Aquinas: Personal Conduct and Moral Values

The Philosophical System of Thomas Aquinas, by Maurice de Wulf, edited and adapted for the web by Jonathan Dolhenty

XII. Personal Conduct and Moral Values

A. The Science of Morality

The activity of man is characterized by teleology, i.e., he desires certain things as ends, and he wills other things a means to these ends. In this, he resembles all other natural beings, which are, as we have seen, endowed with this teleological character. But whereas these others tend towards their ends in virtue of certain internal inclinations themselves unconscious and not subject to control, man, being endowed with reason and liberty, is master of his own conduct, — “master of the acts which lead towards his end” [1]. The study of human conduct as directed by us towards an end forms the subject matter of Ethics or Moral Philosophy. The knowledge which we thereby obtain is concerned with an order of things of which we ourselves are the authors, and not merely the spectators (XVIII, B). For our conduct is our own work, and the resulting relations between us and the universe in general are what we ourselves make them.

Starting from facts duly observed, Moral Philosophy discusses three general questions: the end in view, the act whereby we seek to attain it, and morality, or the relation of agreement or suitability between the one and the other.

B. The problem of ends or aims

It is a matter of common experience that our conduct is motivated by different aims: riches, honor, material pleasure, social positions, etc. All these are desired as being good things, for the only possible motive of action is our well-being, and the suitability of things or actions in view thereof. The good is that which all desire. Even a man who commits suicide, in order to put an end to some trouble or other, obeys the same law. Man’s nature is to will the good, and all that is good. And when our knowledge puts us in presence of an external reality or an action “simply as desirable or suitable for us,” we necessarily will it, unless indeed we first reflect, and as a result realize that “all is not gold that glitters.”

The good which constitutes the end we aim at is always our own good. Nothing is more personal than conduct, and the ends we aim at in our lives. If the end be pleasure, fortune, or knowledge, it is still our own pleasure, our fortune, our knowledge. The end is a personal one, because man is an individual substance. Of course, the well-being of others enters as a motive of conduct, but it can only be a secondary one. It will be seen below that every human act is a social act, which benefits or harms a community. The realization of individual happiness is the sole reason for living in society. Hence it is still for our personal perfection that we care for the well-being of others. For instance, those who aid their neighbor see in their good work the accomplishment of an act which their reason approves, and which perfects them in their own eyes.

The Schoolmen are so convinced of the personal character of happiness that they raise the question whether an act of disinterested love is possible, even when God is the object. So that one could say in general: we love ourselves in the first place and others only secondarily.

Experience also teaches us that some ends are subordinated to others, and that all have not the same value. They are arranged in a hierarchical order:

  • I to on a particular voyage, in order to do some business of a particular kind;
  • this I want to do in order to make money;
  • this again I want that I may be my own master, and so on.

An end which is subordinated to another, or is useful, becomes a means. Now there must evidently be a supreme end or aim which dominates and underlies all the others. If not, I should never desire anything at all, and should never go beyond a mere platonic consideration of the possibilities of action. But we do make actual decisions, and in order to explain their actuality, there must be some real end towards which they are directed. Otherwise we should be led into an infinite regression, which is as absurd [2] in this connection as in the order of efficient causality (XI, A). For, an infinite regress would render any actual decision impossible; and, yet, particular decisions or acts of will are facts. What is this supreme end? We may say in the first place that it is my whole good or my good in general. But such a statement would be incomplete, for one would go on to ask where this whole good or good in general is to be found. Here we are confronted with the theory of values. Concrete good things of many kinds lie within our grasp:

  • pleasures of the body and of the mind,
  • good health,
  • fortune,
  • friendship, and so on.

All these correspond in a certain measure to our aspirations, but it becomes necessary to draw up a scale of their respective values, and this can only be done by the reason. Now our reason tells us that the truly human good ought to consist in that which will satisfy our specifically human aspirations, or, in other words, correspond to those faculties which are the highest we possess, and which make us human, namely intelligence and will. Things other than the intellectual will be good only as supplementary, so to speak, and as controlled by reason [3].

The happiness which corresponds to our mode of being will consist in knowing and loving. To know in a perfect way, to penetrate all the mysteries of the material universe and to dominate it, and to know in addition by means of His works the great Creator of them all, God Himself; then to love in the same perfect way, to delight in knowledge for its own sake, and to cast ourselves towards God our Creator, — this will constitute philosophic happiness.

Doubtless, the man who desires good as such, perfect good, does not at once perceive that it is God alone who can fully satisfy the aspirations of his mind and heart. His reason arrives at this conclusion by the gradual elimination of objects other than God (XI, A, D). Until this process of reasoning is performed, man seeks for happiness, unaware that God is his happiness. “To perceive that someone approaches is not to know Peter, although Peter is the man who approaches. Likewise, to know that a supreme good exists is not to recognize God in it, although God is that supreme good” [4].

Doubtless, in this purely natural state of existence, we should have surmised that a knowledge and a love of another and higher kind, and out of the reach of our powers, was in itself possible, — we refer to a direct intuition of the Divinity, and a corresponding love. But in any case, we should have realized that it was beyond us, and we should have known also the reason why.

At this point Catholic theology intervenes, and states that this higher destiny and state, which surpasses the powers of our rational nature, is given us by grace [5]. God offers us supernatural happiness as a free gift. The “blessedness of abstraction” fades in “blessedness of vision,” just, as a shadow is absorbed in a ray of light.

The end of man, then, according to scholastic philosophy, is an intellectual one. To behold God, whether in His works, or face to face, is more essential for happiness than love itself, according to Thomas Aquinas, for love is after all a necessary consequence of such a vision. Surely no philosophy could give to knowledge a higher or more magnificent role than this.

