Jennifer A. Frey - December 2015 Meeting Topic

Happiness and Constitutivism in Thomas Aquinas

Constitutivism is an ambitious meta-ethical thesis which aims to settle disputes about the nature, scope, and authority of practical reason; it claims that the requirements under which any particular action is judged good or bad are both internal to and constitutive of acting intentionally, just as the requirements under which a particular move in chess is judged good or bad by rules internal to and constitutive of the activity of playing the game. A constitutive principle is one that simultaneously defines some thing and provides it with a measure of success or failure. Thus, if we want to understand what it is to be practically rational, or to act in a distinctively intentional or practically rational sense, then we must grasp the constitutive principles of this activity.  Or so the constitutivist argues.

I want to explore the possibilities for a novel form of constitutivism, one that can be found in the writings of Thomas Aquinas.  I argue that Aquinas's ethical theory counts as a kind of constitutivism, insofar as he understands human beings as agents that act for the sake of an end that both defines and measures their form of life: happiness. For Aquinas, happiness as the constitutive aim of human life is what makes human acts properly human or “moral” and what sets them apart from animal movement in general. Unlike many contemporary constitutivists, however, Aquinas thinks this end is the natural and necessary goal of human action, and thus a natural and necessary end of the human power of will; it also counts as a constitutive end, because like all natural ends, it defines the activity and provides it with its own measure of success or failure. Thus Aquinas’s constitutivism is in keeping with his ethical naturalism, according to which practical reason and will are powers of a living being to realize its own form of life, according to its own self-knowledge of and desire for that very form.