Archive for the ‘Ethics’ Tag

Anthropological Musings on the Painfully Hot Ghost Chili

Last Wednesday, the Hub and I ventured over to Inman Square’s East Coast Grill for their legendary Hell Night. For four days out of the year, the talented chefs at East Coast prepare a menu to tantalize and terrify the taste buds. Habenero-infused vodka, Chile Chimichurri steaks, oysters drenched in hot sauce, and a dozen other spicy options ranging from one to nine chili peppers grace the menu. The star of the night, however, is the pasta from hell. This pasta, made from the world’s hottest ghost chilies, has been featured on the craze foodie hit Man vs. Food, where even the daring Adam Richman could only take about two bites. This pasta is hot. And I ordered it.

You are required to sign a waver before you dig in, which is all part of the fun. But after the first bite, the most excruciating pain sets in, the kind of pain that sends tears down your cheek as you dig your high heel into your calf to distract your dendrites from the horror taking place in your mouth. Now, don’t get me wrong. I live for spicy food. I eat sriracha on everything. I nibble on raw jalapenos while I cook spicy Mexican food. I have successfully taken an adolescent dare to drink an entire bottle of Tabasco. And by the time reached the half-way mark on my pasta from hell, I was doubled over in pain and had to stop. But I took it home, and the next night suffered through the rest (armed, of course, with a full bottle of antacids for the heart burn that came later that night).

When I recovered, I started wondering why in the world I freely and intentionally chose to do something so painful, not just once, but two nights in a row. Everydaythomist that I am, I toyed with the question of whether my actions constituted daring, one of the vices against fortitude that inclines the appetite toward danger in ways contrary to reason.

Turns out, scientists are doing research on this very question. A few months ago, the NYTimes featured an article on the pleasure and pain of chili peppers based on the research from Dr. Paul Rozin at the University of Pennsylvania:

[Rozin]has evidence for what he calls benign masochism. For example, he tested chili eaters by gradually increasing the pain, or, as the pros call it, the pungency, of the food, right up to the point at which the subjects said they just could not go further. When asked after the test what level of heat they liked the best, they chose the highest level they could stand, “just below the level of unbearable pain.” As Delbert McClinton sings (about a different line of research), “It felt so good to hurt so bad.”

Rozin disagrees with theories that argue for an evolutionary advantage to eating hot peppers, say, for example, by arguing that they lower blood pressure or provide some other such advantage in health. In fact, Rozin thinks there actually is not an evolutionary advantage at all to such acts:

No one knows for sure why humans would find pleasure in pain, but Dr. Rozin suggests that there’s a thrill, similar to the fun of riding a roller coaster. “Humans and only humans get to enjoy events that are innately negative, that produce emotions or feelings that we are programmed to avoid when we come to realize that they are actually not threats,” he said. “Mind over body. My body thinks I’m in trouble, but I know I’m not.” And it says, hand me another jalapeño.

One of the key observations here is that no other mammal likes hot peppers. And from this observation, Rozin and others draw an interesting conclusion: the human taste for painfully hot peppers says something important about what it means to be human:

[A]s Paul Bloom, a Yale psychologist, puts it, “Philosophers have often looked for the defining feature of humans — language, rationality, culture and so on. I’d stick with this: Man is the only animal that likes Tabasco sauce.”

That’s from Dr. Bloom’s new book, “How Pleasure Works: The New Science of Why We Like What We Like,” in which he addresses the general nature of human pleasure, and some very specific, complicated pleasures. Some, like eating painfully spicy food, are accidental, at least in their specificity. A complicated mind is adaptive, but love of chilies is an accident.

And that is what I celebrate behind my respirator as my son and I dice habaneros, accidental pleasures. A taste for chilies has no deep meaning, no evolutionary value. It’s just a taste for chilies. I might add, though, that since it takes such a complicated brain and weird self-awareness to enjoy something that is inherently not enjoyable, only the animal with the biggest brain and the most intricate mind can do it.

Take heart, chili heads. It’s not dumb to eat the fire, it’s a sign of high intelligence.

I find this a fascinating and largely compelling contribution to philosophical anthropology. Whereas for most animals, pleasure is a function of biology, humans have a lot more flexibility. They can, in many ways, choose what it is that brings them pleasure, even things that go against biology or evolutionary advantage. That is, human beings are masters of their actions largely because they are masters of their pleasure.

