Friday, February 11, 2022

Aquinas on drunkenness and sleep

Aquinas argues that

drunkenness is a mortal sin, because then a man willingly and knowingly deprives himself of the use of reason, whereby he performs virtuous deeds and avoids sin, and thus he sins mortally by running the risk of falling into sin.

On the other hand, Aquinas also argues that sleep suspends the use of reason:

What a man does while asleep, against the moral law, is not imputed to him as a sin; as Augustine says (Gen. ad lit. xii, 15). But this would not be the case if man, while asleep, had free use of his reason and intellect. Therefore the judgment of the intellect is hindered by suspension of the senses.

One might try to reconcile the two claims by saying that sleep is something that befalls us involuntarily, and that it would be wrong to willingly and knowingly go to sleep. But that would not fit with ordinary human practice, and would contradict Aquinas’ own rejection of the claim that it is “against virtue for a person to set himself to sleep”. Moreover, Aquinas notes without any moral warnings that sleep—like baths, contemplation of the truth and other apparently quite innocent things—assuages sorrow.

So what’s going on?

And to add a further complication, Proverbs 31:6 seems to recommend the use of alcohol as an analgesic.

I can think of three things one could say on behalf of Aquinas.

First, one might attempt a Double Effect justification. In sleep, the body rests. Aquinas certainly thinks so: the discussion of the suspension of reason during sleep presupposes that the primary effect of sleep is on the body. It is this bodily rest, rather than the suspension of reason, that is intended. One might worry that the suspension of reason is a means to rest. However, non-human animals, who lack reason in Aquinas’s sense of the word, also sleep. Presumably whatever benefits they derive from the sleep are available to us, and it seems not unlikely that many of these do not depend on the suspension of reason. Similarly, alcohol helps with pain in non-human animals, and so the mechanism by which it helps may not depend on the suspension of reason.

That said, I don’t think Aquinas would want to take this approach (though it may well work for me). For Aquinas thinks that it is stupid we cannot claim that an invariable or typical effect of something intended counts as unintended (Commentary on the Physics, Book II, Lecture 8, paragraph 214). But the suspension of reason is indeed an invariable or typical effect of sleep.

A second approach focuses on Aquinas’ response to the question of why the loss of rationality during the sexual act does not render the sexual act wrong, from which I already quoted the rejection of the claim that it’s vicious to set oneself to sleep:

it is not contrary to virtue, if the act of reason be sometimes interrupted for something that is done in accordance with reason … .

This approach does not seem to be based on Double Effect, but rather on some sort of principle that it is permissible to suspend a good for the sake of that same good. This principle applies neatly to sleep as well as to the biblical case of analgesic use of alcohol (given that reason opposes suffering the pain).

But this approach would also moderate Aquinas’s seemingly absolute rejection of drunkenness. For we can imagine cases where it seems that reason would recommend drunkenness, such as when a tyrant will kill you if you refuse to get drunk with them. And once one allows drunkenness in such extreme cases, what is to prevent allowing it in more moderate cases, such as getting drunk with one’s boss in the hope of getting a deserved promotion… or maybe just for fun? Aquinas can say that these cases are immoral and hence against reason, but that would beg the question.

A third approach would note that sleep, unlike drunken stupor, is a natural human state, and information processing in sleep is itself a part of our human rational processing. However, while this gives a neat explanation of why it’s permissible to set oneself to sleep, it doesn’t explain the permissibility of the analgesic use of alcohol or, more significantly in modern times, of the use of general anaesthesia during medical procedures.

A different approach for justifying sleep, the analgesic use of alcohol and general anaesthesia insists that temporary suspension of a good is different from willful opposition to the good. To eat in an hour rather than now does not oppose the good of food. The down side of this fourth approach is that it seems to destroy Aquinas’s argument against drunkenness as opposed to the good of reason. And it seems to let in too much: can’t one say that by torturing someone, one is merely suspending their painless state?

I think the best philosophical solution is the first, Double Effect. Aquinas alas can’t use it because his version of Double Effect is too narrow, given his view that typical effects of intended things count as intended.


Brandon said...

Earlier in the Summa (ST 2-1.88.5 ad 1), Aquinas takes the status of drunkenness as a mortal sin to depend specifically on the act's being done without necessity and purely out of a desire for wine. Aquinas changes his views on drunkenness more than once in his career (in the De Malo, for instance, he takes it to be a venial sin unless done frequently, and in the Summa he denies that this is right), so one could take this to be another shift, this time within the Summa itself, but one could also take the later passage to just assume this as given (as part of drunkenness being in the genus of gluttony). It's a lot easier to think of situations in which someone unnecessarily gets drunk purely out of a desire for alcohol than to think of situations in which someone unnecessarily goes to sleep purely out of a desire for sleep, but I actually suspect that Aquinas would consider such cases to be cases of mortal sin, as well.

Alex H said...

