Aquinas on the Function of Moral Virtue[1]

                                                                    Jeffrey Hause

Creighton University


Abstract: Aquinas is quite clear about moral virtue's definition and its effects, but he devotes little space to virtue's function: How does it accomplish what it accomplishes?  Aquinas’s treatment of the acquired moral virtues in our non-rational appetites reveals that they have at least two functions: They make the soul’s powers good instruments of reason, and they also calm the appetites so that one can make moral judgments with an unclouded mind.  Virtue in the will has a different, “strong directive” function: It directs our will to certain goods prior to reason’s forming its judgment.  Aquinas must also hold that the virtues of the non-rational appetites exercise strong direction as well, but we cannot see why unless we examine his account of the infused moral virtues.



            The view that Aquinas is simply "Aristotle baptized" is not as prominent as it once was.  Readers of Aquinas now recognize the influence of many, many sources, including pseudo-Dionysius, Augustine, Maimonides, and Avicenna.  They also recognize Aquinas's original and often idiosyncratic use of these varied sources. 

            However, the view that Aquinas's ethical thought, and in particular his theory of virtue, is substantially Aristotle's has been more persistent.  Very recently, however, several provocative essays disputing this claim have appeared.  John Inglis, Jean Porter, and Bonnie Kent, for instance, have argued that commentators have gotten a mistaken idea of Aquinas's virtue theory largely because they have failed to take into account the most important aspect of that theory: the divinely infused virtues.[2]

            Unlike the moral virtues that one acquires in the way that Aristotle says we acquire them, by habituation, Aquinas argues that there are also divinely bestowed moral virtues which are specifically different from their acquired counterparts.  If one is to make it to heaven, the acquired virtues are not enough.  One needs the divinely infused virtues of faith, hope, and charity—the theological virtues—but also the divinely infused intellectual virtue of prudence, and the divinely infused moral virtues: temperance, courage, and justice.  However, Aquinas's arguments for this view are vague and perplexing; and commentators have not done much to render them clear.  Recognizing the failure of most commentators to take account of the infused virtues, and the failure of the rest to explain Aquinas's account, Bonnie Kent has issued a call for further study.

            Inglis, Kent, and Porter have begun this new exploration, with interesting results.  Their conclusions range from the claim that Aquinas transforms Aristotle's account of moral virtue to the claim that he subverts it.  Still, despite the careful attention given the topic by these scholars, we are not much closer to understanding Aquinas's account of infused moral virtue.  Our failure to understand this material stems in part from Aquinas's own curt and vague treatment; but it also stems from the commentators' failure to understand Aquinas's general theory of virtue, in particular, his account of virtue's function.  Aquinas is quite clear about virtue's definition, its effects, and what faculties of the soul house it, but he devotes little space, and never treats systematically, virtue's function: How does it accomplish what it accomplishes?  This is surprising, since his moral psychology is the richest to be found before the Renaissance.

            Let me turn, then, to the function of moral virtue.  Once we have a grasp of what Aquinas's account of that function is, we will be better able to see just how Aristotelian or un-Aristotelian Aquinas's theory of moral virtue really is.

            I. The Function of Moral Virtue.  Speaking about virtue in general, not about moral virtue in particular, Aquinas explains that we need virtue for three reasons: 1. uniformity in action, 2. promptness in action, and 3. pleasure in action.  He writes:

            On the basis of these [considerations], I can also show that we need virtuous habits for three reasons.

                        First, for uniformity in our activity.  After all, what depends on activity alone changes easily if it has not been stabilized by a habitual inclination.

                        Second, we need them to perform a perfect act readily. That’s because, unless a habit in some way inclines the rational power to one [sort of activity], then whenever we have to perform an activity, we must always make an inquiry about the activity first.  We have a clear example of this in the case of someone who has not yet acquired the [relevant] habit of knowledge but wants to reflect, and in the case of someone who lacks the [relevant] habit of virtue, but wants to act as virtue demands.  For this reason, the Philosopher says in Ethics V that swift actions are done from habit.

                        Third, we need virtuous habits to bring our perfect activity to fulfillment pleasurably.  Habit is responsible for this.  Because it has the mode of a nature, it makes the activity proper to it natural, so to speak, and therefore pleasurable, since appropriateness causes pleasure.  Accordingly, the Philosopher, in Ethics II, holds that pleasure in one’s activity is a sign of one’s habit.  (On the Virtues in General 1 reply)

So, the complex of virtues—moral and intellectual both—is necessary for these three reasons, for uniformity, readiness, and pleasure.  But what role does moral virtue in particular play to bring about these consequences?  What is the function of moral virtue?

            IA. Instrumental Function.  Articles 4 and 5 of On the Virtues in General contain the most detailed single account of the function of moral virtue.  In article 4, Aquinas treats the virtues of the non-rational appetites, and in article 5, the virtues of the rational appetite, the will.  Aquinas writes:

Therefore, to perform a perfect human act, we need nothing in our external members beyond their natural disposition, by which they are naturally suited to be moved by reason.  However, we do need something in our lower appetite, which can oppose reason, if it is to perform the activity reason commands without opposition.  For if the immediate source of the activity is imperfect, the activity must be imperfect, however perfect its higher source may be.  So, if the lower appetite were not perfectly disposed to following reason’s command, the activity, whose proximate source is the lower appetite, would not be perfectly good, since some opposition from the sensory appetite would accompany it.  Because of this, the lower appetite would feel a certain sadness, since the higher appetite would have moved it violently.  This is what happens in people with strong desires they do not follow because reason forbids it.  Therefore, when someone’s activity must concern matters that are the objects of the sensory appetite, in order for the activity to be good, there needs to be a disposition, or perfection, in the sensory appetite to enable it to submit to reason easily. We call this sort of disposition a virtue.  (On the Virtues in General 4 reply)

