WILLIAM OF OCKHAM (c. 1285 - 1347)

Born in England and educated at Oxford, Ockham was the preeminent Franciscan thinker of the mid-fourteenth century. Because of his role in the bitter dispute between the Franciscans and Pope John XXII over evangelical poverty, he was excommunicated in 1328. After that he abandoned philosophy and theology proper, producing instead a series of political tracts on the ecclesiastical and secular power of the papacy.

Ockham's moral doctrine has often been summarily dismissed as voluntaristic, authoritarian, fideistic, and even skeptical. Though the first two charges are at least defensible, recent work suggests that Ockham's ethical writings are more subtle and, in short, more Aristotelian than is commonly recognized. Because the relevant texts are dispersed throughout Ockham's non-political works, the recent publication of a complete critical edition of those works should spur more definitive research into his ethics.

Right reason and divine commands

According to Ockham, moral theory is divided into (i) positive moral science, which "contains human and divine laws that obligate one to pursue or to avoid what is neither good nor evil except because it is prohibited or commanded by a superior whose role it is to establish the laws," and (ii) nonpositive moral science, which "directs human acts apart from any precept of a superior, in the way that principles known either per se or through experience direct them ... [principles] that Aristotle talks about in moral philosophy" (OT IX, 177). The latter is a demonstrative science that is "more certain than many others, because all can have greater experience of their own acts than of other things" (ibid., 178).

A perennial theoretical challenge for Christian Aristotelians has been to integrate the positive moral doctrine found in divine revelation with a nonpositive moral doctrine of the sort found in Aristotle (384-322 B.C.). The former enjoins us to conform our wills to God's will by fulfilling the moral obligations imposed upon us by divine commands. The latter enjoins us to pursue the good proper to human nature by living according to 'right reason', that is, in accord with those dictates of practical reason that lead us toward genuine human flourishing.

Thomas Aquinas (1225?-1274) held that in creating human beings God necessarily legislates in a way that harmonizes with right reason. The law God promulgates for human beings is thus necessarily a natural law, a law that morally obligates us to pursue genuine human flourishing according to the dictates of right reason. So although moral obligation derives, strictly speaking, from divine commands, it is metaphysically impossible that God should command us to steal, murder, commit adultery or do anything else directly opposed to what is good by nature for human beings.

Ockham retorts that such a view unjustifiably restricts God's freedom and detracts from God's generosity. While agreeing with Aquinas in general about the content of the laws God has actually ordained, he maintains that God was (and is) free (i) to command and reward acts such as theft, murder and adultery, which, as things now stand, are morally evil and supernaturally demeritorious, and (ii) to prohibit and punish other acts--even the very act of loving God--which under the present dispensation are morally good and supernaturally meritorious (OT V, 352-3).

Some conclude that on Ockham's reckoning human nature itself and thus the dictates of right reason are infinitely malleable according to divine whim. But this conclusion seems to stem from the mistaken idea that Ockham's nominalism regarding universals rules out a thoroughgoing Aristotelian essentialism.

A second interpretation is that, according to Ockham, it is true but only contingently true that the law God has promulgated for human beings is a natural law: "Given the ordination that is now in force, no act is perfectly virtuous unless it /1318/ is elicited in conformity with right reason" (OT VIII, 394). To be sure, right reason dictates that we obey the commands (if any) of our Creator. But even if God commanded us to be thieves or murderers or adulterers, right reason would still dictate in addition that we avoid theft, murder and adultery--and so we would find ourselves in the desperate position of being morally obligated to perform acts which are contrary to right reason and which thwart genuine human flourishing. We are spared this plight only by God's freely bestowed generosity.

On yet a third interpretation, Ockham, like Duns Scotus (c. 1266-1308), holds that God's law is indeed necessarily a natural law--so that there are some general dictates of right reason that God cannot countermand--but denies against St. Thomas that human flourishing necessarily rules out specific acts like theft, murder and adultery.

