Reason clearly plays an important role in making good ethical decisions. Looking back at our own personal lives, we can trace the source of our poor choices to a lack of good reasons or even to complete irrationality. We only need to review the improper actions of governments to see the horrific effects of decisions made without good reasons. And yet, we experience another phenomenon when making decisions where we make a good ethical choice, not based on reason, but on our own natural inclinations. In these situations, we might say, “It just felt right, but I’m not sure why.” Thomas Ryan, a commentator on Thomas Aquinas, accurately describes these types of experiences: “feeling, thinking, willing resonate with each other that this particular response is ‘right’.”
We experience this phenomenon in two types of situations: major life decisions and quick response decisions. First, in a major life decision, we may list all of our reasons, make a pros and cons list, and talk with our family and friends, but when it comes down to it, we rely on our intuitive feeling of what seems right. For example, in choosing a spouse, though we avoid certain characteristics that we know will be harmful to a healthy marriage, we choose someone based on a ‘feeling of love’ for that person, which may be inexpressible in words. In regards to quick response decisions, we may also act, not based on carefully thought out reasons, but on our (hopefully) good intuitive sense in the moment. If we see someone about to walk in front of a moving vehicle, we will quickly shout to alert them without taking the time to contemplate the reasons for the most virtuous response in that situation.
So, what’s happening here? How are these decisions ethical? Thomas Aquinas offers his concept of connaturality to account for these experiences. Connaturality simply means a natural inclination or bent toward something. When Aquinas uses the term though, he is often referring to a natural inclination toward divine things, and ultimately, toward God. If we have a natural inclination toward the things of God, and thus to God, Himself, we will naturally choose the things of God. Aquinas discusses connaturality most explicitely in the Summa Theologica, Part Two of the Second Part, Question 45, Article 2:
Accordingly it belongs to the wisdom that is an intellectual virtue to pronounce right judgment about Divine things after reason has made its inquiry, but it belongs to wisdom as a gift of the Holy Ghost to judge aright about them on account of connaturality with them . . .
Now this sympathy or connaturality for Divine things is the result of charity, which unites us to God, according to 1 Cor. 6:17: “He who is joined to the Lord, is one spirit.” Consequently wisdom which is a gift, has its cause in the will, which cause is charity, but it has its essence in the intellect, whose act is to judge aright, as stated above.
The first type of wisdom mentioned here is based on reason, but Aquinas calls our attention to another type of wisdom: wisdom which is a gift of the Holy Spirit. This wisdom gives us the ability to judge things based on our relationship with God and our intimacy with Him. When we come to know God, we are joined with Him and, as a result, we have access to this wisdom. Even those who do not know God explicitly can still know Him though the natural law and thus, in a similar fashion, are also able to judge based on connaturality.
Connaturality springs out of the heart, a heart full of charity (love). The more that we love God, the closer we will be to Him; the closer we are to Him, the more His judgments will be our judgments. Thus, some of our decisions are made not based on a list of reasons but according to wisdom provided by the Holy Spirit.
Naturally, this concept can easily be abused. A person can claim that he or she is acting based on ‘connaturality’, but the actions clearly only bring despair and dissatisfaction. If the person’s inclinations are bent toward a lesser good, a good that becomes an evil when made a priority, then the decisions will reflect that. Aquinas constantly calls us to seek after the highest good, the only true source of happiness, which is the eternal vision of God. If we consistently direct our hearts toward God, if we “set our minds on things above and not on earthly things”, then we can trust our inclinations, given by the Holy Spirit, when we are called to make ethical judgments, whether big or small.
-  Thomas Ryan, “Revisiting Affective Knowledge and Connaturality in Aquinas,” Theological Studies 66 (March 2005): 58 ↩
-  Summa Theologica, Part Two of the Second Part, Question 45, Article 2 Online ↩
-  Colossians 3:2 ↩