Intro to Ethics: Spinoza

by Luke Muehlhauser on August 8, 2009 in Ethics,Intro to Ethics


Welcome to my course on ethics.1 Last time, we looked at Thomas Hobbes and his theory of the social contract. Today, we examine a thinker who asked, “What does morality mean if everything is determined, and free will does not exist?”

spinozaBaruch Spinoza (1632-1677) thought God was identical to nature: everything is determined, mind-body dualism is false, and miracles do not occur. (Perhaps this was his way of being an atheist while still using the word ‘God’.)

So, what does morality mean if everything is determined? If morality is about oughts, what does it mean to say we ought to do something when we literally cannot do anything other than what we are determined to do?

For Spinoza, humans are merely systems interacting with other systems. Things associated with pleasure come to be desired, and things associated with pain come to be avoided. From this arises the non-rational emotions of anger, joy, pride, and so on.

Thus, the purpose of life is to become aware of how these systems work. When we finally understand ourselves as mechanical systems who develop beliefs and emotions and desires as responses to determined stimuli, only then can we be “free.”

How does knowledge free us? When we realize that our desires, aversions, and emotions are the result of biological programming and accidental events, we can break these arbitrary associations. In a determined world, we cannot blame others, and we cannot blame each other. Guilt, envy, and hate therefore vanish. And one cannot be frustrated, for one is merely a part of unnecessary and unstoppable systems of nature.

Moreover, as we understand the determined causes of pain and pleasure, only then can we truly be agents. If happiness comes from a proper balance of the “soul” (as in Plato) or obeying an invisible God (as in Christianity), this gives us poor information to act on. But if pain and pleasure have natural causes that can be understood, then studying their causes can tell us how to act and think in ways that increase happiness. (This, of course, is the assumption of the modern science of happiness craze.)

So for Spinoza, virtue is the realization that we are fully determined systems, and the rational application of that knowledge.

In his unwavering deterministic naturalism, Spinoza set the stage for most modern science and philosophy. Spinoza’s insight is also central to the way I think about ethics, but we’ll talk about that later.

Next, we will encounter an important evolution of Hobbes’ social contract theory in the work of John Locke.

  1. Much of the history part of this course is basically a summary of MacIntyre’s excellent A Short History of Ethics. []

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

ColonelFazackerley August 18, 2009 at 3:30 am

About that predetermination thing. I always thought that it cannot matter if the future is predetermined, if we have no means to prophesy. So, we make our own decisions, and they become the future. Even if, in some sense, the future has always been that way, it does not free us from responsibility for our actions.


ColonelFazackerley September 27, 2009 at 11:42 pm

I read some more. I think I may be a compatibilist. I could do with some help here!


lukeprog September 27, 2009 at 11:44 pm

Well, this is not a blog about free will and determinism. I’m a compatibilist, as long as that is understood to exclude contra-causal free will. What kind of help would you like?


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