sin, punishment, and the judgment of God

a hallmark of the ethical thought of Peter Abelard (1079–1142) is his idea that sin consists only in consent to what is not fitting, in an intention to do what is contrary to God's will and thus manifest contempt for the creator. sin is then not found in the will, nor in the possession of vices—nor even in the doing of evil deeds. some find this a hopelessly subjective ethical standpoint, or even entirely empty. Abelard himself was not unaware that it seems contrary to many traditional ways of speaking of sin, and took great pains to explain how it related to usual practices of punishment (which look to deeds rather than internal states).

in this paper, i elucidate this aspect of the moral perspective of Abelard. first, i describe his arguments why sin is not found in vice, bad will, or bad deeds, but only in one's intentions. (Abelard refers to both consent and intention, but these essentially seem to be synonyms for him, and I use them as such here. consent (consensus) is generally used to indicate that sin consists in consent to what is prompted by a vice, while intention (intentio) refers to the mental state directed to a particular deed.) then i examine the charge of subjectivism, as it is found in the criticism of Ralph McInerny and David Gallagher. after next describing the relation between Abelard's viewpoint and practices of punishment, i explore the particular problems for Abelard's theory created by the christian doctrines of Baptism and original sin, both of which (in the view of Marilyn McCord Adams, for example) seem to expose an important inconsistency in Abelard's views.

the ethical writing of Peter Abelard is principally contained in two short works: know yourself, which he also referred to as the ethics, and the dialogue between a philosopher, a jew, and a christian. the latter treatise presents an apologetic discussion between representatives of those religions and a theistic but non-religious philosopher, who is investigating which of the two should receive his assent, if either. the present paper, however, is principally concerned with the issues brought up in the ethics, though i will touch on the relation between some of its issues and those in the dialogues.

the ethics consists of two books, the first on vice and the second on virtue, but the text leaves off very quickly after only a few hundred words into the second book. it is not known whether Abelard finished the second book, or abandoned it partway through. (only one medieval manuscript contains the second book at all, in oxford, Balliol college ms. 196. see Peter Abelard's ethics l-liii.) Abelard's topics in the first book of the ethics are essentially two: in what sin itself consists, and the proper administration of penance and confession in the church, including discussions of the relation of forgiveness and repentance. the latter topic draws in interesting ways on the former, but it is mainly the former that will occupy my interest here.

description of Abelard's ethical viewpoint

sin does not consist in vice or a bad will

Abelard begins by treating of vice (vicium); properly speaking, vicium includes both bodily and mental defects, of both moral and non-moral character. Abelard notes dullness of mind, forgetfulness, and ignorance in this latter category. (ethics, 2) of course, it is only mental defects of moral significance that are of importance here, those which make us prone to bad works (ad mala opera pronos efficiunt, ethics, 2&ndash3.) he does not take up the question of whether a vice is a settled habitus or a more transient dispositio. (he does briefly note the question in the second book, in connection with virtue, where he correctly reports Aristotle's distinction between the two, but it is not clear whether he agrees with it.)

however, vice is introduced only to quickly dispense with it as the locus of sin. for clearly one can be prone to bad works without actually doing them, and in this case one has not sinned. it is not the tendency to bad works that is sinful, but rather, giving in to this tendency. the relation is thus expressed: vice is that by which we are made prone to sin, that is, are inclined to consent to what is not fitting so that we either do it or forsake it. now this consent we properly call sin. (ethics, 5) the implication seems to be, however, that vice does play a crucial role in sin, and that without vices, one would not sin at all.

having explained why vice is not itself sinful, and giving his view that it is rather consent to vice which is blameworthy, Abelard explains why two further contrary opinions would also be wrong. first he addresses why the will to do a bad deed (voluntas mali operis, ethics, 7) is not sinful, and then why the actual bad deed itself is not sinful.

the latin voluntas, like related verb velle and its forms, can signify both will and desire, and Abelard is writing when there was not yet philosophical consensus on the use of the terms; accordingly, his use might seem somewhat contrary to what we are accustomed. as Abelard uses the word, will does not refer to what one chooses in a given context, but rather what one actually wants—even though what one actually wants may be unattainable. will is not a faculty of mind by which we make choices; will expresses what we want for the future—what we desire. when i will p for the sake of q, i cannot be said to will p simpliciter, because i might well not want p. Abelard gives the example of a man in prison, who wants to put his son in prison in his place so that he can go and seek the ransom. it would be wrong to say that the man wants his son in prison—indeed, he is only willing to accept this under great duress. (ethics, 8–10) likewise, if we want to sleep with a beautiful married woman, it does not follow that we want to commit adultery; rather, what we want is that she were unmarried. (ethics, 16. Abelard's use of the plural here is presumably a merely generic we.) it is clear that Abelard's notion of what you will (want) is different from Aristotle's description of a voluntary action. in the nicomachean ethics, iii.1, Aristotle considers a case similar to that of the father in prison (throwing goods overboard in a storm to save the ship), which he considers to be more like a voluntary action than involuntary.}

Abelard then gives examples to show how we might sin without a bad will, and how we might have a bad will, but not sin. for the former, Abelard considers a servant who kills his master out of fear, because the master is in a rage and chasing him with a knife. he says that the servant has sinned (though we might be inclined to disagree), but cannot possibly be said to have wanted the death of his master, since it will bring him great grief. (ethics, 6–8). Augustine, in de libero arbitrio, i.iv.10, addresses a similar case, and concludes that the slave is guilty, because he kills his master in order be free of fear of him, so that he might go on to satisfy his own lusts. if he really were to kill his master only to be free of the fear, then he would do so without sin (culpabili cupiditate).} to show how one might have a bad will without sin, Abelard considers that one might, walking through someone's garden, want the other's fruit, but exercise self-restraint and not seize it. such a person has a bad will, but has not sinned, because he did not consent. (ethics, 14). this and the previous example illustrate nicely Abelard's familiarity with Augustine; here we cannot help but be reminded of the story of Augustine's theft of pears in the confessions, iii.iv.10. indeed, resisting such a bad will (like resisting a vice) is one of the more praiseworthy things a person can do. (ethics, 12.)

sin is not worsened by succeeding in what one consents to

if sin consists is found in neither vice nor ill will, perhaps it simply consists in actually doing what ought not be done. by contrast, Abelard believes that one might do what ought not be done, and yet be without sin; likewise, when one has consented sinfully, the actual accomplishment of the deed in no way augments the sin.

Abelard tells us that consent to what is unlawful is in fact when we in no way draw back from its accomplishment and are inwardly ready, if given the chance, to do it, and that once consent has occurred, one has thereby done to the extent of his power what he can to bring about the bad deed. (ethics, 15) one is reminded here of the discussion in Epictetus' enchiridion about what is in our power, and what is not. one might therefore sin even when one has no ability to bring about the thing consented to; consent is always of the hypothetical form to try to do such and such if given the chance.

of course, between the initial consent to do something and the actual performance of the act, one's readiness to do it if given the chance may change. each such change is a new consent, which requires new analysis; presumably ongoing and perduring consent also augments a single instantaneous consent—since inward readiness is not a momentary act, but a condition that can extend over time. before describing Abelard's explanation of exactly which consents are sinful and which are not, i will describe how Abelard treats of two historically important notions of ways that a deed might be sinful in itself.

first, some might say that the pleasure which follows upon the action in some way increases the sin (as in illicit sex, or eating stolen fruit). however, this could only be true if the carnal pleasure were sinful in itself—in which case it should always be wrong. this is clearly not so, however, since the pleasure is not sinful at all in the cases of licit marital sex or eating one's own fruit without gluttony. so the pleasure one receives after succeeding in the action one has sinfully intended does not increase the sin. (ethics, 16–18)

the second of these historical notions is also quickly discarded, that is, the claim the performance of certain deeds in itself stains the soul. (ethics, 22) by contrast, Abelard believes that only consent could stain the soul, because only those things which are of the soul could pollute it. (ethics, 23) we saw that the pleasure in completing an illicit act cannot in itself carry any moral taint; the same is true for the act itself. Abelard considers the case of a religious (that is, a monk or friar) forced against his will and without his consent to lie between women. surely the pleasure he receives is not sinful in such a case, since it has been made necessary by nature. (ethics, 21) likewise, since in such a case the deed itself carries no sinful stain (since it was entirely involuntary), neither could the deed itself augment the sin if there had been a sinful consent to it. for any deed, one can always imagine a circumstance in which that deed is done without sin, and so it follows, says Abelard, that deeds themselves carry no sinful taint, whether or not a sinful consent has preceded.

there are of course further objections which can be made to Abelard's doctrine that only consent can be sinful, and that success or failure of one's attempts is of no moral importance. i will consider some of these below and provide Abelard's replies (where he considers them himself), or construct what i believe would be suitable responses for him.

which consents are sinful

one important question remains in explaining Abelard's doctrine: which consents are sinful? the initial answer was given above: consent to that which is not fitting. this is sinful because such consent is contempt for God; since God cannot be harmed, the only way to offend God is through contempt. we can learn about what offends God from divine revelation, as well perhaps as through reasoning. when a commandment seems to refer to a deed, it actually must be taken to refer to consent. (ethics, 25–27)

where there is no contempt, it follows, there is no sin. (ethics, 4–6.} a consequence is that consent to that which is not fitting is only contempt for God when we know that it is not fitting. ignorance thus excuses, because someone who consents to what is not fitting through ignorance is not thereby expressing contempt for God. (what about the person who deliberately cultivates ignorance? Abelard does not address this case, but i think his answer would be clear. what one does (consents to) out of ignorance is not culpable, but the deliberate cultivation of ignorance might itself well be. so one cannot get off scot free by cultivating ignorance.)

