Willing to Lie: Some Equivocations in Ch. 5 of Anselm’s “On Freedom of Choice”

Anselm’s On Freedom of Choice, part 10

Chapter five of On the Freedom of Choice introduces a discussion that will prove of particular importance for Anselm’s account of the fall of the devil in the following dialogue, but also for exposing some of the conceptual problems plaguing that account. When the Student asks how it is that a man possessed of free choice can nevertheless be led through temptation to “desert” rightness against his own will, the Teacher responds that “[n]o one deserts this uprightness except by willing to. So if ‘against one’s will’ means ‘unwillingly,’ then no one deserts uprightness against his will.”[1] Although plausible-sounding enough, this statement actually contains a significant ambiguity, for where the first sentence implies that a person abandons justice only by positively willing it, the second sentence softens this requirement to a mere denial that there be any unwillingness that justice be abandoned. The difference is subtle yet significant, for the latter does not in fact logically entail the former: it is conceivable that someone can be without any unwillingness to lose something, without that absence of unwillingness amounting thereby to a positive will that they should lose it. Lest this seem overly nitpicking, it should be noted that Anselm himself is in the history of western thought something of an authority and expert on parsing out the will in just this matter. In his unfinished Philosophical Fragments, for example, a work noted by scholars as the first major contribution to a theory of modal agency, Anselm (again in the persona of his Teacher) discriminates between four senses of will: the efficient, the approving, the concessive, and the merely permissive. In the Teacher’s above equivocation between the will to desert justice and the absence of an unwillingness that justice be deserted, accordingly, I contend that what we have is a conflation of a case of concessive or permissive will with a case of efficient or approving will. Alternatively, the Teacher might be criticized here for failing to make the very distinction we will find him and his Student taking for granted later in On the Fall of the Devil, namely the difference between an active willing of justice and the comparatively passive cessation in the will to preserve justice.

The significance of this error begins to come into focus after the Student rephrases his question by means of the following example: “If someone who lies in order not to be killed does so only willingly, then how is it that he is said to lie against his will? For just as against his will he lies, so against his will he wills to lie. And someone who against his will wills to lie, unwillingly wills to lie.” It is at this point, in response, that the Teacher draws the distinction, noted earlier, between willing a thing for its own sake (propter se) and willing a thing for the sake of something else (propter aliud). It’s an important and helpful distinction, yet the problem comes with how the Teacher applies it to the Student’s example of someone being forced to lie on pain of death:

Therefore, perhaps it can be said that the man lies both against his will and not against his will, in accordance with these different wills. Accordingly, when the man said to lie against his will because insofar as he wills the truth he does not will to lie, this statement does not contradict my claim that no one deserts uprightness-of-will against his will. For in lying, the man wills to desert uprightness for the sake of his life; and in accordance with this will he deserts uprightness not against his will but willingly. This is the will we are now discussing…

As an explanation of how a man can both will to lie and will not to lie at one and the same time, the argument is valid enough: he does not will to lie per or propter se, that is, for the sake of lying itself, but only per accidens, insofar as the act of lying has been artificially and externally imposed upon him as a condition for saving his life. The fallacy comes when the Teacher plausibly and almost imperceptibly conflates this will to lie with the will to abandon justice: “in lying, the man wills to desert uprightness for the sake of his life.” As before with the will to desert justice and the lack of unwillingness that justice be abandoned, it is not at all obvious that the former necessarily involves the latter. (Anselm will makes a related mistake, incidentally, and as we shall see later, when in Cur Deus Homo he treats Jesus’s ability to speak the words “I know him [the Father] not” as proof that Jesus therefore had the ability to lie.) Even if we assume for the sake of argument that lying in order to save one’s life is indeed a sin, and as a sin it would entail the abandonment of rightness of will, this does not mean that there was therefore a will to abandon justice itself. Someone unjustly willing to lie in order to save a life, after all, is fully compatible (at least in principle) with him doing so precisely out of a will for justice, even if, ex hypothesi, he does so mistakenly. Justice, we recall here, is a matter of willing what one ought to will, suggesting that, so long as someone feels that lying in order to save his life is something one ought to do, there is a sense in which they are doing so (even if mistakenly) in the interest of justice. Harkening back to the Teacher’s preceding equivocation between, on the one hand, an active willing to desert justice and, on the other hand, the comparatively passive absence of unwillingness that justice should be retained, we may at the very least say that it is possible for the person who lies to save his life to do so with neither a will to abandon justice nor a will to preserve it. Instead, all that is necessary for such an unjust willingness to lie to take place is that there be an absence of a will one way or the other (which would itself be a form of injustice, to be sure, just not a willed one), but only a simple failure or cessation in the will for justice.


[1] On Freedom of Choice 5.

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