As its title so aptly suggests, Benedict de Spinoza’s magnum opus the Ethics (E) is ultimately a treatise concerned with moral philosophy. In particular, Spinoza follows in the eudaimonistic tradition of the ancient Greeks,1 for whom happiness, flourishing, or living well is the end of all ethical pursuits (E IIP49S, VP42).2Is Spinozistic ethics however merely a collection of old, outdated ethical views, both from antiquity and early modern Europe, or is it applicable to our present-day ethical climate? The goal of happiness is certainly agreeable to our modern sentiments, but does the Ethics itself offer an effective and realistic means towards achieving such a state, and does it have sufficient complexity and nuance to stand with contemporary ethical theories?
I will argue that the Ethics does indeed satisfy these conditions. Spinoza’s arguments and prescriptions are very much derived from a realistic conception of human nature, motivation, and capability, which allows him to give effective (although certainly not simple or easy) instructions on how to achieve a flourishing life. Spinozistic ethics shares in the complexity of contemporary moral theories, by giving nuanced attention to the role of consequences, duty, and character in moral action, three traditional elements of ethical discussion. In this paper, I will show the pragmatism and complexity of Spinoza’s ethical framework by comparing it to the three traditional ethical paradigms of consequentialism, deontology, and virtue ethics. In some ways Spinoza will seem to be a follower of each view, although my goal is not to reduce Spinozism to any particular ethical paradigm.3Instead, I will argue that Spinozism’s collective attention to the moral value of consequence, duty, and character is what proves its strength as an ethical way of life, the nuanced relation between these three components being that which makes Spinozistic eudaimonism realistically achievable.
Traditional Ethical Paradigms
In order to compare Spinozism to these ethical paradigms, however, we must first understand what they entail, broadly-speaking.
We will begin with consequentialism. As its name suggests, consequentialism deals with morality in terms of consequences. This view takes individuals to be “morally obligated to act in ways that produce the best consequences” (LaFollette 9). The permissibility or impermissibility of an action is reliant on its results or effects, viz. whether a certain effect is good/desirable or bad/undesirable (Vallentyne 22). For example, if working overtime earns me the money I need to afford to get my car fixed and/or pay my rent, then this act is permissible, because it has a good result. If, on the other hand, working overtime causes me physical and mental strain and/or alienates me from my loved ones, then this act is impermissible, because its result is bad.
The reality, of course, is that both these examples may be true: working overtime has desirable and undesirable results (i.e., the above outcomes can occur simultaneously). This is where the full definition of consequentialism becomes important; the morality of an action is not just a matter of its result being good or bad, because as the above example shows most actions have good and bad results, but rather its goodness or badness compared to the results of other actions. What I want, or rather what I ought to do according to this ethical paradigm, is to perform the act that will produce the greatest possible good or most desirable result (Vallentyne 23-5). To decide whether working overtime is permissible, I have to weigh the costs and benefits of the action and reflect on whether it is the most fruitful action available to me. If my distance from my loved ones will be temporary, my family is desperately in need of stable transportation, and/or I really have no other immediate means to pay my rent, then working overtime is the most desirable action, given my circumstances. If, however, my relationships are already deeply strained to a breaking point, taking the bus is a suitable transportation option and/or a loved one would be happy to lend me the additional money I need for rent, then, while working overtime has desirable consequences, it is not the most fruitful action available to me all things considered, and thus it is not permissible or the right action, ethically.
A further qualification is that traditional consequentialism encompasses far more than just my, or any specific individual’s, interests. Maximizing good results involves not just what is good for me, but “the interests of all affected” by my actions, such as my family, friends, work colleagues, city, country, etc. (LaFollette 9). This feature makes consequentialism an “agent-neutral” ethical paradigm, because its moral reasons for action need not appeal to the agent performing the action, beyond their necessary causal role in it (McNaughton and Rawling 33). My working overtime is therefore far more complex than simply what costs and benefits arise for me. I must reflect on whether I am hindering or helping my loved ones, my fellow workers, my city’s economy, my country’s overall thriving, and so on. Realistically, I cannot adequately reflect on all these components, but the point is that, with the knowledge and resources I currently have, the permissibility of working overtime is reliant on how much good I am putting into the world rather than my own life, even if I can only be aware or sure of its benefits/costs to the people immediately in my life. Consequentialism is then an ethical paradigm that emphasizes results when evaluating the moral permissibility and rightness of actions, with the imperative being to maximize good results, irrespective of the agent’s self-interest.
