[4.4.4] Abelard on the Role of Intent in Ethics

In his work Ethics, Peter Abelard (1079?-1142 AD) elaborated his intentionalist theory according to which:

  • Four factors involved in the performance of a deed are analyzed as potential bearers of moral worth: the desires of the agent, the agent’s character, the deed performed, and the agent’s intentions.
  • Abelard, with the help of (sometimes extreme counterexamples), rules out the first three candidates, and concludes that only the intention has moral worth.

Abelard summarizes the moral worth of intentions on the following schema (after Peter King, 1992):

Conforms God’s willDoesn’t conform God’s will
Agent believes to conform God’s willgooddepends on case
Agent believes not o conform God’s willevilevil

Abelard’s model of ethics is presented in the following OntoUML diagram:

Abelard’s intentionalist ethics
ClassDescription (and why the class moral worth)Relations
MoralWorthMoral worth is “that which determines the moral quality of the deed.”characterizes exclusively Intention
AgentThe agent is the human who performs a deed. does DeedPerformed
Intention“Abelard’s first positive argument on behalf of the agent’s intention as the key ingredient in moral worth is that there is no other way to make coercion and ignorance morally relevant. Ignorance, as a cognitive feature of the agent, seems utterly removed from any deed-based morality, and coercion seems equally removed as well. […]
Abelard, typically, takes an extreme case to make his point. He argues that the crucifiers of Christ were not evil in crucifying Jesus. (This example, and others like it, got Abelard into trouble with the authorities, and it isn’t hard to see why.) The unbelief of Christ’s crucifiers does not suffice to make their intentions evil. Indeed, Abelard claims that they would have sinned if they had thought that crucifying Christ was required and did not crucify him (66.30–34):
Those who persecuted Christ or his disciples, believing that they should be persecuted, ‘sinned in deed,’ but they would have committed a heavier sin in fact if they had spared Him against their own consciences. From this example Abelard draws two consequences. First, the only evil is to act against conscience. Now ‘conscience,’ for Abelard, is the faculty by which what is done is estimated to be pleasing or displeasing to God. Second, he offers a criterion for the goodness of intentions (55.20–23): An intention should not be called ‘good’ because it seems good, but because in addition it is just as it is assessed to be—that is, when, believing that what one intends is pleasing to God, one is not deceived in one’s own assessment. To formulate Abelard’s criterion briefly: An intention is good if and only if the intention is believed to and in fact does conform to God’s will. Any intention which is believed not to conform to God’s will is automatically evil, even if in fact it does conform to God’s will. If I intend something God”
results DeedPerformed
DeedPerformed“Abelard attacks two ways in which the deed [performed] might be taken to ground moral worth. On the one hand, deeds are sometimes evaluated and justified on the basis of their purpose or their point; on the other hand, they are evaluated and justified in terms of their intrinsic nature or the consequences that flow from them. […]
Nor will it help if we try to relativize evaluative terms to the ‘point’ of the deed, as some have taken Aristotle to do, so that the assessment of a deed depends on whether it is a good or bad instance of that type of deed. Just as a knife is good or bad qua knife if it does well or poorly at the things for which knives are designed, so too we might think that deeds embody evaluative criteria relative to the kind of deed they are.
In Dialogus ll. 3254–3260 Abelard argues that this relativization of evaluative terms results in terms that are fundamentally non-moral: the deed specified by the description ‘baking a cake’ can be performed well or badly, it is true, but this is the case for any deed under any description. Robbing a bank can be done well or poorly, as can murder.”
Purpose“Abelard’s argument against the purpose of a deed is simple: take any deed for any given purpose, and you’ll be able to imagine a case in which the deed is performed for that purpose but the agent’s intention is evil. He offers two examples. First, Judas and Jesus each performed deeds with the same purpose: to bring it about that Christ be crucified. But Judas’s deed was evil, whereas Jesus’s was not (28.2–9);13 more generally, Satan does nothing but what God permits, and so the same deed with the same purpose (e. g. causing Job misery) is evil with respect to Satan but good with respect to God (28.18–24), Second, Abelard considers a situation in which the deed and the purpose of the deed is identical for each of two agents, but distinct intentions require us to render distinct moral verdicts (28.11–17; see also Dialogus ll. 3267–3272): Often the same thing is done by different people, [but] done through the justice of one and the iniquity of the other. For example, if two men hang a convict, one out of his zeal for justice and the other from the hatred stemming from an old enmity, although the act of hanging is the same and each does what it is good to do and what justice requires, nevertheless the same thing comes about through the difference in [their] intentions [so that] by one it is done well and by the other badly. The deed is identical and the purpose identical, but moral worth depends on the intention of the agent(s) involved.”characterizes DeedPerformed
