I think I’m a voluntarist. But many people think voluntarism is a very bad and dangerous and harmful idea, and I don’t think that my beliefs are very bad and dangerous and harmful. So this makes me question whether I’m a voluntarist or should be. It also makes me question whether I understand what voluntarism is. But in the end I think I do, and in the end I think folks who think it’s bad are sort of overreacting.
Voluntarism is a view about will, whether divine or human (or angelic!) will, which says something about how the will is related to the intellect when the will wills. Specifically, voluntarism holds that the intellect does not determine the will to will what it wills. This makes most sense to me when I think about it in terms of reasons for action. Voluntarism does not say that the will wills what it wills for no reason. Instead it says that–with perhaps some exceptions–no reason(s) determine what the will wills.
Here’s an example, courtesy of Al Ghazali. Imagine a starving man under a date palm. Before him hang two delectable dates. He will eat one; probably he’ll eat them both since he’s starving, but he’s going to eat one before the other. How will he decide? Suppose that both dates are equally tasty-looking. Neither is closer to the man than the other. In fact, with respect to any consideration relevant to the deliberation about which date to choose, there is nothing to distinguish one from the other. Voluntarism says that we get no Buridan’s Ass result here. The man will choose a date. And of course he’ll choose a date for some reasons (I’m starving, the date will satisfy my hunger, etc.). But as far his reasons go, he might just as well have chosen the other date. Inspect all his reasons and you won’t find any reason why just this date was chosen and not the other. But the man will choose a date.
It’s a correct application of the term to say that the man’s action is “arbitrary.” But when people complain that voluntarism makes willing arbitrary, usually what they mean is that voluntarism means that the will wills for no reason. And that’s just wrong. The man under the palm chooses for reasons, lots of good reasons. It’s just that his reasons don’t determine precisely one course of action.
Let me clear up a slight ambiguity that is difficult to avoid here. When I say that the intellect does not determine the will, I mean two things. First, I mean that, given some reasons, almost always there will be two or more acts of willing that can be described equally well as actions for those reasons. Second, I mean that, given some reasons, almost always there is never an act of willing that necessarily occurs upon the intellect’s apprehension of those reasons.
Let me also say something about the possible exceptions to the voluntarist claim that the intellect does not determine the will. I think that the intellect does determine the will to assent to some necessary truths. Suppose you’re doing a logical proof and you come to QED. Obviously your intellect is at work in working out the proof. But so is your will. You assent to the conclusion when you “see” that it deductively follows from premises. But, given that you understand the premises and the relationships between the premises, in other words, given a certain action of your intellect, your will necessarily assents. Here your intellect determines your will.
In a future post I plan to address a couple sticky issues arising from the application of voluntarism to divine action, and specifically how voluntarism about God’s will determines (ha!) a view about the foundations of moral imperatives like “Thou shalt not kill.” Is the voluntarist committed to the apparently insidious claim that God could have commanded instead “Thou shalt kill?” We shall see. Hint: Yes and No.