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Saint Thomas Aquinas: A Review of Aquinas’s Theory and Ethical Approaches. Roline Campbell and Heather Sloan. Saint Thomas Aquinas 1225-1274. Summary of St. Thomas Aquinas. Born in 1225 at family castle in Roccasecca.

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saint thomas aquinas a review of aquinas s theory and ethical approaches
Saint Thomas Aquinas: A Review of Aquinas’s Theory and Ethical Approaches

Roline Campbell


Heather Sloan


Summary of St. Thomas Aquinas

  • Born in 1225 at family castle in Roccasecca.
  • Died 49 years later on March 7, 1274, in Fossanova, 20 kilometers from birthplace.
  • Father of natural law theory
  • One of 33 Doctors of the Catholic Church
  • A philosopher and theologian
  • Greatest work was Summa theologiae
  • Teachings are currently used in ethics, civil law, religious morality, and politics.
  • Bachelor and Master in Theology.

Influences and Historical Context

  • Well traveled- lived in Paris and Naples twice, Cologne, Rome, Orvieto, and Viterbo.
  • Member of the Dominican Order
  • Primary mentor Albert the Great- taught Aquinas in depth on Aristotle
  • Studied Aristotle with Islamic interpreters Averroes and Avicenna
  • Aristotelian corpus recently translated to Latin.
  • Christian groups of Cathars emerging with ideas of Manicheism.
  • Manichaeism-
  • - Founded by the Persian Mani.
  • - A form of religious dualism focused on principles of good and evil.
  • - Influenced by of Zoroastrian Dualism, Babylonian folklore, Buddhist ethics, and some small Christian elements.

Aquinas’s Life Story

  • 1225- Born in Roccasecca
  • 1230- Placed in Monte Cassino Monastery
  • - Youngest son placed in monastery
  • -introduced to prayer, mathematics, reading, and writing
  • 1239- Transferred to the institution of general studies at Naples
  • - First introduction to Dominican order
  • - Studied philosophical and medical texts, logic, natural sciences, and metaphysics
  • - Studied Aristotle with Islamic interpreters
  • - Joined Dominican order
  • 1244- House arrest by family.
  • - Benedictines vs. Dominicans
  • 1245- Studied under Albert the Great at Cologne
  • - Expanded knowledge on Aristotle.
  • 1259- Finished Bachelor and Master of Theology in Paris
  • - Bachelor and Master in Theology

Aquinas’s Life Story

  • 1260- Lived in Italy educating Dominicans and composing multiple works
  • -Started Summa theologiae
  • 1268- Second appointment to Dominican regent master in Theology in Paris
  • 1272- Appointed to Naples to organize a school of Theology
  • 1273- Summoned by Pope Urban IV to attend a council meeting.
  • - Meeting intended to reunite Eastern Orthodox and Catholic Churches
  • 1274- Died after injury sustained on journey to council meeting.
  • - Injured by branch that knocked Thomas off his mule causing an ICH

Summa theologiae

  • Summa theologiae has three parts.
  • 1.) Issues regarding God and the process of creation
  • 2.) The moral return of humans to God
  • 3.) Christ as the guide with sacramental practices as ways of return to God
  • Second part focuses on a life of virtue.
  • - examines happiness, the voluntary and involuntary, will, intention, consent, good, evil, habits, virtue, and law
  • - habitual actions and character development
  • - virtue and vice


  • Virtues
  • 1.) Acquired- habit allows individuals to adopt and are directed by reason
  • 2.) Infused- the moral virtues that God provides to shape and guide moral development
  • Theological virtues
  • 1.) Faith
  • 2.) Hope
  • 3.) Charity


B. Cardinal Virtues

1.) Prudence- the right use of reason to guide moral actions

2.) Justice- giving what is due to each person

- Cumulative justice- trade between people

- Distributive justice- relations between community and individual

3.) Fortitude- the good of the individual (actions consistent with reason)

