Thursday, July 01, 2010

Voluntarism and Ignorance

In his work On the Bondage and Liberation of the Will Calvin tirelessly insists on the fact, against Pighius but with Augustine, that our present lack of free will is not part of our nature, but is a corruption of our nature.

He includes a short Excursus, 'Coercion versus Necessity', that establishes the difference.The importance of the distinction for Calvin is that while acting out of necessity is consistent with being held responsible for the action, and being praised or blamed for it, being coerced is inconsistent with such praise or blame. In his criterion of praise and blame he explicitly follows Aristotle

When Aristotle distinguished what is voluntary from its opposite, he defines the latter as, to bia e di agnoian gignomenon, that is, what happens by force or through ignorance. There he defines as forced what has its beginning elsewhere, something to which he who acts or is acted upon makes no contribution (Ethic.Ni.3.1).

So normal human activity is not forced or coerced; insofar as it proceeds from fallen human nature it is not free because a person with a fallen nature does not have the power to choose what is good. Nonetheless, where a person is not forced, but makes a contribution to his action, and is not acting out of ignorance, he is acting voluntarily, and is responsible for what he does.

Vermigli similarly follows Aristotle in his comments on the passage, (Book 3.1) but much more closely and in greater detail. The distinction between the voluntary and the involuntary is, for Aristotle, the basis of praise and blame. (373-4) (Ought implies can applies to ‘secular laws’ (Vermigli concedes) but ‘not those of God.) For the latter require things that are impossible, especially in view of the corrupt and spoiled condition of nature’. 374) In civil actions the involuntary and actions done through ignorance are pardoned, as also in Scripture (Deut 19.5).

The voluntary is understood in terms of the absence of force, an impossible-to-resist or difficult-to-resist impulse, an external force which receives no help from the recipient (Aristotle) but which may nevertheless be cooperated with e.g. with the highwayman who shouts ‘your money or your life!’, and of knowledge. (375) Vermigli follows Aristotle in showing considerable analytic interest e.g. in distinguishing the spontaneous from the voluntary, and the range of possible instances of the voluntary, leading to a discussion of ‘cases’, (377), and also a discussion of the blameworthiness of actions in this range of the ‘voluntary’. For example, if one endures evil for a worthy end, this is blameworthy, if for a noble end - one’s country, one’s parents, one’s wife and children - then praiseworthy. (379) Those who act from base motives are not acting involuntarily, as they may claim.(384)

Vermigli goes into all this with great expository skill - clear, orderly and detailed and making judicious points, and then towards the end of the chapter there is a longer than usual discussion of how all these Aristotelian claims accord with Holy Scripture. He cites a number of biblical examples which accord with Aristotelianism.

Of particular interest is the way in which Vermigli thinks that Scriptural examples of moral action, together with praise and blame, follows the same contours as Aristotle’s thinking.

Aristotle famously distinguishes between those actions which are fully voluntarily, and those in which the will is involved, but are not fully voluntarily. ‘Something of this sort occurs in jettisoning good during a storm. There is no one who, strictly speaking, willingly and voluntarily throw away his own property, but people do it to save themselves and others, if they have any sense. (N. Ethics 3.1.11, quoted 376) So as regards responsibility there is a three-fold classification: the fully voluntary, the partly voluntary (as in the jettisoning case), and actions done out of ignorance. Vermigli thinks that this is exactly what we find in Scripture.

First, voluntariness . (396) The faithful are praised for being a willing people (Ps.11.9), the woodcutter is excused if his action is accidental because it was not voluntary (Nu.35.18) The Devil is compelled to tell the truth, and is not praised nor is Balaam who is forced at the point of a sword to curse the people of God. (Num.22.1-35)

Mixed actions, that is, those where we are constrained, though we still act of our own accord, are commended in Scripture – e.g. self-denial for a greater good, to suffer rather than to sin, to endure persecution. (397) We are praised for such mixed actions for those who endure persecution are blessed. (Matt 5.10) What should be endured for what? We should endure anything rather than depart form Christ. Base actions may be as voluntary as honourable actions, as Aristotle taught.

But there are issues over which Aristotle and Scripture deviate. For what if the evil we do is due to the presence of original sin? ‘Supposing someone said that knowledge or awareness is lacking when this sin is contracted and that the sin is cause by the first evil motions of our soul, in which there is no deliberation or choice?’ Answer: ‘Aristotle teaching should be understood of ethical and actual behavior, ut that he had no knowledge of original sin. It is enough for us that they cannot be called compulsory because they have an internal principle.’ Original sin is an internal principle. (400) So Aristotle is confirmed after all! (396-7)

Finally, (in this rather rapid survey) what of ignorance? Aristotle distinguished between those actions done from ignorance about which we feel remorse etc. when our ignorance is uncovered, and those over which we don’t feel remorse. The fact that we don’t feel remorse when sin is uncovered does not mean that we committed no sin. (398) if we ought to have known. (398) ‘Forgive them, for they know not what they do.’ They had sinned, and needed forgiveness, ‘I know that you acted in ignorance’ But if they could not have known what they were ignorant of, this ensures non-culpability. (He cites the drunkenness of Noah) Culpability depends partly on how important and central a matter the ignorance is of. (398) Actions done when drunk are voluntary, both for Aristotle and Scripture. (399)

So the approach here is that what Aristotle says is true because and insofar as it accords with Scripture. So we might say that Vermigli sees Aristotle as an astute observer of and commentator on human life, as a recipient of ‘natural light’, ‘common grace’ etc.

Several things are interesting about this treatment. There is no discussion of the metaphysics of human action, nothing on what is nowadays called determinism or compatibism, or agent causation. His reference to original sin would present him with an invitation to discuss these issues, but he does not accept it. There is no attempt to discuss Aristotle’s account of the voluntary and the blameworthy in the light of Aristotle’s own indeterminism and fear of fatalism to be found in his account of the Sea Battle Tomorrow in Book V of the De Interpretatione. It is true that Aristotle’s account of blameworthiness in terms of voluntariness and knowledge (or awareness) can be bolted onto either compatibilist or incompatibilism accounts of action, depending on what one takes the sources of voluntariness to be. But it seems that Vermigli, (in common with Calvin, say,) is sympathetic to some form of compatibilism and in ignoring the questions of the overall consistency or otherwise of Aristotle’s moral psychology and his ethics, is simply content to help himself to this chunk of Aristotle’s thought without bothering about its significance for Aristotle’s overall views themselves. (This may be partly at least because he takes Aristotle to be discussing ethics from a civil or public angle rather than from the angle of metaphysics, and he may be correct in this.) There is considerable merit in the care with which he discusses voluntariness, and Calvin’s short statements on the matter, could certainly have benefited from the discussions of his friend, discussions taking place at around the time he himself was in exile in Strasbourg.