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Spinoza's Normative Ethics

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 January 2020

Michael LeBuffe*
Texas A & M University, College Station, TX 77843-4237, USA


Spinoza presents his ethics using a variety of terminologies. Propositions that are, or at least might be taken for, normative include only very few explicit guidelines for action. I will take this claim from Vp10s to be one such guideline:

Vp10s: So that we may always have this rule of reason ready when it is needed, we should think and meditate often about common human wrongs and how and in what way they may best be driven away by nobility.

Research Article
Copyright © The Authors 2007

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1 Because there is a question about whether Spinoza's language conveys norms, I provide the Latin for this and the examples that follow. Here, I think, Spinoza uses the gerundive to express obligation: ‘Ut autem hoc rationis praescriptum semper in promptu habeamus, ubi usus erit, cogitandae, & saepe meditandae sunt communes hominum injuriae, & quomodo, & qua via Generositate optime propulsentur.’ One might take the sentence to express a hypothetical imperative, under which thinking and meditating are what one should do only if one wants to have this rule of reason ready. Even on this reading, however, Spinoza's recommendation of the final end seems unqualified: it is a good thing for everyone to have this rule of reason ready. Other claims in the Ethics that are more easily read as hypothetical imperatives, such as IVp26, which I quote below, apply only to a particular group of people: those guided by reason. For Spinoza's works, I use Gebhardt, Carl ed., Spinoza Opera (Heidelberg: Carl Winter 1925).Google Scholar References to the Ethics follow the standard form: e.g., Vp10s is Part V, Proposition 10, Scholium.

2 The proposition is quoted only in part, ‘quae ad hominum communem Societem conducunt, sive quae efficiunt, ut homines concorditer vivant, utilia sunt.’

3 Again, the proposition is quoted only in part: ‘Quae efficiunt, ut motus, & quietis ratio, quam Corporis humani partes ad invicem habent, conservetur, bona sunt.’

4 ‘Quicquid ex ratione conamur, nihil aliud est, quam intelligere; nec Mens, quatenus ratione utitur, aliud sibi utile esse judicat, nisi id, quod ad intelligendum conducit.’

5 ‘Humilitas virtus non est, sive ex ratione non oritur.’

6 ‘Quia homines raro ex dictamine rationis vivunt, ideo hi duo affectus, nempe Humilitas, & poenitentia, & praeter hos Spes, & Metus plus utilitatis, quam damni afferunt; atque adeo, quandoquidem peccandum est, in istam partem potius peccandum.’

7 ‘Homo liber nunquam dolo malo, sed semper cum fide agit.’ Don Garrett's article on this proposition informs my accounts here and below. Don Garrett, “‘A Free Man Always Acts Honestly, Not Deceptively”: Freedom and the Good in Spinoza's Ethics,’ in Curley, Edwin and Moreau, Pierre-Francois eds., Spinoza: Issues and Directions (Leiden: Brill 1990)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

8 For discussions of Spinoza's advice to people insofar as they are not rational, see Allison, Henry Benedict de Spinoza (New Haven: Yale University Press 1987), 154;Google Scholar Donagan, Alan Spinoza (Chicago: University of Chicago Press 1988), 170–1;Google Scholar Garrett, 232; and Lloyd, Genevieve Spinoza and The Ethics (London: Routledge 1996), 98–9.Google Scholar

9 Notably, some critics have argued that consciousness is unimportant to Spinoza’s account of desire. Bennett asserts that consciousness is of no substantive import to Spinoza's account of desire. Bennett, Jonathan A Study of Spinoza's Ethics (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett 1984), 259.Google Scholar Michael Della Rocca argues that Spinoza's account of desire does not turn on the distinction between conscious and unconscious desires. Rocca, Michael DellaSpinoza's Metaphysical Psychology,’ in Garrett, Don ed., The Cambridge Companion to Spinoza (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1996), 216.Google Scholar

10 Laetitia is the most general form of a passion in which the body, or one of its parts, increases the power with which is strives to persevere. Tristitia is its opposite, a decrease. The terms are sometimes translated as ‘happiness’ and ‘sadness.’ IIIp28 reads, ‘We strive to promote the occurrence of anything which we imagine to be conducive to laetitia; but we strive to avert or destroy whatever we imagine to be incompatible with this thing or whatever is conducive to tristitia.’ At IIIp14 and IIIp15, Spinoza argues that anything can be the accidental cause of laetitia, tristitia or cupiditas (desire). He goes on at IIIp16 and IIIp17 to argue that experiencing some affect in a certain object in the past influences our desires for future objects perceived as similar to the past object. The implication is that, because of the variety of experience of laetitia there will be a variety of objects of human desire. IIIp56 emphasizes this variety.

