Research Early Career Research Spotlight: Ashley Dressel

Early Career Research Spotlight: Ashley Dressel

This edition of the Early Career Research Spotlight features the work of Ashley Dressel. She is an Assistant Professor at the College of St. Scholastica who earned her Ph.D. from the University of California, Irvine in 2014. Her dissertation was on the concept of willful wrongdoing in the work of Thomas Aquinas and several later scholastic thinkers. She is interested in the history of ethics and focuses on medieval and early modern ethics and moral psychology. Her most recent publications include a chapter, co-authored with Bonnie Kent, titled “Weakness and Willful Wrongdoing in Aquinas’s De Malo” in Aquinas’s Disputed Questions on Evil: A Critical Guide by Cambridge University Press and “The Trouble with Deathbed Promises”, an article that appeared in Ethical Theory and Moral Practice.

In your paper on Aquinas and malitia, or willing viciousness, you provide a typology of different ways sin occurs, and conclude that when one sins through vice, one does so willingly.  Explain how sinning from vice is different from other types of sin, and what role will must play in human psychology for this claim to be true.

A quick note: I wouldn’t quite translate malitia “willing viciousness”. I usually go with “willful wrongdoing” because Aquinas thinks vice is just one of several sources of malitia.

To your question, for Aquinas, wrongdoing from vice occurs because of the agent’s vicious disposition, rather than because of ignorance, passion, or some mental state like despair. It is a form of remorseless, willful, wrongdoing. For Aquinas, all morally bad acts fall into one of three categories (listed in order of increasing culpability): sins from ignorance, sins from passion, and sins from malitia. He places acts from vice in the third, most culpable category. While ignorance and passion somewhat mitigate an agent’s culpability, Aquinas believes malitia, often translated “wickedness” or “malice”, does not. Imagine I’m a barista, and at the end of my shift I take more than my share of tips from the tip jar. If I do this because I’m culpably ignorant about how much I should take, I sin from ignorance. If I do it because I am momentarily angry at my coworkers, I sin from passion. If I do it because, over the course of my life, I have become a greedy person – the sort of person who now finds it pleasurable to take more than my share of tips even when I know doing so is morally bad – I act from vice and sin from malitia.

I don’t think a person needs to subscribe to Thomistic faculty psychology to get the idea that vice can be a source of remorseless, knowing, wrongdoing off the ground. However, Aquinas’s understanding of the will does allow him to clearly explain why vicious wrongdoing is always especially voluntary and culpable. For Aquinas, the will, the locus of voluntary action, is a rational appetite inclined to the good. More specifically, it is an appetite inclined to the agent’s ultimate end: happiness (or beatitude). Aquinas believes that true human happiness lies, not in this world, but in the afterlife with God. Because of this, an agent’s will, when properly ordered, inclines her away from morally bad behavior (sin). Such behavior would lead her away from God and true happiness. Aquinas believes vices make morally bad action easy and pleasurable because they incline agents toward objectively less valuable goods (like money or sexual pleasure), even at the expense of objectively more valuable goods (like moral rectitude). On his account, they disorder the will itself. Since the source of vicious wrongdoing is a problem with the will directly, acts from vice are entirely voluntary and supremely culpable.


Your work in the above-mentioned paper connects to your larger project of understanding the role will plays in Ancient and Medieval philosophy.  In particular, you connect the topic of will to that of choice.  How did the medieval philosophers you’ve studied develop the topic of will to answer questions about freedom and ethics?

The will, as the source of voluntary action, was absolutely central to medieval scholastic discussion of freedom and ethics. Even very different thinkers broadly agreed that: (i) freedom is required for moral responsibility, (ii) human beings are free, and (iii) the will is an appetitive faculty that plays a necessary role in that freedom. Despite this general agreement, there was vigorous and long-lasting debate over what role the will played in choice and over what sort of faculty, precisely, the will needed to be in order to secure freedom.

Aquinas, for example, considered his way of understanding the will, as a rational appetite inclined toward happiness, compatible with robust freedom of choice. While the will is always inclined to happiness and the agent, even the vicious one, never chooses what she believes will make her unhappy, no agent is determined to choose any particular thing short of happiness itself. This is because nothing short of true happiness is entirely and perfectly good. When faced with a particular choice, for example, whether or not to accept a job opportunity, an agent can focus on what is good and conducive to her happiness in the opportunity, or she can focus on what is lacking in the opportunity. This fact enables her will to incline toward or away from any particular good.