Consequence“To show that the deed and its consequences or effects do not determine moral worth, Abelard begins by criticizing the alternative: the position that the performance or non performance of deeds is all that matters, a ‘strict liability’ ethical theory. This alternative might be thought especially attractive to traditional Christian teaching, since it proceeds by way of commandments: absolute prohibitions regarding performance and non-performance, such as ‘Thou shalt not kill.’ Abelard’s first objection to a strict liability theory is that such commandments, construed only with regard to the deed, fail to condemn those who are obviously evil, namely those who have nothing but the worst of intentions yet are never in a position to act on them. […] His second objection is that nobody can keep from violating such prohibitions. Abelard offers a version of the story of Oedipus: fraternal twins, male and female, are separated at birth and neither learns of the existence of the other; as adults they meet, fall in love, are legally married, and have sexual intercourse. Technically this is incest, but Abelard finds no fault in either to blame (26.14–23). If the deed alone determines moral worth, then on a strict liability theory their (justifiable) ignorance is morally irrelevant—which it manifestly is not. Absolute commandments, Abelard concludes, deprive the actor of any status as a moral agent. Abelard expands his attack on the deed and its consequences with a pair of cases centering around what recently has been called ‘moral luck’: cases in which nonmoral factors enter into or affect the possibility of moral actions. His first case is that of hypocrites and the wealthy. Such individuals are far better motivated (by the love of praise) and situated (by their riches) to perform acts that have wide effects and far-reaching consequences than the ordinary individual. But surely these aren’t morally relevant factors, even if views taking the deed to be the sole determinant of moral worth must count them as such (28.24–26). Abelard’s second case has to do with two men, each with the money and intention to build poorhouses; the first is robbed before he can act, while the second is able to build the poorhouses. To maintain that there is a moral difference between the two men is, Abelard says, to hold that (48.21 28):
. . . the richer men were, the better they could become. To think this, namely that wealth can contribute anything to true happiness or to the worthiness of the soul, is the height of insanity!”
characterizes DeedPerformed
DesireOfAgent“Abelard argues that some deeds pre-theoretically taken to be evil can be performed without any evil desire [of agent]. He establishes this by an example of self-defense (6.24–29):
Consider some innocent man whose cruel lord is so furious at him that he chases him, brandishing a sword, to kill him; that man flees as far as he is able to avoid his own murder, yet finally he unwillingly kills (his lord) lest he be killed by him. Tell me, whoever you are, hat he had an evil desire in this deed!”
results DeedPerformed; componentOf Agent’sCharacter
Agent’sCharacter“Abelard holds that [agent’s] character traits are simply complex patterns of mental dispositions of desire and feeling (2.21–22). To be irascible, for example, is to be prone to or ready for the emotion of anger. The previous rejection of desires as determining moral worth immediately leads to rejecting character as determining moral worth—since desires themselves lack moral value, so a fortiori dispositions-to-desire lack moral worth. There are no facts about the dispositions that could make them different, in the morally relevant way, from desires. Abelard offers an additional argument against character traits as determining moral worth. It is a fact that good and bad men can have much the same set of character traits; thieves can be courageous, honest men intemperate. But whatever can “occur in both good and evil men is not relevant to morality” (2.13–14). Any characteristic present in good men which is present in evil men cannot be that which makes the good men good since its presence in the evil men would make them good.”characterizes Agent


