209. It’s the Thought that Counts: Abelard’s Ethics

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Peter Abelard sets out an innovative ethical theory that identifies intentions as the core of moral life.



Further Reading

• P.V. Spade (trans.), Peter Abelard: Ethical Writings (Indianapolis: 1995).

• I.P. Bajczy, “Deeds Without Value: Exploring a Weak Spot in Abelard’s Ethics,” Recherches de théologie et philosophie médiévale 70 (2003), 1-21.

• I. Bajczy and R.G. Newhauser (eds), Virtue and Ethics in the Twelfth Century (Leiden: 2005), 53-74.

• L. de Rijk, “Abelard and Moral Philosophy,” Medioevo 12 (1986), 1-27.

• P. King, “Abelard’s Intentionalist Ethics,” The Modern Schoolman 72 (1995), 213-32.

• W.E. Mann, “Ethics,” in J.E. Brower and K. Guilfoy (eds), The Cambridge Companion to Abelard (Cambridge: 2004), 279-304.

• J. Marenbon, The Philosophy of Peter Abelard (Cambridge: 1997), part III.


Peter Lührs on 2 February 2015

Intention & Aristotle, dissonance in Abelard's 'good person'?

Aristotle defines virtues as follows: ἔστιν ἄρα ἡ ἀρετὴ ἕξις προαιρετική, ἐν μεσότητι οὖσα τῇ πρὸς ἡμᾶς, ὡρισμένῃ λόγῳ καὶ ᾧ ἂν ὁ φρόνιμος ὁρίσειεν. Ross translates: Virtue, then, is a state of character (hexis) concerned with choice (prohairetikē), lying in a mean, i.e. the mean relative to us, this being determined by a rational principle, and by that principle by which the man of practical wisdom would determine it.

So, Aristotle, it seems to me, doesn't deny that intention (prohairesis) plays a crucial role in whether someone is virtuous or not. From my reading of the NE it seems clear that for Aristotle actions that are wanted (hekousious) and done with intention (prohairesis) are the ones that are ethically of special importance, as wanting to do something and doing it intentionally connects action and actor in an especially relevant way.

Of course, Aristotle says that the virtuous person feels pleasure in moral action. But that doesn't mean that it was simple for the virtuous person to come to that point: Maybe he struggled hard to habituate himself to feel pleasure in right action. And surely Aristotle would agree that someone who had to struggle hard at habituating himself to feel pleasure in good action is more laudable than someone who was more predisposed by nature to do so.

on Abelard's account it seems a reasonable thing to habituate oneself to be harder pressed to resist temptation, as it is - apparently - this resistence that makes the good person. But is this really a greater achievement than the struggle of habituating oneself to not be tempted easily, but to feel pleasure in doing what is good? Is there less struggle involved, if you try to change what you feel pleasure and displeasure in, so that pleasure meets good and displeasure evil, then not working on this, but having to mobilize your will to act against your urges constantly?

While that struggle against your urges in the moment of actions seems to be quite heroic, I think the struggle to form a good character is not less so. Also, there seems to be a dicontinuity in the person, given Abelards reasoning. The gap, as I see it, is between the capacity to form intentions and the capacity to feel pleasure. We seem to be responsible for one, but not the other, as if pleasure is somehow apart from the person as a moral being.

To me, at least, the concept of harmony of intention and pleasure in the virtuous person as proposed by Aristotle is more convincing than the conception of Abelard, if taken to give an account of what a good person is, as Aristotle gives an account of an integrated person, while Abelard seems to regard a certain aspect of a person as having value only in that it needs to be overcome.

Does Abelard write something on the nature of pleasure and what it means for the human? Is it for him a human quality or something sub-human, animalistic? Is he not really interested in giving an account of what a good person is, but what goodness in action consists of? I really would like to understand why he seems to advertise fostering those dissonances in the relation of intention and pleasure.

