Reason, Morality, and Voluntarism in Duns Scotus:

A Pseudo-Problem Dissolved

The Modern Schoolman 74 (1997): 73-94. I have not reproduced the footnotes.

1.  Introduction: the (merely apparent) problem

In some passages Scotus seems to endorse a thoroughgoing voluntarism, holding not merely that the moral law is established entirely by God's will, but even that there is no reason why God wills in one way rather than another.  In other passages, however, Scotus insists that reason plays an important role in morality—that right reason is an essential element in the moral goodness of an action, and that moral truth is accessible to natural reason.

Many commentators have supposed that these two views are incompatible, and so they have seen only three options for interpreting Scotus: (i) one can simply concede that Scotus is inconsistent, (ii) one can deny that Scotus in fact allows reason a place in morality, or (iii) one can deny that Scotus is really a thoroughgoing voluntarist.  We can find all three of these views in print.  C. R. S. Harris insists that Scotus is hopelessly inconsistent:

Anthony Quinton pointedly endorses the second option, saying that for Scotus "[t]hings are good because God wills them and not vice versa, so moral truth is not accessible to natural reason."  The third option, however, has been by far the most popular.  Most prominently of all, Allan B. Wolter appeals to this worry about Scotus's consistency in a number of places in the course of his attempts to mitigate Scotus's apparent voluntarism.

Why have interpreters supposed that the two views are incompatible?  I have never seen the argument made, but it must go more or less as follows.  Voluntarists hold that what is morally right depends on what God wills.  So if we are to know right from wrong, we must know what God wills with respect to the moral law.  Since, however, God's will is (according to voluntarism) not determined by any reasons, it would seem that human reason would be powerless to figure out what God wills with respect to the moral law.  After all, if there are no reasons God consults in order to decide what to will regarding the moral law, there are certainly no reasons we can consult.  Hence, if we are to know what morality requires, God has to tell us, either in Scripture or by granting us a special revelation.

The argument is not compelling.  Granted, if Scotus holds that what is morally good depends on what God wills, he must also hold that in order to know what is morally good, we must know what God wills.  But it does not follow that we must know what God wills under that description, and so no embarrassing conclusions about Scotus's moral epistemology follow in any obvious way from his voluntarism.

And that is really all that needs to be said; even without looking at the texts of Scotus we can see that there is no tension between voluntarism and the view that reason plays an essential role in morality.  But since it seems somewhat frivolous to expect to quiet a generations-old debate by a quick a priori argument, I wish to lay out Scotus's view of the role of reason in morality and show in detail how it coheres with his voluntarism.  Of course, many commentators deny that Scotus was in fact a voluntarist in the strong sense I have already described.  I have argued against such interpretations elsewhere; here I shall simply ascribe to Scotus the voluntaristic views that I am convinced he held.  Since the interpretations I reject have been driven in large measure precisely by this belief that Scotus cannot consistently be a voluntarist and still accord an important role to reason in morality, my interpretation of Scotus as a voluntarist will receive a kind of indirect support by my showing in detail how the two views form part of a single consistent theory.  I shall first consider Scotus's account of the necessity of right reason and then examine his view that moral truth is accessible to natural reason.

2.  Right reason as an essential element of moral goodness

Scotus recognizes two main senses of ‘good': primary goodness and secondary goodness.  Primary goodness is the goodness that is convertible with being.  Scotus argues that primary goodness has no contrary or privation in reality.  For primary goodness, unlike an accident, is not something that an entity has; it is what the entity is.  Whiteness (for example) is present in a white thing.  Consequently, it is possible for the thing to continue to exist but to receive a contrary form.  Thus, not-white can exist in reality.  But primary goodness neither is present in nor bears some relation to any other thing.  Therefore, a thing cannot continue to exist but receive a form contrary to primary goodness.  Thus, there cannot be any not-good in reality.  To put the point more simply, nothing can be without primary goodness, since to be without primary goodness is not to be at all.