Deontology takes a different approach to the moral permissibility and rightness of actions; in this ethical paradigm, normativity is stressed through duties or principles of conduct (i.e., rules).4McNaughton and Rawling cite two main categories of moral rule: special relationships and constraints. Special relationships refer to the moral obligations we have towards those whom we share a meaningful bond with, in contrast to strangers or those whom we have no direct relationship to whatsoever (32). In the example of working overtime, if I have a duty to perform this action it will be for the sake of my family’s interests; because I share such an immediate and fundamental connection to them, I owe them moral consideration in a way I do not owe my fellow workers, my employer, my city, or my country. If working overtime harmed my family, but my colleagues were in desperate need of me to perform this action for the sake of their continued employment, my moral duty would be to my family, even if this resulted in many of my colleagues being fired. Here the result of my action is still morally relevant because there is harm I want to avoid, but the deciding factor in what I ought to do is not which result brings the most good, but rather which result I am duty-bound to give the most consideration to, viz. my family’s well-being. Me refusing to work overtime creates a moderate amount of benefit for my family, while creating a significant amount of detriment for my now-fired colleagues. The deontologist could argue, however, that if we grant the moral primacy of special relationships (which most people, including my colleagues, would tend to do intuitively), then I am permitted and obligated to act for the sake of my loved ones first and foremost, and others second. I will likely have a duty to assist others as well, but this duty to others will be secondary or contingent on my primary duty to my loved ones being satisfied.
This complex example can also help us understand the second category of rule: constraints. Constraints are moral restrictions on action: duties we have to not act in certain ways (32). The situation I mention above can also be seen as an example of a constraint, in the sense that I am not permitted to maximize good results at the expense of my loved ones. Another, more famous, example is Immanuel Kant’s Categorical Imperative. A categorical imperative is an action that is “good in itself and therefore [is] necessary.” (The Moral Law 4:414). Such an imperative is then an absolute ought. One is always obligated to follow it because it is by nature good (rather than merely contingently good), in contrast to the hierarchy of duties mentioned above, where any duty that is itself not the primary duty can potentially not be performed if it conflicts with this primary duty (i.e. in this example, the duty to one’s loved ones vs. the duty to others) or simply a higher duty (e.g. one’s duty to oneself can be eclipsed by one’s duty to others if one’s current interests will harm the latter).5
The fundamental categorical imperative is the Formula of Universal Law (FUL), which states: “Act only on that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law” (4:421). What this means is that one should act only according to rules that are rationally universalizable, that is those which involve no contradiction with one’s intentions. For example, in the case of suicide one could be interpreted as following the rule that, out of concern for their well-being, if the continuance of their life will bring more bad results than good, they should end their life. This maxim is rejected by the FUL, because it is rationally incoherent and thus not universalizable. One intends to serve their well-being by ending their life, which is negating their well-being, consequently creating a contradiction between their intention and act (4:422). Suicide is therefore a prime example of a constraint, because one has a duty (if one accepts the FUL) to never bring about their own death to escape suffering.
The nature of these duties tells us that deontology is an “agent-relative” ethical paradigm, in the sense that the moral reasons appealed to for action make significant reference to the agent, viz. what relations of duties I specifically must follow in comparison to another (33). Special relationships and constraints are both agent-relative. The former obligates me to act toward the interests of those I share a bond with, rather than strangers. Constraints, while applicable to all agents in the case of Kant’s categorical imperative, nevertheless specifically tell me what I am rationally duty-bound not to do in certain situations, such as not instrumentalizing my family for my own ends or acting self-destructively. In summary, deontology focuses on the complex relation between positive and negative duties which dictate an agent’s moral actions.
