Deeds Without Value: exploring a Weak Spot in Abelard's Ethics

In his ethical writings Peter Abelard declared the accomplishment of good deeds irrelevant to a person’s merit. Also, he denied that acts had any moral value in themselves. The article argues that both theses are contradicted by the purport of Abelard’s ethical teaching. If the opportunity to act is present, good intentions must be followed by good deeds in order not to lose their meritorious character. Moreover, the intrinsic morality of intended acts determines the morality of human intentions, whereas the moral evaluation of these acts determines whether consenting to them is sinful. Good acts can become neutral or bad on account of improper intentions, but evil deeds always retain their evil character. In the early-twentieth-century debate on Abelard’s alleged moral subjectivism, both sides appear to have been at fault to a certain degree. Those who charged Abelard with subjectivism mistook his theses on the indifference of human actions for the essence of his ethical teaching. Those who defended Abelard against the said charge have pointed to his use of objective criteria of right and wrong either with regard to intentions or with regard to deeds. In the first case, they did not notice that Abelard’s notion of objectively right or wrong intentions implies a judgment on the intrinsic moral value of material deeds; in the second case, they failed to account for the inconsistency with Abelard’s theses on the moral indifference of human actions.
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DOI 10.2143/RTPM.70.1.978
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