, in the speculative field, the truth contained in the principles passes without alteration to the conclusions. For instance:


            1) The sum of the internal angles of a plane triangle are equal to 180º.


2) The angles A and B of this triangle equal 50º each.


3) Therefore, angle C of this triangle necessarily equals 80º.


There are no exceptions in this kind of reasoning.


Practical reason, however, concerns human action, which is not necessary, but contingent. Certainly, here also reason begins with common necessary principles: the first principle “it is necessary to do the good” and the precepts that follow immediately from the natural inclinations. However, the closer we get to reality, the more the necessity of these principles is thrown into crisis. Human actions, in fact, are “contingent, not only in regard to their ground, which depends on an act of the free will, but also in regard to their value, to the form they assume for moral judgement.”[223]


Because human actions are concrete and develop in changing circumstances, exceptions are possible. St. Thomas affirms:


That which is natural to one whose nature is unchangeable, must needs be such always and everywhere. But man’s nature is changeable, wherefore that which is natural to man may sometimes fail. Thus the restitution of a deposit to the depositor is in accordance with natural equality, and if human nature were always right, this would always have to be observed; but since it happens sometimes that man’s will is unrighteous there are cases in which a deposit should not be restored, lest a man of unrighteous will make evil use of the thing deposited: as when a madman or an enemy of the common weal demands the return of his weapons.[224]


            What is at issue here is an inherent alteration of the content of the law. The “truth or rightness” of the precept that commands restitution no longer holds in this situation because human nature has changed by reason of a defect consequent to the depravation of the will. Obviously, there are some limits to this mutability. Human nature has a stable, perennial nucleus that is expressed by the first common principles. On the basis of this immutable nucleus, exceptions can be recognized. We could say that, at bottom, you shouldn’t return a weapon to a dangerous person because such an act would be irrational, that is, contrary to the natural law!


            The common first principles of natural law, then, are immutable. They do not admit exceptions and are recognized by everyone. However, the conclusions derived and deduced from these common principles, even beyond the fact that they can vary on occasion, are not acknowledged equally by everyone. For example, Julius Caesar noted that the ancient Germans did not consider robbery – something manifestly contrary to the natural law – a criminal act.[225] In cases like this, the truth or rectitude of the precept is not at fault, but the knowledge certain men have of it. The explanation for such deficiency is again ascribable to the depravity of human nature since “in some the reason is perverted by passion, or evil habit, or an evil disposition of nature . . .”[226]


            St. Thomas tells us that nothing can erase the universal principles of the natural law from the human heart. They are habitually present in the practical intellect (as we will see in 11. 2. 1. 1). But it can sometimes happen that the reason is impeded from applying these principles to particular cases because of concupiscence or passion. In this sense, we can speak of the “erasure” of the natural law due to fallacious reasoning or habitually corrupt behavior.



10. 3. 3. Relationship between Natural Law and Human Law


            We have often repeated that human nature, by virtue of its rationality, inclines toward social life. Hence, the exigency of organizing society around the common good derives from human nature itself. Herein lies the natural foundation of man’s legislative activity.


            In every society there must be someone, an individual or collegial body, who has the task of guiding the community and, consequently, promulgating specific laws by which communal life can realize its end, the common good.


            With his habitual realism, St. Thomas considers this exigency also from what we might call a pedagogical point of view. We have said that by nature man is inclined to the good. At the same time, however, we are all affected by concupiscence and the passions. Hence, we must practice discipline in order to bring the passions under the guidance of right reason. For those who possess good natural endowments and the support of a good environment, paternal counsel is discipline enough. On the other hand, those inclined to bad behavior require something that will keep them away from evil by force or fear so that they do no harm to themselves and others:


Now this kind of training, which compels through fear of punishment, is the discipline of laws. Therefore in order that man might have peace and virtue, it was necessary for laws to be framed: for, as the Philosopher says   “as man is the most noble of animals if he be perfect in virtue, so is he the lowest of all, if he be severed from law and righteousness”; because man can use his reason to devise means of satisfying his lusts and evil passions, which other animals are unable to do.[227]


            Here again it is affirmed that the natural law requires living according to reason because man’s perfection and happiness depend upon it. To abdicate this task means to reduce human and social existence to a state worse than that of animals since animals are at least passively guided by the ineluctable laws inscribed in their nature. Man is furnished with the light of reason for his own guidance and that of those entrusted to him.[228] The natural law, then, imposes the making of laws.


            Does this mean that every human law derives from natural law? In principle, they should. Law, in fact, should manifest the just relations expressed in natural law, according to right reason: “Consequently every human law has just so much of the nature of law, as it is derived from the law of nature. But if in any point it deflects from the law of nature, it is no longer a law but a perversion of law.”[229] 


This “derivation” is realized concretely in two very different ways:


a. In some cases, a necessary conclusion can be deduced from the principles of natural law. For example, from the principle “do not kill,” it follows that whoever kills must be punished by society.


b. In other cases, a relatively free estimation can be reached which is then subject to change according to historical/social circumstances, for example, how a particular society punishes murderers (prison time, kind of imprisonment, etc.).     


            Determinations of the second type have only the force of human law and vary among different legal systems. Those of the first type, however, preserve something of the vigor of natural law.


Human law is less extended than natural law and cannot prohibit all the things that natural law prohibits. Nonetheless, as St. Augustine notes, “because it does not do all things, it does not thereby follow that what it does do is to be condemned.”[230]


Moreover, as we saw a few lines up, the natural law remains immutable in its first principles and their immediate consequences. Human law, on the other hand, is changeable because it suffers the imperfection of practical human reason. Also, to the degree it contains particular precepts, it is bound to change in relation to circumstances.[231]



10. 3. 4. Natural Law and Eternal Law


            We have said many times that human reason does not “create” value, but “discovers” it in reality. It grasps the order of the natural inclinations and the order of the precepts of the natural law corresponding to them. Now, if man did not create this order, who did? There must be an ordering reason that is the rule and measure of all things, a criteria of order independent of everything (i.e., absolute) and on which everything depends. This reality is what everyone calls “God.”


            God’s rational plan, the project on the basis of which He orders and governs everything, is called the eternal law. On the basis of this plan, God provides that each creature can reach the end proper to it, that is, the good.


Now, this project is realized in everything. If, therefore, we find in things natural inclinations on the basis of which they tend in an ordered way to their end, this happens in virtue of the eternal law.


            All creatures participate in the eternal law by their orientation to their respective ends. The kind of participation changes, however, when we consider the rational creature in whom there is a true similitude with divine providence. A rational creature is led by divine providence in a special, “excellent” way. While irrational beings remain the passive objects of divine providence, human beings can participate as active subjects. God provides for man by endowing him with reason so that he can provide for himself and his neighbor.