Virtue ethics, while equally complex, takes a more unique approach to moral action, by focusing not just on the action but the overall character or dispositions of the individual performing the action. According to Sandler, virtue ethics consists of the following premises: (1) “A virtue is a character trait a human needs to flourish or live well,” (2) “A virtuous agent is one who acts virtuously. That is, one who has and exercises the virtues,” and (3) “An action is right iff it is what a virtuous agent would do in the circumstances” (176-7). (1) tells us that virtue is a way of being, involving dispositions to act in certain ways that are conducive to living a good life.6 (2) tells us that the virtuous agent is the one who possesses and acts from those dispositions conducive to living well. Finally, (3) characterizes right action as whatever the virtuous agent, via their beneficial characteristics, would do in a given situation, making this agent the model of proper moral conduct.
Hursthouse (48-50) and Sandler (179-80) clarify, however, that the virtuous agent is the moral model because of more than just their actions, because a characteristic involves more than just acting. A characteristic involves feelings and a way of thinking that shape the actions one performs. If I am vengeful, then my actions might be motivated by anger and the rationalization that the person who harmed me deserves to experience that pain in return. Conversely, if I am compassionate, my actions might be motivated by love and sympathy, accompanied by the thought-process that people are sentient creatures capable of great pain, and thus deserving of respect. This dynamic is however complex. I can punish a wrong-doer or assist someone in need, and yet be virtuous in the former case and not virtuous in the latter, all based on how my actions are driven by feelings and reasoning. I may punish the wrong-doer out of love for my community, rather than hatred or a desire for vengeance, with the reasoning being that this person will bring significant harm to the community, and thus must be removed from it. On the other hand, I can help a senior citizen cross the street out of a spiteful desire to slow down traffic, with my reasoning here being that city people are jerks who deserve to be punished. As a result, performing the right action in virtue ethics is necessary but insufficient for being a moral person.
Moreover, an important feature of these feelings and thought-processes being virtuous is that they are explicitly directed at virtue in itself (Hursthouse 48-50, 55; Aristotle 1105a27-1105b). If I am virtuously compassionate, I directly desire to be compassionate and I properly reason out my action (e.g., helping the senior citizen cross the street) with the goal of being compassionate for the sake of being compassionate. I am not being compassionate simply to achieve good results or for the sake of something else (e.g., the approval of others or to get some reward from the person I helped), but because compassion is a disposition I know to be proper to my flourishing.7
As a whole then, virtue ethics, like deontology, can be classified as an agent-relative ethical paradigm. Beyond its connection with the individual’s capacity to live well, the moral reasons behind the permissibility or rightness of an action are constituted by an individual’s character, viz. the feelings and reasoning that motivate that action. A morally permissible or right action is that which would be performed by one who possesses virtuous dispositions (whatever these virtues may be), meaning one’s feelings and thought-processes are harmoniously directed at virtuous action for its own sake. Simply put, if the virtuous person would act that way in a situation, that is what one should morally do.
Now that we have a general idea of what these three ethical paradigms have to say about moral action, we can see how Spinoza’s ethical philosophy in the Ethics compares to them.