This means that for human beings in particular, morality cannot simply be a matter of examining nature and drawing normative conclusions. Human beings are greater than the sum of their biological parts, and the objects from which they draw pleasure cannot be reduced to merely a biochemical neural reaction.

When it comes to chili peppers and roller coasters, the human ability to find pleasure in biologically unpleasant things may not have much moral consequence, but in other areas the question may be more serious. For example, a friend sent me an Atlantic article on porn addiction which also examines the recent prevalence of anal sex. I hesitate to even quote the article on my blog due to how explicit it was, but I do think the following revelation from the author is significant:

Never was this made plainer to me than during a one-night stand with a man I had actually known for quite a while. A polite, educated fellow with a beautiful Lower East Side apartment invited me to a perfunctory dinner right after his long-term girlfriend had left him. We quickly progressed to his bed, and things did not go well. He couldn’t stay aroused. Over the course of the tryst, I trotted out every parlor trick and sexual persona I knew. I was coquettish then submissive, vocal then silent, aggressive then downright commandeering; in a moment of exasperation, he asked if we could have anal sex. I asked why, seeing as how any straight man who has had experience with anal sex knows that it’s a big production and usually has a lot of false starts and abrupt stops. He answered, almost without thought, “Because that’s the only thing that will make you uncomfortable.” This was, perhaps, the greatest moment of sexual honesty I’ve ever experienced—and without hesitation, I complied. This encounter proves an unpleasant fact that does not fit the feminist script on sexuality: pleasure and displeasure wrap around each other like two snakes.

If anal sex is unpleasant, why do it? Human intentionality, that is, human choice, can transform unpleasant actions and unpleasant objects into pleasure. In Dependent Rational Animals, Alistair McIntyre made the somewhat surprising claim that ethics could not be separated from biology. Ghost chilies and anal sex remind us that morality also cannot be reduced to biology. Human intentionality transcends what we are biologically conditioned to do.

Natural law scholars, especially those rooted in the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition, debate whether natural law should be grounded in a “metaphysical biology” which assumes that the normative “ought” can be drawn from the biological “is.” The more we learn about biology, the more important biology becomes in our moral reflections, and this, I think, is a good thing. Biology reminds us that we are creatures, not just spirits. It reminds us how much we share with our non-human animal cousins. But, while biology can tell us what it means to be “animal” (which humans are), it cannot tell us what it means to be human. In Aristotelian parlance, our human species is derived from our genus (animal) and differentia (rational). And that differentia does a lot to separate us from our non-human animal cousins. It does not totally separate us, but it separates us enough to give us pause as we realize that our animal nature cannot explain the many perplexing questions regarding why we do what we do. Now, if you will excuse me, I need another antacid.

Should Christians Want to Pay More Taxes?

Today, on Divine Mercy Sunday for Catholics and the first Sunday after Easter for Protestants, the Lectionary presents us with a challenging reading from the Acts of the Apostles.

The community of believers was of one heart and mind, and no one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they had everything in common. With great power the apostles bore witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great favor was accorded them all. There was no needy person among them, for those who owned property or houses would sell them, bring the proceeds of the sale, and put them at the feet of the apostles, and they were distributed to each according to need. (Acts 4:32-35)

This is a challenging reading because it smacks in the face of typical American economic sentiments that are based on the rights to private property and capitalism and a strong aversion to anything that smacks even remotely of communism. Moreover, this passage goes against sheer pragmatism. How could society function if this is the ideal?

The type of sermon you might hear on this passage depends heavily on what type of church you attend. Many choose not to preach on it, especially since the Doubting Thomas gospel passage offers an opportunity for a more irenic message from the pulpit. But this passage also presents the opportunity to give a heavy-handed political message, a message that is especially relevant in light of the dire state of the economy right now, and followed so closely on the heels of tax day. What I am referring to is an argument akin to the one Diana Butler Bass makes in this piece for Sojourners Magazine.

<blockquoteWednesday morning, at 9 a.m. sharp, I took my tax payment to the local post office. When I handed it to the clerk, she said, “I hate tax day.” I replied, “Not me. I don’t love parting with the money, but I kinda like it. That check is a bargain — roads, schools, medical care, social security, and the freedom of living in the greatest country in the world. It is patriotism by checkbook. Why should I hate it?” She replied, “Why, I’ve never heard anybody say that! It isn’t such a bad deal when you put it that way.”

