Montague Brown


In traditional ethics, the moral absolutes tend to be negative formulations of what we should never do. Thus in Plato’s Crito, Socrates says that we should never do what we know to be wrong. Of the Ten Commandments having to do with our relations with other people, six of them are negatives: do not kill, do not commit adultery, do not steal, etc. The natural law tradition seems to have as its main directive never intentionally to violate a basic good, such as life, truth, or friendship. And Kant’s second version of the categorical imperative stresses that we should never treat humanity, self of others, merely as a means to an end. All these negative formulations point out to us what would be wrong to do as well as what would be worthy of punishment. The positive commands, at least insofar as they have to do with our relations with other human beings, seem to be less absolute. That we should honor our mother and father, promote the basic goods, and treat people as ends are certainly obligations, but they are less strict, to use Kant’s terminology. It is worse to take a person’s life, for example, than to neglect to feed that person or provide for that person’s healthcare. Normally, we do not punish people for what they neglect to do (except if the need they refuse to meet is extremely dire); but we do think it right to punish people who kill or lie or steal.

However, this emphasis on negative obligations is somewhat odd since knowledge of what is right and good must logically precede knowledge of what is wrong and bad. We only know what a bad eraser is by knowing what a good eraser ought to be. We only know what a bad apple tree is by knowing how it falls short of a good one. And we only know that killing is bad because we know that life is good, and that lying is bad because truth and friendship are good. And the really good people we can think of do not just avoid violating goods but act for the sake of those goods. Think of Socrates: he did not sit around all day trying to avoid doing what was wrong or trying to avoid mistakes. On the contrary, he strove every day to be good and to know the truth. And it seems that he succeeded in avoiding wrongdoing precisely because he was focused on doing what was right.

I suppose one reason the negatives have been stressed is to counter our tendency to justify our behavior by our general intention to do good, to the point, sometimes, of neglecting the morality of how we go about achieving that good. For a good end does not justify an evil means; and one should never do evil so that good may come. As it could be argued that all our actions are for the sake of good ends, the key place to examine their morality is in the means we take to achieve our ends. These, like the ends, should always be good and never evil. It is clearly helpful for us to know, individually and socially, some absolute limits on our behavior, and these negatives provide those limits.

Still, it does not seem true to say that avoiding doing evil implies doing good, while it does seem true to say that thoughtfully seeking to do good keeps us from doing evil. Were we to be ever after the best actions—freely and intentionally—there would be little danger of our violating fundamental human goods. In general, refusing to be rude is less the essence of a good host than making every effort to be polite. And refusing to do evil is less the essence of a good person altogether than seeking to do what is good.

Another reason why we emphasis the negative prohibitions may be that it is hard to be good; and as we become better, we become more and more aware of our failings. It is more comforting to think of how we do not violate the absolutes, for doing so puts us in a positive light. But the reality is that becoming good is a difficult and never-ending process. And so we see Socrates claiming, and I think genuinely, that the more he knows about virtue, the less he is certain that he really knows it and lives it. This helps explain his on-going quest which, even in the face of death (not our hoped-for reward for being good) continues unabated. St. Paul admits the same kind of struggle to be good. As he gets closer to Christ, the living instantiation of all good, the evil in him is more and more evident. “I know that good does not dwell in me, that is, in my flesh. The willing is ready at hand, but doing the good is not” (Romans 7:18).

 

So it is that our knowledge of good is not only necessary for us to know what is evil, but it keeps us humble and persevering in our attempt to live well—to do good.

Aristotle argues in Book X of his Nicomachean Ethics that happiness, the ultimate human good, is contemplation. In support of his position, he continues his reflection on what we mean by happiness, which he began in Book I. There he had suggested that, whatever we mean by happiness, it is something we want completely and forever. If we think about it, the idea of partial happiness or happiness cut off is not as good as full happiness continuing; and the idea of happiness continuing for a while and then being interrupted or ending is not as good as happiness continuing without interruption forever. This leads him to the idea of happiness as something we cannot lose and of the happy person as self-sufficient. Since the ethical life, exemplified most perfectly, perhaps, in friendship of virtue, requires other people, thus rendering one less self-sufficient and subject to loss, it is to this degree imperfect and as such cannot be what we mean by happiness of the ultimate human good.