Consequently, primary goodness (which Scotus also calls essential goodness) cannot be the sort of goodness that moral theory ascribes to acts and agents.  For the good that is spoken of in moral theory needs not merely a contradictory, not good, but a contrary, evil.  That is to say, good must be a property that it is possible to lack.  By the argument given above, then, the goodness that is important for moral theory will be some sort of accident.  This kind of goodness is what Scotus calls secondary or accidental goodness.

Now moral goodness is a particular sort of accidental goodness, so we must first see how Scotus characterizes accidental goodness in general and then see what moral goodness adds to that general characterization.  Basically, a thing is accidentally good if and only if it has all the perfections proper to it as a thing of a given species.  Accidental goodness is therefore analogous to the beauty of a physical object.  Beauty, Scotus says, is not some absolute (intrinsic, non-relational) quality in the beautiful object.  It is the aggregation of all the properties that are suitable (conveniens) to the object, such as size, shape, and color, together with the suitable relationship of those properties to the object and to each other.  In the same way, accidental goodness is the secondary perfection of some thing integrated from all the things that are suited to it and to each other.  Perfect goodness is the concurrence of all of them.  When all of them are lacking, and yet the nature that ought to be perfected by them remains, the nature is altogether bad.  If some are lacking, the nature is bad, but not altogether so.

A certain complication arises when this general account of accidental goodness is applied to human acts.  The relationship of a moral act to its agent is entirely different from the relationship of a natural act to its agent, since a human act is elicited freely, on the basis of will and intellect.  We can therefore consider human acts in two different ways: either as merely natural—that is, simply as acts, without considering the relationship of the act to the agent's will and intellect; or as moral—that is, as the act of an agent possessing will and intellect.  An act that has complete secondary goodness as considered in the first way is said to be naturally good; an act that also has complete secondary goodness as considered in the second way is also morally good.

We have already seen that accidental goodness, like beauty, is the aggregation of all the properties that are suitable to something as a thing of a given sort.  Applying this general account to acts, Scotus says, "Now an act is naturally meant to bear an appropriate relationship to its efficient cause, object, end, and form.  So an act is naturally good when it has all [these] appropriately related features."  Since the accidental goodness of one and the same act can be either natural goodness or moral goodness, it is not suprising to find that the same elements that together constitute the natural goodness of an act also constitute its moral goodness.  But since natural and moral goodness differ depending on how the act is considered, it is also not surprising that those elements of an act's accidental goodness are considered quite differently when it comes to moral goodness.  Scotus explains the difference in this way: "The moral goodness of an act is in virtue of the aggregation of all the things that bear an appropriate relationship to the act, not absolutely in virtue of the nature of the act, but that bear an appropriate relationship to it in accordance with right reason."

So a freely elicited act is naturally good if it has an appropriate object, end, and form; that same act is morally good if it has the appropriate object, end, and form as judged by the agent's own right reason.  Later in the paper I will discuss the various elements of an act's accidental goodness in more detail.  First, however, we should note what this account suggests about the function of right reason in moral acts.  Interpreters have sometimes written as if the operation of right reason is a necessary condition for an object's being appropriate at all; indeed, they even occasionally make it sound as if the judgment of right reason is (at least part of) what makes an object appropriate.  The way in which Scotus draws the distinction between the natural goodness and the moral goodness of acts forbids such an interpretation.  The appropriateness of an object or end to an act is already given, independently of the operation of the agent's reason.  Hence, Scotus speaks in one place of the object of a morally good act as one that is "appropriate to the act according to the dictate of right reason, not merely because it is naturally appropriate to the act."  Here and elsewhere the implication is that there is a fact of the matter, independent of the agent's judgment, about whether an act and its various features are appropriate.  It is thus possible for an agent to perform an act that has an appropriate object (and other circumstances) without thereby performing a morally good act.