In reply to by Peter Lührs

Peter Adamson on 2 February 2015

Abelard and Aristotle

Thanks for this thoughtful post. I broadly agree with you that Aristotle's position is more satisfying than Abelard's, and that the long-term development of character is a key part of moral life which shouldn't be pushed out of the picture by moment-to-moment decision-making. Perhaps Abelard's position can be brought closer to that though: he doesn't, after all, insist that decisions taken to modify one's longer-term desires are pointless, and he certainly doesn't say that one _should_ foster bad desires - that would surely be a bad idea from his point of view. The point I was making was more that the logical consequence of his view seems to be that the most admirable people would be those that find themselves with the worst desires, but manage to resist them (and I was taking this point from Peter King, by the way, it's not original with me).

From what I read the best passage on pleasure is also in his Ethics but it's more devoted to arguing that sinfulness does not lie in taking pleasure - the example of the monk forced to commit adultery. On this basis, I infer that he thinks pleasure is something passively experienced and not intrinsically morally relevant; it is neither good nor bad.

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Peter Lührs on 2 February 2015

Well, if Abelard sees

Well, if Abelard sees pleasure more as something that is passively experienced, then some way -we- relate to things, then I can see where he comes from, I guess.

Also, your post made me realize that I have taken his concept that an action is more virtuous, if it has to overcome desires that work against it, too far. Indeed he doesn't say that we _should_ foster bad desires. After all, the intention to foster bad desires is probably not a good intention at all. And conversely the intention to foster good desires is probably a good intention.

Yet, if the most admirable people would be those that find themselves with the worst desires, but manage to resist them, then somehow it seems to be implied that to be the most admirable person we are in need of the worst desires. That again would imply that there is _some_ merit in fostering bad desires, no?

Thought provoking epsiode for sure! I might have to take up Abelard's Ethics sometime.

T. Franke on 2 February 2015

What is ethics aiming at?

Somehow I miss a clear definition what ethics is aiming at. Abaelard takes refuge to the duties of the religion, as it seems. Then the question arises, to what end lead these duties? Then, I remember well my ancient philosophy studies that the aim of ethics is the own well-being, in the end, at least according to leading philosophers (there is only dispute about the details). This is a clear statement you can start with, whereas I do not like the thought of a moral action being the more moral the more it costs you, *without* knowing what for. Under the perspective of ancient philosophy, moral actions are like investments: Suffer today, in order to live better tomorrow.

Thomas Mirus on 30 May 2015

Interesting that Abelard

Interesting that Abelard wrote his section on evil first, and planned to follow that up with a section on good. That seems wrongheaded to me - it seems like it would be better to first figure out what the good is, and then go from there, since evil has no positive existence and thus can only be understood in relation to good.

In reply to by Thomas Mirus

Peter Adamson on 31 May 2015

Evil first

That's an interesting point. I guess we have to speculate but perhaps his idea is that we find ourselves in a state of sin, and that in moving from evil to good we are (like good Aristotelians!) moving from what is most familiar to us to what is really primary in itself?

Kenneth Connally on 25 August 2015

They Know Not What They Do

I find the discussion of Christ's line, "Forgive them, for they know not what they do," really fascinating. I had always heard it cited as an example of his limitless forgiveness, in line with his moral teachings on that subject, but when you stop to think about it, the second part of the quote complicates the issue: if they know not what they do, why do they need forgiveness?

You say that the executioners here, provided they act in accordance with what they believe to be right, are not exactly committing a sin. But you also say their action can't be virtuous, either, because virtuous actions must meet 2 criteria: a) the actor must believe the action is right (what God wants), and b) the action must actually be what God wants. In this case, we've conceded a). But must we not concede b) as well? As you pointed out earlier, God also gave up Jesus to be crucified; that is part of his plan for human salvation. So the executioners are actually in an even weirder moral situation than it looked like at first: they did what was right, believing it was right, but without any understanding of the actual reason it was right (i.e., they think Jesus is an evildoer and thus deserves to be killed, which is the exact opposite of the actual reason it is right for him to be killed).

So maybe there should be a third box to tick for an action to be considered virtuous? The doer must believe the action to be right, the action must turn out to be right, and the doer's account of the action's rightness must square with the actual account.