            The rational part determines what one ought to do and commands that it be done.  But only rarely, if ever, is the rational part the only source of an act.  Acts generally have non-rational appetites and bodily limbs as their sources as well.  In contrast to philosophers such as Kant who hold that an act's moral worth comes entirely from one's willing to do what is right because it is right, or from doing what is right because it is right, Aquinas maintains that an act's moral worth depends on the behavior of all of its sources, including the behavior of the non-rational appetites.  Aquinas makes the same contention at IaIIae 58.3 response to 2:

…Neither can an activity which has its source in two powers be perfect unless each power is perfected by its appropriate habit; just as perfect action would not issue from someone using an instrument if the instrument is not well disposed, no matter how perfect the principal agent is.  Therefore, if the sensitive appetite, which the rational part moves, is not perfect, then no matter how perfect the rational part is, the ensuing action will not be perfect.  Hence, neither will the source of the action be a virtue.  For this reason, holding back from undue pleasures and perseverance in times of sadness are not virtues, but something less than virtues, as the Philosopher says in Ethics VII. 

Suppose, for instance, I find some worthy cause and decide it would be best to give money, and every month I send them some funding.  However, every time I do it, it pains me.  I do the right thing, but I'm not taking pleasure in it.  My act is certainly continent, and I can be said to persevere—and those are perfections of a sort.  But they are perfections that fall short of virtue.  In my example, my reason is perfected: (1) I discover the right thing to do, and (2) my reason persists in holding the right view even though it pains me to give money.  The discovery, the perseverance, and the giving are all good.  However, there is something short of complete perfection here: My emotions do not completely follow where my reason leads.  A virtuous person would respond differently.  The person who has acquired moral virtue has trained his or her appetites to respond to the judgment of reason about what is worth pursuing.  The appetites become good instruments of reason and follow its judgment.  I will call this the "instrumental function" of virtue.  Through this function, we perform right actions readily.  That is because one component of our emotions is a bodily state, a state that makes us ready to perform acts of the sort the emotion inclines us to perform.[3]  Through this function we also take delight in acting.  When my desires are satisfied, I am pleased.  When the appetites are good instruments of reason, then when one acts as reason demands, one is pleased, even on a sensory level.  Virtue quite literally makes acting well feel good.

            What this discussion shows is that virtue must have a certain flexibility: The virtuous person must be ready to desire, value, and (at least generally) take pleasure in whatever reason determines ought to be done.  That is what's needed if virtue is to be a good instrument of reason, allowing one to act readily and take pleasure in acting rationally.  Virtue is not simply a state inclining one to a certain sort of behavior; it is not mindless habituation.  Virtue might in fact require one to act on occasion in ways one is quite unaccustomed to acting.  When my own child misbehaves, I can respond quickly and correctly, whether what's needed is a distraction, attention, a warning, or a time out.  But if I am asked to babysit a child of very different temperament, I cannot resort to routine.  I may have to respond very differently—and if I am just and patient, I will do so readily and with pleasure.  It is for this reason that Aquinas distinguishes people who had the so-called "natural virtues" from people with genuine virtues (On the Cardinal Virtues 2).  The natural virtues are not genuine virtues at all, but are called virtues only homonymously.  People with a natural virtue may perform acts that appear virtuous but really are not.  For instance, the merely bold person is not genuinely courageous. Like the merely bold person, the courageous person controls fear, but unlike the bold person, does so consistently in the service of the right ends and in the right circumstances.  Only reason can determine what the right ends and circumstances are, so the virtue of courage must be flexible enough to accommodate reason's determinations.  It cannot, therefore, just be a habit of certain patterns of behavior.

            IB. Weak Direction.  But a habit with merely an instrumental function cannot be a virtue.  A virtue is the source of good acts, not of bad (On the Virtues in General 2); and a habit that disposes one to perform, without opposition, whatever the rational part determines ought to be performed is a morally neutral habit.  A virtue must somehow ensure that one's act is good, or at least incline one to perform good acts.  Aquinas concurs with Aristotle's dictum that virtue makes one's ends right (IIaIIae 47.6 contrary; On the Cardinal Virtues 2 reply).

            But how do they do that?  Consider the non-rational appetites first.  If these appetites are allowed to behave in whatever way they might, one runs the risk of eliciting harmful desires, desires that can influence one's deliberation and judgment.  These desires color our vision.  Consider the example of road rage.  When Person A cuts off Person B in traffic, B grows so enraged that he drives at high speed only inches behind A's car, then pulls in front of A and steps on the brakes.  This may strike the enraged driver as just the right course of action: It's fair, a matter of justice.  It's even rehabilitative, since it teaches the thoughtless driver a good lesson.  But these judgments will appear ludicrous to B when B's anger has passed.  Few people, in their cooler moments, think it is ever a good idea to propel two tons of metal at high speed within a few inches of human beings.

            The sensory appetites, allowed to behave as they please, can also focus our attention on certain objects, making it harder to consider alternatives (IaIIae 77.1 reply).  Not only does it seem a good idea for Driver C to teach a lesson to D, the jerk who stole C's parking place, but C keeps replaying in his mind the satisfying picture of scratching D's car up with his keys.  But if C's mind is glued to this scenario, he won't be able to deliberate well.  We need, therefore, to consider matters coolly, without the chaos and distorted vision that can come from assault by unruly passions.  Virtue, then, must calm the appetites so that reason can consider matters with objective vision and with full awareness of the various alternatives.  In this way, virtue directs us to what’s good by being a per accidens efficient cause of good deliberation and decision: It is a per accidens efficient cause because it promotes good deliberation and decision by taking away obstacles to those goals.  I will call this function of virtue "weak direction."  This function helps one to act promptly and helps to ensure consistency in acting well by offering the agent clear vision and full awareness of alternatives.