Suppose, for example, that I believe it is permissible for me to lie to my mother.  My best friend, however, believes (rightly) that it would be wrong for me to lie.  Perhaps because I do not wish to scandalize my friend, or perhaps because I am worn down by his incessant moralizing, I go ahead and tell my mother the truth, believing all the while that I would be perfectly justified in lying to her.  Now although I have performed the objectively appropriate action, my action lacks moral goodness.    In such a case Scotus would say that the act is naturally good, since it has the features that make up its secondary goodness.  But the act is not morally good, since it does not have these features as judged by the agent's own right reason.

Why does Scotus give this role to right reason?  He argues that agents acting on the basis of will and intellect are naturally suited to have an intrinsic rule of rectitude for their acts—that is, to judge for themselves whether those acts are appropriate.  And so, by the definition of secondary goodness, the acts of such agents must involve such a judgment if the agents are to have complete secondary goodness.  Now it is not enough simply to have the capacity for judgment; the agent must actually exercise it.  And the mere exercise of that judgment is not enough, for the agent must act not merely in accordance with, but on the basis of, that judgment.

This argument justifies the distinction I drew earlier between the goodness of the act considered simply as an act and the goodness of that act considered as the act of a certain sort of agent.  Recall that a thing has accidental or secondary goodness when it has all the perfections proper to it as a thing of a given kind.  We have already seen that an act as such needs only to have an appropriate object, end, and other circumstances in order to have all the perfections that together constitute its secondary goodness.  Scotus's argument does not show that an act as such requires any further perfections for its secondary goodness, but that acts of moral agents will not have all the perfections proper to them unless such agents exercise their right reason in eliciting those acts.

Scotus is quite consistent about drawing the distinction between natural goodness and moral goodness in just this way.  For example, at Reportatio 2, d. 40, nn. 2-3, he says that natural goodness comes from an agent whereas moral goodness is from a free efficient cause.  In the case he is considering, the "agent" from which natural goodness comes is a human being, and hence (of course) a free efficient cause.  So clearly the distinction is not between the goodness of two different sorts of agents, where the acts of ordinary causes have natural goodness and the acts of free causes have moral goodness; rather, the distinction is between two different ways of regarding one and the same act of a free agent, where natural goodness pertains to the act qua act and moral goodness pertains to the act qua act of a moral agent.

In this way Scotus allows us to separate first-order moral questions about the permissibility of actions from second-order moral questions about the praiseworthiness of agents.  In the case I introduced earlier, my act of truth-telling, considered merely as an act, was good.  But considered as the act of an agent that "is apt by nature to be ruled in its act by its own cognition," the act was not good.  I did what I ought, but I did not do it as I ought.  I therefore do not deserve praise for telling my mother the truth.  As Scotus repeatedly emphasizes, no act can deserve praise unless it is elicited freely.  But even naturally good acts that are elicited freely do not deserve praise unless they were elicited in a way that befits a free agent.

Thus far we have seen that an act has natural goodness when it has all the elements that contribute to its secondary perfection; it has moral goodness when it has those elements as judged by the agent's own right reason.  We should now turn to a more detailed explanation of what those elements are.  The most basic goodness of which a free human act is susceptible is goodness from the object.  The object of an act is generally designated by the direct object of the active verb that represents the action.  For example, if I hate God, God is the object of my act of hatred; if I kill an innocent man, that man is the object of my act of killing.  If the object of the act is appropriate, the act is said to be generically good, since it is indifferent to further specification by the circumstances of the act, as a genus is indifferent to many differences.  A generically good act will have complete secondary goodness only if all the other circumstances of the act are also appropriate.  On the other hand, if the object of the act is inappropriate, the act is generically bad, and none of other circumstances will suffice to give it secondary goodness.

A generically good act is specified by further circumstances.  If all of them are appropriate, the act has full secondary goodness, which Scotus variously calls "virtuous," "circumstantial," "complete," or "specific" goodness.  Foremost among the circumstances is the end of the act, which in Scotus's Latin is usually signified by the object of the preposition ‘propter'.  For example, in treating his stock example of almsgiving, he suggests four different ends that the act might have: one could give alms propter vanam gloriam, propter subventionem proximi, propter nocumentum alicuius, or propter Dei amorem.  We see from these examples that Scotus recognizes both producible ends and subsistent ends.  Empty show, the relief of one's neighbor, and the harming of someone are all producible ends: that is, things or states of affairs that the agent intends to bring about.  By contrast, in the case of the person who gives alms "on account of love for God," God himself is the end of the act—not of course as something produced by the act, but as the person for the sake of whom the agent acted.  God is thus a subsistent end.

