Pinsent - The Second Person Perspective in Aquinas’s Ethics: Virtues and Gifts



At a time when the study of the virtues has regained a central role in questions of ethics and character, it might be expected that the insights of St Thomas Aquinas would have a great deal to offer to academic scholarship and society in general. Yet despite the availability of Aquinas’s vast writings on the virtues and associated matters, together with centuries of commentary, his approach has remained surprisingly mysterious, raising questions to which satisfactory answers have not yet been given. In this book, Pinsent argues that the key to understanding Aquinas’s work is to be found in an association between attributes he appends to the virtues and certain interpersonal capacities revealed recently by the scientific study of social cognition. This book shows that Aquinas’s approach to the virtues is radically non-Aristotelian and founded on the concept of second-person relatedness.

To highlight the explanatory power of this principle, Pinsent demonstrates how the second-person perspective provides a coherent interpretation of Aquinas’s descriptions of the virtues in general and offers a key to long-standing problems, such as the reconciliation of magnanimity and humility and the meaning of the ‘fruition’ or realization of the virtues. In moral theology, this approach suggests a new way to understand the gifts of the supernatural life of grace, namely the removal of an innate ‘spiritual autism’. In philosophical ethics, Pinsent concludes by considering how this approach may help to promote a ‘Copernican Revolution,’ a shift from the first to the second-person perspective.


"This is a work of lasting value and deep and careful scholarship that makes a serious contribution to three fields at once: the exegesis of Aquinas, theological ethics and philosophical virtue ethics. Andrew Pinsent has written a book that no one working in these areas will be able to afford to ignore, and which makes a real contribution, in particular, to getting the study of Aquinas’s virtue ethics, as something radically distinct from Aristotelian virtue ethics, firmly onto the academic agenda." – Timothy Chappell, Professor of Philosophy, Open University

“In this intriguing re-reading of Thomas’s virtue ethics, Andrew Pinsent firmly resists the reduction of Thomist ethics to a mere variation on Aristotelian ethics, and shows with meticulous attention to the texts how Thomas's theology of grace and of the 'gifts' vitally transforms his understanding of virtue. The discussion is animated by reference to contemporary analyses of ‘second-person relatedness’ in social science, a move which is bound to be contentious but is remarkably thought-provoking.” – Sarah Coakley, Norris-Hulse Professor of Divinity, University of Cambridge

“This is an exhilarating book. If Dr. Pinsent’s central thesis about the radically non-Aristotelian character of Aquinas’s theory is right, he has given us a fresh and important insight into the latter’s understanding of the virtues and a greater appreciation of its genius. If it is wrong, we are still left with a treasure trove of fascinating ideas that might be applied to the interpretation of both authors, but especially Aquinas.” – Kevin Flannery, Professor of Philosophy, Pontifical Gregorian University

Additional Information

Authors Andrew Pinsent
Year 2012

Pinsent - The Second Person Perspective in Aquinas’s Ethics: Virtues and Gifts