            We can see both the weak directive and the instrumental functions of virtue illustrated at On Evil 12.1 reply:

…anger and other passions like it can be related to reason's judgment in two ways:

1. Antecedently.  [Related to reason's judgment] in this way, anger, and every passion like it, must stand in the way of reason's judgment, because the soul is best able to judge the truth in a sort of tranquility of mind.  That is why the Philosopher also says that the soul grows knowing and prudent when it comes to repose.

            2. Consequently.  To be precise, after reason has made its determination and ordained the way retribution should be sought, passion then arises to carry out the order.  Anger and the other passions like it [that are related to reason's judgment] in this way do not stand in the way of reason's judgment, because it has already occurred.  Instead, they help carry out [the order] more promptly, and in this respect they are useful for virtue.

By weak direction, virtue helps us to attain an objective vision; and by its instrumental function, virtue helps us to act promptly.

            IC. Virtues of the Will.  In article 5 of On the Virtues in General, Aquinas turns his attention from the moral virtue in the sensory appetites to question whether the will can be the subject of moral virtue.  The will does not stand in the same relation to reason as the sensory appetites do.  The sensory appetites need virtues because they might oppose reason either before it renders its judgment or after it renders its judgment.  In the first case, one has a diminished capacity for judgment and difficulty being objective; in the second case, one will do the right thing, but only sluggishly, and the effort will be disagreeable.  The will does not operate as independently of reason as the sensory appetites, and so it has no need for virtue to bring it into submission.  The will just is reason's appetite and follows its judgment perfectly well without any need of virtue.[4]  Aquinas writes in reply to objection 11:

Because of its close relationship with reason, it is the case that the will, by its very nature, is in accord with reason, and so to achieve this accord, it does not need the further addition of a virtuous habit, the way the lower irascible and concupiscible powers do.  (On the Virtues in General 5 response to 11) 

We might expect, then, that Aquinas would not find any need for virtue in the will.  Any virtues perfecting the rational part of the soul should therefore be virtues of reason.  However, Aquinas argues that the will is the subject of three virtues: the virtue of justice, and the divinely infused virtues of hope and charity. 

            The virtues of hope and charity are enabling virtues: They extend the power one has in ways one could not extend it on one's own.  These virtues allow one to enter into a relationship with God one could not have without them.  Still, they are not new powers.  The will is the power that loves and values and binds people in friendship, and charity is a virtue enabling one to love and value God as a friend.  To compare these virtues with sensation, getting these virtues is not like getting a sixth sense; it is like extending the capacities of the senses one has beyond one's own ability to extend them.  They are, therefore, different from the virtues one acquires on one's own.  Perhaps an analogy will help to clarify the difference.  In listening to music, one can train oneself to distinguish the individual instruments contributing to the orchestral piece.  This is like the acquisition of virtue.  Now, suppose a doctor operates on your auditory apparatus so that you can now hear sounds well beyond the normal human hearing range.  You have been given new abilities you could not train yourself to have; and yet you have not received a new power: It is still your sense of hearing at work.  This is like the infusion of the theological virtues.  So perhaps Aquinas has reason to contend that the will is the subject of these theological virtues.     Let me put aside the theological virtues for now, since my interest in this paper is in the function of the moral virtues.  Aquinas contends that justice, too, is a virtue of the will.  What role could it possibly play in the will’s activity? 

            Aquinas has made it clear that in the will there is no need for a virtue that exercises an instrumental or weak directive function.  That leaves only one possibility: Virtues in the will must afford strong direction.  A virtue will be strongly directive if it inclines one to what’s good not per accidens, but per se.  More precisely, a strongly directive virtue will incline one to love, hate, value, disvalue or experience some other emotion toward a particular object of type of object that is an appopriate object of that emotion.  It will call one's attention to certain valuable ends or morally relevant features of a situation.  How does justice do this?

            Because of the corruption of original sin, Aquinas writes, we tend to consider only our own private good, our narrow self-interest (IaIIae 109.3).  In fact, Aquinas writes, we should love the common good--and even love ourselves for the sake of the common good.  What we need, then, are habits that correct our tendency to value just ourselves and focus on our own narrow self-interest; we need habits of valuing others, the community, and ourselves seen as parts of that community.  So, for example, our attention is normally glued to ourselves and our own plans, projects, deadlines.  My headache is always worse than yours; my research more important than yours.  At least, that is the way it will seem to me if I do not have the virtue of justice.  Justice values others, and precisely because it does, it calls my attention to others' needs and directs me to attend to their good as well as mine.  When I make my judgments, I will have others' goods, as well as mine, brought to my attention in my considerations.  Through the strong directive function, I will be able to act well more consistently and also more promptly—I won't have to keep reminding myself that other people are as real as I am.[5]