The next circumstance is the form of the act, which Scotus also calls the mode.  The only indication of what this means is his statement that a mode of acting suitable for a nobler agent might be unsuitable for a less noble agent.  Next is the time of the act.  An act should be performed only at a time when it can be ordered to the appropriate end.  The last extrinsic circumstance is place, about which Scotus has nothing to say except that it does not matter for many acts.

It sometimes happens that a single act has all of the circumstances pertaining to two (or more) virtues at once.  In such a case the act has a twofold (or manifold) moral goodness.  If I go to church both in order to make good on a vow and out of love for God, the act has a twofold moral goodness.  "In short," Scotus says, "in any given act . . . the greater number of ordinate motives for acting that concur, the better the act is."  And the same is true of moral badness: the greater the number of inordinate motives that concur, the worse the act is.

Further light on the nature of goodness is shed by Scotus's discussion of the badness that is opposed to it.  Each level of goodness (generic and circumstantial) has a corresponding level of badness.  Any of these can be understood as either contrary to or privative of the corresponding goodness.  Privative badness is merely the absence of goodness.  Contrary badness is the presence of something inconsistent with goodness.  To put this in the form of definitions:

In the case of generic goodness, there can be only contrary badness, not privative badness.  For every act has an object, and (according to Scotus) every object is necessarily either conveniens or disconveniens to a given act.  If every object is either suitable or unsuitable, then any act that does not have a suitable object will have an unsuitable object, i.e., one that makes generic goodness not merely absent but impossible.  So there can be no privative generic badness.

Scotus's insistence that every object is either conveniens or disconveniens to a given act might seem puzzling at first, but upon reflection it becomes clear that there can be no middle ground in this.  For example, think about the act of eating.  Anything that is not food is clearly unsuited to the act, and anything that is good food is clearly suited to the act.  So perhaps we would initially be disposed to say that whatever falls between those two extremes (call that category "junk food") is neither suited nor unsuited.

But that attempt does not bear scrutiny.  For there will be some junk food that will occasionally be an appropriate object of eating, as birthday cake on one's birthday when one has otherwise been eating well and will not be harmed by it.  We must consider this kind of junk food to count as a suitable object in just the same way that good food is a suitable object.  (After all, the fact that broccoli is a suitable object does not mean that there are no circumstances under which one ought not to eat broccoli; it means that there are some circumstances under which it is permissible to eat broccoli.)  There will be other junk food that is harmful in some way, "food" inthe sense that it can be assimilated (unlike, say, stones), but food that actually undermines health.  We must consider this kind of junk food to count as an unsuitable object in just the same way that things that are not food at all are unsuitable objects.

If, as this picture suggests, convenientia corresponds roughly to permissibility (rather than outright obligatoriness) of the object, and disconvenientia corresponds roughly to impermissibility of the object, it makes sense to say that the two are contraries, just as permissibility and impermissibility are contraries.

When we get to circumstantial badness there is room for such a thing as privative badness.  As Scotus repeatedly emphasizes, moral goodness is the integration of all the circumstances dictated by right reason.  Therefore, if any one of them is lacking, the act falls short of moral goodness.  For example, if one gives alms to a beggar without observing the proper end of such an action (perhaps because one never considers the end), the act is not morally good.  It is privatively bad, because it lacks one of the properties it needs in order to have complete circumstantial goodness.  But it is not contrarily bad, as it would be if one gave alms for the sake of some impermissible end, such as empty show.  A privatively bad act can also be called an indifferent act, since it is in the genus of moral acts but does not have the differences (circumstances) by which good and bad acts are separated into species.