 

Now clearly Aristotle thinks that friendship (that is, perfect friendship or friendship of virtue as he presents it in Book VIII) is loved for its own sake; so to that extent it is as choice-worthy as contemplation. And Aristotle does say that moral virtue is more permanent than knowledge of the truth. “For in none of man’s actions is there so much certainty as in his virtuous activities (which are more enduring than even scientific knowledge” (NE 1.11.1100b114-15). That being so, one can speak of the permanence of friendship as an indelible perfection of the soul. And if the soul is immortal, then so is the friendship.

 

But beyond this, I would like to argue that the goodness of actions such as friendship, which intrinsically involved in time, should not be judged by the degree to which they are not subject to time. Thus it would be odd to remove time from our judgment of the beauty of a piece of music. Although, the harmonies as they appear on paper and can be conceived are part of the aesthetic beauty of the piece, it is far more beautiful when actually played by excellent musicians: that is, music is meant to be heard (a temporal activity) to be fully appreciated. Likewise, friendship is most perfect, as Aristotle admits, when the friends are actually together. True enough, the commitments, loyalties, and memories of shared moments that an individual has apart from his or her friend, are real parts of the excellence of the friendship. But the full perfection—the happiness—of friendship only exists in the presence of the friend.

 

The idea that friendship is less perfect than contemplation because it renders one less self-sufficient might suggest that we should distance ourselves from friendship. But to do this is to choose to reject something self-evidently good, to turn away from something we know to be intrinsically choice-worthy. Such a choice would be self-defeating since selves are only distinguished in the context of other selves.

 

Not only can friendship be said to be as good as contemplation; there is a way in which it could be said to be better. As persons are more perfect than principles, and persons are only fully known as individuals, one might argue that friendship permits the highest kind of knowledge to be contemplated. And for the Christian tradition, the contemplation of God is an act of friendship, a participation in the friendship of the Holy Trinity. To contemplate an impersonal principle, a first abstract truth, would be to fail to contemplate the highest being.

Of course, Christian contemplation of God is not the worship of an abstract principle, nor indeed do I think this is Aristotle’s idea of contemplation. Although he does not have a doctrine of creation, Aristotle’s God is understood by him to be more perfect than we. Thus, contemplation must not be destructive of human personhood: otherwise, we are not perfected, and our philosophical quest for happiness is in vain.

“If no one asks me, I know; if I want to explain it to someone who does ask me, I do not know” (Confessions 11.14). So Augustine presents the puzzle that is time. It seems obvious to us that time is real. We sing songs, we play games, we read blogs—all of which take time. If our timing is off on any of these, they suffer or cease to be. But when we try to define time, we run into trouble. The two traditional approaches to the problem—that from the many and that from the one—do not seem to get us very far.

From the perspective of the many, understanding time seems impossible. For atomism old and new (Democritus or Hume), time is quantified into discrete moments with no real relation to each other. Augustine tries out this method of analysis in his reflections. He says we speak as if there were three times—past, present, and future—but our words seem to have no real referent. The past is gone; the future is yet to come; and the present has no space. Thus, none of the times we speak of really exists.

From the perspective of the one, time fares no better. As Parmenides presupposes logically and Plato proves from the many changing things we experience, the ultimate principle of explanation is one—unchanging and timeless. Intelligibility seems to transcend space and time, and so must its principle. Were the one in time, it would not be primary. The duality of the one and the temporal context in which it is found would need to be accounted for by some prior principle, and that principle would be the true one. It is the Forms which are intelligible (and ultimately the Form of Forms—the Good or One), not the changing and multifarious particulars. At times Augustine seems to buy into this Platonic (later Cartesian) answer. “That truly exists which endures unchangeably” (Confessions 7, 11).

If time is fundamentally unintelligible, either because of a materialist disintegration or an idealist transcendence, then it does not seem to be worth the time to discuss it.

But Augustine cannot accept either answer to the puzzle that is time, nor give up trying to answer it himself. He cannot and remain true to his human intuition of the reality of time and, even more profoundly, to his Christian commitment. “When shall I suffice to proclaim by the tongue of my pen all your exhortations, and all your warnings, consolations, and acts of guidance, by which you have led me to preach your Word and dispense your sacrament to your people? If I am sufficient to declare all these in due order, the drops of time are precious to me” (Confessions 11.2). Faith comes through hearing, and our participation in salvation is sacramental: time is essential to both.