            Do the virtues of the sensory appetites also have a strong directive function?  I have not found Aquinas saying explicitly that they do or that they do not.  We might be ready to say that they do not, however, on the basis of the passage I’ve discussed from On Evil 12.1, where Aquinas tells us that the virtues of the sensory appetites are supposed to calm the appetites, to give one tranquility of mind in order to render one's judgment more objective.  But what he means there is not entirely clear.  What he says is that the virtuous person will not elicit the passion of anger, or other passions like it, before making a judgment.  That "like it" is ambiguous.  It might mean sensory passions, in which case the virtuous person will not experience any passions before making a judgment.  That would rule out a strong directive function for virtue in the non-rational appetite.  Alternatively, it might mean passions that are particularly disruptive.[6]  After all, Aquinas does not say that the virtuous person will not elicit any passions before making a judgment.  Some passions are more apt to distort one's vision, and anger is one.  Twentieth-century philosophers, notably Simone Weil and Iris Murdoch, have argued convincingly that those who take a loving, just attitude toward others see them more objectively and not less.[7]  Moreover, some passions, like pity, might serve to call our attention to goods we are likely to neglect.  Of course, to carry out this function, these passions cannot be overly strong.  They cannot be obsessive, or glue our attention on their object. After all, reason might determine that, in this case, the good a passion directs one to is not to be sought.  But the passion need not be strong, and if it's not, then one will be able to restrain it and focus on different considerations and different ends.  The chief benefit of this strong direction is consistency in acting well: It is a safeguard against negligence.

            We might also think that moral virtue cannot have a strong directive function because Aquinas holds that even a good passion that precedes a good act diminishes its merit (IaIIae 24.3 response to 1, 77.6 response to 2).  That’s because agents deserve praise or merit to the extent that their acts result from rational judgment, and an agent whose passion precedes judgment is motivated more by that passion than by his or her rational judgment.  However, the strong direction of a virtue in the sensory appetites would consist in a passion preceding reason’s judgment.  If Aquinas wanted to admit such a function for virtues in the sensory appetites, then, he would be committed to the paradoxical view that virtues, which make their possessors and their possessors’ acts good, at the same time make them less good than they might have been if one did not have the virtue.

            However, this objection is hardly decisive.  In both IaIIae 24.3 response to 1 and 77.6 response to 2, Aquinas contrasts being moved by passion with being moved by reason’s judgment.  However, if a virtue is the source of the passion preceding reason’s judgment, then the passion itself is a product of reason’s judgment, since virtues carry the imprint of reason even in the sensory part of the soul.  In that case, the sensory appetitive powers are acting just as reason has trained them to act, and it is no accident that one responds with a good passion.  Since the sensory appetites are acting as reason’s instruments in this case, if reason follows the lead of the passion then reason will simply be directing itself with the help of the passions.  If a virtue elicits a passion prior to reason’s judgment, then, that is not the sort of case Aquinas is treating in this passage.

            If Aquinas did in fact think that virtues of the non-rational appetites had a strong directive function, that would bring him into line with contemporary neuroscientific work by Antonio Damasio.[8]  Damasio's experiments show that people regularly have the feeling of a right choice before they become conscious of making a judgment.  These feelings and emotions are crucial for guiding us through the day, Damasio has determined, by helping us to determine what's salient.  They call our attention to what’s important and thereby help us to set priorities.  And anyone who has felt the power of a hunch can see the plausibility of this account of the good functioning of emotions and feelings. 

            In any case, it is still far from clear whether Aquinas thought that virtues in the sensory appetites had a strong directive function.  So far I have shown only that putative evidence to the contrary is inconclusive.

            Part II.  Infused Moral Virtue.  Up to this point, I have been treating moral virtues generally, but my focus has been on acquired moral virtues, the virtues one gains through training the non-rational appetites to act according to the dictates of prudence.  Commentators agree that Aquinas's account of these virtues is very like Aristotle's.  But Aquinas writes that these virtues are not full virtues (On the Virtues in General 10 ad 1; On the Cardinal Virtues 2 Reply).  They are perfections, but they perfect one only in a certain respect.  Full virtue perfects one absolutely speaking.  These full virtues can come to one only as gifts of God and as part of a complete package: One receives them together with the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity.  Aquinas's reasoning is that God would not give the theological virtues if someone could not live the life they demand.  So, to ensure that the person so graced is also equipped for a life directed to God, he or she gets the requisite moral virtues in addition (IaIIae 65.3 reply).

            One might, of course, wonder why the person so graced needs virtue at all.  Grace, Aquinas contends, corrupts any vices one might have, leaving at worst certain bad but unstable dispositions.  Someone of sufficiently fervent charity should be able to keep mind and will fixed on the right goals and manage to do the right things.  In time, the agent will even acquire virtue.   Aquinas would object to this suggestion on two grounds.  First, acquiring virtue takes time; and before one has acquired it, many of one's acts will fall short of perfection.  As we've seen, human acts have their source in the sensory appetites as well as in the rational part of the soul, and if either source acts defectively, then the agent’s act is less than perfect.  However, one might reply to Aquinas that continent, as opposed to virtuous, action is not in itself sinful and does not break the relationship with God that ensures the continuity of grace.  This objection is therefore not particularly strong.

            The second objection Aquinas might make is more compelling.  Most sin begins in the non-rational appetites.  If one does not have virtue to ensure that one does not sin, then one's grip on grace and the theological virtues will be very tenuous.  God's work in human beings will be very precarious.  That's because of a crucial difference between acquired and infused moral virtue.  Acquired virtue is not corrupted by a single bad act; but infused virtues—including the theological virtues—are corrupted by a single serious sin.  Without tenacious moral virtue to guard against sin, one's faith, hope, and charity—necessary conditions for eternal happiness—will be exceedingly unstable states.  Aquinas, therefore, argues that, together with grace and the theological virtues, God must infuse moral virtue as well.