11 IIId2 and d3 suggest that passions are the product of the causal influence of external objects on us. IIId2 suggests that we are acted on when we are not adequate but mere partial causes of what happens in us or outside of us. IIId3 defines passion as one of our affects (that is, in the language of IIId2, something that happens in us) of which are not an adequate cause. I shall give, however, a more detailed account of the ways in which passions arise immediately below.

12 I argue for this interpretation more thoroughly in LeBuffe, MichaelWhy Spinoza Tells People to Try to Preserve Their Being,’ Archiv für Geschichte der Philosophie v. 86 (2004) 119–45.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

13 The purpose of Part II, as stated in its Preface, is to explain the implications of Part I's account of God for our knowledge of the human mind and its blessedness. So it should not be surprising that there is an ethical point to the discussion of sensory ideas.

14 This passage is from the long scholium to IIIp59, at Gebhardt II 189 4-7. Spinoza’s argument, at V Preface, against Stoic and Cartesian views that the passions can be completely mastered is another emphatic statement of this view. A formal argument for it can be found at IVp4. IVp4c, like V Preface, makes the point explicitly about passion.

15 See V Preface, especially the opening, Gebhardt II 277 1-14.

16 For Descartes's works, I use Adam, Charles and Tannery, Paul eds., Oeuvres de Descartes, 11 volumes (Paris: Libraire Philosophique J. Vrin 1996).Google Scholar From his general epistemological thesis that it is impossible to err whenever I extend the will only to whatever I clearly and distinctly perceive (Meditation 4, AT VII 62, for example), Descartes develops accounts of what can and cannot be clearly and distinctly perceived in sense perception. For example, at Principles I 68 (AT VIIIA 33) he writes, ‘So that we may distinguish what is clear [in our sensations] from what is obscure, it must be most carefully noted that pain and color and the like are clearly and distinctly perceived when they are considered as nothing more than sensations or thoughts…’.

17 I include the Latin here, as in the introduction, because my claim that the statement should be understood as an explicit prescription depends importantly on Spinoza's precise words. The passage reads, ‘Huic igitur rei praecipue danda est opera, ut unumquemque affectum, quantum fieri potest, clare, & distincte cognoscamus, ut sic Mens ex affectu ad illa cogitandum determinetur, quae clare, & distincte percipit, & in quibus plane acquiescit; atque adeo, ut ipse affectus a cogitatione causae externae separetur, & veris jungatur cogitationibus.’

18 At IIIp59s Spinoza defines tenacity and nobility as the affects that produce a mind’s action when it is an adequate cause.

19 The scholium following Vp20, which completes Spinoza's account concerning the present life, summarizes Spinoza's account of how we resist the passions. Vp20s offers a five point account of the remedies for the influence of affects, that can be restated as straightforward prescriptions without much harm to Spinoza's meaning: 1. Know your affects; 2. Separate affects from the thought of an external cause; 3. Over time, relate affects to things you understand so that they will be more powerful than affects referred to what we conceive confusedly; 4. Relate affects to God or to many causes; 5. Order your affects and connect them to one another. These remedies, as I understand them, summarize the accounts of the mind's power that Spinoza offers at Vp1-Vp20.

20 There is reason to think — given Spinoza's view that some ends always help us to persevere and that other ends regularly do — that one might, on the basis for example of the past experience of laetitia alone, have some success in attaining laetitia regularly even without knowledge of what that feeling is a feeling of. Such a procedure, seeking laetitia where it has been found before with regularity seems rational if imperfectly reliable. It may even be preferable to seeking ends wholly on the basis of knowledge if that sort of knowledge is too rare or too difficult to come by, a concern I emphasize in Section IV below. Spinoza typically appeals to experience in the Ethics in order to reinforce conclusions derived from other sources. See I Appendix (II/79) and IIIp2s for important examples. In the Appendix to Part IV, however, he does note that experience is an advantage to be gained from our interactions with things outside us. Spinoza gives experience a more substantial role in his political works. See, for example, the importance given to the history of Amsterdam in the Theological Political Treatise, Chapter 20, and to other historical examples in the Political Treatise vii, 14, 17, and 24. Both works are in Gebhardt III.