Abelard defines sin as to do by no means on his account what we believe we ought to do for him, or not to forsake on his account what we believe we ought to forsake. (ethics, 7, emphasis added) if one consents to something unfitting in ignorance, then one is not thereby contemptuous. so to sleep with a woman not your wife, in the mistaken belief that she is your wife, is not sinful. (ethics, 24) likewise, even the persecutors of the martyrs and of Christ did not sin, because they believed that what they were doing was required by God. (ethics, 54–56)

Abelard identifies these cases respectively as arising through ignorance (per ignorantiam) and from ignorance (de ignorantia). Some have seen an important distinction to be made between a transgression done out of ignorance (such that if the ignorance had not been present, the transgression would not have occurred), as opposed to a transgression committed in ignorance (where there does happen to be ignorance, but the deed would still have been done even if the agent were not ignorant). (something like this is found in the nicomachean ethics, iii.1, 1110b15–1111a20.) all such transgressions are non-voluntary (and thus not culpable), but only those which are caused by the ignorance are involuntary. one way of making the distinction between an involuntary action and a merely non-voluntary action is that if the action was caused by the ignorance, then the agent will feel the pain of regret when he learns the truth. he is a better person than the one who feels no such pain, and would have acted the same if he had known the facts.

Abelard did not have access to Aristotle's ethical writings, and he does not address this distinction. in the case of those who persecuted Christ, he is clear that they did what they thought was God's will. one might infer that if they had known what God's will really was, they would have acted differently, but Abelard does not say this, and it does not in fact necessarily follow—they might have acted in accord with what they thought was God's will, but only because it was also what they independently wanted. this leaves unsettled the question of what they would have done if they had known that their desires and God's will were divergent.

a second distinction between species of ignorance is between ignorance of particulars and ignorance of what it is morally required to do. most agree that ignorance of particulars tends to excuse, but there is great controversy about whether ignorance of what is morally required should excuse one who thus transgresses. when Abelard says that those who persecuted Christ and the martyrs did not sin, because they acted in ignorance, it might seem that he is saying that ignorance of what is morally required should excuse—for surely it was morally required not to persecute them.

this would, however, get the analysis wrong. in fact, the reason (for Abelard) that ignorance excuses in the case of the martyrs is precisely because they did not know that their actions were displeasing to God. indeed, one might say that the only true sin, per se, is contempt for God. Abelard's contribution here is then not to offer any view about whether ignorance of what is morally required excuses, but rather to radically shift the line between the two categories, so that the only thing which is in fact morally required is respect for God. all ignorance of particulars excuses, even particulars about what God in fact requires. Abelard does not discuss the question whether ignorance excuses when one is ignorant of the fact that one ought to do what God requires. (nor does he address the related question of whether or how an atheist could sin.)

what is determinative of sin, then, is the intention with which one acts: if one intends to show contempt for God, then one has sinned. indeed, a mistake about what God requires can make something sinful which would otherwise not be! if those who had persecuted the martyrs had not done so, they would have sinned, because they believed (however incorrectly) that God required them to persecute, and in failing to they would have shown contempt for God.

moral goodness

after considering sin, it remains to consider morally good acts. not surprisingly, Abelard holds that only intention matters in determining whether an act is good or bad. the role of ignorance is slightly different, however, for while those who persecuted the martyrs may have believed they were doing God's will, in fact they were not, and so on no account can their intentions be called good. (ethics, 54) for an intention to be good, therefore, Abelard says that it must be believed to be good, and that it must also be good in fact—the agent must be in no way deceived in believing it to be good. (ethics, 55) therefore, when one is in error about what God requires and intends a bad deed in ignorance, his intention is morally neutral, neither good or bad.

sin consists in neither a bad will nor in vice. we have seen already that a good will is not sufficient for an agent to be considered good. what is the relation between virtue and goodness? Abelard does discuss virtue briefly in the fragment of the second book of the ethics, but he does not address its relation to good deeds as he had discussed the role of vice. one may reasonably infer that the situation is parallel, and that one could do well without virtue, and by contrast, one could have a virtue but not do well. (as previously noted, Abelard is aware of the distinction of habitus and dispositio in this regard, but it is not clear from the extant text whether he agrees with it.)

Abelard is explicit that the actual performance of a good deed does not increase the goodness arising from the intention to perform it, just as the actual performance of a bad deed does not increase the sin arising from a bad intention. he considers the case of two men who each intend to build houses for the poor. one succeeds in his plan, but the other has his money stolen. Abelard says that because their intention was the same, they have the same merit. consent, as said above, is an inward readiness to perform a deed, if given the chance. the same two agents might well have exactly the same inward readiness, and the fact that one succeeded and another failed in no way affects the merit pertaining to their consent. (ethics, 48)

what Abelard considers an intention, according to David Gallagher, is the mind with which [an act] is done. (will and deed in Abelard and Aquinas, 679) It is independent of the deed and is what it is apart from the deed. (will and deed, 679) what about the person who intends something good, and then turns back before the performance of the deed? the turning back was bad, but the initial intention was good, indeed, it was precisely as good as it would have been even if there had been no turning back. so in the case of the second would-be housebuilder, if he had failed to carry out his original intention because of miserliness, rather than because his money was stolen, this would also not affect the goodness of his first intention, though indeed, it would also be true that his later intention was bad. (when he gets to the topic of repentance and forgiveness, Abelard does say that a later intention of contrition does cancel any guilt arising from a previous sinful intention. see ethics, 87–88, for example. consideration of this in detail would take us too far afield here.)

we have thus seen that, for Abelard, four things must be distinguished: vice, bad will, bad deeds, and the consent or intention to perform a bad deed. (ethics, 33) only the last of these is sinful, because only contempt for God could be sinful. accordingly, consent is sinful when it manifests contempt for God, with the result that any error about what God in fact commands excuses a transgression. likewise, only good intentions are meritorious; virtue, good will, and the actual performance of a good deed do nothing to augment the goodness of the intention. unlike the case of sin, however, for an intention to be good it must be actually in accord with God's will, as well as being thought so by the agent.

McInerny's criticism of Abelard

in his ethica thomistica, Ralph McInerny describes Abelard's little book as a seedbed of confusion and sophistry, (ethica thomistica 83.) but his real complaint seems to be that Abelard has not mastered the works of the angelic doctor. McInerny makes so many mistakes about Abelard in such a short number of pages, that his text actually offers a useful structure for explaining Abelard's account more fully, in pointing out his misreadings. i propose, therefore, to proceed through McInerny's criticisms, showing for each one how he has misunderstood Abelard. i hope in this way Abelard's own views can be brought into higher relief.