            Recent commentators have focused on Aquinas's account of the infused moral virtues to stress how different his account is from Aristotle's.  This is clearest, of course, in Aquinas's claim about the way they are gained and lost.  One does not acquire them by habituation, but by divine infusion.  What's more, one can lose them by a single act of serious sin.  That seems to make them different from Aristotelian virtues, which are relatively permanent dispositions.  But even so, Aristotle admits that we are not entirely the causes of our own character.  We are merely "causes in a way" and "co-causes in a way" (Nicomachean Ethics 1114b2 and b23).  Moreover, those with grace and its accompanying infused virtues differ from other well intentioned people precisely by having “their hearts fixed on God, so that they would not want to be separated from him in return for pursuing any good or avoiding any evil” (IaIIae 109.8 reply).  This fixity of heart presumably renders a certain stability to infused virtue too, even though it is lost through a single mortal sin. 

            One might try to find other places to draw great distinctions between Aristotle's view and Aquinas's.  For instance, Aquinas contends that people who did not have acquired virtue, but recently received infused virtue, still have difficulty and even pain in acting as those virtues demand (On the Virtues in General 10 obj. and response to 14).  If we think of a moral habit as a trait of character that incline us to act in accordance with that habit, and that makes acting in accordance with that habit pleasurable, then we are appealing to an Aristotelian account that is clearly different from the one we find in Aquinas.  However, it would be a mistake to accept this line of argument.  Aquinas does say that a moral habit of whatever kind inclines us to act in accordance with that habit.  It does tend to make acting easier and pleasurable.  However, the recently infused person also has lingering bad dispositions.  The reason acting well is difficult is not that the newly infused habit doesn't incline one, it's that the lingering bad disposition also inclines one (On the Cardinal Virtues 2 reply to 2).  On this point, then, there is no difference between acquired and infused virtue.  The difference is rather that because infused virtue is acquired by infusion, some lingering bad habits can remain side by side with it.  But that is not a difference between the acquired and infused virtues themselves.

            There is one other claim Aquinas makes that seems to point to a significant difference between acquired and infused virtues.  Acquired virtues, when used, rarely fail, but sometimes do fail.  In other words, I can be applying temperance and trying not to succumb to a third piece of cake, but even so, I might well fail.  In contrast, infused virtue, when applied, never fails.  That is not to say that a person with these virtues cannot sin—but if one sins, it's because one isn't using the virtue.  If one uses it, one cannot fail (On the Virtues in General 10 response to 14).[9]

            Aquinas does not offer any explicit reason for this difference.  In particular, we never see an explicit reason for the claim that infused moral virtue is infallible when used.  However, Aquinas does have a ready and plausible explanation, but that explanation has nothing to do with the nature of infused moral virtue itself.  Rather, it has to do with the nature of charity, which is infused together with the moral virtues.  Charity, Aquinas explains in IaIIae 109.8, fixes one's heart on God with remarkable strength.  This fixity on God is so strong that one can avoid all serious sin—one would not for anything want to be separated from God.  Since it is this charity-infused will that directs all the infused virtues to their tasks, it is no wonder that the infused moral virtues do not fail when the acquired virtues might.  So, once again, the difference between acquired and infused virtues does not point to a radically un-Aristotelian picture of infused virtue.  It seems Aquinas has introduced some changes into the Aristotelian picture, but he has hardly subverted it.

            However, if this is the right way to interpret Aquinas, we must face a new set of questions.  If the infused virtues are not so different from the acquired virtues, then why does anyone need them?  Why aren't moral virtues of the sort one acquires sufficient to ensure the stability of grace and the theological virtues?

            IIA. The Arguments for Infused Moral Virtue.  Let me focus on the second question.  Aquinas addresses it at On the Virtues in General 10.  The fifth objection argues that, as the root of merit, charity is sufficient to direct one to eternal happiness.  The sixth objection argues that faith is sufficient.  For salvation, one's reason must be directed to the right end, and faith does this.  The moral virtues simply subject the lower powers to reason.  So there is no need for infused moral virtues to direct us to eternal happiness.  In short, if one has faith, then one has all the necessary information about God as one's eternal happiness.  If one has charity, then one values God for his own sake.  If one has acquired virtue, then one's sensory appetites are good instruments of one's rational part, and one's passions won't distort one's objective vision of things.  Why, then, does one need infused moral virtue?[10]

            Aquinas's response explains clearly enough why charity alone is not sufficient, but it does not explain clearly why faith, charity, and acquired moral virtue are not sufficient:

            When an action proceeds from several coordinated agents, the action's perfection and goodness can be hampered if one of the agents is hampered, even if the others are perfect.  No matter how perfect artisans are, their activity will not be perfect if their tools are defective.

                        When considering activities of a human being that need virtue to make them good, keep this in mind: An action of a higher power does not depend on a lower power, but an action of a lower does depend on a higher.  Therefore, for the acts of the lower powers—the irascible and concupiscible appetites—to be perfected, not only must faith direct the intellect and charity the will to the ultimate end, but the lower powers too (the irascible and concupiscible) must have their own characteristic virtues, if their acts are to be good and directible to the ultimate end [operationes > virtutes]. 

Aquinas here offers largely a restatement of an argument we have already seen, an argument for the view that virtue is necessary if the acts of the sensory appetitive powers are not to be defective.  But why is infused virtue necessary?

