The Unmitigated Scotus

Scotus is notorious for occasionally making statements that, on their face at least, smack of voluntarism, but there has been a lively debate about whether Scotus is really a voluntarist after all. Now the debate is not over whether Scotus lays great emphasis on the role of the divine will with respect to the moral law. No one could sensibly deny that he does, and if such an emphasis constitutes voluntarism, then no one could sensibly deny that Scotus is a voluntarist. As I am using the word, however, voluntarism is the view that (i) the goodness of almost all things, as well as the rightness of almost all acts, depends wholly on the divine will and (ii) what God wills with respect to those things and those acts is not in turn to be explained by reference to the divine intellect, human nature, or anything else. This is the view that Scotus’s critics decry and his defenders disclaim. Thus, his critics have seized on these passages and accused Scotus of believing that the moral law depends simply on “the arbitrary will of God.” His most sympathetic interpreters, however, have devoted great ingenuity to showing that Scotus did not mean anything unpalatable by these statements.1 What the critics and defenders apparently have in common is the view that voluntarism is an implausible and even discreditable doctrine. Interpreters who read Scotus as a voluntarist intend thereby to damn his moral views; interpreters sympathetic to his moral views feel compelled to mitigate his voluntarism. I wish to argue for a different approach. I agree with his defenders that Scotus’s moral philosophy ought to be taken seriously. But I think the best way to take any philosopher’s view seriously is to let him speak for himself, not to decide in advance that he must not have held a view that we find implausible. Let me suggest an analogy that will make my position clearer. Very nearly everyone finds immaterialism implausible.
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DOI 10.1515/agph.1998.80.2.162
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