Other philosophers, like Duns Scotus, thought that true freedom of choice could not be secured without more than one fundamental inclination in the will. The concern, in short, was this: if the will is a rational appetite inclined only toward happiness, then the agent is going to be intellectually determined to choose whatever she ultimately deems most conducive to her own happiness. Scotus proposes that the agent is free precisely because the will has two inclinations: one to the agent’s advantage/happiness and the other to justice. This secures the agent a kind of perpetual libertarian (to be anachronistic) freedom at the very moment of choice.

These positions represent only two important points on a broad spectrum. In general, in the medieval scholastic tradition, the most pressing questions are not questions like, “are people free and morally responsible?” but questions like, “given that people are free and morally responsible, what must the relationship be between our inclinations and our judgments?”.


Why was freedom of choice such an important concept for Medieval scholars?  How did it relate to their other philosophical concerns (e.g. the nature of God, the relationship of humans to angels)?

Well, one reason freedom of choice was an important concept for medieval Christian scholars was that it played a crucial role in the most widely accepted solution to the problem of evil. If there is a single God, one who is entirely good, omniscient, omnipotent, and the creator of everything, then where does all of the apparent evil in the world come from? One type of evil that needed explanation was human wrongdoing, and the broadly accepted Augustinian explanation for wrongdoing was that wrongdoing is just the misuse of a good thing: free will. God gave human beings free will (liberum arbitrium), a good with which they could freely choose to live rightly. However, human beings have misused free will to choose lesser goods (like pleasure or personal gain) over greater ones (like virtue).

The free will explanation renders wrongdoing consistent with God’s goodness because: (1) it makes human beings, not God, responsible for wrongful actions, and (2) it makes wrongdoing the choice of lesser goods, rather than the choice of anything in and of itself evil. Christian thinkers who believed in human freedom would still need to figure out how to render that freedom compatible with the orthodox belief that God foreknows everything that will happen in the world. Despite this, a firm belief in free choice of some sort became axiomatic early on in the tradition.

I should note that while many medieval Christian thinkers believed free will is the source of wrongdoing, many also took pains to point out that free will is not, at its core, the power to do what is morally wrong. It is what gives rational beings the ability to freely choose good. They thought God and the good angels had free will, for instance, though neither were thought capable of wrongdoing.

All of that said, I think it is misleading to suggest that the entire concern over free choice in the Middle Ages was theological. Certainly theology was always operating in the background, determining things like which positions were on and off the table for a thinker attempting to avoid heresy. The position that human beings could use their freedom to earn heaven on their own was considered heretical, as was the position that human beings are not free at all and are entirely subject to necessitation. However, when a thinker like Aquinas presents his reasons for believing human beings have free will, they are often strikingly familiar ones, consistent with both religious and non-religious worldviews: that if human beings do not have free choice, we cannot make sense of advice-giving, reward, punishment, and other common human practices. Without free will, we cannot make sense of moral responsibility. While we see plenty of contemporary challenges to this intuition today, the idea that people need to be, in some sense, in charge of their own actions in order to be morally responsible was considered a truism.


In what ways have our concepts of will, vice, and choice changed since the Medieval Era?  In what ways are they the same?

Haha, if I could answer that question fully, I’d already have a fabulous book out. One thing to point out is that when we talk about “the Medieval Era” in the context of the history of philosophy, many philosophers, especially those who don’t work directly on medieval figures, take that to include just about every major thinker in Europe from Augustine up to (but not including) Descartes. In other words, around 1000 years of thought coming from a variety of places, religious traditions, and so forth. For that reason, I’ll just focus my generalizations, as I have been thus far, on (presently) canonical scholastic Christian philosophers.

Concerning the will: like many medieval thinkers, we continue to link the concept of will/willing to desire, choice, and freedom. Likewise, many remain committed to the idea that “free will” is critical for moral responsibility. However, many medieval scholastic thinkers agreed in understanding the will as a distinct faculty/power present in all rational beings. Our present-day talk of “free will”, “willing x”, etc. is often divorced from explicit commitment to something as metaphysically robust as a specific human faculty called “the will”.

