Saturday, March 10, 2007

Stephen Nadler: Spinoza

When discussing the relationship between science and religion, Albert Einstein and Carl Sagan both expressed a preference for what they called “Spinoza’s God” – the understanding of God created by the 18th century philosopher Baruch Spinoza.

Stephen Nadler, Chair of the Department of Philosophy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, went to the Beyond Belief 2006 conference to present Spinoza’s views on science, god, and morality.

Spinoza’s God

Nadler began his presentation by saying that Spinoza should be considered a hero of everybody in the room and that he was surprised that his name had come up only once so far.

Among the claims that Nadler attributes to Spinoza, that many modern atheists would embrace, are these:

The Bible is a work of literature – a collection of essays written by different people and brought together by a group of editors, who went through a list of submissions deciding which to accept and which to reject, and publishing the result. The bible has no more of a connection to the truth than Pride and Prejudice.

Nothing exists by nature. Spinoza considers and rejects the idea that God exists as a supernatural entity within nature (like water can reside in a sponge), because Spinoza rejects the supernatural (nothing exists but the sponge).

Spinoza also rejects the idea that it makes sense to stand in worshipful awe of nature itself (that God is the material universe, or God is the sponge). This is akin to standing like a fool with one’s mouth open before nature. Nature is to be examined and understood, not worshipped.

Spinoza's Ethics

Entering into the realm of morality, Nadler addresses two related issues: (1) Weakness of will, and (2) The motivation to do that which is right.

The difference between these two questions is that the first (weakness of will) asks, “Given that I know what is right, and that I am motivated to do it, how is it that I can fail to do the right thing.”

The second (motivation to do the right thing) asks, “Given that I know what the right thing to do is, why should I do it?”

On these issues, Nadler represents Spinoza as holding the view that people are always motivated to do that which is in their rational self-interest. He equates rational self-interest both with what a (rational) person does, and with what a rational person should do, such that the real question is not, “Why should I be moral?” but “How could I ever be immoral?”

The Possibility of Evil

In fact, what Nadler describes above the reductio ad absurdum of this view that Nadler attributes to Spinoza. The view that everybody does, in fact, promote their own self-interest as a matter of physical necessity, and that everybody should act in their own self-interests, means that everybody does that which is right, and nobody ever does anything immoral. Immorality does not exist, and all people are at all times perfectly virtuous.

Any meaningful answer to the question, “Why should I be moral?” must make sense of at least the possibility that an agent may have reason to do something immoral.

Self Interest

I agree with Spinoza, as Nadler describes him, that everybody acts so as to fulfill the more and the stronger of their desires, given their beliefs; and that they seek to act so as to fulfill their desires.

For the sake of space, I want to assume that everybody has true beliefs. Under this assumption, I will illustrate how it is possible for a person to do something that is immoral – to be evil – even if he necessarily acts so as to fulfill his desires given his beliefs, and even though all of his beliefs are true. This means that you cannot cause a person to be moral simply by correcting his beliefs. In order to get somebody to do that which is moral, you have to manipulate his desires.

According to Nadler, Spinoza asserts that everybody acts in their own ‘self-interest’. This is a popular slogan, even today. Unfortunately, it is ambiguous, and this ambiguity creates a great many problems.

This ambiguity centers on the difference between self-interest in the sense of interests (desires) of the self versus interests (desires) in the self. This subtle difference is extremely important.

Of course, the desires that I act so as to fulfill are my own. They are desires (interests) of the self. In fact, it is as inconceivable that an action motivated by a desire that is not my own can be my action. An action belongs to the person whose desires motivated it – such that if somebody else had remote control over my body, the actions my body would be performing would be her actions, not mine. If this body were to be used to commit murder, she would be the murderer, not me.

Even though every action is motivated by desires of the self these are not necessarily (and often not in fact) desires in the self. Just because I always do what I most want to do does not imply that I only want to do that which benefits me. It is quite possible (and, in fact, quite common) for an agent to have a desire of the self that is a desire in the well-being of other people.

So, given that everybody acts to fulfill the more and the stronger of their own desires, can we make sense of the idea that some people sometimes do that which is evil? And can we answer the question “Why be moral?”

Weakness of Will

Let’s first look at the question of weakness of will. Recall, this is a person who knows that X is the right thing to do, wants to do the right thing, but does not do it. What is going on here?

Well, if we take the formula that people act so as to fulfill the more and stronger of his desires, ‘weakness of will’ suggests that X does not, in fact, fulfill the more and stronger of his desires. The agent can still have a desire to do the right thing. However, this desire is always only one desire among many. It need not be strong enough to override other desires. A rapist’s may know that rape is wrong and know that rape is evil. He even might have a desire to be a good person and an aversion to doing harm to others. However, the desire to rape might still be so strong that rape is still the act that actually fulfills the more and the stronger of his desires.

