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Barnwell, Michael. The Problem of Negligent Omissions: Medieval Action Theories to the Rescue.

BARNWELL, Michael. The Problem of Negligent Omissions: Medieval Action Theories to the Rescue. Leiden-Boston: E. J. Brill, 2010. ix + 276 pp. Cloth, $154.00--Barnwell raises the problem of negligent omissions, which he describes as "a case of blameworthiness in which an agent omits to perform some action she is under obligation to ... do." Sufficient examination of the topic, he maintains, has not been offered, and so, drawing upon ideas related to the topic from various medieval and Scholastic sources, Barnwell retools those ideas to construct his own solution. Despite his appeal to medieval thinkers, Barnwell is clear: his project is not one of historical exegesis, and so, for instance, he is not concerned with determining the authorial authenticity of certain texts ascribed to Duns Scotus. The historically oriented philosopher may find himself ill at ease with the proposed methodology, especially when it becomes evident that Barnwell's solution, which is an amalgamation of Scotistic and Suarezian ideas, seeks to combine elements of philosophical theories that are, at best, irreducibly distinct and, at worst, antagonistically incompatible. This methodology raises questions of ultimate foundations, and whether those foundations are stable enough to support the weight they are tasked with carrying.

Be that as it may, Barnwell clarifies the problem at hand by noting three different classes of negligent omissions, each requiring its own particular, but related, solution. Important to Barnwell's classification are (1) the length of time between the agent's last awareness of his obligation and the "time of expected fulfillment," and (2) the circumstances involved in the obligation. Type 1 negligent omissions are ones in which the length of time between the agent's last awareness of his obligation and the time of the expected fulfillment is so negligible (in Barnwell's example a mere five minutes) that the agent could be "reasonably expected" to keep the obligation "continuously in mind"; Type 2 are those negligent omissions wherein the length of time between the agent's last awareness of his obligation and the time of expected fulfillment is too long to expect the agent to keep the obligation continuously in mind, yet not long enough (and without sufficiently serious circumstances) for the agent to take "extra precautions"--here, Barnwell's example is someone's promising at 4:30 to pick up another person from the airport at 7:00. Finally, Type 3 negligent omissions are those that, similar to Type 2, have too long a time span between the agent's last awareness of obligation and the time of expected fulfillment for the agent to be expected to keep the obligation in mind continuously, yet the circumstances are serious enough that the agent should take precautions to remember the obligation--for example, when someone has obligated himself to drive a friend to the hospital for a serious medical procedure.

The first several chapters (1-4) establish the general framework in which negligent omissions both come to life as a philosophical problem and receive their eventual solution. The first two chapters deal with Aristotle's theory of voluntary action and the case of the akratic, where what is central to Barnwell's project is the relationship between voluntary action and the agent's knowledge of the circumstances of the action, for lack of such knowledge can render an action involuntary. Yet, important in this discussion is another Aristotelian distinction, which Barnwell capitalizes on, between acting "through ignorance" (di' agnoian) and acting "in ignorance" or "ignorantly" (agnoon). Herein resides the fundamental challenge the book addresses: how can one's ignorance be voluntary (and thus morally culpable) yet also negligent; for if that ignorance is voluntary, then it seems that all negligent omissions are ultimately reducible to non-negligent (that is, intentional) omissions; if one's ignorance is involuntary, then how can one be culpable for negligent omissions?

Ultimately, Barnwell's solution to negligent omissions turns upon (a) Scotus's reworking of Anselm's account of the will as constituted by two affectiones--namely, the affectio commodi and affectio iustitiae--and (b) Suarez's notion of "virtual knowledge." In each instance of a negligent omission, the agent, according to Barnwell, had some kind of (virtual) intellection of his obligation in mind, but, in the case of Type 1, the will does not perform "complacere" (that is, take delight in the consideration of the intellection) so as to keep that intellection in mind. Of course the intellection here is not an explicit one but a vague sense of obligation, or what Barnwell calls "mere obligation intellection." In Type 2 negligent omissions, the agent again has virtual knowledge of an obligation, a mere obligation intellection, but does not form a "lingering indistinct intellection" of the obligation so as to consider it further (complacere), and thereby (culpably) allows the mere obligation intellection to cease. Finally, Type 3 negligent omissions receive a solution similar to Type 2. The agent has a virtual cognition of his obligation, but does not take (cognitive) precautions, that is, does not perform complacere, to consider that virtual knowledge further and thus voluntarily allows the mere obligation intellection to cease.

Barnwell's argument, while provocative and at times peculiar in the interpretations he offers of some medieval figures, is given clear, careful, and nuanced expression. His book will certainly be of interest to those concerned with action theory.--Victor Salas, Sacred Heart Major Seminary.

* Books received are acknowledged in this section by a brief resume, report, or criticism. Such acknowledgement does not preclude a more detailed examination in a subsequent Critical Study. From time to time, technical books dealing with such fields as mathematics, physics, anthropology, and the social sciences will be reviewed in this section, if it is thought that they might be of special interest to philosophers.
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Author:Salas, Victor
Publication:The Review of Metaphysics
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 1, 2012
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