Ethics

Ethics - Benedict de Spinoza According to the introduction, “Baruch Spinoza, who wrote in the mid-seventeenth century, has been considered the first modern philosopher, for he was the first to write philosophy from a standpoint beyond commitment to any particular religious persuasion. He was also among the first philosophers in modernity to advocate democracy as the best form of government.” The introduction claims he was influenced by Aristotle, Hobbes, Descartes as well as such figures of Judaic-Arabic thought as Maimonides. Ethics is Spinoza’s masterpiece--it came to my attention because it was on Good Reading’s list of “100 Significant Books.” In a way though, the title is a misnomer. Ethics, the study of right conduct, is only a small part of the treatise. Rather Ethics treats nearly the entirety of philosophy in its five parts. The first part, “Concerning God” consists of a proof of God’s existence. It’s one of those ontological arguments, which I find among the most unconvincing of any attempts at a case for God. One of those that thinks the very definition of God is itself proof of existence. There’s a peculiar consequence though of how Spinoza defines God. He believes that a consequence of God’s very perfection is that “neither intellect nor will appertain to God’s nature.” After all, how can a perfect being wish to change any aspect of the universe? If God is infinite, how can he be outside Nature? Thus all is set, God does not and cannot intervene in the universe; there is no room for the supernatural. So Spinoza’s own definition and “proof” of God reduces him to triviality. God is just another word for all that exists--in which case, I don’t get why bother with the concept. (On the other hand, I understand it was precisely this line of argument which helped develop arguments for religious freedom and allowed free thinking, deism, and atheism to come out from hiding.) Part Two, “Of the Nature and Origin of the Mind” was the thorniest to read and understand. The best I can make out, contra Descartes, Spinoza denies any dichotomy between mind and body--both are expressions of an individual. Part Three, Four, and Five are all closely connected. Part Three “On the Origin and Nature of Emotions” argues that “all emotions are attributed to desire, pleasure or pain” according to “each man’s nature,” recognizing individual differences in tastes and values. At the end he defines various emotions according to this system. Spinoza seems to argue for this being very deterministic, which makes me wonder, why bother with an ethical system at all, if humans are unable to conform to it? This is clarified somewhat in the next two parts, “Of Human Bondage, or the Strength of Emotions” and “Of Human Freedom”--which doesn’t deal with politics as you might think, but with Freedom from those pesky emotions, by “framing a system of right conduct” and developing a habit of conforming to reason. Politics was touched on more in Part Four, where the influence of Hobbes idea of the social contract was obvious. It was from Section Four that I felt I took away something valuable. Much of the heart of Spinoza’s ethics is very reminiscent to me of Aristotle’s ethics, which established the whole line of “rational ethical egoism” which I find so much more appealing than appeals to disinterested altruism such as Kant’s rule-based “categorical imperative” that calls for conforming to ethical rules without caring about consequences--to yourself or others--or utilitarianism which asks you to calculate the greatest good for the greatest number without caring about tramping on individuals with hobnailed boots. Spinoza, like Aristotle, emphasizes that ethics is about human flourishing and happiness. But what I like about Spinoza, that I don’t remember from Aristotle (who admittedly I haven’t reread in years) is his emphasis on reciprocity and empathy--in other words, the Golden Rule that has been a near universal in moral thinking from Confucius to Jesus: “Every man should desire for others the good which he seeks for himself.” Spinoza recognizing humans flourish best with other humans argues it’s in a person’s self-interest, and makes a person happiest, when consequently people “are just, faithful, and honourable in their conduct.” I like that squaring of the circle of selfishness and altruism. Mind you, this was difficult, dry reading. Philosophy doesn’t have to be. I found Plato, with his dialogue format and use of metaphor and story quite fun, and Aristotle quite lucid. In comparison to Spinoza's Ethics, Descartes Discourse on Method is easy. Spinoza writes as if he’s setting out a geometry text. His arguments are set out as definitions, axioms, corollaries, postulates, and especially propositions and their proofs. There are, mercifully, notes where he does set out his arguments in a more conventional narrative form, but especially in Part Two, when dealing with such concepts as the relationship between body and mind, and how we know what we know--well, this isn’t for the faint of heart. Plato and Aristotle write as if their audience are ordinary people--Spinoza as if his audience consists of mathematicians, scientists and philosophers. So no, I’m not saying that in giving this a rating Goodreads equates with “Really Liked It” I’m saying this was a fun read, and I can’t even say on first read on my own I felt I fully comprehended and got out of this all that I could. I possibly should have read more about Spinoza by popularizers before tackling this--it was hard going. But Spinoza is definitely a thinker worth encountering.