Question 53: Imprudence
I am not a Thomas scholar. Furthermore, I have had little exposure to the Thomas or Thomism except during schooldays, when I rebelled against it.* I also have limited exposure to Aristotle. Most of my academic study of philosophy was within an analytic that treated him as of historic interest only. When I did my first degree in philosophy 35 years ago the only Aristotle texts I read were De Anima and the Nicomachean Ethics. I did not purposely avoid The Philosopher; it just worked out that way given the course choices that were available to me (there were four courses on Rawls offered for every one on Aristotle when I was an undergrad). As a consequence, this stuff is foreign to me and I am struggling to figure out what is going on as we proceed in this class. It was a pleasant surprise, therefore, this week to find something I had not expected—an argument that is an old friend.
The argument runs right through Question 53 of the second part of the second part but is perhaps most notable in the response to article 5, wherein Thomas deals with the question, “Whether inconstancy is a vice contained under prudence?” Below I cite a section of the response:
I answer that, Inconstancy denotes withdrawal from a definite good purpose. Now the origin of this withdrawal is in the appetite, for a man does not withdraw from a previous good purpose, except on account of something being inordinately pleasing to him: nor is this withdrawal completed except through a defect of reason, which is deceived in rejecting what before it had rightly accepted. And since it can resist the impulse of the passions, if it fail to do this, it is due to its own weakness in not standing to the good purpose it has conceived; hence inconstancy, as to its completion, is due to a defect in the reason.
I highlight the clause “since it can resist the impulse of the passions” here because this raises a fascinating question about moral psychology. If you put a plate of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies in a room full of people trying to stay slim, while there might be a few people who just don’t like chocolate chip cookies, all the others will feel the impulse to eat some. Some will assent to that impulse and others will resist it. How does that happen?
This is a classic problem in philosophy and in our everyday moral life. In everyday moral life we call it "self control”. In philosophy it is called “akrasia”. And it’s a thorny problem: If I believe that X is good for me (or that Y is bad for me) how could I ever act contrary to this belief? Do people sometimes act contrary to reason in full knowledge that they are doing so?
We would expect Thomas to follow Aristotle here for he often follows Aristotle. Aristotle’s argument is that some sort of breakdown in reasoning takes place. The truth is that the chocolate chip cookies are bad for me but I am of the opinion that they are not bad for me. "Opinion" here stands for something that is less than 'truth". That seems to miss the point for the problem is not why do I fail to act according to truth but why do I fail to act according to a good I have chosen according to my beliefs. (I may not do full justice to Aristotle’s argument here for I have never had much sympathy for it.)
There was a famous, some would say “infamous”, alternative to this Aristotelian argument and that was an assertion that Plato attributes to Socrates in The Protagoras. There, Socrates argues that akrasia simply does not exist, that no one willingly does what they believe to be bad. **
Surprisingly (to me anyway), Thomas argues far closer to Socrates than to Aristotle here. The mistake that reason makes (its defect) is that it assents to the passions. Here is the rest of the response:
Now just as all rectitude of the practical reason belongs in some degree to prudence, so all lack of that rectitude belongs to imprudence. Consequently inconstancy, as to its completion, belongs to imprudence. And just as precipitation is due to a defect in the act of counsel, and thoughtlessness to a defect in the act of judgment, so inconstancy arises from a defect in the act of command. For a man is stated to be inconstant because his reason fails in commanding what has been counselled and judged.
Note the order of those three: elsewhere in this question, we learn that they correspond to a progression in time. A defect in counsel pertains to the past, thoughtlessness to the present and a defect in the act of command to the future. (This sort of tripartite division has a decided Augustinian ring to it and I suspect that’s not misleading.)
That all sounds very good but there is room for objection. That is to say, while Thomas seems to push a very clear Socratic argument here and while I have found other sources who argue this based on a far broader and deeper knowledge of Thomas than anything I am capable of,*** Thomas is not as clear cut as I might hope just yet. In Article 6, he quotes Aristotle in response to an objection. The objection is:
Objection 1: It would seem that the aforesaid vices do not arise from lust. For inconstancy arises from envy, as stated above (A , ad 2). But envy is a distinct vice from lust.
