Moral Knowledge—Prudential and Philosophical (Yves Simon)

This is a favorite theme for me—one on which I intend to write at length some day.  Maritain has some very similar things to say, and, to be honest, a fair understanding of this matter would help to clarify MUCH in currently controverted discussions of moral matters.  What holds primacy in moral matters is prudence's command—hence, too, the virtues that rectify prudence with regard to the ends to be pursued.  However, we cannot address this here—as well as the important role played by our insight into first moral principles (i.e. synderesis).

In any case, Thomists tend to overlook the fact that moral philosophy is a kind of reflective science—not in the sense that logic is reflective (upon the relationes rationis that are called "second intentions") but in the sense (truly reflective) that moral philosophy reflects upon the scientific ordering found in the warp and woof of MORAL ACTION—its principles and properties.  Speculative knowledge (e.g. natural philosophy, chemistry, biology, pure mathematics, metaphysics, etc.) looks to an order that is independent of the human will (essentially, though perhaps accidentally dependent upon it, as in the case of new molecules created by our technical skills).  Moral philosophy reflects on THE ORDER FOUND IN HUMAN FREEDOM—i.e. the order that has been ordered by prudence (or, alas, imprudence) in the will's elicited and imperated acts.

Okay, now the quotes from Simon, which are very important:

Yves R. Simon, Freedom and Community, ed. Charles P. O’Donnell (New York: Fordham University Press, 1968), 144n13:

As far as action is concerned, what matters primarily is fulfillment, not explanation, and it is within an adherence firm enough to insure fulfillment that the search for explanation must be pursued... The man of practical wisdom well knows that what matters is to do what is right rather than to understand why it is right.  He also knows that what ought to be done is not really done unless it is brought into existence according to the mode proper to a rational agent...  Practical wisdom [i.e. prudence] itself requires that the science of ethics enlightens the minds of men.

On this topic, one should also consult the following in Simon's Practical Knowledge:

  • Fulfillment and Explanation (p.26-38)
  • Comments on Aristotle's remarks at the beginning of Nicomachean Ethics (p.44-47)
  • Comments on prudence and moral science as practical knowledge; but be sure to see remarks noted later on p.70 (p.50-51)
  • A very important brief point on p.51: "But moral philosophy does something that no purely theoretical science does.  It is concerned with problems of right and wrong use."  He then goes on in p.52-55 to describe the ways that moral philosophy retains the synthetic character of practical knowledge.
  • The sections on p.57-68 carry this forward in a very interesting way, in particular in his discussions on the role of judgment and concept in practical discourse
  • On p.69-70, after noting that a right prudential judgment can be speculatively wrong (a theme he uses often but one that can be found in Garrigou-Lagrange, for instance), he notes that moral philosophy is different.  In this, he almost stresses matters to the opposite point of what he has said heretofore: "In moral philosophy, a proposition that fails to agree with the real state of affairs is irretrievably false and bad; there is no redeeming feature in it.  Either it is true or it is false that some acts are wrong by essence and can never be justified.  Either moral virtues are interdependent or they are not.  If they are not, the proposition that they are is philosophically false, bad, misleading, obnoxious in every possible respect.  The truth of moral philosophy is, primarily and purely and simply, a theoretical truth.  It is a relation of conformity between what the intellect asserts or denies and what is really united or separated in the world of things.  [However, here is an important qualification:] But, as already suggested, the theoretical truth of moral philosophy, far from excluding its being true by conformity with right desire, strictly demands that it should enjoy such conformity, which is practical truth.  Consider, again, the proposition that some actions, like jealousy, admit of no just mean because they are wrong by essence.  Such a proposition certainly agrees with right desire, and a man of good character, no matter how ignorant he may be of moral philosophy, will keep away from such actions, and never dream of a moderate does of jealousy which would be the proper mean between excess and defect.  Any proposition of moral philosophy that would not agree with right desire would be immoral and false.  But, within moral philosophy, this truth by agreement with right desire is a pure consequence of theoretical or unqualified truth.  It is not characteristic of moral philosophy; it does not belong to it in strict appropriateness.  Insofar as truth by conformity to the real state of affairs is described as the truth of the theoretical intellect, and truth by conformity to right desire as the truth of the practical intellect, moral philosophy is the work of the theoretical intellect.”  [The claim is pretty strong.  I continually think that speculatively practical truth has its own unique constitution.]
  • He continues on p.70 with some good remarks about the hazy status of most arguments that claim to be moral philosophical; this continues on into the next section as well