Many of the writers with whom I have been concerned so far held that morality is tied in some way or other to salvation. If they did not think that morally decent behavior would by itself lead to or guarantee salvation, they took it to be at least a necessary condition of salvation, or a sign of it. Either you had to behave decently in order to become qualified for saving grace, or you could earn eternal life by moral goodness, or if you were of the elect you would show it by morally good behavior. Even the natural lawyers, reticent on principle about such matters in their jurisprudential treatises, had salvation somewhere in mind: witness Pufendorf's claim that dedication to performance of imperfect duties in the right spirit may win us merit – and not only in this life (Chapter 7.iv). Extreme antinomians, indeed, may have held that if you are saved, then anything you do counts as good, and morality is quite beside the point. But such views drew philosophical consideration, if at all, only to be rejected. Philosophers with serious religious convictions tended to think that there had to be some connection between morality and salvation.
For atheists, of course, there was no issue here. The so-called libertines in France during the first half of the seventeenth century proposed a wide variety of unorthodox standpoints, with atheistic morality among them.
Attempts to avoid the morally unpalatable consequences of Locke's empiricist ethics were at the core of the development of British moral philosophy during much of the eighteenth century. Shaftesbury kept a deity in his universe to ensure its moral harmony, but he most emphatically held that there was no need to appeal to divine laws and threats to explain how people can live decently. He tried to show that Locke's voluntarist ethics is undercut by our possession of a moral faculty that enables us to govern ourselves. Desires and passions are, for him as for Locke, blind forces caused by, but not containing, representations of goods and ills. The moral faculty gives us a special feeling of moral approval that is aroused by a harmonious balance of the motivating forces in the soul and then in turn reinforces that balance. If this was a way around Locke, it posed problems even for those who shared Shaftesbury's moral revulsion at Locke's reductionist ethics of command, threat, and obedience. Shaftesbury sometimes presents the moral feeling as a mere sentiment, causally interacting with ideas and feelings; but more deeply and persistently he treats it as revealing eternal truths. The one reading points toward a naturalistic view of morals which the other reading denies. Theories of both kinds were proposed early in the century.
Kant invented the conception of morality as autonomy. I use the notion of invention as Kant himself did in an early remark. “Leibniz thought up a simple substance” he said, “which had nothing but obscure representations, and called it a slumbering monad. This monad he had not explained, but merely invented; for the concept of it was not given to him but was rather created by him.” Autonomy, as Kant saw it, requires contracausal freedom; and he believed that in the unique experience of the moral ought we are “given” a “fact of reason” that unquestionably shows us that we possess such freedom as members of a noumenal realm. Readers who hold, as I do, that our experience of the moral ought shows us no such thing will think of his version of autonomy as an invention rather than an explanation. Those with different views on freedom and morality may wish that I had called this book The Discovery of Autonomy. We can probably agree that Kant's moral thought is as hard to understand as it is original and profound. Systematic studies from Paton and Beck to the present have greatly improved our critical grasp of his position. In this book I try to broaden our historical comprehension of Kant's moral philosophy by relating it to the earlier work to which it was a response.
I have argued that the voluntarist natural lawyers tried to keep God essential to morality while confining his role in it to his initial willful act of creating it. Machiavelli and Harrington did without God in establishing their principles, though they thought a stable republic needed a civil religion. Montaigne explored the possibility of morality without religion, and his follower Charron made some effort to create a systematic naturalistic theory. Although Hobbes worked out such a system quite fully, he retained a marginal role for God in transforming the dictates of prudence into genuine laws; and however tempting it is for us to read Spinoza as a wholehearted naturalizer of morality, his own understanding of the universe was profoundly religious. Mandeville gave a natural history of morality, only to add to it an account of a demanding principle that has something to do with the divinity. No one believed he meant that part of what he said, and in any case it is plain that he was more interested in outraging public sentiment than he was in presenting a serious and thorough naturalistic philosophical account of human life.
David Hume (1711–76) intended to give just such an account. He made very clear, moreover, his belief that religion is morally and politically detrimental to society and human happiness. He did not urge the establishment of a civil religion for the masses.