            The plan on the basis of which God exercises his Providence is eternal law. The plan on the basis of which man must provide for himself and those entrusted to him is natural law.


“It is therefore evident that the natural law is nothing else than the rational creature’s participation of the eternal law.”[232]



10. 4. The Law’s Limits


            Understood in this way, law does not rule over the moral life. It is, rather, an instrument at the service of the person in view of the good life. From this perspective, we can also understand the obligation that law entails.


            It is clear that we are bound to obey the law in so far as it points the way toward the common good. But when a law is unjust, we are morally obligated to disobey it. Also, it is possible for a person to be excused from obedience to a just law. And sometimes the letter of the law must be disobeyed for the sake of something better. Let’s examine these situations in order.



10. 4. 1. Unjust Law


            Law enacted by human authority does not have so vast and profound a reach as moral law. Nonetheless, it has the task of assuring the common good by recognizing the defense of fundamental human rights, the promotion of peace, and the care of those conditions which permit anyone who so wishes to live as he should (cf. 6. 2).


            For this to happen, civil law must be in harmony with natural law, and hence, with eternal law. When, however, human law opposes right reason, it is for that very reason unjust and, consequently, deprived of juridical validity.


Clearly, a law’s juridical validity (from the Latin: iuridica) derives from a right (ius, iuris), while a law that is unjust (from the Latin: in = “not” and iustum = “just,” an adjective derived from the substantive ius, iuris) is, by definition, a law that violates a right and, hence, has no juridical validity.


            Let’s think for a moment of those human laws which have erred in regard to the fundamental and primordial right to life, a right belonging to every person, for example, those laws concerning abortion and euthanasia, which have legalized the deliberate killing of innocent human beings. These laws are in total and irrational contradiction with the inviolable right to life of every person, thereby negating the notion of equality before the law.


            Not only are we not obligated to obey laws of this kind, we are positively bound to disobey them. Minimally, we can object in conscience to these laws and seek to limit the damage deriving from them.






10. 4. 2. Exceptions to the Law


            In special circumstances, and for a certain period of time, a person can be exempt from obedience to a just law. To determine the validity of such a case, we need to keep two factors in mind: first, the reason for requesting such exoneration from the law, and second, the type of law it concerns.


In regards to the first factor, common sense recognizes the truth of the classical saying: “No one is bound by the impossible” (ad impossibilia nemo tenetur). In the context of our discussion, this means that a person can be exempted from the law if it is impossible for him to keep it. This impossibility can be of two kinds: physical, or moral.


a) Physical impossibility occurs when an impediment takes from someone whatever possibility he has of fulfilling the law, for example, when mechanical failure takes the controls away from an airline pilot such that he cannot save the lives of his passengers, or when a man is gravely ill and cannot fulfill his work obligations, etc. 


b) Moral impossibility occurs when observance of the law, though possible, requires an excessively burdensome effort. For example, it is not absolutely impossible to go to work with a fever of 38º centigrade, but it is difficult and risky. Or, to take a different kind of case, it is not absolutely impossible to correct all the errors in a typed manuscript, but in reality no one can do so perfectly.


            Physical impossibility exempts from any kind of law. Modern psychology teaches us that inhibitions and psychological conditioning, when they are really and gravely pathological, are to be considered in this light.


            While Moral impossibility does not exempt us from the negative precepts of the natural law, it can exempt us from a positive precept. To clarify this point we must examine the different types of law with which we have to deal.


As regards the second factor, we cannot be morally exempt from obedience to laws that express essential exigencies of the human being. If this could happen, it would mean that we can be exempt from being human! These laws from which we can never be exempted are precepts of the natural law expressed in a negative form, that is, as prohibitions (e.g., “do not lie,” “do not steal,” etc.). Prohibitions, in fact, mark the extreme limit beyond which moral value is shattered. On the other hand, precepts expressed in positive form (e.g., “always tell the truth,” “give alms,” etc.) set no limits. They point behavior in a certain direction and allow for exceptions. In classical terms, we would say that prohibitions oblige us always and in every situation (semper et pro semper), while positive prohibitions always oblige us, but not in every situation (semper, sed non pro semper). Compare the negative precept “do not lie” with the positive precept “always tell the truth.” If I have a secret, and someone interrogates me about it, I certainly cannot lie, but neither do I have to tell the truth. It is enough for me to remain silent! Whoever is silent does not tell the truth – but he doesn’t lie either.



10. 4. 3. Epikéia (Equity)


            Moral theories of a juridical kind are greatly embarrassed by these evident limits connected to the essence of law itself. How can we establish a body of norms to determine in what circumstances a concrete subject can be exonerated from the observance of a particular norm?


            Historically, in the modern epoch, this has lead to two sorts of approaches. On the one hand, law is formulated with extreme meticulousness in an attempt to include every possible eventuality within it (“hypertrophy” of the law). On the other hand, rather than departing from law to find the “life-world,” numerous examples of “moral cases” are collected so that the world, rather than law, serves as the point of departure. In this approach, a situation and a moral dilemma are described, leading to the “resolution” of the problem in the light of law (casuistic).  


            But these efforts, though meritorious, fell apart on both fronts since law is by nature destined to remain an indication of a general character, while the life-world in which concrete human actions take place manifests a complexity of ever new, unrecorded facets. 


            In reality, all these approaches manifest the impotence of law when it is separated from virtue. To rightly understand the moral obligation contained in the law and to grasp its appeal in a given situation, a person must be habitually “well disposed” toward the good.  Clearly, this is the work of virtue. The classical tradition gave the name “equity” to the specific virtue that permits the right interpretation and application of the law. In the technical language of moralists, equity preserves the Greek term epikéia with which Aristotle introduced it.


            The law, general by nature, needs to be corrected and completed according to the equity of the one interpreting it.


            Equity – as we know (6. 3) – is an aspect of justice.[233] Among other things, it permits the interpretation of norms according to justice and common usefulness. This can lead to an authorization to abandon the “letter” of the code in order to better fulfill its “spirit.”


            A good example of this is Jesus’ attitude concerning the Sabbath laws. In the face of detractors who reproved him for transgressing the commandment because he cured (work!) on the day of rest, Jesus responded: “I ask you: is it licit on the Sabbath day to do good or to do evil, to save life or to take it?”[234] Clearly, the commandment was given to “do good”; consequently, to cure someone (a good) on the Sabbath day does not violate the spirit of the precept even if, in fact, it violates the letter: “The Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath.”[235]


            But this doesn’t only mean that in specific cases a person is not obliged by a certain law. It also means that in other cases a person can be obligated to do something even if the law’s actual formulation does not impose it on him.