As for vice, I find it more difficult to say since much more present-day work has been produced on virtue. However, here are some tentative observations. First, most philosophers continue to understand vices as gradually acquired bad character traits. Further, I there still seem to be plenty who tend, like many major medieval thinkers did, to think people’s characters are perpetually malleable: that, for instance, a person with a bad character could acquire a good one. In the Middle Ages we find consistent and explicit defense of the idea that people can act against their character traits – the virtuous are not infallible, nor the vicious irredeemable. Despite these similarities, I think contemporary philosophers are less likely than medieval thinkers to defend the idea that bad character traits are a main source of willful, knowing, wrongdoing (rather than unwitting wrongdoing), and are far more likely to express skepticism about the very existence of character traits as consistent and robust as vices.

Regarding choice, as with the will, many have abandoned the metaphysically robust talk of faculties that informed medieval scholastic conversations about the mechanics of choice. However, we remain preoccupied with the nature of choice for similar reasons. For instance, we continue to be preoccupied with choice as it relates to freedom and moral responsibility, and we continue to ask questions about the effects our motivations and judgments have on the choices we make.


In what directions do you see your project moving in the future?  

Recently, I have been working freedom as it is understood in the work of the influential but understudied early modern Spanish Jesuit philosopher Francisco Suárez. Suárez believes that the human will is radically free from determination. Despite this, he advocates for versions of two theses that were axiomatic in the later middle ages: (1) the “guise of the good” thesis – the idea that human beings always act for the sake of some good, and what I call, (2) the “Socratic thesis” –  the idea that all wrongdoing involves some sort of intellectual error. The conjunction of these two theses (and even each on its own) is often thought to pose the threat of intellectual determinism. I am examining how Suárez navigates this difficulty, in part, by exploring a modal concept popular in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries: moral necessity.

In the more distant future, I would like to work on a book on the evolution and legacy of the Socratic thesis in the middle ages and early modern period.


What value do you think this will provide for philosophy, academia, or society as a whole?

I believe work on these topics and figures is immensely valuable to philosophy for a variety of reasons. For one, concepts like freedom, choice, will, and vice (as well as other related concepts like virtue and conscience) still interest us quite a lot today and some of these concepts were being worked out in the Middle Ages. We often take our intuitions about these concepts, as well as many of the connections we draw between them, for granted. Looking at these concepts as they were originating and evolving, operating in very different contexts, can give us new ways of thinking about seemingly familiar ideas. This, I think, is valuable in and of itself and may even help us to see some of our own intuitions as context dependent in important ways.

For academia more broadly, the main value I see in this work is in helping us to more fully understand the available range of human thought and to better grasp the intellectual origins of our society as we know it. While a striking number of philosophers shy away from medieval philosophical thought, at least in part, because it is entrenched in medieval religious thought, this very fact makes the history of medieval thought especially important. The fact that for hundreds of years the most influential philosophical thinkers and university leaders were also some of the world’s most influential theologians in the major religions that continue to dominate the West (and many of its moral intuitions) has meant that medieval thought has shaped Western thought deeply.

It is harder for me to answer the question about the value of this work to society. This is not because I don’t think it is valuable, but because I am humble enough to recognize that much of my specialized work will not be read by non-academics. Further, I tend to be deeply skeptical about what I like to call the theory of “trickle-down academics”: the idea that somehow the value of my specialist work trickles down into society through my undergrads. Certainly, thinking about these issues has informed my classes and (I hope) made them better, but I think that point is a bit different.

That said, I believe there is nearly always value in increasing access to our store of human knowledge, often value we are too finite or short-sighted to fully recognize. This is perhaps especially obvious when we are increasing access to influential thought on topics that remain of broad interest, like freedom and ethics. Much influential work from the Middle Ages remains untranslated and hardly studied, such that many members of society without language training and specialized knowledge couldn’t learn about that work if they wanted to. I want books and articles to be there in the future when someone, for whatever reason, decides she wants to better understand what people have thought about freedom, wrongdoing, the will, and so forth.


You can ask Ashley questions about her work in the comments section below.


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  1. This post says a lot about concepts, such as ‘will’, ‘choice’, ‘freedom’, ‘agency’ and so on, particularly with respect to ethics but: “in all so-called decision-making, it is often assumed there is a direct relationship between the person we think of as ‘the cause’ and the action that the person performs as ‘the effect’ of that cause. By directly linking the two it is easy to overlook the fact that our genetic make-up and the sum total of our life experiences are all that is required to ’cause’ the person’s actions. It’s a misconception to assume we are the ‘agents’ of our ‘action’, rather than the ‘forwarding agents’ our heredity and environment. These ideas are amplified in ‘The Rise of the Mutant Ego’.


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