How, then, Augustine asks, can we explain time? It must somehow be simultaneously one and many, transcendent and experiential. Augustine ends up calling time a “distention” of the mind (Confessions 11.26) by which we simultaneously grasp the past in memory, the present by attention, and the future by expectation. The analogy he uses to illustrate his point is more helpful (if less analytical—perhaps because less analytical) than his idea of distention. Time is like the recitation of a psalm or the singing of a song, which requires the continuing presence in the mind of past and future, memory and expectation, for its accomplishment. Every part is related at every time to the other parts and to the whole. “What takes part in the whole psalm takes place also in each of its parts and in each of its syllables. The same thing holds for a longer action, of which perhaps the psalm is a small part. The same holds for a man’s entire life, the parts of which are all the man’s actions. The same thing holds throughout the whole age of the sons of men, the parts of which are the lives of all men” (Confessions, 11.28).

All times exist simultaneously in the Creator, who is present as Creator to all moments of time. Our minds, too, grasp simultaneously past, present, and future. Intelligent conversation shows this to be true. Indeed, Augustine will conclude that the mind can know, choose, and communicate only as it participates in and is illuminated by God, who is “truly eternal, the creator of minds” (Confessions 11.31).

The members of the Philosophy Department were asked which book they thought would be important to teach to students in an introductory philosophy course. Their answers are below. You can listen to them all at once or you can click on the name of the individual professor below to listen to each professor’s answer.

All answers in one mp3 file.
click the link to play or right click to download.


-Professor Robert Anderson

David Hume-An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding

http://www.amazon.com/Inquiry-Concerning-Human-Understanding/dp/002353110X/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1222103665&sr=1-3


-Professor Robert Augros

Professor Augros argued that the dialogue between teacher and student was more essential to the philosophical process than any book.



-Professor David Banach

Euclid’s Elements

http://www.amazon.com/Euclids-Elements-T-L-Heath-Translation/dp/1888009195/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1222103502&sr=8-1

Albert Camus- The Stranger

http://www.amazon.com/Stranger-Albert-Camus/dp/0679720200/ref=pd_bbs_2?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1222102515&sr=1-2



-Professor Montague Brown

Plato- The Republic

http://www.amazon.com/Republic-Plato/dp/0872207366/ref=pd_bbs_sr_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1222104060&sr=1-1

Online edition

http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/republic.html

Saint Augustine’s Confessions

http://www.amazon.com/Augustine-Confessions-Oxford-Worlds-Classics/dp/0192833723/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1222104161&sr=1-1

Online edition

http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/jod/Englishconfessions.html


-Professor Drew Dalton

Marcus Aurelius-The Meditations

http://www.amazon.com/Meditations-Penguin-Classics-Marcus-Aurelius/dp/0140449337/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1222104796&sr=8-1

Online edition

http://classics.mit.edu/Antoninus/meditations.html

Slavoj Zizek

Violence-Big-Ideas-Small-Books

http://www.amazon.com/Violence-Big-Ideas-Small-Books/dp/0312427182/ref=pd_bbs_sr_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1222283299&sr=1-1


-Father John Fortin

Saint Anselm- Monologium

http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/anselm-monologium.html

Proslogium

http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/anselm-proslogium.html



-Professor Susan Gabriel

Bertrand Russell- The Problems of Philosophy

http://www.amazon.com/Problems-Philosophy-Bertrand-Russell/dp/160597899X/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1222104969&sr=8-3

Online edition

http://books.google.com/books?id=33jP5wdnt7YC&dq=the+problems+of+philosophy&pg=PP1&ots=iYnhLWaJnI&sig=IsMx9A1hbcpsZWLGZFZ40Ihs56Y&hl=en&sa=X&oi=book_result&resnum=1&ct=result#PPA3,M1


-Professor Sarah Glenn

Sophocles- Oedipus Rex

http://www.amazon.com/Oedipus-Rex-Literary-Touchstone-Sophocles/dp/1580495931/ref=pd_bbs_sr_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1222105258&sr=8-1



