Essay Aquinas’ Theological Approach June 2018

September 21, 2018
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Evaluate Aquinas’ theological approach to conscience. OCR Paper H573/2 June 2018

This essay was written under exam timed conditions on a June 2018 exam question. My comments are in italics.

Aquinas writing in the thirteenth century with a theological approach, is, for its time, the closest thing to a psychological approach to conscience thought of. It shares many aspects with Freud’s more modern analysis of the conscience, such as the idea of guilt and desire. Consequently it can be called a logical, structured approach to conscience as although it is reliant on the existence of God, it gives us good insights into the human mind.

This opening paragraph illustrates quote well a tactical mistake – introducing a very interesting but tangential point about Freud without first establishing what is meant by a ‘theological approach to conscience”. Indeed as  you read on through the essay you will notice how the ‘theological approach’ itself becomes an assumed thing without being properly and fully brought out into the open. The  point about Freud is fascinating and potentially very good  but should have been woven into the analysis. The first paragraph should be reserved for attacking (unpacking) the question and then presenting a brief outline of your approach and your controlling thesis.

Aquinas in Summa Theologica would argue that reason distinguishes us from animals, as we are made ‘in the image of God’ or ‘imago dei’, and that we must use reason or ‘ratio’ to distinguish the best moral decisions to make. He believes that humans have a  natural orientation towards the good (synderesis) that guides us and helps our ratio to make right choices as it is infallible. Many, such as Vardy and Grosch would argue against this notion of synderesis, as human nature is essentially corruptible, and not naturally orientated towards the good. This could be supported by Aristotle’s ‘doctrine of habituation’ which interestingly suggests that people learn what good and bad is when they are children, and have to be ‘habituated’ to the societal norms and expectations.

This is a very good paragraph but again needs to be openly related to the question and the word ‘theological’. Paul could also be used to illustrate the ‘imago dei’ point as Paul says in Romans 2 that even the Gentiles have the ‘law written on their hearts’. I am not sure the explanation for ratio is quite right here. It is ratio which is inherent in the divine blueprint for the world – God’s reasoning in terms of telos, proper purpose.We develop phronesis or practical wisdom to guide us in oral decision-making – and so we have two moral and theological developments of general ratio, synderesis and phronesis. Neither phronesis nor synderesis has to be inherently theological or given by God, however. Synderesis is very close to Dawkins’ altruistic gene, and he definitely is not arguing theologically.

Consequently it would seem likely that Aquinas’ theological notion of ‘synderesis’ is accurate but that perhaps it is not God-given, but instead learnt from parents and society, which would be supported by Freud in An Outline to Psychoanalysis” also.

‘Theological’ here means ‘God-given’ and “God-designed’. Good evaluative point to say that the inherent moral sense could come from somewhere else – society and parents (Freud) or evolution (Dawkins).

Furthermore, Aquinas’ notion of ‘sensuality’, which he believes to be the part of us that tempts us away from God, and was responsible for the Fall in the Garden of Eden, has merit in line with Freud’s notion of the Id as both seeking pleasures outside of what is expected (whether by God for Aquinas, or by society for Freud). Freud believed that these desires were sexual, repressed and driven by the libido, which could link to the fact that in the post-lapsarian state many scholars such as Augustine believe that sex is tainted by sin and lust, as before the Fall it was a duty and not a pleasure, and after is associated with concupiscence. This suggests that Aquinas’ notion of ‘sensuality’ as a temptation away from correctly informed decisions using reason is accurate, as there is certainly stigma around sex and ‘original sin’ for many Catholic thinkers.

I’m not entirely sure how this paragraph relates to the actual question set and again it reveals a tactical mistake by the candidate – to present a clearer  question-related thesis rather than divert slightly into these very interesting, but ultimately perhaps not mainstream points. The paragraph could have been made more clearly relevant by saying something like “synderesis assumes a general orientation by our very natures towards the moral good, defined as morally good ends. However, there are certain natural tendencies within humankind which beg the question, what exactly is the moral good? Sex is one such area, where for example, the theological approach has been interpreted as forbidding sex outside marriage and labelling desire as itself inherently evil – a product of concupiscence and the Fall fo human kind. It is hard to reconcile synderesis as interpreted by Aquinas and the modern view of e sexual feelings or indeed, homosexual orientation’.

The fact that Aquinas recognises that this sense of ‘ratio’ is fallible, as it is based on knowledge (nb the candidate doesn’t make this point isn’t clear, unfortunately) also adds to the strength of his argument about conscience. He recognises that through ‘vincible’ or ‘invincible’ error our judgements can be faulty, either because we did not take time to inform ourselves of all the facts, or because we could not possibly have known all the facts of the situation, and therefore are not at fault. This perceptively takes into account the faltering nature of human conscience, as humans are always going to make moral mistakes.

Fair point to introduce vincible and invincible ignorance which is Aquinas’ attempt to reconcile the fact of imago dei goodness with the fact that we obviously sin and do horrible things. Perhaps the attempted reconciliation could have been made clearer.

In conclusion, Aquinas’ theological approach to conscience has several merits, as it takes into account the desire to stray from what is right (sensuality) and also suggests that we are conditioned to ‘know’ what is good and what is bad. Although this might come from human punishment or reward when we are children, it still accurately describes the process at work in our mind when we are faced with a moral decision.

Good, clear conclusion. Generally this candidate writes very well, with a beautifully clear style. I repeat my earlier point – there is a problem of exam tactics in the failure to continually keep the question in the forefront of  the answer and address it clearly in every paragraph. I feel a clearer thesis statement would have helped in the opening paragraph stating what a theological approach means and what is in outline good and bad about Aquinas’ view. Then Dawkins and Freud could have been introduced as counter-points and the candidate would have got close to  full marks.

AO1 Level 4 10 marks A good demonstration of knowledge and understanding. Addresses the question well. Good selection of relevant material, used appropriately on the whole. Mostly accurate knowledge which demonstrates good understanding of the material used, which should have reasonable amounts of depth or breadth. A good range of scholarly views

AO2 Level 4 16 marks A good demonstration of analysis and evaluation in response to the question. Generally successful analysis, evaluation and argument. Views well stated, with some development and justification. Answers the question set well. There is a well–developed line of reasoning which is clear, relevant and logically structured.

Total 26/40

65%  Grade B on 2018 grading



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