Will and Morality according to John Duns Scotus

John Duns Scotus, born around 1266, is considered to be one of the most influential philosophers of the middle ages. Scotus' written works largely consist of notes from his university lectures and reworked revisions of the same. One of his works is the Ordinatio (also known as Opus Oxoniense), on which this article is largely based. It deals with the freedom of will and morality from the perspective of the theologian Scotus.

Of special interest is the question why morality exists and why humans act morally at all.

Will and Free Will

Scotus' stance is that only the will can cause action. The intellect is working for the will by providing it with knowledge. This is the basis of anticipating the consequences of actions and makes it possible to choose between acting options with the intention to act in the best interest of a person. Practical knowledge in that sense is knowledge which encompasses a physical action. This also means that knowledge can only be practical when it has the potential to result in an act of the will. Knowledge itself, for its own benefit, does not fulfill these criteria. Furthermore, practical knowledge is not only the basis of acting for Scotus, but real knowledge (defined as true and right) is also the motivation for rational and morally right actions. In Scotus' eyes the will is free in its decisions and has the ability to ignore or override the information provided by the intellect. It can thus decide to act upon suboptimal alternatives or not to act at all. At the same time Scotus postulates a limit to the freedom of the will: the will is not able to hate something that is inherently good, it can only want it or not want it. Consequently the will is just as unable to love something inherently bad.

Additionally the will has certain inclinations, which influence it without commanding it. Scotus makes a difference between two types of inclination: the natural and the free desire. Both have a stronger influence on the will than acquired inclinations of an individual. The natural desire of the will is a passive inclination to self perfection, but not a willful act, because such an act would be in constant conflict with the acting freedom of the will. The free desire on the other hand enables the will to put his decisions above all other considerations, including the natural inclination. This is the essence of what makes the will free.

For Scotus the will is on these grounds a causal principle in the sense, that it is able to govern itself. The intellect has a supporting role for causes and can be seen a secondary cause for actions. The ability to spontaneously transfer from a state of not-willing, which precedes every action, to a willing decision is the nature of the will. Having the ability to make a self-causing decision for almost any option, the will is only indirectly based upon external influences, namely the intellect as the source of information about the world.

Defining for the aspect of free will is that the will can consciously decide to act against the intellect and practical reason. This is not to be confused with a lack of knowledge or a misjudgment about the reality of a situation. On the contrary, the freedom of the will manifests itself in the ability to decide “wrong” in the presence of right knowledge. Otherwise the will would not be contingent, which is one of the central tenets of Scotus' argumentation about the nature of the will and moral decisions. Since the presence of moral qualities in the world is not a sufficient cause for moral acting, it is the intellect's key role to guide the will toward morality.

This view on the will gives a new quality to the ethical discourse, which hasn't been there before, specifically not with Aristotle or Thomas of Aquin. The natural human desire to strife for something, for Aristotle the all encompassing desire for happiness, is secondary to the freedom of will, according to Scotus.

This notion of the nature of the human will is a key element to Scotus' philosophy about the weight of moral decisions. Only if the will, which makes a decision for a morally good act, has itself a strong position and has a great degree of freedom and acting options, can the morality emanating from it be considered important.

On the other hand, a will, which is subject to many constraints, can only produce morality of less weight. Thus morality resulting from a lack of options has necessarily a different quality, than morality stemming from freedom of action.

Practical Knowledge

Since a conscious act has necessarily to be preceded by recognizing the relevant, practical factors of a situation, the assessment of the perceptions in question is essential to Scotus. To serve an act the perception has to be of practical nature, but it does not become practical simply by virtue of having an act as purpose. Only if the will chooses to act, the connected perception gains the quality of practicality.

According to Scotus the act has to correspond with the associated perception to qualify as a morally good act in the first place. Thus practical perception is necessary knowledge for a right and reasonable action. It also means, that even before the action of the will, it is predetermined of what kind an action must be to be morally good. This makes morality a preexisting, recognizable quality or at the very least makes it a quality which is based upon natural characteristics. Still, this must not be understood as an undermining of free will, because the presence or recognition of moral attributes does not necessarily cause corresponding acts. The freedom of the will is apparent in its possibility to follow or deny the intellect's decisions about moral attributes.