No, taxes aren’t such a bad deal. Nor are they, as might have been heard at the ersatz “tea parties” around the country, at odds with Christianity. Indeed, tax day is a day that progressives should celebrate — as we participate in one of the greatest social reforms of the 20th century: the progressive income tax.

Her argument is essentially that a progressive tax is an expression of Christian love and a fulfillment of the economic demands of Jesus. Moreover, a progressive tax is a way of taking care of the poor, of providing relief to the suffering, of instituting reform that all Christians should be on board with, like universal health care, welfare reform, and education. What true Christian would not want to pay more taxes?

The problem with Bass’ argument on this point is that she has a view of the government which is thoroughly unscriptural. As I heard so aptly expressed today in church by someone who I am sure will not mind me borrowing his words, people like Bass want to “separate Jesus’ ethics from his apocalypticism.” Jesus’ ethics were beyond progressive. They were radical, even if for Christians they are so familiar as to be paradoxically comfortable.

• “Go, give everything you have to the poor.”
• “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.”
• “Blessed are you that are poor for yours is the kingdom of god, but woe to you who are rich for you have already received your comfort.”
• “Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well.”

But Jesus’ apocalypticism is a little harder to swallow. Apocalypticism is a way of explaining the state of the world and why so much suffering seems to exist. According to the apocalyptic worldview, God had temporarily relinquished the world to the evil forces that opposed him, a situation which would in some future eschatological battle be reversed and God’s sovereignty restored. Apocalypticism is closely associated with dualism, with the division of the world into light and darkness, good and evil, the realm of Satan and the realm of God, the present age of wickedness and suffering and the age to come of glory. In this apocalyptic worldview, there is no middle ground, no neutral territory. People are either on the side of the Good, or they are opposed to it. If you are on the wrong side of things, you had best repent and turn your attention to walking in the light, or else be vanquished in the coming eschatological battle where God’s kingdom will be restored.

Jesus’ apocalypticism is a little hard to swallow because it makes him out to be a little less nice, a little less civilized, a little less progressive than we typically think of him:

• “Therefore everyone who confesses me before men, I will also confess him before My Father who is in heaven. But whoever denies me before men, I will also deny him before My Father who is in heaven.” Matt. 10:32-33
• “So it will be at the end of the age; the angels will come forth and take out the wicked from among the righteous” Matt. 13:49
• “If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I choose you out of the world, because of this the world hates you” John 15:19

Jesus thought the world was under the dominion of evil. His coming was not only to usher in the Kingdom of God, but also to set apart some who would be “children of the light.” Jesus’ ministry was not about changing the structure of the government or about initiating a political revolution. If anything, Jesus expected the governments to be a source of persecution for his followers, not a source of godly support. He says to his disciples in Matthew: “Behold, I am sending you like sheep in the midst of wolves; so be shrewd as serpents and simple as doves. But beware of people, for they will hand you over to courts and scourge you in their synagogues, and you will be led before governors and kings for my sake as a witness before them and the pagans. . . You will be hated by all because of my name.” (Matthew 10:16-22).

So let’s return to this passage in Acts and the question of a progressive tax. It does not say in Acts that the community of believers sold all they had and gave it to the emperor. It does not say in Acts that the community of believers put the welfare of the poor into the hands of the government. It says that the community of believers would sell their property or houses and bring the proceeds at the feet of the apostles. The community of believers was not clamoring for government reform. Rather, with “one heart and mind . . . [they] bore witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus.” The community of believers is at odds with the government, not collaborating with it. Earlier in this chapter of Acts, we read that they are citing Psalm 2 which in no way indicates that the apostles or their burgeoning community think that Christian reform either starts or ends with the government: “the kings of the earth took their stand and the princes gathered together against the Lord and against his anointed.”

So what about taxes? If the government is wicked, should Christians just stop paying taxes? Jesus seemed to think the question of taxes was secondary. “Render unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God.” (Matthew 22:21). The government uses our tax dollars in a lot of good ways that, of course, Christians can and should support. It is through tax dollars that our roads get built, our public schools get funded, our poor and homeless and handicapped get helped. But our tax dollars get put toward funding an awful lot of wickedness as well. The biggest chunk of the federal government’s budget goes to the military. We have bases all over the world, and two wars (maybe three) raging in the Middle East, wars which Christians have good arguments for thinking are unjust. President Obama’s administration has just bailed out the flailing General Motors with billions of dollars of loans that may never be paid back and a CEO making 1.3 million dollars. And earlier this year, Obama allotted 10 billion federal dollars to fund embryonic stem cell research, which he does not think of as a matter of ideology, even though millions of Americans do.