-Professor Matthew Konieczka

Leo Tolstoy-The Death of Ivan Ilyich

http://www.amazon.com/Death-Ilyich-Stories-Wordsworth-Classics/dp/1840224533/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1222105435&sr=1-3

Plato- The Apology

http://www.amazon.com/Euthyphro-Apology-Crito-Phaedo-Philosophy/dp/0879754966/ref=sr_1_4?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1222105582&sr=1-4

Online Edition

http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/apology.html


-Professor Thomas Larson

Plato- The Republic

http://www.amazon.com/Republic-Plato/dp/0872207366/ref=pd_bbs_sr_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1222104060&sr=1-1

Online edition

http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/republic.html


-Professor Max Latona

Josef Pieper-The Philosophical Act

http://www.amazon.com/Josef-Pieper-Anthology/dp/0898702267/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1222282616&sr=8-2


Professor James Mahoney
C.S. Pierce, “The Fixation of Belief”

http://www.peirce.org/writings/p107.html

Michael Novak, Belief and Unbelief

http://www.amazon.com/Belief-Unbelief-Self-Knowledge-Michael-Novak/dp/1560007419


-Professor Joseph Spoerl

Plato- The Gorgias

http://www.amazon.com/Gorgias-Penguin-Classics-Plato/dp/0140449043/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1222106429&sr=8-1

Online edition

http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/gorgias.html

Plato- The Republic

http://www.amazon.com/Republic-Plato/dp/0872207366/ref=pd_bbs_sr_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1222104060&sr=1-1

Online edition

http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/republic.html

Plato- The Apology

http://www.amazon.com/Euthyphro-Apology-Crito-Phaedo-Philosophy/dp/0879754966/ref=sr_1_4?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1222105582&sr=1-4

Online Edition

http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/apology.html


-Professor Kevin Staley

Plato- The Euthyphro

http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/euthyfro.html

When discussing the possibility of selfless motivation in ethics classes, the students usually have a hard time thinking of any example of an action that escapes from self-interest. They are not always happy with this conclusion, for part of them, at least, would like to think that there are selfless people out there. However, every instance of what looks like a generous action, turns out to be explainable as merely self-interest. Even Mother Theresa of Calcutta, they say, got a good feeling out of caring for others: that’s really why she spent her life helping them.

Immanuel Kant agrees with the students. He does not think that it is possible ever to give an example of an action that is unambiguously “for the sake of the other.” So it seems that on empirical grounds Hobbes and Hume are right: every moral action is one of self-interest or direct inclination (what Hume called benevolence). Every thing we do is guided by passion, whether to satisfy our desire for domination or to gratify our feelings of being kind and helpful. “If we attend to the experience of men’s conduct, we meet frequent and, as we ourselves allow, just complaints that one cannot find a single certain example of the disposition to act from pure duty” (Fundamentals of the Metaphysics of Morals, Second Section, tr. Thomas K. Abbott [LLA, 1949], p. 24). But if this is true, how do we escape relativism? People’s feelings differ from those of others and even from their former feelings. If actions are based on feelings, then they are not based on moral principles. We may think that some actions are better than others, but it seems in the end that we are wrong.

Kant’s response to this apparent collapse into moral relativism is to deny that the empirical process of verifying moral actions is morality. Morality is about what we ought to do, not what we do. Describing our behavior is empirical psychology, which may be an important science but has nothing to do with moral obligation. Morality is concerned with ideal human choosing. “Even though there might never have been a sincere friend, yet not a whit the less is pure sincerity in friendship required of every man” (p. 25).

David Hume is famous for his argument against deriving moral obligation from the way things are. As I understand it, he makes a simple logical point when he argues that arguments with exclusively “is” statements in the premises cannot validly conclude to an “ought” statement. (It is invalid to have something in the conclusion that appears nowhere in the premises.) Thus if we take scientific method as the only way to arrive at true propositions (as do Hume and Hobbes, and also the utilitarian Bentham), then we can make no pronouncements about what we ought to do, in short about moral obligation.

