What’s the Difference Between Intellectual and Moral Virtues?

Virtues are operative habits and they are called such for two reasons: “it gives the aptitude to act well and endures the right use of the habits.”[1]  In the second sense, desire of love is that which makes right use of knowledge.  Since intellectual virtues are not concerned with desire, but simply correct conclusions, then “they do not in themselves have to do with right loving.”[2]  In opposition to Platonic thought, this leads to the fact that the wise man does not necessarily act morally since right reason in regards to intellectual virtues does not necessarily demand loving right use of moral virtues.

This distinction between intellectual and moral virtues rests largely on the powers of the soul in which the virtues reside.  In human actions, there are two principles: that of the intellect or reason and the appetitive. (cf. Summa I-II 58, 3).  Moral virtues, as stated by St. Thomas Aquinas, are “only those [virtues] that are in the appetitive faculty.”[3]  Intellectual virtues are those virtues that perfect only the intellective part of the soul and, as St. Thomas states, “the habits of the speculative intellect do not perfect the appetitive part, nor affect it in any way.”[4]

Now, the intellectual virtues can be broken into two categories: speculative reason and practical reason.  Of the first, the virtues of wisdom, science, and understanding reside.  Of the later, art and prudence.  Of these two, prudence is also a moral virtue.  This is because while an intellectual virtue of the art of carpentry may be perfected without being rightly used towards the good, prudence cannot since prudence “is not right reason about exterior things to be made but right reason about things to be done.”[5]  The virtue of prudence is an act in which love is “necessary for its perfection. [Therefore] the moral virtues must be involved.”[6]

Now, moral virtues cannot be without some of the intellectual virtues since they have to do with reasoned right use of the habits.  Moral virtues do not need wisdom, science, or art, but they do need understanding and prudence.  This is because prudence “straddles” both powers (intellectual and appetitive) since it is “formally an intellectual virtue as it is about right reason, but it is materially a moral virtue because it is about right reasoning applied to action.”[7]  In regards to understanding, St. Thomas states, “It is by the virtue of the understanding that we know self-evident principles both in speculative and practical matters.  Consequently, just as right reason in speculative matters, in so far as it proceeds from naturally known principles, presupposes the understanding of those principles, so also does prudence, which is the right reason about things to be done.”[8]

As can be inferred from this, some intellectual virtues lie in contrast and can be separate from moral virtues, but this is not the case for all intellectual virtues since prudence “requires man to have moral virtues.”[9] Referring back to the often stated example of Platonic thought, the wise man is not necessarily the good man because “knowing one should avoid sin is not sufficient for right reason in particular cases.  A person may ignore the general judgement because of some passion of the moment like pleasure, anger, or sorrow and act against what he theoretically knows to be true.”[10]


[1] Fr. Mullady. Lesson 4: Intellectual and Moral Virtues. Holy Apostles College and Seminary.

[2] Fr. Mullady. Lesson 4. HACS.

[3] Summa I-II, 58, 1.

[4] Summa I-II, 57, 1.

[5] Fr. Mullady. Lesson 4. HACS.

[6] Fr. Mullady. Lesson 4. HACS.

[7] Fr. Mullady. Lesson 4. HACS.

[8] Summa I-II, 58, 4.

[9] Summa I-II, 58, 5.

[10] Fr. Mullady. Lesson 4. HACS.

Catholic Church
Vatican II – Lumen Gentium
Catholic Church
Vatican II – A Vexing and Perplexing Council
Explain the three requirements for a mortal sin to exist.
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