            One brief remark Aquinas makes indicates that there is more to this argument, however.  He tells us that the sensory appetitive powers must have their own virtues so that their acts will be directible to the ultimate end.  Presumably, he thinks that acquired virtue is not directible to the ultimate end of eternal happiness, so that one needs infused virtue, which is.  But why is acquired virtue not directible to this end?  If a person sets her ultimate end as largely a life of service, and later changes the balance in that end so that it is now largely a life of contemplation, the very same virtues which served her before will serve her now.  That's because moral virtue is flexible: the virtuous person restrains appetites so that reason can make an objective judgment, and then the virtue helps reason by making good instruments of the appetites.  If a person, therefore, gains a new ultimate end through grace, why don't the same acquired virtues likewise suffice?

            But Aquinas does in fact think that the acquired virtues are insufficient for the task.  A morally virtuous person who receives grace and the theological virtues will receive, side by side with them, infused moral virtues, so that there will be two temperances, two courages, and two justices.  And this will not, Aquinas assures us, be a redundant doubling, for the virtues belong to different species and have different effects.  The acquired virtues are not replaced. 

            Might they be transformed into the infused virtues?  Consider the lesson of Jorge Luis Borges' short story, "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote."[11]  We are told that Menard, a twentieth-century writer (of philosophical works, among other things), set out to write sections of Don Quixote.  Not to copy them, or to rewrite them, or to bring the work or the hero "up to date," but to write Don Quixote.  And so he did.  But the two works, the one by Cervantes and the other by Menard, which coincide word for word and line for line, have astonishingly different meanings, the narrator tells us, because of the cultural context in which they were written.  Menard's text, we are told, is "infinitely richer," although Menard's style suffers from a certain affectation, unlike that of Cervantes, who is adept at the Spanish of his time.  One might therefore wonder whether, in the context of the theological virtues, the acquired virtues are not similarly transformed, given new "meaning," that is, ends to pursue in the service of a new ultimate end presented by faith and valued by charity.  Whatever merit this suggestion has, however, it is clearly not Aquinas's view.  The acquired virtues are not transformed, he contends, but remain side by side with the infused virtues.

            Aquinas offers three sorts of arguments for the view that infused virtue is specifically different from acquired virtue; and in the course of exploring these arguments we can find his reasons for thinking we need the infusion of new virtues.  These are

            1. The argument from different efficient causes.

            2. The argument from different formal objects.


            3. The argument from different ends.

            The first of these, the argument from different efficient causes, is perplexing.  Aquinas writes in IaIIae 63.4 contrary:

When any differentia included in a definition is changed, the result is a distinction in species.  But the definition of infused virtue includes "which God actualizes in us, without us," as I noted above.  Therefore, acquired virtue, which this differentia does not apply to, does not belong to the same species as infused virtue. 

But why should a difference in efficient cause—even a difference as great as the difference between God and a human being—make a difference to a thing's species?  As Aquinas notes himself in the third objection, when God gave an eye to the man born blind, that eye belonged to the same species as an eye produced naturally.  So the mere fact that God infuses virtue and that we acquire virtue does not imply that these virtues belong to different species.  In the reply to that objection, Aquinas explains that God gave the man born blind this eye to perform the sort of act that naturally formed eyes perform.  But God does not infuse virtue to perform the same sort of act that acquired virtue performs.  This reply threatens to make the entire argument irrelevant.  It now looks as if what places infused virtue in a different species from acquired virtue is that it has a different formal object or end—and so this argument seems to collapse into the second two.  But before we can see how Aquinas might reply to this objection, we need to consider arguments 2 and 3.

            The second argument for a specific difference between acquired and infused virtue is based on the claim that they have different formal objects:

Infused and acquired temperance coincide in their matter, since each concerns things pleasing to touch.  However, they do not coincide in the form of the affection or the act: Although each seeks the mean, infused temperance seeks the mean in a different manner from acquired temperance.  That is because infused temperance searches for the mean according to considerations pertaining to the divine law, which are derived from their bearing on the ultimate end, while acquired temperance determines the mean according to lower considerations, directed to the good of the present life. (On the Virtues in General 10 response to 8) 

The idea is that acquired moral virtue is constituted in a mean determined by one sort of reason (reasons that are conducive to the happiness of this life), and infused moral virtue is constituted in a mean determined by a different sort of reason (reasons conducive to the happiness of the next life).  The example Aquinas returns to repeatedly is the example of acquired versus infused temperance.  The person with acquired temperance will eat and drink in a way that promotes health.  But the person with infused temperance will fast and chastise the body; this, presumably, will bring it into submission and be an expression of its value relative to the soul.  But why can't acquired temperance be constituted in a mean such that it too pursues fasting and chastising?  A person with acquired moral virtue has appetites trained to seek whatever reason determines to be good.  That's why, when a person reconstitutes his or her ultimate end, the same virtues will still be of service.  Perhaps in this case one's ultimate end will be more radically revised, but, as I have argued, virtue is flexible enough to accommodate radical revision.

            The third argument is found in IaIIae 63.4 Reply:

We can distinguish habits specifically in another way: by what they are directed to.  After all, because they are directed to different natures, a horse's health and a human being's do not belong to the same species.  And in the same vein, the Philosopher says in Politics III that the virtues of citizens differ according as they are well disposed to different forms of government.  And also through this way [of differentiation, we see that] infused moral virtues, through which people are well disposed to being "fellow citizens with the saints and members of God's household," are different from acquired moral virtues, through which a human being is well disposed in human affairs.   (ST IaIIae 63.4 reply; cf. On the Virtues in General 10 response to 10). 

Here Aquinas again notes that infused moral virtue is constituted in a mean different from the mean of acquired moral virtue.  The person whose end is the eternal happiness of the beatific vision needs virtues constituted in a different mean.  While the second argument notes that the mean of acquired moral virtue and the mean of infused moral virtue are determined by different sets of considerations, this third argument notes that the mean of acquired moral virtue and the mean of infused moral virtue are determined in different ways because the person with acquired moral virtue pursues a different end from the person with infused moral virtue.  Because, as Aquinas himself implies, moral principles and considerations themselves depend on the ultimate end, these two arguments are very closely related, and the same questions I raised about the first apply equally to the second.

