Philosophers who belong to the Aristotelian tradition often believe that we always choose an act under the guise of good. We might be mistaken about what is good; however, once we see something is good then we can choose it. In other words, we do not choose anything unless we believe that there is something good about it. Of course, this claim does not mean that we are right about what we think is good or the greater good. But the point is that even if we are mistaken about what is good, still we choose something because we think that it is good. For instance, if someone smokes, he/she sees temporary satisfaction as good. However, Ockham believes that one may choose something because it is bad. From this claim, it follows that one may smoke cigarettes not for indulgence, but because, for instance, it makes the smoker choke. So the smoker might choose smoking for the sake of choking, but not for the sake of temporary indulgence. What is unprecedented in Ockham is his claim that it is possible for one to choose evil, knowingly and freely, for its own sake. I shall argue that Ockham’s contention about choosing evil for its own sake is problematic.
According to Ockham, an evil act is either based on ignorance or malicious intention. He rules out the possibility that a malicious act is always based on ignorance. So,
- Malicious sinners know either (A) the universal and (B) the particular dictates of right reason or only (A) the universal, [because moral universals are self-evident]
- If malicious sinners know both, then prudence is not sufficient for virtue.
- If malicious sinners know only the universal, then they do not differ from the ignorant sinner since ignorant sinners know the universal but not its application.
- [But malice does differ from ignorance.]
- Therefore, they know A and B, and prudence without virtue is possible.
For an act to be virtuous, it must be based on prudence, i.e., right reason, according to Ockham. However, evil is compatible with knowing universals as well as knowing particulars. For instance, it is possible that a malicious wrongdoer knows that “killing humans is immoral,” and “ John is a human,” and “therefore, killing John is immoral,” but still he kills John. In this case, the murderer is neither ignorant of the universal “killing humans is immoral,” nor ignorant of the particular that “John is a human.” If this is true, then the malicious act of murder is compatible with knowing the dictate of right reason. Therefore, Ockham believes that right reason is insufficient for a virtuous act.
I think committing a malicious act knowingly can be described in two different ways: The first is that someone does a malicious act for the subsequent goods that it produces (Let’s call this position P1). For instance, when someone robs a bank not for the sake of robbery, but for the sake of having money. Even though the robber knows that robbing a bank is malicious, he does it anyway. The second is that someone commits a malicious act just because it is malicious, regardless of its results. The two cases can be easily confused with each other; however, they are very different (Let’s call this position P2). I think P1 is reasonable and makes sense, and it is plausible to think that it is what Ockham tries to establish. However, I do not find P2, if it is Ockham’s account, convincing. In fact, besides some pathological cases or insanity, choosing a malicious act just because it is malicious is not compatible with the notion of a rational and goal-oriented human being. I do not think that Ockham disagrees with this notion of a human being as a rational creature that chooses purposefully. So I do not think he can consistently maintain that people do bad things only for the sake of causing harm regardless of its results. P1 is compatible with the notion of a rational human being, and P2 is not.
One might say that the case of people who intend to hurt other people just for the sake of hurting would confirm P2. However, even this case will not support P2. Because it is possible that those people might find hurting other people enjoyable, for instance, in the case of revenge. Therefore, they might have chosen to hurt other people for the sake of the good that they had found in hurting others. However, they do it because they are misguided about what they think is good, which is inflicting pain on others. Therefore, they are ignorant about the universal that hurting people must not be enjoyable; therefore, it is wrong. My reaction to Ockham’s claim that “it is possible to choose the evil because it is evil,” if it entails P2, is that it is an inconsistent position. Because choosing evil requires an explanation, it cannot be an ultimate end. It is always desired for something else. For instance, a robber robs a bank because he needs the money. Robbing a bank for the sake of robbery if it does not produce any good is irrational. Or a dictator might suppress his people’s rights and dignity for the sake of preserving security. Even a masochist causes himself harm not for the sake of suffering or harming himself, but because he finds suffering somehow enjoyable; therefore, he chooses suffering for a good, though misguided. I think that P2 cannot be consistent with the notion of a human being as a rational and goal-oriented creature. The notion of rationality in human beings entails that we choose things because we find some good in them. Rationality, or right reason, entails choosing something for its potential or actual good. Of course, this notion of rationality is compatible with the agent’s perception of the good or getting the good as wrong. However, it is incompatible with choosing evil just because it is evil, regardless of its potential good. Right reason entails to choose things for their own goodness or for the sake of other goods. Therefore, I did not find P2 convincing.