It must not, however, be thought that the Schoolmen exclude other good things, such as physical well-being, from human happiness. Rather these things are considered to contribute to happiness as a whole, and since man has a body, his body ought to share in happiness just as his soul, always on condition that these complementary good things remain in due subordination to the human good par excellence.

In concluding this section, let us note that the supreme end of man, consisting in the full development of his powers of knowing and will, is not beyond grasp. Happiness is not a mirage. Scholastic Moral Philosophy is optimistic.

C. Voluntary acts and Free acts

Human conduct consists of voluntary acts, for it is the will that tends towards the good in general as presented to us by our reason, or towards any particular thing which exhibits the quality of goodness. ‘Particular thing’ must here be taken in a large sense, so as to include not merely external objects which we may wish for (as a landowner may wish to add a field to his property), but also any activity (eating, drinking, games, study) performed in obedience to the orders of the will. We have already seen that when confronted with a good thing which our minds regard as simply good and without defect, we necessarily will it (VII, C). We cannot possibly destroy this tendency in our nature. Our will has an insatiable thirst for the good. Liberty enters only in the choice of things which are partially good, or which reflection shows to be limited in goodness.

It is therefore the voluntary act, and more especially the free act, which is endowed with morality. A morally good or bad act is above all a free act. Why is this?

D. Moral goodness of a human act

A thing or act is good when it is suitable for us in some way. To live a life of pleasure, to think only of getting rich, appears as good only to a sensual and grasping man. A thing or act is morally good only if it is in agreement with the true end of man, and contributes directly or indirectly to our real perfection (XII, B). From the moral point of view, pleasure and wealth are neither good nor evil. They only become so when the will, guided by the reason, either does or does not employ them in the service of the truly human good, by allocating them their proper place in the scale of values. Goodness and moral goodness are accordingly not synonymous: the latter is only one species of the former. Morality will differ with the end assigned, since it consists in the relation between act and end. The conception of morality will accordingly be different in the hedonistic systems which regard pleasure as the only end, and in the intellectualist system of morality of the Schoolmen.

Morality belongs to the sum total of human volitions, but more especially to our free acts. Although the profound and necessary tendency of man towards the good in general is indeed endowed with morality, since it is that which sets the human will in motion, moral character belongs principally to the act which is freely willed; for once the fundamental tendency referred to translates itself into an actual volition, it will then be concerned with a concrete, limited good, which forms the subject matter of free choice. Thus man has the awful power of choosing his path. He can turn away from that which constitutes his true well-being, and attach himself instead to things which are doubtless endowed with real goodness of a sort, but are nevertheless destructive of his own true interests.

Liberty takes on a moral aspect when it is considered in conjunction with the end of human conduct. In consequence, anything which increases or diminishes liberty — dullness of mental vision, the duly ordered or disordered state of passions, bodily health or disease, education and habits — all will affect the morality of actions.

E. Objective distinction between moral good and evil

The end of man follows from his nature. The supreme human good is what it is because man has consciousness, is rational, and is endowed with free will. In the ultimate analysis, human nature, like all other essences, is founded upon an immutable relationship of similitude with God (V, A). Since this is the case, the relation which exists between a human act and man’s end must also follow from thenature of things. Whether we like it or not, it is what it is. Morality does not depend upon the caprice of men, and not even God Himself could change it. Whether we wish it or not, a prayer must draw us towards God, and blasphemy must separate us from Him. And, if life in society is an indispensable condition for the attainment of our individual ends (XV, A), to help our fellows must be morally good, and to seek to destroy authority must be morally bad.

As for these acts which in themselves have no relation to man’s end, and which are accordingly know as ‘indifferent,’ they will have a subordinate importance, and the end for which we freely perform them will give them a borrowed moral character as it were, which will make them really good or evil. The most banal of all our acts — such as going for a walk, or working in a laboratory — will possess its character of goodness or evil, because of the repercussion which it must ultimately have upon our lives or upon the lives of other members of human society.

F. Moral richness of an act

From this is follows that the more an act conduces to the perfection of our nature, the richer will be its morality. Besides the intrinsic character of an act which makes it good or evil, and of which we have just spoken (finis operis), Thomas Aquinas calls attention to theintention (finis operantis), and the circumstances of this act, as being two other elements, which increase or diminish its moral goodness or evil. Thus, to open a subscription for the relief of the poor is a good act by its very nature, and no human intention could alter this intrinsic goodness (finis operis). But the vanity of him who organized the charity lessens the moral value of the undertaking. In the same way, this value increases, if he must undergo sacrifices or difficulties to attain his purpose. It may be noticed that these same elements (intrinsic character, intention, circumstances) affect not only the morality, but also the degree of reality of the act itself. Consequently they enrich or impoverish the personality from which all our activities originate.


  1. Dominus actuum ducens ad finem, Summa. Theol., Ia IIae, q. 1, art. 1, 2. Ibid, Ia IIae, q. 1, art. 4.

  2. The supreme good of man is therefore something which is suitable, bonum honestum, i.e., something which harmonizes with a rational nature. It cannot be something merely useful, bonum utile, since this is by definition subordinated to something else. Nor can it be that which is merely pleasant, for pleasure is after all a corollary following upon activity (VII, D).

4. Ibid., Ia, q. 2, art. 1.

5. Ibid., Ia IIae, q. 3, art. 8.

The late Dr. Jonathan Dolhenty was the Founder and President of The Center for Applied Philosophy and the Radical Academy, and is Honorary Philosophy Editor at The Moral Liberal. The Moral Liberal has adopted these projects beginning with a republishing and preserving of all of Dr. Dolhenty’s work.