There is something quite odd, however, about Hume’s point. There’s nothing wrong with his logic, but it does seem that for him to say that one cannot derive “ought” from “is” (obligation from fact) he must know the difference between the two. That is, he must know that “ought” means something different from “is”. Since science cannot say what this difference is, there must be another origin for this knowledge. Kant, of course, says that there is—practical reason. Reason can tell us what we ought to do as well as describe what we do through sciences of chemistry, biology, psychology, etc.

The moral realm is the realm of practical reason. Its principles are ideals—what we ought to do, rather than what we all too often do. We ought always to treat people as ends in themselves, even it we rarely do. The moral ideal is to live in a “kingdom of ends” (p. 50) in which each human being’s dignity is recognized, and each human being is treated, not as a thing to be used for some other purpose of self-interest or satisfaction, but with the appropriate respect due to every person. This is the moral law whether or not any individual action measures up to it. It is a law of obligation, whose origin is reason—immediately accessible to each of us—not imposed by external forces of any kind.

“I blame equally those who decide to praise man, those who blame him, and those who want to be diverted. I can only approve those who search in anguish.”

(Blaise Pascal. Pensées, “Liasse Titles,” 24 [Oxford, 1995], p. 8 )

It seems that Pascal has pretty much got it covered when it comes to judging human beings, and all the options are bad. Here he is rejecting some traditional conclusions about the human condition: the Stoic view, which claims that we are really reasonable and good if we would just remember and assert that we are; the materialist view, which rejects the claim that we are any better than the animals and criticizes human pretensions; and the Pyrrhonist view, which holds that we will be more content if we do not take a side in the matter. But what does he recommend instead? His recommended path—searching in anguish—sounds even less reasonable and, frankly, not much fun. What’s the point of searching if there is no conclusion? And why would one seek a path of anguish? Pascal’s conclusion sounds anti-intellectual and unfulfilling. So what’s the point?

The Pensées are a fleshing out of a response to this last question. Pascal claims that what he is recommending is, in fact, the only really rational and happy way to go. There are good reasons for blaming each of the three rejected options, both in terms of knowledge and happiness.

We know that the first three options are not reasonable. Praising human beings makes no sense when one considers their ignorance and the evil they do. Of all that can be known, we know precious little. Worse, of all the creatures in the world, we alone willfully harm other creatures and our fellow humans. The facts are indisputable: all of us sin. Blaming human beings, the second option, ignores the point that human beings can know (can dispel their ignorance) and can will what is good. In having such capacities, human beings are unique among the creatures of this world. As Pascal says, “Through space the universe grasps and engulfs me like a pinpoint: through thought I can grasp it” (145, p.36). We have the freedom to turn from what is false to what is true, from what is evil to what is good: the whole project of the Pensées (and, in some way, of any book) is centered on this distinctive characteristic of human beings. Diversion, the third option, is no answer since it is precisely the refusal to seek and answer—the refusal to make use of the intellectual and moral powers that are uniquely human. Obviously, diversion is a pleasant part of our lives, but if one were to make it the purpose of one’s life, that would be absurd. Such a life would be the rejection of purpose.

In terms of our natural orientation toward happiness, Pascal’s blaming of the three positions also makes sense. The danger in being praised is that we become proud and presuming. We think that something is owed us for our goodness. But such pride and presumption are obvious impediments to further progress toward the happiness of fulfilling our rational and moral natures. If we think we are wise and good enough, we won’t try to become wiser and better. The danger in being blamed is that we might despair. Despair is as equally effective as presumption in destroying the motivation to pursue what will fulfill us. Why bother to try if we are bound to fail? Finally, the indifference to questions of truth and goodness implied in diverting ourselves is also an impediment to our happiness. Although we have a hunch that there are some things worthy of sorting out in our lives, we prefer to put off such sorting. “We run carelessly over the precipice after having put something in front of us to prevent us seeing it” (198, p. 59).

Once we have seen how the three options fail to deliver in terms of reason and happiness, Pascal’s suggestion begins to make more sense. The search is important, for no systematic account of reality is complete, and no inkling of truth and happiness totally misleading. The admission of these points, as Socrates was fond of repeating, is necessary for the philosophical life. And this is not blind fideism, for it is reason itself that leads us to the assertion that there are things beyond reason. “Reason’s last step is to recognize that there are an infinite number of things which surpass it. It is simply feeble if it does not go as far as realizing that” (220, p. 62). The anguish comes because we really do want to know the truth and to live as we should. Time is precious. We only have so much of it. “Between us and hell or heaven there is only life, the most fragile thing in earth” (185, p. 58). Will we make the most of the life that is given us? That is Pascal’s question.

