A Thomistic Approach to the Moral Evils of Racism

Pope Benedict XVI urged Christian communities, in an Angelus address in 2008, “to help civil society overcome every possible temptation to give into racism, intolerance and exclusion and to make decisions that respect the dignity of every human being!” It is a task, he said, especially well-suited to Christians who know the Church as “made up of people of every race and culture . . . called to be a hospitable home to all, a sign and instrument of communion for the whole human family.” In 2020, in Fratelli tutti, Pope Francis described racism as a “virus” infecting our capacity to love, that makes members of our own society into “existential foreigners” in their own country (§97). “From the Gospel of Jesus Christ,” he wrote, “there arises . . . ‘the primacy given to relationship, to the encounter with the sacred mystery of the other, to universal communion with the entire human family, as a vocation of all’” (§277).

Since the murder of George Floyd in May of 2020, more people in America than ever are talking about racism. And yet, far from leading the way, as the popes have urged, many Catholics feel alienated by the conversation. Some find popular discussions of racism insubstantial or even manipulative—a game played with mysterious buzzwords. There is fear of getting sucked into a guilt vortex from which there is no redemption, and confusion around what racism is in the first place.

One would hope that the Catholic moral tradition should be able to offer some useful guidance here. And the first few steps down that road are easily taken. Some racist acts—enslavement, segregation, beatings and humiliation—practically beg to be analyzed in familiar moral categories. Any reader of the Catholic moral tradition knows that acts that attack the basic dignity and rights of the person are wrong always and everywhere, no matter the circumstances.

But what about racial injustices woven into the fabric of everyday life? It is not immediately clear how they fit into the usual moral categories. So, the skeptical questions pile up: Can a social structure be racist? Can I be morally guilty for the functioning of a system that I did not build? Can someone be unintentionally racist? Over and over again, I see conversations breaking down around those questions.

Something is missing here. We should be in the forefront of the discussion, drawing on the riches of the Catholic intellectual tradition in a thoughtful and intelligent way. But we lack the right tools for the conversation. Can the long tradition of Catholic moral philosophy make a contribution? I think it can. I am no sociologist, but what I have to give to the conversation, as a Catholic philosopher, is philosophical distinctions—some tools to think with—mediated from Thomas Aquinas, one of the greatest thinkers in the history of Catholic moral thought. It is a small contribution, but hopefully not nothing. In this piece, I want to offer a very rudimentary and preliminary sketch of what a Thomistic analysis of the evils of racism could look like, i.e., an analysis that draws on the moral philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-74).

Why a Thomistic approach to racism? Aquinas himself did not discuss racism,[1] and in fact, the concept of “race” itself comes rather late in history, first clearly articulated in 1684.[2] Nevertheless, there are two reasons why developing a Thomistic approach to racism may be valuable.

First, Aquinas can offer some much-needed tools for our current conversation on racism. In popular discourse, it is surprisingly hard to find any substantial discussion of what makes racism evil, beyond vague appeal to abstract notions of equity. Aquinas helps fill that gap in two ways. (a) His theory of evil offers a framework for carefully evaluating how different expressions of racism threaten the human good. (b) His understanding of the social dimension of human nature can explain not only what makes racism wrong, but also why I should care about it today.

For Aquinas, as we will see, the moral evils involved in racism are not just failures to treat others equally, but more fundamentally failures in the essential human vocation to love. In fact, Aquinas calls human nature “the nature we ought to love.” So, a Thomistic approach to racism may turn out to be extraordinarily morally demanding. When are we ever done loving the nature that ought to be loved?

The second reason is the reverse of the first: namely, exploring racism helps make Thomistic ethics more Thomistic. Those of us who teach and study Thomistic ethics often focus on the aspects that particularly challenge our culture’s reflexive relativism and utilitarianism. And those have to do with absolute moral prohibitions, especially the absolute wrongness of killing the innocent. In this arena, Thomistic ethics has developed wonderfully nuanced reflections about why killing the innocent is always wrong, and what counts as killing. In this way, Thomistic ethicists in recent decades have enormously advanced Catholic pro-life discourse in medical ethics, e.g., on the wrongness of abortion and euthanasia.

But it is hard to find the same level of sophistication in addressing what we should do, i.e., what our positive obligations are toward others. Racism forces us to think carefully about positive obligations. I have not personally enslaved anyone, but I live in a country where members of some racial groups disproportionately struggle to access human goods. Am I obliged to do something? Thinking about racism forces us to pay more attention to such questions, which get at something more fundamental to Aquinas’s ethics than the more-often-studied moral prohibitions.