There is some reason to believe that Aquinas would accept the third approach. In discussing pre-Fall humanity, Aquinas says “sensation and sleep do not remove from man his natural disposition, but are ordered to his natural welfare” (I.97.2). In the sed contra of this article, Aquinas references Aristotle and states that if something is passible or changeable, then it is also corruptible. However, he argued in the article before it that pre-Fall humanity was incorruptible “by reason of a supernatural force given by God to the soul, whereby it was enabled to preserve the body from all corruption so long as it remained itself subject to God” (1.97.1). Thus in the body of article 2, Aquinas distinguishes sleep and sensation from other passions that would imply corruptibility by saying that these functions are part of the “perfecting process of nature” (1.97.2). It seems then that Aquinas believes that sleep is good not just for its restorative effects, but for some additional effect related to our welfare. Whether it would be the information processing you reference, Alex, or something else is unclear. In any case, Aquinas thinks that sleep is ordered to our natural welfare while a drunken stupor is not.

This leaves the problem of the analgesic use of alcohol and the broader case of anesthesia. Interestingly, Aquinas gives us a bit of information here is the third objection and response of II-II 150.2. What is important to notice here is that drunkenness is a sin against temperance and thus consists in both a lack of moderation and intoxication. But this moderation depends on one’s bodily needs (“meat and drink should be moderate in accordance with the demands of the body’s health” II-II 150.2.Ad 3). Further he says that what is moderate for the healthy may be immoderate for the sick and vice versa. As such, it may be alright to administer alcohol as an analgesic if one’s current health calls for it. Similarly for anesthesia.

In the body of the article in which Aquinas says that drunkenness is a mortal sin because it is a willing deprivation of one’s use of reason, he is distinguishing the venial sin of drunkenness from the mortal sin of drunkenness. In the case of the venial sin, one knows one has drank an immoderate amount, but didn’t know it would be intoxicating. In the case of the mortal sin, one knows it is immoderate and intoxicating. The immoderation is held in common here, thus by just stating the willing deprivation of one’s use of reason, Aquinas may just be emphasizing the difference between the venial and mortal sin cases. Thus, it isn’t the depriving the use of one’s reason itself that makes drunkenness a mortal sin, but the immoderate choosing to deprive oneself the use of one’s reason. But since analgesic use of alcohol and anesthesia are not immoderate, Aquinas’s argument related to drunkenness does not apply in those cases.

Alexander R Pruss said...


Thanks for bringing up a text I didn't know. I am not sure what kinds of cases Aquinas is envisaging in the "necessity" exception. They could be cases such as when you are very susceptible to drunkenness, and are dying of thirst, but the only drink available is wine. In such cases, there need be no intention to get drunk. (Maybe not even on Aquinas's too-broad account of intention, because there may not be a general connection between drinking one cup of wine and being drunk, but only a connection in your special circumstances.) Or they could be cases where drink is physically forced down one's throat, and hence, once again, these would be cases where there is no intention of drunkenness. Or, more interestingly, they could be cases where one instrumentally gets drunk, for instance because a tyrant would kill one if refused to get drunk with them. Only the last kind of case would indeed support your argument that Aquinas would think that going to sleep with sleep as the end is wrong.

But I doubt that Aquinas would think that going to sleep with sleep as the end is wrong. Sleep is a natural state for primates and many other animals. I think it unlikely that Aquinas would think it is wrong to make a natural state be the end of one's action.


That is a nicely nuanced reading, that immoderation is what constitutes the sin as a sin but what expected or intended intoxication constitutes the sin as mortal. I am not convinced, though. In the text Brandon cites, we have "for, that a man, without necessity, and through the mere lust of wine, make himself unable to use his reason, whereby he is directed to God and avoids committing many sins, is expressly contrary to virtue". Here it sounds like the inability to use reason is what makes the act contrary to virtue.

Maybe, though, we can say this: a sufficient condition for immoderation in an indulgence of any sort is that the indulgence unnecessarily deprives one of reason. So immoderation is always what is going on, but sometimes the reason the quantity is immoderate is due to its unnecessarily depriving one of rationality and sometimes the reason the quantity is immoderate is due to something else.

Adrian Patrick McCaffery said...

I think one possible way to reconcile the two claims is just to say that Aquinas does not assert that sleep is the suspension of reason. Aquinas, for instance, in ST I, Q. 84, Art. 8, ad 2., claims that sleep renders one's judgments imperfect; this seems to me different from saying that sleep suspends, or is the suspension of the reason. Moreover, in his commentary on the Ethics, Lecture 11, ch. 5, Aquinas describes the act of drunkenness as a wilful descent into ignorantia. Whatever he means by "ignorantia" is the hinge on which this moral question turns; in any case, I do not see how sleep could be described as a wilful descent into ignorance; or that the sleep state itself is a state of ignorance; or even an activity of ignorance. I would think Aquinas would reserve such ignorances for the states we would all describe as existing in sobriety.