Second Annual Richard L. Bready Lecture
November 8, 2007

Montague Brown 
Bready Professor of Ethics, Economics, and the Common Good
Saint Anselm College

Freedom, Work, and Dignity:
The Challenge of a Prosperous and Just Economy

click on the link above to listen to the podcast.

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I would like to build on last week’s blog by Prof. McGushin. He says rightly that terrorism and philosophy are polar opposites and even mortal enemies. Given that terrorism is beyond the pale of what can reasonably be justified, what about our response to terrorism? Can it make use of methods that cannot be reasonably justified?

There are some who argue in contemporary debates that, against terrorists, one may use any measures necessary to stop them. It is, indeed, hard to think of more heinous and unjustifiable action than that of purposefully killing innocents to terrorize a people. Such an act is clearly against the rules of war as articulated in the just war theory of the natural law tradition and expressed as international law in the Geneva Conventions. If terrorists won’t fight fair, why should we?

Having just reread Machiavelli’s The Prince, I’ve been thinking about how it is that a state may be defended. In this discussion, I am not going to try to sort out specifics of Machiavelli’s deeply held principles. Evidently, he was a Republican at heart and would have preferred such a government, all things being equal. But with the Medici princes coming in and out of power (and in power at the time he writes The Prince), he takes recourse to the second best option, advising the one who has power—a prince. Certainly, political stability was a major need in the Italy of his day. For the sake of this discussion, it does not matter that much, perhaps, whether one’s government is a republic or a monarchy, for we are talking about external relations with other states or enemies rather than internal methods of rule.

My question if this: for the sake of defending the state, is it permissible to use any means necessary—even, as Machiavelli suggests, those one knows to be immoral? Here is the relevant and famous passage from The Prince.

Many have dreamed up republics and principalities which have never in truth been known to exist; the gulf between how one should live and how one does live is so wide that a man who neglects what is actually done for what should be done learns the way to self-destruction rather than self-preservation. The fact is that a man who wants to act virtuously in every way necessarily comes to grief among so many who are not virtuous. Therefore, if a prince wants to maintain his rule he must learn how not to be virtuous, and to make use of this or not according to need. (Machiavelli, The Prince, chap. 15, trans. by George Bull [Penguin, 1985], pp. 90-91)

This apparently implies that the end of preserving the state (an apparently worthy end) justifies taking immoral (not virtuous) means to reach that end. Not only is vicious behavior permissible, it seems it is required. Machiavelli argues that the refusal never to be vicious leads to the destruction of the state. The ruler must learn how to be a fox and a lion: to deceive and use cruel force (chap. 18). Machiavelli is not saying that indiscriminate evil is good; however, the ruler must be willing to use evil if needed to preserve the state. “As I said above, he should not deviate from what is good, if that is possible, but he should know how to do evil, if that is necessary” (chap. 18, p. 101). “A prince who wants to maintain his rule is often forced not to be good” (chap. 19, p. 108).

Without minimizing the difficulties in knowing how to act justly to defend against unjust aggression (paradigmatically terrorism), I think that Machiavelli’s statement is false for a couple of reasons. First, and most obviously, it is never literally necessary to do evil; one cannot be forced not to be good. Although actions can be characterized as evil to some degree by the harm they do, what makes them essentially evil is intention. Thus, if I accidentally give you the wrong directions to the train station, I harm you. If someone picks me up and hurls me into someone else, that someone else is really hurt, which is an evil. But in neither case is the harm intended by me. This means that these harmful actions are not really my actions. For an action to be mine in the full sense of implying responsibility on my part, I must choose it. And if it is to be characterized as evil, I must choose it knowing full well its evil. Good or evil actions are free actions. If they are not free, they are not morally worthy of praise or blame.

