Reason, Action, and Morality
That reason and morality are essentially connected is one of the characteristic doctrines of St. Thomas’ ethics. ‘The good of man’, he says, quoting Dionysius, ‘is to be in accordance with reason and evil is to be against reason.’1 ‘Actions are called human or moral inasmuch as they proceed from the reason.’2 Being a rational animal entails being a moral being, and vice versa. This is an optimistic view of ethics, since it seems to imply that disputes about morals are capable in principle of being decided by objective and public processes of reasoning in accordance with universally accepted rules. But it is a view of ethics which needs careful examination to make sure exactly what is being claimed for reason and what meaning is being put on the term ‘reason’. It is also a view which contrasts strongly with prevailing contemporary opinions which have, in one way or another, been influenced by Hume’s famous judgment: ‘Reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office but to serve and obey them.’3 The use of reason in moral actions is, in Hume’s view, confined simply to working out the means by which we may attain the end set by our non-rational drives and desires.
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