Learning to do

It’s easy to intellectualize moral and ethical problems (including political ones), as though reflection would be adequate to see the solution to the problem. Interestingly, we don’t think this will work for anything else we do: no one thinks that the usual problems that one has with playing piano or quarterback call for us to go reflect or study more music theory or football strategy, or to think more about what we should do when we are playing. This is not just a matter of training mere physical muscle movement- lawyers and teachers and mechanics need to practice what they do too. Doing anything is mostly a matter of doing it somehow badly, or at least very imperfectly for some amount of time, and we depend not so much on theory to solve difficult cases (though this certainly can play a role) but more on a person who’s done the activity more times than we have. As a rule, mentors and role models play a more important and formal role in learning how to do things than theory and reflection, even if both are essential.

This cultivated and practiced experience of dealing with moral problems, which is formed from being imperfectly moral for a good amount of time while seeking counsel and role models, and which has been perfected over time to the point where one internalizes his role models and takes pleasure in acting spontaneously as they would act, is what St. Thomas calls prudence or wisdom. This virtue is at the heart of his moral theory, notwithstanding all the repeated claims that he is a “natural law” theorist.


  1. peeping thomist said,

    June 27, 2010 at 8:09 pm


  2. thenyssan said,

    June 28, 2010 at 3:17 am

    I struggle to hit the right note here. It’s clear that failing is “not the end of the world” in STA’s ethics, a revelation for my teenage students. Sin is going to happen without the most extraordinary of graces, and we just get back up and try again.

    But how this squares with STA’s doctrine of mortal sin, and with the cosmic power of sin as found in the New Testament, is a little hard for me. I hesitate to take the teeth out of mortal sin by saying that committing one is hard to do–that our sins of grave matter are often a matter of weakness or ignorance. I think STA would say that exactly this is the liberty of Christ’s passion–that even mortal sin is conquered in the sacrament of confession. But again I worry that I am somehow selling sin short. Maybe that’s what I’m supposed to do.

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