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The Importance of the Virtues When Men Have Lost Their Reason

Since acting rightly requires a well-formed intellect coupled with rightly ordered desires, moral formation is as much about training the passions as it is about making arguments.

In his recent review of my book here at Public Discourse, Christopher Tollefsen argues that “practical reasons are where the action is if one is to engage agents, the culture at large, and even popes, in moral discussion, debate, and deliberation. There really is no alternative in an ethics of virtue, acquired or infused.”  While he finds my presentation of Aquinas’s moral, economic, and political theory clear, “gripping and concrete” as far as it goes, he takes issue with my focus on the virtues and claims that they cannot do the work “of practical guidance in and engaging with a confused world.”

While I will not respond point-by-point to the issues he raises, I’d like to take this opportunity to articulate why formation in the virtues should be emphasized—not as an alternative to a practical reasons approach, but as the broader horizon within which we educate for truth seeking.

We Need Both Virtue and Practical Reason

When I say that virtue must be our focus, I do not mean to oppose this to a concern with practical reason. There can be no either/or here, only both/and. In addition to the “evangelical” reason of showing the beauty of the examined life, there is a pedagogical reason: coming to know and do what practical reason demands requires a culture of life that trains us in the way to go. This is all the more apparent in times like ours, when, as Shakespeare’s Mark Antony has it, judgment has “fled to brutish beasts, and men have lost their reason.”

Aquinas follows Aristotle in saying that “the truth of the practical intellect depends on conformity with right appetite.” Reason may not be a slave of the passions, but neither is it their master. Rather, reason governs as a benevolent king who knows that his free subjects “are not wholly subject to command.” Well-ordered passions are disposed both to 1) permit practical reason the freedom to determine the right thing to do in the concrete circumstances of our lives, 2) follow reason’s orders once a decree has been issued. By contrast, disordered passions interfere with reason’s work, narrowing its focus on lower and more immediate goods. Even if we have developed our practical reason in the abstract, only those who have coupled prudence with the other cardinal and theological virtues can be relied upon to consistently put the truth in action.

 

Since acting rightly requires a well-formed intellect coupled with rightly ordered desires, moral formation is as much about training the passions as it is about making arguments. Of course, my book does not itself provide a moral formation, but its concern is with this larger project of making ethical living attractive. As I see it, if I have done my task well, the reader will be more attentive to arguments of practical reason, and more eager to put reason into practice.

Assuming I am reading him rightly here, I disagree with Tollefsen when he says that “Getting to the bottom of both our agreements and disagreements is an essential preliminary to our mutually shared end of engagement with [the broader] culture.” While there are irreconcilable disagreements between traditional and new natural law theories, and I do not want to be mistaken for someone who speaks of “my truth,” we cannot wait to settle such things while Rome is burning. We work toward the same end of building up a culture of life, and we must work together, even if our strategies and theories do not entirely mesh. Modeling charitable public discourse, especially when we disagree, will prove attractive to those looking for sanity when all about them have lost their reason.

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