What can Aquinas tell us about racism as a kind of evil, and our moral responsibilities in response to it? In this first installment, I aim to lay out a moral framework using Aquinas’s theory of evil and his theory of justice. (After all, we cannot talk about “the moral evils of racism,” without clarifying what we mean by “evil,” and what we mean by “racism.”) Then I will examine a certain basic kind of racism that I call “race-hateful acts,” and give a Thomistic account of the wrongness of such acts.

In the second installment of this discussion, which will come later, I will turn to another, more difficult kind of racism, structural racism. We will see where it fits in Aquinas’s discourse, and what moral obligations we have with respect to it.

1. Aquinas on Evil

To begin: What is evil? Now for us the word “evil” sounds very strong, like extreme wickedness. But Aquinas uses the term “evil” (in Latin: malum) in its most general sense to refer to any defect in a thing that deprives it “of what it ought to have for its perfection.”[3] Each thing naturally tends toward its perfection. When it lacks that perfection, it suffers a defect, which is to say, an evil.

For example: Blindness is an evil (a defect) for an owl’s eye, depriving the eye of the good of sight. Similarly, holes in the roof are an evil (a defect) for my house, preventing my house from doing a good job of sheltering. Evil is the deprivation of any good that perfects a thing’s nature. (That’s why even though rosebushes cannot see, blindness is not a defect for a rosebush, because rosebushes are not supposed to see.)

Now as rational creatures, we humans have free will, and our willing is liable to a special kind of defect: moral evil. Other creatures pursue their good by nature. Catching and eating a bird is good for the heron. But the heron does not choose what it is doing; it just acts from its nature unless prevented. In contrast, we humans have the unique privilege of pursuing our good freely, by willing or choosing it!

But, we do not always will rightly, and then our willing is defective. For instance, suppose I decide to steal a laptop left unattended in the library. In so willing, I am turning away from the human good of living together peacefully, which requires respecting others’ property. My willing to steal is a defective willing that pulls me away from God and others. In willing defectively, I fall short of living the human life well. That defect is what Aquinas calls “moral evil.”

Aquinas considers moral evil as the worst of all human defects. Terrible things can befall us humans. We suffer biological evils such as death, sickness, brain damage, cold, pain. We suffer deprivation of clothes, shelter, food, clean water, education, etc. We also suffer deprivation of activities such as knowing and remembering, feeling joy, having close relationships, or participating in meaningful work.

Nonetheless, Aquinas points out, all those evils happen to us—whereas moral evil alone is something that I bring forth from myself. In willing wrongly, I am actively bringing forth from myself something twisted and deficient.[4] Consequently, Aquinas says, “moral evil,” or the deficiency of willing, is “more alien from God” than any other evil.[5] In a nutshell: “Evil” is any defect or deprivation. Moral evils are defects of human willing. All other kinds of evils can be called “evils for a nature.”

2. A Thomistic Definition of Racism

Now we can ask: What kind of evil is “racism”? Let’s begin with the idea that racism is a kind of injustice, which helps us locate it within Aquinas’s ethics. Aquinas defines justice as giving each person her due,[6] and injustice as giving to someone more or less than her due.[7] Just and unjust “giving” can occur in two arenas: either in private actions between individuals, or in the community’s action of distributing common goods or punishments to its members (more on that later).

Now an injustice may occur for various reasons. For our purposes, however, we are interested in group membership as a reason that injustice is inflicted on someone. This kind of injustice occurs whenever group membership inappropriately influences how goods are exchanged or distributed. Group membership might earn someone unjust disadvantages (as when aristocrats were preferentially guillotined during the French Revolution), or unjust advantages (as when the Borgia popes promoted their nephews to cardinals). Injustice in virtue of group membership has occurred throughout human history in as many ways as there are ways of dividing humans into groups.[8] Now we can give a Thomistic definition of racism:

Racism is a certain kind of injustice due to group membership, in which someone is rendered more or less than she is due, on account of her racial identity—either from a private individual, or from the community.

Now one of the stumbling blocks in the discussion today is that the term “racism” is typically used to cover a broad range of scenarios, applying to situations where no individual person intends to inflict a racial injustice. But, can this “Thomistic” definition of racism handle a distinction between intentional and non-intentional racism?

