Aquinas on Our Responsibility for Our Emotions
Murphy, Claudia Eisen (University of Toronto)
Medieval Philosophy and Theology 8 (1999)
Philosophical investigations of the concept of responsibility, mirroring its most common function in ordinary language and thought, have been geared for the most part to clarifying intuitions concerning moral and legal accountability for actions. But the resurgence of interest in ethical theories concerned with human virtues has resurrected old questions about our responsibility for our character, attitudes, and emotions. The philosophical tradition that takes virtues as a central moral category has taught us to think of virtues not only as involving dispositions to actions, but also dispositions to desires and emotions. It has also taught us to think of actions as only one of the proper objects of moral evaluation, alongside, for example, motives, intentions, beliefs, desires, and emotions. So it is natural that interest in ethical theories concerned with the virtues would yield interest in responsibility for our attitudes and emotions.1 Thomas Aquinas, who of course is one of the most important architects of the tradition that takes virtues to be central moral categories, holds a very complex set of views about our responsibility for our emotions.
My aim in this essay is to develop and explain Aquinas’s views about whether and when, why, and to what extent we can be responsible for our emotions. I hope to show, in so doing, that his view is plausible, and fits well with some of our own conflicting intuitions about the question.