The Unity of the Virtues and the Ambiguity of Goodness: A Reappraisal of Aquinas's Theory of the Virtues

Journal of Religious Ethics 21 (1):137 - 163 (1993)
This paper examines Aquinas's contention that the virtues are necessarily connected, in such a way that anyone who fully possesses one of them, necessarily possesses them all. It is argued that this claim, as Aquinas develops it in the "Summa Theologiae", is more complex, interesting, and plausible than it is often taken to be. On his view, the cardinal virtues can be said to be connected in two senses, corresponding to the two senses in which certain virtues can be said to be cardinal, namely, as general qualifications of all virtuous action and as particular normative ideals having a specific content. This distinction suggests, in turn, that Aquinas's claim that the virtues are connected should be understood as a psychological thesis about what is characteristic of the virtuous person's distinctive way of acting, as well as a thesis about the interrelationships among the different cardinal virtues considered as discrete normative ideals. So understood, Aquinas's claim that the virtues are connected is seen to be a necessary implication of his metaphysically grounded theory of human action. At the same time, it enables him to offer an interpretation of the complexities of moral discourse that is illuminating and at least prima facie plausible, taken on its own merits.
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