Metaphysics and Morals

April 10, 2015

Saturday, April 18, at the Catholic Center at NYU, the Thomistic Institute will present a conference entitled “Aquinas on Metaphysics and Morals.”  Speakers will include Reinhard Hütter, John O’Callaghan, Eleonore Stump, and Candace Vogler.  The schedule of the day’s events is available here.  Fr. Thomas Joseph White, O.P., Director of the Thomistic Institute, offered a few thoughts on the conference during a brief interview: 1. What does morality have to do with metaphysics? Metaphysics deals with basic questions about the nature of reality.  What is real and objectively true?  Ultimately our understanding of moral action needs to be based on realistic knowledge about what a human being is, what is good for human nature, and whether God exists.  So metaphysics matters for our most serious moral decisions. 2. What makes Aquinas especially important for thinking about how human beings ought to live? Aquinas is a realist when it comes to understanding what human beings are and the kinds of actions that lead to human happiness or to human self-destruction.  He gives simple examples and bases his reasoning on principles that are applicable to human beings in all times and places.  That is one reason he is called the “common” or “universal doctor” of Catholic thought. 3. What would Aquinas say about the ethical challenges that we face today? Perhaps what he said about pre-Christian civilizations: that without any reference to divine revelation, moral understanding often suffers, and human beings can get confused about very basic moral principles.  He gives interesting examples in this respect: that whole cultures can come to think theft or murder of certain kinds of persons is permissible.  Today, as St. John Paul II noted in his 1993 Encyclical Veritatis Splendor, what is needed is a return to the philosophical search for objective truth.  Truth is not something we have to fear, as a constraint or a source of intolerance.  Truth is a source of genuine liberation and human ennoblement. 4. What do you hope might come from discussing the ethical theories of Aquinas? Postmodern culture tends to treat any affirmation of truth as a potential source of danger or division.  But that same culture causes philosophical and spiritual disorientation.  People are looking for credible sources for understanding life realistically. Aquinas’ thought offers a way of thinking about absolute truth that is also centered on the respect of and virtuous concern for persons.  His philosophy provides a remedy to many forms of contemporary intellectual skepticism and despair. That’s a minimum measure of what good might come from studying Aquinas. A maximal good is that people become saints. The conference will be held at The Catholic Center at NYU 238 Thompson St., New York, NY 10012. 12:30 PM: Lecture 1: “Are There Failed Persons?” Prof. John O’Callaghan 1:30 PM: Break, with refreshments 2:00 PM: Lecture 2: “Aquinas’s metaphysics and the non-Aristotelian character of Aquinas’s ethics,” Prof. Eleanor Stump 3:00 PM: Break, with refreshments 3:30: PM: Lecture 3: “Turning to Aquinas on Virtue,” Prof. Candace Vogler 4:30 PM: Break 5:00 PM: Lecture 4: “To Be Good is To Do the Truth: Reality, Good, and the Primordial Conscience,” Prof. Reinhard Hütter   ✠ Image: Andrea Mantegna, The Triumph of the Virtues, 1502, Musée du Louvre, Paris.

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