Spinozism and Consequences
Spinozism shares much common ground with consequentialism. In the Ethics, good is defined as “what we certainly know to be useful to us” (E IVDef. 1) and evil as “what we certainly know prevents us from being the masters of some good” (IVDef. 2). Here Spinoza is equating good with benefit and evil (or bad) with harm, thereby conceptualizing morality in terms of the effects that something is known to bring about. If eating a chicken wrap satisfies my hunger or listening to someone’s problems motivates them to assist me in moments when I myself am vulnerable, these acts can be classified as good because they have beneficial consequences. Conversely, if eating the wrap gives me food poisoning or listening to someone’s problems begins to take over my life and usurp my responsibilities, these acts can be classified as evil/bad because they have detrimental consequences. The goodness and badness of actions are then a matter of their results, that is any action in itself has no moral designation. Support for this claim can be found in Part IV’s preface, which states: “good and evil . . . indicate nothing positive in things, considered in themselves.” Here Spinoza argues that good and evil are not intrinsic classifications, meaning good and evil are not essential properties of anything; rather, they pertain to the relations between things (as evidenced by the reference to benefit/harm in their respective definitions). Since an action is a thing, it too cannot have an intrinsic moral designation, only a relational one. In fact, Spinoza explicitly asserts that “no action, considered in itself, is good or evil . . . instead, one and the same action is now good [beneficial], now evil [detrimental]” (IVP59Dem. 2). These passages support the reasoning of the abovementioned examples, where the acts of eating or listening to someone’s problems are neither good nor evil qua acts; their moral designation is based on the consequences they bring about. So far then Spinozism seems to be in agreement with consequentialism, because both ethical frameworks ground the morality of action in results.
This agreement becomes even stronger when we delve into the nature of benefit and harm in Spinozistic ethics. For something to be beneficial it must bring about “joy” in the person; conversely, for something to be harmful it must bring about “sadness.” Joy is defined as the “passage from a lesser to a greater perfection” (IIIDef Aff. II) and sadness as the “passage from a greater to a lesser perfection (Def Aff. III), “perfection” being understood as one’s “power of acting” (IVPref.). In other words, to experience joy or benefit is to transition to a more empowered or active state, and to experience sadness or harm is to transition to a more disempowered or less active state. Good/bad are in turn associated with joy/sadness and benefit/harm, respectively (IVP41). An act is thus good when it brings about joy and bad when it results in sadness.
Morality, however, is not quite as simple as these definitions seem to imply. Humans are finite beings (IIP10-13), caught up in an infinite causal chain of other “antecedent finite [causes]” (Nadler Spinoza’s ‘Ethics’ 100) that leave us necessarily passive to some degree in the face of natural forces (E IVP3-4). I say “to some degree,” because humans are not purely passive. All existing things, according to Spinoza, possess a conatus: a striving, power or “existential inertia” to preserve themselves (IIIP6; Nadler “The Lives of Others” 43) and increase their state of empowerment (E IIIP12). Humans therefore experience activity and passivity in their lives, due to their finitude. We have what Aurelia Armstrong refers to as a “dynamic power” of “acting and being acted on” (14). This dynamic is what makes joy and sadness possible, because we can be both empowered and disempowered in our relations to things, our ethical goal being to act in ways that produce fruitful interactions (15). Again, we can see the consequentialist mindset in Spinoza’s ethical approach, because our finitude necessitates the pursuit of empowering affects, making results crucial morally.
In order to cultivate such relations, though, it is important to recognize the complex relation between joy and sadness, because joy can be circumstantially disempowering and sadness empowering. According to Spinoza, joy qua joy is inherently good, in that it represents empowerment and sadness qua sadness is inherently bad, in that it represents disempowerment (E IVP41). I say “joy qua joy,” however, because the experience of joy or empowerment does not prevent one from subsequently experiencing sadness or disempowerment; in fact, a joy can be the cause of sadness. In the form of “pleasure” (a species of joy), a particular part of one’s body is empowered, and if this part experiences excessive empowerment, the rest of the body will be disempowered (IVP43Dem.). Eating, for example, is in itself empowering and thus a joy through the nutrients food provides the stomach for bodily functioning. If one eats too much food, on the other hand, the stomach is over-empowered (i.e., excessively promoted in its activity) to the detriment of one’s whole body, leading one to feel lethargic, bloated or even nauseous, which are all states of the body’s overall activity being stunted (i.e., sadness). Joy can then be harmful when its scope of benefit is surpassed. Pain (a species of sadness), conversely, can be beneficial when one’s experience of disempowerment results in future greater overall joys (ibid.). In the case of excessive eating, lethargy, bloating, and nausea can be powerful motivators in ensuring that one eats a healthy proportion of food in the future, thereby serving the interests of the body’s state of activity as a whole.