“Weakness of will” is a very appropriate term here, because the problem is that the desires that would prevent rape are too weak to override the desires that motivate rape.

Why Be Moral?

So, now, let us look at a person who has no desire to do the right thing, no aversion to harming others, but who has a desire to commit rape. Let him ask, “What reason do I have not to commit rape?”

The answer would be, “None.” If, ex hypothesi we give an agent no desires that are necessarily false in a state of affairs in which (or that results from a state of affairs in which) he commits rape then, by definition that person has no reason not to commit rape.

However, even in this instance, others in the community have many strong reasons to give the agent a reason not to commit rape.

There are two ways of doing this.

The first method of giving somebody a reason is to take the agent’s desires of the agent as a given and say, “If you commit rape, we will create for you a state of affairs that you have reason to avoid.” This could include a loss of freedom, property, or even life. This involves giving the agent a reason not to commit rape by making it the case that a state of affairs that he has reason to avoid will follow upon his committing rape. However, this method has an important weakness. A person who can avoid getting caught performing an action has not, in fact, been given a reason not to perform it. So, if this was the only reason that a person has not to perform an action, he will perform it, when he can get away with it.

A second method of giving somebody a reason avoids this problem. This is to give the agent an aversion to performing the action, or an aversion to some state of affairs that is an integral and necessary part of performing the action. If a person has an aversion to taking money that does not belong to him, then he will not do so, even if there is no risk of punishment. This is true in the same way that a person who has an aversion to eating liver and onions will not do so, even if he has an opportunity to eat liver and onions without getting caught, or where those who would catch him have no intention of punishing him. He still would not do it.

Using both of these methods, people generally have reason to give others strong reasons not to engage in rape. Even the rapist has reasons to give others reasons to not engage in rape – if the rapist does not wish to be raped or has an affection for others that he wishes not to have raped, or an affection for others who have an affection for others that they would not like to have raped.

So, I want to reject the idea that “rape is immoral” means “the agent has strong reasons not to commit rape” – because this might not be true, and rape remains wrong even if this is not true. Let us take it instead to mean, “the agent should have good and strong reasons not to commit rape” or, more specifically, “people generally have reason to cause the agent to have strong reasons not to commit rape.”

This makes sense of some very common uses of the term. If a child hits a classmate, the teacher does not say, “You feel ashamed of yourself!” Because, after all, the child might not feel the least bit of shame, and the wrongness of hitting the other child does not depend on his actually feeling ashamed. Instead, the teacher (accurately) says, “You should be ashamed of yourself.” He does not say that the child has a reason not to hit other students, but that the child should have a sufficiently strong reason – that a good child would have a sufficiently strong reason – not to hit other students.

This allows for the possibility of an agent to do (be) evil, since the act that fulfills the more and stronger of his actual desires, might not be the act that fulfills the desires that others have reason to cause him to have.

The question, “Why should I be moral?” is actually ambiguous? The question may be asking, "Why should I, given the reasons that I have, do that which a good person would do?" The answer to this question may be, "There is no reason."

However, there is another version of the question. "Why should I have the desires that people generally have reasons to want me to have?" Or, more precisely, "What reasons do other people have to get me to behave differently?"

If being moral is having desires that tend to fulfill the desires of others, there really is no mystery as to why people have reasons to cause the agent to want to do X. Those people generally have many strong reasons to cause others to have desires that fulfill the desires of others.


Nadler actually made this point, though not so tightly tied to the reasoning that I made above. He discussed the trial of Socrates, where Socrates was accused of corrupting the youth. Socrates, according to Nadler, answered that the charge was absurd. "What possible reason would I have to corrupt the youth, given that I would have to live amongst them?"

In fact, Socrates, like all of us, have reason to cause others to have those desires that fulfill the desires of others. It would be quite irrational for us to promote desires that tend to thwart the desires of others. The difference is that our students will tend to act so as to thwart, rather than so as to fulfill, our own desires. That is not a wise option to pursue

So, we all have reason to promote in others those desires that tend to fulfill the desires of others. An efficient way to do this is to learn to identify them - to call evidence of them 'good' and to say that 'this is the type of person we have strong reasons for everybody to become."

Moral language handles the job both of identifying positive and negative desires, and providing the praise and condemnation that promotes or inhibits those desires.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


I loved Nadler's presentation. I saw him give this talk last year in a different venue, but it was great to hear him tell it again.