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This is the blog of the faculty of the Ave Maria University Philosophy Department. We post our philosophical reflections on perennial and contemporary questions as well as on Departmental and University news and other topics of interest.
  • August 14, 2012 8:32 pm

    Evaluating Paul Ryan’s “Thomism”

    Yesterday morning I wrote a post for about Paul Ryan’s “Thomism.” It was meant as a bit of comic relief for a site that is mostly about academic research on Aquinas. It was not meant to be a substantive reflection on whether Mitt Romney’s VP pick is truly a Thomist.

    But the post was quickly spun by others who read it as an argument defending Ryan as a Thomist. I think my post could be read that way. But that is not how I intended it. I’m not upset that people took it the wrong way but I would like to make it clear that I was not out to confirm Ryan as a Thomist. I merely wanted to point out that in an interview back in April he had distanced himself from the thought of Ayn Rand (for whom he has professed some appreciation in the past) and apparently embraced Aquinas. I thought it would be funny for the readers of to see how Aquinas had made it out of stuffy classrooms and dusty studies to figure in the US presidential race. (Okay, I’m not great at comedy.)

    Before I saw how people were interpreting the post I added the following remarks to it:

    I’ve discovered that others have beat me to the punch on this “headline,” some by a few months. I guess the news cycle is a little longer than the mainstream media’s, which makes sense, right? At any rate, there are pieces that applaud Ryan’s “Thomism,” others that claim his commitment to Randianism is deeper than he lets on, and still others that wonder about the incompatibility of Randianism and Thomism.

    I don’t know whether will involve itself in this debate but it is certainly a worthy one to engage.

    If people had seen these remarks, I think they would have understood better that I was not really trying to make a positive or negative claim about Ryan’s alleged “Thomism.”

    But given that the internet is now (once again) abuzz with discussions of Ryan’s Thomism, I thought that, as a contribution to the discussion, I would say a few words about what I think the criteria are for evaluating Ryan as a Thomist.

    Before I do this, let me return to the quote that has caused all the talk. It comes from Ryan’s April interview with the National Review’s Robert Costa:

    “I, like millions of young people in America, read Rand’s novels when I was young. I enjoyed them,” Ryan says. “They spurred an interest in economics, in the Chicago School and Milton Friedman,” a subject he eventually studied as an undergraduate at Miami University in Ohio. “But it’s a big stretch to suggest that a person is therefore an Objectivist.”

    “I reject her philosophy,” Ryan says firmly. “It’s an atheist philosophy. It reduces human interactions down to mere contracts and it is antithetical to my worldview. If somebody is going to try to paste a person’s view on epistemology to me, then give me Thomas Aquinas,” who believed that man needs divine help in the pursuit of knowledge. “Don’t give me Ayn Rand,” he says.

    When Ryan says that he rejects Rand’s “philosophy,” is he implying a distinction between her philosophy and her economic, social, and political views? Is he saying that he rejects her views on, say, God and knowledge, but not necessarily some of her views on economics, society, and politics?

    Well, I don’t think this brief quote is enough to allow us to answer this question definitively. And, of course, if we consider Aquinas’s understanding of philosophy, then economics, social matters, and politics would probably fall to a large extent within its scope.

    I think that when Ryan endorses Aquinas in the above quote a lot of people have taken him to mean that his (Ryan’s) economic, social, and political views (and not just his epistemology) are Thomistic or at least that we can legitimately evaluate them from a Thomistic standpoint. This is how it seems that an author named "Joan" at the Subversive Thomism blog and Ed Kilgore at the The Washington Monthly interpret Ryan.

    How would we go about evaluating Ryan’s economic, social, and political views from a Thomistic perspective? An obvious starting point would be to look at how these views square with Aquinas’s teaching on natural law since it is this teaching that informs Aquinas’s own views in these areas. So, I hope you will bear with me while I give a brief-all-too-brief account of Aquinas’s natural law doctrine as I understand it. Those of you who would just prefer to go straight to my conclusion can skip this part. (Scroll down to the heading: “Is Paul Ryan a Thomist?”)

    Natural Law

    For Aquinas the natural law (lex naturalis) is the creation’s – and especially rational creatures’ –  participation in the eternal law (lex aeterna), i.e., the law by which God rules the universe. (In the end, the eternal law is just God himself.) Putting it simply (perhaps too simply), our very natures and our natural inclinations are the natural law, the created embodiment of the eternal law.

    We human beings become aware of the natural law by being aware of our fundamental natural inclinations. What are these inclinations? In the Summa’s Treatise on Law Aquinas mentions five: (1) the pursuit of good and avoidance of evil; (2) self-preservation; (3) the procreation and education of children; (4) the pursuit of communal life; (5) and the pursuit of the truth about God.

    Some commentators would say that 2-5 are just the way that 1 is realized in human beings and that 1 should not be considered a distinct inclination. And some would say that 4 and 5 are not distinct inclinations. I won’t quibble with either interpretation here.

    Do human beings really have the above natural inclinations? I think that there is plenty of evidence to suggest that we do but I’m not going to get into that now since I’m not trying to defend Aquinas’s natural law doctrine but only attempting to state what it is in order to propose a way of evaluating Paul Ryan’s economic, social, and political views from a Thomistic perspective.

