The voluntarist personality

By Edward Feser


A voluntarist conception of persons takes the will to be primary and the intellect to be secondary.  That is to say, for voluntarism, at the end of the day what we think reflects what we will.  An intellectualist conception of persons takes the intellect to be primary and the will to be secondary.  For intellectualism, at the end of the day, what we will reflects what we think.  The two views are, naturally, more complicated than that.  For example, no voluntarist would deny that what we think affects what we will, and no intellectualist would deny that what we will affects what we think.  But the basic idea is that for the voluntarist, the will is ultimately in the driver’s seat, whereas for the intellectualist, the intellect is ultimately in the driver’s seat.


The intellectualist is right.  That is the view of Aquinas, at any rate, and in an earlier post I argued that voluntarism in a strong version is incompatible with the principle of sufficient reason, and therefore false.  Catholic teaching also affirms intellectualism.  For example, Pope Leo XIII teaches in his encyclical Libertas that:

the will cannot proceed to act until it is enlightened by the knowledge possessed by the intellect.  In other words, the good wished by the will is necessarily good in so far as it is known by the intellect; and this the more, because in all voluntary acts choice is subsequent to a judgment upon the truth of the good presented, declaring to which good preference should be given.  No sensible man can doubt that judgment is an act of reason, not of the will.

Similarly, in Humani Generis, Pope Pius XII condemns “innovators” who depart from this doctrine, and who:

indiscriminately mingling cognition and act of will, [say] that the appetitive and affective faculties have a certain power of understanding, and that man, since he cannot by using his reason decide with certainty what is true and is to be accepted, turns to his will, by which he freely chooses among opposite opinions.

And in his famous Regensburg Address, Pope Benedict XVI criticized a voluntarism which:

might even lead to the image of a capricious God, who is not even bound to truth and goodness.  God’s transcendence and otherness are so exalted that our reason, our sense of the true and good, are no longer an authentic mirror of God...  As opposed to this, the faith of the Church has always insisted that between God and us, between his eternal Creator Spirit and our created reason there exists a real analogy...  God does not become more divine when we push him away from us in a sheer, impenetrable voluntarism.

As Benedict’s remarks indicate, that man is by nature a rational animal is what makes it true that we are made in God’s image.  Voluntarism is, accordingly, a dehumanizing doctrine.  In making of us fundamentally willful animals rather than rational ones, it simply gets human nature wrong.  And it makes us out to be essentially “capricious… not even bound to truth and goodness,” all our reasons at bottom just rationalizations of what the will has fixed itself upon.  It is an essentially Nietzschean conception of human nature, even if some of its adherents think of themselves as the reverse of Nietzschean.

Intellectualist psychology

“Intellectualism” in the sense in question is, of course, not claiming that all human beings are or ought to be intellectually inclined in the sense of having an interest in philosophy, science, art, or other intellectual pursuits.  It merely claims that even the least intelligent human being wills whatever he wills because his mind perceives it to be true or in some way good.  

Again, the intellectualist is also not denying that the will can affect the intellect.  If you really want to believe in some idea, you might reinforce your confidence in it by focusing your attention on evidence that seems to support it and not letting yourself dwell on evidence against it, and these are acts of the will.  You can also avoid dwelling on the fact that you are engaging in such intellectual dishonesty, to the point where you forget that you have done it.  The emotional appeal of an idea and/or the painfulness of the thought of its being false can facilitate the will’s resort to such self-deception, insofar as they can distract the intellect from seeing the truth.  

But it is still always the intellect that lies at the beginning and end of this process.  The will is only drawn to the idea in the first place because the intellect judges it (however wrongly or confusedly) to be plausible or good, and the end result of the self-deception is that the intellect’s confidence is increased.  That increased intellectual confidence is precisely why the will, too, becomes even more attached.  

