How Does Intellectual Labour Proceed? (Part 5) 

Human Decision-making 

Thomas Aquinas’ meticulously detailed observations, drawn from personal experience, show that the desire to know and the desire to do not only are parallel in structure, but also share common elements. We present his description in condensed form below.1Thomas Aquinas, Summa TheologiaeIa Iiae. Q.15, a. 3. According to Aquinas, this process occurs in a curious mixed sequence of twelve basic steps. We cannot enlarge here on this achievement of Aquinas. He wrote it up in a central section of the Summa Theologiae (Q. 6-17 of the beginning of the second part). We briefly mention “consent” above. He deals with its complexities in Q. 15. It took him fifty pages of two-column Latin that comes out in translation to one hundred pages.

Aquinas’ description of two ways in which we make decisions 

Aquinas described two ways our decision-making works by making a key distinction. Below, we provide two schematic diagrams along with an example of each. In addition, we indicate (in parenthesis) where parallels to elements exist in expressions gleaned from the syllabus. 

Description 1 

Choice adds to consent the notion of a special relationship to that which is preferred to something else, and accordingly a choice still remains open after consent. For it may well happen that deliberation discloses several means, and since each of these meets with approval, consent is given to each; later preference is given to one and it is chosen. 

Diagram 1 

Consent to several means, Preference is given to one 

Preference is given” → “One (means) is chosen 

 

Approval of several means” → “Consent is given to each” 

 

Deliberation discloses several means” 

Example 1 

You are dining out at a restaurant. 

(What is to be done?) You deliberate over four possible courses amongst chicken, fish, beef and vegetable pasta. 

(The impetus to create a plan is drawn, partly from known facts and partly from sense and images) You have good memories of eating each dish. You have no dietary restrictions. You have already eaten pasta this week. You have already purchased a delicious salmon filet for dinner tomorrow. You haven’t had chicken in a while. That leaves chicken and beef as possibilities. You approve of the chicken and beef. 

(A practical insight yields the what-to-do list.) You consent to the chicken and beef. 

(Which of the plans is worthwhile?) The pasta you had for dinner last night was served with a sauce containing ground beef. You don’t want to have beef two nights in a row. 

(You judge the possible plans of action for their value) Your preference at this moment in time, then, is to have the chicken course. 

(A further practical insight yields the best plan of action) Yes! It is to be done and you choose the chicken course. 

Description 2 

But if one alone meets with approval, then consent and choice coincide in point of fact, though they remain distinct meanings, for we think of consent as approval, and of choice as a preference. 

Diagram 2 

Consent and Preference coincide, though they remain distinct meanings 

Preference is given” → “One (means) is chosen 

 

Approval of one means” → “Consent is given to one means” 

 

Deliberation discloses several means” 

Example 2 

You are dining out at a restaurant. 

(What is to be done?) You deliberate over four possible courses amongst chicken, fish, beef and a vegetable pasta. 

(The impetus to create a plan is drawn, partly from known facts and partly from sense and images) You have bad memories of how animals are harvested for human consumption. You are an activist for animal rights. You are allergic to fish. You are a strict vegetarian. There are no other vegetarian options. You approve of one main course, vegetable pasta. 

(A practical insight narrows the what-to-do list.) You consent to vegetable pasta. 

(Is this plan worthwhile?) Vegetable pasta is hypoallergenic and contains no synthetic ingredients or animal by-products. 

(You judge the value of this plan of action.) This meal is the healthiest choice available. Your consent to vegetable pasta coincides with your preference. Your preference at this moment in time, then, is to have vegetable pasta. 

(A further practical insight yields the best plan of action) Yes! It is to be done and you choose the vegetable pasta. 

Further Observations … 

Results obtained from data and facts reveal parallel structures and common elements in two sources: Aquinas’ descriptions, as well as expressions gleaned from the syllabus. These results will resurface in Chapter 14 with our re-enactment of Helen Keller’s experience of decision making.2We would suggest that the supporting passages in this article, written in retrospect by a more mature and articulate Helen, accurately express the strength of resolve in the young Helen at the time of these events.

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