The point is, Christians have to come to terms with the fact that our tax dollars go to both good and evil things. There is no way to reconcile this fact by saying that your tax dollars go to support only the initiatives that you support—welfare reform, for example, but not the war. No, your tax dollars are sullied by all of the many unethical things that government gets involved in, financed by you, the American people. This does not mean that you should stop paying taxes, but only that you should realize that you do so with dirty hands.

“The community of believers was of one heart and mind . . . with great power the apostles bore witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great favor was accorded them all. There was no needy person among them.” Christians cannot expect the government to provide for the poor, to cure the sick, to offer succor to the suffering. This is the task that has been given the Christian community, which, in a sinful world under the control of forces of evil (what Walter Wink called “the Powers that be”) can only be accomplished through the powerful grace of Christ. It is the power of Christ that heals, and the power of Christ that knocks down the sinful and oppressive structures of the world that cause innocent people to suffer. It is the power of Christ that enables sinful and selfish human beings to give all that they have to the poor because it is in doing so that we realize our freedom to follow our Lord.

The Christian should pay their taxes with a heavy heart, not because of money lost, but because of how that money is spent. And with new zeal, the Christian should offer everything else they have—their heart, mind, soul, and possessions to the Christian community, laying all this at the feet of the apostles, and “bearing witness to the resurrection of the Lord . . . [and] distributing to each according to their need.”

Obama’s Pledge to Reform Ethics and the Principle of Epikeia

Liberals and conservatives are outraged at Barack Obama’s apparent contradiction of his campaign promises to clean up Washington and initiate sweeping ethical reform. The most recent complaint is over President Obama’s unwavering support for Tom Daschle’s nomination as the new head of Health and Human Services, despite the fact that Mr. Daschle has failed to pay $128,000 in federal income taxes (and the questionable ways in which Mr. Daschle spends his money).

The problem people have with President Obama is that he is making exceptions to the rule, despite the fact that he presented on the campaign trail an uncompromising message of ethical reform. Those who defend Obama say that the exceptions are necessary because certain people who the rule would exclude (lobbyists, e.g.) are needed for their expertise and skill set. Jody Powell, Obama’s press secretary, puts the conflict nicely: “If you set standards, you’re going to fall short on occasion and you’re going to have to compromise on occasion. But you’re probably also going to get more done.”

Seems like a perfect opportunity to talk about the principle of epikeia. Laws, says Aquinas, deal with human actions. As such, laws are about “contingent singulars,” meaning particular situations with particular circumstances. Because laws are about the particular, it is impossible to make laws that can exhaust the possibilities for moral action in every single conceivable case. Legislators, rather, make laws according to what usually happens.

However, there will be cases where even the best law, if applied to a certain case, will do harm to the common good than would be considered just. And since it is the law’s job to protect the common good, the application of the law in the particular questionable situation would be antithetical to its purpose. The example Aquinas gives is the law that all deposits should be returned. It is a good law–if I put a deposit in the bank, I expect to get it back. But, posits Aquinas, what if a madman gives his sword as a deposit, and if he gets it back, plans on going on a murderous rampage? To give him the sword back would be contrary to the common good. The law about returning deposits is still a good law and will have good effects in the majority of cases. In this case, however, applying the law would be injurious and so it is probably better not to follow it.

Another classic example is the person hiding Jews from the Nazis who is confronted by a Nazi and must either lie (and break the rule against lying), or tell the truth in accordance with the law and risk the death of a number of innocent people.

In situations like this, Aquinas says the letter of the law should be set aside in favor of following the dictates of justice and the common good. This decision to set aside the letter of the law is called epikeia, and with Aristotle, Aquinas calls it a virtue. Specifically, it is a subjective part of justice (meaning that it is a part of justice but doesn’t fully encapsulate the meaning of justice) and its object is equity.

