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
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
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
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,
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
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
/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