Spinoza, p7 / On the ethics of the self
Written by Clare Carlisle
For Spinoza the main hurdle to virtue isn't egoism but ignorance of our true nature – by being selfish we can in fact help others
Unlike many other philosophers, Spinoza does not think that living an ethical life involves overcoming our natural self-centredness. For Spinoza, the main obstacle to virtue is not egoism, but ignorance of our true nature. When we are subject to strong emotions, which we attribute to imagined causes, we are unlikely to act in a way that is good for ourselves, or for other people. Add to this our misguided belief in free will, and the messy, antagonistic reality of human relationships seems inevitable.
Last week we considered some of the implications of Spinoza's concept of conatus – the striving to persevere in existence, and to enhance its own power, that constitutes the essence of every individual being. This, of course, applies to human beings as much as to everything else. But if we are fundamentally selfinterested, as this idea of conatus seems to suggest, then where does this leave morality?
This problem is compounded by the fact that, in Spinoza's philosophy, the self-interested character of human beings is linked to what looks like moral relativism. When we examined the doctrine of God set out in the first book of the Ethics, we saw that Spinoza challenges the traditional religious idea that God rewards virtue and punishes vice, and this gave an early indication that he does not share with more conventional 17th-century thinkers their belief in a moral universe. And in the fourth book of the Ethics, he is very clear that "good" and "evil" are not intrinsic values: "As far as good and evil are concerned, they indicate nothing positive in things, considered in themselves, nor are they anything other than modes of thinking, or notions we form because we compare things to one another." For Spinoza, we should understand the terms "good" and "bad" as analogous to "healthy" and "unhealthy": value is a question of what is good for me, or bad for me.
Spinoza argues here that "one and the same thing can, at the same time, be good, and bad, and also indifferent". He illustrates this point by suggesting that music is good for someone who is depressed, bad for someone who is in mourning, and indifferent for someone who is deaf. In denying absolute moral values, Spinoza looks very much like a precursor of Nietzsche, who is well known for his criticism of morality – and, indeed, Nietzsche's view that we need to move "beyond good and evil" to a less moralistic understanding of value is clearly influenced by his reading of the Ethics.
However, we shouldn't conclude that Spinoza thinks values are merely subjective, in the sense of being relative to the desires, opinions and prejudices of each individual. In fact, he would emphatically reject such a view. Whether or not something is good for an individual – that is to say, whether or not it increases her power, enhances her life – is not a matter of opinion. Indeed, we may well be mistaken about what is good for us, and so our believing something to be valuable does not make it so. This means we come back to a notion of objective value: even if this varies from person to person and from context to context, it is nevertheless objectively true that, in each particular situation, something will be beneficial or harmful.
This is why, for Spinoza, knowledge and understanding must lie at the heart of a good human life. As we saw last week when we examined his theory of the emotions, we become active, and so enhance our own power, when we thoroughly understand our feelings and behaviour. And these notions of activity and power are inseparable from what we might still call moral virtue, so long as we do not associate the word "moral" with absolute value. Spinoza insists that "the more each person strives, and is able, to seek his own advantage, the more he is endowed with virtue; conversely, insofar as each one neglects his own advantage, that is, neglects to preserve his being, he lacks power".
Furthermore, Spinoza argues that when we seek what is genuinely to our advantage – as opposed to what we merely believe is good for us – we enhance the being of others as well as ourselves. Like Socrates in the Republic, he suggests that there isn't really a conflict between self-interest and morality, between egoism and altruism. This is because all human beings share something deeply in common: beneath the surface of diverging and conflicting ideas, emotions, tastes, inclinations and prejudices, our true nature is constituted by reason, which grasps the way in which everything in the universe is connected. And so Spinoza sums up his account of virtue like this: "the more each one seeks his own advantage, and strives to preserve himself, the more he is endowed with virtue, or what is the same, the greater is his power of acting according to the laws of his own nature, that is, of living from the guidance of reason. But men most agree in nature when they live according to the guidance of reason. Therefore, men will be most useful to one another, when each one most seeks his own advantage."
It's important to clarify that Spinoza isn't talking here about a narrowly intellectual kind of reason. Intelligence in the sense of cleverness is at least as likely to separate people as to bring them together – and being clever certainly doesn't correlate with being virtuous, happy and empowered. Rather, Spinoza has in mind a deeper, more spiritual kind of wisdom, which involves what we today call "emotional intelligence", and self-awareness, as well as an understanding of how every being is part of a greater whole