11. Conscience


            Let’s review for a moment the route we have traversed so far. In chapter 1, we said that ethics asks how we should act, or better, how we should be to fully realize our personality in a way worthy of our humanity. To respond to this question, we examined our moral experience. As we have seen, these experiences are characterized by – among other things – a judgement about behavior expressing approval or disapproval of certain acts or types of conduct which are held to be worthy or unworthy of man (chapter 2).


            The successive stages of our journey were dedicated to the study of voluntary behavior (chapter 3) and virtue as a habitus that perfects our personality, leading us to a good and happy life (chapters 4-8).


            We then entered into an inquiry on the foundation of morality, that is, on the criteria that allow us to qualify a certain kind of behavior as good or bad (chapter 9). We then saw how law makes this criteria the rule of our conduct (chapter 10).


            At the same time, we noted that law, because of its universality, always remains at a certain distance, so to speak, from concrete action. In classical terms, this is described as the remote rule of human action. We must now inquire how the universal plane of law and the concrete plane of behavior necessarily interact. In other words, we must take a look at conscience as the proximate rule of human action.


            As we proceed, we should remember that law, conscience, and virtue are closely intertwined, as St. Alphonsus Liguori (1696-1787) tells us:


Human acts are regulated by two principles: a proximate rule and a remote rule. The remote rule, or the material rule, is divine law; the proximate rule, or formal rule, is the conscience. In fact, the conscience, on the one hand, must conform itself in everything to the divine law; on the other hand, it must make us aware of the goodness or evil of human acts in as much as these are apprehended by conscience, as St. Thomas teaches . . . : The human act is judged virtuous or vicious on the basis of the known good to which the will tends, and not according to the material object of the act.[236]



11. 1. Anthropological Value of the Moral Conscience


            In our outline of the phenomenology of moral experience (2.1), we identified in ourselves an activity of judgement which expresses approval (e.g., admiration, self-gratification) or disapproval (e.g., scandal, remorse) of certain kinds of behavior. Now, the existence of an activity in a person indicates that the same person has the capacity to fulfill such an activity. The capacity to which I refer is commonly called “conscience.”


            Nevertheless, we would greatly impoverish the reality we are describing if we reduced it merely to the act of judgement. The conscience is much more. In the fullest sense, conscience is the organ of moral experience, the “place” where we stand before ourselves, where we are aware of our identity as unique and unrepeatable subjects. Conscience puts us in rapport with ourselves (cf. 1. 1; 2. 2).


            In this experience, we perceive that our existence is not simply a given (“I am this way”), but also a task (“I must be, I must become . . .”). We discover that what we are indicates a path to travel, a task to take up – the germ of a plan that must grow and bear fruit (cf. 9. 2). We discover a project inscribed deep within us which we did not assign to ourselves, a project that puts us in relation with other people living experiences analogous to ours. We feel responsible for others, and this feeling gives rise to the experience of moral obligation (cf. 2. 2. 4; 10. 3. 4). 


The conscience is the place where man feels simultaneously called to do good and avoid evil; where he seeks the specific and operative content of this good and this evil; where he is accompanied and conditioned in his inquiry by education and ideas assimilated since childhood; where he decides freely for one direction or another and experiences joy in the performance of the good – or remorse for having done evil.[237]


Our whole personality: our intelligence, our will as the capacity of self-determination, our memory, our feelings, our emotions . . . our whole being is involved in this human reality known as “conscience.” It reveals itself, then, as the authentic “center” of the person, that which biblical language has denominated “the heart.”


            It is the role of the conscience to response to the moral questions: How should we act? How should we be? What is good and what is evil? At the same time, we cannot insist enough on conscience’s essentially receptive character. It doesn’t “create” the good; it can only “discover it,” become aware of it – and make it explicit.


            In synthesis, we can say:


·        The conscience is the awareness of our own identity and our own duty deriving from our openness to the world, others, and God.



11. 2. The Judgement of Conscience


            Conscience, therefore, is a marvelous and very complex anthropological reality. It cannot be reduced only to the capacity of formulating moral judgements. Nevertheless, the formulation of such judgements is one of its most important tasks, so much so that sometimes the term “conscience” is taken to mean simply “moral judgement.”[238]


            We must now consider this last point, though we will do so correctly only if we remember that it concerns a partial aspect of a partial question.[239]


            Let’s ask ourselves, then, how a judgement on the good or evil of a concrete action actually comes into being. In this regard, some terminology will be helpful. In classical terms, the faculty of formulating a moral judgement is called the “potential conscience,” while the judgement that is formulated is called the “actual conscience.” We will examine these two terms in order.



11. 2. 1. Potential Conscience


            We can formulate judgements because we have specific criteria, that is, rules, norms, parameters, concepts, or intuitions on the basis of which we make a judgement.


            From where does this criteria come? A common response is that it comes from the culture in which we are educated. But this answer is too simplistic. Certainly, culture and education are very important in the formation of conscience since they carry and transmit moral knowledge (11. 2. 1. 2). There is, however, a level even deeper than this, a fundamental level that is classically called synderesis. Without synderesis, moral education (and moral experience as such) would not be possible; thanks to synderesis, we can even critique the moral knowledge transmitted to us.



11. 2. 1. 1. Synderesis


            We judge something on the basis of certain premises. In themselves, premises can be demonstrated on the basis of other premises, which can be demonstrated on the basis of still other premises, and so forth. But this process cannot continue into infinity. At some point, there must be some “first,” undemonstrable premises which are recognized by the intellect, not through a rational, discursive process, but by immediate intuition.


            These premises are called self-evident (cf. 1. 3. 4), that is, they are known in themselves and not because of something else. They are propositions in which the predicate is implied in the notion of the subject. For example, if I understand the notions “all” and “part,” I cannot help but admit that “the whole is greater than the part.”


            But the concepts  “all” and “part” are certainly not the first objects of our knowledge.


            In the theoretical order, which concerns speculative knowledge and the contemplation of reality, the first object known is being and the first principle recognized is that of non-contradiction, which is based on the notion of being and not-being: “It is impossible that the same thing, under the same aspect and at the same time, be and not be.” This first principle and other such self-evident principles are an habitual possession of the mind.


            In the practical order, the order of the moral conscience, the first object is the good. But implied in the notion of “the good” is the predicate “to do good.” The first principle of the practical order, then, is:


·        “Do good and avoid evil.”  


In fact, the notion “good” means “what all things desire.” Hence, it is the good which must be accomplished or obtained to fulfill our being.


By its very nature, this first principle of the practical order is “empty,” that is, it does not tell us “what” the good is or “what” should be done. Nevertheless, it is a principle that everyone indubitably and undeniably recognizes. To say that it is undeniable, however, does not mean that it cannot be negated “in words,” but rather, that it is impossible to negate it conceptually without contradicting oneself.  Verbally, someone could say, “We must do what is evil,” but if you ask this person to explain “why” we must do what is evil, he would be forced to say, “Because it is good to do so”!


