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In the previous discussion of why intellectualism and voluntarism are important, I left out what I think may be the most important aspect of all, one which leaves its mark on our thought today in the modern West. Namely: whether God is an intellect or a will bears directly on the way we think of morality – at least when we understand morality in terms of law, as the Abrahamic traditions all have to some degree.

If God is a will, then that will makes morality: morality is whatever God’s will commands. Ethicists today refer to such a position (when they think of it at all) as a “divine command” theory of morality. Typically, it leads to scripturalism: we know God’s commands from the sacred text or texts in which he has expressed them, so what the text says, goes; the only question is how we interpret what it says.

Such scripturalism is now typically called fundamentalism, after essays written by scripturalist American Protestants on “the fundamentals” of Christian faith as they understood it. Scripturalism is found prominently in modern Islam, as voluntarism had always had a prominent role in Islamic thought. It is also prominent among Protestants, who invented the word “fundamentalism” to describe themselves. As most know, Martin Luther’s historical Protestant movement emphasized the idea of sola scriptura, that “scripture alone” is the authority on Christian faith and practice.

What is less well known is the deep philosophical roots of sola scriptura in earlier voluntarist thought. I referred last time to William of Ockham’s teaching – derived, as far as I can tell, from Muslim Ash’arite thinkers – that God was a will. This teaching extended to ethics: if God decided that murder was good and truthfulness evil, then it would be so. He hasn’t, but it is only from scripture that we know he hasn’t. Luther’s deepest influences were Ockham himself and Gabriel Biel – a professed follower of Ockham.

But not all Abrahamic monotheists were scripturalists and voluntarists. The intellectualists, often influenced by Aristotle, understood God’s law in a very different way – as natural law. That is: just as we can explain the nature of the world by looking to God as an intelligent designer, so we can infer God’s moral plan from the nature of the world. Human beings live in political communities; that is what they do, that is part of being human. So it is wrong for us to sow mistrust with lies or perform other acts that weaken those communities. This wrongness is not independent of God’s commands; it’s just that we can infer what God’s commands would have to be from the nature of human beings and their world. God is understandable.

This line of reasoning, still very much the teaching of the Catholic Church, is very different from the scripturalist’s – a reason it is almost always misleading, if not outright wrong, to refer to Catholics as “fundamentalists”. (That is not to say that it is necessarily any more sympathetic to typical modern eyes than genuine fundamentalism is: for example, Thomas Aquinas, the most celebrated Catholic natural-law thinker, saw how reproduction was the natural function of the genitals, and concluded that non-reproductive sex acts, like masturbation and same-sex intercourse, were grave and mortal sins, crimes that merit damnation.)

That is how the distinction between intellectualism and voluntarism shapes deeply held monotheist attitudes to morality and the human good. But does it have any relevance to those of us who do not think of morality in terms of God – or more precisely, does it have relevance beyond the sociological relevance of what believers might do to us?

As it turns out, it does – in more than one way. The transition from a Christian to a secular West was not a sharp or abrupt one – there was no colonial force imposing a new understanding on the West as there was in India, and even in India the impact of colonialism on modern thought can be exaggerated. The central medieval distinction between intellectualism and voluntarism recurs in modern thought of ethics, politics and law. That doesn’t mean that modern Western thinkers are wrong, by any means – only that we modern Westerners, like everyone else, think in ways constituted by our historically situated assumptions.

I took classes on law in a secular Ontario public high school. In this very introductory context, the text and teacher told us the key distinction in legal philosophy was between “natural law” and “positive law”. There was no theology, no God, implied in this idea of natural law as my teenage self was taught it. Rather, what “natural law” now meant in the 20th century was simply the idea of a true law higher and better than what human legislators happen to make. The idea of human rights typically represents a natural law of this sort: we have rights irrespective of what human-made law happens to say.

The contrary of that modern sense of natural law is positive law. The term “positive law” is confusing, because “positive” is not being used in its usual sense as the opposite of “negative”. Rather, “positive law” has the older meaning of something posited, something put into place. Who posits the law? In the modern sense, it is the human legislators. Jeremy Bentham, the founder of classical utilitarianism and a key advocate of modern positive law, proclaimed that law is simply whatever the legislator says it is. So, he proclaimed, “Natural rights is simple nonsense: natural and imprescriptible rights, rhetorical nonsense — nonsense upon stilts.”

What the class didn’t mention is the theological roots of the natural/positive distinction. For in a medieval context, positive law was law posited not by human legislators, but by God. Law was whatever God said it was, whatever God posited it to be. That view, in turn, is exactly the voluntarist view we discussed above. In the medieval context, positive law is law made by God’s will, the will of the divine legislator; in the modern context it is law made by the will of the human legislator.

Natural law, by contrast, is law that human beings can discern as true, with their intellects, in a way that has independence from the legislator’s will. It has a necessary connection to morality and to nature, at least to the nature of human beings. We can discern this connection with our minds. In this way natural lawyers, medieval and modern, take up the intellectualist position; and positive lawyers take up the voluntarist position. A thousand years later we are still having the intellectualist-voluntarist debate; what changes is that the will endorsed by the voluntarists is that of lawmakers rather than of God.

This isn’t the only way we are still having the debate, either. There is another entity whose will substitutes for God’s in modern debates. I’ll say more on that next time.