Now, epikeia does not set aside the application of a law that is just in itself because of inconvenience or severity. Epekeia, for example, does not allow a person to set aside the letter of the law regarding lying because if he tells the truth, he is going to lose his reputation or suffer some other punishment. Aquinas recognizes that following the law will often be arduous and sometimes will have unpleasant effects. Epikeia simply assures that we see the purpose of the laws as serving the common good and justice, rather than viewing obedience to the law as a good in itself.

To return to Obama. He might have made a rule that no lobbyists would be given political positions in his administration, but if the application of that rule would harm the common good, it would be consistent with epikeia to break it. The burden of the question, therefore, is if the nomination of William J. Lynn III, an ex-Raytheon lobbyist he nominated as deputy defense secretary, is really for the common good.

In a political leader, a healthy sense of epikeia is a good thing, and Obama seems to have it. In fact, his ethics reforms, especially those regarding lobbyists, were not as hard-lined as you might have assumed based on his campaign rhetoric. His rules regarding lobbyists in reality do not ban all lobbyists outright, but rather set conditions on their employment. Obama seems to have been aware that a hard-lined rule against lobbyists would have been counter-productive.

So I think that all the claims that Obama is a hypocrite are unfounded. I think that our president is simply trying to do what all people do–find out how to apply a rule in any given situation so that it is conducive to the common good. As Aquinas says, “Without doubt he transgresses the law who by adhering to the letter of the law strives to defeat the intention of the lawgiver.” However, I think it prudent that President Obama make as few concessions as possible, especially this early in his administration, in order to keep the hope in his constituents alive, and keep people believing that goodness and politics are not antithetical. Is it really necessary for the common good to select Raytheon lobbyist William Lynn for deputy defense secretary, or are their others, less questionable candidates just as suited to the job? I’m betting on the latter. Similarly with Tom Daschle. Obama pledged his “absolute” support for Daschle’s nomination, but I think the common good demands that Obama exercise epikeia here . . . And reverse his support for a far-too questionable candidate.

Using Virtue Ethics to Read the Bible (Without Falling Into Anti-Nomianism)

There are lots off good reasons to read the Bible.  The reasons would vary depending who you polled–some “secular humanists” would say that the Bible should be read for cultural literacy or for its literary value as a great book.  Christians would say that the Bible is the Word of God and tells us how to get to heaven, or that the Bible tells us God’s will for our life.  Lots of people would say that the Bible has many good moral lessons like love of enemy, care for the poor and marginalized, and other norms dictating good behavior.

If Christians believe that the Bible is a good source of morals, they are faced with the challenge of figuring out how to move from the Scriptural witness to their own moral inquiries.  This is no easy task, and Christian history is full of different ways to answer the question of the relationship between the Bible and ethics.  My fiancé is part of the Church of Christ tradition that has a very handy little system called “Command, Example, Necessary Inference.”  What this means is if the New Testament commands something, you obey (like baptism and the Lord‘s Supper).  In the absence of a command, you follow any provided example (like taking the Lord‘s Supper every Sunday).  And if there is neither, you follow necessary inference (like the use of church buildings).  For issues specifically addressed in the New Testament, Churches of Christ have a pretty coherent way of forming their views, but for issues not found in the New Testament (like surrogate motherhood, for example), their approach can be pretty unsystematic and haphazard.

Other Christians have a “cafeteria approach” to Scripture, keeping what they like and rejecting what they don’t.  You see this in a lot of the more liberal-minded groups that like things like love of enemy, but don’t really think Paul’s condemnation of homosexual behavior is all that relevant or that the Bible’s teaching about divorce should really be taken all that seriously.  This approach has the advantage off avoiding a dogmatic and unilateral approach to Scripture, but it is often quite arbitrary in what it takes seriously from Scripture and what it dismisses.

What both of these approaches have in common is that they look to Scripture for norms or rules about how to behave.  This might be called a deontological approach to Scripture which means that Scripture provides certain duties for those that follow it, and only these duties are relevant to Christian ethics.  As a virtue theorist influenced by Thomas Aquinas, I find such an approach deficient.  Ethics is not just about rules and duties, but also about character and leading a good life.  Virtue theory provides a way of using the Bible for ethics, not just for the derivation of rules, but also for a witness as to what sort of people we are called to be.  The Bible tells us what sort of character Christians should have.