The reason why an irrational person will cover his ears or shout over you or walk away when you have unwelcome evidence or arguments to present to him is precisely because once the intellect sees the truth, it’s “game over” for the will.  Though his will is attached to the idea, it will not remain so if his intellect is made to see the evidence against it, and so he tries to avoid seeing it.  If the will were really in charge, it could simply push ahead no matter how clearly the intellect saw the will’s object to be false or bad.  Rationalization is co-called precisely because the intellect needs to see reasons for something before the will can lock on to it – even if what that means is that we are sometimes coming up with reasons not to consider reasons.  One of those reasons might even be the intellect’s making the false judgement that “Voluntarism is true anyway!

As these remarks indicate, even the will of the voluntarist is following what his intellect (wrongly) tells him.  The voluntarist may believe that his intellect is subordinate to his will, but he is wrong.  Someone who is intellectually convinced of voluntarism may even otherwise think and act very much the way what you’d expect someone to think and act if intellectualism is true.  He may be a very rational person, careful always to try to present evidence and arguments for his views, and to consider counterarguments.  He may be in no way engaged in self-deception, but simply making an honest mistake.  By the same token, someone who is intellectually convinced of intellectualism may otherwise think and act very much the way you’d expect someone to think and act if voluntarism were true.  He may be intellectually dishonest or otherwise have poor reasoning skills.  A voluntarist can be a rational person, and an intellectualist can be an irrational person.  

Psychoanalyzing the voluntarist personality

But let’s consider persons who really do approximate what human beings would be like if voluntarism were true.  Some human beings are weak in intellect.  Some are very stubborn or willful.  Some are prone to excessive emotion.  And some (worst of all for them and for those who have to deal with them) are all three.  Any of these character defects can so diminish a person’s rationality that it is as if his intellect were subordinate to his will.  He might be so in love with a certain idea, or so determined to follow a certain course of action he has decided upon, or so incapable of clear and logical reasoning, that the intellect’s contribution to his behavior is reduced to a minimum.  To be sure, it isn’t that his intellect isn’t really still in the driver’s seat.  It’s that his intellect is driving blind.  

Could it get worse?  Yes, if he is so clueless about his condition that he projects it onto others – if he supposes that it isn’t merely that he is like this but that people are like this.  He treats others as essentially wills to be opposed or emotionally swayed, rather than as intellects to be rationally persuaded.  Call this “the voluntarist personality.” (Note that I’m not talking about voluntarist philosophers themselves now, but rather about people whose personalities approximate what you’d expect people to be like if voluntarism were true.)

The voluntarist personality can, given its willfulness, manifest itself in the amoralism of the libertine or the sociopath.  But that is not its typical manifestation.  On the contrary, I would suggest that the usual indicator of a voluntarist personality is the opposite extreme tendency, towards a kind of moralism.  Since the voluntarist personality sees people primarily as wills rather than intellects, his default position is to judge them as having either good or bad wills rather than as being either correct or incorrect in their judgments.  Accordingly, he tends to see those who agree with his opinions as virtuous rather than as merely correct.  And he tends to see those who disagree with him as guilty of a moral failing rather than merely making an honest mistake.  

It’s the sober middle ground between amoralism and moralism that the voluntarist personality has difficulty achieving.  He either disregards morality altogether and just does whatever he wants; or he moralizes everything, making of every cause a crusade and every dispute a witch hunt.

Now, this in turn entails two further tendencies which at first glance seem hard to reconcile but both of which are in fact exactly what one should expect of such a character type.  On the one hand, the voluntarist personality tends toward sentimentalism in matters of morality.  He is likely to speak excessively of love, mercy, and the like, and very little about moral principle and moral virtue.  Moral principle strikes him as too cerebral and too easy for a person to respect even if he has a bad will.  Moral virtue, the habitual tendency toward actions that are in line with moral principle, also strikes him as too bloodless, and something someone might exhibit in a rote way or merely because of upbringing, even if his will is bad.  