This first principle is followed by others with “more” content though less noted and more often put into doubt, for example, “everyone’s rights must be respected,” or “we must not do to others what we do not want done to ourselves,” etc.


Scholastic philosophers gave the name “synderesis” to the habitual possession of first principles in the practical order. Synderesis is a habitus of the practical intellect. As such, its function is not exclusively cognitive since its task is not only to “inform” about good and evil, but also to “incite to good, and to murmur at evil.”[240]



11. 2. 1. 2. Moral Knowledge


            These first principles are joined to the moral knowledge that each individual gains by experience, as well as that which peoples and communities elaborate and transmit in their culture. At issue is the whole collection of values, virtues, norms, rules, laws, customs, and moral codes that comprise what we call an ethos.


            Clearly, having had different experiences and coming from different cultures, human beings also have different kinds of moral awareness.


            There are those who have broader moral knowledge and those who whose scope is more narrow. Such vastness is first of all the fruit of study, reading, travel, and human contacts. Some people have a profound moral knowledge, while others remain at a superficial level. It depends above all on a person’s lived experience and the degree to which he has reflected and meditated on that experience.


            We must, however, underline the importance of instruction and the guidance of others in learning values and moral norms. This is essential, above all in the formative years of life (lasting somewhat longer today than in the past), and should tend toward the formation of people capable of autonomously formulating their own judgements. At the same time, this autonomy cannot be intended presumptuously, as if a person can proceed only from his own opinions, excluding the possibility that others, wiser and better people than himself, can show him a better way. To grow in moral knowledge, we must be humble and open to dialogue (cf. 1. 3). It is here that culture and the ethos of a people play their role, serving the formation of conscience by an extension and deepening of moral knowledge.


            We must be very attentive in this area since errors insinuate themselves very easily. The history of moral thought offers us plenty of examples. In some cultures of the past, the majority of people believed human sacrifice or slavery were licit. Today, abortion and contraception are believed to be licit . . . The error, as we have seen (10. 3. 2), derives first of all from the characteristics of practical reasoning, which deals with concrete actions formulated in changeable circumstances where exceptions can be confused for rules, etc. But it can also depend, as often happens, on the pride and concupiscence of human beings who voluntarily blind themselves to the exigencies of the good in order to follow their own disordered desires.


            We should be cognizant, therefore, that moral knowledge does not involve only the intellect, but the whole man, that is, his concrete behavior and personal realization. For this reason (among others), discussions about morality are often carried out with such ardor and passion that they can obscure lucidity of judgement.



11. 2. 2. Actual Conscience


            The possession of synderesis and moral knowledge, though a necessary condition for the act of conscience, is still not the act itself. The conscience is said to act only when it takes a position concerning an action that has been or is about to be undertaken, judging this action as good or bad. This judgement consists in the application of general principles habitually present in the conscience to a concrete situation.


Evidently, several currents come together in the judgement of conscience: the principles of synderesis, moral knowledge, the subject’s virtues, and his awareness of the situation. It is understandable, therefore, that the judgement of conscience can err. There are two sources of such error. The first arises from mistaken moral convictions:


Example 1 – In the past, many peoples approved human sacrifice.


The second comes from poor knowledge of the concrete situation:


Example 2 – A judge in a tribunal forms the conviction that the accused is a thief. He condemns him, though in reality the man is innocent.


            When an error of knowledge arises, the action that follows this judgement is in itself bad while the person who performs the action is not necessarily bad. In Example 2, for instance, the judge does everything to ascertain the truth but, in all honesty, becomes invincibly convinced of the guilt of the accused. He is not a bad judge, then, if he condemns the man. His action is bad at a material level, but not at a formal level. This is to say that he does wrong (condemning an innocent man) without wanting to do wrong, but rather, wanting to do good (he believes he is condemning a thief – an act of justice). Hence, he is not himself bad. 


            Analogously, in Example 1, a man, one of a people who practiced human sacrifice, educated from his childhood in a religion that requires sacrificial acts of this type, might find himself killing his own children. In itself, this is clearly an evil action. But the subject of this evil is convinced he is performing a deed of profound piety, in “good conscience”! He is materially a murderer, though formally innocent.


            Error can also arise from a subject’s lack of virtue. We have seen how a man of vice is inclined not only to commit evil, but also to hold “in principle” that such action is just (cf. 4. 3; 5. 4). A man of this kind is formally bad and not just materially bad.


            It must be said, finally, that the judgement of conscience is not the last stage of the process of the moral act. In response to a conscience that tells me, “It is good to do thus,” I can say: “I want to do it” or “I do not want to do it.” Moral evil, at the formal level, consists precisely in going against the judgement of our conscience, that is, in voluntarily performing an action or an omission knowing that it is bad.


            In synthesis:


·        Material morality consists in the just relation between an action and the objective moral order (that is, an action that effectively realizes a good is materially good, while an action that effectively damages a good is materially bad).


·        Formal morality consists in the just relation between an action and the moral conscience of the subject (that is, a formally good action conforms to the judgement of the conscience of the acting subject; a formally bad action is that in which the subject acts against the judgement of his own conscience).






11. 3. Types or Forms of Conscience


            Having examined the structure of the conscience as a faculty and as act, let’s now consider the different types of conscience that intertwine both potentially and actually.



11. 3. 1. Types of Potential Conscience


            We know that in respect to moral judgements not everyone manifests the same sensitivity. There is the superficial kind of person for whom anything goes, and the scrupulous person who sees evil everywhere. There are those who condemn others in order to acquit themselves, and those who think everyone else is better than they are . . . 


            In traditional terms, a delicate conscience indicates a high degree of sensitivity to moral values. Someone of delicate conscience is keenly focused on moral values and pursues them with determination. We could say that such a person possesses a “virtuous conscience.”


            On the contrary, a lax conscience belongs to the superficial person who cares little about knowing the good, and little or nothing about doing good and avoiding evil. It goes without saying that the lax conscience has difficulty grasping what is truly good. As long as it remains lax, it manifests a disturbing acquiescence with evil, so much so as to appear habitually bad, that is, vicious.


            We should mention also the strict conscience of someone who cannot get beyond the letter of the law. Such a person does not concern himself with knowing if a certain behavior is good or bad, or whether it produces the fruits of virtue or vice. Rather, the strict conscience reduces everything to categories of “commanded/licit, prohibited/illicit.” The root of the strict conscience lies in legalism, which can overflow with tutiorist maximalism (from the Latin tutior = “more secure”). Such thinking extends the boundaries of evil beyond measure, leading to the “illness of scruples of conscience.” It can also lead into minimalism which considers permissible everything that is not prohibited and interprets the law not as a stimulus to do good, but simply as a “code” to be known and quibbled over so that loopholes can be found wherever possible.