McInerny's misinterpretations

McInerny begins by saying that Abelard maintained with almost pervese glee that morality consists in intention alone and that the things we do, the actions we perform, are, apart from our intention in performing them, morally neutral. is feeding the hungry good or bad? that depends on why we are doing it. if we do it for the glory of God, then it is a good action, but if we do it out of vainglory, it is bad. the same action can be, from the point of view of diverse intentions, either good or bad. (ethica thomistica, 83)

McInerny seems to attribute to Abelard the view that whether the hungry get fed is of no importance. however, Abelard is concerned with what makes the agent worthy of praise or blame. McInerny contrasts doing an action for the glory of God and out of vainglory. yet this is not Abelard's distinction. Abelard's distinction is between consent to what is fitting and what is not fitting; and between intentions which manifest scorn for God and those which do not. McInerny wants Abelard to say that to feed the poor out of no concern for the poor, and a desire for adulation of others, would be sinful. but God has not, in fact, forbidden desiring the adulation of others. he has not even forbidden us to be motivated by a desire for the adulation of others. what he has forbidden is neglect of the poor. what Abelard does imply is that if you truly believe that to give to the poor would be wrong, then indeed, you would sin in doing so. (this is hardly a new point with Abelard; he echoes, for example, the apostle Paul in romans 14:23 and 1 corinthians 8:7-13. Aquinas as well might agree; see for example summa theologiae, ia-iiae. q.19 a.5. but see also q.19 a.6.)

if one believes acting out of vainglory is unfitting, then Abelard would of course say that it would be sinful to feed the poor out of the intention of vainglory. if one also believes that feeding the poor is a fitting thing to do, then, since this belief would be correct, an intention to feed the poor would be morally good. what then about the person McInerny imagines who feeds the poor out of vainglory, given these two common assumptions about what is fitting? we have a sort of mixed case: at once sinful and praiseworthy, with one part being praiseworthy and the other sinful. McInerny wants to say that the deed (feeding the hungry) is good, and the intention (vainglory) is bad. this does not make Abelard incoherent in saying that actually the intention is partially good (in that it is to feed the hungry) and partially bad (in that it does this vaingloriously).

McInerny thinks Abelard is at his most absurd in saying that the same action could be from the point of view of diverse intentions, either good or bad. (ethica thomistica, 83) Abelard does not, however, say that the same action could be either good or bad, from diverse points of view. Abelard does not speak of points of view, and does not have a subjectivist understanding of ethics. rather, Abelard says that the locus of judgment is the intentions themselves. they do not offer points of view from which to judge acts, but rather it is the intentions themselves which are sinful or not. even correcting McInerny slightly is no help; it is not necessarily true that different intentions for the same act could be either good or bad. if the act is a bad one (more properly, if God has forbidden consent to such actions) then a mistaken intention to please God might well remove the guilt from the consent, but it cannot make the consent good.

McInerny is not done. Abelard does not stop here. given the moral neutrality of the things we do, doing them can add nothing to the moral good or evil of our intention. that is, if you have the intention, it does not matter whether you fulfill it or not by performing an external action. (ethica thomistica, 83) yet, Abelard does not in fact say that performance of the deed does not matter. in his example of the two men who both intend to build houses for the needy, one of whom has his money stolen and cannot complete the project, Abelard never denies that of course it matters a great deal to the poor concerned who now have half as many houses as they might have had. his concern is not with what matters, full stop, but with what matters in the moral evaluation of the agent.

with his language, McInerny brings up the spectre of the armchair think-gooder who sits about all day, intending to do many good things, but never actually performing any good works. surely, he wants us to conclude, this is not as good as actually getting out there and doing something! Abelard's actual notion of consent does not fit McInerny's caricature. speaking of sin (though the story is the same here for praiseworthy consents): before God the man who to the extent of his power endeavors to achieve [what is unlawful] is as guilty as the man who as far as he is able does achieve it. (ethics, 15) there is no room in Abelard's theory for a person who forms an intention to do something good, has the means to bring it about, and simultaneously abstains from doing the good—this would be an incoherency. as noted above, the kind of consent that is morally relevant is that when we draw back in no way and are ready to do it if given the chance. (ethics, 15)

McInerny's criticisms of Abelard

after his brief description of Abelard's theory, McInerny offers two more objections. he refers to an example from Thomas Aquinas (no citation is given) making the distinction between type and token actions. Consider

the act of picking up a stick. as a type or kind of act, there seems to be no way of calling such a deed morally good or bad. but a token of the type, a singular instance of it, will always be good or bad, either because of the circumstances (e.g., the bishop is standing on one end of the stick when i lift it and topple him into the pews) or because the end for the sake of which it is done (e.g., i pick up the stick in order to defend fifi larue against an assailant, or i pick it up in order to assail fifi larue with it). (ethica thomistica, 84)
now Abelard does make an argument that seems connected to this token/type distinction; recall the question whether the pleasure received from a sin augments its sinfulness (and thus, the deed itself could increase the sin of the consent). Abelard says that the pleasure is in some cases (some tokens, that is) not sinful, and therefore the pleasure cannot be (as a type) sinful—and therefore, that no token of it could be sinful. the token/type argument McInerny identifies could be used to show that this argument of Abelard's is fallacious and that he hardly proves that the pleasure is not sinful in a different token instance.

it seems that this is right, in so far as it goes. it might well be that some tokens of pleasure are sinful, even though others are not. in this case, one would need to identify what factors distinguish these tokens. of course, in Abelard's example of licit vs. illicit sex, one could appeal to the circumstances of the act as making the pleasure either sinful or not. the result would be that a consent to illicit sex, successfully carried out, would be more sinful than the mere consent itself, because the token pleasure in illicit sex is independently sinful, in addition to the consent itself. Abelard shows that the type sexual pleasure is not sinful, by giving examples, but this is not enough to prove his case that every token must be morally neutral.

this means that Abelard's dismissal of this objection was a bit too hasty. however, Abelard is operating with a background statement of what a sin is: sin is contempt of the Creator and to sin is to hold the Creator in contempt. (ethics, 7) to substantiate the notion of sinful pleasures, some explanation must be given for how the pleasure itself manifests contempt, and it seems here that Abelard is on firmer ground. indeed, when he addresses the notion that the actual completion of a bad deed, after a sinful consent, somehow pollutes the soul, thus augmenting the sin, he makes just this response, as noted above: nothing pollutes the soul except what is of the soul. (ethics, 23)

i have identified one way in which the token/type distinction, raised by McInerny, might serve to undercut one of Abelard's arguments. however, McInerny does not use it for this purpose, but rather to introduce what he thinks is the most devastating case to be made against Abelard:

[Abelard says that] in order for the deed i do to have moral goodness, it must be performed with a good intention. my intention to defend fifi larue, say, is good because i intend something good. this can only mean that defending the innocent must be a good kind of thing to do in order for my intention to do it to be thereby good. on the other hand, assailing the innocent, beating fifi severely about the head and shoulders, must be a bad thing to do and thus render my intention to do it bad. something is not good because i intend it; rather my intention is good because what i intend is good. Abelard himself, oddly enough, speaks of things that ought not be done, but he does not seem to realize that this destroys the strange dualism he wishes to maintain between inner states and external actions. (ethica thomistica, 84)
Abelard does, indeed, speak of what ought not be done; when he is at his most careful, he speaks of consent to what is not fitting (consenti[re] ei quod non convenit). McInerny seems to think that Abelard is caught in a sort of circularity: this consent is good because the deed is good, and the deed is good because the consent to it is good. rather, it is McInerny that has gotten quite tangled up, in a net of his own making.

first, Abelard does not say that my intention is good because i intend something good. rather, my intention is good because it is directed at what is fitting. what makes it fitting? that God has commanded it, is at least part of the answer. and why is a sinful consent sinful? because it expresses contempt for the Creator. and it is this contempt that is, always, the essential element of sin. so Abelard does not identify bad intention with intention of just any bad thing, but rather, a bad intention is specifically one which expresses contempt for the Creator. it is for this reason that consents which are (in fact) bad—or divinely prohibited—are not sinful if the agent is unaware that God has in fact prohibited them. one might say that the only true sin, per se, is contempt for God. (Abelard never gives a complete description of what is fitting, id quod convenit and what is not: rather, he assumes that we already have agreement on this topic. he might hold to an extreme divine command theory; or he might in fact list as fitting just the same things Thomas Aquinas lists as good, for just the same reasons. the point is that the standard (whatever it might be) is an objective one, and that it is not circular, where McInerny takes it to be both hopelessly subjective and circular.)

Abelard notes that it appears that the decalogue and other texts of scripture record that God in fact commands deeds, not consents. he tells us that in fact all these commands are to be read as referring actually to consent to actions, rather than to the actions themselves, otherwise nothing relating to merit would be put under a commandment. (ethics, 25–27) McInerny's charge of subjectivism would have it that Abelard says the commands are irrelevant, when in fact, Abelard says that the commands are to be referred to the corresponding consents, but are certainly still objectively valid.

second, Abelard is explicit that while a bad intention is both necessary and sufficient for the agent to sin, a good intention is necessary, but not sufficient for the agent to be acting rightly—it is necessary that the agent have a good intention and that the agent's intention actually be good—that is, that the agent is not incorrect in believing his action to be commanded by God. McInerny is quite wrong when he attributes to Abelard the view that my intention is good because i intend something good, if this is supposed to mean because i intend well, for a right intention could still be an intention for what is not fitting, if the agent happens to be mistaken. McInerny's phrasing here is ambiguous, in a way which gets to the crux of the matter.