Some people like the idea of using virtue theory to bridge ethics and Scripture because it makes their “cafeteria” approach more systematic.  Such people say something like “the rules in the Bible are not all that important, only the virtues like kindness and justice.”  This approach looks a lot like anti-nomianism, or the rejection of the relevance of rules (anti=against; nomos=laws).  These people tend to want to use Scripture without dealing with the parts dealing with tricky issues like homosexuality, divorce, and women.  They want to say that the overall trajectory of Scripture shows us the sort of people that we should be (kind, tolerant, just, etc.) but the details aren’t all that important.

I don’t fall into this camp.   I think the Bible shows us what sort of character we should have and what sort of virtues form that character, but it also tells us how these virtues are developed.  Aristotle tells us (and Aquinas agrees) that virtues are formed by acting well.  The virtue of justice, for example, is developed by acting justly over a period of time, such that you start doing just acts as a second nature.  But how do we know what just acts are, before we develop the virtue of justice?  One way is by following just people, but another way is by obeying just rules.

Think of a parent raising a child.  If that parent wants the child to be fair, he puts in place certain rules to encourage fairness, like sharing toys or taking turns with fun activities.  What the parent hopes is that eventually, the child will act fairly even when there  are no rules forcing them to, or no person to enforce the rules.  But the child will get to that state only if he obeys the rules about fair activity over and over and over again and by imitating the example of fair people.

Scripture can be thought of in a similar way.  God wants us to be certain people, and he has provided us with commands and examples of people to follow in order to become the people he calls us to be.  For example, he want us to be people who are wise.  Scripture tells us that “fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”  What does acting out of fear of the Lord look like?  It looks like following God’s commands.  For example, in Exodus 9, God commands that all the livestock be brought under shelter to protect them from the coming hailstorm He is sending.  The officials of Pharaoh who fear the Lord obey, and their livestock is saved, but those who do not fear the Lord ignore the command and suffer the consequences.  The rule God gives us is to “obey his commands” and he provides many examples like these servants for us to imitate.

Another examples of what God calls us to be is loving people.  We only become loving people, however, by performing acts of love like taking care of the widow, the resident alien, the orphan, and even our enemies.  We become loving people by not resisting evil, but by “overcoming  evil with good” as Paul tells us in Romans.  These rules are supplemented by examples of loving people, the paradigmatic one being Jesus himself, but also figures like Mary and Paul who are paradigms of love that we can imitate.

If the commands in the Bible must still be taken seriously, one might ask what the difference between a deontological approach to Scripture and a virtue-based approach.  The answer is that a deontological approach to Scripture sees obedience to the rules as an end in itself.  God commanded us to obey, and we do so accordingly.  A virtue-based approach sees the rules as a means to becoming the people that God calls us to be.  The rules are not arbitrary commands of God, but tools that God gives us to develop the sort of character we need to follow him.  If we are successful, we no longer follow the rules out of slavish obedience, but out of love of the Good that is behind the rules.  The goal of virtue theory, unlike a deontological theory, is not just be obedient, but to be good like God is good so that we may no longer be called servants, but friends of God.

At the same time, using a virtue-based approach to Scripture means that  when we come across a contemporary moral problem like in vitro fertilization or global warming, we don’t have to look at Scripture to see what is specifically commanded or what rule can be inferred.  We can also look to Scripture to see what kind of people God is calling us to be and how the dilemma at hand compares.  This will not protect us from diversity in our ethical views (some people may say that using in vitro fertilization is consistent with becoming the sort of person God wants us to be while others will disagree) but it will allow us to take seriously the Scriptural witness for the way we think about ethics without falling into unilateral dogmatism or arbitrary picking and choosing in the process.

Beatitude

Aquinas’ ethics begins with and is founded on the end.  He introduces the Secunda Pars of the Summa Theologica with a treatise on man’s last end which he describes as “last in the order of execution but first in the agent’s intention.”  What he means is that the end of an action is the last thing achieved in acting but the reason for acting is nevertheless the end.  Think of spending several hours baking and decorating cookies, which I recently did for Christmas.  The time mixing the dough, rolling it, cutting it into shapes, baking the cookies, and finally, painstakingly decorating them was all motivated by the last thing “in the order of execution of baking cookies,” which is the eating and enjoying of them.  In the same way, Aquinas says that the ultimate end of all actions, which he will define as beatitude ,is the first in the order of intention for all human action.  In other words, all human action is motivated by the desire to be happy.  The reason I baked the cookies at all is because in some way, I thought that baking cookies, and watching my family enjoy eating them, would make me happy.