            Finally, let us remember that curious blend between tutiorism and minimalism represented by the pharisaical conscience, so called from the attitude of certain Pharisees stigmatized in the Gospel. The “blind” Pharisee filters the gnat and swallows the camel (cf. Mt. 23: 23-32), that is, he shows great rigorism on things of little importance while he is lax on the things that matter. This condition can depend on the perversity of the culture and the kind of education someone has received, but also and above all on the hypocrisy of the person’s own moral attitude which is not properly motivated in the pursuit of the true good.



11. 3. 2. Types of Actual Conscience


            Regarding the act of conscience, we must first consider it chronologically in respect to action (11. 3. 2. 1). We can then evaluate its moral rectitude (11. 3. 2. 2) and inquire into its subjective certitude (11. 3. 2. 3) and objective truth (11. 3. 2. 4).



11. 3. 2. 1. In Respect to the Act: Antecedent, Concomitant, and Consequent Conscience


            Before I act, my conscience judges the action I am about to perform and tells me whether it is good or bad, presenting it to me as right, licit, or prohibited. This judgement is known as antecedent conscience.


            During an action, I can feel the confirmation or consolation of a conscience that approves what I am doing as good, or I can feel the reprobation and resistance of a conscience that disapproves of my actions because they are evil. The judgement that accompanies action is called concomitant conscience.


            After an action, I can experience the gratification or remorse of a conscience (cf. 2. 1. 3) that judges what I have done saying, “You acted rightly” or “You acted wrongly.” This after-the-fact judgement is called consequent conscience.


            Clearly, the development of a virtuous conscience must lead the subject to maturity in such a way that a moral judgement can be formulated before an action and not only after when the “goose is cooked,” so to speak.




11. 3. 2. 2. In Respect to Moral Quality: Right or Negligent


            The conscience has the task of directing action. Consequently, it must scrutinize attentively both the moral law and the situation to arrive at a valid judgement. A conscience seriously engaged in the effort to know and conform to the truth is called a right conscience.


            On the contrary, a lazy and superficial conscience that makes little or no effort to know the truth is called negligent.


            The qualifiers right and negligent do not pertain only to the judgement of conscience, but also (and above all) to the effort of forming one’s conscience in the truth. Clearly, only a right conscience can legitimately guide action.



11. 3. 2. 3. In Respect to Subjective Certitude: Certain, Sufficient, Doubtful


            The judgement of conscience is certain when the subject, having examined both the law and the situation, has no valid reasons for doubting the conclusion which he has reached. For example, someone proposes to me a plan for not paying taxes. I know that tax evasion, though financially convenient, is a moral evil. Hence, my conscience declares a just and certain “no!”


            But things are not always so clear. I could be uncertain about the application of a moral norm in this case. For example, if a tax is unjust, am I morally obligated to pay it? Certainly not! But can I “in conscience” consider this particular tax to be unjust? And what if I find myself before opposing values? What if, in paying this tax, I am forced to lay off one of my employees. Do I evade the tax, or put a family into difficult straits?


            In order to be able to act, we must have at least sufficient reason that will render the judgement, if not certain, than at least probable.


            The state of the doubtful conscience, however, of itself does not even constitute a judgement. Doubt is rather a “suspension of judgement.” Clearly, anyone who doubts – who does not know if an action is good or evil – cannot act. As long as someone lacks sufficient grounds for judgement, he must continue to seek the truth, reflect more carefully, gather more information, seek the counsel of someone more competent, etc. 



11. 3. 2. 4. In Respect to Objective Truth: True or Erroneous


            The concept of “certitude” regards the relationship between judgement and the subject himself. The concept truth, however, regards the relationship between the subject’s judgement and the objective moral order.


            A true conscience calls good that which is objectively good and evil that which is objectively evil. On the contrary, an erroneous conscience holds that an objectively bad action is good, or an objectively good action is bad (see examples 1 and 2 in 11. 2. 2).


            An error is invincible when the one who errs does not have or has not had a chance to recognize the truth and is, thus, “forced” to make a mistake. This could be the result of ignorance, bad education, or socio-cultural, psychological, or religious conditions, etc.


            On the other hand, an error is vincible when the one who errs has or has had the chance to recognize the truth but has not exhausted his efforts to do so. He would not have erred, but has done so from laziness, superficiality, presumption, concupiscence or some other vice.


            We should be aware that there are numerous possible interconnections among the various kinds of actual conscience because they move on different planes.


            Hence, a conscience can be both right and erroneous, provided it is certain or at least probable and the error is invincible. Above all, we should remember that:


·        A right or certain conscience must always be followed.


·        An erroneous conscience can also be right (if the error is invincible).


·        We must try to arrive at a judgement that is not only certain but also true.


·        We should not act in cases of doubt.






11. 4. Law, Virtue, and Conscience


            To conclude this chapter, and bring our discourse to an end, we will consider the reciprocal relationship between the roles of law, virtue, and conscience. In so doing, we will be better able to understand the meaning of moral experience.


How must we be to realize fully our human personality? We find this question in the depths of our conscience, in that place where we discover ourselves to be engaged in a project that we did not give ourselves, but which nevertheless we must realize: a project for which we are responsible.


            In a confused way, we are aware that a successful life – a happy life – depends on the realization of this plan. 


            To say “a successful life” is the same as saying “a good life,” that is, a life expressed in a succession of good acts proceeding from our intelligence and free will.


            Our will – as we have said many times – cannot NOT will its end (a successful life or happiness). We tend to this end by necessity. If we ever met an object that presented itself to us in all clarity as “the Good” that would perfectly realize our happiness (that is, the Absolute Good), we would not be free to refuse it. We would inevitably tend toward it. But such a meeting will not take place in this world. Rather, the goods that we meet are always singular, concrete, partial, and relative. They are the objects of our acts, and in front of them we are free and undetermined.


This means that from the singular goods we encounter we must choose and choose well, that is, choose that good that is better more suitable to our life project. Such a choice, as we have seen, is effected by the will, illumined by the reason, and can be conditioned by the passions.


            This is why we have been concerned to illustrate not only how the voluntary act remains free – that is to say, in our power – at every moment, but also how it can crumble into a multiplicity of choices, influenced by a plurality of factors, that make our conduct something extremely unstable, precarious, fragile, and otherwise oriented. The nature of the human act causes us to focus attention on those factors that can stabilize our conduct and its orientation without diminishing its freedom.


            This is precisely the role of the virtues as stable attitudes (habitus) on the basis of which the human faculties are oriented to the good act. It is the role of law to instruct and lead us to virtue and, hence, the good. The immediate task of the law, as a work of reason, is to show man his true end and instruct him in the relationship of means to ends, commanding that which is suitable and prohibiting that which is contradictory.