Secondly, it is never permissible to choose evil. Perhaps, as in much discourse about how people act, Machiavelli means by necessary, not what must literally be done, but what should be done (all things considered). In other words, if one would be morally good, it is necessary to do such an action. But such a position is morally incoherent. It suggests that one should do evil for the sake of good. But moral good means what should be done and moral evil what should not be done. This being so, the argument that an evil means can be justified by a good end amounts to saying that one should do (it is good to do) what one should not do (what is not good to do)—an obvious contradiction.

It may be very difficult to know what the right thing to do is in a particularly challenging situation (such a figuring out how to defend against terrorism), but that does not mean that there is no morally justifiable response. One should always pursue what is good and avoid what is evil. Insofar as one is able, one should avoid harming the innocent, for one should fight evil, not good. It certainly would be wrong to kill innocent people intentionally in order to frighten the enemy into giving up his aggressive actions. This intentional killing of the innocent is precisely what makes terrorism such an egregious crime. To have a policy that is good, one must be consistently good, not good as to one’s end and evil as to one’s means. Otherwise, one’s argument for any policy falls apart, since to recommend a policy is to assert that it is better than some other course of action.

There may be bad effects of combating terrorism, such as a certain amount of innocent suffering and perhaps even deaths. Although these may be acceptable as unavoidable side-effects of legitimate actions to safeguard the good of life, they should never be intended and should be avoided if possible. When discussing whether or not it is ever permissible to kill in self-defense, Thomas Aquinas says flatly that one should never intend evil—in this case, killing another human being (Summa theologiae II-II, 64, 7). It is life that is to be protected, and a sign that we are intending the good of protecting life (and not the evil of killing) is that we use the least force possible.

What precisely the least force possible would be in fighting unjust aggression, whether against an individual or a state, is hard to say. And it is particularly difficult in the case of terrorism when protecting the common good may require preemptive action. But the suggestion that, in some cases, one should purposefully act unjustly makes no sense. Intentional injustice clearly can never be justified.

(Saint Thomas Aquinas died March 7, 1274. which was traditionally his feast day. After Vactican II, his feast day was changed to January 28.)

For the Feast Day of St. Thomas Aquinas

In honor of St. Thomas’s feast day, I think it is fitting to call to mind the great spirit of his work. What I mean by this mostly is his intellectual courage. St. Thomas never shied away from truth of any kind. In fact, when one reads his Summa theologiae, one is amazed to find how strong his objections to his own position are. In many cases, the objections he formulates are stronger than the arguments presented by those who actually proposed them. He has no interest in the easy way out, no desire to dodge tough objections. The truth is sacred, wherever it is found.

This is great example for all of us in the intellectual community. We should have no fear of truth, no matter its origin. Just as St. Thomas faced with confidence and mastered the subtle philosophy of Aristotle—the science, ethics, political thought, and metaphysics—so we should not fear but welcome whatever truths contemporary science, ethics, and metaphysics have to offer.

As St. Thomas was sustained in his endeavor by a deep belief in the intelligibility of reality and in the duty of living the best possible life, so should we be. As it is impossible to understand St. Thomas’s attitude toward truth without taking into account his devotion to the moral good, so it is impossible to understand that devotion without recognizing his great faith, hope, and charity.

As we celebrate the feast day of St. Thomas Aquinas, let us call to mind his own words of prayer. (This prayer is found in Jacques Maritain’s book St. Thomas Aquinas.)

Ineffable Creator, Who out of the treasures of Thy wisdom has appointed three hierarchies of Angels and set them in admirable order high above the heavens and hast disposed the diverse portions of the universe in such marvelous array, Thou Who art called the True Source of Light and supereminent Principle of Wisdom, be pleased to cast a beam of Thy radiance upon the double darkness of sin and ignorance in which I have been born.

Thou Who makest eloquent the tongues of little children, fashion my words and pour upon my lips the grace of Thy benediction. Grant me penetration to understand, capacity to retain, method and facility in study, subtlety in interpretation and abundant grace of expression.

Order the beginning, direct the progress, and perfect the achievement of my work, Thou Who art true God and true Man and livest and reignest for ever and ever. Amen.

Bready Lecture

November 14, 2006
Professor Montague Brown
Richard L. Bready Chair of Ethics, Economics, and the Common Good.

The Role of Natural Law in a World of Religious and Political Diversity

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