Scotus’ Ethics

Scotus’ Ethics

Wolter, O.F.M., Allan B.

Essays in Medieval Studies, vol. 5 (1988)


Scotus’ ethics may be one of the least well known aspects of his philosophy because of the status of the critical Vatican edition. Though work on it began half a century ago, the 10 Volumes done to date contain but a fraction of his major works and little specific to his ethics. We can appreciate Gilson’s complaint: “Waiting for the critical edition of Duns Scotus is like waiting for the beatific vision!” Duns Scotus on the Will and Morality was an attempt to remedy this with a source book of Latin texts corrected mainly on the basis of the renowned Assisi manuscript, regarded by the Scotistic Commission as containing the closest possible version of the original “Liber Scoti.” Only four of the 34 often lengthy selections the book contains are presently available in the Vatican edition. Face to face with the Latin text is an English translation that aims at ready understanding. Since Scotus’ most important ethical doctrines often appear in most unlikely places, each item is introduced with an analysis of the context and particular problem that occasioned Scotus’ discussion together with an explanation of any unfamiliar technical terms it might contain. The most frequent misunderstanding of Scotus’ ethical system, it seems, stems from what he says of the role of God’s will and in summary accounts of his philosophy, it frequently obscures entirely the rationality of his approach to morality. One contributor to the Encyclopedia of Philosophy even dismissed his ethics with this single statement: “Things are good because God wills them, and not vice versa, so moral truth is not accessible to natural reason.” Even those who are aware of Scotus’ continuous appeal to the use of right reason, fail to see how this can be reconciled with the antecedent of the above enthymeme, and are puzzled by the apparent antinomy at the heart of his ethics.

My aim in the book, then, was twofold: To correct the common misconceptions that arose because of his Voluntaristic notions of God’s relationship to creation, but more important to show the unity of his ethical system based on right reason, for it is his rational approach to what he believed as an ex professo theologian that makes his conceptions of morality and especially of the will of more than historical interest.

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