It is important to note that, in IVP43’s demonstration, Spinoza refers to excessive pleasure as “evil” and pain insofar as it combats excessive pleasure as “good.” Why does he give them these respective moral designations? Because of their consequences.8Excessive pleasure is evil/bad because it is detrimental, and sadness in certain circumstances is good when it is useful for promoting one’s overall empowerment. Spinoza even explicitly says that “[f]rom the guidance of reason, we shall follow a lesser evil as a greater good, and pass over a lesser good which is the cause of a greater evil” (IVP65C). Human finitude, with its ratio of activity to passivity, places us in a moral situation where we must perform a calculus concerning joy and sadness, sometimes disempowering ourselves to a degree in order to prevent greater disempowerment and achieve greater empowerment. Spinoza’s conception of good and evil and human finitude therefore shapes the moral reasoning of his ethics into a matter of costs and benefits, aligning it strongly with consequentialism.
However, this match is not perfect. As mentioned above, consequentialism is an agent-neutral ethical paradigm. Its moral reasoning need not make any reference to the interests of the agent; what matters is maximizing the greatest good(s) possible (i.e., producing the best outcome[s]) in a given situation, even if that results in harm to the agent or the frustration of their interests. Quite simply, the traditional consequentialist is primarily concerned in their actions with promoting the good overall, not their own well-being as a particular good. This is not to say that one’s well-being cannot be relevant to the good overall, of course. On the one hand, promoting the common good of one’s fellow citizens in a state can be personally beneficial, because it provides security and resources one would not have on their own, and on the other hand, if one is seriously injured or dies their family and/or state could be left without significant support in a variety of ways. The point is that the agent’s well-being is not necessarily a major factor (or a factor at all) in the rightness of an action, within a broadly consequentialist framework; the consequences for the common good will therefore always take precedent over the agent’s self-interest if they conflict. Spinoza’s ethics, however, is clearly agent-relative. The conatus, one’s natural striving to persevere (IIIP6), is not merely a component of one’s nature, but their “actual essence” (IIIP7). All things therefore necessarily seek out their own interests, viz. to survive and empower themselves. Spinoza’s conceptions of good/bad and joy/sadness reflect this premise. Something is good if it is useful or brings joy to me and it is bad if it is detrimental or brings sadness to me. Joy and sadness moreover pertain to how I am affected by things, the former an affect of empowerment and the latter disempowerment.
Spinozist ethics is therefore at its heart an egoistic ethical paradigm.9 Spinoza makes this abundantly clear with his assertion that “[t]he striving to preserve oneself is the first and only foundation of virtue” (IVP22C), because virtue is not realizable prior to the conatus, i.e., one’s self-affirmative essence (Dem.). To be virtuous in other words is to be self-interested. This is not to say, however, that one cannot be mistaken about what is truly in their interest, which is why Spinoza clarifies in his definition of good that it is what one knows to be “certainly” beneficial to them (IVDef.1), which is reinforced by his claim that virtue involves understanding (IVP23). Furthermore, this egoism does not prevent the individual from caring for others. Spinoza argues that “[t]o man . . . there is nothing more useful [and thus empowering] than man” (IVP18S) and classifies the virtue of nobility as “the desire by which each one strives, solely from the dictates of reason, to aid other men and join them to him in friendship” (IIIP59S). One’s self-interest then involves others, as well as understanding of their true benefit to one’s empowerment.10What is important to note here is that the value of helping others is based on the consequences of interacting with them, that is their usefulness, which is consequentialist, but their usefulness is made sense of in terms of the agent’s personal state of empowerment. Spinoza’s ethics, as a result, cannot be classified as purely or fundamentally consequentialist, because the morality of an action is justified by the agent’s state of being, an action’s consequences being necessary but insufficient in classifying it as good or bad.
