Moral Virtues

Moral Virtues

Last time, we discussed the so-called intellectual virtues, those habits that perfect the speculative intellect (understanding, knowledge, and wisdom), and those that perfect the practical intellect (art and prudence). It makes sense that we need such virtues, since the intellect is manifestly of supreme importance in human life and activity. But what about the moral virtues, those habits that perfect the appetite? Again, we must ask, appetite for what? The will is a kind of appetite, an intellect appetite that desires the good once we have come to apprehend it intellectually. Then there is the sensitive appetite that is concerned with the sensible or bodily good. Here we may speak of passions or emotions as motions of the sensitive appetite.

Passions, appetites, and principles

We take it for granted as Christians that the passions, these motions of the sensitive appetite, have some role in the moral life. But not all start with this principle. Consider the Stoics and those who follow them. They think of the passions as things to be resisted; they think that the passions are incompatible with virtue. Others, including many in our own time, go to the opposite extreme and advocate for the pursuit of unfettered emotional pleasure. The good life consists above all in maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain. But philosophically, we need not accept these two positions. Aristotle and the tradition he established see a role for the passions in the good life; man is, after all, a rational animal. Neither can the biblical tradition abide by the two extremes. Ask yourself what we must think of the passions when we see our Lord Himself angry (John 2) or sorrowful (John 11) or fearful of His impending passion and death (Luke 22). If they are real principles in the moral life, though, real aspects of our lives as (rational) animals, the passions must nevertheless be brought under the gentle guide of reason.

How Moral Virtues are Formed

The moral virtues are cultivated, then, to perfect the intellectual appetite (in the case of justice, for example) or the sensitive appetite (as with temperance). Considered as ordered by reason, the passions and the habits that perfect man’s appetite play a vital role in the moral life. St. Thomas says, in fact, that we cannot have intellectual virtue without moral virtue and vice versa. Not all intellectual virtues are necessary for the moral virtues, however, but primarily understanding and prudence, whereby we understand first principles (understanding) and discern what is to be done in a certain situation in light of some end (prudence). And likewise, when we say that intellectual virtue cannot be without moral virtues, we are thinking primarily of how prudence needs the regulation of the sensitive appetite, lest our disposition to act well be undermined by concupiscence or inordinate desire.

'We desire all sorts of things in our lives, and where there is an object of desire, there is a virtue ready to regulate or perfect our desire for that object.'Click To Tweet

St. Thomas teaches that the moral virtues, which are about the appetite, differ according to their relation to the appetite; they differ according to their object. No need to get overly technical here. “Chastity is about sexual please,” St. Thomas says, and “abstinence about pleasures of the table” (ST I-II, q. 60, a. 5, sed contra). This is, as always, commonsensical. We desire all sorts of things in our lives, and where there is an object of desire, there is a virtue ready to regulate or perfect our desire for that object.

Next time, we will see why the moral virtues are called “cardinal virtues.” No doubt many of you have heard this term before, but perhaps without knowing what precisely it means. There are some objections to this term for the moral virtues, in fact. We might think, for instance, that the intellectual virtues are of greater importance. They are, after all, perfective of the intellect, a higher power of the soul. Or we might be concerned that the theological virtues are being neglected as the highest virtues in the moral life. We will see what St. Thomas has to say on the matter and hopefully get a better grasp of the cardinal virtues.

Have you read After Virtue by Alasdair MacIntyre?

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