And the reply is:
Reply to Objection 1: Envy and anger cause inconstancy by drawing away the reason to something else; whereas lust causes inconstancy by destroying the judgment of reason entirely. Hence the Philosopher says (Ethic. vii, 6) that "the man who is incontinent through anger listens to reason, yet not perfectly, whereas he who is incontinent through lust does not listen to it at all.”
To not listen to reason at all is hard to square with the more Socratic view that reason itself fails which seems to prevail elsewhere in Question 53. For that view to hold, the culpable person has to choose the passion over a previously chosen good. This choice would happen because reason itself was responsible as opposed to saying it was clouded by the passions and therefore unable to operate correctly.
An example might help. When I am tired and hungry I make poor choices. Why, then, am I morally responsible for moral choices I make in that state?† I am responsible because there is a level at which I can choose to assent to my passions or not. We are all capable of a sort of meta-analysis where I say (either out loud or to myself), “I am tired and hungry and that is affecting me by making me hasty (precipitation), thoughtless or inconstant. That certainly seems plausible to me but it raises another question: When I choose not to assent to my passions, what do I assent to instead? The temptation is to say that we should listen to “reason” and not the passions. I don’t think that works for it is “reason” that makes the mistake; here, in the case on inconstancy, it makes the mistake in refusing to command. Constancy seems to require that reason be aimed at something that acts as an anchor. (This is a congenial notion to me as a theologian but some of my philosopher friends are going to be uncomfortable with it.)
If we look at the response in Article 6, it seems to me that the conflict is evident:
As the Philosopher states (Ethic. vi, 5) "pleasure above all corrupts the estimate of prudence," and chiefly sexual pleasure which absorbs the mind, and draws it to sensible delight. Now the perfection of prudence and of every intellectual virtue consists in abstraction from sensible objects. Wherefore, since the aforesaid vices involve a defect of prudence and of the practical reason, as stated above ( AA , 5), it follows that they arise chiefly from lust.
The key line here is, "the perfection of prudence and of every intellectual virtue consists in abstraction from sensible objects.” What happens when I abstract from the plate of chocolate chip cookies to reach the lustful conclusion, “Eat that cookie!”? Is that conclusion somehow irrational, a sign that I am not listening to reason at all in my lustful passion for chocolate chip cookies? I don’t think that can be sustained. I can always step back make some sort of meta-analysis and refuse to assent to my passions. It was my reason that assented to my passion when it told me that chocolate chip cookies are good. (And chocolate chip cookies are good. Like sex, they are part of God’s creation. As a consequence, the distinction between morally good and morally bad with regard to passions in the Aristotelean tends to devolve into a discussion of strength of the enjoyment; can you love chocolate chip cookies too much?)
And there is the hint of another possibility in the Thomas text. That suggestion is that I am divided, or loose integrity, when I am swayed from a previously chosen good by assenting to my passions. Prudence keeps me true to my greater purpose and that would keep me unified. Imprudence, on the other hand, would tend to damage my integrity.
* I did not rebel in any profound way. I found myself educated by nuns and priests who had a deep well of predetermined answers to every moral question I could think of. I preferred to find my own answers through experience and chose that option because it was my preference and for no orher reason.
** As always in such cases, we can reasonably ask whether this is a Socratic argument or a Platonic argument. I know of no way to answer that question. We can say that many in the antique world attributed it to Socrates and that seems important in my opinion.
*** See Denis J.M. Bradley, “Thomas Aquinas on Weakness of Will” in Weakness of Will from Plato to the Present Tobias Hoffman ed. (Catholic University of America Press 2008)
† That is distinct from an argument that would say I am not morally culpable for what I do in particular state so much as I am morally culpable for allowing myself to get into that state in the first place.