            IIB. Strong Direction of Infused Moral Virtue.  Why, then, does Aquinas think that acquired moral virtue is insufficient to direct us to the ultimate end of eternal happiness?  Despite Aquinas's contentions, we have so far not seen any important distinctions between the functions of the two sorts of virtue.  Aquinas must therefore hold one of two further views.  He might think that the acquired virtues simply cannot respond to the influence of the theological virtues.  On this view, as much as charity inclines one to God, and faith tells one that one's true happiness consists in union with God, neither practical reason nor the appetites will respond without a virtue designed to listen to faith and charity.  I find this suggestion puzzling, however.  The rational part of the soul influences the sensory appetites through the mediation of the sensory cognitive powers (that's why, if I find out that my favorite restaurant is owned by neo-Nazis, the food there just won't taste good to me anymore).  But the sensory cognitive powers do not house virtues, infused or acquired.  So, in this case, the sensory appetites do not respond directly to the influence of the theological virtues, but to the sensory cognitive powers.  There is, then, no reason to think that sensory appetites with merely acquired virtues cannot respond to the judgments and discriminations of sensory cognitive powers even when they are influenced by a rational part infused with theological virtues.  The sensory appetites will not be responding directly to faith.  Aquinas might respond that infused and acquired virtues form two separated and sealed systems.  However, this line of argument is not open to him, since he argues that the infused moral virtues strengthen acquired virtue (IaIIae 51.4 response to 3).

            More plausibly, Aquinas thinks that the infused moral virtues have a strong directive function: Acquired and infused virtues direct one strongly to different ends on the basis of different considerations.  Someone with acquired temperance will be inclined to desire food and drink when he is hungry.  This is an inclination to a valuable end connected with the good of health.  Someone with infused temperance will sometimes be inclined not to eat.  It is not absurd to think that this virtue could incline one to value both eating and not eating.  One could then find pleasure in either, and the inclination would call attention to the value of both courses.

            Moreover, if we take seriously the idea that infused moral virtue has this sort of strong directive function, we can make better sense of the efficient causal argument for the specific differentiation of acquired and infused moral virtue.  When I reported that argument, I raised the question why it should matter what the virtue's efficient cause is.  Here is a suggestion about why it matters.  When we acquire virtue, we do it on the basis of our experience and on the basis of moral principles available to us.  But both our knowledge and our experience are necessarily limited; and so if our virtues provide us with strong direction, that direction will be limited by the constraints on our own knowledge and experience.  When God infuses virtues in us, Aquinas might say, he can overcome these limitations.  The resulting strong direction makes up for what we can't know and can't experience.  Aquinas offers a parallel argument for a specific difference between theoretical knowledge infused by God and theoretical knowledge we gain on our own.  These too, Aquinas tells us, have different definitions—they have different rationes (Ia 89.5 response to 3).  Aquinas maintains that the knowledge we gain from experience in this world is limited; the concepts we acquire and the words that we use to express them are therefore not fully adequate to apply to God and incorporeal substances, for instance.  But by infusing us with knowledge, God could overcome those limitations.  So, I am suggesting, in the case of virtue, as in the case of knowledge, this difference in efficient causes is important after all in explaining the specific difference between acquired and infused virtue.  The difference in efficient causes explains why the infused virtues have different formal objects and ends than the acquired virtues.

            III. Evaluation of the Argument.  Aquinas's contention that we need infused moral virtue as well as theological virtue, then, rests on the need for its strong directive function.  One question, then, is whether we really need this strong directive function, or whether it is a help but not a necessity.  I can think of two reasons why this function would be a great benefit.  First, the strong direction of virtue calls our attention to salient moral considerations, so it is a safeguard against negligence.  Second, and again because it calls our attention to these considerations, it helps us to act well more promptly.  Our attention will already be focused on the morally salient considerations and we will not have to dredge them up in a deliberation.

            Despite the plausibility of Aquinas's arguments, one might still wonder whether the person with acquired moral virtue—or even the person on the way to acquired virtue—really needs infused moral virtue in order to pursue an otherworldly ultimate end.  Both acquired and infused virtues perform an instrumental function and a weak directive function, and there is no reason to think that acquired moral virtue cannot serve, with these functions, either someone whose goal is the happiness of this life or someone whose goal is the happiness of the next.  So, if acquired temperance makes the appetites good instruments of reason, then when reason dictates that we must fast in order to show how little we value the things of this world compared with the things of the next, then temperance will respond in just the right way.  That leaves only a difference in strong direction.  But how different will the two sorts of virtues be in this respect?             Aquinas might say that they are very different.  In fact, the strongest reason for holding that human beings need infused moral virtue is that the infused virtues give us beneficial inclinations and knowledge we could not get from our own experience.  But one might wonder if this is right.  When we look for specific cases that Aquinas treats in some detail, we find them in the discussion of the infused virtue of courage as the source of martyrdom, and the discussion of the infused virtue of temperance as the source of virginity (IIaIIae 124 and 152).  But there are secular martyrs and secular virgins.  These are not roles unique to religious people.  And if people are able to be martyrs and virgins for purely social causes, then why shouldn't the acquired virtues motivating these socially virtuous lives enable their possessors to be martyrs and virgins for religious causes, should they become religious?  How hard would it be for someone to develop even inclinations to fasting?  In any case, the strong direction of acquired moral virtue and infused moral virtue will be, in the vast majority of cases, to the same things.

