Metaphysics And Morality

675 words | 3 page(s)

Our diagram of the human person delineates the relationship between metaphysics and morality. Metaphysics concerns both essence and existence. Essence is here viewed much as Plato would view it, as that which is expressed in a correct (true) definition; which characterizes the essence or form of the existent. The nature of an animal, for example, is not given by the attributes that the animal happens to have. It is not even restricted to the existence of an individual animal of the relevant sort. The nature (or essence) of an animal is the set of characteristics that an existent must have in order to count as being such an animal.

Essence and nature ask different questions. The former enquires about the sort of being in question, while the latter is a matter of the thing’s function—alternatively, what the thing in question ought to do. For human beings, the question that nature asks is how such a being should act. In this way metaphysics (a matter of what a thing is, essentially) connects with morality (a matter of what the thing ought to do). While the questions asked by essence and nature differ, they are not unconnected. For a thing’s function cannot be separated from its form or essence.

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The natures of human beings connect to appropriate actions in two central ways. First, through their cognitive powers, chiefly reasoning—both about what to believe, and about what to do. Reasoning about what to do (practical reasoning) then divides into two: making, which results in art; and doing, which ideally results in prudence. Second, human beings’ natures connect to action through appetitive powers. These in turn divide into two: the will, and the passions. The will concerns, and generates when successfully applied to action, justice. By contrast the passions or emotions are divided into the irascible and the concupisible. Irascibility, as understood here, is not necessarily a bad thing. For its proper exercise results in moral endurance, or fortitude. Concupisibility pertains to lust and desire in common parlance, but for our purposes it simply amounts to temperance, or what Aristotle would view as moderation in lust and desire.

Nature connects to virtue through potency, which is viewed as a kind of actualization of form. Every existent may be viewed as having a certain form or essence. The example of an acorn is provided. An acorn is potentially an oak tree. Becoming an oak tree, in other words, is that acorns strive toward. Human lives too have a directedness. They are directed at excellence, which in this case is virtue, through fulfillment of their characteristic functions or forms.

Human excellence or virtue manifests itself in many ways, depending upon what mode of the human being is exercise. The human body is directed toward the excellence of bodily health. Speculative cognitive modes or powers of human beings, as we saw above, are directed through the intellect toward knowledge and wisdom; and through practical reasoning toward virtuous action that may result in both art and prudence. The appetitive mode of human activity operates through the will, on one hand, and through the passions, on the other. The will yields justice, when properly exercised; while the passions or emotions yield both fortitude—when what is at issue is irascibility—and temperance—through the exercise of concupisibility.

Morality is not, on this sort of conception, separable from the form or essence of human beings. (As it is separable on many competing conceptions, for example utilitarianism.) The end of all human behavior is virtue in its various guises. Human persons, of necessity, aim at these modes of virtue. Morality is simply one aspect (albeit an important aspect) of virtue, which has several different modes.

In these ways the human person may be viewed as having not only a form of essence, but several quasi-forms, or quasi-essences. These may be viewed as modes of obtaining excellence in the various ways in which human beings cognize and act. Each of these quasi-forms (or quasi-natures) is a mode of human existence, intellection, or action.

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