Part I: Scotus On the Harmony, Beauty, and Consonance of a Moral Act

Scotus recognized that an existential application of natural law, and particularly natural law in the extended sense, requires the proper exercise of practical reason. On the one hand, “Scotus insists upon the primacy of God’s will for an objective moral order”; on the other hand, Scotus emphasizes “the centrality of the human will in self-determination.”[1] In our lived experience, moral goodness becomes manifest in the creative interplay between these two wills. This is not to say that humans via their volitional choices and actions “define goodness,” as that is the prerogative of the divine will, which the Subtle Doctor emphatically claims is the objective standard for moral goodness.[2] Elsewhere Scotus describes in detail two affections intrinsic to the human will, the affection for justice and the affection for advantage.  The former moderates the latter and makes possible freedom from or freedom beyond natural appetite. However, as Ingham brings to our attention, a Scotistic view of ethics involves much more than an explanation of the inner workings of the two affections. Scotus’s analysis of moral goodness stresses “the relationship of goodness to beauty. It presents the moral act as a work of art and the moral agent as an artisan.”[3]

The use of an artistic model and artistic analogies to explicate moral theories is not foreign to the Western philosophical tradition. Aristotle, for example, employs musical analogies (as well as medical analogies) in his Nicomachean Ethics.[4] Thomas Aquinas references both types of Aristotlean analogy; however, his preference is to cite and develop the Philosopher’s medical images.[5] Scotus, in contrast, turns frequently to artistic and musical analogies and terminology in his reflections on ethics and the moral goodness of an act. In light of the Subtle Doctor’s preference for freedom over natural necessity,”[6] his choice of artistic, creative freedom as his preferred explanatory model is, as he might put it, fitting.

Given my current research, I want to engage in a slight digression that brings Foucault into the conversation. In what I have called elsewhere, Foucault’s “ethico-aesthetic turn,” he too describes ethical acts and ascetical practices as akin to works of art in which the agent, through self-disciplinary technologies acquires practical skills and a certain degree of self-mastery, enabling him or her to live a beautiful life—a life which itself is an ethopoietic work of art.[7] Like Scotus, Foucault values freedom and stresses repeatedly the contingent character of our world. Foucault’s discussion of creative self-elaboration, subject-formation, and his notion of power relations presuppose free subjects with rational capacities. However, unlike Scotus Foucault offers no explanation as to why humans are able to engage in such self-directed, uncompelled activities so that they might define themselves and pursue an authentic, beautiful life. Moreover, Foucault’s reticence to address directly the metaphysics of human being or what makes a human person a person worthy of dignity and respect is a weakness in his account not unrelated to his reticence to affirm at least some transhistorical, transcultural ethical norms. If there is nothing at all stable or unchanging about the ontology of human beings, then there is nothing upon which one might base a doctrine of universal human rights.[8] That is, rights will remain—and this seems to be the case for Foucault—epistemai-specific or tied to a particular cultural and historical period, not only socially constructed “all the way down” but in no way grounded in a universal, shared human nature or universal, essential capacities or features constituting the human person as such.

Returning to Scotus’s use of artistic and musical images to explicate ethical themes, Ingham observes how the Subtle Doctor’s strategy of bracketing reference to complete human fulfillment in God in the hereafter—that is, eschatological perfection—allows him, while not denying that our ultimate union with God is our telic destiny and happiness, to concentrate his attention on the concrete act in all its particularity as morally beautiful. The morally good act appears not as a means to a pre-determined end, but as an artistic whole within which harmony and proportion among several elements exist.”[9] By foregrounding the concrete act and the circumstantial aspects and context in which it must be considered for a proper assessment of the act’s moral value, Scotus opens the door for dialogue about ethics across religious and non-religious boundaries.  None of this is meant to downplay Scotus’s theology and its role as a source and influence for his philosophy. It goes without saying that Scotus’s theological commitments make him, like Augustine, skeptical about philosophy’s ability to deliver one to a life of complete human flourishing.[10] For the Subtle Doctor and the North African Saint, the human heart finds its ultimate repose and contentment in loving union with the Triune God. Nonetheless, because Scotus “rejects any natural or necessary connection between knowledge of an objective moral goal such as [Aristotle’s] eudaimonia [or beautific vision] and the human ability to attain it in this life (pro statu isto), he can without compromising his own theological beliefs, bracket talk of those aspects requiring a commitment to divine revelation, and discuss a theory of moral acts which, presumably, someone like Foucault or Fanon would find worthy of a hearing and perhaps even find appealing.