Now that I have laid out the relevant parts of Scotus's theory of moral goodness, I can address our original questions.  First, is the necessity of right reason for moral goodness consistent with voluntarism about the moral law?  The answer is surely yes.  As we have already seen, when Scotus says that in a morally good act right reason judges that (for example) the object is appropriate, he does not mean that the appropriateness of the object is in some way dependent on the agent's exercise of right reason.  On the contrary, the object is already appropriate, independently of the agent's judgment; the fact that the agent's judgment corresponds to what is actually the case is exactly why the agent's reason is described as right reason.  So the view that right reason must be exercised in order for a particular act to be morally good is consistent with any number of different views about what in fact makes certain objects, ends, and other circumstances appropriate or inappropriate.

Although I will not put it in quite those terms, the next section will show that, according to Scotus, the appropriateness of an object or an end to a given act is, except for cases of metaphysical necessity, determined by God's free choice.  Accordingly, Scotus says that no act, except for the love of God for his own sake, is wholly good simply on the basis of its object, since God is necessarily an appropriate object of love under any circumstances whatsoever.  Any other object can, by divine decree, be either morally licit or illicit, which is equivalent to saying that its appropriateness is determined by the divine will.

Hence, for example, God has contingently brought it about that an innocent human being is an inappropriate object for an act of killing.  This is another way of saying that God has contingently made it the case that murder is bad.  So if I judge correctly that murder is bad and on the basis of that judgment refrain from committing murder (and if the other circumstances of my act of refraining from murder are what they should be), my act is morally good.  My right reason is a necessary condition for the moral goodness of that particular act, but it has nothing at all to do with the appropriateness of the object or other circumstances.  More generally, no act can be morally good unless the agent's own reason correctly ascertains the relevant moral facts, but the moral facts themselves are (except in cases of metaphysical necessity) freely established by God's will.

My second question is whether the necessity of right reason for moral goodness implies that moral truth is accessible to natural reason.  We can see very easily that it does not.  Recall the example I discussed earlier, in which I am deciding whether to lie to my mother.  In that example, my act of truth-telling is not morally good unless I judge that lying is wrong and then tell the truth on the basis of that judgment.  Right reason as so described in no way implies that my judgment that lying is wrong must itself be made on the basis of natural reason.  Suppose that I do not know—suppose even that I cannot know—that lying is wrong unless God tells me so.  I could still meet the requirements for moral goodness as Scotus lays them out; I need only believe what God tells me and act on the basis of that belief.  If right reason requires no more of us than that (and Scotus nowhere indicates that it requires more), there is, once again, not even the appearance of conflict between voluntarism and the view that right reason is essential to morality.

3.  The accessibility of moral truth to natural reason

But in fact Scotus does not hold that we must consult Scripture or receive special revelations in order to know what morality requires of us.  His account of our natural knowledge of the moral law is somewhat complicated, however.  I shall begin by laying out the distinction he draws between necessary and contingent moral truths.  Since on Scotus's account it is perfectly clear how we know necessary moral truths, the remainder of this section will be devoted to the difficult question of how we know contingent moral truths.  After showing that our knowledge of the contingent part of the moral law cannot be acquired in the way many commentators have supposed, I shall argue that for Scotus contingent moral truths are immediate, in the sense that our knowledge of their truth is not grounded in the knowledge of any logically prior truths that explain or account for their truth, and I shall show how Scotus makes use of immediate contingent propositions more generally in his theory of knowledge.

As is well known, Scotus divided the moral law into two parts.  The first part includes only necessary truths.  More specifically, it includes moral propositions that are per se notum ex terminis and conclusions that follow necessarily from such propositions.  For example, the first commandment, "You shall have no other gods before me," and the second, "You shall not take up the name of the Lord your God with levity," are necessary "because if God exists, it follows necessarily that he is to be loved as God, and that nothing else is to be worshiped as God, and no irreverence is to be done to God.  Consequently, God could not dispense from these so that someone could licitly do the opposite."

