[4.15.11] John Duns Scotus on Natural Law

John Duns Scotus (the “Subtle Doctor,” 1265/66–1308 AD), in his work “Ordinatio” writes about the natural law in the context of the Decalogue (Ten Commandments):

  • Natural law, in the strict sense, contains only the self-evident moral propositions, along with those that can be derived from them deductively. These are necessary, non-contradictory propositions, unchangeable even by God’s will. These are the commandments I, II, and probably III.
  • The natural law in the wider sense contains moral propositions that agree with those in the strict sense, but their opposites not. These are the commandments from the second tablet (VI-X).
  • The natural laws in the wider sense are contingent; they depend entirely on God’s free will.
  • Some commandments prescribing ceremonies and customs belong to the positive law.

The following UML Use Case diagram presents Scotus’s model of natural law:

Scotus on natural law
ClassDescriptionRelations
LawLaw
NaturalLaw“The ‘nature’ appealed to by classical and medieval theories of natural law – however it might have been conceived by any particular thinker – was invariably associated with two criteria: it represented an authoritative standard, with determinate content, that was understood as both universal (that is, not prescriptive for just one individual) and accessible to human beings through their natural powers. Because natural law rests on a nature that cannot be changed by human action, it has universal validity. Because human beings themselves belong to that nature, they are in principle capable of knowing the corresponding law. […]
This linking of natural law to eternal law does not merely place the natural law beyond the power of human beings to change. It also raises most pointedly the question of whether, and in what way, the natural law can be changed by divine action. […]
Scotus follows the main thread of this way of posing the problem when he devotes Ordinatio 3, d. 37, the central text in which he develops his conception of natural law, to the question of whether all the commandments of the Decalogue belong to the natural law. […]
Scotus understands all the commandments, both those that belong to natural law in the strict sense and those that belong to it only in the wider sense, as practical truths (vera practica): the former because they are self-evident, the latter because of their accordance or agreement (consonantia) with the former”
subkind of Law
NaturalLawStrictSense“Scotus first offers a purely formal criterion for belonging to natural law: a commandment belongs to natural law in the strict sense if, simply on the basis of the content expressed in the commandment, it is conceptually necessary that the commandment be valid. Nowhere in his work does Scotus trace the content of the natural law back to the eternal law; in fact, the doctrine of eternal law has
no importance in his system. […]
Neither the context in which a commandment is operative, nor the intention with which it is laid down, is relevant to its validity, if it is to count as belonging to the natural law in the strict sense. Scotus then makes clear what he means by this conceptual necessity when he goes on to discuss whether following the commandments is necessary for attaining the ultimate end. Only for these self-evident principles, he concludes, is it the case that what they prescribe is unqualifiedly necessary in order to attain the ultimate end. ‘Unqualifiedly necessary,’ as the context makes clear, means that it is inconceivable that one could repudiate the goodness prescribed in these commandments without thereby also repudiating the goodness of the ultimate end itself. Since the ultimate end of all action is the attainment of the highest good, and the highest good is identical with God, the only commandments that can belong to natural law in the strict sense are those that have God himself as their object. As far as the Decalogue is concerned, the result of Scotus’s reflections is that only the commandments of the first table belong to natural law in the strict sense. So only the first two commandments – Scotus is uncertain about the third – belong to the natural law in the strict sense, since only ‘these regard God immediately as object.’ The content of the natural law in the strict sense can be summarized in the formulation that ‘God is to be loved’ or rather, in the more precise negative formulation, that ‘God is not to be hated.’ This commandment meets the formal criterion of self-evidence because in essence (as Scotus emphasizes in Ord. 3, d. 27) it simply states that ‘what is best must be loved most.’ On this interpretation it becomes obvious that the commandment to love God is a self-evident practical principle and therefore meets the formal criterion for belonging to the natural law. […]”
A natural law in the strict sense is necessary.
subkind of NaturalLaw
NaturalLawWiderSenseNatural law in a wider sense: “The criterion in virtue of which they belong is not their conceptual necessity but their broad agreement (consonantia) with natural law in the strict sense. […] As Scotus makes clear in another context, this conception of consonantia allows for two interpretations. On the one hand, there are commandments that accord with general commandments but whose opposites would also be compatible with those same general commandments; on the other hand, there are those whose opposites are not compatible with the overarching general principles. Only the latter belong to the natural law in the wider sense. […] The commandments of the second table can be counted as belonging to the natural law only in a looser sense.”
These laws are contingent.
subkind of NaturalLaw; in agreement with NaturalLawStrictSense
FreedomFrom Contradiction“The only limit is the limit of God’s absolute power itself; there can be no dispensation from commandments whose validity is outside the domain of God’s absolute power. And the only constraint on God’s absolute power is the requirement of freedom from contradiction. […] Applied to the doctrine of natural law, this means that the natural law in the strict sense comprises all commandments that are such that any dispensation from them would involve a contradiction.”characterizes NaturalLawStrictSense
Agreement”‘Scotus’s concept of agreement is defined negatively insofar as it implies that there is no strict deductive connection that would permit a necessary inference from overarching self-evident principles.
More positively, these commandments can be understood as elaborations (declaratio) or explanations (explicatio) of some overarching general commandment – as Scotus makes clear in an example. Commandments with this sort of consonantia extend general commandments by making them applicable to specific cases.”
relates NaturalLawStrictSense with NaturalLawWiderSense
DivineWillGod’s Will
PositiveLaw“As Scotus makes clear in another context, this conception of consonantia allows for two interpretations. On the one hand, there are commandments that accord with general commandments but whose opposites would also be compatible with those same general commandments; on the other hand, there are those whose opposites are not compatible with the overarching general principles. Only the latter belong to the natural law in the wider sense; the former belong only to positive law. On this understanding, a commandment prescribing certain ceremonies or customs belongs to positive law, since a comparable commandment prescribing other ceremonies – and perhaps even forbidding the practice of ceremonies of the first sort – can also be conceived as being in accordance with natural law in the strict sense.”subkind of Law
  • All citations from: Möhle, Hannes, “Scotus’s Theory of Natural Law”, The Cambridge Companion to Duns Scotus, Cambridge University Press 2003, ed. Thomas Williams
  • Williams, Thomas, “John Duns Scotus“, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2019 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)

First published: 24/6/2021

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