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Virtues (natural and theological) moral selfhood, goodness, and god.

Dell'Olio, Andrew J. (2003).

Foundations of Moral Selfhood: Aquinas on divine goodness and the connection of the virtues. New York: Peter Lang. Hard cover (xiii +203 pp.). $63.95. ISBN 0-8204-6140-7.

Andrew J. Dell'Olio, who received his Ph.D. from Columbia University, is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Hope College, Holland, Michigan.

Psychologists, following the lead of philosophers, are again vigorously investigating virtues and character (Chang & Sanna, 2003; Peterson & Seligman, 2004; Tjeltveit & Fowers, 2003). Virtues have to do, on one understanding, with those relatively stable qualities of persons that help them reach some good end. Honesty and integrity are virtues of the scientist because they contribute to the good end--knowledge--to which science aims. Caring, courage, and wisdom are virtues of the psychotherapist (Doherty, 1995) because they contribute to the good ends--decreased psychological problems and improved psychological functioning--to which psychotherapy aims. Positive psychologists are investigating virtues, along with psychologists interested in exploring the ethical dimensions of personality traits (like conscientiousness), the whole of a person's moral life (rather than particular moral decisions or behaviors), and rich conceptions of moral selfhood.

Moral selfhood, in the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas, needs to be understood in terms of virtues. In his book on the Thomistic approach to moral selfhood and virtues, philosopher Andrew Dell'Olio (2003) discusses how human flourishing (optimal human functioning) requires virtues, a rich conception of goodness and ultimate goodness (which those virtues bring about in persons), and an account of virtues and goodness that retains the unity of the self. After an introductory chapter on virtues, Dell'Olio follows with a chapter on Aquinas's metaphysics of goodness. The third chapter connects goodness and God, a connection essential to the theistic Thomistic account of the virtues. The connections among Aquinas's virtues are addressed in Chapter 4. In the final chapter, Dell'Olio addresses the relevance to Aquinas's approach to the contemporary debates about virtues among moral philosophers. Sensitive to the charge that a 13th century theologian is irrelevant today, Dell'Olio calls for a "de-provincialized" (p. 169) Thomism. Accordingly, Foundations of Moral Selfhood is a wide-ranging book-Aquinas's integrative thinking creatively combines topics addressed in contemporary theology, philosophy, ethics, and psychology.

Aquinas attempts "to provide an account of what a human being needs in order to achieve the complete realization or perfection of the self" (p. 5). This requires attention to moral selfhood, which has to do with "one's orientation, through desire, choice, judgment and action, to the good" (p. 5). Human "desire, choice, judgment, and action" point to the psychological nature of moral selfhood. "The good" points to its moral character. "Orientation ... to the good" points to virtues, through which our "potential to be good" (p. 29) is actualized. Aquinas's desire to address full moral development and human flourishing led him to address the virtues that order our lives to our highest or ultimate end, "the divine good" (p. 30). Indeed, for Aquinas, "the concept of God" plays a "foundational role ... in the development of selfhood" (p. ix). Theology thus informs his understanding of moral selfhood, virtues, and goodness, including the highest good.

Aquinas argued that "the ultimate human good or end is twofold (duplex), one achievable by the human beings' natural capacities, the other beyond the reach of these natural capacities, requiring the influx of divine grace" (p. 35). Full human development accordingly requires both natural virtues (temperance, courage, justice, and prudence) and theological virtues (faith, hope, and, above all, charity; their meaning for Aquinas differs from most contemporary definitions). Because the unity of the moral self (which must aim at one good) was important to Aquinas, he faced a decided challenge in making coherent his commitment both to a twofold good and a unified moral self. The key to his resolution of that tension, Dell'Olio maintains, is his rich metaphysical concept of goodness.

Aquinas employed two approaches to goodness: nature and participation. In the nature approach to goodness, goodness has to do with "the fulfillment or completion of a thing's nature--its becoming all that it could be--and what it could be is specified by its essential nature" (p. 41). With its roots in science-friendly Aristotelian philosophy and its adoption by many humanistic psychologists, this approach is familiar to most psychologists. By way of contrast, in the participation approach to goodness, human beings "are good by virtue of their participation in God who is Goodness-Itself" (p. 40). Because we are created by God in the image of God, human nature is given new potentialities. To flourish, we must thus "achieve not only that good or perfection inherent to our nature or essence, but also a good that transcends this nature--the divine good" (p. 54). Because virtues are tied to concepts of goodness, this claim about goodness and virtue that transcend the natural has profound implications for the adequacy and comprehensiveness of understandings of virtue obtained by natural (rational, scientific) means alone. The participation approach to goodness, Dell'Olio contends, is more comprehensive, including within it the nature approach, which is subordinated to the participation approach, while retaining its own integrity.

Because the virtues that permit the most profound human flourishing, on Aquinas's account, move human beings toward the ultimate end of the goodness of God, Dell'Olio discusses the relationship between goodness and God. We "remain incomplete" (p. 69) until we participate in the divine goodness. "The ultimate end or complete perfection of the human being," that is, "may only be reached through a relationship to God" (p. 14). This requires grace. The good end toward which we move when most fully human "is not wholly self-enclosed but lies beyond itself" (p. 74). Human beings, Aquinas contended, "receive their ultimate formation by the infinite being and transcendent goodness of God, the ultimate end of their striving" (p. 74).

