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The Priority of Prudence: Virtue and Natural Law in Thomas Aquinas and the Implications for Modern Ethics.

The Priority of Prudence: Virtue and Natural Law in Thomas Aquinas and the Implications for Modern Ethics. University Park: Penn State Press, 1992. xvi + 164 pp. $28.50--David Nelsen follows the well-trodden path beaten by those (such as Vernon Bourke) who object to an over-universalized and over-deductive version of St. Thomas Aquinas's ethics. Focusing on the "priority" of prudence and the virtues vis a vis more speculative considerations of natural law, the book admirably stresses the role of prudence in enhancing human knowledge of ends. Inasmuch as one end is often ordered in act to another, prudence--which rightly concerns means--nonetheless clearly extends to the deepening and enrichment of our acquaintance with the right order of ends. Basing his case for the priority of prudence upon the indeterminacy of the will regarding any created good (pp. 53-4) and the presumed consequent lack of any natural ordering save to the final end, Nelsen argues that knowledge of the primary precepts of the natural law is too vague and abstract to be helpful in determining action. According to this interpretation, St. Thomas does not intend natural law considerations as "a source of concrete moral information" supplementing a prudential ethics of virtue (p. 72).

Nelsen rightly notes that for Aquinas "law is not first of all a juridical concept" but rather the divine reason as the principle of creation (p. 107), and considers Aquinas's natural law discourse to serve primarily "the explanatory function of accounting for how it happens that we come to reason practically and for the origin of the virtues" (p. 103). Acknowledging that the language of (natural) knowledge of natural law precepts is employed by Aquinas, Nelsen endeavors to so contextualize the considerations of the Treatise on Law with the preceding account of the virtues as to suggest that the Treatise's natural law preoccupations are only a causally explicatory account of the "starting point of practical reasoning" (pp. 87-8). This interpretation of the role of natural law considerations in Aquinas's ethics makes it possible to avert the tendency "to portray ethics as a primarily deductive science in which moral imperatives are deduced from basic naturally known principles" (p. 93). Correctly stressing that no deductive formula can apply to the variety and contingency of human situations, Nelsen's stress on prudence brings out the respect in which the virtuous man reflects the divine providence whose wisdom orders contingent singular events.

While a healthful corrective to those who would deontologize the natural law doctrine of Aquinas, Nelsen's effort does suffer from certain omissions. First of all, the indeterminacy of the will regarding created goods does not equate with lack of natural inclination, which inclination is itself a telic indicator. As St. Thomas states (ST II-II, q. 47, a. 15)--and Nelsen notes (p. 102)--"the right ends of human life are fixed." But as prudence is of the variable means, its extension to ends is per accidens. The primary grasp of ends will then be enhanced but not originated by prudence.

Nelsen will argue that "knowledge of universal first principles of practical reason is significant insofar as it pertains to Thomas's concern about causality. That knowledge is insignificant with respect to guiding action" (p. 103). But insofar as teleological order informs practical activity, it would appear that the hierarchy of ends must inform ethically virtuous choice. As neither the points of the compass nor one's final destination simply dictate one's movement apart from knowledge of contingent impediments and requirements, while yet these factors do guide one's movement, so the cognition of the hierarchy of ends seemingly must provide a principled basis for prudential discernments. This emphasis is lacking to Nelson's account.

A further observation might also stress the dependence of acts of prudence upon prior rational apprehensions of the end in question. Hence St. Thomas comments, "Now in regard to the means, the rectitude of the reason depends on its conformity with the desire of a due end; nevertheless the very desire of the due end presupposes on the part of the reason a right apprehension of the end" (ST I-II, q. 19, a. 3, ad 2). Appropriation of Yves Simon's work concerning knowledge via inclinations might have limited without vitiating the scope of Nelsen's argument on behalf of prudence and the virtues.

Finally, while the context of the virtues is essential for any appraisal of St. Thomas's natural law doctrine, it is arguable that the speculative ontological context of the Prima Pars provides the teleological focus whence both emphases in St. Thomas's moral philosophy--natural law and virtue--are intelligible. Such a focus, eluding deontologism and over-universality, nonetheless will recognize not only a causal but a principled and content-laden contribution of natural law to ethics, in the form of that hierarchy of ends which provides the compass for practical life.

Nelson's stress upon prudence and the virtues illustrates anew the complexity of Aquinas's teaching and the attendent difficulties in successfully isolating any part of this doctrine from its ontological foundation.
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Author:Long, Steven A.
Publication:The Review of Metaphysics
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 1992
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