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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.

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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?

Conclusion

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.

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