            Now, as we have seen, a law issuing from the conscience creates a moral obligation. But conscience’s ability to grasp the law depends on its better or worse dispositions in front of moral value (i.e., a conscience that is delicate, lax, strict, etc.) In the final analysis, it depends on virtue: the more virtuous a person is, the better he will grasp the law.


            We have said, however, that the aim of law is to lead us to virtue. Note the paradox: the more virtuous we are, the less we need the law, though we are better disposed in conscience to accept it. On the other hand, the less virtuous we are, the more we need the law and the worse we are disposed to accept it! We have here two circles, one vicious and one virtuous. We can exit from these circles only by affirming, as we have done already (4. 4), that man’s freedom remains intact as long as he still possesses a glimmer of reason. Hence, even the person least disposed to responding to the exigencies of the good has the power of grasping, albeit with difficulty, the exigencies expressed by the law.














            We have reached the end of our journey, Dear Reader. This book can now start collecting dust on a shelf somewhere, though I hope that the ideas contained in it will continue to “work” inside of you.


            I have tried to show you that the ethical question is not an optional accessory, that it is not a subject only for sophisticated minds who can think about it whenever and if ever they are so inclined. The ethical question inevitably arises in the heart of every human being who wakes up to life. Though it is certainly a question of duty (“what should I do?” and, above all, “why should I do it?”), it is first of all a question about the meaning of life, about happiness – something which always concerns our relationship with God and others.


            If we look for happiness in pleasure and the satisfaction of our needs, if the “meaning” of our lives rests only in these things (and for many people, it does indeed!), then we will be subject to frustration, failure, and a “heteronomy” that leaves our happiness dependent on too many factors, none of which are in our own power (wealth, success, the good will of others, “good luck,” etc.).


            In these pages, I have sought to demonstrate that the meaning of life lies elsewhere. Certainly, pleasure contributes to a successful life. We could say it is the cherry on the cake, an excellent complement – but certainly not the substance of what we want. Living well demands the satisfaction of primary needs, but this alone is not sufficient. A really successful life consists in virtue, that is, in the love of the good and the ability to do it. The virtuous person is truly happy because he really loves and does what he will (to borrow St. Augustine’s words). By his own actions, he realizes the order of love. He can be happy even when fortune is against him and pleasure is at a minimum – even in the renunciation of primary needs and in suffering torments. A virtuous person, like Socrates, prefers to suffer injustice than commit it. Consequently, his happiness cannot be damaged from without.


            For this reason, I have insisted on saying that the virtuous person is really free. No one can force a virtuous person to do evil, and as far as good action is concerned, he is a law unto himself. A virtuous person does the good because he loves it, not because he is commanded to do it.


            It is clear, then, that the cultivation of the virtues is the road to happiness. If, Dear Reader, at the end of this discourse, you and I feel more motivated to follow this path, and more hopeful about reaching its end, then this book has achieved its goal.




Classics of Philosophy


Plato. Greek: Platonis Opera. 5 vols. Scriptorum Classicorum Bibliotheca Oxoniensis. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1900-1907. English: The Collected Dialogues, ed. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989. Also, Plato: Complete Works. Edited by John M. Cooper. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Co., 1997. Greek/English editions of dialogues referred to in this book:


________. Crito. Translated by H. N. Fowler. In vol. 1, series no. 36. The Loeb Classical Library. 18th edition (first published 1914). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988.


________. Apology. Translated by H. N. Fowler. Vol. 1, series no. 36. The Loeb Classical Library. 18th edition (first published 1914). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988.


________. Gorgias. Translated W. R. M. Lamb. Vol. III. The Loeb Classical Library. 11th edition (first published 1925). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988.


________. Laches. Translated by W. R. M. Lamb. Vol. 1, series no. 36. The Loeb Classical Library. 18th edition (first published 1924). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988.


________. Protagoras. Translated by W. R. M. Lamb. Vol. II. The Loeb Classical Library. 7th edition (first published 1924). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988.


________. Republic. Translated by Paul Shorey. Vols. V & VI. The Loeb Classical Library. 10th edition (first published 1930). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988.


Aristotle. Greek: Aristoteles Graece. Edited by I. Bekker. Vols. I-II of Aristoteles Opera edidit Academnia regia. Rev. ed. Berlin: O. Gigon, 1960-1961. English: The Complete Works of Aristotle: The Revised Oxford Translation. Bollingen Series, vol. LXXI, No. 2. Edited by J. Barnes. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995.


________. Nicomachean Ethics (Greek/English). Translated by H. Rackham. Vol. 19. The Loeb Classical Library. 12th edition (first published 1926). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988.


Cicero, Marcus Tullius. English/Latin editions of Cicero’s rhetorical and philosophical works are published in The Loeb Classical Library of Harvard University Press ( Some English translations are also available online at The Internet Classics Archive (


Ambrose, St. Select Works and Letters of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Series 2. Edited by Philip Schaff. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2002.  Available online at



________. De virginibus. In Select Works and Letters of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Series 2. Edited by Philip Schaff. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2002. Also available online at


________. De officiis. Translated by Ivor J. Davidson. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002. Another translation is available online at


Augustine, St.  The Writings of St. Augustine. In the series The Fathers of the Church. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1990. In addition, The Philosophy Documentation Center ( is preparing the complete works of St. Augustine in English for purchase online. Some of St. Augustine’s works are presently available through The Great Books Index ( Latin/English editions of St. Augustine’s principle works:


________. The Confessions. Translated by W. Watts. Vols. I and II. The Loeb Classical Library. 11th edition (first published 1912). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988.


________. City of God. Translated by G. E. McCracken, W. M. Green, D. S. Wiesen, P. Levin, E. M. Sanford, and W. C. Greene. 7 vols. The Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992.


________. De moribus ecclesiae Catholicae et de moribus manicheorum. The Latin text may be found in Augustine’s De moribus ecclesiae Catholicae: A Study of the Work, Its Composition and Its Sources. John Kevin Coyle. Fribourg: University Press, 1978.


________. De natura boni. English/Latin: Translated by Albian Anthony Moon. In the series Catholic University of America. Patristic Studies. Vol. 88. Washington, D. C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1955.


Corpus Iuris Civilis. Latin: Edited by K. H. Krüger, T. Mommsen, R. Schoell, and W. Kroll. Hildesheim: Georg Olms Verlag, 1993-2000. Distributed in the USA by Lubrecht & Cramer, Ltd.


The only complete English translation of the Corpus Iuris Civilis is found in The Civil Law Including the Twelve Tables. 7 vols. Translated by S. P. Scott. Clark, NJ: The Lawbook Exchange, 2001. Reprint of 1932 edition.


