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Finality, Principle of


A principle commonly accepted by scholastic philosophers as one of the first principles; it is succinctly stated by St. Thomas Aquinas: "Every agent acts for an end" (C. gent. 3.2), i.e., all beings when acting tend to some definite effect.

Explanation. The principle applies only analogously to intelligent and to nonintelligent beings. An intelligent being, qua intelligent, can know and freely elect the proximate end for which he is acting; a nonintelligent being, however, does not formally know the end to which its action tends, even though it is the agent tending to that end, i.e., even though the action is its own. Regardless of the agent acting, its tending toward an end (which scholastics regard as a condition sine qua non of acting) connotes intelligence, inasmuch as such action is orderly. If intelligence is not manifested on the part of the agent that acts, then it is presupposed on the part of another being who directs the agent to so act. This other being may direct the agent in a wholly extrinsic manner, as a writer moves the pen to inscribe words, or it may direct the agent by placing certain tendencies or appetites within its very nature.

Tendency or appetite, in this context, must also be understood analogously. It may denote an intellectual, a sensory, or a natural appetitethe last being manifested by the empirically observable fact that all things tend to preserve their being (Summa theologiae 1a2ae, 94.2). End is then related to appetite as its object; it is something suitable, and hence good, for the agent. It is suitable or good because the agent has a particular nature and because its tendencies are the basis for actions that realize or perfect that nature. Thus understood in this manner, the principle of finality implies a limited kind of determinism.

The principle of finality is closely related to the principle of intelligibility, which states that all being is intelligible. Those who deny the latter principle are led to reject the principle of finality, considering it anthropomorphist in inspiration. Francis bacon and Immanuel kant thus attacked the validity of the principle of finality, and, more recently, so have Julian Huxley and Ernest Nagel. To obviate such criticism, one must bear in mind the following clarifications.

Clarifications. The principle does not claim, as some have misinterpreted it to, that every effect is for an end. It merely asserts that every agent acts for an end. Thus chance events do not invalidate the principle of finality (see chance). Neither does the principle state that every agent actually attains the end for which it acts; even if impeded from attainment, the agent originates activity that is end-directed. In fact, at root, the denial of finality implies a denial of activity. Finality promotes activity; it moves the agent to such activity. If the agent did not act for an end, there would be no reason for it to act this way rather than that way. Being indifferent to all ends, it would be unable to act for any.

The ontological grounds for acting, and thus acting for an end, are rooted ultimately in the goodness of being. If being and the good were not convertible, there would be no activity (see transcendentals). Finality accounts as well for the regularity and uniformity manifested in the laws of nature. It makes nature predictable and scientific knowledge possible, thus providing the ontological basis for physical laws and for the moral natural law.

It should further be noted that an end is sought because it is a principle of perfection; however, this does not necessarily imply that the end perfects principally the being acting for the end. In propagating its species, a plant acts for an end that is not so much its own perfection or good as it is the good of another. Then, too, not all elements within a system may act for the good of that system. Thus, in a sub-system encompassed within a larger whole, e.g., a parasite or mold within an organism, the parasite does not perfect the parent organism; rather it seeks its own good.

The fact that great caution must be exercised when identifying the particular end for which an agent acts does not nullify the general principle that agents do act for ends. Such ends are many and varied in the order of nature. While some are primary and others secondary, all are so interrelated as to manifest, to the discerning observer, the existence of God, the Author of nature (see god, proofs for the existence of).

See Also: end; final causality; teleology.

Bibliography: r. busa and c. negro, Enciclopedia filosofica (Venice-Rome 1957) 2:438439. a. wenzl, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner (Freiburg 195765) 4:132133. h. j. koren, An Introduction to the Science of Metaphysics (St. Louis 1955). v. e. smith, Philosophical Physics (New York 1950). r. garrigou-lagrange, Le Réalisme du principe de finalité (Paris 1932).

[g. f. kreyche]

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