    However, there are a few further comments that I would like to make on this list of inclinations Aquinas believes we human beings have.

    First, what human beings are naturally inclined to can also be spoken of as the human goods. So, the above fundamental human inclinations likewise provide us with a list of the fundamental human goods.

    Second, Aquinas holds that these inclinations disclose to us the fundamental precepts that govern all human conduct. We should conduct our lives in such a way that these fundamental goods are safeguarded and promoted. Human actions are good and just or bad and unjust insofar as they respect or fail to respect these fundamental human goods.

    Finally, Aquinas regards these goods as having a hierarchical order. Therefore, in certain circumstances, when we are faced with a choice between goods, the appropriate thing to do will be to choose the higher one. But choosing one good over another obviously does not mean that we despise the good that we have given up in favor of the higher good. We do not deny its goodness in general for human beings; we only recognize that it has a lower priority. (Incidentally, the practitioners of what goes by the name of New Natural Law Theory — Grisez, Finnis, & Co. — seem to reject the idea that there is a hierarchy among natural human goods. To that extent it is hard, in my judgment, to consider New Natural Law Thomistic.)

    Human Law

    What Aquinas calls human law (lex humana) is the law that we are most familiar with, the laws that we human beings make: national and local laws that regulate traffic, commerce, education, agriculture, social relations, and so forth. Since these laws all have to do, in one way or another, with human conduct, Aquinas believes that they will only rightly guide human conduct if they are in harmony with natural law, and so, ultimately in harmony with eternal law.

    While any given human law may not have been consciously framed with an eye to natural law, it should, Aquinas thinks, be amenable to logical derivation from natural law. What might such a logical derivation look like? Well, among the laws that regulate traffic are laws that establish speed limits. What is the purpose of speed limits? One obvious purpose is to encourage drivers to operate their vehicles safely. But to what end? I think most of us suppose that the end is to prevent people from being injured or killed by reckless drivers. Clearly, laws dictating speed limits can be logically derived from the natural law precept according to which we should act in such a way as to respect the good of self-preservation.

    But what if some human law runs counter to the precepts of natural law? The degree to which a human law encourages us to act in a way that is prejudicial to the human goods, to that degree the law encourages unjust behavior. Such a law, Aquinas says, would itself be unjust.

    And if a law is unjust (i.e., prejudicial to eternal law and natural law), Aquinas thinks that we are dispensed from obeying it, i.e., we are free to break it, “except perhaps,” he adds, “in order to avoid scandal or disturbance.” (MLK famously appealed to this part of Aquinas’s teaching on law in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”)

    But if the law is just (i.e., in conformity with eternal law and natural law), then we are indeed bound in conscience to obey it, unless circumstances unforeseen by the legislator make it plain that not following the letter of the law is more expedient for the sake of some higher good.

    Is Paul Ryan a Thomist?

    What Aquinas says about human law and its relation to natural law applies equally to economic and social policy. These will be just when they respect natural law and unjust when they don’t.

    How, exactly, do we determine whether laws and economic and social policies respect the natural law? This is the important question. Aquinas thinks that there is a fairly short list of deeds – and by implication laws or policies that encourage or require them – that are always in every case bad, evil. Murder would be such a deed.

    But for those deeds – and laws and policies – that don’t make the list it is not always easy to determine their justness or unjustness. What is essential for these matters is a knowledge of the context and prudence.

    Prudence is the intellectual virtue that permits us to make the right judgments about what should or should not be done (or what law or policy to enact) in a given situation. Aquinas believes that those who truly have prudence are very few. Like all intellectual and moral virtues, the acquisition of prudence requires much experience, a great deal of personal effort, a good guide, and grace. It also, obviously, requires a knowledge of the natural law, at least an intuitive knowledge.

    If we are going to try to figure out whether Paul Ryan’s economic, social, and political ideas are Thomistic, first of all we need truly to understand those ideas and have a grasp of the details of the context in which he offers them. And then we must have prudence and a knowledge of Aquinas’s natural law doctrine. I have tried to give an account of the latter in this post.

    Many, probably most, of the matters that Ryan’s ideas touch on are such that the proper way to address them is not blindingly obvious (or it is not blindingly obvious to those who lack the above requirements for making good prudential judgments). Should, for example, Medicare be modified along the lines that Ryan suggests? Does Ryan pass or fail the “Thomist test” here? Again, the question can only be adequately answered by those who know what Ryan’s proposal is, know the context of the proposal, are prudent, and have a knowledge of Aquinas’s natural law doctrine.

    Does this sound like a lot to ask? It may indeed but it is precisely part of what is necessary if we are going to evaluate Ryan’s “Thomism” in anything like a satisfactory way. So, this post is only a first step in the direction of that evaluation. At the moment I have no plans to continue the evaluation in a public forum.

    Without a doubt many of you will find points to disagree with in what I say and have good reasons for your disagreement. If you would like to share your thoughts on this whole matter, feel free to email me (but I can’t promise a reply!). I certainly do not claim to have said the last word that needs to be said on these things and invite your objections.


    ADDENDUM: You can read Aquinas’s Treatise on Law in the Summa here. For a few comments on the analysis (or lack thereof) of Ryan’s “Thomism” by Catholic commentators and a recommendation on a piece to read on Ryan and Catholic social teaching, see my more recent post.