Volume 78, Issue 4, Fall 2004
Legal and Moral Debt in Aquinas
It is worthwhile to study Aquinas’s now classical treatment of the virtue of justice at the point where he distinguishes legal obligation, owed directly to the other, from moral obligations to give something to the other in virtue of what is due to oneself, one’s own decency of character (honestas). To fulfill these moral obligations is itself, on his view, a “legal” obligation to God. We might say it is directly owed to a proper order of decency requiring us at least quasi-legally, at second level, to be moral in the sense of kind, merciful, truthful, affable, and so forth. The distinction provides an argument against legally compelling a whole population to act thus morally towards others (thus incidentally diluting the sense of properly legal obligation), which is also an argument for supporting measures for refining moral awareness in schools and elsewhere. There is some concluding discussion of obligation as attaching primarily to the ends of action.