Moral goodness and virtue

According to Ockham, 'morally good' as predicated of a human act "connotes that the agent is obligated to that act" (OT V, 353). This term applies (a) directly to interior acts of willing or willing-against that are intrinsically good (given standing divine precepts) and (b) only indirectly or by 'extrinsic denomination' to other interior or exterior acts insofar as they conform to intrinsically good interior acts. Further, an interior act is intrinsically good only if it has as part of its intentional object the motive of conforming one's will to the dictates of right reason or to the will of God.

A virtue is a habit of the will inclining one toward good acts. The highest degree of a given virtue attainable by an unbeliever is to be habitually disposed to will the good acts associated with that virtue "precisely and solely because they are dictated by right reason" (OT VIII, 335). Perfect virtue, which requires the special assistance of supernatural grace, is a fixed disposition to will what is dictated by right reason "precisely out of love for God" (ibid.).

Ockham goes on to discuss topics such as the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity, the connectedness of the moral virtues among themselves and with the theological virtues, and the relation of the virtues to habits of the sentient appetite. These discussions are all rich and insightful, and they provide fertile ground for further study.


Works by William of Ockham

William of Ockham. Opera Philosophica. Volumes I-VII. St. Bonaventure, N.Y.: Franciscan Institute Press, 1974-1988. Critical edition of Ockham's philosophical works.

William of Ockham. Opera Theologica (OT). Volumes I-X. St. Bonaventure, N.Y.: Franciscan Institute Press, 1967-1986. Critical edition of Ockham's theological works. The following are central texts for Ockham's ethical theory: OT I, 276-507; OT II, 321; OT III, 440-568; OT IV, 597-610, 680-691; OT V, 338-358; OT VI, 149-161, 192-219, 351-428; OT VII, 39-61, 192-238, 340-361; OT VIII, 243-450; OT IX, 99-106, 167-192, 238-246, 253-291, 585-592, 596-599.

William of Ockham. Opera Politica. Volumes I-III. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1940-1963. A critical edition of certain of Ockham's political writings, including the Opus Nonaginta Dierum.

Works about William of Ockham

Adams, Marilyn McCord. William Ockham. Two volumes. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1987. The definitive contemporary work on Ockham's metaphysics, epistemology and theology. See especially chapters 30-31.

Adams, Marilyn McCord. "The Structure of Ockham's Moral Theory," Franciscan Studies 46 (1986): 1-35. A sustained defense of the second interpretation noted above.

Clark, David W. "Voluntarism and Rationalism in the Ethics of Ockham," Franciscan Studies 31 (1971): 72-87. Argues that Ockham's ethics falls between pure voluntarism and pure rationalism.

Clark, David W. "William of Ockham on Right Reason," Speculum 48 (1973): 13-36. A useful introduction to its topic.

Freppert, Lucan, O.F.M. The Basis of Morality According to William Ockham. Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1988. A recently published dissertation from 1961; the best comprehensive study of Ockham's ethics.

Kent, Bonnie D. Aristotle and the Franciscans: Gerald Odonis' Commentary on the "Nichomachean Ethics". Ph.D. Dissertation, Columbia University, 1984. An excellent study of the distinctively Franciscan appropriation of Aristotle's ethical theory in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries.

/1319/ McDonnell, Kevin. "Does Ockham Have a Natural Law Theory?" Franciscan Studies 34 (1974): 383-392. Contains references to Ockham's use of the term 'natural law,' which occurs only in his political works.

Obermann, Heiko. The Harvest of Medieval Theology: Gabriel Biel and Late Medieval Nominalism. 2nd edition. Grand Rapids: William Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1967. See chapter 4.

Suk, Othmar, O.F.M. "The Connection of the Virtues according to Ockham," Franciscan Studies 10 (1950): 9-32 and 91-113. A close commentary on OT VIII, 323-407.

Urban, Linwood. "William of Ockham's Theological Ethics," Franciscan Studies 33 (1973): 310-350. A sustained defense of the third interpretation noted above.

Alfred J. Freddoso
University of Notre Dame