A Matter of Taste? – Thomistic and Contemporary Perspectives on Virtues, and Food Preferences
The concept of habit plays a central role in Aquinas’ moral theory, and in his analytic psychology more generally. He identifies habits as one of the fundamental principles of human action, together with the capacities of intellect, passions, and will – appropriately so, because habits are nothing other than stable dispositions of these capacities, which enable them to operate in coherent, appropriate ways. Habits are subject to moral evaluation, just as actions are, and the habits of the passions and the will are always either virtues or vices, just as human actions are always morally good or evil. Even more fundamentally, habits of some kind are necessary to the functioning of both the appetites and the intellect. Without some kind of internal development and formation, the appetites and the rational powers of the human creature cannot function at all, or can only operate in rudimentary and ineffective ways. By implication, human action as we know it, whether from our experience as agents or by observation of others, is almost always shaped by habits of some kind, formed out of natural (or supernatural) principles of operation through processes of training and development. Human existence and action is ultimately grounded in natural principles, but the innate principles of human action do not enter directly into our ordinary experiences – rather, we act and interact with one another through the structures set up by the stable dispositions of our virtues, vices, and other habits.
These are claims about the origins and structuring principles of human action, and as such, they invite comparison with other kinds of claims about human psychology, including those set forth by contemporary experimental psychology. A comparison of this kind might seem to be ruled out by the radical differences in assumptions and methodology that divide Aquinas from contemporary scientists of any kind. Yet when we compare what Aquinas says about the habits, we find unexpected resonances with recent work on the formation of stable dispositions, especially those relating to such fundamental matters as food preferences. We need to be careful not to overstate the extent and significance of these resonances. However, it would seem that at the very least, Aquinas and contemporary psychologists share points of reference which enable us to compare them in fruitful ways. To put it crudely, we can assume that they are talking about the same things, more or less, namely, human activities and experiences, together with whatever principles or structures account for these.
In this paper, I want to defend and develop this way of approaching Aquinas’ psychology by comparing what he says about the formation and necessity of habit with recent work on the formation of food preferences in infants. As we will see, this research lends support to Aquinas’ view that even the most fundamental human capacities for desire and aversion need some kind of rational formation and structuring in order to function properly. So far, Aquinas’ analytical psychology and contemporary experimental psychology would seem to converge, and for a Thomist, this convergence suggests that research in this area might tend to confirm, or at least shed light on Aquinas’ account of the virtue of temperance as it pertains to the pleasures of food and drink. When we turn back to relevant studies, however, it would seem that they challenge Aquinas’ account of temperance, insofar as he defines this virtue by reference to the individual’s bodily needs. On further reflection, contemporary work on food preferences is not inconsistent with Aquinas’ account of temperance, but it does suggest that a Thomistic account of the virtue of temperance needs to be expanded and developed in certain ways, if we are to do full justice to the complexities of developmental formation.