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Ockham’s Other Razor: Pinckaers Account of Ockham’s Notion of Free Will

The following is the first of two posts dealing with Servais Pinckaers account of two different conceptions of human freedom: freedom for excellence vs. freedom of indifference.  Pinckaers thinks that the notion of “freedom of indifference” is bogus, and that the more classical view of free will, freedom for excellence, is much better.  NOTE:  Ockham’s Other Razor is my label, and does not occur in Pinckaers.

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Pinckaers, Servais, O.P. The Sources of Christian Ethics, Translated by Sr. Mary Thomas Noble, O.P. Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1995.

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Freedom for Excellence vs. Freedom of Indifference

Moral theories characteristic of the patristic age and the great scholastic periods were dominated by questions of human happiness and the virtues and conceived of human freedom as freedom for excellence.  Modern moral theories are predominated by notions of obligation and commandments and assume a notion of human freedom called freedom of indifference (329).

St. Thomas explained freedom as a faculty proceeding from reason and will, which unite to make the act of choice. … For him, free will was not a prime or originating faculty; it presupposed intelligence and will.  It was rooted, therefore, in the inclinations to truth and goodness that constituted these faculties (331).

Ockham, on the contrary, maintained that free will preceded reason and will in such a way as to move them to their acts.  ‘For I can freely choose,’ he said, ‘to know or not to know, to will or not to will.’  For him, free will was the prime faculty, anterior to intelligence and will as well as to their acts. (331).

Ockham’s Other Razor: Pinckaers’s Short Narrative of Moral Theory

Pinckaers is partial to Thomistic moral theory and assumes that freedom for excellence is much richer a concept for moral theory than notions of freedom of indifference (329).  His disdain for moral theories based on the notion of freedom from indifference is not intended to be subtle in his account of its origins and contours.  Pejorative language pervades his description of what he thinks the notion of freedom of indifference causes in moral theory—a “destruction” of the harmony between humanity and nature (333), a “banishing” of considerations of human nature and spiritual spontaneity (333), a “rupturing” of the human soul (335), “the upheaval of all moral ideas and their systematic organization” (335), a “shattering” of the beautiful Thomistic order (337), a “disruption” of the field of moral theory that yields bizarre and uncoordinated contours of human action (338).

The chapter’s basic narrative goes something like this: Moral theories were getting along wonderfully with a rich and orderly account of human nature and morality (based on Aristotle and the Fathers but expressed perhaps most fully in St. Thomas) when Ockham came along and tampered with the notion of human freedom in a way that ruptured the unity and coherency of moral theory and led to unnecessary disjunctions and false dichotomies.  Ockham’s view of human freedom was like a germ that infected every aspect of moral theory, completely restructuring it and redefining all its parts.  Moral theories have been infected with this disease ever since.

Although perhaps less known, this was Ockham’s Other Razor—the one that took the harmonized parts of the beautiful Thomistic synthesis between human nature and morality and cut them up into disjointed pieces.  By Pinckaers’s judgment, Ockham’s Other Razor slit the throat of Thomas’ brilliant synthesis, bleeding the life out of dynamic moral theory.

Pinckaers’s Fuller Account of Ockham’s Other Razor

In Ockham’s view of human freedom, although many things can potentially influence the will, nothing can be allowed to determine the will outside itself—not human reason, not God’s will, or human emotions/desires/passions (331).  Thus, it has to have the ability to choose to do what is contrary to reason, God’s will, and human passions.  So, for example, it can choose to be happy or not be happy.  This will is the ultimate self because even if one aspect of “the self” desires something with great passion, the will has to have the power to say “No!”  This freedom was thought to be at the very core of human nature—the very “being” of a person (332).  Pinckaers concludes that “this is doubtless the origin of the divorce between moral theory and the desire for happiness, which has been effected in our times” (333).

It is called freedom of indifference not because the human will cannot be influenced by something other than itself, but that it always must retain enough “indifference” (or autonomy) to never be determined by such outside influences, for if it is determined by anything outside itself, it is not ultimately “free.”  In fact, “it even seemed that freedom could find no better way of asserting itself than to struggle against” human sensibilities, habits, passions, etc. (335).  Only one passion can be considered primitive to man—his passion to self-affirmation, “to the assertion of a radical difference between itself and all else” (338).

No past action can determine any future action; all human action occurs in “isolated succession” such that personality, Pinckaers argues, becomes unintelligible (336-37).  Pinckaers complains: “Human discontinuity is one of the basic tenets of Ockham’s psychology” (338).  In this view of human freedom, anything that one might conceive of as being able to have a great deal of influence over the will is set against it (loyalty, reason, natural inclinations, desires, God will)—they become a threat to human freedom (340).  This also effects the doctrine of God.  The moral will is capricious because God is absolutely free—it cannot be derived from the nature of things (342).  Since God’s will is revealed in the human conscience, moral theory can be worked out apart from an account of God (349).  Reason’s imperatives, however, are irrational (they are not grounded in the nature of things or in the nature of God, 348).

