Published: Sept. 21, 2005

The philosophical foundations of real-world moral dilemmas like looting and abortion are examined in two books by University of Colorado at Boulder philosophy professors that have recently been honored in the American Philosophical Association's 2005 Book Prize competition.

Associate Professor Robert Pasnau's book "Thomas Aquinas on Human Nature" won the book prize, widely considered to be the most prestigious award in the professional philosophy community for authors under age 40. Associate Professor David Boonin's book, "A Defense of Abortion," was one of only two works to receive honorable mention in the national competition.

Pasnau received $4,000 as part of the prize. "It's quite a coup for the CU-Boulder department to win and receive honorable mention as well," said Pasnau, who is the current department chair. "It's something we're very excited about."

Though not written for general audiences, Pasnau's book does address questions about human freedom, temptation, emotions, the nature of evil and wrongdoing and other moral questions. It explores the present-day relevance of the work of Thomas Aquinas, an Italian Catholic philosopher and theologian who lived from 1225 to 1274. Aquinas is considered to be a principal philosophical architect of the Roman Catholic Church.

Pasnau said that in a complex moral situation such as in the looting of businesses in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Aquinas would acknowledge the circumstances.

"Aquinas believed everyone has a natural knowledge that theft is wrong. But theft is a complicated thing. He felt that the wealthy had an obligation to the poor, and he didn't think there was a natural right to property. Nobody has the right to be as rich as they want to be, in Aquinas' eyes," Pasnau said.

On the beginnings of life, Aquinas' views might surprise some followers of the Catholic Church today, according to Pasnau.

"Aquinas is the official Catholic theologian, so one would expect him to think most of what the church thinks today," he said. "However, Aquinas didn't think that human life began at conception. He thought it began when the soul is created by God. He believed the soul entered the fetus after some development. That's rather different than the standard Catholic position now."

Boonin said his book aims to respectfully examine the anti-abortion position and offer a rebuttal to it on terms that critics of abortion can and do accept. Focusing on moral questions as opposed to legal ones, the book argues that abortion, at least in typical cases, is morally permissible.

"A critic of abortion has to show two things: that a fetus has right to life, and that if it does, then it follows that you can't abort it," Boonin said. "I try to show that even on their own terms, critics of abortion fail to establish both of these claims."

A large chapter of Boonin's work defends a controversial article written by philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson in 1971. "Thomson said the 'right to life' is not the same thing as the 'right to life support,' " Boonin said. "According to Thomson, even if a fetus has a right to life, it doesn't have a right to be kept alive by a woman."

Boonin said he and other moral philosophers try to bring clarity to difficult real-world dilemmas by applying careful, dispassionate, rigorous philosophical scrutiny to the arguments surrounding them. "The goal is to clarify the implications of our beliefs. If we discover that we hold a belief that has implications we don't agree with, we might have to go back and revise our belief," he said.

In addition to the honorable mention for his book, Boonin also has recently been awarded a prestigious Erskine Fellowship for spring 2006 at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand.

The American Philosophical Association's book prize is awarded once every other year. The award cites Pasnau's book as the best philosophical work published in 2002-2003.

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