Philosophy: December 2008 Archives

Student Exam Answers

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Exam question: How does Thomas Aquinas explain contingency in a world completely planned out by God's providence?

Student answer: Human beings act by free judgement because humans are rational unlike animals who are irrational and do not act on instinct. Therefore, humans act on instinct making there their choices free.

My thought: The correct answer has nothing to do with human freedom but is based on an idiosyncratic definition of contingency in Aquinas. But if you're going to bring in human choice, it's probably not best to ground human free choice in mere instinct or to deny that animals ever act on instinct.

Exam question: Why does Thomas Aquinas think everything that has understanding must also have a will?

Student answer: Thomas Aquinas thinks that everything has understanding must also have a will because everything has intellect. God has intellect and his understanding is his existing and therefore so is his will. Since God has intellect, he has understanding, and since he has understanding he has will.

My thought: The correct answer has to do with what Aquinas thinks  it means to have a will and how that comes for free once your understanding can assign degrees of goodness to various options. I expected it to be one of the simplest to answer given some sense of what the answer really is. Yet my best student this semester gave an complex, completely wrong answer involving all manner of irrelevant material. She has Aquinas thinking rocks have intellect. She appeals to his doctrine of divine simplicity, which he doesn't invoke on this question (and I never covered in class). Only a pretty good student could come up with the latter in the absence of knowin the right answer, but where is the former coming from? Everything has an intellect?

Then there was the question about absolute and hypothetical necessity in Aquinas. One student began by talking about "Absolut necessity".

Bob Jones and Race

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Update: Joseph Celucien has posted this at Christ, My Righteousness as part of a series on racial reconciliation, so it might be worth looking at the comments there as well.

Bob Jones University, founded in 1927 in the nexus of racial segregationism and the religious separatism of the early fundamentalist movement, took until 2000 to revoke their ban on interracial dating. Eight years later, they've issued a Statement about Race at Bob Jones University that reflects a fairly healthy view of race, admits to having based their policies on the surrounding cultural norms rather than the Bible, and admits to the wrongness of their institutional policies on race. I was glad in 2000 when they revoked their ban on interracial dating, and I'm glad to see this statement today.

Not everyone is happy about it, though, and I'm not talking about white supremacists. There are some people who simply refuse to accept this as genuine repentance. See the comments at Justin Taylor's post on this for some examples.

The reactions in that comment thread led me to think about a set of related concepts that people often don't distinguish, sometimes to the point of philosophical confusion on important issues. I've sometimes used a paper by Jeffrie Murphy on forgiveness that draws a four-fold distinction between justification, excuse, mercy, and reconciliation. I would now add to the list mitigating factors, explanations, and what Laurence Thomas calls moral deference. Justification is an an explanation why an action isn't wrong (presumably when someone is assuming or arguing that it is). A justification for killing someone, which is normally wrong, might be that I'm defending my son from a vicious murderer. It's a defense of the rightness of something that would otherwise be wrong. An excuse is an explanation of why we shouldn't blame someone who did something wrong. Someone who does something that's wrong but couldn't understand the relevant moral issues because of a diminished capacity to engage in moral reasoning would be excused. Mercy is the removal or diminishment of punishment. If a judge reduces a sentence or a governor or president commutes a sentence, it's mercy. Reconciliation is the restoration of normal relations, for instance if a divorced couple reinstated their marriage or two estranged friends resumed a relationship of friendship. Murphy distinguishes all of these from forgiveness, which is the willingness to put aside one's resentment.

Two related but yet distinct concepts that occurred to me in reading this discussion are mitigating factors, explanations, and moral deference. Mitigating factors can be the basis for some of the original list. A mitigating factor may explain why something normal wrong is right, or it might explain why someone shouldn't be held responsible for doing the wrong thing. It might make it right to reduce a sentence, or it could be the grounds for forgiveness. But the mitigating factor itself is just a condition that makes it worth considering a situation as more complex than the straightforward case of wrongdoing that deserves a certain simple response. An explanation of someone's behavior is simply an account of what led to it. Sometimes it's helpful to understand what led someone to do something wrong. Sometimes the explanation includes mitigating factors. Sometimes it provides some level of justification or excuse. Sometimes it's an attempt to justify or excuse but one that's not entirely successful. But sometimes when someone offers an explanation all they want is for you to understand how they could have ended up in that position, and it might be useful to know about in order to help prevent the person being in the situation that occasioned their wrong act. So I think this is a distinct category, and it's good to be able to think of it as separate. Someone can offer an explanation without necessarily seeing that explanation as an excuse, justification, or call for mercy. Finally, moral deference is when you admit that you don't have a good grasp of what it's like to be in someone else's situation, which leads you therefore to extend them some level of mercy, forgiveness, excuse, justification, or reconciliation. It's a particular reason for doing one of those things, namely that you can't put yourself in a position to judge as easily because you haven't experienced what they've experienced.


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