We participate in the divine goodness in two ways, however, corresponding to the natural and theological virtues. Our ultimate end is unitary, Aquinas maintained, but participation in the divine goodness, our ultimate end, takes two forms. The natural is subordinate to the supernatural, "participates in that which transcends nature, and achieves its ultimate fulfillment in the transcendent" (p. 89). The autonomy and integrity of the natural is maintained by Aquinas, however. He "preserves the natural end of the human being, attained in this life by the natural virtues, while still maintaining the existence of a more perfect supernatural end attainable only by divine grace" (p. 83). Or, in Aquinas's oft-quoted phrase, "Grace does not destroy but perfects nature" (p. 10). Aquinas's is thus a theological perspective that strongly affirms the legitimacy of natural virtues, like those investigated by Peterson and Seligman (2004) and others. If we leave aside for a moment the free will that Aquinas thinks contributes to the development of virtues and the ethical nature of the goodness toward which virtues move people, scientifically oriented psychologists can thus find in Aquinas a theological rationale for the validity of their research on natural virtues.

On the other hand, to the extent Aquinas is right, a scientific approach based, not on a rich theistic conception of goodness, but on an austere materialistic metaphysics (as most science is), will not be able to contribute deeply, well, or comprehensively to our understanding of the theological virtues, to faith, hope, and charity, for they are the fruits of God's grace. Science, accordingly, will not be able to provide a complete understanding of the moral self-hood in which, through grace-infused virtue, we flourish as human beings.

The natural virtues are essential to human flourishing in Aquinas, Dell'Olio stresses. Indeed, multiple virtues, natural and theological, are required. Given Aquinas's conviction that our highest end is unitary, the connections among those virtues must be addressed. Aquinas's rich conception of the good provides that unity, permitting "both a 'natural" fulfillment of the ultimate end of the human beings as well as a 'supernatural' fulfillment, with the natural end nested within, and subordinated to, the supernatural end" (p. ix). The theological virtues are considered higher because they enable us to participate more directly or intimately in the divine goodness" (p. 111). Although necessary for human flourishing, and maintaining their integrity, the natural virtues are elevated, perfected, by the greatest of theological virtues, charity (or love), which changes our will and "directs the other virtues, and prudence in particular, to the divine good" (p. 111).

The contemporary discussion about virtues, contends Dell'Olio, would benefit from taking Aquinas more seriously. Aquinas points to our "need for an integrated view of the human being and human selfhood" (p. 144), one that includes both natural and transcendent good ends, and that more closely connects the moral and the spiritual. Indeed, Aquinas contends that "one becomes a complete or full moral self through the emptying of self, and that one source of virtuous action lies in a form of inactivity, that is, a passive receptivity to grace or a power that transcends the self" (p. 144). Accordingly, Dell'Olio suggests, "virtue ethics could be strengthened by the notion of God" (p. 175).

Psychology's metaphysics does not, of course, include the rich conception of goodness that Aquinas drew upon. Indeed, that metaphysics has few adherents today and Dell'Olio does not directly address psychology, although he does argue that "metaphysically austere" theories of virtue will be "impoverished" (p. 159). Dell'Olio is a philosopher writing (sometimes rather technically) to philosophers and religious ethicists. Accordingly, the book will be challenging to read for most psychologists. Readers will have to draw their own connections between his arguments and the ways in which psychologists should best understand and investigate virtues, moral selfhood, and moral development.

The decided challenges Dell'Olio and Aquinas raise, however, are clear: Understanding the moral self in any depth requires understanding the virtues. Understanding the virtues requires understanding what is good, including the goodness of God. Further, if our fullest development as human beings requires grace and a relationship with God, don't we need more than empirical methods to fully understand our moral selves, that is, the deepest dimensions of ourselves? How should our psychologies reflect the love of God and neighbor so central to both Aquinas and Jesus. More fundamentally, how do we, finally, integrate psychology and theology? Along with those challenges, Foundations of Moral Selfhood also provides a strong theological affirmation of knowledge about natural virtues derived from the investigations of psychological scientists. For that and other reasons, psychologists who are Christians have reason to be grateful for this book.


Chang, E. C., & Sanna, L. J. (Eds.). (2003). Virtue, vice, and personality: The complexity of behavior. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Doherty, W. J. (1995). Soul searching: Why psychotherapy must promote moral responsibility. New York: Basic Books/HarperCollins.

Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association; New York: Oxford University Press.

Tjeltveit, A. C., & Fowers, B. F. (Eds.). (2003). Explorations of human excellence in behavioral science: Rediscovering virtue in scholarship, teaching, and practice [Special issue]. American Behavioral Scientist, 47 (4).


GOLDSMITH, W. MACK, PhD. Professor of Psychology, Emeritus, at California State University, Stanislaus. Ph.D. (Cornell University) in Experimental Psychology, with teaching and research specialty in the psychology of religion. Also a licensed clinical psychologist in California with a part-time practice in Modesto, CA.

PARSONS, THOMAS D. PhD, is a Clinical and Experimental Neuropsychology fellow in the UNC Chapel Hill School of Medicine's Department of Neurology.

STAFFORD, NEIL S., PsyD, is a Clinical Psychology resident at the Arizona Psychology Training Consortium.

TJELTVEIT, ALAN C., PhD, author of Ethics and Values in Psychotherapy (Routledge, 1999), is Professor of Psychology at Muhlenberg College, Allentown, Pennsylvania.

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Author:Tjeltveit, Alan C.
Publication:Journal of Psychology and Theology
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2005
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