Abelard does not insist that only intentions can be said to be good. rather, he is concerned (as noted above) with the moral evaluation of the agent. it might well be (though this is not Abelard's position) that certain deeds are bad in themselves, and that any consent to perform them is therefore sinful. if we are evaluating the agent, it is the intention that is sinful (perhaps because it is an intention to do a bad thing), but this does not imply that the actual accomplishment of the bad thing somehow augments the sin.

McInerny's final shot concerns Abelard's strange dualism...between inner states and external actions. (ethica thomistica, 84) i cannot say whether Abelard's position here is strange or not. what seems clear to me is that whether it is strange or not, it is hardly unusual, and it has straightforward philosophical antecedents (as noted above, it is reminiscent of the doctrine of Epictetus on what is in one's power), and it is not clear that McInerny has offered any very serious criticism of the actual views of Abelard—other than to exhibit his own clear preference for the thomistic system.

inner states and external actions

although McInerny makes little effort to analyze Abelard's dichotomy between inner states and external actions, it is worth considering whether the distinctions Abelard wishes to maintain can support the weight he places on them.

what is in the individual's control

Abelard argues that external results, including bodily motions, are always outside our control on the grounds that we are sometimes frustrated in our attempts. is this right? it seems contrary to ordinary usage; we are accustomed to describe successful attempts as our own actions, and then to say that the results were outside our control only when we are unsuccessful.

for example, suppose i am driving my car down the road in heavy winds and rain, and despite the difficulties, keep my car on the road, in the lane, and arrive safely at home. i am inclined to say that i was in control of what happened, that i caused it; i attribute the safe arrival to my agency. by contrast, if i fail—if despite my best efforts, the wind and rain force me out of my lane, off the road, so that i crash into a nearby hillock—i say that i lost control of the car. nor is the situation changed if i substitute my body for the car: if my limb spasms and strikes another, i say that i lost control, but if i choose to deliberately strike another, and my body cooperates, then i say that i was in control.

this viewpoint takes being in control as a sort of success verb. to say that i am in control of something means that, in that particular case, i did in fact control it—cause it, say. only when i fail do i say that i was not in control. if this view is right, then Abelard would be wrong in saying that external actions are never in our control. Abelard would like us to conclude that because my own body is sometimes out of my control, it is therefore always out of my control, and this does not seem right.

Abelard's argument rests upon a token/type confusion similar to the one outlined previously. he notes that some token attempts are not in our control, and concludes that the type as such must therefore be not in our control—and thus that no token attempt is in our control. it seems that this is wrong; for it to be fallacious, there must be some way to identify what distinguishes the in control tokens from the not in control tokens. this factor seems to be whether the external result matched the internal consent (and, as well, if the internal consent was causally connected to the external result in the right way). thus, actions, considered as a type, might not be in our control as such, but some actions (those which succeed) would be in our control, while those in which we fail, would not be. this is a satisfactory way to distinguish the different tokens, and so it seems that Abelard's argument fails to establish that all our deeds are out of our control.

we are confronted here with two possible understandings of what it is to be in control of an action: Abelard's, in which none of our deeds are in our control, and the alternative, in which being in control is a success verb, and our successful attempts are in our control, while our frustrated attempts are not. however, regardless of which understanding is correct, Abelard's claim that only consent to deeds is sinful, rather than the deeds themselves, can still be justified. it is clear that Abelard's understanding of in control would establish that deeds are never in our control, but because his argument for why we are never in control is questionable, i will concern myself only with whether Abelard's case can be made even if we take being in control to be a success verb.

imagine two situations in which the internal states of the two agents are identical, but external factors thwart the attempt of the first agent, and not the second. if being in control is a success verb, then the second agent really was in control of the external result, but not the first. what accounts for the difference in the two outcomes? by hypothesis, it must be some purely external factor. (if it is some partially internal factor, then the two agents cannot be said to have identical internal states.) whatever this factor is, therefore, is not of the soul, and it cannot be a way in which the agent manifests contempt for the Creator—which is dispositive of the issue for Abelard. this external factor, indeed, is not within the control of either agent, according to either way of speaking about in control. that is, whether one takes all tokens to be out of our control or only some, the results are the same for moral responsibility. (for example, in the case considered above, whether my arm spasms or not is outside my control, by either understanding of control—even when my arm does not spasm, this factor is not in my control.)

the moral status of the two agents in this scenario is thus identical. whether we wish to describe the outcome as being in one's control or not, Abelard is concerned with moral imputability, not terminology, and if the only difference between two agents (and their actions) stems from factors not in their control, then it follows that the agents are in the same moral position.

Abelard does not offer any explicit analysis of what constitutes a human action. he thinks it sufficient to identify the factors relevant to attributing moral responsibility. for that limited purpose at least, he is entitled to the claim that because some external results are out of our control, and because whatever it is that makes them sometimes out of our control is always out of our control, it follows that the external result plays no role in determining moral responsibility.

mixed moral predicates

we can get some further clarity on the relation between internal and external by considering some kinds of sins which appear to combine both an internal and an external component, and in which opprobrium attaches to the combination as such.

for example, murder is the combination of a fatal attack and the intention to cause harm. in the common law, murder is distinguished from mere manslaughter by the presence of malice aforethought, that is, by an antecedent intention to do harm. so the act of murder itself already includes an intention within its meaning. this would seem to muddy Abelard's waters considerably.

David Gallagher gives another apt example:

when we describe an exterior act, we can usually do so in two ways. if i see a man handing money to another, i can say simply that one is handing the other some money. but, i can also say that the man is paying back his debt, or giving alms, or giving a bribe. the difference lies in whether or not my description makes reference to the act of the will, the choice, by which the man's act is done. (will and deed, 681)
according to Gallagher, Aquinas says that the deed can be described either in its moral species (giving alms, giving a bribe, paying a debt) or in its natural species (handing over some money). the moral species of an act is thus a composite, in which there is both the deed and its intention, and that entire complex is, for Aquinas, the human act proper—and thus, the correct object of moral censure or praise.

Abelard has a ready response: this merely proves that the internal component (that is, the intention) is dispositive in moral evaluation—that the natural species of the act is morally neutral. Gallagher insists that Thomas in turn has a further reply: that some acts are, in their moral species, morally good or bad before we choose them, for the reason that they tend toward human fulfillment or are destructive of human fulfillment. (will and deed, 683.) (they can also, of course, be neutral.)

with considerably more care, Gallagher now arrives at a conclusion similar to that of McInerny:

a man does not choose simply to hand over money: he chooses to give alms and chooses it as morally good, or he chooses to give a bribe and chooses it as morally bad. because the will is directed to the exterior act as good or as evil, the will's own act (choice) becomes thereby good or evil....if the will aims at a bad exterior act, that act of the will becomes thereby a bad act; if it aims at a good act it becomes, to that extent, good. the goodness or badness of the will's choice is itself derivative from that of the exterior act, not of course the exterior act as actually performed, but the exterior act as it is grasped by reason. (will and deed, 683. emphasis in original.)
Abelard can accept this chain of reasoning, with one modification. what, for Aquinas, makes the deed good or bad is its relation to human fulfillment; for Abelard, what makes the deed good or bad is whether it is fitting. (of course, Abelard would also disagree with Thomas's use of will.) but what makes the act sinful is precisely its orientation towards God—that it expresses contempt for God. the connection between what God commands and what is fitting is guaranteed because God, being supremely good and just, commands precisely what is fitting and prohibits precisely what is not fitting.

so in the passage just quoted from Gallagher, we see that the relation between the will's choice, and the reality of what is chosen, is correctly expressed even for Abelard, with one change: in place of the exterior act, Abelard will replace contempt for the Creator. that is (presuming full knowledge), the intention to hand over money as a bribe is sinful, because God has in fact commanded that we not hand over money as bribes. what makes the will's choice morally bad is the object of that choice, but the proper object of choice to consider is not handing over money as a bribe but rather expressing contempt for the Creator by intending to hand over the money as a bribe. if the intentional willing of contempt were absent, then the action would not be sinful.

so then, how does Abelard view these actions? precisely as composites, in which one part (the external performance of the intention) is morally irrelevant in evaluations of the agent, and the other part (the agent's intention and consent to the external action) is morally significant. to the argument from Aquinas that only such a composite can count as a human action at all, in which there is both an internal determination and an external deed as the object of the determination, Abelard replies that, for purposes of evaluating sinfulness and praiseworthiness, the proper sort of composite to consider is the internal intention, coupled with the contempt for the creator that it expresses. it is only that particular object—contempt for the Creator—that is inherently sinful, and it so happens that contempt for the Creator is a purely internal property of intentions.

