Reasons and Actions

Authored by: Anthony Celano

The Routledge Companion to Medieval Philosophy

Print publication date:  January  2021
Online publication date:  January  2021

Print ISBN: 9780415658270
eBook ISBN: 9781315709604
Adobe ISBN:


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The medieval theory of moral actions has its origins in Aristotle’s concept of right reason and Augustine’s notion of free choice (liberum arbitrium). For Aristotle practical choices mimic the deductive process of theoretical reason in which a particular option may be deduced from a universal proposition. The logically deduced conclusion combines an awareness of a universal moral principle with the recognition of a relevant particular instance. Aristotle himself refrains from providing specific examples of universal ethical imperatives, most likely because he bases his moral philosophy on human practice. His examples, however, do illustrate the nature of practical moral reasoning, as in the rules that stagnant water is to be avoided as unhealthy, and that light meat is beneficial. In the discovery of both the universal and particular premises, experience is a fundamental requirement, since there is no a priori knowledge of either proposition. Only after repeated experience, reflection and teaching, can one accept the truth of the statements that stagnant water is unhealthy and that this body of water is indeed stagnant. The awareness of both premises provides the basis for the judgment that one should not drink this water. The most basic formulation of universal moral principles would be that human actions should seek to produce happiness, and these actions are conducive to that end. Again experience is required to recognize those actions that produce happiness, and if the required background is operative, then the agent would always choose correctly.

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