229. Do the Right Thing: Thirteenth Century Ethics

Posted on 21 June 2015

The scholastics explore Aristotle’s ethical teaching and the concept of moral conscience.

Themes:

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Further Reading

• I.P. Bejczy (ed.), Virtue Ethics in the Middle Ages: Commentaries on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, 1200-1500 (Leiden: 2008).

• A.J. Celano, “The Understanding of the Concept of felicitas in the Pre-1250 Commentaries on the Ethica Nicomachea,” Medioevo 12 (1986), 29-53.

• A.J. Celano, “The Relation of Prudence and Synderesis to Happiness in Medieval Commentaries on Aristotle’s Ethics,” in J. Miller (ed.), The Reception of Aristotle’s Ethics (Cambridge: 2012), 125-54.

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

• D. Langston, “The Spark of Conscience: Bonaventure’s View of Conscience and Synderesis,” Franciscan Studies 53 (1993), 79-95.

• T.C. Potts, Conscience in Medieval Philosophy (Cambridge: 1980).

Comments

Otter Bob 21 June 2015

Hi Peter,

Could you provide the Greek etymology of this term or how it was derived from Greek?

Otter Bob 21 June 2015

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Perfect, Peter.  I could have been tripping around in my Liddell and Scott's forever before thinking of dropping the 'd' or substituting a 't'.  Thanks.

Yousef damra 2 July 2015

I forgot in which episode the Greek prefix(used to discribe good meaning something like super-good) was discussed or first used by whom? Can i get help?

You probably mean the Pseudo-Dionysius, using the Greek prefix "hyper-". But the idea is also used by Eriugena, using the Latin "super-" and he is in fact inspired by Dionysius on that point. So you want episodes 105 and 199.

Ryan W 21 August 2019

If I'm not mistaken (I could be; although I've read Abelard's Ethics, it's been a while), doesn't Abelard assert that Christ's executioners actually committed no sin at all, because their conscience told them they were doing the right thing? As I recall, Abelard argues that an action can't be positively good unless the conscience judges correctly, but whenever it judges incorrectly, it's "covered" by its good intention. Or did you just mean that the action in itself was sinful, even though no guilt attaches to the people who committed it?

Anyway, it seems to me that Abelard on the one side and Bonaventure/Philip the Chancellor on the other stake out two extreme positions, on the one side that good intentions are themselves sufficient to avoid guilt, and on the other that mistakes are never an excuse. I would be more inclined to take a middle position. I would tend to think that you would have to look at the mistake itself and ask whether it is innocent or not. In the tube example, I would tend to say that, given that it is a mistake of fact that is in question, so long as the person wasn't downright careless in forming the judgment that the woman was pregnant, their action is not only completely innocent, but positively good, even though in this case the consequence turns out to be bad. On the other hand, it's easy to think of situations where mistakes of fact or ethical judgment are, while sincere, the product to at least some degree of motivated reasoning, misplaced priorities, self-justification or something else of the sort. In these cases, the action will be culpable no matter how sincere the mistaken belief, because the formation of that belief, although genuine in its way, is itself infected with culpability.

> If I'm not mistaken (I could be; although I've read Abelard's Ethics, it's been a while), doesn't Abelard assert that Christ's executioners actually committed no sin at all, because > their conscience told them they were doing the right thing?

As it happens I remember this pretty well because I was thinking he'd say what you say here, but he doesn't: he's quite clear that the executioners perform a less bad sin than if they had violated their conscience, yet they still sin. So his view seems to be that if your deed is objectively bad, then that already makes it a sin, even if the emphasis for him lies on the volition. That is of course a middle view in a way, though not of the sort you suggest. I think actually your view, as you lay it out in the second paragraph, is much closer to a pure intention view than you are letting on, because really all you are saying is that if one exerts genuine effort to get things right and has good intentions, one is not blameworthy. I do find that intuitively convincing as well though we still have the contrasting intuition that people often feel guilty about things that are definitely not "their fault" in the sense of something they could have avoided by being more careful or having better intentions. An example might be the driver of a train that hits a person, when the driver couldn't possibly have stopped in time; the driver might and probably would still feel "guilty" while also recognizing that they could not have done anything about it. Of course you might just want to say the driver would be wrong to feel that way.

Hi, Peter! I was going to ask the same question, but Ryan beat me to it. Regarding the guilt of the driver, don't you think that guilt in itself is not only NOT proof of wrongdoing but actually a separate issue? You can feel guilt for all sort of reasons that have nothing to do with a particular action and your level of responsibility for that action. A mother who thinks her daughter died as result of her not giving her the pills prescribed by her doctor, not knowing that that wasn't the cause of the death, feels guilt that is not justified. She's guilty of not giving the baby the pills as required but not of causing her death. I tend to think that we believe ourselves responsible for things that are not really our fault because the guilt is more bearable than the idea that things are really beyond our control. Regarding Abelard's idea that an objectively bad deed, even if done unintentionally, still constitutes a sin conflates the idea of what is objectively bad with what is blameworthy. I think those are two separate, though related, ideas. 

Yes, I think that's right: the fact that something is bad doesn't mean that anyone needs to feel guilty or blameworthy for it. It might be different for Abelard though, working within a context where there is the lurking danger that God would be on the hook for any badness that isn't the responsibility of human sin (ultimately of course all badness can be traced back to Original Sin).

Still I think we should give Abelard credit for distinguishing the badness of the volition from the badness of the action itself; how one should feel about bad actions one didn't intend, or couldn't help is perhaps more a matter of moral psychology than anything, and he of course takes a strong stand that it is the will that is the real bearer of moral weight.

Alejandro 7 February 2020

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Thank you. Are you aware of any medieval philosophers/theologians who agree with Socrates that we do evil out of ignorance?

Well, it was pretty standard to say that there was at least some role for the will but there is a traditional contrast between rationalists and voluntarists, with the former coming closer to saying that sin is the result of failure in the will. Check out the episodes here on the podcast about Scotus on the will and the interview with Tom Pink on the will, they get into this issue deeply.

Jordan 26 July 2022

I feel like the "giving up a seat" example is perfect for the argument that we do things out of socialization and not moral choice. I think many of us would automatically get up, and if we did give the matter active thought, it would probably include the fear of looking like a jerk in front of everyone else. I don't mean to say that's always true - and I'm sure it will come up in later thought, as when Kant describes what we would now call "virtue signaling" lol.

But that doesn't mean it CAN'T be a moral choice. Whether it was automatic or carefully thought out seems to depend on your internal state. So if you do something "good" out of habit, can that really be called being "moral" the same way the informed choice would be? On the other hand, with the whole Aristotle thing about how our habits are what determine whether we're moral or not, he would probably say that being able to do "good" unthinkingly is the most moral.

So maybe, if we're trying to figure out whether this action is moral in itself, it's better to focus on whether we intentionally chose to cultivate a moral habit or whether we were trained to. I don't know - from my own emotional point of view, I would think that if you are evaluating consequences / forming habits based on empathy for the pregnant woman, that's moral, whereas if you're concerned about the social repercussions of looking selfish, that's amoral. Maybe the intention is irrelevant, since the rule ("give your seat up for someone who needs it more") has the same outcome and has the same chance of going awry ("insulting a woman by implying she's pregnant") no matter what.

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