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Freedom for Excellence: Pinckaers Alternative to “Ockham’s Other Razor”

In our last post we looked at Pinckaers criticisms of Ockham’s Other Razor (i.e. William of Ockham’s notion of free will), which he calls “freedom of indifference.”  This post is Pinckaers description of what he thinks is a more accurate notion of human freedom: freedom for excellence.


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.


Freedom for Excellence

Freedom for excellence is first illustrated as akin to a child learning to play the piano.  She must have some predispositions to learn—an attraction to music and an “ear for it” (354).  In this case, her predispositions enable her to develop the freedom to play beautifully after much discipline (355).  Progress is developed by regular exercise, or, a habitus (355).  The ability, in the end, to play with ease, compose new music, and delight oneself and all who hear, is the stage of maturity corresponding to freedom (355).  Similarly, the virtue of courage is “acquired far more through small victories of self-conquest, repeated day after day, than through dreams of great actions” (356).  The author briefly mentions what he calls “the internal harmony of the virtues”—“true courage is worth little without wise discernment as to what should be done, and without self-control, justice, and generosity” (357).  A notion of freedom in this framework places predispositions and natural inclinations in service of freedom (rather than opposed to it, as with Ockham’s Other Razor), in fact enabling it (357).

The root of freedom is twofold: 1) a sense of the true and good and 2) a desire for knowledge and happiness (357).  These are the semina virtutum (the seeds of virtue).  Our natures are inclined to sense the virtues and give spontaneious praise to them, and this is the sequi naturam (follow nature) principle of the ancients and what St. Thomas calls the instinctus rationis (rational instinct).  “Far from lessening our freedom, such dispositions are its foundation.  We are free, not in spite of them, but because of them” (358).

The Stages of Development

Freedom for excellence “requires the slow, patient work of moral education in order to develop” (359).  The author takes us through these stages as he sees them.

Childhood corresponds to what we shall call the stage of discipline, adolescence to the stage of progress, and adulthood to the stage of maturity or the perfection of freedom. (italics added, 359)

The first stage is a delicate affair in which the moral educator must be neither authoritarian nor libertarian, but somewhere in between, making sure the “child” understands that the “discipline, law, and rules are not meant to destroy his freedom … Their purpose is rather to develop his ability to perform actions of real excellence by removing dangerous excesses” that “jeopardize his interior freedom” (360).  The student must experience the love of his teacher and the love of God (362).  This discipline “appeals to natural dispositions, to a spontaneous sense of truth and goodness, and to the conscience” (360).

The key characteristic of the next stage, the stage of progress is “taking one’s own moral life in hand, by a predominance of initiative and personal effort, by the development of and appreciation and taste for moral quality, and the deepening of an active interiority” (363).  In is in this stage that the virtues begin to form and take shape and the “adolescent” begins to find joy in the virtues themselves and develops strong dispositions for action (363).

The final stage is that of maturity (or “perfection” in the human sense of “complete,” 366).  This includes mastery of excellent actions and creative fruitfulness (366).  In this stage charity is “perfected” or matured such that the persons “chief concern is to be united to God and to find all their joy in him” (368).  Yet this joy passes from God to others so as to make their virtue beneficial for the community (367).  Pinckaers clarifies that this description in “stages” does not necessarily mean that in experience the process is perfectly “linear,” but involves a “certain dialectic” (372).  Also, one should not get the idea that once “maturity” or “perfection” is reached there is no room for growth (373).

Compared with Freedom of Indifference

Compared with the “delicate” process of moral education here, the “theory of freedom of indifference robs discipline and education of the profound, intimate rootedness they require.  Education becomes a battle; it can no longer be service or collaboration” (360).  Pinckaers attributes the cut-off point in moral education after only the first stage to the position found in the freedom of indifference (362).  Whereas freedom to do evil is essential in freedom of indifference, it is a lack of freedom in this model (376).  The reduced role of Scripture is also to be blamed on Ockham’s freedom of indifference (377).  Pinckaers concludes that freedom for excellence offers “a far better foundation for receiving revelation and grace, particularly through freedom’s natural openness to the true and the good” (377).


Utilitarianism: What is it? Why does it not work?