            Aquinas's challenger will conclude that acquired moral virtue meets the needs of the person pursuing the happiness of the next life.  And the person who has acquired moral virtue has a proximate potentiality for acquiring all the relevant new inclinations.  It is a matter of acquiring a few new habitual inclinations in the light of new information and new values.  This is not significantly different from what one does when one makes an adjustment in the constitution of any this-worldly ultimate end one pursues.  Aquinas has argued against the view that one can acquire virtues directed to the happiness of the next life on the grounds that acquired moral virtue is not "proportionate" to the happiness of eternal life (in arguments 2 and 3 above).  But the challenger has tried to find a way to avoid the force of that argument.  True, one could not develop such habits before one had the right principles, considerations, and values—in other words, before one had faith and charity; but one could develop them after one receives faith and charity.  And one would not have to develop them from scratch since one's garden-variety acquired virtues are nearly perfect for the task and can easily be reformed.  But what if one does have to acquire these virtues from scratch?  That would be difficult, but far from impossible.  Aquinas might argue that one would run, in that case, a greater risk of serious sin, which would cut one off from grace and, therefore, the theological virtues.  Still, Aquinas has told us that charity inclines us to love God so strongly that we would not want to be separated from him for whatever reason. 

            How might Aquinas reply?  I argued earlier that, to make sense of the efficient causal argument for the specific difference between acquired and infused virtue, we have to understand infused virtues as habits that allow us the benefits of experience we could not have acquired on our own.  That same understanding of infused virtue can serve as a partial reply to the challenger.  Even if we grant that acquired moral virtue, when paired with faith and charity, can be directible to the ultimate end, religious people still need to make their way in a world of spiritual values and considerations, a world that is richer, more complex, and yet more elusive than the social world we all inhabit.  They must therefore rely on the infused benefits of someone else's prudence and receive experience and maturity they could not acquire on their own.  The challenger's view seems more plausible if we focus on the sorts of examples Aquinas himself gives.  If the difference between the two sorts of virtues is simply a matter of valuing fasting versus not fasting, then Aquinas's case is very weak indeed.  But the values, intuitions, and inclinations afforded by the infused virtues, Aquinas might say, are needed for making good decisions at every moment of the day: for planning a daily schedule, deciding how to budget one's finances, and building the closest sorts of friendships.  In all these situations, the infused virtues might well incline us differently than the acquired virtues.  However, a technical philosophical and theological work like Aquinas's is, by its nature, ill suited to defend this sort of claim.  If we are to determine whether Aquinas or his challenger is correct, it will be to novels and spiritual biographies that we must turn.  At least we now know what we should look for.[12]


[1] I use the following abbreviations for Aquinas’s works:

Ia: Summa theologiae, First Part

IaIIae: Summa theologiae, First Part of the Second Part

IIaIIae: Summa theologiae, Second Part of the Second Part

I have used the Leonine edition of Aquinas’s works for the Summa theologiae, De veritate (On Truth), and De malo (On Evil).  I have used the Marietti edition for the De virtutibus in communi (On the Virtues in General) and De virtutibus cardinalibus (On the Cardinal Virtues).  Translations from these latter two works are by me and Claudia Eisen Murphy; all other translations are mine alone.

[2] John Inglis, "Aquinas's Replication of the Acquired Moral Virtues," Journal of Religious Ethics 27 (spring 1999) 3-27; Jean Porter, "The Subversion of Virtue," The Annual of the Society of Christian Ethics (1992) 19-41; Bonnie Kent, "Habits and Virtues," in Essays on the Ethics of St. Thomas Aquinas, ed. Stephen J. Pope (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2002), 116-130.

[3] On Truth 26.3 reply.  See also ST Ia 75.3 response to 3.

[4] See Jeffrey Hause, “Thomas Aquinas and the Voluntarists,” Medieval Philosophy and Theology 6 (Sept. 1997): 167-182.

[5] I owe this way of putting Aquinas's point to Josiah Royce, The Religious Aspects of Philosophy (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1885).

[6] Not all passions are equally detrimental to accurate moral judgment.  Aquinas singles out anger

as particularly disruptive.  See IaIIae 48.3 and IIaIIae 157.4.


[7] Simone Weil, "Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God," Waiting for God (New York: Perennial Classics, 2001), 57-66; and Iris Murdoch, "The Idea of Perfection," chapter 1 in The Sovereignty of Good (London: Routledge Classics, 2001), 1-44.

[8] A.R. Damasio, The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness (New York: Harcourt Brace, 2000); and A. Bechara, H. Damasio, D. Tranel, A.R. Damasio, "Deciding Advantageously before Knowing the Advantageous Strategy, in Science 275 (1997): 1293-1294.

[9] On the perplexing idea that one can use a virtue or not, see IaIIae 49.3 contrary, 50.5 reply, 52.3 reply, 63.2

[10] Scotus would later articulate and accept a version of this objection as reason to deny infused moral virtue.  Charity, he argues, directs us to the right end, and faith determines the right mean and mode of the moral virtues.  See Ordinatio III, d.36, q.1.

[11] In Labyrinths, (New York: New Directions, 1964), 36-44.

[12] I would like to thank audiences at the Cornell Summer Colloquium in Medieval Philosophy, the University of Toronto, and the University of Nebraska at Omaha for their comments and criticisms.  I owe special thanks to Claudia Eisen Murphy, and also to Norman Kretzmann, who first discussed some of these ideas with me in a graduate seminar on Aquinas’s ethics.