From New World Encyclopedia

Voluntarism is fundamentally a theory of action according to which will takes precedence over intellect. The will is traditionally understood as a capacity for making choices and decisions, whereas the practical intellect refers to an ability to make reasoned judgments about which actions to perform. Voluntarism as applied to divine agency yields a conception of morality as originating in the will of God. This is helpfully distinguished as theological voluntarism, the doctrine that actions are right (or good) because God wills them. Divine Command theories of ethics are species of theological voluntarism. Ethical voluntarism is the doctrine that the rightness or wrongness of actions depends on how the action was willed rather than its consequences.


Voluntarism (from the Latin: voluntas, meaning ‘will’) is a theory of action according to which will takes precedence over intellect. The will is traditionally understood as the faculty that forms intentions, and makes decisions and choices. The intellect is understood as a cognitive power, with both theoretical and practical components. The theoretical intellect is responsible for thinking and forming beliefs, whereas the practical intellect is responsible for forming judgments regarding what is best to do.

Voluntarism is best understood in contrast with intellectualism. According to one of the foremost intellectualists, Thomas Aquinas, the will is subordinate to the practical intellect. The practical intellect makes a judgment that some action should be done, and the will makes the decision to do what the practical intellect judges. The will is the faculty that enables agents to be motivated to act on the basis of their rational deliberations about which actions would be best to perform. Aquinas is regarded as an intellectualist because he holds that the will is subordinate to an intellectual judgment pertaining to what is good. Although one can be mistaken about what is good, one must will what seems best in the circumstances. In this respect, the will is linked to a judgment of practical reason: the will decides to do what the practical intellect judges best.

Voluntarists deny that the will is constrained by the intellect in deciding to act. Voluntarism originates in the writings of Saint Augustine, Saint Anselm, and John Duns Scotus, but reaches its most sophisticated level of development in the work of William of Ockham. In contrast with Aquinas, who holds that the will is motivated toward what the intellect judges best, Ockham thinks a person could even decide to perform an action that he judges to be entirely unjustified. One can knowingly reject what seems best and will to do evil for evil’s sake, that is, without thinking that evil is good. Ockham’s voluntarism is defined by the claim that the intellect’s judging a certain action to be best does not fully explain one’s doing it. It is always open to the will to reject the judgments of the intellect. In this respect, the will is more fundamental than the judgments of practical reason in determining action.

Theological voluntarism

Theological voluntarism is a meta-ethical doctrine according to which actions are right in virtue of God’s willing them. For example, children should honor their parents because God wills that they do so. Divine Command Theories of ethics are species of theological voluntarism. The significance of using the label “theological voluntarism” rather than “Divine Command Theory” is to allow for the possibility that the morality depends on aspects of God’s will other than his commanding.

Theological voluntarism is helpfully understood as the application of voluntarism as a theory of action to divine agency. According to voluntarism, and in contrast with intellectualism, God’s action is not limited by his knowledge of the good. His will is independent of his intellect so that he need not do what he judges best. Moreover, since God need not will the good, and since he is omnipotent, it follows that he can do anything logically possible. The criterion of logical impossibility is contradiction: while God cannot create a married bachelor, he can make it the case that killing is morally right. For the statement that killing is morally right may be false but it is not contradictory. Ockham concludes that God would be capable of making killing morally right only if right and wrong depend on his will. So God’s will is the ultimate source of moral requirements.

Theological voluntarism is often thought to be subject to a fatal difficulty encapsulated in the Euthyphro Problem. In Plato’s dialogue, Euthyphro defines holiness as follows: “I would say that the holy is what all the gods love, and that the opposite, what all the gods hate, is unholy.” In response, Socrates enquires: “Is what is holy loved by the gods because it is holy, or is it holy because it is loved?” (10a). This question can be reformulated in terms of right action, goodness, or any other normative property. For example, are right actions right because God commands them, or does God command them because they’re right? Is it that promise-keeping is right because God commands it, or does God deem promise-keeping right because it is right—God knows that it is right? In the former case, God makes things right—there is no independent standard of rightness, independent of what God wills. This first possibility is the essence of theological voluntarism—moral right is a product of the divine will. In the latter case, there is an independent standard of rightness, a standard that God knows, and which his commands express. The dilemma is that both of these alternatives are problematic for theological voluntarism. On the first alternative, God’s commands are arbitrary because he could equally have commanded that promise keeping is wrong; on the second alternative, the rightness of promise-keeping is independent of God’s will.

Ethical voluntarism

Whereas theological voluntarism is a meta-ethical doctrine concerning the nature of right and wrong, ethical voluntarism is a view about the bearers of moral properties. Ethical voluntarism is the doctrine that the rightness, wrongness, virtuousness, or viciousness (etc.) of an action depends on how it is willed. Acts of will rather than actions per se are the fundamental targets of moral appraisal. In its historical development, elements of ethical voluntarism are present in the writings of Saint Augustine, Peter Abelard, John Duns Scotus, William of Ockham, and Immanuel Kant.

William of Ockham argues that all actions are in themselves morally neutral—neither good nor bad. The very same action may be good when done with one intention, and bad when done with another. Ockham’s example is of a person who goes to church with the intention of praising and honoring God, as opposed to someone who goes to church with the intention of glorifying himself. He claims that the act itself—going to church—is the same in both cases but the moral quality of the act changes according to the agent’s intention. This suggests that intentions are the fundamental bearers of moral qualities rather than actions per se. This is a form of ethical voluntarism since intentions, which are directly within the control of the will, are the fundamental bearers of moral value.

Kant’s ethical theory may be also understood as a version of ethical voluntarism. In his Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, Kant distinguishes between actions done in accordance with duty and those done from the motive of duty. He makes the point that a right action—one in accordance with duty—such as a grocer’s treating his customers honestly, will hardly be a morally creditable action if it is motivated by self interest—such as, for example, a desire to get reputation for honesty so as to do good business. This suggests, again, that the fundamental properties of moral evaluation are not actions themselves but the manner in which they are willed. Kant goes on to argue that only actions done from the motive of duty—a disposition to do the right thing because it is right—are unconditionally valuable. In this respect, Kant’s ethics is a version of ethical voluntarism since value attaches to the act of will that motivates the action rather than the action itself.

One important motivation for ethical voluntarism is to insulate moral appraisal from moral luck. Moral luck is a term introduced by Thomas Nagel (1976) and Bernard Williams (1981), pertaining to the extent to which factors outside of a person’s control may impact on his or her moral standing. For example, the difference between murder and attempted murder depends on whether an assassin hits his target, which may itself depend on conditions such as wind, visibility, and bullet-proof vests. Ethical voluntarism denies that the successful performance or non-performance of an action actually alters the moral quality of the action. For example, if two people form the intention to commit adultery but only one gets to opportunity to commit the action, their moral standing is exactly the same. This is an argument against moral luck since whether a person gets the opportunity to fulfill an intention often depends on factors outside of their control.

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