Thursday, August 25, 2016

"Traditionally, most moral philosophers, as well as the proverbial man in the street, have viewed ‘moral perfection’ and ‘goodness’ as absolute values that one ought to and can realize. Within the Judeo-Christian tradition, this view has often been linked with the conception of a human being as created with a free will by a personal deity who requires obedience to a set of commandments that define the morally good. The eternal destiny of the individual is then linked to the fulfillment of these commandments (the ‘Divine Law’). For the past three hundred years, this religious ethic has competed with a secular, ‘humanistic’ ethic, in which the theological trimmings have been removed but the belief that human beings have free wills and are obligated to perform certain duties quite independently of their interests and desires, remains. The conscientious performance of these duties is called ‘virtue’ and is deemed worthy of praise, whereas the failure to perform them is considered morally blameworthy.

"Spinoza had little sympathy for this moral outlook in either its religious or secular form. For him, the entire outlook, as well as the conception of human nature that it entails, is a product of the imagination, rather than of reason. As such, it is based on inadequate ideas – specifically, on a failure to recognize that human beings, as finite modes, are parts of nature, and that their particular desires and values, as well as their actions, are necessary consequences of the endeavor to preserve their being.

"After providing a nonevaluative definition of perfection in terms of the completed, or finished, and noting that, so construed, it applies only to artifacts, he attempts to explain how the notion and its opposite came to acquire an evaluative sense and to be applied to natural things (including human beings). This is traced to mankind’s tendency, under the domination of the imagination, to form universal ideas (which are, of course, highly confused) and to regard them as norms, or models (exemplaria) in terms of which things and their actions are to be judged. Given such models, perfection and imperfection are now understood evaluatively in terms of conformity or lack thereof to the model – for example, the ‘perfect’ human being is the one who realizes or comes closest to realizing the ‘ideal ‘of what it is to be a human being. The specifically moral notions of good and evil are likewise defined in terms of these models. Not surprisingly, Spinoza connects the development of this way of thinking with the belief in final causes. The basic idea here seems to be that belief in a norm or model reflects belief in a purpose for which a thing has been created. For Spinoza, however, these ‘purposes,’ together with the associated models, are really nothing more than projections of human desires. He thus concludes that perfection and imperfection, good and evil, are not intrinsic properties of things, but merely ‘modes of thinking’ – fictions that we attribute to things insofar as we consider them in light of our desire-based model." - Henry E. Allison, Benedict de Spinoza: An Introduction

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