In Ordinatio I.17, Scotus describes the moral goodness of an act as a kind of comeliness, elegance, or ornamentation (quasi quidam decor) analogous to an indefinable yet perceptible embellishment beautifying a work of art. Describing the décor of a morally good act, Scotus writes:

it can be said that just as beauty is not some absolute quality in a beautiful body, but is the sum of all that is in harmony [convenientium] with such a body (for example, size, magnitude, figure and color), and also the sum of all its aspects [omnium respectuum] (which are those of the body and those of one another), so the goodness of a moral act is a kind of décor of that act, including the sum of due proportion to all to which it has proportion (for example to the power, to the object, to the end, to the time, to the place and to the manner), and this especially as those things which right reason says must harmonize [debere convenire] with the act: so that regarding all these things we can say that harmony [convenientia] of the act with right reason is that by which the act has been considered [posita] good, and that by which it has been considered [posita]—in whatever manner it might harmonize [conveniat] with other aspects—not good, since whatever act, if it is not in accord with right reason when performed [in operante] (for example, if it does not exhibit [habeat] right reason when performing it [in operando]), then the act is not good.[11]

In this passage, Scotus employs the term convenire or some version of its noun variant convenientia four times. I have chosen to translate convenire as “to harmonize” and convenientia as “harmony,” in keeping with Scotus’s preference for musical analogies. Here the idea seems to be that the morally good act, similar to a beautiful work of art, will exhibit just the right balance among its various aspects. Thus, the morally good act will be performed in the right manner, at the right time, in the right location and circumstances, among the appropriate people, with the proper end in view, and so forth.  For example, telling the truth, while typically a good act, can be told in an inappropriate manner, to an inappropriate conversation partner, and with an end in view which actually intends to harm an individual.

Scotus’s emphasis on the circumstances and context of the act, of course, sounds with Aristotelian echoes, as the Philosopher makes comparable statements in the Nicomachean Ethics.[12] In both Aristotle and Scotus’s account of morally good or virtuous acts, practical reason plays a prominent role. As the passage from Ordinatio I.17 demonstrates, Scotus lays stress upon right reason’s ability to perceive a fitting or harmonious combination of the various elements surrounding the act in question. If the act and its, as it were, harmonic background do not form a consonant whole—a consonance determined by the agent’s prudential reason, itself an intellectual virtue developed within a tradition as a musical skill is developed within a tradition—, then the act is not considered morally good.

In addition to his emphasis on the circumstantial context of an act, Scotus also underscores the objective dimension of the action. As Ingham explains, by the term “objective,” Scotus has in view the “object of the action. For example, in the directive ‘tell the truth,’ truth is the object of the action. ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’ is an objectively good act because persons (both you and your neighbor) are worthy of love.”[13] Although Scotus claims that every moral act has an objective dimension discernable by right reason, the moral beauty of an act is not reducible to this dimension. The agent’s freedom in choosing a particular act also factors into Scotus’s account.  For example, one might tell the truth about a particular person’s illegal financial activities—not because it is the right thing to do given the deleterious consequences such activity has brought on others, but because one’s boss has demanded that the truth be told. There is a sense in which the act is objectively good because truth was the object of the action; however, the person uttering the truth is not brought into a better moral condition as a result of the action; his or her character is not made better. In contrast, when a person chooses freely to live a life of truth-telling and has not only one’s own good but the good of others’ in view, his or her actions “take on a free and rational quality which enhances their natural objective goodness.”[14] When this is the case, one’s truth telling is not only a morally good act (objectively speaking), but it is also an act that makes one a better person.[15]

Moral objects, or the objective dimension of an act, as we have seen are not, for Scotus, the final word, ending all moral discussion. Given what humans are—free, rational beings, Scotus argues that goodness and truth are fundamental moral objects well-suited to our nature and thus proper human goods, aimed at our fulfillment and perfection.[16] Because we are beings with rational powers, we seek reasonable, coherent explanations for our own actions, the actions of others, and for events occurring in our world. Likewise, because we are beings with volitional powers, we desire what is good, even if we are often mistaken as to what is in fact good for us. In short, whether real or apparent, truth and goodness “are significant moral objects; they are human goods. Indeed, truth and goodness are the two most fundamental moral objects; they respond to our human aspirations which express themselves in activities of knowing and loving.”[17]

Of course, Scotus differentiates between morally good acts and morally neutral or indifferent acts. For example, curling my hair in the morning, or tying my right shoe before my left shoe are morally neutral acts. Although both acts are chosen and performed freely, neither are morally significant, as the objects of the action—curly hair or tied shoes from right to left—are morally insignificant and do not augment or diminish my moral character.

