Francisco BENZONI, Ecological Ethics and the Human Soul: Aquinas, Whitehead, and the Metaphysics of Value. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007. pp. 261. $35.00 pb. ISBN-13: 978-0268022051.
Reviewed by Richard WOODS, Dominican University, River Forest, IL 60305

Benzoni’s excellent and challenging work is a densely argued analysis of the metaphysical foundations of ethical systems, mainly those of Thomas Aquinas and Alfred North Whitehead, with a view to providing an adequate basis for an ethical understanding of the ecological crisis facing the world today and, presumably, activity commensurate with the challenges it inescapably presents.

His argument mainly focuses on the theological anthropology of Thomas Aquinas, which he faults for positing a moral bifurcation between humankind and other creatures based on the unique immateriality and incorruptibility of the human soul. While Thomas acknowledges the intrinsic goodness of all creatures, this metaphysical dualism, Benzoni argues, prevents Thomas from according intrinsic value and therefore moral worth to non-human creatures, which are thus at the mercy of human purposes and uses. Whether or not one agrees with his conclusion, Benzoni’s long (100 page) summary of Thomas’ “philosophy” must be taken seriously by anyone seeking to understand the relevance of Thomistic thought to ecological issues.

In contrast to the rudiments of Thomas’ hylomorphic epistemology and anthropology as assembled rather masterfully from a wide variety of sources, Benzoni maintains that the process philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead evades the metaphysical dualism that vitiates Thomas’ treatment and therefore offers a more solid foundation for ecological ethics. He accords only 30 pages to an exposition of Whitehead’s thought, however, and a brief chapter to refuting the attempts of Holmes Ralston III and J. Baird Callicott to construct alternative and more conventional ethical approaches. The impression given is that Benzoni is far more intent on disproving both the cogency and relevance of Thomas’ doctrine than probing the intricacies of process thought and other proposals. Clearly, Whitehead comes out ahead in Benzoni’s treatment, and not without cause. Literally condensing Whitehead’s already difficult and sometimes opaque ruminations to a couple of brief chapters is a remarkable undertaking in itself. If not entirely persuasive, that is likely because of the shortness of the shrift accorded Whitehead compared to the very long exegesis of Thomas. It is not clear, for instance, how Thomas’ and Whitehead’s understanding of subjectivity can be fairly contrasted, separated as they are by an immense Cartesian gulf. I suspect that a more comprehensive analysis would reveal that these two thinkers have entirely different conceptions.

Methodologically, Benzoni fails to grasp that Thomas was not primarily a philosopher or even a systematic theologian in the modern sense. He was a theologian articulating what he accepted as sacra doctrina, the “holy teaching” of the Christian faith founded on revelation and refined by a millennium of doctrinal controversy. He took the existence of God, angels, and the immaterial human soul as givens, principia or starting points for his demonstrations. Neither Benzoni nor other modern thinkers now accept such tenets as antecedently true, but failing to understand that Thomas did paves the way to misunderstanding and misrepresenting his thought. For Thomas as for Gödel, the first principles of a science are not proved or provable within the science itself.

That being said, if Thomas is taken as a philosophical theologian, Benzoni’s ecological caveats and objections are apt. Thomas’ theological cosmology is indeed anthropocentric, like that of the Bible itself. It does not provide a solid foundation for a contemporary ecological ethics such as that which Benzoni calls for and in fact is urgently needed. Whether Whitehead’s process philosophy can ultimately provide one is a different question, however much it departs from Thomas’ understanding of the specific difference between human and other creatures. But that is for the reader to decide.

Highly recommended, but not as a primer for beginners curious about Thomas and Whitehead’s ecological relevance.

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