The following is a mixture of my own thoughts and thoughts from “The Moral Course of Thinking” in Gathered for the Journey: Moral Theology in Catholic Perspective, ed. David Matzko McCarthy and M. Therese Lysaught. Grand Rapids: Michigan: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007. pp. 1-19.

Two of the most popular approaches to ethics in modern philosophy are utilitarianism and deontological ethics, both of which are normative theories.  Normative theories of ethics are those that offer a principle as the key criterion by which actions are determined to be good or bad.

The more common of these two approaches today is probably utilitarianism.  The strength of this view can be seen, for example, in the influence of ethicist Peter Singer, professor of bioethics at Princeton University.  As one of the leading ethicists of our day, his paradigm for ethics is thoroughly utilitarian.  It leads him to some very counter-intuitive opinions about what is right and what is wrong.  He argues, for example, that killing handicapped infants is the best thing to do if the parents will have a second infant who has the prospects for a happier life (Peter Singer, Practical Ethics, 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.  pp. 181-91).  How does he come to such a conclusion?  In order to understand this, you would have to have a basic understanding of the utilitarian philosophy of ethics.

What is utilitarianism?

“Utilitarianism is the moral doctrine that we should always act to produce the greatest possible balance of good over bad for everyone affected by our actions” (9).  By this criterion, actions considered by themselves are morally neutral—it all depends on their consequences as to whether they are good or bad.  Apart from consideration of such consequences, actions are neither blameworthy nor praiseworthy.

Because of this criterion, it is often the burden of utilitarian thinkers to convince their readers—against their better intuitions—that the reason we call certain desires or actions “good” or “bad” is not because they are bad in themselves but because we associate good or bad consequences with such actions.  Thus, we come to think of them as good or bad actions, when in reality, the actions are not good or bad, but are widely believed to have good or bad consequences.  (NOTE: In a previous post, I showed how one utilitarian took on the ambitious task of convincing his readers that the desire to torture other human beings is not wrong).

At this point, I need to make a qualification.  Many people (myself included) would probably incorporate some degree of utilitarianism in their criterion for ethics.  For example, although I personally believe that certain actions are inherently wrong (apart from evaluation of their consequences), I would still allow for the degree of wickedness to increase or decrease depending on its consequences.

For example, it’s a bad thing for a man to rape and beat a woman (regardless of consequences), but it’s even worse if as a result of the brutality, her unborn daughter is killed and the rape victim who survives gets AIDS.  This makes the crime much, much worse.

I also believe that consequences are built into the very logic of why we label actions as inherently right or wrong in the first place.  For example, adultery is wrong because it hurts the person who gets cheated on, creates the risk of irresponsible baby-making, introduces the risk of STD’s into an otherwise risk-free marriage (if both entered into that marriage without any STD’s).  Adultery is always an injustice, and it is wrong in itself.  Yet, at least a great part of the reason that it is always wrong (regardless of context) is due to its destructive consequences.  I happen to think the dichotomy between actions as inherently right or wrong verses their being right or wrong based on consequences is a bit overdone.

With this caveat on the table, then, let me proceed to distinguish what I call the utilitarian factor (incorporation of consequences into one’s ethical thinking) from utilitarianism.  While some might consider it a good thing to keep consequences in mind when making moral choices, utilitarianism has the burden of claiming that such criterion be the exclusive grounds for judging the merit of all ethical action.  On the basis of this distinction, then, I will sometimes refer to utilitarianism as exclusive utilitarianism.

What’s wrong with utilitarianism?

McCarthy and Lysaught rehearse some of the standard criticisms of utilitarianism, for which I have given my own articulation and creative names.  They run as follows:

1) The Inevitability of Arbitrariness—It has no way to objectively determine the nature, importance, and value of consequences.  To put it another way: How do we know what are “good” and “bad” consequences?  What consequences count most?  Whose opinion of what are “good” consequences and what are “bad” consequences counts most?  Failure to give coherent and rational criterion for answering such questions spells decisive defeat for the whole theory of exclusive utilitarianism.  It seems to need something else to help it out.  That is why I personally think that the utilitarian factor is legitimate when considered as part of the picture, but exclusive utilitarianism always leads to arbitrary judgment of consequences, and therefore arbitrary ethics.

