The Second-Person Perspective in Aquinas's Ethics: Virtues and Gifts
(Routledge Studies in Ethics and Moral Theory)
Review by Dr Pravin Thevathasan
In order to understand this exciting study of virtue ethics, we need to begin by defining certain terms. "Second person relatedness" occurs when I address someone as "you" and thus form a relationship with that person. "Joint attention" occurs when attending to something with another person. So two children playing with a toy develop a relationship with the toy and with each other as they share in each other's play. Joint attention is principally triadic as it involves a person-person-object relationship. Joint attention is associated with the specific interaction that is second person relatedness.
Pinsent has a description of Elly who is diagnosed with autism. She never points at anything and indeed one of the characteristics of autism is failure to engage in joint attention. Autism thus inhibits second person relatedness.
Let us move from the clinical to the philosophical. The author notes that virtue ethics became popular once again about fifty years ago. The reason why virtue ethics is an attractive alternative to the theories of Kant and Mill is because we are interested in knowing not only whether an action is good or bad but also whether the person doing the action is a good or bad person. Pinsent argues that there is a real difference between the virtue ethics of Aristotle and Aquinas. Aristotle sees virtues as habits. But how do we develop the habit of courage when facing death if we have not faced death before?
Aquinas sees virtues as coming from God. Above all there is the virtue of friendship which we have with God, something Aristotle would not have accepted. This friendship is rooted in second person relatedness.
Pinsent argues that when virtues are used, we move ourselves. But when the Gifts of the Holy Spirit are used, we are moved by God. This movement is not coercive, however, but is the kind of movement of someone engaged in joint attention with another person, a second person relationship that attains its fruition in friendship.
How do we enter into a relationship with God? By grace, a state ordered towards friendship with God in which our "spiritual autism" is got rid of. Pinsent is careful to note that this way of presenting autism is purely analogous. To develop the virtues is linked with joint attention.
How do virtues begin in the first place? Because of second person relatedness. For example, a child learns the virtue of temperance by developing a relationship with the person feeding him and not simply by having a relationship with food. The virtue of temperance is thus gained by a relationship with another. By analogy, all virtues are gained by friendship with God.
This explains why virtues may be gained or lost instantly. If virtues are to do with second person relatedness, they can be immediately lost by an act of betrayal and immediately gained by an act of friendship.
Andrew Pinsent has written a thought provoking and fascinating work on virtue ethics.
Copyright © Pravin Thevathasan 2012
Version: 21st July 2012