Actually, yes. In unfolding his theory of justice, Aquinas makes an important distinction. Justice, he explains, accomplishes something that is objectively measurable “in exterior things.”: namely “something equal.” By “equal,” he means that what a just act does, essentially, is to equalize a situation of “owing”: If Shawna is owed $100, then the just act—the act that “equalizes” the owing—will be an act of paying Shawna $100. Consequently, there is a sense in which we can evaluate whether justice or injustice was done to Shawna, regardless of the intention of the doer. In that sense, Aquinas acknowledges, “a just person can do an injustice.”[9]

For example: suppose Julie owes Shawna $100. But when she sends the payment, she accidentally leaves off a zero. So Shawna receives $10, only a tenth of what she was owed. Julie did not do the injustice intentionally, so she is not guilty of an unjust act of will. Still, Shawna received less than she was owed; Julie has done her an injustice—what Aquinas calls a “material injustice.” (The act of intentionally inflicting an injustice is a “formal injustice.”)[10]

“Injustice” in the widest sense of the term, therefore, is “material injustice,” measured by what is accomplished, i.e., whether someone is actually receiving more or less than she is owed. Material injustice can be done intentionally or unintentionally. Thus similarly, a Thomistic notion of “racism” in the widest sense should be understood as “material racism,” measured by whether members of a racial group are receiving more or less than they are owed, regardless of whether there is any intention to deprive them of their due.

In the second installment of this series, I will look at structural racism, which falls under this “unintentional” heading. For now, let us focus on the more straightforward case of intentionally depriving someone of what is owed her, on account of race. I will call these “race-hateful acts.”

3. Intentional Racism: “Race-Hateful Acts”

“Race-hateful acts” are acts that express the agent’s ill-will toward persons of another race. Such acts are all too familiar: Enslaving someone, insulting them, beating them, paying them unjustly low wages, charging them unjustly high prices, depriving them of employment and promotion, sterilizing them, and depriving them of various available goods (such as food, water, housing, education, civic participation, property ownership, health care, geographical mobility, economic mobility, legal representation, safety, opportunity to worship God).

Some of these descriptions may feel far away, but here is a real example that strikes close to home for me personally. Recently, a dear friend (let’s call her Sarah) escaped her home country, where she had been subjected to horrifyingly brutal violence by her government and fled to the United States seeking asylum. Upon arriving in the US, one interaction is burned in Sarah’s memory: Upon hearing her account of how she had been brutalized in her home country, an officer shouted at her, “You Africans are all liars! I’m going to make sure you get deported.” In fact, he had no such authority; he was just terrorizing her. But you can imagine the psychological harm—the fear, humiliation, alienation—that his remark inflicted on someone who is already traumatized and completely helpless in a strange country. This is a race-hateful act, because Sarah is singled out to receive undue harm specifically in virtue of being African.

Now what are race-hateful acts, within Aquinas’s theory of evil? The answer is relatively easy: Race-hateful acts are acts of intentionally inflicting harm on another. But Aquinas holds that any act of willing to inflict harm on another human being is essentially a defective willing.[11] Since a defect of will is a moral evil, then willing to inflict harm on other humans is essentially (i.e., always) morally evil.

The moral evil is compounded when we act on that ill-will. For Aquinas, within a morally evil human action, we have to distinguish two levels: the internal act of the will itself (here, the willing to harm) and the external act of harming that expresses that ill-will (e.g., shouting insults, terrorizing, humiliating).[12] The moral defect is reflected on both levels. “The sin committed against one’s neighbor is evil in two respects; in one respect from the disorder [in the will] of the one who sins, and in another respect from the harm that it inflicts on the one sinned against.” Aquinas explains that when we look at the defect of the action as a whole in its inner and outer dimensions, its sinfulness is increased when it actually harms someone. But the “root” of the action’s sinfulness is the interior ill-will that motivates it.[13]

Now it is at this point that Thomistic ethics really shines in the depth of explanation that it can offer—because we can follow up with the question: “Why is willing harm to others always wrong?” And Aquinas has an answer. To begin, willing harm to others is the same as hating them. (Here it is important to understand that loving and hating, for Aquinas, are the two most basic tendencies of the will. When the will is attracted toward something, that is love. When it recoils or “turns away” from something, that is hate.) Thus, when I intend harm to someone, my will is recoiling from their good—and that is just to say: I am hating them.

Now Aquinas states that “hating one’s brother is always sinful.”[14] Why always sinful? The reason, I think, is very interesting: For Aquinas, the human will is naturally inclined toward loving what is human. That is why I first love myself, and then extend that love to those who share my nature. Therefore, for Aquinas, hating another human being is an unnatural act of will, that is, an act contrary to the very nature of the will.

Aquinas translates this natural tendency into a positive moral obligation: Humans have a nature we ought to love. “When we consider a human being in himself [i.e., as human], it is in no way permissible to kill him. For we ought to love the nature in each one, even in the sinner—a nature that God has made and that would be destroyed through killing.”[15] What is fascinating about this passage is that Aquinas insists that the harming (killing the innocent) is wrong because it violates the more fundamental positive obligation to love each human being because of his or her nature. The reason that killing is wrong in the first place, is that it is contrary to the love we owe this “nature we ought to love.”