In reply to by Kenneth Connally

Peter Adamson on 27 August 2015

Christ's executioners

That's an excellent point. This is a rather strange example of course, in that God "wants" something to happen that is unjust yet serves a larger purpose (i.e. the executioners killing Christ). Perhaps we could say that God "wants" the outcome but is using as a means the unjust action, which he doesn't "want" in its own right? But I think that puzzle is not intrinsic to Abelard's philosophical position, it's just a weird feature of this example; Abraham's willingness to sacrifice Isaac might give us another such case.

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Kenneth Connally on 5 September 2015

Perhaps there is a bigger

Perhaps there is a bigger problem with using "what God wants" as our definition of the good; given that God is omnipotent, it seems that everything that happens is what he "wants" to happen in some sense. Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy lends some plausibility to this argument when Boethius explains how outcomes that look unjust to us are actually part of God's plan and do contribute to the greater good. For instance, God's Providence might allow a righteous man to become poor because enriching him would tempt him to sin, while it might allow a wicked man to keep his wealth because losing it would drive him to desperate measures, causing him to become even more sinful.

If this is the kind of thing that goes on, what is the point of making difficult moral choices? Whatever we choose to do will turn out to be the best outcome, even if it looks unfair to us. This kind of reasoning seems to be behind some actual ancient and medieval practices like "trial by ordeal" or casting lots to make important decisions. But if carried to its logical conclusion, it undermines all our decision-making. Nobody wants to go around like Two-Face or Anton Chigurh, tossing a coin every time a decision has to be made.

The alternative seems to be to say that making bad choices can bring about bad outcomes but that, out of respect for our free will, God tolerates outcomes that he doesn't actually prefer. The problem with this solution for Abelard, however, might be that it makes God's will seem a bit less sovereign than he wants it to be: God can't make a perfect world without our help.

Jordan on 5 May 2022


The r*pe example - I feel like this can be partly addressed by making a distinction between physical impulses one cannot control and actual enjoyment. I think over the last few decades, this idea has gone from a trope to a known falsehood, that someone seemingly physically enjoying something against their will has nothing to do with consent. Even in a non-sexual example, people do strange things and have strange reactions to trauma and shock. Grief might make you laugh out loud. A life-threatening experience might make you euphoric until the adrenaline wears off. 

But the examples don't work in the modern day anyway. I don't think most of us would consider "killing a feudal lord in self defense" to be an immoral action at all. I know the argument is about sin and not immorality, which aren't 1 to 1, but this isn't a biblical argument - it's an ethical one - so I'm not going to argue that point. 

Both examples are supposed to be of someone doing something evil against one's will, either pleasurably or unpleasurably, but with how we currently think of consent and choice, I don't think we would talk about this as a moral action at all. Maybe instead of saying "your own life or your feudal lord's" or "a vow is going to be broken," the consequences could be switched around. Like, somehow forcing someone to choose between dying or letting a class of young students die - and to make it simpler, let's say this is due to an unpreventable natural disaster. That action is forced but the moral action would still be agreed by most to be to die to save the kids' lives. In that case, the choice is still forced by circumstance, but the choice to save one's own life or not would be an actual choice to make, not mere self-defense.

So that would be maybe a better example of the servant, if there's someone who chose to save their own life by letting the students die. That's a (culturally) obviously immoral action against the person's will. 

I don't have a top-of-the-dome example of enjoying something evil against one's will though. That situation seems like it would need to have someone else who is actually committing evil willingly, forcing the situation on the person.

For all that, I lean closer to moral relativism (not totally, since any situation is nuanced and deserves its own discussion), but motivations and consequences are both something worth considering. It depends what you are making the ethical judgment for, too - awarding damages in a court of law? For an interpersonal relationship? Criticizing an elected politician? Choosing an action for yourself to take? Trying to keep someone from suffering? Etc etc. 