The article on “interest” in Diderot's Encyclopaedie opens with an account of the ambiguities of the word, expounds the view that proper self-love is the source of all the virtues, and deplores the efforts of Nicole, Pascal, and La Rochefoucauld to paint self-love as vicious. The Encyclopedist thinks that Lord Shaftesbury demands an impossible disinterestedness and moreover that he “does not sufficiently see that the noble effects of self-love, the love of order, of moral good, of benevolence, can influence only few of the actions of men living in a corrupt society.” Many eighteenth-century writers held that self-love might have generally noble effects even in a corrupt society. What is more, it might do so without causing us to be benevolent.
The new advocates of self-love opposed the sentimentalists no less than the rationalists. They did not, like Nicole, think our egoism a result of sin, and try to show how God could overcome it behind our backs. They were aiming neither to support an absolutist politics by showing that without it selfish human passions would lead us to self-destruction, nor to unmask all apparently generous and benevolent desires. They were not arguing that self-love, by increasing our concern for our long-term interest, can act as a countervailing force against the eruptions of the passions. They saw a psychology and morality of self-love as the sole theory able to make sense of our motives and actions and to guide them intelligently.
In rejecting natural law theory, Montaigne was rejecting the dominant European understanding of universal morality. During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries all the universities taught their students the basic points of the theory; and it was important outside the academy as well. In 1594 the Protestant Richard Hooker produced a magnificent restatement of Thomistic natural law doctrine in order to justify, against Catholics and Calvinists, his claim that the English government could rightly determine what its churches taught and how they were to be organized. Sixteenth-century Spanish Catholic theologians were prolific sources of commentary on both intellectualist and voluntarist theories of natural law. Their greatest successor was Francisco Suarez, whose early seventeenth-century synthesis was designed to support his efforts to justify papal supremacy over all baptized Christians, including such heretics as King James I, and to defend tyrannicide. Hooker addressed a local issue and was influential only in England. Suarez spoke to problems of international order, and was read everywhere.
Hooker restated the Thomistic belief that under a divine supervisor all things follow laws directing them to act for the common good of the universe as well as their own, and that natural law directs us in particular to both ends equally. Quietly incorporating some elements of voluntarism, he tried to make his position acceptable to Calvinists as well as to members of his own church.
“Error is the cause of men's misery” So Malebranche opens his great treatise, The Search after Truth, published in 1674–5. The contrast between this and the opening reference of Grotius's Law of War and Peace to controversy as the problem to be handled by morality concisely indicates the basic difference between the natural law thinkers and the rationalist moral philosophers of the seventeenth century. What united the former, I have argued, was acceptance of a problematic centering on the permanence of conflict. What unites the latter is the thesis that ignorance and error resulting from failure to use our reason properly are what stand between us and a life of harmony and virtue.
The modern natural lawyers held that by reasoning from observable facts we can find out how to cope with the moral and political problems that beset our lives. Experience gives us the evidence we need in order to infer that God exists and cares for us. Part of what we learn from it is that God has made the proper structure of our common life independent of any larger cosmic scheme. Even if there is some divine harmony in the universe, we cannot appeal to it in determining how we ought to live. Once we understand that God governs us, the observable facts about ourselves in this world provide all the rational basis there can be for working out our proper direction.
Leibniz (1646–1716) was usually polite to those whom he criticized, and often allowed that there was some recoverable truth in almost any view, however mistaken. Yet he rejected central positions of all his great seventeenth-century predecessors and peers. Descartes, Hobbes, Gassendi, Locke, Spinoza, Malebranche, Grotius, Pufendorf, Bayle – whatever their role in the formation of his thought, they turned out, in the end, to have made serious mistakes. Ancient and medieval thinkers were more likely to be endorsed, if often in rather vague terms. These two sides of Leibniz's attitude are linked in a famous description of his own theory, uttered by his mouthpiece in the New Essays: “This system appears to unite Plato with Democritus, Aristotle with Descartes, the Scholastics with the moderns, theology and morality with reason. Apparently it takes the best from all systems and then advances further than anyone has yet done” (New Essays, p. 71). In associating his work with that of the premoderns, Leibniz was being neither eclectic nor nostalgic. He was being, in Catherine Wilson's apt term, counterrevolutionary. The newest science, the most up-to-date political practices, the current religious controversies, he argued, were all to be understood and managed only in terms that embodied the deep insights of ancient and medieval thought – or only, in his modest estimate, in his own terms.