Loving human beings, then, is a tendency of our nature and an obligation; hating them is an unnatural act of will and always morally wrong. So why do we hate? Aquinas notices that hate arises from a perception of “dissonance” with the other person—meaning that we perceive the person as “out of tune” with us, lacking commonality (communitas) with us. In other words: My will turns away from your good when I dehumanize you—when I cease to recognize that we share a nature that ought to be loved.

Racism in the sense of race-hateful acts, then, originates in perceiving someone of another race as somehow falling outside the bounds of a common nature that generates the command to love. This warped vision allows us to justify an unresponsiveness to their good, or even a recoiling of the will against their good. And that ill-will issues forth into intentional injustices that we would not inflict on members of a different race.

To summarize: Within a Thomistic framework, race-hateful acts are essentially morally evil, due to their origin in an unnatural act of setting one’s will against “the nature we ought to love.” Race-hateful acts are intentionally racist acts. In the next installment, I consider another type of racism that can be evaluated apart from human intention: structural racism.

EDITORIAL NOTE: This is a revised version of the Aquinas Lecture given at the University of St. Thomas, Center for Thomistic Studies, in Houston, on January 27, 2022; as well as a talk for the de Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture, University of Notre Dame, February 23, 2022.  The Aquinas Lecture is recorded here. The idea of this Thomistic analysis was inspired by discussions in a “Catholicism and Racism Working Group” at the University of Notre Dame, in which the author is a participant.

[1] For another thing, one of the primary evils that we connect with racism is slavery, and unfortunately, Aquinas’s position on enslavement is disappointingly vague.  On the one hand, he describes the servitude of one man over another as the result of sin, and states that “there is nothing that human beings abhor with their natural inclination more than servitude” (De perfectione).On the other hand, he never describes the act of imposing servitude as essentially evil.

[3] Aquinas, Disputed Questions on Evil, q. 1, a. 1 (resp), and ad 1.

[4] Aquinas, Disputed Questions on Evil, q. 1, a. 4: “Fault (culpa) is an evil of the action itself.”

[5] Aquinas, Disputed Questions on Evil, q. 1, a. 5.

[6] ST IIa-IIae.58.1.

[7] ST IIa-IIae.59.1-2.

[8] When such an injustice is done deliberately, it is closest to what Aquinas calls the sin of “regarding persons (acceptio personarum),” in ST IIa-IIae.63.1.  The match is not totally perfect (he is thinking specifically of what we might now call “favoritism” by those in positions of responsibility); however, the principles that he introduces in this context can be usefully applied to a broader range of cases. 

[9] ST IIa-IIae.59.2. “Just as the object of justice [i.e., what justice essentially does] is something equal in exterior things, so too the object of injustice is something unequal: namely, insofar as more or less is given (attribuitur) to someone than what is proper to him (sibi competat).”

[10] ST IIa-IIae.59.2: “So it can happen that someone who is not unjust does an injustice, in two ways. In the first way, because of a defect in the action relative to its proper object.  For an action receives its name and type from its per se object, not from its per accidens object.  But in those things done for an end, something is said to be per se in  that is intended, and per accidens if it falls outside the intention.  And therefore if someone does something that is unjust, not intending to do an injustice—as when he does it by ignorance, not recognizing that he is doing an injustice—then he is not doing an injustice per se and formally speaking, but only per accidens, and as it were, doing materially what is unjust. And such an action is not called a ‘unjustification’ [iniustificatio, i.e., a rendering of the agent morally defective].”

[11] Within a Thomistic framework, it is necessary to treat separately the morality of actions by private individuals vs. by legitimate public authorities For instance, Aquinas famously allows some acts of killing by a legitimate authority in protection of the common good, while prohibiting killing by a private person, even for self-defense.

[12] ST Ia-IIae.20.3.

[13] ST IIa-IIae.34.4.

[14] ST IIa-IIae.34.3; similarly, harming is always wrong; ST IIa-IIae.65.2.

[15] ST IIa-IIae.64.6. One might think that the wrongness consists in the fact that human nature is made by God.  But Aquinas is making a special claim about human nature. In q. 64, a. 1, he had already considered whether it is permissible to kill non-human creatures, and determined that it is permissible, because these creatures are instrumental to human goods.  Of course, these are “natures God made” too.So there is clearly something special about God’s “making” of human nature, presumably having to do with image of God in human beings, and the special intimacy of God’s creating of the human being by shaping Adam from the clay and breathing into him the breath of life. The same link between the positive obligation to love as the ground for the negative obligation not to kill appears in ST IIa-IIae.64.5, on suicide.

Featured Image: José Risueño, St. Thomas Aquinas, 17th century; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.


Therese Scarpelli Cory

Therese Scarpelli Cory is the John and Jean Oesterle Associate Professor of Thomistic Studies in the Philosophy Department at the University of Notre Dame. She is the author of Aquinas on Human Self-Knowledge.

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