Scotus' opinion on morality is fundamentally based on his comprehension of the Christian god and his view of this god's influence on the world.

Morality is not absolute in Scotus' eyes, but a relative quality, which only unfolds in correlation with other factors. The morally good is an interaction of actions and their purpose, of reason and the circumstances. Because of the relativity and the realization through different factors, the morally good has no direct cause. Rather the influence of reason on the relevant factors is a kind of secondary cause for the realization of a morally good act.

Furthermore, Scotus makes a difference between two manifestations of good: natural and moral goodness. He explains the naturally good as an inherently present, positive characteristic. He mainly uses it to differentiate it from moral goodness, which goes far beyond the natural good in his eyes. Only morality consists of a willing act leading to moral goodness. This distinguishes it from its natural counterpart as such that natural goodness is not willed, which makes any moral judgment obsolete.

Scotus also makes a distinction between three tiers of moral goodness. The first tier is merely the basis for a morally good action in the sense that it is a valid starting situation for morality, but is in itself more a state of being than an action. The second tier is not inherently good, but depends on the good of the act and the surrounding circumstances. The interaction of there two criteria is especially important, because the purpose of an action alone can not make it good or bad. Only the inclusive analysis of all factors as a unit makes the judgment of a moral quality possible. Finally, the third tier is the godly nature. Scotus characterizes these three tiers as a bottom-up structure, where the third requires the second and the second requires the first.

Besides good and bad acts Scotus also recognizes a third moral quality of actions: the neutral. Hence the absence of moral goodness does not necessarily constitute the bad. Also goodness belonging to the first tier, the natural, can elevate to the second tier, if it is willingly caused under certain circumstances and it is morally good and reasonable. A morally good action of this kind can lead to a habitual behavior, not unlike a reflex. Such an acquired behavior, which produces similar actions in comparable situations, is according to Scotus morally neutral.

Scotus also postulates that the objectivity of a moral truth stays intact, even if the will decides not to act upon it. In such a situation the will merely acts immorally, but without questioning the moral quality or its perception.

Moral Law

Scotus categorizes moral law into distinct classes and points to different motivations to follow each of them.

Natural Laws

In his discussion of natural laws Scotus analysis the source of morality. To judge moral actions it is necessary to explain how we acquire our understanding of what is morally good or bad. According to Scotus the foundation for such judgment comes from natural dispositions to certain actions.

To that end he differentiates between a “law of nature” and a “natural law”, where the latter is an extension of the former by definition. The characteristic of a law of nature is that it can either be understood as a necessity by virtue of its own features, or allows necessary conclusions, which show its validity. A natural law is one, that is recognized by everyone as right without requiring any further explanations.

Scotus restricts that last criteria by showing two circumstances, which could prevent the recognition as right by an individual, without diminishing the universality of a natural law. On the one hand the recognition of such a law could be prevented by the ignorance of an individual. The obvious must as such be viewed in relation to the perception and knowledge of a person. On the other hand it is possible that negative acting habits prevent the recognition of natural laws. Someone who is habitually acting immoral might be unable to perceive the natural truth of moral laws. Scotus states that both cases make it necessary to explain the truth and necessity of natural laws through other means. The obviousness of natural, moral laws should hence be understood as something that is not perceivable or understandable by everyone. The perceptibility itself might even be enough as criteria, without actually requiring the process of perception.

Biblical Law

For the theologian Scotus biblical law is unsurprisingly of some importance, especially in how far biblical laws are compatible with natural laws.