Wow, ok, I wrote down these thoughts (pausing the podcast) right before you mentioned consent! I see where the "modern time traveler" idea comes from now. I wasn't expecting that level of nuance. The way you talk about consenting to a desire makes me think of the struggle against intrusive thoughts, where you have to make a distinction between the things your brain tells you and the things you choose to mentally incorporate into your beliefs. 

This is making me think a lot of Maimonides again - specifically the Eight Levels of Tzedakah. Normally I would hesitate to make a comment even longer than it already is, but when has this stopped me on this podcast before? So here it is via the Jewish virtual library, going from the least laudable version of tzedakah (giving charity) to the most:

8. When donations are given grudgingly.

7. When one gives less than he should, but does so cheerfully.

6. When one gives directly to the poor upon being asked.

5. When one gives directly to the poor without being asked.

4. Donations when the recipient is aware of the donor's identity, but the donor still doesn't know the specific identity of the recipient.

3. Donations when the donor is aware to whom the charity is being given, but the recipient is unaware of the source.

2. Giving assistance in such a way that the giver and recipient are unknown to each other. Communal funds, administered by responsible people are also in this category.

1. The highest form of charity is to help sustain a person before they become impoverished by offering a substantial gift in a dignified manner, or by extending a suitable loan, or by helping them find employment or establish themselves in business so as to make it unnecessary for them to become dependent on others.

So, simplified, that's: A good deed done unwillingly; a partial good deed done willingly; a good deed when prompted; a good deed unprompted; a good deed to a stranger; a good deed to a friend but anonymous; a good deed to a stranger anonymously; a good deed that prevents future need. And extracting further, that means that willing is better than unwilling; unprompted is better than prompted; helping a stranger is better than helping a friend; helping anonymously is better; preventing future need is better.

But the tiers chosen are more interesting. Preventing future need is above all the most important no matter how it is done. It's more important to be anonymous when giving than it matters who you're giving to. It's better to be happy about doing good than it is to actually do the job fully. It's better to give to a communal fund than it is to give to an individual (unless anonymity is 100% guaranteed).

(I know I'm getting way off topic but... yeah... I'm still typing...)

Maimonides' stance on giving communally doesn't hold up with modern activist thought, where direct action to someone in need is the best way to affect positive change - in contrast to older ideas that the recipients of charity may abuse it and having a charity distribute money will more properly allocate money to those who are the most in need. The latter is a nice idea but doesn't seem to work in practice, although that may be a consequence of how western charities are set up - not just the costs of overhead but the biases inherent in a capitalist system and the barriers a charity may put in place before offering care (eg the Salvation Army refusing to aid homeless LGBTQ+ people). Maimonides is, I assume, working within a different framework that would be considered radical community action now, but this may also only apply to within the Jewish community, which is not how we talk about charity now either. 

And he considers both intention and anonymity to sometimes, but not always, be more important than the actual effect of the action. 

OK. I'm back to the podcast now. 

It's weird to me that Abelard is talking about following the spirit of the law instead of the letter, because that seems like it presumes to know God's intentions and could lead to some murky stuff about violating the letter to follow the spirit. 

The "always a sin if you fail to do what you think you ought to do" is more complex than that imo. I talk about how I left Christianity and there were a lot of things I grew up being taught were the right things to do. But on a more subconscious level, based on how I understood and empathized with other people, I also felt that these things were morally wrong. I "knew" what a sin was but over time I began to recognize that how I "felt," or how I "intuitively knew," was different. I had two contradictory impulses but if you had asked me then, "what I think I ought to do" would have been the rules I grew up with. It wasn't until I left the church that I was able to form my own opinions and moral reasoning. If we substituted any other religion for Christianity - eg if I was raised in Child-Murder-ism and lived that way through adulthood, but blasphemously refused to murder children - I think Abelard would agree with me. But maybe he's not making a distinction between individual choice and culture yet.

I like the amoral action idea because we can hypothetically imagine someone - in modern thought it would be an android or something else human in any identifiable way but without real intention (moral agency) - and they would be able to perform actions which make them appear good or evil, but are actually amoral. So that's fun.

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