262. On Command: Scotus on Ethics

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Scotus argues that morality is a matter of freely choosing to follow God’s freely issued commands.



Further Reading

• A.B. Wolter (ed. and trans.), Duns Scotus on the Will and Morality (Washington DC: 1986).


• L. Honnefelder, R. Wood and M. Dreyer (eds), John Duns Scotus: Metaphysics and Ethics (Leiden: 1996).

• B. Kent, Virtues of the Will: the Transformation of Ethics in the Thirteenth Century (Washington DC: 1995).

• T.M. Osborne, “The Separation of the Interior and Exterior Acts in Scotus and Ockham,” Mediaeval Studies 69 (2007), 111-39.

• T. Williams (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Duns Scotus (Cambridge: 2003) [the papers by Möhle, Williams, and Kent].

• T. Williams, “The Libertarian Foundations of Scotus’s Moral Philosophy,” The Thomist 62 (1997), 193-215.

• A.B. Wolter, “Native Freedom of the Will as a Key to the Ethics of Scotus,” in A.B. Wolter, The Philosophical Theology of John Duns Scotus, ed. M. McCord Adams (Ithaca: 1990), 148-62.


Gordon knight on 9 October 2016

the Goodness of God

So from what I understand Scott's holds that God is by nature Good.  he uses this to defend the claim we are always obliged to obey God. But does  not this admission yjat Hod is  by nature good conflict with a pure divine command theory. If Sotus is willing to admit the goodness of God objectively grounds our obligation to obey, why does it not also limit Gods commands.,e.g  no purely good being would command I torture a child every Wednesday. I know he has beliefs about this, but what is the argument?


In reply to by Gordon knight

Peter Adamson on 12 October 2016

Divine command

You're assuming that there is some independent fact (other than God's command) about what is good and bad - which is a natural enough assumption, I mean, it is very hard for us to imagine that torturing a child could be good. The divine command theorist however holds precisely that things are ONLY good because God commands them, since only God is perfectly good and he is the source of all goodness.

Having said that Scotus could reassure you that we have ways of understanding that it could not be part of the created order as we know it that torturing children is good, e.g. because we know about other ethical imperatives (to protect the innocent, say) that would be in conflict with such a command, and the ethical commands issued by God must be consistent. If it were really going to be the case that we should torture children, the whole system of ethics laid down by God in the form of commands would have to change radically (in fact maybe it would even be impossible given the natural world God has created, in that adults in general seem to have a natural drive and reason to protect children). Still, in principle God could have set it up so that things that are currently good would have been bad.

William Thomas… on 11 October 2016

"God" who?

Did God command Abraham to slay object, or was it someone else but whom Abraham thought was God?

In reply to by William Thomas…

Peter Adamson on 12 October 2016


Well, I think the Bible narrative just says that it is God, but no doubt the passage has been interpreted in any number of ways!

In reply to by William Thomas…

Gabriel on 21 April 2020


Yes, like, sure, even if you go with the theory how can you tell the voice ordering you to kill your son if God and not the devil maybe, or not likely your head.

Bear on 4 November 2016

Peter Abelard

One small quibble with a comment about the chronology of your Peter Abelard comment. According to his autobiography (Historia Calamitatum), his gelding occurred after Heloise entered the nunnery.

The usual explanation is that Flaubert (Heloise's uncle and guardian at the time of Astrolabe's conception) was offended by what appeared to be Abelard's convenient putting away of his niece so he could get on with his academic career that he wanted Abelard to be punished. However, it appears to have failed to dampen the ardour they had for each other, if the letters are to be believed.

In reply to by Bear

Peter Adamson on 4 November 2016

Abelard quibble

Oh thanks, I may have got the events in the wrong order there - I will double check that for the book version!

Alejandro on 14 May 2020


Hi, Peter! 

Thank you for this fascinating chapter (I'm reading the book version of this discussions). I have a question about this:

“you might notice that we are instructed not to covet another person’s spouse and also not to commit adultery. On a view like Abelard’s or Ockham’s this could seem redundant.” 

I know that in patriarchal societies, adultery generally involved taking another man's wife, but what if you are married and have sex with someone other than your spouse and this person is herself not married? There's no husband to offend. I imagine that you would be guilty of fornication, but would the medievals consider it adultery? 

One more question: one of the notes of the book mentions the work of J. Müller on the concept of akrasia, which I have always found fascinating since I was introduced to it by reading Plato and your books. However, the article is in German. Do you know if it has been translated? I did a search online and wasn't able to find anything. 

Once again, thank you!

In reply to by Alejandro

Peter Adamson on 15 May 2020


Ah that's a good point: so, unmarried sex with an unmarried person would be one sin, sleeping with someone else's spouse another. That could be, but one would have to do some philological and historical work to be sure.

It would be great if someone translated Müller's book but I think it is unlikely to happen, since it is really long! Anyway as far as I know there is only the German version. Good excuse to learn this wonderful language of course...

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Alejandro on 15 May 2020

Yes, I guess I have to learn

Yes, I guess I have to learn German then. It would be good for me, given that I visit Germany every year during Christmas to see my best friends, who live near Munich. I get to watch Sir Toby on Silvester ("Same procedure as every year") and melt lead figurines! I just need to learn the language. Thank you!

In reply to by Alejandro

Peter Adamson on 17 May 2020

new Year's

Yeah we do that here every year and every year I am like, "why are we doing this, the melted lead thrown in the cold water doesn't look like anything." My annual reminder that I am a foreigner here and will never really understand.

Colin on 9 March 2023

13th century Skepticism?

Perhaps this is covered in later episodes, but I am having trouble with some of the necessities of God laid out by Scotus and others. 

I understand why we would WANT God to be, by nature, coherent. But why is it necessary? 

God can make choices, but those choices are constrained by repugnance and coherence. To me, that means that while God has freedom, his power is contingent on those laws (I'll use laws here because I can't think of a better word). But where do those laws come from? If God is the uncaused and necessary cause of everything - wouldn't that mean he caused those laws to exist? And if so, couldn't he choose not to obey those laws? 

I guess the starting point of "God is orderly and can never make the incoherent coherent" makes it seem like some force is acting upon God. Was this something brought to challenge the likes of Scotus in the 13th century? Did he have some workaround for this that I missed? 

In reply to by Colin

Peter Adamson on 9 March 2023

God and coherence

Well, the position you're at least flirting with there (if I understand it) is that God could even do things that are impossible. If you mean things thare are logically impossible (like, P is both true and false, or God creating a round square), that was not a scenario envisioned in the Middle Ages really, or at least very rarely if so. Standardly logical possibility was taken as constraint on divine omnipotence. But for sure they discussed scenarios that were against other laws (physical or metaphysical ones), these being subject to God's will, like for example that the same person  is in two places at the same time, or that someone's head is cut off but they keep talking. Actually these ideas come up earlier in Islamic theology: in both contexts the "voluntarists" tend to put very few constraints on what God can do. Later on, Descartes is notorious for thinking that even logical possibility is subject to divine will.

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