Spinozism and Duties
How does this egoism relate to Deontology, though? Spinoza outlines in Part IV what he calls the “dictates of reason,” that is what rational thinking tells us is truly good and how we ought to act in order to achieve this good (IIIP59S, IVP18S). The term “dictates” is what tells us Spinoza is not being merely descriptive, but rather making prescriptive claims about what one morally ought to do. The dictates of reason therefore can be said to be duties. The first, and most fundamental, dictate or duty is “that everyone love himself, [and] seek his own advantage . . . that everyone should [emphasis mine] strive to preserve his own being as far as he can” (IVP18S). One’s primary duty, the duty upon which all other duties are derived or are secondary to, is to act in accordance with their true self-interest. Spinozism shares with deontology then an agent-relative approach, ethically. This moral claim is further reinforced by Spinoza’s assertions, as mentioned above, that the conatus is “the foundation of virtue” (IVP22C) and that good/bad pertain to one’s state of empowerment (IVDef. 1 and Def. 2). This self-duty is even arguably a duty of special relationship, because it outlines one’s unique obligation to serve their own interests over others, due to the ontological and psychological primacy of the conatus. Moving beyond this primary duty, however, the dictates of reason continue to function as duties of special relationship. Spinoza goes on to argue that we should “seek . . . the common advantage of all” people (IVP18S) and that reason demands that we should strive to assist others in achieving the good, rationality, and virtue insofar as they are beneficial to our ends (IVP37, IV App. IX and XII). Because we are morally obligated to assist those aligned with our self-duty, our other-directed duties are still in essence obligations of special relationship. I am in turn less obligated by virtue of the dictates of reason to assist someone of minimal benefit to me compared to one who is strongly beneficial to my interests, my duty to others being dictated by this primary (rationally-dictated) self-duty.
My self-duty is not only a special relationship however, but also a constraint, because I am not permitted morally to act against my overall interests. Remember, evil/bad is what we know to be detrimental, and thus an act that harms my overall interests cannot be a moral duty. The Conatus Doctrine tells us: “Each thing . . . strives to persevere in its being” (IIIP6), that is to empower itself. Part of the reasoning behind this premise is the assertion that “the definition of any thing affirms, and does not deny, the thing’s essence, or it posits the thing’s essence, and does not take it away” (IIIP4Dem.). The idea is that a thing cannot both assert and deny or express and not express its existence simultaneously, because that would be to logically assert x and not-x, which is a contradiction. Each existing thing necessarily must posit its own existence, meaning the destruction of the thing can only come through an external cause (IVP4). Self-destruction is thus metaphysically impossible for Spinoza, because it is logically incoherent. Such reasoning is reminiscent of Kant’s fundamental Categorical Imperative (a morally necessary duty): The Formula of Universal Law. The FUL states that no maxim should be followed that is not rationally universalizable. Because, like Kant, Spinoza sees self-destruction as a logical contradiction, it is not a morally acceptable action; conversely, because the Conatus Doctrine is universalizable, and necessarily so metaphysically, following one’s self-interest is morally permissible and thus a duty. Of course, IIIP6 is only a descriptive premise and not a normative claim; however, Spinoza makes it clear in his dictates of reason that normativity follows from this premise, with his assertion that one should strive to preserve their own being (IVP18S). This in turn makes the rational dictate of self-duty a categorical imperative in some sense. Nadler, in support of this claim, describes all the dictates of reason as “like Kant’s categorical (moral) imperatives . . . [in their] universal [moral] demands on human behaviour” (“The Lives of Others” 46). Since all the dictates of reason are derived from one’s self-duty, which is itself such an imperative, Nadler’s assertion is persuasive. Spinoza therefore shares common ground with deontology, since the fundamental rational duties of his ethics function as special relationships, constraints, and categorical imperatives.