the concern apparently shared by McInerny and Gallagher is that Abelard lacks any objective criterion for moral judgment. indeed, Abelard's criterion is internal, and might therefore confusedly be said to be subjective. but the criterion is actually an objective one, albeit one about strictly internal mental states. so yes, then, some acts are morally bad or good in their moral species before we choose them, but only these two: expressing contempt for the Creator, and expressing regard for the Creator, respectively.

crime and punishment

having elucidated the basic thrust of Abelard's identification of sin with consent, and with neither vice, nor bad will, nor bad deeds, and having addressed the charge of subjectivism, i turn to one of the most potent objections against Abelard, which he considers in detail. it seems that both the legal and penitential systems do not punish intentions, but instead seem to punish actions, or punish successful attempts more severely than unsuccessful ones. one of the purposes of moral judgment, it would seem, is to guide the assignment of punishments and rewards. what are we to make of this?

we might expect Abelard to meet this objection by arguing for a serious revision in legal and penitential structures, by arguing that the focus on the punishment of deeds is misplaced (given that sin is found in consent, not in external action). instead, somewhat surprisingly, Abelard seems to take the opposite approach.

legal punishments

the criminal law punishes successful crimes much more severly than mere attempts. indeed, Thomas Nagel takes it as intuitively obvious that a successful murderer deserves and receives more opprobrium than one who merely attempts murder and fails to succeed through mere happenstance. (moral luck, 61 and 65) Abelard does not suggest that the criminal law is deficient here, so how is it to be reconciled with his views on moral responsibility?

we are confronted with the fact that some people will be morally innocent, and yet the law will judge them criminal and punish them accordingly. Abelard considers this no argument either against his theory of moral responsibility or against the legal system. to explain why, Abelard considers the case of an innocent person brought before a judge, charged with a crime. the judge possesses knowledge that the accused is innocent, but this evidence happens to be legally inadmissible. the accusers bring forth false witnesses, but no rebuttal is available at trial, and, in terms of the legally available evidence, the case favors the prosecutors. Abelard holds that the judge, in such a circumstance, is dutybound to find the accused guilty. thus he ought to punish him who ought not to be punished. (ethics, 41) from this Abelard concludes that it does sometimes happen that an innocent is reasonably punished. (of course, the wicked accusers are acting unjustly, but the point here is that the judge is not, even though he knows he is punishing an innocent man.)

independent of the issue about the relation of intention and deed, sometimes a punishment is reasonably inflicted on a person in whom no fault [fault, culpa, here, of course, means a sinful consent for Abelard, the only thing that is a fault.] went before. so what is surprising if, where a fault has proceeded, the subsequent action increases the punishment with men in this life...? (ethics, 41) thus it is quite unremarkable that the deed of murder should increase the penalty assigned to attempted murder.

Abelard considers this, then, as a difference between the punishment of one who merely attempts a crime, and of one who attempts the crime and completes the criminal deed—both of whom are guilty. he does not address the more vexing question of the person who is innocent outright of moral censure (perhaps due to ignorance), but who has committed a criminal deed. (Abelard does discuss this issue in the context of ecclesiastical censures, as i will note below.) this person also is judged guilty, and punished, despite having committed no fault at all. presumably, however, this is also to be likened to the judge who must convict a person he knows to be innocent. we might well remain quite uncomfortable with this result, of course: the judge in Abelard's example falls into the gaps inevitable in any case of imperfect procedural justice, but a criminal law which simply punishes the wrong thing entirely (deeds, rather than intentions) is not a case of mere imperfect justice. (assuming, that is, that justice consists in punishing people only for their actual faults. in fact, Abelard does not believe this, as we see below.)

as noted above, Abelard does not criticize the criminal justice system, but it would be perhaps wrong to take him to be expressing approval for it. his argument sounds rather like horrible injustices sometimes happen, so why should we be surprised at occasional minor ones?

to see through the perplexity, we must examine Abelard's substantive account of the purpose of social punishments themselves. they are, he says, to prevent public...injuries; we punish not so much faults as deeds, and we strive to avenge in someone less what harms his soul than what can harm others. (ethics, 43) our social punishments serve an external and social function. they quite properly, therefore, focus on actions and not on intentions, because it is the actions that harm the social order, not the intentions.

Abelard explains that we, who are not capable of discussing and assessing this [moral guilt based on intentions] direct our judgement particularly to deeds. (ethics, 43) he seems to be saying that the criminal law should be based on strict liability principles, always or nearly always. far from a focus on intentions alone, he sees the purpose of law almost entirely in terms of the punishment of deeds, and so be it if that happens to result in the punishment of people who are morally innocent.

the criminal law is simply not about the punishment of sin, or moral guilt, but rather, has a principally utilitarian purpose. we punish people, says Abelard, not because they are morally guilty, but because their deeds have bad social effects; this punishment is our mechanism for minimizing (and perhaps, even compensating) those bad effects. (for deterrence to work, it might seem that we must be in control of our deeds. Abelard certainly does not deny that there is a loose causal connection between our intentions and our actions, and this is all that is really necessary for deterrence to have some effect. even animals modify their behavior on such a basis.)

church censures

in contrast with secular law, however, one might expect the church's penitential system to respond to actual moral guilt. as Abelard notes above, we strive to avenge in someone less what harms his soul than what can harm others. (ethics, 43) if he is right about the purposes of the secular criminal law, then it is well and good for the secular criminal law to look to what injures others in this way.

by contrast, it would seem that the purpose of the church's penitential system is precisely to punish what can injure someone's soul. (Abelard's discussions of the cases of church censure and of civil punishment are interwoven in the text; i have separated them in my discussion because they seem to be actually separate considerations.) while the civil law could reasonably focus on external deeds, we should expect the penitential system to focus on sins themselves—which, for Abelard, are found in intentions, not in deeds. the church's penitential system, however, takes note of deeds just as does the criminal law, and again surprisingly, Abelard is not out to reform this practice. instead he explains how it can be consistent with his account of sin. (there are also those who are considerably troubled, when they hear us say that a work of sin is not properly called sin or that it does not add anything to increase a sin, as to why a heavier satisfaction is imposed on penitents for doing a deed than for being guilty of a fault; ethics, 39.)

Abelard's first answer is similar to the case of the judge forced to convict a person he knows to be innocent: Why...not...wonder about the fact that sometimes a large penalty of satisfaction is instituted where no fault has occurred? (ethics, 39) he gives the example of a mother who takes her baby into her own bed to keep him warm, and then in her weakness overcome by the force of nature, she unavoidably smothers the one she clasps with the utmost love. (ethics, 39) he tells us that when the bishop assigns a penance, a heavy punishment is imposed upon her, not for the fault which she committed but so that subsequently she or other women should be rendered more cautious in providing for such things. (ethics, 39) while our contemporary legal system would require a finding that the mother was negligent, Abelard does not indicate any such thing. he does seem to imply that she is careless, but gives this no weight—rather, she is to be punished in order to provide an inducement to her and to other women that they behave carefully with their children. again, he seems to argue for a rule of strict liability in the assignment of such punishments.

the case of the judge forced to convict a person he knows to be innocent is precisely analogous to the case of the careless mother. whether it is the church's imposition of penances or the civil authorities punishing crime: the purpose of punishments is the familiar consequentialist one of deterring future crime and correcting the effects of past crimes. in both cases, we are told that men do not judge the hidden but the apparent, nor do they consider the guilt of a fault so much as the performance of a deed. (ethics, 41) Abelard seems entirely comfortable with this state of affairs. indeed, he seems to think that it would perhaps be wrong for people to attempt to look to the hidden guilt of a fault, with the curious result that he seems to favor a system of strict liability both for civil crimes and for ecclesiastiacal censures.

God, however, sees the hidden. indeed God alone, who considers not so much what is done in mind as in what mind it may be done, truly considers the guilt in our intention and examines the fault in a true trial....for he particularly sees where no man sees, because in punishing sin he considers not the deed but the mind, just as conversely we consider not the mind which we do not see but the deed which we know. (ethics, 41) nonetheless, we shall see that God does not attend strictly to fault in his judgments either.