4.) Temperance- a curb of natural passions


Natural Law Theory

Four types of law:

1.) Eternal Law- the rational basis for order among creation according to God

2.) Natural Law- the human participation in eternal law; the degree to which order actually exists

3.) Human Law- when natural law is drawn up in the form of a civic law to guide society

4.) Divine Law- the rule and measure of all virtue


Natural Law Summary

Per Mark Murphy (2008) in the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

To summarize: the paradigmatic natural law view holds that (1) the natural law is given by God; (2) it is naturally authoritative over all human beings; and (3) it is naturally knowable by all human beings. Further, it holds that (4) the good is prior to the right, that (5) right action is action that responds nondefectively to the good, that (6) there are a variety of ways in which action can be defective with respect to the good, and that (7) some of these ways can be captured and formulated as general rules.

application and usefulness
Application and Usefulness
  • Embraces virtue as “learned, not innate” (White & Taft, 2004, p. 468)
  • Natural Law as a virtue theory claims that virtue is:
    • acquired through habits
    • infused from God
today s healthcare environment
Today’s healthcare environment
  • Technological developments
  • Political developments
  • Little attention to development of morality (acquiring virtue)
what s the use
What’s the use?
  • Not in the definitive, unfailing, timeless answers
  • In being questioned anew by every generation
  • Limited use: process of detailed moral consideration before acting
  • More useful: application of an intellective-volitive analysis when there was some failure to act reasonably.
  • Analysis of unsuccessful moral action to identify , provide insight and prevent such future failure.
usefulness for nursing
Usefulness for nursing

“Within the discipline of nursing, no matter how speculative the inquiry, the end is practice.”

“The decision and ability to apply principles within a particular situation is the art of practice”.

(Whelton, 2002)

usefulness for nursing1
Usefulness for nursing
  • Conscious powers capable of development
    • Intellect
      • Becoming more proficient with frequent use
    • Power of willing
      • Can be actualized through many habits
      • Most important habits of the will = justice and charity
    • Emotive capacity
      • Feelings culminating in sensory desires (food, intoxicants and sexual pleasure)
        • Goal to develop reasonable self-control (temperance)
      • Affective reaction to difficulties & threats (hope, despair, daring, fear and anger)
        • Goal is to develop fortitude (emotional strength)
standards used to evaluate this theory
Standards used to evaluate this theory
  • Strengths
  • Weaknesses
  • Applicability
  • Simplicity
  • Empirical content
strengths of natural law
Strengths of Natural Law
  • Offers certainty and provides security to a society.
  • Suggests that all of humanity shares a common purpose and origin.
  • States there are real reasons to live a moral life
  • Natural Law is a complete way of life, dealing with character, motive and action.  
  • It gives a day-to-day and lifelong system for living a moral life.
  • Clearly calls certain acts intrinsically wrong (torture, fraud, sexual exploitation etc.)
weaknesses of natural law
Weaknesses of Natural Law
  • Assume that humans everywhere share a moral sense of what is right and wrong.  (moral consensus does not exist throughout the world)
  • Suggests that humans share basically the same nature, any deviation from that nature is unnatural.  
  • Criticized for being rigid, inflexible and legalistic.  
  • Incompatible with:
    • atheism (God does not exist) and
    • agnosticism (refuse to commit to God’s existence or non-existence
  • One cannot have a theory of divine providence without a divine being. Thus:
    • If the world is only the result of a cosmic accident, then there is no design or purpose to human life and the concept of an 'inbuilt' nature placed there by a Creator to whom we are responsible is meaningless. 
applicability is it useful and usable
ApplicabilityIs it useful and usable?
  • Natural Law constitutes the basic principles of practical rationality for human beings
  • Opportunity to better our understanding of human nature
    • Knowledge of human nature provides principles of human action
    • Thus human nature is source of practical truth in nursing.
simplicity simplicity of structure understandable simplicity of application usefulness
SimplicitySimplicity of structure (understandable)Simplicity of application (usefulness)
  • Key Precepts of Natural Law
        • Good should be promoted and carried out
        • Evil must be identified and avoided.
  • Key Purposes of Human Existence
        • Preservation of life
        • Ordering society for the benefit of its members
        • Worshipping the Creator
        • Education
        • Reproduction of the species
empirical content assumptions consistent with what is known in nature society
Empirical contentAssumptions consistent with what is known in nature & society
  • Assume all human beings share a common nature (human nature)
  • Assume Law is a dictate of reason, for the common good, made by the one who has authority over the community, and is promulgated (made known).
  • Identifying something as good gives us a reason to pursue it; identifying it as bad, a reason to avoid it.
ana code of ethics and aquinas
ANA Code of Ethics and Aquinas
  • Sections that reflect Aquinas’s ethical principles:
  • Character development and virtues vs . Vices
  • -5.3 Wholeness of Character
  • - 6.1Influence of the environment on moral virtues
  • -6.2 Influence of the environment on ethical obligations
  • Prudence, Justice, and Fortitude
  • -3.5 Acting on questionable practice
  • - 3.6 Addressing impaired practice
  • Temperance
  • -2.2 Conflict of interest for nurses
  • -2.4 Professional boundaries
ana code of ethics and aquinas1
ANA Code of Ethics and Aquinas