Another way of stating this is that the final cause is the first in the chain of causes.  We think of what we want to achieve by acting before we act.

Aquinas says that there are two ways to think of the end.  The first is the thing itself in which the end exists (beatitude) and the second is the use or acquisition of that thing.  A glutton’s end is food, and the use of that end consists in the pleasure that comes from eating.  According to Aquinas, the ultimate end of human existence in the first sense is God “who alone by His infinite goodness can perfectly satisfy man’s will.”  In the second sense, the last end for human beings is the enjoyment of this last end which Aquinas calls “beatitude.”

The word beatitude is a difficult word to understand in English.  Sometimes it is translated as “happiness,” but beatitude is a long-lasting happiness, not something that can be easily lost.  “Happiness” does not connote the steadfastness of beatitude.  Sometimes beatitude is translated as “flourishing” which again does not fully convey the full meaning of what Aquinas means by the word (mainly because we don‘t really use the word flourishing in our everyday speech and nobody really knows what it means).  What we can do is identify what beatitude is not.  Aquinas says it is not wealth, honor, fame and glory, power, good of the body, or pleasure.  It is not something external, not something that can be easily lost, not something arbitrary like luck, and not any created good.  Beatitude, according to Aquinas, is not even a good of the soul because if it were, the object of happiness would be human beings, which would mean that human beings could be loved for their own sake, which is contrary to what Christians hold to be true.

Beatitude, is, however, uncreated.  It is not something we have, it is something we do.  Aquinas speaks of beatitudes in two senses–its cause or object and its use.  Beatitude in the first sense (the thing in which beatitude consists) can only be God, and in the second sense, beatitude can only be the enjoyment of God:

“Final and perfect happiness can consist in nothing else than the vision of the Divine Essence.”

How does Aquinas back this up?  First, he says that nobody can be perfectly happy as long as there is something left for him to desire.  Nothing on earth leaves us without some other desire to be fulfilled.  It is almost a truism to say that just because a person has everything doesn’t mean that person is happy.

Aquinas’ second observation about happiness is that human beings are constituted to seek out the cause of things.  If we see mold growing on a piece of fruit, we seek out the chain of causes behind this occurrence until we arrive at the ultimate cause.  Our human nature is constituted to seek out the ultimate cause of our happiness.  However, simply knowing that God is behind our happiness is not enough for our intellect; we want to know the essence of God and this is beyond what the human intellect on its own can accomplish.  We need something else, some power outside of ourselves which Aquinas calls grace to elevate our intellect to know God in this way and to open our eyes to see God in this way.

In light of all this, Aquinas thinks that we can never achieve perfect happiness in this life.  We can, however, achieve “imperfect beatitude.”  This imperfect happiness is analogous to perfect happiness.  It is stable and lasting, it doesn’t exist in external goods like money, fame, or power.  Both types of happiness are “operations” or acts, not things.  The major distinction between perfect happiness and imperfect happiness is that perfect happiness consists in contemplating the Divine Essence, which we can’t do on our own, and imperfect happiness consists in the exercise of virtue, which we can do without any external supernatural aid.

Happiness in this life is often unstable and subject to the vicissitudes of fortune.  I knew somebody who had found great happiness–this person this person (we will call him Job) had friends, career success, a comfortable and even  luxurious existence.  People commented on how happy Job seemed going into the holiday season.  About two weeks or so before Christmas, Job suffered a great disaster resulting in the loss of his home and possessions.  Even if Job was a virtuous person and had all the right values and gave thanks to God that he still had his life, Job is still less happy in his homeless, possession-less existence.  Aquinas’ treatment of happiness echoes Jesus saying to “store up treasures in heaven” because only in heaven can we ever find true happiness.  In fact, this is the definition of heaven in Aquinas’ book–total happiness.

Some people say that Aquinas has an otherworldly understanding of happiness that does not allow for any sort of happiness in this life.  I do not believe this is the case.  Aquinas thinks that we can flourish in this life in different ways but he wants to keep us from thinking that this life is it.  No matter what we do, no matter how hard we work and how good we become, there will always be something else that we desire in order to be happy.  Augustine expressed this sentiment in his Confessions when he said, “My heart is restless until it rests in you.”  We always hunger for God as the ultimate Giver of all good things, and until we get him, we stay a little bit hungry.

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