This part of the moral law, the "first table of the Decalogue," is obviously accessible to natural reason.  If we know the meanings of the terms used in such a proposition, we cannot help seeing that it is true.  So if we can know the meanings of the relevant terms through natural reason—as we certainly can—we can know the truth of these propositions through natural reason.  The difficulty comes in understanding how the rest of the moral law (the "second table of the Decalogue") can be accessible to natural reason.  For the rest of the moral law—which includes such things as the prohibitions of murder, theft, and adultery, as well as the injunction to honor our parents—is contingent, and the propositions expressing those prohibitions and injunctions are not per se notum ex terminis.

Now there are two ways in which a contingent truth can be known: either mediately (through some other proposition or propositions) or immediately.  Here we have finally arrived at a point where Scotus's voluntarism really does place a limit on the role of reason in morality.  The truth of the matter, as I shall now show, is that Scotus's voluntarism commits him to the view that we cannot know the contingent part of the moral law by argument (mediately).  Moreover, Scotus is quite aware of this implication; he draws it explicitly.  But Scotus does think we can know the contingent part of the moral law by natural reason; we know it immediately. So the commentators have not been altogether wrong in seeing a conflict between voluntarism and the view that moral truth is accessible to natural reason.  Wolter offers, in Scotus's name, arguments for specific moral conclusions; having done so, he is right to reject the idea that Scotus is a thoroughgoing voluntarist.  Quinton, by contrast, understands Scotus as a thoroughgoing voluntarist, and so he is right to draw the conclusion that we cannot know the contingent part of the moral law by argument.  Wolter's mistake is to suppose that Scotus ever offers an argument for a contingent moral proposition; Quinton's is to suppose that if we cannot know the moral law by argument, we cannot know it by natural reason at all.

The connection between Scotus's voluntarism and the view that we cannot know the contingent part of the moral law by argument is quite straightforward.  Scotus argues that the contingent part of the moral law is freely determined by the divine will.  And he understands ‘freely' here in a strong sense:

So God's willing in one way rather than another does not follow from any prior truths; the proposition "God wills P" is, if it is contingent, not merely contingent but immediate.  Consequently, we know in advance that any argument purporting to establish the truth of a contingent moral proposition will be invalid.  For example, there is no cause of its being the case that murder is prohibited other than the fact that God willed to prohibit murder.  An argument purporting to show some other cause, some reason for that prohibition besides God's will, must be invalid.  For its conclusion, that murder is wrong, does not in fact follow from any other propositions whatsoever.

Now it might be thought that I have moved a bit too fast here.  There are, after all, entailment relations among various contingent propositions.  So I have to qualify my earlier claim that any contingent proposition about what God wills must be not merely contingent but immediate.  After all, "God wills that there be horses" and "God wills that there be animals" are both contingent, but the former entails the latter, and the latter is (or at least might be) known on the basis of the former.  "God wills that there be animals" therefore seems to be contingent but not immediate.

So perhaps the contingent propositions of the moral law follow from some other contingent propositions.  The obvious place to look is at human nature, which is a contingent creation.  Does the contingent part of the moral law follow from facts about human nature?  We can find commentators on both sides of the question.  Wolter has frequently argued that Scotus recognizes a close connection between human nature and the moral law.  He says, for example, that "Scotus, in determining what pertains to natural law, continually falls back on what is naturally good for human nature."   And in discussing the possibility of dispensation from the second table of the Decalogue, he says that "God could obviously not dispense from all its precepts at once, for this would be equivalent to creating man in one way and obligating him in an entirely different fashion, something contrary to what he ‘owes to human nature in virtue of his generosity'."  On the other side, Patrick Lee argues that Scotus's view is distinctive precisely because he does not acknowledge such a close relationship between human nature and the contingent part of the moral law:

On this question Lee is clearly right.  We can see this most easily by looking at what Scotus says in his treatment of the Decalogue at Ordinatio 3, d. 37.  This discussion is frequently cited in order to establish the claim that Scotus regarded the first table of the Decalogue as necessary and the second table as contingent, but commentators fail to notice the reasons Scotus gives for supposing that the second table is contingent.  Scotus argues quite explicitly that God can, without contradiction, create human beings and yet not establish the commandments of the second table: And in an argument that we shall examine again later, Scotus makes it even clearer that the precepts of the second table do not depend on human nature.  He gives us two cases involving "an innocent man who is useful to the state."  In the first case, that man is "illicit matter for killing"; in the second he is not.  There is no difference between the two cases other than the bare fact that in the second case God has revoked the commandment "You shall not kill."  This argument illustrates just how uncompromising Scotus's voluntarism really is.  For it shows not merely that the prohibition against killing this man does not follow from any facts about human nature, but that this prohibition does not follow from any facts whatsoever, other than God's will.

As I have argued, this uncompromising voluntarism commits Scotus to the view that there is no valid argument for any contingent moral truth.  Scotus is quite aware of this implication, as we can see by examining his treatment of particular moral questions.  As an example of the way in which he analyzes purported arguments for moral truths, I shall consider his discussion of lying.

Scotus considers three philosophical arguments for the claim that lying is always wrong.  The first argument would, if successful, show that the prohibition against lying belongs to the necessary part of the moral law.  According to this argument, lying is wrong because it necessarily turns one away from God; for a lie is opposed to the truth, and God is the Truth.  Scotus replies,

The second argument, drawn from Aquinas (2a2ae.110.3), purports to show that lying is generically bad and can therefore never be morally licit.  The generic character of an act is determined by its object.  The appropriate object of speech is something true, or at least believed to be true.  A lie never has the appropriate object, and so it is generically bad.

Scotus's chief objection to the argument involves an analogy with murder.

The reference to the discussion of the Decalogue in the preceding question establishes the context in which Scotus understands this argument to work.  Scotus argues there that only acts with an immediate relation to the divine nature are necessarily good or bad.  If an act has such a relation, it is easy enough to see how the act is right or wrong in itself.  For example, perjury involves an immediate relation to God, since Scotus understands perjury as the deliberate act of swearing by God to something one disbelieves or doubts.  Such an act clearly involves irreverence to God, which cannot be licit.

But if an act lacks an immediate relation to the divine nature, its rightness or wrongness is subject to God's will.  There is, as Scotus argues, no immediate connection between particular truths or falsehoods and the divine nature.  God was therefore free to establish a moral order in which things believed to be false were licit matter for speech; indeed, even in the present moral order he is free to dispense any of us from the obligation to tell the truth.  In fact, if the analogy with God's command to Abraham is taken seriously, we have to conclude that Scotus believes that God is free not simply to permit us to lie, but to command us to lie.  And in such a case, lying would be not merely licit but meritorious.

The third argument Scotus considers is taken from St Bonaventure's Commentary on the Sentences, Book 3, distinction 38, question 2.  It rests on the claim that lying by its nature involves an evil intention, the intention to deceive.  Therefore, any lie will be circumstantially bad, since it is directed to a morally illicit end.  Scotus offers no refutation of this argument as he does of the Thomist argument, and one might conclude that he endorses Bonaventure's reasoning.  If I am correct, however, we should resist this conclusion, both on the general theoretical grounds that I have stated and on the specific ground that the analysis of the Thomist argument can, mutatis mutandis, be made to apply to Bonaventure's argument.

The discussion of lying that follows bears out my interpretation.  First, in discussing famous lies from Scripture, Scotus is willing to admit that there are cases in which someone deliberately tells a falsehood with the intention to deceive and yet is not held guilty of sin.  We can therefore be certain that Bonaventure's account of what makes lying sinful cannot be correct.  Second, the only "proof" of the wrongness of lying that Scotus endorses is the appeal to revelation.

Third, the distinction Scotus makes between lies that are mortally sinful and those that are not has to do, not with whether they involve the intention to deceive, but with whether they do harm.  And as the analogy with murder makes clear, the prohibition against doing harm is contingent in such a way that one could not come to know by any chain of reasoning that such a prohibition is in force.

