- John Duns Scotus: Selected Writings on Ethics by Thomas Williams
Even amongst those with only a cursory knowledge of the moral philosophy of John Duns Scotus, the association of Scotus's thought with voluntarism is well known. Next to his much-discussed, highly controversial theory of the univocity of being, Scotus's ethical thought, particularly his interpretation of the role of God's will in dictating moral norms, remains one of the most disputed – and arguably most misunderstood – areas of his philosophical synthesis. As Efrem Bettoni noted many years ago, Scotus's understanding of the relationship between the divine will and the created moral order is one of the 'most badly treated' areas of his thought. Not surprisingly, therefore, no general consensus has emerged concerning Scotus's moral philosophy, with even the most learned of scholars disagreeing vigorously on the subject. For some, Scotus propounds a strident ethical voluntarism which relegates the role of 'right reason' in moral discernment by making the correctness of an act dependent entirely upon an arbitrary, and largely unknowable, divine will. An act is good, put simply, not because it has any inherent goodness of its own, but purely because God wills it to be good. For others, however, quite the opposite is true: Scotus's theory of the will – both human and divine – merely seeks to show how, when the intellect and will are correctly related to one another, the moral goodness of an act is dictated not by 'right knowing' but by 'right loving'. To quote Ingham 'self-less love for the good, and not merely knowledge of the good' is for Scotus 'the principle activity characteristic of human perfection'.
As with so many areas of Scotus's thought, much of the contemporary debate concerning his ethical teaching has been greatly hindered by the absence – until very recently at least – of a critical edition of his main works; namely, the Ordinatio and Lectura. This is to say nothing of the much neglected Collationes Oxonienses and Parisienses, as well as the famous Reportatio Parisiensis and Quaestiones Quodlibetales. Thankfully, with regards to the Ordinatio and Lectura critical editions are now available as a result of the sixty-year editorial project recently completed by the International Scotistic Commission. Sadly, however, no critical editions of the Reportatio Parisiensis and the Quaestiones Quodlibetales are [End Page 541] available yet. The most complete transcriptions of these works, and the significant amount of ethical material they contain, is still to be found in the much-maligned Wadding-Vivès edition published during the nineteenth century. Nonetheless, as the work of the late Allan Wolter, and more recently that of Oleg Bychkov and Trent Pomplun, has shown the construction of a 'safe' – albeit non-critical – edition and translation of Reportatio I-A (the famous Reportatio Examinata) and Reportatio IV-A is possible and can be executed to a high degree.
Not surprisingly, the lack of a complete critical edition of Scotus's literary corpus has significantly hindered the production of reliable English translations of his ethical writings. Whilst several attempts have been made to translate Scotus's most important ethical texts – principally those found in the Ordinatio and Lectura, as well as the Quaestiones Quodlibetales – these, have proved of limited value. Perhaps the most notable in this respect is Allan Wolter's anthology Duns Scotus on the Will and Morality (Washington: Catholic University of America, 1986). Whilst Wolter's extended introduction and commentary on the texts he selects for translation did much to clarify Scotus's ethical teaching, his translations themselves nonetheless came under sustained criticism for their perceived lack of accuracy. In his review of Wolter's anthology, Richard Cross expressed both frustration and disappointment at the strikingly 'loose' nature of Wolter's translations. Subsequently, a lamentable situation has arisen in contemporary Scotus scholarship where, despite the fact the debate concerning Scotus's ethics has continued to rage apace, scholars have, for the most part, lacked a 'safe' English translation of Scotus's principle ethical writings. The need for such a translation, and...