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American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly

Volume 96, Issue 2, Spring 2022

Contemporary Thomistic Psychology

Anne Jeffrey, Krista Mehari
Pages 263-289

Surprising Empirical Directions for Thomistic Moral Psychology: Social Information Processing and Aggression Research

One of the major contemporary challenges to Thomistic moral psychology is that it is incompatible with the most up-to-date psychological science. Here Thomistic psychology is in good company, targeted along with most virtue-ethical views by philosophical Situationism, which uses replicated psychological studies to suggest that our behaviors are best explained by situational pressures rather than by stable traits (like virtues and vices). In this essay we explain how this body of psychological research poses a much deeper threat to Thomistic moral psychology in particular. For Thomistic moral psychology includes descriptive claims about causal connections between certain cognitive processes and behaviors, even independent of whether those processes emerge from habits like virtues. Psychological studies of correlations between these can provide evidence against those causal claims. We offer a new programmatic response to this deeper challenge: empirical studies are relevant only if they investigate behaviors under intentional descriptions, such that the correlations discovered are between cognition and what Aquinas calls human acts. Psychological research on aggression already emphasizes correlations between cognition and intentional behavior, or human acts, and so is positioned to shed light on how well Thomistic moral psychology fits with empirical data. Surprisingly, Aquinas’s views have quite a lot in common with a leading model of aggression, the social information processing (SIP) model. We close by suggesting how we might examine claims of Thomistic moral psychology from an empirical perspective further using research on social information processing and aggression.