In short, no facts about human nature, divine nature, particular people, or particular situations constrain God's contingent and sovereign willing of the moral law.  There is no intermediary, so to speak, between God's will and the contingent part of the moral law.  So there is nowhere for natural reasoning to get started in formulating any sort of discursive justification for a contingent moral truth.  It cannot start from God's will itself, since God's will is not accessible to natural reason.  It cannot start from anywhere else, because there is no road from anywhere else—that is, from any of the facts that are accessible to natural reason—to any contingent moral truth.

Nonetheless, we are not forced into the conclusion dreaded by some interpreters— namely, that the moral law is not accessible to natural reason.  Scotus recognizes the existence of contingent truths that are immediate, that is, not derived from any logically prior truths.  Indeed, he insists that there must be such truths: "otherwise there would be an infinite regress in contingent truths, or else something contingent would follow from a necessary cause—either of which is impossible."  Now we need to distinguish here between two sorts of immediate contingent truths.  I shall call them metaphysically immediate and epistemically immediate.  Metaphysically immediate contingent truths are those for which there is no further explanation at all; they are the sorts of truths we might be inclined to call "brute facts"—not merely brute relative to other facts, but absolutely brute, as we might say.  Scotus's favorite examples of such truths are, not surprisingly, facts about the divine will.

Among contingent truths there is a first that is immediate and nonetheless contingent, since it is not traced to a necessary truth (for a contingent truth does not follow from a necessary truth).  And therefore in this case one must stop with "The will of God wills this," which is contingent and yet immediate, since there is no other cause, logically prior to the will, of why the will wills this and not something else.

This sort of immediacy, however, is not characteristic of the contingent part of the moral law.  There is a "logically prior" cause—the divine will itself—that explains why the moral law is what it is.

The moral law is therefore not metaphysically but epistemically immediate.  That is, while the fact that murder is wrong depends upon and is in some sense explained by the fact that God wills that murder be wrong, our knowledge that murder is wrong does not depend upon our knowledge that God wills that murder be wrong.  Scotus certainly recognizes contingent truths that are immediate in this epistemic sense.  In discussing Aristotle's response to certain paleo-Cartesians who demanded proof that we are awake and not dreaming, Scotus cites the Philosopher's diagnosis: "They seek reasons for things for which there is no reason.  For there is no demonstration of a principle of demonstration."  And he adds:

Clearly such facts as "I am understanding" and "I am awake" are not absolutely brute or metaphysically immediate, but they are epistemically immediate.  I do not know that I am awake on the basis of any logically prior facts, although no doubt there are logically prior facts.  Rather, the fact that I am awake is an unargued-for starting point for argument, and my knowledge of that fact is not only immediate but certain.

The contingent truths of the moral law are epistemically immediate in just this way.  Although they depend on logically prior facts, they are not known on the basis of any logically prior facts.  They can therefore function as "principles of demonstration" for which there is in turn no demonstration, as unargued-for starting points for argument.  They are, in St Paul's words, "written on our hearts."  We can assume that they were written there by God, who created us with moral intuitions to suit the moral order he freely and contingently created.

4. Conclusion

Scotus's understanding of the role of reason in morality is explicitly tailored so as to go hand in hand with his voluntarism; there is no conflict at all between the two views.  Since God created us with the ability to regulate our actions in accordance with our own knowledge of the moral law, our actions are not fully morally good unless they involve an exercise of our own reason.  But since we cannot come to know discursively what God has freely and contingently willed concerning the moral law, God has granted us an immediate knowledge of the moral law.

Natural reason thus knows the moral law immediately and not by argument.  Right reason is the correct application of such knowledge to specific circumstances.  And action on the basis of a complete dictate of right reason is fully morally good.  In this way, any agent who makes proper use of reason can easily elicit morally good acts without ever having the slightest thought about God's will, even though in fact it is God's sovereign will that freely established the moral facts that the agent is correctly discerning and following.