2) The Contrary Intuition—It often undermines our common sense and moral intuitions, often demanding certain actions that rub our conscience the wrong way.  For example, what if I knew I could cheat on my wife with my female boss without her ever finding out in order to get a raise, which would have “good” consequences for my family (less financial stress, my wife could cut back to part time to spend more time with the kids, the kids could benefit from more parental care, I could save more money for the kids for college, etc.)?  My gut tells me: Don’t do this, it is wrong, wrong, wrong.  But utilitarianism tells me it’s like a math problem (good consequences = good action).

3) The Omniscience Requirement—Sometimes it is impossible to know the totality of the potential (much less the actual) consequences of one’s actions.  Sometimes what looks to us to be a disaster turns out to be a blessing in disguise.  We get fired only to later realize that the new job we attain as a consequence pays better and is more enjoyable.  On the flip side, sometimes we think something is going to turn out great, but in the end is a big let down.  If these small scale experiences in the lives of ordinary people demonstrate how difficult it is to know the consequences of certain actions—how much more difficult must it be for people whose decisions effect an entire nation (e.g. the President) to judge the full weight of the consequences of their decisions?


I agree with McCarthy and Lysaught that these criticisms are decisive and that the wide variety of contrary opinions to the same ethical questions among exclusive utilitarians “makes clear that the theories are not doing a good job accounting for what actually shapes moral judgments” (12).

Since The Enlightenment, unaided reason so often attempts to bypass the God question and arrive at “neutral” criterion for judging right from wrong through autonomous reason (without trying to bring “religion” into the question).  In my opinion, The New Enlightenment is this: The Old Enlightenment has proven to be bankrupt for ethical foundations.  Maybe the God question is relevant after all.

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

:: Buzz Off :: Changing my Blog to Curb my “Buzz” Appetite

For the reasons given below,  T h e o • p h i l o g u e  has and will continue experience a serious cutback in posts.   

In seminary one develops many convictions and often enters a whole new world of theological discourse for the first time.  Just as seminary students quickly develop opinions on all the theological controversies in the church, they also tend to need an outlet for these opinions (Read: Pray for seminary wives).  They may be eager for genuine discourse, but all too often they are more eager to argue their newly developed opinions.  

On the one hand, they develop a sharp awareness of how misunderstandings and false teaching in the church are harming the body of Christ.  On the other hand, it is not always the case that seminary students exercise great restraint with the expressions of their understanding or charity to those Christians that may be guilty of common misunderstandings.  Often the blogosphere becomes the perfect outlet for seminary students to parrot the arguments of their seminary professors or textbook authors.  Perhaps for this reason, the blogosphere is a great blessing to their close friends who are not in seminary (Read: Pray for friends of seminary students).  There is a great danger, however, that lurks amidst the blogoswamp waters.  Before I tell you exactly what danger I’m talking about, let me mention two relatively recent posts that got my attention.    

A while back, Owen Strachan posted about changes he was making to his blog.  Whereas he used to be a very frequent poster, he doesn’t post as much anymore.  He didn’t quit the blog thing entirely, but his cutback in writing material was very significant.  Owen is one of the most prolific men I know.  His productivity level is unbelievable.  As if Ph.D. study was not demanding enough all by itself, Owen directs affairs at the Carl F. H. Henry Center on the side, regularly blogs, and manages to satisfy the responsiblities of both a husband and father all at the same time.  (I find it hard to keep up with local church ministry and reading assignments for my masters degree–and I’m single with no kids!)  This is why it made an impression on me when I finally caught my first glimpse of Owen’s humanity.  On the brink of the 09 New Year he posted the following words:  

After some thinking, praying and conversation, I’ve decided to step back from blogging a bit. … I started blogging to get writing experience.  … It was a very helpful exercise, and I’m glad I did it.  Now, though, with lots of commitments and responsibilities, I need to step back.  I need to focus more on permanent things.  Blogs can be immensely helpful, valuable, and edifying, but so can other things, and certain other things may last longer.  Blogging is a great intellectual and spiritual discipline, but as other venues of edification open up, one may have to focus less on blogging and more on family, church, classes, projects, and other things.

Owen’s post hit me hard for this reason: Whereas I used to post on COACH only every now and then and tended to post things of a more substantive nature, since the inception of  T h e o • p h i l o g u e  I had attempted a different style of blogging.  At first it was fun because I was able to keep up with so many “things.”  I would surf the internet for hours and often find material for ten posts in just one day.  I would get sucked into the blogosphere like it was a time vacuum, or better yet, like it was a place where time did not exist.  I so easily lost track of time as I surfed around, with one glance at my clock I would turn red and get sick to my stomach, ashamed of my obsession and afraid of getting further behind in my other, more important responsibilities.  