Section 6.1 from the ANA’s Code of Ethics for Nurses with Interpretive Statements in 2001, is of particular interest and states

Virtues are habits of character that predispose persons to meet their moral obligations; that is, to do what is right. Excellences are habits of character that predispose a person to do a particular job or task well. Virtues such as wisdom, honesty, and courage are habits or attributes of the morally good person. Excellences such as compassion, patience, and skill are habits of character of the morally good nurse. For the nurse, virtues and excellences are those habits that affirm and promote the values of human dignity, well-being, respect, health, independence, and other values central to nursing. Both virtues and excellences, as aspects of moral character, can be either nurtured by the environment in which the nurse practices or they can be diminished or thwarted. All nurses have a responsibility to create, maintain, and contribute to environments that support the growth of virtues and excellences and enable nurses to fulfill their ethical obligations.



American Nurses Association. (2001). Code of Ethics for Nurses with Interpretive Statements. Retrieved from

Bourke, V. (1989). Aquinas. In R. J. Cavalier, J. Gouinlock, & J. P. Sterba (Eds.), Ethics in the history of western philosophy (pp. 152-183). Retrieved from

Celenza, C. S. (2007). The revival of Platonic philosophy. In J. Hankins (Ed.), The Cambridge companion to renaissance philosophy (pp. 72-96). Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.

Fowler, M. D. (Ed.). (2008). Guide to the code of ethics for nurses. Silver Spring, MD: American Nurses Association.

Inglis, J. (2002). On Aquinas. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

McInery, R. (2004). Aquinas. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing Inc.

McInery, R., & O’Callaghan J. (2009). Saint Thomas Aquinas. In Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy online. Retrieved from


References (cont.)

McInerny, R. (1993). Ethics. In N. Kretzman & E. Stump (Eds.), The Cambridge companion to Aquinas (pp. 196-216). New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Murphy, M. (2008). The Natural Law Tradition in Ethics. In Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy online. Retrieved from

Owens, J. (1993). Aristotle and Aquinas. In N. Kretzman & E. Stump (Eds.), The Cambridge companion to Aquinas (pp. 38-59). New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Porter, R. S., Kaplan, J. L., & Homeier, B. P. (Eds.). (2009-2010). The Merck manual for health care professionals (18 ed.). Retrieved from

Whelton, B. J. (2002). Human nature as a source of practical truth: Aristotelian-Thomistic realism and the practical science of nursing. Nursing Philosophy, 3, 35-46.

White, J., & Taft, S. (2004, August). Frameworks for teaching and learning business ethics within the global context: Background of ethical theories. Journal of Management Education, 28, 463-477. doi: 10.1177/1052562904265656