  • All citations from: Peter King, The Modern Schoolman 72 (1995), 213–231
  • King, Peter and Arlig, Andrew, “Peter Abelard”The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)

First published: 13/08/2020

[4.2] St Anselm on Rectitude and Freedom of Will

St Anselm of Canterbury (1033–1109 AD) in the works “On Truth” (De veritate), “On Freedom of Choice” (De libertate arbitrii), and “On the Fall of the Devil” (De casu diaboli) worked out a metamodel of rectitude (truth) according to which not only statements, but wills, actions, the senses, essences can be right or wrong.
Based on this metamodel he elaborated a theory of freedom of will, where

  • He defines freedom as “the power to preserve rectitude of will for its own sake”.
  • God and the angels are free, and they always preserve the rectitude of their will. So their freedom is stronger than that of humans and fallen angels.
  • Humans are free, but they can not preserve their rectitude of will without the help of divine grace.
  • Fallen angels are free, but they lost their rectitude of will by not using it according to its purpose.

Anselm’s metamodel of rectitude and theory of freedom of will is pictured in the following OntoUML diagram:

St Anselm on purpose, rectitude and freedom of will
ThingThinghas Purpose; does/is used for Action
PurposePurpose understood in teleological way (see [1.3.4]): the finality, reason or explanation for something.
ActionThings are able to do, or to be used for different “actions“.
RightActionRight action is performed when the Thing acts/is used according to its purpose. is subkind of Action; in material relation with Purpose
WrongActionRight action is performed when the thing acts/is used not according to its purpose.is subkind of Action
RectitudeRectitude (or Truth) for Anselm “is understood teleologically; a thing is correct whenever it is or does whatever it ought, or was designed, to be or do.”relates Purpose with RightAction
WillWillsubkind of Thing; has Freedom
FreedomAnselm defines “freedom as ‘the power to preserve rectitude of will for its own sake,’ the arguments of On Truth imply that freedom is also the capacity for justice and the capacity for moral praiseworthiness. Now it is both necessary and sufficient for justice, and thus for praiseworthiness, that an agent wills what is right, knowing it to be right, because it is right. That an agent wills what is right because it is right entails that he is neither compelled nor bribed to perform the act. Freedom, then, must be neither more nor less than the power to perform acts of that sort. […]
God and the good angels cannot sin, but they are still free, because they can (and do) preserve rectitude of will for its own sake. In fact, they are freer than those who can sin: ‘someone who has what is fitting and expedient in such a way that he cannot lose it is freer than someone who has it in such a way that he can lose it and be seduced into what is unfitting and inexpedient’. It obviously follows, as Anselm points out, that freedom of choice neither is nor entails the power to sin; God and the good angels have freedom of choice, but they are incapable of sinning.”
preserves Rectitude

The following table contains some examples of how Anselm’s rectitude meta-model is working:

statementsignifies that what-is istruthsignifies that what-is isstatements are made for the purpose of ‘signifying that what-is is’. A statement therefore is correct (has rectitude) when, and only when, it signifies that what-is is. So Anselm holds a correspondence theory of truth, but it is a somewhat unusual correspondence theory. Statements are true when they correspond to reality, but only because corresponding to reality is what statements are for. That is, statements (like anything else) are true when they do what they were designed to do; and what they were designed to do, as it happens, is to correspond to reality.”
willto will:
● justice
● moral evaluation
Rectitude of willwilling what one ought to will“Rectitude of will means willing what one ought to will or (in other words) willing that for the sake of which one was given a will. So, […] the truth or rectitude of a will is the will’s doing what wills were made to do. In De veritate Anselm connects rectitude of will to both justice and moral evaluation.”
The will of God and the angels is allways in the state of rectitude.
willto will:
● justice
● moral evaluation
will for happiness “In On the Fall of the Devil (De casu diaboli) Anselm extends his account of freedom and sin by discussing the first sin of the angels. In order for the angels to have the power to preserve rectitude of will for its own sake, they had to have both a will for justice and a will for happiness. If God had given them only a will for happiness, they would have been necessitated to will whatever they thought would make them happy. Their willing of happiness would have had its ultimate origin in God and not in the angels themselves. So they would not have had the power for self-initiated action, which means that they would not have had free choice. The same thing would have been true, mutatis mutandis, if God had given them only the will for justice.
Since God gave them both wills, however, they had the power for self-initiated action. Whether they chose to subject their wills for happiness to the demands of justice or to ignore the demands of justice in the interest of happiness, that choice had its ultimate origin in the angels; it was not received from God. The rebel angels chose to abandon justice in an attempt to gain happiness for themselves, whereas the good angels chose to persevere in justice even if it meant less happiness. God punished the rebel angels by taking away their happiness; he rewarded the good angels by granting them all the happiness they could possibly want. For this reason, the good angels are no longer able to sin. Since there is no further happiness left for them to will, their will for happiness can no longer entice them to overstep the bounds of justice. Thus Anselm finally explains what it is that perfects free choice so that it becomes unable to sin. […]
Like the fallen angels, the first human beings willed happiness in preference to justice. By doing so they abandoned the will for justice and became unable to will justice for its own sake. Apart from divine grace, then, fallen human beings cannot help but sin. Anselm claims that we are still free, because we continue to be such that if we had rectitude of will, we could preserve it for its own sake; but we cannot exercise our freedom, since we no longer have the rectitude of will to preserve. (Whether fallen human beings also retain the power for self-initiated action apart from divine grace is a tricky question, and one I do not propose to answer here.)
So the restoration of human beings to the justice they were intended to enjoy requires divine grace.”


First published: 21/05/2020