Duns Scotus, John (c.1266–1308)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-B035-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved April 21, 2021, from

14. Theory of will

While perhaps better known for his metaphysics than his ethics, Scotus’ ethical theory has attracted increasing attention for being innovative and even radical. For example, he departs from fundamental thirteenth-century positions by holding that not all of the natural law (the decalogue) is absolutely binding, that prudence is not necessarily connected to moral virtue and that the will can act contrary to a fully correct moral judgment of the intellect. These and other such conclusions arise from Scotus’ strong notion of will itself, which is complex and the focus of much of the attention given to his ethical theory. Three features of Scotus’ conception of will have been seen as particularly important: the will as a power for opposites, the will as rational power and the dual inclination or ‘affection’ (affectio) of the will.

Scotus holds that there is a twofold freedom arising from the will as a power for opposites. The will is free in an evident way, says Scotus, since it is capable of opposite acts successively, such as loving and hating. This type of freedom, however, is not a perfection, since it pertains to the will as changeable and variable. In a second, less evident way, Scotus argues, the will is also free apart from any succession or change, for at the very moment at which it is willing an act, it remains a real, active power to will the opposite. Obviously Scotus does not mean by this that the will is capable of willing contrary acts simultaneously. Rather, he means that, if there is to be a contingent and free cause called the will, an act must be consistent with the real possibility of its opposite at the same time. (Scotus goes to considerable lengths to clarify the logical ambiguities of his position.)

Scotus argues for this ‘less evident’ sense of freedom and contingency by means of his famous hypothetical case of an instantaneously existent will, which in fact derived from the standard scholastic question of whether an angel could have sinned at the first instant of its creation. Consider a created will that has been brought into existence only for an instant and at that instant has a determinate act of willing. Scotus argues that, despite existing only for an instant, this will cannot produce its volition necessarily, but must do so freely and contingently. The reason is that a cause, when it actually causes, must do so either necessarily or contingently. That is, a cause is not now contingent because it existed previously and then, at that previous time, was able either to cause or not, but only because it is such at the moment when it actually operates. Thus, if a will existing at an instant causes necessarily, it would cause in that way at every instant, and thus never be a free or contingent cause. Therefore, since the will causes contingently and freely at that instant, it must have a real power for the opposite at that same instant. The will is thus a power for opposites apart from any succession, for there is no succession at an instant.

In arguing that the will is a power for opposites apart from any succession or change, Scotus departed from a long standing conception of free choice, such as represented by the standard discussion of freedom in Lombard’s Sentences. There, Lombard states that choice is not free with respect to what is past or present, but only with respect to the future. The reason is that what is present is already determined, and it is not within our power to make what already is not be the case. Rather, we are only free to change what will be in the future. Scotus denies this on the above grounds that it would render the will a necessary rather than contingent and free cause, for the causal nature of the will is determined only when it operates as a cause. To be free, therefore, the will must be contingently related to its act of volition even at the moment of that act. This means that the will must have a real power for the opposite of what it wills at that very moment (see Free will).

The notion of contingency resulting from this particular aspect of Scotus’ doctrine of will is regarded by some as his most important philosophical contribution of all. In this connection, Scotus is regularly portrayed as breaking with Aristotelian conceptions of modality that persisted until the scholastic period. As the above account indicates, something is contingent according to Scotus if, at the moment it occurs, there is a real possibility for its opposite. This is in contrast to Aristotle’s construction of contingency, where something is contingent if its opposite can actually occur at some other time. In this, Scotus is seen as ushering in a modern conception of possibility previously thought to have begun with Leibniz. While Scotus’ originality on this score has been overstated – the basic doctrine of will behind this new notion of contingency is found in Peter Olivi – there can be little doubt that the extended analysis given to it by Scotus ensured its influence.

In a position related to the above conception of the will, Scotus maintained that the will was a rational power. Commenting on the text of Aristotle in which rational powers are defined as those capable of producing contrary effects, Scotus made the primary division of all active powers the natural versus the voluntary. A natural agent is one that is of itself determined to act. That is, a natural power will issue in a determinate act necessarily and to its greatest capacity unless impeded. A voluntary or free power is not determined of itself to act, so that it may issue in a contrary act or no act at all. By this Scotus really means that the will is self-determining. Its indeterminacy to act is not a defect owing to an insufficiency of power but a perfection that results from an abundance of power capable of contrary effects. Given this primary division of nature and will, Scotus places the intellect on the side of natural powers so that, in Aristotle’s definition, it is not strictly speaking rational. The will consequently became the only truly rational power, where ‘rational’ was contrasted with ‘naturally determined’. In a complete reversal of the intellectualist and Aristotelian model accepted by Aquinas, Scotus concluded that the intellect was rational only in the qualified sense that it is required as a precondition for the action of the will.

The will, however, is not only an active power, but an appetite with inclinations. Here too, Scotus sought to protect the will from natural determinism by adopting Anselm’s distinction between an affection or inclination for the advantageous (affectio commodi) and an affection for justice (affectio iustitiae) (see Anselm of Canterbury §6). As interpreted by Scotus, the former is the inclination to self-fulfilment characteristic of natural desire. What is sought is the perfection of the agent. The latter is an inclination not for the good of the agent but for the good in itself. Scotus claims that the will has an ‘innate’ affection for the just and that this is the basis of its liberty. The affection for the just enables the will to transcend the determination of natural appetite to self-fulfilment by loving the supreme good, God, for its own sake or other lesser goods for their own worth (see Right and good §2).

Citing this article:
Dumont, Stephen D.. Theory of will. Duns Scotus, John (c.1266–1308), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-B035-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2021 Routledge.

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