This common ground is however insufficient to classify Spinozism as a deontological ethical framework. It is true that Spinozistic ethics involves agent-relative duties of special relationships and constraints, and the dictates of reason qua necessary, universalizable norms function much like Kant’s categorical imperative, but the moral justification of these duties is distinctly consequentialist. Remember, what makes anything, including a duty, good is that it brings about beneficial results. The relevance of deontology, as mentioned above, is that it believes in moral obligations that focus on more than just the results of an action, and in fact prioritizes duties like special relationships over what may result from them (i.e., one serves their loved ones’ interests even when it is not beneficial). For Spinoza, conversely, no duty can be made sense of morally irrespective of the results it brings about, because intrinsic moral classifications of things do not exist; good and bad are relational. Duties exist in Spinozistic ethics as moral obligations, but these obligations are always justified on consequential grounds. There is thus no way to escape the instrumental nature of Spinozistic duties, a fact which is distinctly non-deontological.
One might argue, however, that the Conatus Doctrine or one’s self-duty is nevertheless a categorical imperative and therefore an intrinsic moral duty to value oneself as an end, irrespective of consequences. The problem with this reasoning is that this doctrine is a descriptive metaphysical premise and Spinoza denies the existence of free will. The mind has no “absolute” or indeterminate faculty of will, meaning any volition of the mind is determined by fixed causes that could not have been different (E IIP48). This determinism connects to the conatus, where it is metaphysically necessary that one strive to preserve their being. It is not merely that one should not act contrary to self-interest, but that one cannot act contrary to self-interest.11 A duty for Kant, and arguably many traditional moral thinkers (including deontologists), involves absolute/indeterminate free will, namely the capacity to not perform the moral act, which is why it is praiseworthy (Della Rocca 202-3). A categorical imperative is necessary morally, not ontologically. One should act this way, but one has the capacity not to. As a result, the self-duty of the Spinozist would not be a “duty” or categorical imperative as traditionally understood, because the conatus is ontologically necessary. We may still grant that one should value their own life in itself,12 but because they are incapable of not valuing themselves as an end, the conatus is not a duty in the traditional and deontological sense. Consequently, Spinozism, despite its agreement with certain deontological elements, is not itself a deontological ethical framework, due to its moral emphasis on the results of actions and rejection of indeterminate free will.
Spinozism and Virtue
But what about virtue ethics? Does Spinozism’s relative consequentialist foundations prevent it from prioritizing virtue? Spinoza explicitly uses the language of virtue in his treatise. Parts IV and V are riddled with references to virtue, the above assertion that one’s self-interest or self-duty is the “foundation of virtue” being a prime example (E IVP22C). However, we have already seen that a duty for Spinoza is not quite the same as “duty” traditionally understood, so might Spinoza not understand virtue differently than a virtue ethicist and does his ethics meet Hursthouse and Sandler’s criteria? Spinoza defines virtue as “the power of bringing about certain things, which can be understood through the laws of [one’s] nature alone” (IVDef. 8) or the “very striving to preserve one’s own being” that follows from their nature, that is the conatus (IVP18S). Virtue is, in other words, to be a self-empowered or properly self-interested person. Virtue ethics understands virtue to be a characteristic, and according to the aforementioned criteria, a characteristic of flourishing.
