[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
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

[4.9.13] St Thomas Aquinas on Virtues

St Thomas Aquinas ( “Doctor Angelicus”, 1225 – 1274 AD), in different works ([ST] Summa Theologiae and Quaestiones Disputatae de Veritate) lays out his theory of virtues. Based on that:

  • A human’s practical reason (see [1.3.6], [4.9.9]) is responsible for deliberating and freely choosing choices for the human good (or bad).
  • Practical reason uses first principles (e.g., “Good is to be done and pursued, and bad avoided”) aimed at the human good in the deliberation over the acts.
  • virtue is an element in a person’s (good) character.
  • Virtue means a stable willingness to make good choices.

Aquinas’s main model of virtues is pictured in the following OntoUML diagram:

Aquinas on virtues
HumanPersona human person
Character“A virtue is an aspect of, or constitutive element in, being a person of good character.”characterizes HumanPerson
PracticalReasonPractical reason’s central activity is deliberation about what to do. One would have no need to deliberate unless one were confronted by alternative attractive possibilities for action (kinds of opportunity) between which one must choose (in the sense that one cannot do both at the same time, if at all) and can choose. It is that one can be and often is in such a position that, confronted by two or more attractive possibilities (including perhaps the option of ‘doing nothing’), there is nothing either within or outside one’s personal constitution that determines (settles) one’s choice, other than the choosing: Mal. q. 6. This conception of free choice (liberum arbitrium or libera electio) is much stronger than Aristotle’s, on whose conception free choices are free only from external determining factors.”exclusive part of HumanPerson; deliberates, chooses Choice
ChoiceThe practical reason’s free choice of something.
Virtue“To have the virtues is to have a stable and ready willingness to make choices that are morally good because in line with the bonum rationis, the basic good of practical reasonableness. […]
Aquinas firmly holds the Platonic-Aristotelian theses (i) of the connexio virtutum: that to have any of the virtues in its full and proper form one must have all of them, and (ii) of the governing and shaping role of (the good of) practical reasonableness (bonum rationis), that is, of the intellectual and moral virtue of prudentia.”
relates Choice with Good
Prudentia“the master virtue of bringing practical reasonableness into all one’s deliberations, choices, and carrying out of choices – the virtue of prudentia, a virtue both intellectual (of one’s intelligence) and moral (of one’s whole will and character) – is part of the definition, content, and influence of every other moral virtusubkind of Virtue; shared part of ustice, Courage, and Temperance
Justice, Courage, Temperance“Aquinas accepts the Platonic-Aristotelian thesis that there are four virtues which are cardinal, that is on which the moral life and all other virtues hinge or depend: prudentia, justice, courage, and temperantia. Each is a strategic element in one’s integrating of the good of practical reasonableness into one’s deliberations, choices and execution of choices (prudentia), in one’s dealings with others justice), and in integrating and governing one’s desires by genuine reasons (temperantia) and enabling one to face down intimidating obstacles (courage, fortitudo).”subkind of Virtue
Mean“Aquinas accepts Aristotle’s notion that every virtue is a mean between too much and too little, and he constantly stresses that it is reason – with the principles and rules (regulae) it understands – that settles the mean and thus determines what is too much or too little.”characterizes HumanAct
FirstPrinciple“practical reasons (i.e. reasons for action) are propositional: they can be stated as principles and other standards, more or less specific. So principles, ultimately the first principles of practical reason (that is, of natural law), are more fundamental to ethics than virtues are. […]
Ethical standards, for which practical reason’s first principles provide the foundations or sources, concern actions as choosable and self-determining. […]
Practical reason, in Aquinas’ view, has both one absolutely first principle and many truly first principles: ST I-II q. 94 a. 2. […] Aquinas articulates it as ‘Good is to be done and pursued, and bad avoided’ (ibid.).
This has often been truncated to (i) ‘Good is to be done, and evil avoided’ or even, more drastically, (iia) ‘Do good and avoid evil’ or yet more drastically (iib) ‘Avoid evil and seek the good‘”
provides source to PracticalReason; directs to HumanGood
HumanGood“The basic human goods which first practical principles identify and direct us to are identified by Aquinas as (i) life, (ii) “marriage between man and woman and bringing up of children [coniunctio maris et feminae et educatio liberorum]” (not at all reducible to “procreation”), (iii) knowledge, (iv) living in fellowship (societas and amicitia) with others, (v) practical reasonableness (bonum rationis) itself, and (vi) knowing and relating appropriately to the transcendent cause of all being, value, normativity and efficacious action (ST I-II q. 94 aa. 2 & 3). His lists are always explicitly open-ended.”characterizes and directs FirstPrinciple


  • All citations from: Finnis, John, “Aquinas’ Moral, Political, and Legal Philosophy“, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2020 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)
  • The Cambridge Companion to Aquinas, CAMBRIDGE UNIVERSITY PRESS, Edited by  Norman Kretzmann and Eleonore Stump, 2010
  • McInerny, Ralph and John O’Callaghan, “Saint Thomas Aquinas”The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)

First published: 3/12/2020