21 I will not argue in detail here that these terms are closely associated in the Ethics because I think that the point is not controversial. Some important evidence for the view that the claims in which Spinoza uses these terms may be reduced includes IVp26, where Spinoza equates the end of action from reason with what the useful produces, understanding; IVd1, where he defines the good in terms of the useful; and IVp24, where Spinoza identifies actions from virtue with action from the guidance of reason. Don Garrett notices this close association and offers an explanation of what must otherwise be an unnecessarily confusing multiplication of terminology. Garrett suggests, reasonably I think, that the variety of Spinoza’s terminology is the product of an attempt to address several different traditions at once, in their own terms. Don, GarrettSpinoza's Ethical Theory,’ in Garrett, Don ed., The Cambridge Companion to Spinoza (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press 1996), 288.Google Scholar

22 Ethics IV Appendix 29, which offers a discussion of money, is also a very clear illustration of this point.

23 The conception of Spinoza's right way of living as a list of ends that are beneficial only if they are pursued in the right way, if it is correct, may help to explain Spinoza's circumspect introduction of his normative ethics in Part IV. Spinoza recognizes this feature of the presentation, as his insertion of a clarificatory Appendix shows. If, however, a mind's understanding of how an end relates to the benefit it provides is a necessary condition for that benefit, then a bare list of goods, such as that the Appendix provides, will, by itself, be unhelpful. Spinoza requires the demonstrations of Part IV, laborious though they may be, so that recommended ends may be sought from understanding, the only attitude in which their acquisition would certainly benefit an agent.

24 Spinoza offers a number of different definitions and descriptions of the good, and I do not intend this brief characterization to be a complete account. The most direct evidence for my claim here is the demonstration to IVp8.

25 Other passages that suggest that most people most of the time are irrational include IVp54, which I quote below, IVp35s, and the Appendix entry that corresponds to it, IV Appendix 14.

26 This passage may be compared to a passage from the Theological-Political Treatise, Chapter 14 (Gebhardt III 176 18-22) in which Spinoza similarly holds that the value of religious doctrine lies not in its truthfulness but in the actions it inspires.

27 As I have mentioned at Note 24, Spinoza's account of value terms is complex. This is not meant to be a complete account of evil. The demonstration to IVp8 is its strongest textual basis.

28 IV Appendix 7 and 32, IVp68, and, especially, V Preface are passages that suggest that no one is completely rational. For Spinoza, the wholly irrational are primarily monomaniacs, those overridden by one particular passion (IVp44s). Those suicides who are driven to the act by the influence of external causes on their imagination (IVp20s) may also be wholly irrational.

29 IIp43 might be thought to present a special difficulty for this claim: if whoever has a true idea knows that he has a true idea, then those who are acting rationally will know that they are acting rationally. It is unclear, though, how this kind of certainty will help an ordinary agent. Supposing that I am convinced that I am about to do what is rational, I would be foolish to rely on IIp43 as a guarantee that I am; just because whoever has an adequate idea is convinced he does, it does not follow that whoever is convinced he has an adequate idea does have one. I think IIp43 does guarantee that a mind with wholly adequate ideas would know itself to be acting rationally. If our ideas have degrees of adequacy, though, even a person with a good reason for acting might not know it to be a good reason.

30 IVp59 is an argument that any action produced by passion can also be produced by reason. It leaves open the question of whether every action that can be produced by reason can also be produced by passion, which is why I conservatively claim that this is true of most cases. However, Spinoza does at least think that many such actions may produced as easily by passion, as IVp63 and its second scholium show.

31 A version of this paper was presented at the Southeast Seminar in Early Modern Philosophy in 2004. I thank the participants, and especially Marc Hight, for their comments. I would also like to thank the journal's referees for their helpful criticism.

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