Because wordpress has this brilliant feature where you can know how many hits each of your posts get on a given day, overtime I have come to realize that the blogosphere craves “buzz,” especially controversy “buzz.”  It was a temptation for me to begin only posting the most controversial things I ran across because I knew they would get a lot of hits.  Without realizing it, however, I had myself developed a larger appetite for such “buzz.”  Thus, it became very natural for me to find the “buzz” and post about it.  Or even create it.  On one of my posts, in spite of my adding fuel to a specific controversy, the two people about whom the controversy concerned were actually reconciled in the comment thread on my very post (something I never imagined would happen).  Nevertheless … the point is this: I spent too much time in the blogosphere and developed too big of an appetite for things that were, in the end, relatively unedifying.  

Don’t get me wrong, not everything I posted or read was unedifying, and even the relative value of all the “buzz” is largely dependent on the motives of one’s heart, but when my hits would go sky high whenever I posted on taboo issues, it did two things: 1) revealed to me my own sin nature, and 2) revealed to me something about the blogosphere that helped me better understand TMZ and other gossip filled tabloid type publications.  People, whether Christian or not, love the taboo.  And for this reason, it sells.

Although Owen’s reasons for posting less were not based on a confession such as the one I am making here, it nevertheless emboldened me to, for my own reasons, cut back significantly on my time spent in the blogosphere.

Even more recently and relevant to my own experience was my once fellow classmate Tony Kummer’s recent shift in focus and discontinuation of “The Baptist Buzz.”   He writes:

I’ve had some internal conflict the last few weeks about my blogging. This is nothing new, and I expect most Christians have struggled with the right use of this technology. Seeking a global audience has always strained my own pursuit of humility, and I’ve often questioned the best use of time.

Tonight, I’m under specific conviction from the Apostle Paul. I’ll just clip the verses that have caught my attention and leave you to draw your own conclusions.

2 Timothy 2:4 No soldier gets entangled in civilian pursuits, since his aim is to please the one who enlisted him.

2 Timothy 2:16 But avoid irreverent babble, for it will lead people into more and more ungodliness,

2 Timothy 2:23 Have nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies; you know that they breed quarrels.

So, my conscious is captive to the Word of God. Until I can work out this issue I’ll try a little different format here on the site. I’m going to discontinue the Baptist Buzz feature and replace it with an new aggregator box called “SBC Watchlist.” That will be a collection of the most influential SBC blogs and news feeds (to my knowledge). This will also mean I won’t be scanning the feeds daily and will mean a reformat on the newsletter.

Pray for me to discern God’s direction in this and I do apologize to all the regular readers of Baptist Buzz.

As  T h e o • p h i l o g u e  was beginning to climb in hits more than it had ever been before, my heart began to imagine what my stats would look like if I kept it up.  Ironically, at about the same time, my conscience began to own up to the reality of what the blogosphere was doing to my own heart.  Not only is it very time consuming to keep up with all the “Buzz,” but it’s a spiritual danger to begin blogging just for the sake of more and more hits.  

For this and other nuanced convictions, I have decided to seriously cut back on my posting.  Furthermore, my posting will go back to the way it used to be for a few years on COACH.  More substance, less buzz.  This will mean a plunging decrease in my hits, but I will gain more peace of mind and heart.  Although the venue of the blogosphere doesn’t tend to have as big an appetite for what I think of as my more substantive posts, quality of writing matters more to me than quantity of readership.

“Cause I Was Mad at My Mom” ::***:: Human Depravity Exposed

Or … stolen bread is sweet. 

:__::::__::::__::::::____:::::::______HT: The Contemporary Calvinist

An Atheist Perspective on Abortion

Ever wondered how an Atheist might think through the moral issues of Abortion?  Here is an excerpt from VJACK, author of the blog Atheist Revolution (for the whole post go here).

At the same time, I believe that we all have a vested interest in reducing the number of abortions performed. While many women who have abortions suffer no psychological damage, some do. Minimizing the number of abortions performed is thus a worthy goal.

(HT: Atheist Revolution)

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