God's punishments

Abelard seems to have an entirely uncritical attitude with respect to legal norms. he never argues that the law might be unjust in punishing deeds rather than moral faults, and he simply speaks of the compulsion of the law—which surely binds the judge, but how does it bind the legislator? it must be remembered that this was a time when the law was viewed in a much more static way, and it might well be completely inconceivable to Abelard that the law might be changed. (Abelard fails to take up Augustine's statement that we must try if we can to understand whether the law...does not wrongly punish,, de libero arbitrio, i.iv.10.) still, he is concerned to offer two justifications for the law's focus on deeds rather than fault: first, the administrators of the law are humans, who can see deeds but not fault. second, the purpose of the law is not the punishment of faults but rather the minimization of social harms which accrue from misbehavior. as a result, it is well and good to focus on deeds, and punishments are themselves warranted because of their corrective, retributive, deterrent, and exemplary effects.

as Abelard expressly notes, God is not affected by the first of these two considerations: he is said to be both the prover of the heart and the reins and to see in the dark. (ethics, 41) people can not directly see faults in each other, and can only imperfectly deduce them from observing actions, but this obstacle does not restrict God. for this reason, abelard tells us that God examines the fault in a true trial. (ethics, 41) however, the hiddenness of faults and the visibility of deeds affects the matter in two ways. one is, as noted above, that a human judge (whether civil or ecclesiastical) can see the deeds well enough, but the faults are hidden. the second way that the hiddenness of fault is important is in the role of one person's behavior as an example to others. we punish not so much faults as deeds, and we strive to avenge in someone less what harms his soul than what can harm others, in order to prevent public rather than individual injuries. (ethics, 43) what sort of harm to others do we seek to prevent? on the one hand, deeds actually harm others in a way that faults do not. in addition, deeds serve as examples to others, while faults, being hidden, do not. if [someone] sins in himself alone, since his fault is hidden it made him alone guilty and does not intrinsically by example lead others to guilt. (ethics, 43) (note that this also serves to bolster Abelard's apparent preference for legal systems of strict liability.)

so there are really three reasons that civil and ecclesiastical law punishes deeds rather than faults. first, the judges of those laws can only infer faults, and only dimly at best, but they can have clear vision of deeds. second, deeds can serve as bad examples to others, being visible, but faults cannot. third, punishing deeds better serves the retributive, exemplary, and deterrent purposes of punishment (that is, because punishing deeds better fits the consequentialist purposes of punishment).

while God is not subject to the first of these three reasons (the lack of the ability of human judges to see faults), the latter two remain fully in force. so, when we turn to God's actions, Abelard finds that in fact God also attends frequently to deeds rather than to faults. he does, however, offer some additional explanations of God's activity, in an apparent attempt to mitigate the shock we might feel that, in fact, God does not actually seem to examine the fault in a true trial.

Abelard discusses the case of the prophet who, sent against samaria, by eating did what the Lord had forbidden. but since in this he ventured nothing through contempt of God but was deceived by the other prophet, his innocence incurred death not so much through the guilt of a fault as through the perpetration of a he acted without fault in a determination to avoid fault. (ethics, 61; the episode is described in 1 kings 13:11–32.) he was nonetheless punished by God for this transgression. and some infants indeed undergo bodily punishments which they have not deserved. (ethics, 63.)

in the case of this prophet, however, sudden death did not harm him whom the Lord freed from the toils of the present life, and indeed, it helped many as a precaution. (ethics, 61; Abelard seems to be a bit inconsistent here, describing this as a punishment, and also apparently saying that it doesn't really harm the prophet at all.} for God often punishes people here physically although no fault of theirs requires this, but he does not do this without cause, as, for example, when he sends afflictions even upon the just as a trial or a test for them, or lets some be afflicted in order later to be freed and to glorify him for the benefit which he has granted. (ethics, 59) so we find that God does indeed visit pains on people independent of their fault, for the usual reasons related to example, deterrence, and so forth—and also to bring about other good ends, which are available only to God, such as to release them from this life, or to produce glory for God when the affliction is later lifted. God acts with reasons, and Abelard believes, justly, even though not necessarily in response to faults. God's justice is not, however, the same as human justice, for God is not giving to each what is owed them, or due, them, as will be seen below.

eschatology and soteriology

Abelard has thus said that sin depends on fault, and that fault resides only in consent. there is nothing sinful in deeds of any sort; no deed could worsen the guilt of a fault, nor could the failure to complete a deed mitigate that guilt. yet, nothing seems to turn on the question of fault: punishments, whether human or divine, are meted out quite rightly on the basis of deeds. if there is a difficulty in Abelard's system, it is here: that after fault has been localized in consent, it ends up having no role to play!

punishment for sin after death

however, one possible role for moral fault does remain. perhaps God assigns earthly punishments, in response to deeds, for purposes such as to give an example, and indeed, perhaps God isn't remiss in killing a faultless prophet since he was really being freed from the toils of the present life. (ethics, 61) there is still the possibility that determinations about salvation and happiness after death are based upon true judgments of fault. after all, if God does examine the fault in a true trial, surely that examination is not to no purpose.

however, not only do some infants undergo bodily punishments which they have not deserved, some also die without the grace of Baptism and are condemned to bodily as well as to eternal death. And just as what [some] did through not said to be properly sin...neither is unbelief, even though this necessarily blocks the entry to eternal life for adults now using reason. (ethics, 63) so it would seem that infants and adults are sometimes condemned eternally for something which is no sin.

Abelard does allow that in this case some people might wish to call sin something which is not sin. indeed, he has a lengthy discussion of the various usages of the word peccatum. the normal sense of peccatum outside Abelard indicates not merely moral fault (culpa) but also error in general, missing the mark, and failure to hold up to some standard, whether for moral reasons or not. Abelard is engaged, therefore, in a narrowing of the word's usage, so that sin and fault become near synonyms, and then he sanctions the broader use of sin provided that we keep in mind that these broader usages are not sin properly speaking.

among these broader usages are two of import here. first, when we say we sin ignorantly, that is, do something which is unfitting, we use sin not in the sense of contempt but of if in this way we call sin whatever we do wrongly [viciose], or whatever we have that conflicts with our salvation, we shall certainly say that both unbelief and ignorance of what it is necessary to believe for salvation are sins, even though no contempt of God appears there. (ethics, 65) (he characteristically adds, however, i think that sin is properly said to be that which can nowhere happen without fault [sine culpa].) this accounts for the case of adults who are damned. they have an ignorance that conflicts with [their] salvation but this is not itself a sin, properly speaking. yet, because it does result in damnation, we allow the word to be stretched to that meaning. he says that if anyone actually ascribes this [damnation] to a sin of theirs which had no fault, he may perhaps do so, since it may seem absurd to him that such should be damned without sin. (ethics, 67)

note here that Abelard allows the usage of sin to include cases that lack culpability, but he does not seem to agree that such a use of the term is really necessary. some might demand that damnation results only from sin, and therefore wish to include a category of sin...which [has] no fault, but Abelard for his own sake is content to identify sin and culpability, and simply say that some people are damned for something which is no sin at all. in the case of adults, this something would be ignorance of what it is necessary to believe for salvation.

for infants, however, this is not sufficient: since all infants are equally ignorant, ignorance cannot be a determining factor in explaining why some but not all infants are damned. it is here that we encounter the doctrine of original sin: the penalty of sin is also said to be a sin or a curse....when we say that little ones have original sin or that all of us, as the Apostle says, have sinned in Adam, the effect is as if to say that by his sin we have incurred the beginning of our punishment or the sentence of damnation. (ethics, 57)

it seems then that God does not look to fault in determining who is to be punished after death any more than he does in the assignment of temporal penalties. in the assignment of temporal penalties, we found that God's punishments are given for the same sorts of reasons as human ones: for example, restraint of the bad effects of deeds, deterrence, and the like; a consequentialist desire to bring the best results; and the further special reason that from a divine perspective what looks like a punishment to us might not really be one (as in the case of the prophet for whom death was really a release). we find now that in the assignment of eternal penalties God also does not look to fault, though Abelard does not now give the same sorts of explanations for what God does in fact do. we must look elsewhere for that explanation.

Baptism and good deeds at first glance, it might appear that Abelard thinks that salvation and damnation are based upon whether our deeds are good or not. so much of the focus of the ethics is upon the distinction between deeds and intentions, and defense of the notion that sinfulness lies only in intentions and consents. when we find that Abelard believes that salvation crucially depends on certain deeds, such as Baptism, we are inclined to think that it must be because these are good deeds, morally praiseworthy deeds. likewise, when some are damned as a result of ignorance of what it is necessary to believe for salvation, we are inclined to suppose this must be because such ignorance is morally bad. this would seem contradictory to his thesis that it is really only consent to vice which can be a sin or a fault.

as regards the lack of concord between fault and temporal punishments (whether human or divine), there were a great many different kinds of cases. in the case of salvation, however, there are really only two cases that arise for Abelard. first, are those who die unbaptized as infants, and second, those who through no fault of their own perish in unbelief and ignorance. Baptism is a deed, and thus cannot be culpable or meritorious, and ignorance and unbelief are at least many times not culpable. if we can account for both of these cases without undermining the rest of Abelard's theory, then we have perhaps better understood it. if we cannot, then it may indeed be that Abelard is stuck in a contradiction or an incoherency.

our inclination is perhaps to think that God must assign punishments or rewards with regard to some sort of assessment of moral goodness or badness. once we learn to our surprise that God often does not look to moral culpability, we conclude that what he does look at must have some kind of moral character nonetheless. this view would then account for the general christian conviction (which Abelard does not dispute) of the salvific effects of Baptism by saying that Baptism is a deed god has commanded, and once performed, god looks to this good deed and rewards it by assigning eternal life. leave aside the curious question of why God should think this deed is so good. we do seem to have caught Abelard in a contradiction. we are confronted with the following propositions:

1. God punishes people for their sins.

2. sin consists only in contemptuous consent.