Aquinas, St. Thomas. The complete writings of St. Thomas in Latin (Corpus Thomisticum: S. Thomae de Aquino Opera Omnia) are available online at Other Latin and/or English versions available:


________. In quatuor libros sententiarum Petri Lombardi. Latin: Index Thomisticus: S. Thomae Aquinatis opera omnia. Vol. 1. Edited by R. Busa, Frommann-Holzboog, Stuttgart 1980. No English translation currently available.


________. Summa contra Gentiles. Latin: Leonine Commission – Libreria Vaticana – Desclée & C. – Herder, Rome, 1934. English: On the Truth of the Catholic Faith. Translated by Anton. C. Pegis, James F. Anderson, Vernon J. Bourke, and Charles J. O’Neil. 5 vols. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame, 1975. Reprint of 1955-57 editions.


________. Summa Theologiae. Latin: Leonine Text. Rome: Paoline, Alba, 1962. Latin/English: Blackfriars translation. 60 vols. Edited by T. Gilby and T. C. O”Brien. London-New York, 1964-1973. English: Summa Theologica.  Translated by the Fathers of the Dominican Province. 5 vols. Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press. Reprint of 1947 Benzinger Brothers edition. The Summa is also available in English online at


________. Quaestiones disputatae. Latin: Vol. 1 edited by R. Spiazzi; Vol. 2 edited by B. Bazzi, et al. Turin, Italy: Marietti, 1964. Available quaestiones in English:


St. Thomas, On Truth: Translated by R. W. Mulligan, J. V. McGlynn, and R.W. Schmidt. 3 vols. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Co., 1994. Reprint of 1952-1954 editions.


Saint Thomas Aquinas, On the Power of God. Translated by English Dominican Fathers. Edited by L. Shapcote. Westminster, MD: Newman Press, 1952. Reprint of 1932-34 editions.


Saint Thomas Aquinas, Questions on the Soul. Translated by J. H. Robb. Milwaukee, WI: Marquette University Press, 1984.


Saint Thomas Aquinas, On Spiritual Creatures. Translated by M. C. Fitzpatrick and J. J. Wellmuth. Milwaukee, WI: 1949.


On Evil. Translated by Richard Regan. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003. Also, St. Thomas Aquinas, Disputed Questions on Evil. Translated by J. and J. Oesterle. Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame University Press, 1983.


Disputed Questions on Virtue. Translated by Ralph M. McInerny. South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s Press, 1999.  


Quaestiones quodlibetales. Latin: Edited by R. Spiazzi. Turin, Italy: Marietti, 1956. English: Quodlibetal Questions I and II. Translated with notes by Sandra Edwards. Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1983.


               Opuscula philosophica: Latin: Edited by R. Spiazzi. Turin, Italy: Marietti, 1973. Available opusculae in English:


Aquinas on Being and Essence. Translated by J. Bobick. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1965.


De principiis naturae. Translated by V. J. Bourke in The Pocket Aquinas. New York, NY: Pocket Books, 1973.


De aeternitate. On the Eternity of the World. Translated by C. Vollert, L. A. Kendzierski, and P. M. Byrne. In St. Thomas Aquinas, Siger of Brabant, and St. Bonaventure. Milwaukee, WI: Marquette University Press, 1964.  


De unitate intellectus contra Averroists. On the Unity of the Intellect Against the Averroists. Translated by B. Zedler. Milwaukee, WI: Marquette University Press, 1968. 


De substantiis separatis. Treatise on Separate Substances. Translated by F. J. Lescoe. West Hartford, CT: St. Joseph’s College, 1959.


  ________. Super Evangelium S. Ioannis lectura. Latin: Edited by R. Cai. Turin, Italy: Marietti, 1951. English: Saint Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on the Gospel of Saint John, Part I. Translated by James A. Weisheipl and F. R. Larcher. Albany, NY: Magi Books, 1980.


________. In Aristotelis librum De Anima commentarium. Latin: Edited by A. M. Pirrotta. 5th ed. Turin, Italy: Marietti, 1959. English: Aristotle’s De Anima with the Commentary of St. Thomas Aquinas. Translated by K. Foster and S. Humphries. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1951. Reprinted with Introduction by Ralph McInerny. Notre Dame, IN: Dumb Ox Books, 1994.


________. In decem libros Ethicorum Aristotelis ad Nichomacum expositio. Latin: Edited by R. Spiazzi. 3rd ed. Turin, Italy: Marietti, 1964. English: St. Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on the Nicomachean Ethics. Translated by C. I. Litzinger, 1964. Reprinted with introduction by Ralph McInerny. Notre Dame, IN: Dumb Ox Books, 1993.


Descartes, René. The Philosophic Works of Descartes. Trans. Elizabeth S. Haldine and G. R. T. Ross. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1967.


Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan. Ed. C. B. MacPherson. New York: NY. Penguin Classics 1982.


Pascal, Blaise. Pensées. Translated by A. J. Krailsheimer. New York, NY: Penguin  Books, 1995.


Spinoza, Baruch de. Theological-Political Treatise. Translated by Seymour Feldman and Samuel Shirley. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing, 2002. A. H. Gosset’s 1883 translation is also available online from The Constitution Society (


Locke, John, An Essay on Human Understanding. Edited by Alexander C. Fraser. New York, NY: Dover Publications, 1972.


Hume, David. Philosophical Works of David Hume. London: Thoemmes Press, 1997.


Rousseau, Jean Jacques. Collected Writings of Rousseau. Lebanon, NH: Dartmouth College/University Press of New England.


________. Confessions. Translated by Angela Scholar. Edited by Patrick Coleman. Oxford World’s Classics. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2000.


________. Discourse on Political Economy and The Social Contract. Translated by Christopher Betts. Oxford World’s Classics. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1999.


________. Emile. Translated by Barbara Foxley. Edited by P. D. Jimack. Everyman Paperback Classics. Rutland, VT: Charles E. Tuttle, 1993.


Diderot, Denis. Rameau’s Nephew and D’Alembert’s Dream. Translated by Leonard Tancock. New York, NY: Penguin USA, 1976.


Alphonsus de Liguori. Theologia moralis, 4 vols. Edited by L. Gaudé. Rome: Tipografia Vaticana, 1905-1912. English: The Complete Works of Saint Alphonsus de Liguori. Brooklyn, St. Louis, etc., ca. 1926.


Kant, Immanuel. Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals. Translated by Mary Gregor. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.


________. Critique of Practical Reason. Translated by Werner S. Pluhar. Introduction by Stephen Engstrom. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing, 2002.


Hegel, Georg W. F. Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences. Translated by Gustav Emil Mueller. New York, NY: Philosophical Library, 1959.


________. Hegel: Elements of the Philosophy of Right. Translated by H. B. Nisbet. Edited by Allen W. Wood. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.


