Dun Scotus on Virtue and Moral Goodness
In the Ordinatio I, d. 17, part 1, qq. 1–2,nn. 55–67, 92–100, Scotus discusses the moral goodness of an act, moral habits, and the significance of virtue. The discussion begins with the question: “Is a moral habit, as a virtue, in some way an active principle with respect to moral goodness in an act?” (Scotus d. 17, part 1, qq. 1, nn. 55). To which Scotus objects by stating that moral habit, as a virtue, is not an active principle required for moral goodness. Rather, Scotus argues that moral virtue is merely derived from individual right reason, and the suitable conditions and circumstances present in the act. I, for one, do not agree that this is the case.
Before his investigation, Scotus states some arguments against his affirmation, one of which comes from Aristotle’s Ethics II [1106a15 - 17], where it is established that the best characteristic comes from an active principle and that it would then follow that it is as an active principle that a virtue perfects a power. Therefore, virtue perfects a power with respect to acting. In addition, Scotus also brings up another assertion from Aristotle that virtue is a principle of an act as being good in such a way that an act cannot be good without it (Scotus d. 17, part 1, qq. 1, nn. 59). With those oppositions put in place, Scotus suggests that moral goodness in act merely indicates a relation; that an act characterized by appropriate circumstances is not something absolute, but simply the appropriate relation of the act to those features that should characterize it. Scotus argues that an act characterized by appropriate circumstances, just like any other relation, has no active principle of its own (Scotus d. 17, part 1, qq. 1, nn. 60); that if a moral habit, as a virtue, were an active principle of moral goodness in act, then habit is a virtue only through its relation with moral goodness.
In Scotus’s view, right reason dictates the features that characterize an act; right reason being the appropriate judgement of the suitability of an action. That the purpose of an act to right reason is the feature that determines an act good and whose absence makes an act bad, regardless of what other features might characterize that act (Scotus d. 17, part 1, qq. 1, nn. 62). According to Scotus, if an act is not in accordance with the right reason of the specific agent, then the act is not good. Therefore, the moral goodness of an act can be determined by the act’s conformity with the individual’s right reason; this would be on the basis that right reason completely determines whether the individual's action is good or not. Scotus then proceeds to assert that goodness has no active principle on its own, similar to the fact that no relation has active principle on its own, especially because this relation follows in virtue of the nature of the extremes once those extremes are given. He says that if an act is performed, and right reason is present in the action, it would not be possible through the virtue of the nature of extremes, because conformity with right reason would not follow.
With that being said, Scotus affirms that there is no need for habit, as a virtue, to have the character of an active principle of moral goodness because moral goodness is determined by the individual’s capability of right reason. According to Scotus, the moral goodness of an act could be found, in part, from the agent’s right reason, and the suitable conditions and circumstances present in the act (Scotus d. 17, part 1, qq. 2, nn. 92).
Although Scotus refutes a handful of arguments that would object his assertion, I still believe that Scotus’s arguments that claim virtue does not determine moral goodness is incorrect. To reiterate, Scotus argues that moral goodness is determined by right reason, and not by virtue; that an act can conform to right reason without the influence of virtue whatsoever. He asserts that, although habits promote certain actions, they still are not the main causes of particular actions. According to Scotus, moral habits, as virtues, merely have impressions on certain actions, however they still have no influence on individual actions or judgments. However, I still lean more towards Aristotle’s emphasis on virtue. For reference, Aristotle differentiates between two types of virtue: intellectual virtue and of moral goodness. Intellectual Virtue derives from instruction and would need time and experience to attain (Aristotle, Nic. Ethics, II. 1, 1103a15), and on the other hand, Moral Goodness is an action innate to us by nature and is actualized through practise and habit (Aristotle, Nic. Ethics, II. 1, 1103a25). According to Aristotle, the nature of these moral qualities are destroyed by deficiency and excess; a way to remedy the destruction of deficiency and excess is answered by his doctrine of the mean, where he concerns virtue as a disposition between the two extremes, or of its two vices, of excess and of deficiency. That being said, Aristotle already associates part of virtue as moral goodness.
The reason why I believe Aristotle's rationale to virtue and its association to moral goodness to be more legitimate than Scotus’s is simply due to the very definition of virtue. Virtue, first and foremost, is behavior that exhibits moral standards, that is, behaviour that is morally good. Aristotle specifically associates his definition of virtue to moral goodness, however, Scotus associates moral virtue to right reason. My question is, how can the individual results of right reason be guaranteed to be morally good? How can an individual judge an action to be morally good? I guess this question can also be asked of virtue: how can virtue determine what is morally good? However, if we take into account Aristotle’s definition, moral goodness is already associated with virtue. Nonetheless, in everyday life, there is a collective agreement that determines what is virtuous; and usually the societal definitions of virtue is determined by good moral standards - especially among religious groups, or societies heavily influenced by religions that hold certain virtues to the moral standard. Returning back to my previous question: how can an individual’s right reason be guaranteed to be morally good? Some individual judgements are inherently bad, that is, although they judge an action to be good, it can still be considered bad by others.
For instance, imagine a child who always throws a tantrum when they do not get what they want. Although it is just an initial reaction the child may have when something upsets them, because they are relieved of their troubles after each tantrum, they grow accustomed to bad habits that they believe to be good. The child then grows to be an adult who still reacts badly because it is in their right reason to act poorly as means to get what they want. And these poor habits only get worse as the individual grows more accustomed to them. Let us now assume that the child-turned-adult physically assaults another because they were in the individual’s way; it was in the child-turned-adult’s right reason to harm another as a means to get what they want, so does that make their action morally good? I doubt it. Causing pain towards others for selfish reasons is morally bad, therefore what the child-turned-adult believed to be right reason was, in actuality, morally wrong. If the child was taught the virtue of patience or humility (for instance), in the first place, then their actions would revolve around such virtues, and their tendencies and senses would revolve around such virtues the more they practised it.
The more one practises their virtues, the more their right reason accustoms to its standards, resulting in the individual’s actions to be morally good. As both Aristotle and Scotus have come to agree, virtue is moral habit; and as moral habit, as a virtue, is practised, the more moral goodness is recognized in the individual, and the more their right reason grows to take after that very same virtue and moral goodness. That being said, as Scotus is correct to associate right reason with moral goodness, it is not right reason that determines moral goodness but virtue, or moral habit. And the more virtue or moral habit is practised, the more inclined right reason would be to moral goodness, for virtue is the means that influences right reason to obtain goodness.
Aristotle. The Nicomachean Ethics. Translated by J.A.K. Thomson, Penguin Books, 2004.
Scotus, John Duns. “John Duns Scotus Selected Writings on Ethics (Selections).” Translated by Thomas Williams.