Conclusion

A litany of accusations is leveled throughout Pinckaers’s account of Ockham’s view of human freedom that the reader must carefully consider.  It is the “origin of the divorce between moral theory and the desire for happiness” (333); it demands  human action occur in “isolated succession,” and thus makes what we call “personality” ultimately unintelligible (336-37); it sets God’s will over against the human will as one higher capricious will against a lower capricious will (342); it makes God’s will irrational because it is not based on the nature of things or on the nature of God himself (348); it creates all sorts of unnecessary dichotomies between freedom and law, freedom and grace, subject and object, etc. (350).  There is much overlap between Pinckaers’ critique of freedom of indifference and the more extensive critique leveled by American theologian Jonathan Edwards.

The next post will explore what Pinckaers offers as an alternative to Ockham’s notion of freedom: freedom for excellence.

Is Enjoyment of Torture Wrong? :: Problems in Ethics

Is it “wrong” or “bad” to enjoy torturing other people?  Listen to a philosopher try to convince a reader that there is no such thing as a wrong desire, only we call things “wrong” or “bad” when they have consequences that we don’t prefer.  This would mean that a desire to torture people or an enjoyment at the thought of people being tortured is not necessarily “bad” or “wrong.”  In a word, this is the philosophical insanity that a godless theory of ethics (i.e. pure utilitarianism) leads to. 

Could a pleasurable state of mind have no intrinsic value at all, or perhaps even a negative intrinsic value?  Are there pleasurable states of mind towards which we have an unfavourable attitude, even though we disregard their consequences?  In order to decide this question let us imagine a universe consisting of one sentient being only, who falsely believes that there are other sentient beings and that they are undergoing exquisite torment.  

So far from being distressed by the thought, he takes a great delight in these imagined sufferings.  Is this better or worse than a universe containing no sentient being at all?  Is it worse, again, than a universe containing only one sentient being with the same beliefs as before but who sorrows at the imagined tortures of his fellow creatures?  I suggest, as against Moore, that the universe containing the deluded sadist is the preferable one.

… It is difficult, I admit, not to feel an immediate repugnance at the thought of the deluded sadist.  … Our repugnance to the sadist arises, naturally enough because in our universe sadists invariably do harm. … language might make it difficult for us to distinguish an extrinsic distaste for sadism, founded on our distaste for the consequences of sadism, from an immediate distaste for sadism as such.  

Normally when we call a thing “bad” we mean indifferently to express a dislike for it in itself or to express a dislike for what it leads to.  … when a state of mind is always, or almost always, extrinsically bad, it is easy for us to confuse an extrinsic distaste for it with an intrinsic one.  If we allow for this, it does not seem so absurd to hold that there are no pleasures which are intrinsically bad. 

:::::::Source: J.J.C. Smart, “An Outline of a System of Utilitarian Ethics,” in Readings in the Problems of Ethics, ed. Rosalind Ekman (New York, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1965), 22-23.

:: A Person’s A Person, No Matter How Small :: Brilliant Speech by 12 year old girl

 

::::::::::::::::::::::::__HT: The Crimson Window

::: Proposition 8 = Bigotry & Hate ::: Artistic Rhetoric

If you’ve already seen this video, skip to my brief comments below.  Otherwise, watch the video first, then read my comments.  

Notice this: The substance of the argument featured in this genius media could also be used as a grounds to justify the kind of “love,” that expresses itself through what we normally call statutory rape and child molestation rather than “love.” The Bible condemns it, but then again, the Bible condemns a lot things. Since people pick and choose, choose “love” over hate. Plenty of 50 year old men “love” children under the age of 15, but we usually incriminate them as if it deserved to punished.

Because of my belief in the ultimate authority of scripture and my understanding of basic rules of hermeneutics, I cannot agree with condoning homosexuality (although excluding marriage rights, I would advocate for certain other gay rights).  

However, the rhetoric on this video is impressive.  In spite of the fact that it confuses several issues, caricatures Christians, and indicates an inexcusable unfamiliarity with biblical hermeneutics, its persuasive effect is likely powerful for those who share the common ground of ignorance about Christian beliefs, attitudes, and reasonable hermeneutics, and who wish the Bible would just mind its own business and butt out of the discussion.     

… — … –… –… … … … — … –HT: Vitamin Z

Straight Talk About Sincere Sexual Questions

Warning … The following material has adult content that may not be appropriate for small children, but most kids middle school and up already talk about this stuff all the time at school. 

The following excerpt of from a post from The Mission and Vision page of Mars Hill Church, and was posted by Mark Driscoll. 

Simply, according to God, marriage and sex are related, connected, and exclusive. Sex as God intends it is for one man and one woman in marriage with the overarching purpose of oneness. Subsequently, by definition anything that contradicts God’s intent is sinful. Thus, sinful acts include homosexuality, bestiality, bisexuality, fornication, friends with benefits, adultery, swinging, prostitution, masturbating a person who is not your spouse, oral sex with anyone other than your spouse, anal sex with anyone other than your spouse, heavy petting outside of marriage, dry humping outside of marriage, rape, polygamy, sinful lust, pornography, phone sex with someone other than your spouse, sexual chatting online with someone other than your spouse, prostitution, pedophilia, incest, and anything else invented next to try and escape the clear teachings of Scripture.

Can you think of any sexual sins Mark has left out?  

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