The Perfection of Desire

Habit, Reason and Virtue in Aquinas's Summa Theologiae

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Jean Porter
  • Milwaukee, WI: 
    Marquette University Press
    , March
     157 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In The Perfection of Desire: Habit, Reason and Virtue in Aquinas's Summa Theologiae, Jean Porter, an accomplished moral theologian in the Thomistic tradition, explains and to some extent defends the account of virtue that Thomas Aquinas gives in the Summa Theologiae. She argues that Thomas does not see moral virtue as a mere ability to follow the directives of reason, but as a habit that also influences moral reasoning. She develops her account in the context of the self-regarding virtues, which more obviously are concerned with one’s own perfection, and other virtues such as justice, which are about another’s good. Her concluding chapter addresses the infused virtues, which are about the ultimate end, which exceeds human reason and human strength. Her argument is strengthened with numerous references to what the social sciences teach us about emotions and human development. 

One distinctive feature of her treatment is her contrast of adult humans with other animals, who, unlike humans, react to the sense information that they receive in a limited and somewhat determinate way. Human indeterminacy is the reason why humans and no other animals need what Thomas and other scholastics perhaps misleadingly call “habits,” which are not reflexive responses, but instead principles of acting well or badly. Many of these habits, such as temperance and courage, are directly about emotions. Although Porter recognizes that Thomas primarily discusses emotions as obstacles to the right judgment that is necessary for virtuous action, she argues on Thomistic grounds that they have a positive role in shaping perception. For instance, a coward might perceive as a threat what a courageous person would not. She bolsters her argument with references to literature about the childhood development of attitudes towards food, and current research on psychopathology. This literature shows a close connection between upbringing, emotion, and moral decisions. Her inclusion of social science enriches her discussion. However, she does not describe the way in which the literature’s claims would fit in with Thomas’s understanding of the cogitative power and its role in the emotions. Her reticence is perhaps understandable due to the difficulties and disagreements that surround the topic.

A second distinctive feature of the book is Porter’s attempt to describe moral reasoning as relying not so much on the application of rules, but on a view of the virtues as an ideal to be attained in a particular area. For instance, the temperate person does not reason about the proper amount of food only by appealing to abstract notions of quantity and nutrition, but by judging what to do in light of paradigms about eating. Porter consequently distinguishes between the criteria of reasonableness more generally and the criteria for virtue. If successful, Porter has delineated the difference between a more Thomistic kind of virtue-based rationality and that of someone such as Christine Koorsgaard, who allows for the importance of virtue only insofar as it contributes to action that is in accord with separate moral judgments. But, Porter’s argument for this distinction between kinds of rationality is difficult to follow and seems to rely on undefended distinctions that many would be reluctant to accept, such that the rule of reason is not necessarily connected with the mean of virtue. For her argument to be more persuasive, she would need to more clearly and explicitly explain the exact theses that she is defending and what would be needed to defend them.

A third distinctive feature is her attempt to provide an account of the way in which not only virtues about the emotions, but even other-regarding virtues such as justice contribute to the agent’s own perfection. She uses contemporary social science to argue that children develop a pre-linguistic ability to grasp aspects of justice, and concludes that justice, like the other morals, has a close connection with the emotions. The psychopathology of some adults shows how a failure in the emotions leads to a failure to grasp justice, and consequently a failure to see how one’s own perfection is connected with one’s relation to others. On her account, duties to others are easily grasped by normal adults and in some way are basic. Many followers of Thomas Aquinas will find fault with the way that she seems to separate duties to other individuals from the agent’s own membership in a family and political community, which according to Thomas are natural communities. Moreover, although she mentions infused virtue in the context of the ultimate end, namely God, she does not show how for Thomas God is a natural common good of humans and indeed the whole universe, as well as a supernatural common good that is shared by those who have the infused virtue of charity. Her account of justice consequently might have the same weaknesses of many classically liberal accounts. 

The book should appeal to those who study moral virtue, as well as to those who are more generally interested in the theology of Thomas Aquinas. The book contains many suggestive theses that could be profitably developed by Porter or other scholars. Moreover, it shows how contemporary literature in the social sciences can be used by philosophers and theologians.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Thomas M. Osborne, Jr. is Professor of Philosophy at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, TX.

Date of Review: 
October 12, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jean Porter is the John A. O’Brien Professor of Theological Ethics at the University of Notre Dame. She is the author of over thirty articles and six books on the history of the Christian moral tradition and contemporary Christian ethics. She has a particular interest in the moral theology of Thomas Aquinas and the moral and legal thought of his scholastic predecessors and contemporaries.


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