Ethics & Public Policy Center

Ockham and Us

Published in The Catholic Difference on April 9, 1998



Everybody knows and uses “Ockham’s razor” even if they’ve never heard of William of Ockham, the 14th century Franciscan philosopher. “Ockham’s razor” is a philosophical principle of economy which holds that, in analyzing any complex problem, the simplest explanation is always to be preferred. It’s a principle that makes a lot of sense, even if philosophers have honored it more in the breach than in the observance in the six centuries since Friar William enunciated it.

(My friend and colleague Michael Uhlmann, who has considerable experience in the trenches of Washington’s political, legal, and bureaucratic wars, has devised a parallel principle, “Uhlmann’s razor,” which stipulates that “If stupidity is a sufficient explanation, you need not look for another.” But that is for another day and another column.)

William of Ockham is much with us in another way, however: he is the chief influence on the decline of Catholic moral theology since the Middle Ages. And his baneful influence continues to mis-shape Catholic thinking about the moral life today. Or so argues Servais Pinckaers, O.P., a Belgian Dominican, in one of the best books I’ve read in years: The Sources of Christian Ethics (Catholic University of America Press).

How did Ockham get it wrong, and what does that have to do with us?

According to Father Pinckaers, Ockham changed the Catholic understanding of the will, teaching that it was a free-floating capacity capable of moving in any direction. This was as true of God’s will as it was of ours. The Ten Commandments were purely arbitrary edicts (rather than moral reflections of the structure of created reality), and God could change them if He so desired.

So in Ockham’s system, technically known as “nominalism,” morality is a struggle between two wills: my will and God’s will. God’s will is stronger, and the meeting-point between our two wills is moral obligation. The crucial moral question becomes, “How far can I go before I run into an obligation being imposed by that stronger will?”

Grace, prayer, the gifts of the Holy Spirit, the beatitudes, and happiness: in Ockham’s moral theory, these all drop by the wayside and the moral life is reduced to a battle of wills. Ockham’s morality is a morality of rules, and it led over time to a nit-picking casuistry in which “How far can I go?” replaced the Gospel question, “What must I do to have eternal life?” as the crucial question for Christian morality. A philosophical distortion, in turn, misshaped sacramental life: the confessional became a legal tribunal and the confessor a judge.

This was the kind of ossified moral theology that Vatican II urged theologians to renovate and renew. Unfortunately, according to Pinckaers, the result was not genuine renewal but Ockham Lite. To take one important historical example: the “liberalized” moral theory behind the so-called “Majority Report” of the papal birth control commission in 1966 was, in its essentials, just as “nominalist” as the hoary moral theology it sought to replace. Both regarded freedom as a neutral faculty of choice. Both thought of morality as primarily a matter of “rules.” But the old morality had strict rules and the new model had lax rules; one set the bar high, the other lowered it.

Real renewal, Pinckaers writes, means recovering and developing the “freedom for excellence” that we find in the moral theology of Thomas Aquinas. Goodness and happiness were the keynotes of Thomas’s moral theory, as they were of Jesus’s teaching in the New Testament. Morality for Thomas (as for Jesus) was not a matter of truckling under to a stronger divine will; morality was the royal way to the eternal happiness that God intends for humanity. Along that way, we can grow in goodness because we can grow in the virtues, which are capacities for choosing the good. The practice of the virtues makes us good people; and good people are people who know that their happiness lies in living according to a moral law that frees us even as it binds us.

Freedom as self-assertion vs. freedom as self-mastery, “doing it my way” vs. the “more excellent way:” if all this sounds vaguely familiar, it’s because Ockham is with us still. And we are still waiting to overcome him.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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