The Spinozist is then in agreement with this conception of virtue, because to be virtuous for Spinoza is to be disposed to act towards one’s self-interest and for one’s natural, true self-interest to be the cause of one’s actions. Furthermore, virtue is self-empowerment, meaning virtue is a characteristic synonymous with flourishing or what Spinoza refers to as “blessedness” (VP42), which satisfies (1).13We are even given two concrete characteristics that can be classified as virtues: tenacity and nobility. Tenacity is “the desire by which each one strives, solely from the dictates of reason, to preserve his being,” while nobility is “the desire by which each one strives . . . to aid other men and join them in friendship” (IIIP59S). Both are dispositions to act rationally according to one’s nature or self-interest, and thus are dispositions synonymous with one’s flourishing or self-empowerment. It is important to clarify here that tenacity and nobility do not just involve acting in a beneficial way that agrees with reason, but the actual desire is rationally self-interested, which is why these dispositions are virtues. It is because of this rational desire for true self-interest and the fact that virtue is here equated with true self-interest that Spinoza claims virtue should be valued “for its own sake” (IVP18S). The virtuous Spinozist acts from dispositions explicitly directed at virtue, meaning Spinozistic ethics aligns itself strongly with the mindset of virtue ethics. Moreover, it satisfies (2)14 through the characteristics of tenacity and nobility, two concrete virtues the virtuous person possesses in their state of flourishing. Finally, we have (3): “[a]n action is right iff it is what a virtuous agent would do in the circumstances” (Sandler 176). Does right action in Spinoza’s ethics agree with this claim? I would argue it very clearly does. For anything, including an action, to be good, right, or morally permissible it must empower the individual to some degree. Since the virtuous person is a self-interested person, that is a person disposed to empower themselves, the right action in a Spinozistic sense will be coextensive with what the virtuous person will do. What makes the action right is when or insofar as it corresponds with one’s conatus – one’s striving to empower themselves. Even if one does not possess tenacity or nobility, and thus is not significantly virtuous, their actions can nevertheless still be right for Spinoza insofar as they pertain to this essential self-interested disposition, that is insofar as the action is legitimately empowering and thus an act the virtuous person would hypothetically perform in a given circumstance. Spinozism is then in many ways a virtue ethic.15
Spinozism overall is an egoistic ethical paradigm with a complex moral relationship to consequence, duty, and character. The metaphysical foundation of the conatus makes it so morality can only be realized through the self-interest of the agent. Good/right and bad/wrong are shaped however not just by reference to the agent’s interests, but the objective consequences of their actions; an act is only good/right insofar as it results in an increase in the agent’s state of empowerment (joy) and it is bad/wrong when it causes disempowerment (sadness). Because of human finitude, which makes it so any action will necessarily involve the activity and passivity of the agent, one is morally obligated to perform a calculus concerning joy and sadness, sometimes using sadness to achieve greater empowerment and avoiding a lesser joy to prevent greater disempowerment. From this broadly consequentialist framework, reason constructs certain duties and characteristics that serve the purpose of greater empowerment, and thus the eudaimonistic goal of living well. The Spinozist has then an explicit moral duty not merely to follow their self-interest, but to act in ways that will more precisely be self-empowering overall. A duty that follows from this self-duty is the duty to others, because to truly empower oneself one must empower others to create a mutually beneficial environment where individuals can act as effective resources for each other. The virtuous person in this framework, that is the one who genuinely and successfully flourishes, is the person rationally disposed to desire their self-interest and the interests of others (thus acting in accordance with the abovementioned duties), which is embodied in the characteristics or virtues of tenacity and nobility, respectively. Human finitude also plays a significant role here, because the ratio of activity to passivity makes one’s virtue a matter of degree. Insofar as one acts from their true self-interest, they are virtuous and flourish; insofar as they are subject to external forces, they lack virtue and are stunted in flourishing. Morality and living well are thus not ethical absolutes. Actions are not always good or bad/virtuous or not virtuous; instead, they tend to be good/virtuous to some extent while being bad/not virtuous to a different extent.
Spinozism, as laid out in the Ethics, therefore exhibits complexity and practicality through the nuanced interrelation of consequences, duties, and characteristics, as well as its scalar approach to moral evaluation.16These elements reveal Spinozistic egoism to be far more than just simply equating morality with self-interest. Through his references to the consequences of actions, the explicit duties that bring about empowering results, and the kind of rational dispositions necessary for being virtuous and morally good, Spinoza gives us a clear, comprehensive, and persuasive moral guide for successfully living well.
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Brandon Smith is a fifth-year doctoral candidate in Philosophy at McGill University. His research concerns Spinoza, historical accounts of happiness, and the history of Eudaimonism.