Concerning the biblical commandments Scotus discusses, if they are all laws of nature. Continuing his definition of natural laws, he differences again between a strict, self-evident definition and a broader definition more akin to intuitive approval. The bible contains a number of occasions, where god apparently overrules the laws. The question is how that is possible. Scotus' view is that it can not be possible make something that is self-evidently immoral circumstantially moral, even for god. God has to recognize such natural laws as absolutely true and must necessarily agree with them. Hence, the biblical laws for which there are exceptions enacted by god, like “you shall not murder”, must be of the second kind of natural laws. Scotus also notes that the laws that are truly self-evident, do not get their moral quality through god. On the contrary: god has given them, because they are already true assertions about good and bad human behavior. Scotus' verdict is that all biblical laws are natural laws in one or the other sense, but only the first two, about god himself, are laws of nature in the strict sense of the definition. Only the commandment dealing with the sabbath is a somewhat controversial case for him.

Positive Laws

The positive law concerns Scotus only as far as it deals with the property of individuals, in contrast to common property. Scotus postulates, that during the period of human innocence there was only common property by natural law. With the fall from innocence this natural law also faded away and it became necessary to create positive law in its place to distribute property. He concludes that laws have to be issued by authorities possessing right and practical reasoning. Hence positive, man-made law has to follow practical reasoning to be able to claim validity.


Although Scotus' understanding of ethics is not based on the concept of virtues, he deals with them as far as they can provide further incentive to act morally good.

Moral Virtues

Scotus understands virtues as something that makes a person in its entirety good, but does not help to judge about specific actions. On the contrary, he thinks that virtues by principle are unable to make an action morally good. The reason is that the will, as mentioned before, is able to decide for actions, which go against reason. This is also true for virtues, whose disposition to do good can as well be ignored by the will. Another rationale for the view, that virtues are unable to enforce moral actions, is that even if an action seems to be morally good and virtuous, it still can actually be morally neutral depending on further circumstances. Scotus additionally infers from this that virtues can not be requirements for moral actions. Since virtues arise from habitual moral actions, it must be possible to act morally good without virtue at least once.

Even so, Scotus still recognizes virtues as qualities that can influence actions. For example, they allow a person to make decisions about moral questions more quickly, compared to a person with little moral experience pertaining a certain situation. In that sense he values virtues as a force that can exert a psychological influence on the will. The possible influence of a virtue can also have an effect on the moral quality of an action, can even make it a morally better act.

Unlike Aristotle Scotus reasons that the moral virtues do not constitute a unit, that can only be possessed as a whole or not at all. He argues this would lead from a state without any virtues instantly to complete virtuosity encompassing all the virtues at once and is thus impossible. Furthermore he denies the idea that this would virtually create a singular virtue, a construct including all the other virtues in it. To him it must be possible to develop a single virtue to perfection while completely ignoring others.

Love to God

The love to god is a moral virtue for Scotus and in that context he asks if it is even morally right to love god above all else. He argues it is, because the love to god results self-evidently from the need love the greatest good the most. It is, by his definition, a law of nature in the strict sense. Nevertheless Scotus also thinks that the virtue of altruism, whose ultimate purpose is the love to god, is necessarily god-given. In that context, there are three possibilities to love god: on his own, because he loves mankind (mutuality as reason), and because he does good for mankind (self interest as reason).

Furthermore Scotus explains that god can be loved above all else by virtue of understanding the self-evident law of nature, but the god-given altruism is still necessary for the love to god. One reason for that is that the possibility to love god above all else is, under practical circumstances, rather theoretical in nature. To that end Scotus amends that man is usually distracted from the love to god. On the other hand altruism is a kind of quantitative perfection of the love to god. Scotus' point being that the necessity of altruism stems from the necessity to love god as much as possible and since altruism strengthens the love to god it can not be renounced.

Final Thoughts

One of the fundamental tenets of Scotus' philosophy is the will's capability to decide on its own. This is the foundation of all actions and consequentially for moral actions and morality itself. Another key factor for his position is man's ability to recognize moral truth in principle and to act accordingly. In this regard his view differs considerably from some other philosophers, especially Aristotle.

Natural, self-evident laws also have an important role in Scotus theory. They pave the way to the universal disposition to act morally. Under these conditions the strength of the freedom of will lies in the ability to act against or without morality, even in perfect understanding of moral truth. In Scotus' philosophy of ethical values morality thus exists as a natural constant in harmony with the freedom of will.


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