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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.

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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

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).

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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 R I S T O T L E ___ Psyche, Form and Matter

A Shift Toward Science in Philosophy – Aristotle greatly valued scientific explanation and was more empirical than Plato, even though Aristotle does not have a modern view of matter.  For him, any theory of human nature must include nutrition, respiration, and digestion (59). 

Aristotle’s View of the Psyche Not Equal to Immaterial Soul – Because for Aristotle psyche [ψυχη] is something that all living, animate beings have (even plants), it is a mistake to equate Aristotle’s notion of the psyche with non-material views of the soul (via Christian theology) or mind (via the mind vs. matter problem), even though psyche is often translated “soul” and used in Christian writings this way (59).

Aristotle’s Notions of Form and Matter – In Book II of On the Soul, Aristotle articulates his theory that every living body is both form and matter.  The form is the psyche and identifies what the living thing essentially is.  The matter is the stuff out of which it is composed.  Yet, Aristotle denies that form and matter and independent things.  Describing a bronze sphere via form, it is a sphere, described via matter, it is bronze. On the one hand, the form is the sphere itself, not some non-material universal form as Plato would have described it.  On the other hand, one cannot reduce the sphere to mere matter (i.e. the bronze) in the way some of the pre-Socratics would (60).  Similarly, human beings are only one thing: persons.  Described via form, they are a special kind of psyche identified by essential and distinctly human functions.  Described via matter, persons are flesh and bone.  Neither the form nor the matter should be thought of as separate substances, but as two aspects of an indivisible unity called “human.”  This, according to Thomson and Missner, cuts across the grain of dualist (mind/body) and materialist accounts of reality.  In contemporary terms, we might say a person can be described physically as flesh and bone, or psychologically in terms of what the person wants, believes, hopes, feels and does (61).

 


I am not an expert in Aristotelian philosophy, and therefore, I do not know whether this interpretation of Aristotle is unique and controversial, or generally agreed upon.

–_-_-___:: A R I S T O T L E :: :: :: Quotations

He who is unable to live in society, or who has no need because he is sufficient for himself, must be either a beast or a god.”

—Aristotle, Politics 

Suppose, then, that all men were sick or deranged, save one or two of them who were healthy and of right mind. It would then be the latter two who would be thought to be sick and deranged and the former not!”

—Aristotle, Metaphysics

A R I S T O T L E ::: Snapshot at His Life

:: A R I S T O T L E  ::

A Life That Changed the World

______________384 – 322 B.C.______________

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The following chart I have made based on the chapter, “A Life that Changed the World,” in On Aristotle by Garret Thomson and Marshall Missner (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2000), 5-8.

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Age

Time

 Event

 

384 B.C.

Aristotle is born.

37

347 B.C.

Plato dies and his nephew Speusippus becomes head of the Academy, so Aristotle leaves Athens and begins independent exploration, first in Assos where he founded an academy, second on the island of Lesbos 7 miles south of Assos.

41

343 B.C.

Aristotle is invited by Philip of Macedonia to tutor his son Alexander the Great at 14 years old.  Aristotle accepts and tutors for 7 years until Alexander became King in 336 B.C.

50

334 B.C.

Aristotle returns to Athens to start his own school, the Lyceum, in a grove in  the north of Athens that was said to be a spot frequented by Socrates.  Here  Aristotle would produce most of his mature and well known works, build a  team of researches in almost every field of science, collect hundreds of  manuscripts, maps, natural objects, specimens, etc., effectually creating the one  of the first libraries and museums. 

61

321 B.C.

 Alexander the Great dies and Athens targets Aristotle as the city becomes a  center for strong anti-Macedonian sentiments.  Aristotle voluntary leaves “in  order that the Athenians might not commit a second crime against Philosophy”  (i.e. repeat the fate of Socrates).  He leaves Theophrastus in charge of the  Lyceum. 

62

322 B.C.

 Aristotle dies leaving a will that he be buried next to his wife Pythias.

 

 

A R I S T O T L E ::: Legacy

“Plato is dear to me, but dearer still is the truth.”

– Aristotle 

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All quotations without a footnote link are from Thomson & Missner, On Aristotle, Belmont, California: Wadsworth, 2000. 

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Aristotle was born in 384 B.C. and died in 322 B.C., which means he lived to be roughly 62 years old.  We would say he died young, yet no single individual did more to influence the history of thought than Aristotle. “He single-handedly founded the sciences of Logic, Biology and Psychology.”¹   (more…)

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