Kierkegaard, Søren A. The complete works in 25 volumes are available in the series Kierkegaard’s Writings. Edited by Edna H. Hong and Howard Vincent Hong. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. 


________. Concept of Anxiety: A Simple Psychologically Orienting Deliberation on the Dogmatic Issue of Hereditary Sin. Translated and edited by Reidar Thomte. Volume VIII in the series Kierkegaard’s Writings. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1981.


________. Either/Or. Translated and edited by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. Volumes III and IV in the series Kierkegaard’s Writings. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1988.


________. Practice in Christianity. Translated and edited by Edna H. Hong and Howard Vincent Hong. Volume XX in the series Kierkegarrd’s Writings. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991.


Mill, John Stuart. Utilitarianism, On Liberty, Considerations on Representative Government, Remarks on Betham’s Philosophy. Edited by William Geraint. Boston, MA: Charles E. Tuttle, 1991.


Marx, Karl. A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy.  Translated by S. W. Ryazanskaya. Edited by Maurice Dobb. New York, NY: International Publishers, 1999. 


Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Complete Works of Friedrich Nietzsche. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press. Many of Nietzsche’s writings are also available online at the Friedrich Nietzsche Society (


________. The Genealogy of Morals. Translated by Horace B. Samuel. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2003. Reprint of 1913 edition.


Weber, Max. Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology. Translated by Ephraim Fischoff, et. al. Edited by Guenther Roth and Claus Wittich. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1978.


Freud, Sigmund.  The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Edited by James Strachey. New York, NY: W. W. Norton.


Husserl, Edmund. The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology: An Introduction to Phenomenological Philosophy. Translated by David Carr. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1970. Originally published 1936.


________Logical Investigations. Translated by J. N. Findlay. Edited by Dermot Moran. In the series International Library of Philosophy. New York, NY: Routledge, 2001.


Heidegger, Martin. A Translation of Sein und Zeit [Being and Time], in the SUNY Series in Contemporary Continental Philosophy. Translated by Joan Stambaugh. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1996.


Marcel, Gabriel. Homo viator: Introduction to a Metaphysic of Hope. Translated by Emma Craufurd. London: Victor Gollancz, 1951. Reprinted by Smith Peter, 1990.  Originally published 1945.



Church Teaching


[The Holy Father’s letters are available in several languages at the Vatican website: They have also been published in  The Encyclicals of John Paul II, ed. J. Michael and C. S. B. Miller. Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor, 2001.]


John Paul II, Encyclical Letter on Some Questions Concerning the Moral Teaching of the Church, Veritatis splendor, 06-08-1993. 


________. Encyclical Letter on the Value and Inviolability of Human Life, Evangelium vitae, 25-03-1995.


________. Encyclical Letter on the Rapport between Faith and Reason, Fides et ratio, 14-09-1998.


________. Message for the Celebration of World Day of Peace, 1 January 2002.





Enciclopedia filosofica. 8 vols. Centro di studi filosofici di Gallarate. 2nd ed.  Florence, Italy: Sansoni, 1979.


Nuovo dizionario di teologia morale. Edited by Francesco Compagnoni, Giannino Piana and Salvatore Privitera. Milan: Edizioni Paoline, 1990.


Dizionario enciclopedico del pensiero di san Tommaso d’Aquino. Battista Mondin. Bologna: Edizioni Studio Domenicano, 1991. Revised and corrected edition, 2000.


Dictionary of Christian Ethics. Edited by Bernhard Stoeckle. New York, NY: Seabury Press, 1979. 



Treatises and Manuals


Aubert, Jean-Marie. Abrégé de la morale catholique: la foi vécue. Paris: Desclée, 1987. Italian: Compendio della morale cattolica. Cinisello Balsamo, Milan: Edizioni Paoline, 1989.


Beauchamp, Tom L., and James F. Childress. Principles of Biomedical Ethics. 5th ed. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2001.


Composta, Dario. Filosofia morale ed etica sociale. Rome: Editrice Pontificia Università Urbaniana, 1983.


________. “Rapporti tra diritto naturale e biologia” in Atti del IX congresso tomistico internazionale, vol. I. Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1991.


Engelhardt, Tristam Hugo, Jr. The Foundation of Bioethics. 2nd ed. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1996.


Finance, Joseph de. An Ethical Inquiry. Translated and adapted by Michael O’Brien. Rome: Editrice Pontificia Università Gregoriana, 1991. French: Ethique générale. 2nd revised and corrected edition. Rome: Editrice Pontificia Università Gregoriana, 1988.


Frankl, Victor. On the Theory and Therapy of Mental Disorders: An Introduction to Logotherapy and Eistential Analysis. Edited by James M. DuBois. Translated by James M. DuBois and Kateryna Cuddebach. New York, NY: Brunner-Routledge, 2005. Originally published 1956.


Guzzetti, Giovanni Battista. Morale generale. Milan: Nuove Edizioni Duomo, 1980.


Hildebrand, Dietrich von. Christian Ethics. New York, NY: David McKay Company, 1953.


________. What is Philosophy? 2nd ed. Chicago, IL: Franciscan Herald Press, 1973.


Léonard, André. Le fondement de la morale: essai d’éthique philosophique générale. Paris: Editions de Cerf, 1991. Italian: Il fondamento della morale. Saggio di etica filosofica. Cinisello Balsamo, Milan: San Paolo, 1994.


Maritain, Jacques. Moral Philosophy, An Historical and Critical Survey of the Great Systems. New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1964. Original French: 1960.


Rhonheimer, Martin. La prospettiva della morale. Fondamenti dell’etica filosofica. Rome: Armando, 1994.


Rivetti Barbò, Francesca. Semantica bidimensionale. Fondazione filosofica, con un progetto di teoria del significato. Rome: Elia, 1974.


________. Essere nel tempo. Introduzione alla filosofia dell’essere come fondamento di libertà. Milan: Jaca Book, 1990.


________. Philosophy of Man: An Outline. Rome: Hortus Conclusus, 2001. Italian: Lineamenti di antropologia filosofica. Milan: Jaca Book, 1994.


Rodríguez Luño, Angel. Spanish: Ética general. Pamplona: Ediciones Universidad de Navarra, 1991. Italian: Etica. Florence: Le Monnier, 1992.


Rohls, Jan. Storia dell’etica. Bologne, Italy: Il Mulino, 1995 (original German: 1991).


Vanni Rovighi, Sofia. Elementi di filosofia. 3 vols. 9th ed. Brescia, Italy: La Scuola, 1985.



Monographs and Papers


Abbà, Giuseppe. Felicità, vita buona e virtù. Saggio di filosofia morale. 2nd ed. Rome: LAS, 1995.


________. Quale impostazione per la filosofia