3. failure to receive Baptism results in damnation.

propositions (1) and (3) would seem to imply that failure to receive Baptism is a sin, but we see that in many cases it does not result from a contemptuous consent, notwithstanding (2). is there not a contradiction here? Marilyn McCord Adams, in her introduction to Abelard's ethical works, argues that there is. (introduction, xxv–xxvi) what is at stake, i believe, is whether Baptism is itself to be regarded as a good deed, or instead, as something else which happens to result in salvation, but which is not in itself a meritorious act.

perhaps it might be said that Baptism is good, since it brings about a good result, but it would be erroneous to say that Baptism is in itself a meritorious deed, since for Abelard, no deed can ipso facto be meritorious. Abelard says that unbelief might be said by some to be sin, but only in the sense that it brings about a bad result. it would certainly therefore be contradictory for Abelard to be forced to admit Baptism as meritorious or unbelief as truly sinful. we should try and find a way to understand Abelard which does not embroil him in such a contradiction, if possible.

in the case of adults the problem is somewhat simpler than in the case of infants. One might argue (as christian tradition is usually concerned to) that every adult, in fact, has sinned. (Abelard is not so sure, given his restrictive notion of what really counts as a sin; see ethics, 69.) those who are apparently damned for unbelief are actually punished for their sins. Baptism is the medicine which cures the illness, but if there has been no Baptism, then it is to the illness which the death should be attributed, not to the lack of medicine. adults who die in unbelief are damned, according to Abelard. yet it is not as if their unbelief were some sin for which they are being punished—as Abelard notes, the unbelief is often not culpable in any way. rather, they are punished for the sins that they did, in fact, commit.

however, this response is not really available to Abelard. first, he is not prepared to say that adults in fact all do actually sin. (he equivocates slightly here; he says that of course everyone commits venial sins, but that if understanding sin properly we say that sin is only contempt of God, this life can truly be passed without it, although with very great difficulty. see ethics, 69.) second, this sort of response does nothing to address the admitted case of children who die without committing any actual fault, but sometimes still receive damnation. it does, however, address the claim that Baptism is honored by God as a meritorious deed, in respect of which one might receive eternal bliss. considered in terms of merit, Baptism is nothing. it is not said to be salvific as if it were a good deed, on a par with giving to the poor, such that those who undergo the rite are accordingly rewarded by God. Abelard expressly objects to what he understands to be the claim of judaism that one can receive eternal merits by deeds responsive to divine commands: i'm surprised that you're sure that spiritual good follows from the purification of sins...through any of the law's external works. (dialogue, 87. emphasis in translation.) the error Abelard thinks is present in judaism is that the works of the law are relied on as being, in themselves, meritorious.

indeed, it would be very difficult to understand why Baptism should be regarded as a good deed at all (especially considering such paradigmatic examples of good deeds as justice, aid for the poor, and compassion for widows)—and least of all, why such a deed should be taken to cancel sins on account of its own supposed intrinsic merit. the role of Baptism, rather, is as an appeal to the mercy of god, which trumps God's moral evaluations. so when Abelard says that God does examine the fault in a true trial he is correct, even though God's assignments of rewards and punishments is not simply on the basis of this trial. the trial is just—God evaluates moral fault truly and rightly—but that trial is not dispositive in determining questions of damnation or salvation.

in addressing the apparent contradiction between God's assigment of eternal rewards and punishments on the basis of certain deeds, and Abelard's insistence that sin and merit arise only from intentions and not deeds, we have seen that in fact, this assessment of the mechanism of God's assignments is not contradictory to Abelard's focus on intention. however, this is only at the cost of an attribution of salvation and damnation to considerations other than culpable sin or moral merit—specifically to whether one is baptized, and whether he believes in the christian gospel. consideration of God's determinations seemed to imply that Abelard is wrong about his location of sin purely in internal consent, and that in fact unbelief really is sinful, and Baptism really is meritorious. however, Abelard actually says the opposite: that God in fact bases determinations of salvation on something other than sin and merit.

in this, Abelard is actually honoring mainstream christian tradition, however unusual the statement may be to contemporary philosophical ears. his understanding of the role of God is, in this regard, very different from what Kant (for example) says it ought to be. in what follows, i seek to flesh out this picture.

mercy vs. desert

the highest good, for Kant, is perfect morality, and happiness in exact proportion to morality. (critique of practical reason, 110–111) this is the proper object of practical reason (though not its motive, which is morality alone (critique of practical reason, 109), and Kant believes there could be no action of practical reason without such an object. within the world as we see it, however, happiness is manifestly not in proportion to morality, and so Kant deduces both the existence of God (who will provide the necessary proportionality) and eternal life (in which we have enough time to achieve perfect morality, as a limiting process).

clearly, if this is the correct understanding of God's role, then either Abelard is caught in an inconsistency, or Abelard's God is indefensible by kantian standards. however, one looks in vain for a claim by Abelard that God does, in fact, act as Kant says he should. Abelard does indeed speak of moral desert—for example, in the dialogues (124) he says that the time for meriting is in this life only, for reward in that one. (this in response to the philosopher's more eudaimonistic claim that we reap the benefits of morality in this life.) yet, one cannot find the kantian claim in Abelard, because such a claim would omit a crucial aspect of the christian economy of salvation. Abelard shows himself in complete agreement with the details of how that economy works itself out—more precisely, in the details of how God does, in fact, not give to each happiness in proportion to morality.

Kant's role for God is as a strict paymaster, measuring accounts and delivering happiness accordingly. indeed, Kant seems to hold that when we have acted well, God owes us proportional happiness. (critique of practical reason, 130–131; he seems to have later backed away slightly from this position, however; see the discussion of the relation between religion and morals at the conclusion of the metaphysics of morals, at 486–491 in the academy edition.) this notion of God's role is in a stark contrast to the usual christian considerations, and places Kant well outside the historical christian mainstream. it would be a considerable error to take the role Kant assigns to God as typical of that assigned by christian philosophers in general.

Augustine certainly placed considerable emphasis on the freedom of God in giving grace, (note here that latin gratia refers to a broad complex of meaning, including esteem, regard, friendship, and gift. gratia is given in response to the recipient, but it cannot be said to be earned.) and it is of course within this tradition—not Kant's—that Abelard writes. Augustine criticizes the pelagians for eliminating grace and replacing it with debt. first, they say that grace is given in reponse to merits; Augustine asserts that it is given in response to faith. the pelagians counter that faith is itself given in response to some merit and not as a free gift; Augustine replies that the scriptures say directly that faith is a gift. what is not allowed, for Augustine, is to attribute faith to free will in such a way as to make it appear that grace is rendered to faith not as a gratuitous gift, but as a debt. (on the grace of Christ, and on original sin, i.31.34)

nor are post-kantian theologians in general agreement with Kant on this point. reacting against the pietism of Kant and the liberal christianity (liberal christianity, with a capital l, refers to a particular school of theology, much influenced by Kant and Hegel, and exemplified by Bultmann and Schleiermacher. this movement tended to reduce christianity to an ethical system with a heavy encrustation of symbolical elements, and was notable for its anti-supernaturalism and tendency to judge all of theology by the standards of what seems philosophically reasonable on independent grounds.} of Kant's intellectual heirs, Karl Barth writes:

[abraham, the type of a good man] deserves the reward of human gratitude and respect. this, however, is not a matter of grace, but of clear and obvious debt. in the normal course of events he deserves this reward from men, and he does in fact receive it. but this direct estimation of a man's historical and psychological worth has no bearing upon his righteousness before God. it is the proper estimate of his human righteousness, which is paid as of debt. if, however, God be involved in this purely human transaction, it is because he is not thought of as the Creator and Redeemer and Lord of men whose property is to exercise grace and to reckon righteousness, but as one bound to the notable works of men as a contractor is pledged to pay the required price as of debt, if the goods he has ordered be up to sample. such a God is, however, not God, but the deified spirit of man. (the epistle to the romans, 122. emphasis in original)
within the main current of Christian tradition, the most important role for God is not as a moral judge giving to each what he deserves, but rather as the gracious dispenser of mercy, in giving to people what, indeed, they do not deserve.

