Thomas Aquinas and two problems for free choice

Brendan Blanchard Palla, Fordham University


I first argue that accepting physicalism generates serious difficulties for the project of giving an account of free choice. By claiming that human action can be exhaustively explained in terms of fundamental physics, physicalists deprive humans of the agent-control required for moral responsibility. To be an agent, among other things, is to act from an internal principle of motion and change. If physicalism is true, humans and non-human animals do not satisfy these conditions. Animals would not possess internal principles of motion or change; they would merely be collections of lower-level fundamental materials that interact in myriad ways. I then consider three philosophies of mind that aim to satisfy the agency conditions necessary for moral responsibility: analytic hylomorphism, emergentism, and medieval hylomorphism. Analytic hylomorphism, in virtue of its commitment to causal closure, faces difficulties in accounting for agent-control. Medieval hylomorphism claims that the substantial form of an animate organism structures and gives existence to its material parts. This enables medieval hylomorphists to avoid difficulties emergentists face in with respect to the over-determination of action while preserving the agent-control necessary for moral responsibility. Finally, I consider the problem of psychological determinism. I situate Aquinas's account of the ultimate ends that guide practical reasoning within his broader account of nature and natural theology. I argue that his metaphysically robust conception of human final ends provides a firmer foundation for moral realism than rival accounts, which is an attractive theoretical advantage. Employing Aquinas's distinction between universal and particular goods, I then argue that there is no particular good that decisively satisfies the desirability criteria supplied by our final end. Agents nearly always have at hand rival considerations that can lead to revised practical judgments about which course of action would better realize their final end. Therefore, there is never one action that definitively answers to the description of `best to do here and now.' Since no (or very few) actions ever definitively answer to the description of `best to do here and now,' psychological determinism is false.

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Recommended Citation

Palla, Brendan Blanchard, "Thomas Aquinas and two problems for free choice" (2015). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI3684567.