Love, by contrast, is by definition the willing of what is good for someone, and so it can seem to the voluntarist personality to be almost the only thing that really matters.  And since he is not too concerned with abstract principle, the way love is expressed is less important to him than the mere expression of it.  Hence the voluntarist personality will tend to be overly impressed by mawkish expressions of humanitarian concern, and to be insufficiently attentive to whether this actually results in policies that work.  The latter sort of concern seems too technical and intellectual – again, the kind of thing someone might be concerned with even if his will is bad – whereas the expression of noble sentiments seems directly to manifest a good will.  The voluntarist personality is also likely to talk excessively of mercy, since he will tend to think that whether a person has a good will is more important than whether his behavior is actually in line with the demands of moral principle.

(Note that I am, of course, not in any way denigrating love, mercy, etc. or denying that someone might outwardly follow the moral law while having bad motives.  I am talking about the voluntarist personality’s tendency to oversimplify and put excessive emphasis on these points.)

On the other hand, the voluntarist personality tends toward harshness to those who disagree with him, rather than the love and mercy you might expect from someone so prone to sentimentality.  This makes perfect sense psychologically, even if it is odd logically.  Again, the voluntarist personality looks at people primarily as wills rather than as minds.  So if you disagree with him, he will tend to see this as evidence that you have a bad will, as a moral failing on your part rather than as an honest disagreement.  The voluntarist personality thus tends to reply to opponents with ad hominem attacks, and to question the motives behind an argument rather than to address the merits of the argument itself.  And if what you disagree with, specifically, are what the voluntarist personality regards as his own very refined and noble moral sentiments, he will conclude that you must be very wicked indeed.

Hence, the more moralistic and sentimental the voluntarist personality is, the more likely he is to be hateful and merciless with his enemies.  And he will find it difficult to see the inconsistency given his stubborn and emotional nature and his lack of skill at, or patience with, logical reasoning.

Naturally, the voluntarist personality also tends toward fideism.  In the religious context, of course, this cashes out to a “will to believe” without evidence, and an impatience with or even hostility toward careful philosophical and theological reasoning or doctrinal consistency.  The voluntarist personality who is religious will regard that sort of thing as too bloodless and cerebral.  And since he’s not very good at it anyway but nevertheless means well and has strong faith, he judges that it can’t be that important.  He will tend to see religion as a matter of the heart more than, or even to the exclusion of, the head.  

But someone with a voluntarist personality might also be irreligious, and here his fideism will cash out to a hostility to religion that is so excessive that he finds it difficult to believe that it is even possible for a religious person to have serious arguments to present or to be making an honest mistake.  He has absolute faith that arguments for God’s existence and other religious claims can only ever be rationalizations of prejudice, and insists on attacking the motives of the apologist without bothering to try to understand his position.  The religious fanatic and the New Atheist are accordingly just two peas from the same voluntarist pod.

In politics, the voluntarist personality’s tendencies are predictable given what has already been said.  He will tend to evaluate policy in terms of the motives of those who propose it, and by reference to sentimental and moralistic considerations rather than by way of the dispassionate consideration of arguments and evidence.  He will tend to see political opponents as having bad motivations, and thus he is prone to demonizing them.  

Since he overemphasizes the will, he will also overestimate what the will can accomplish, and will thus tend in all practical matters to be either excessively optimistic or excessively pessimistic.  For example, when most people seem to agree with his political opinions, he will be prone to see this as evidence of a moral advance in society at large, since it will seem to him to indicate that most people have good wills.  Great moral progress will seem to be in the offing.  On the other hand, when most people disagree with his political opinions, he will be prone to see this as evidence of frightful moral decline, since it will seem to him to indicate that most people have bad wills.  Apocalypse will seem to be around the corner.  What is difficult for him to see is that sometimes people simply happen to disagree about whether certain policies are workable or wise, and (unlike the voluntarist personality) aren’t necessarily thinking in moralistic terms.  

I leave as homework the question of whether this analysis might illuminate what is going on these days in the Catholic Church and in American politics.  

Related posts:

Razor boy

Voluntarism and PSR

Cooperation with sins against prudence (and chastity)