sin proper is, according to Abelard, the fault of the soul by which it earns [meretur] damnation or is made guilty [rea] before God. (ethics, 4–5) it does not follow, nor does Abelard say, that God in fact assigns damnation or salvation with respect to this merit. quite the contrary: just as some, such as little children, are saved without merits and by grace alone attain to eternal life, so it is not absurd that some should undergo bodily punishments which they have not deserved, as is evident with little children who die without the grace of Baptism and are condemned to bodily as well as to eternal death; and even many innocents are cast out. (ethics, 61–63)

so the complaint was that Abelard is inconsistent, by claiming that only intention could be culpable, but then noting that God in fact in some cases assigns damnation on the basis of deeds. this seemed to be inconsistent with the claim that he should examine the fault in a true trial. however, the alleged inconsistency depends on a kantian assumption about the role of God in assigning rewards and punishments and a misunderstanding of Baptism as being taken as morally worthy in its own right. given the christian commitment to an order of grace which supercedes and transcends the order of merit, this objection evaporates.

original sin

when we hear that God might choose to act mercifully despite actual fault, we might nod approvingly. but when we hear that God might damn some people despite the absence of actual fault, we are somewhat shocked. indeed, such a doctrine seems monstrous to many today. as a result, it might seem that the charitable interpretation of Abelard should not attribute this doctrine to him. in what follows, i show what this doctrine meant and that Abelard did indeed affirm it himself.

Abelard insists that when one is speaking most properly, sin is found only in consent to what is not fitting, with an intention to show contempt for the Creator. in this sense, there can be no such thing as original sin as that term is usually used. still, he is faced with a number of traditional christian usages of the word sin, and, as noted above, the word peccatum does have a broader scope than strict attention to moral fault or guilt would imply. Abelard is concerned to defend himself against the charge that he has bent the word beyond recognition, by explaining how these traditional usages could be defended.

one such extended usage was noted above. when an adult is damned as a consequence of non-culpable ignorance, if anyone actually ascribes this to a sin of theirs which had no fault, he may perhaps do so, since it may seem absurd to him that such should be damned without sin. (ethics, 67) another extended usage is in which the penalty of sin is also said to be a sin, for example, that sin is forgiven, that is, the penalty is pardoned. (ethics, 57) the metanymy of the penalty for sin being itself called sin is what is at work with original sin: when we say that little ones have original sin or that all of us, as the Apostle says, have sinned in Adam, the effect is as if to say that by his sin we have incurred the beginning of our punishment or the sentence of damnation. (ethics, 57)

when Abelard says that original sin is sin only in the sense that it stands for the penalty for sin, he does not mean something circular, as if original sin carries a penalty, and that penalty is itself the sin. original sin is said to be sin in that it is the penalty for some other sin, and Abelard identifies that other sin as the sin of Adam.

for Augustine, we are all one in Adam, and truly inherited from him his sin. (on the merits and forgiveness of sins, and on the Baptism of infants, i.9.9) because Augustine does not share Abelard's understanding of fault, he can easily defend the notion that children quite obviously do sin: the behavior of infants is greedy, whiny, selfish—indeed, infants are entirely self-centered and utterly unconcerned with the inconvenience their nearly constant demands impose on others. (confessions, i.6.7–10) yet, once one looks to intentions, knowledge, willing, or nearly any other internal mental state, as a necessary component of sin, it becomes much harder to defend this notion.

we might well understand the selfish traits of infants as symptoms of vice within them (thinking of Abelard's understanding of vice as that which prompts us to what is not fitting); because infants lack the ability to resist this vice, they give in to it so frequently. yet this lack is not culpable because of the mental infirmity of infancy, and so Abelard would not be willing to label such as sins. while Abelard does not tell us why we have vices, or where they come from, it is not too much of a stretch to suppose they are a consequence of the fall of Adam in some way.

so for Augustine, infants in fact sin, and have in fact inherited the guilt of Adam, and well as frequently augmenting that guilt in themselves. for Abelard, of course, such a notion cannot apply—we have indeed inherited the penalty for his guilt (which could itself be called sin), but not the guilt itself. the difference between Augustine and Abelard is then not about whether the penalty can be inherited, or even whether it can be said to be sin, but rather whether it is sin properly or only analogically, and whether there is guilt attached to it.

two separate questions present themselves. first, how could a penalty be inherited? second, the factual question, has such a penalty been inherited? to the second question, Augustine and Abelard both note that of course the penalty has been inherited, as can be seen by the fact that children do die. for example, Augustine asks why do infants die if they are not subject to the sin of that first man? (against Julian, i.6.29, p. 29) and Abelard identifies natural death as a punishment—a damnation: children who die without the grace of Baptism...are condemned to bodily as well as eternal death. (ethics, 63) natural death, according to Augustine, is itself one penalty for sin, and the fact that infants do die, is itself sufficient demonstration that they have inherited such a penalty.

the only remaining question is how this could be possible. the central idea for Augustine is that we are all, in a fairly literal and direct sense, in Adam; when he sinned, he sinned for us all. we are being justly blamed for his sin, which was itself the sin of us all. importantly, this idea connects neatly with Augustine's soteriology: once we are baptized into the death of Christ, we are now in Christ, and we participate in his righteousness just as earlier we had participated in the sin of Adam. all of this theology can in fact be derived from a fairly straightfoward reading of Paul's epistle to the romans, coupled with the independent need to explain the liturgical practices of the Baptism of infants. (merits and forgiveness of sins, bk i. especially note i.9.9)

Abelard has a much more individualized notion of sin and desert, and as a result, it is not clear that the augustinian account of the dynamics of original sin and salvation through Christ can be carried over directly into Abelard's thought. in his ethical writings we have no treatment of why Baptism should be taken to be efficacious, though we are assured that it is; nor are we offered any account of how original sin (that is, the penalty for Adam's sin) can be inherited, though we are assured that it in fact is. (Marilyn McCord Adams has suggested to me [in private conversation] that Abelard's romans-commentary might provide interesting light on some of these issues; Augustine's treatment of original sin indeed draws quite heavily on that epistle. the commentary is not available in english translation, nor is it widely remarked on, and I have not been able to consult it here.)

the role of ethics

We have seen that Abelard considers what sin is, and concludes that it lies neither in vice, nor will, nor deeds, but rather only in consent. moreover, it lies only in those consents which exhibit scorn for the Creator. he admits that there are analogical uses of the term sin, and in some cases is happy to support their use, while insisting that sin proper refers only to moral fault.

we have seen that in administering human punishments, attention is and ought to be paid to deeds, and not to fault; likewise in administering church penances. in both these cases, we punish for various good ends, but not because the punishment is the proper response for some fault. God as well, in dispensing temporal rewards and punishments, is not responding to fault, but rather is considering what good or ill consequences the reward or punishment might bring about.

and, in the assignment of eternal rewards and punishments, while God does judge fault truly, and look to the intentions of the heart, his actual assignments of punishment or bliss are based as much or more on non-moral deeds such as Baptism and some sort of inherited punishment for the sins of another (Adam).

so moral analysis, it would seem, in Abelard's view, is not there for the purposes of praise and blame at all. some philosophers have thought that the entire point of discussions of moral responsibility is as the principal guide to where praise and blame are properly assigned. however, as Christine Korsgaard puts it, there is something obviously unattractive about taking the assessment of others as the starting point in moral philosophy. (creating the kingdom of ends, 189) she notes that a compelling feature of kantian ethics, for some, is its focus on morality as arising from the internal considerations of the agent. as noted above, however, Kant does still insist on an unalterable link between good or bad action and the proportionate happiness that God must assign. the assessment of others may not be the starting point, for Kant, but it remains the ending point.

one possibility, which i believe is implicit in much of what Abelard writes, is that the purpose of understanding morality is to make us better people. this seems especially to be a motivation behind his discussion in the ethics of how he believes the penitential system ought to work, which because of limitations of space, i am unable to address here. it would seem to me that the purpose of moral understanding might not be praise and blame at all, but rather, to help each person decide how he ought to act.

indeed, while he did refer to his book elsewhere as the ethics, its proper title is neither that nor judge your neighbor. it is know yourselfscito te ipsum.


i am most grateful for the assistance and encouragement of Bonnie Kent in the preparation of this paper.


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things i wrote for my m.a.