Expressing one's opinions during the eighteenth century involved considerably more risk in France than in Germany or Britain. In Prussia a king could exile a professor; in England the orthodox could block a promising ecclesiastical career; in France the government could jail, torture, and execute those it disliked. Censors kept a watchful eye on French publications. The standards for licensing were intended to serve the needs of the royal government and the hierarchy of France's Roman Catholic Church. The licensing laws failed, however, to stop the flow of criticism. Attacks on all aspects of the established regime were published anonymously, or outside the country, or inside it with falsifications about the printer. They were addressed to the public at large, not only to the learned. We do not know how many readers they reached. But it seems clear that the more oppressive the political and religious authorities were, the more numerous and vehement became the books denouncing them. Writers went to prison or left the country, but they did not stop criticizing the powers whose threats could literally endanger their lives.
The chief concern of those who wrote about morality in prerevolutionary France was not with theory but with the hope, or threat, of change. In England, Scotland, and some of the German states, clergymen and professors produced original and important moral philosophy.
The belief that human action should be guided by natural laws that apply to all people, no matter what their race, sex, location, or religion, originated outside of Judaism and Christianity. Once accepted into Christian thought, the idea of natural law became central to the European way of understanding morality. In this chapter I indicate briefly the origins of natural law theory and review its classical exposition in the work of St. Thomas. Then, after presenting some of the major points on which critics disagreed with St. Thomas, I go on to discuss the outlook on morality of the two main founders of the Protestant Reformation, Luther and Calvin, for whom voluntarism was of central importance. These different Christian interpretations of natural law were far more significant for the development of modern moral philosophy than the ethical writings of Plato or Aristotle.
Origins of natural law theory
The concept of natural law is at least as old as the Stoics. It was developed as the city-state was ceasing to be the dominant political form of Mediterranean life and was transmitted by the Stoic school to the Romans. In Rome the idea came into fruitful contact with actual legal practice. Roman law covered all the dealings of Roman citizens in great detail. As Rome expanded, its citizens increased the amount of business they did with foreigners.
Herbert of Cherbury and the Cambridge Platonists held that what morality requires, before all else, is the pursuit of perfection; but they had different understandings of the difficulties of the pursuit. Herbert thought that we must increase moral knowledge in order to increase perfection; the Platonists saw insufficient resolution, not ignorance, as the obstacle to virtue. For them we need to strengthen our will so that we can resist temptation and live as we all know we should. Descartes also took the view that the cultivation of strength of will is the path that we must take to achieve virtue. But he presented his view as a second-best morality, an expedient needed because action is unavoidable even though we do not know that we are acting rightly. If we could now pick the fruit of the tree of knowledge, the will, guided by the intellect's clear and distinct perceptions, would necessarily – and without struggle – choose the right course of action.
Descartes could take his morality to be an interim measure because he optimistically thought that research would one day yield enough truth to direct action with certainty. Benedict Spinoza (1632–77) and Nicholas Malebranche (1638–1715) did not share his optimism. Agreeing that perfection is our goal, they held that it would be attainable only if we could know all that God knows, which we plainly cannot.
“In moral philosophy we have come no further than the ancients.” So Kant told his students (9.32 and 28.540). He was not modest about his own achievements in the theory of knowledge. Why did he not claim that the critical understanding of morality was as revolutionary as its epistemological counterpart? He certainly thought about the issue. Unlike Aristotle, who summarized the opinions of his predecessors in metaphysics but not in ethics, Kant regularly taught his students something about the history of moral philosophy, and particularly about the ancients. He seems to have lectured less often on the history of other philosophical subjects, but he drafted an important prize essay assessing the progress recently made in metaphysics. Is it only because no academy had a competition on the subject that Kant wrote no comparable essay about progress in ethics?
To ask these questions is to ask about Kant's understanding of his own historicity as a moral philosopher. The question leads us to ask as well how Kant understood the point of philosophical ethics. In Chapter 22.ii I pointed to some indications that at a formative period Kant felt uneasy about the vocation of a philosopher. I also noted his rejection of the Wolffian belief in the social need for authoritative pronouncements about morality from scholars who spend their lives studying it.
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