In sum, for Scotus, a morally good act is multi-faceted, involving conscious intent, proper motive, a harmonious circumstantial context such as the proper manner, end, time, place, and so forth, and it is an act that perfects or improves the agent’s character. A morally good act, as Ingham states, “resembles not simply a whole, but a beautiful whole thanks to the developed ability of the moral expert in identifying significant data in light of principles, objects and circumstances.”[18] The moral expert not only acts “out of the appropriate moral motivation,” but she also “has a developed eye for beauty and seeks to create beauty in each act and moral judgment.”[19]


[1] Ibid., 55.

[2] Ibid. Lest one get the impression that I am suggesting a crass voluntarism here, one should balance the above claim with Scotus’s insistence that God always wills most rationally (rationabilissime). See, for example, Ord. 3, d. 32, q. un, n. 21 (ed. Vat. X 136).

[3] Ibid. See also, Kovach, “Divine and Human Beauty in Duns Scotus’ Philosophy and Theology.” Kovach makes a case for Scotus’s bringing back the so-called lost transcendental, beauty. According to Kovach, Scotus argues for the real identity of beauty and goodness, claiming only a formal distinction obtains between the two. Thus, beauty and goodness are coextensive with being and the other simple transcendentals.

[4] See, for example, Nic. Ethics 1.7.1098a10-18.

[5] In footnote 18 Ingham states that “the Index Thomisticus reveals a ratio of health to art images at about three to one.” Since “Aristotle himself favors the medical imagery,” Thomas’s own appropriation of the Stagirite’s medical analogies is not surprising (The Harmony of Goodness, 56).

[6] Ibid., 57.

[7] See Foucault’s discussion of writing as an aspect of ancient “self-training” involving an “an ethopoietic function: it is an agent of the transformation of truth into ēthos” (Foucault, “Self-Writing,” in Ethics, Subjectivity, and Truth, 209).

[8] I shall pick up the discussion of universal human rights shortly, explicating Scotus’s contribution to the topic and reconnecting our previous dialogue partners’ views on rights talk; here I simply mention the theme in passing.

[9] Ingham, The Harmony of Goodness, 57.

[10] On Scotus’s view of the insufficiency of philosophy to direct human beings to true happiness, which is union with God, see Boulnois, Duns Scot la rigueur de la charité.

[11] Scotus, Ord. I, d. 17, n. 62 (ed. Vat. V 163–64). My translation. The full Latin text reads as follows: dici potest quod sicut pulchritude non est aliqua qualitas absoluta in corpore pulchro, sed est aggregation omnium convenientium tali corpori (puta magnitudinis, figurae et coloris), et aggregation etiam omnium respectuum (qui sunt istorum ad corpus et ad se invicem), ita bonitas moralis actus est quasi quidam decor illius actus, includens aggregationem debitae proportionis ad omnia ad quae habet proportionari (puta ad potentiam, ad obiectum, ad finem, ad tempus, ad locum et ad modum), et hoc specialiter ut ista dicantur a ratione recta debere convenire actui: ita quod pro omnibus possumus dicere quod convenientia actus ad rationem rectam est qua posita actus est bonus, et qua non posita—quibuscumque aliis conveniat—not est bonus, quia quantumcumque actus sit circa obiectum qualecumque, si non sit secundum rationem recam in operante (puta si ille non habeat rationem rectam in operando), actus non est bonus.

[12] See, for example, Nic. Ethics 2.6.1106b20–3.

[13] Ingham, The Harmony of Goodness, 59.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] See, for example, Scotus’s discussion in Quodlibetal Question 18.8-14; Wolter, God and Creatures, 400–403. In Quod. Quest. 18.13-14, Scotus draws an analogy between food as an appropriate object to nourish humans and knowledge (and by implication truth) as an appropriate object for the intellect (Wolter, God and Creatures, 402–403). Earlier in Quod. Quest. 18.9, Scotus had distinguished between primary and secondary types of goodness and suitability. That which perfects the being or entity itself is good and suitable in the primary sense. For example, truth is a primary human good, given what we are: rational animals. Having proportional facial features is a good in the secondary sense (Ibid., 400–401).

[17] Ingham, The Harmony of Goodness, 60.

[18] Ibid., 61.

[19] Ibid.


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