Book Review

The Oxford Handbook of Aquinas

Edited by Brian Davies and Eleonore Stump
Oxford University Press
ISBN 978-0-19-532609-3

Book CoverThis is an excellent collection of Thomistic essays. For the purposes of this review, I will concentrate on the section relating to ethics.

Michael Baur writes that for Aquinas,

" a good citizen is one who is willing to subordinate his or her willing of particular goods to his or her willing of the political community's common good."

On this account, the principle of autonomy must be directed to the common good.  Clearly, Thomas would have objected to euthanasia for a variety of reasons.  But a common argument currently presented states that the right of some individuals to kill themselves may negatively impact on a large community who wish not to be killed : the elderly and disabled, for example.  Thomas would have fully approved of this argument.  How different this is from the utilitarian arguments proposed in too many current books on medical ethics.

Baur also writes:

"On Aquinas's account, the rightness or wrongness of our action is ultimately determined not by the naturalness of the inclinations that incline us towards certain goods, but rather by the rational ordering of the goods towards which we are inclined."

Thus when we do evil, we sacrifice some greater good for the sake of a lesser good. This greater or lesser good can only be measured by some greater context such as the community. This suggests that for Aquinas, it is ultimately impossible to do ethics outside of a community. The principle of absolute autonomy is thus rejected.

A valuable chapter by Tobias Hoffman compares synderesis with conscience. Synderesis (good is to be done, evil avoided) is infallible. Conscience is not. Conscience is the application of moral knowledge to a specific situation. The virtue that is most relevant here is prudence, the virtue of applying right reason to a specific situation. While it is true that Aquinas would endorse the following of an erring conscience, he would also condemn those who refuse to seek opportunities of forming their conscience properly. For Catholics, obedience to magisterial teaching must be crucial.

This book does what is intended. It provides a comprehensive guide to the teaching of Aquinas on all the major topics.