1 Finding room for altruism in Baruch Spinoza s Ethics J. Curran O Day Tulane University New Orleans, LA ABSTRACT: Spinoza begins his Ethics by articulating his notion of God as the one infinite substance. As mere finite modes of God s infinite actuality, human beings inhabit a level of existence far below that of Spinoza s deity. There is, however, opportunity for advancement. Spinoza argues that all finite beings posses an inalienable drive for selfpreservation, by which they can increase their level of activity and come closer to God. By tying moral action to the preservation of the self, Spinoza seems to leave little room for other motivations, in particular altruism. Surprisingly, Spinoza ultimately proposes a system that, while maintaining its commitment to self-preservation, makes the good of all beings valuable.
2 O'Day 1 In his Ethics, Baruch Spinoza attempts to illuminate the nature of human beings and their relationship to God. He argues, men act always with an end in view, to wit, the advantage that they seek (25). According to Spinoza, the most fundamental goal of human activity is obtaining the advantage needed to preserve oneself. Given this principle, one wonders what kinds of choices are left for humans to make. In other words, is it ever natural for human beings to choose a course of action for the purpose of some good that does not presuppose one s own preservation? For instance, is there any room for altruism in Spinoza s ethic? This essay will analyze Spinoza s foundational principle of self-preservation to determine whether it can be interpreted to include selfless motivation for action and ultimately whether Spinoza s philosophy would be acceptable to someone who values altruism. Any understanding of Spinoza s philosophy must begin with an analysis of his argument regarding the ontology of God and the universe. He argues, there can be, or be conceived, no other substance but God (10). By God, Spinoza explains, I mean an absolutely infinite being (4). Spinoza conceives of the universe as a single infinite substance. In virtue of their shared infiniteness, it follows that God and substance are one and the same thing. Having explained his conception of God and the universe, Spinoza s next step would need to account for the multitude of diversity in the universe, as it clearly does not appear as a single substance. He coins the word mode as that which is in something else and is conceived through something else (4). Spinoza explains that to be eternal, one must be conceived as necessarily following solely from the definition of an eternal thing, that is, conceived through nothing other than itself (4). Human beings and the diverse objects of the universe, therefore, are simply finite modes of God, the infinite
3 O'Day 2 substance. Spinoza argues, a body is said to be finite because we can always conceive of another body greater than it. So, too, a thought is limited by another thought. But body is not limited by thought, nor thought by body. (3). Finite things are those that can be limited by something else of the same nature. Thought and body, as two things that cannot limit one another, must not share in the same nature and are therefore distinct. Clearly there is more to Spinoza s story. Thoughts, like bodies, are modes expressing the nature of God in a definite and determinate way (30). For there to be individual finite modes expressing the nature of God, there must a corresponding infinite attribute under which all of the individual modes are conceived. Thoughts and bodies, therefore, are evidence of God s attributes of thought and extension. In the fact that human beings consist of bodies and minds, two modes of God s infinite attributes, Spinoza a presenting a kind of dualism in the human experience that is reminiscent of other thinkers in the modern era. The distinctiveness of Spinoza s philosophy, however, turns on the fact that this dual experience consists of two finite expressions of the same infinite substance. Unlike his predecessor, Descartes, who held that mind and body were distinct in kind, Spinoza avoids the complication of the interaction between mind in body by showing that they are simply two ways of observing and understanding the same substance. Of course, this also implies that mind is subject to the same qualifications inherent in the finitude of definite modes. The mind and the body are two modes of God s infinite attributes that together comprise the human being. It is not surprising, then, that they share in the fundamental qualities of definite things. Spinoza argues, each thing, insofar as it is in itself, endeavors to persist in its own being (66). Through this endeavoring, or conatus, a thing
4 O'Day 3 opposes everything that can annul its existence (66). The conatus, he argues, is the very essence of the thing. Each definite thing is just a finite mode of God s infinite attributes. Each thing, further, is determined to exist and act by God. Spinoza explains, God is the cause of these modes not only insofar as they simply exist, but also insofar as they are considered as determined to a particular action (20). This conatus, therefore, as the genesis of human action, traces back to the power of God whereby he is and acts (66). Conatus is, then, the very essence of the definite modes of the infinite substance. Moreover, Spinoza argues, the human mind is aware of its conatus because it is conscious of the affections of the body. The conatus, therefore, is the fundamental underlying principle of self-preservation by which the human body persists and the human mind acts. The principle of self-preservation is much more than just the interest of the body and the mind. It is, as Spinoza argues, the very essence of the mind and body s existence. In other words, when the body or mind succeeds in acting on its conatus, it increases its power of activity so that it is actually living more fully. He writes, the human body can be affected in many ways by which its power of activity is increased or diminished (62). The mind is similarly susceptible to active and passive states. Of the mind, Spinoza argues that insofar as it has adequate ideas, it is necessarily active; and insofar as it has inadequate ideas, it is necessarily passive (62). Of course, this similarity between the mind and the body is really another example of how the mind and the body are two finite expressions of the same infinite substance. He explains, thinking substance and extended substance are one and the same substance, comprehended now under this attribute, now under that (32). Their corresponding power of activity, therefore, will be appropriately similar. For this reason, Spinoza argues,
5 O'Day 4 whatever increases or diminishes, assists or checks, the power of activity of our body, the idea of the said thing increases or diminishes, assists or checks the power of thought of our mind (68). Once again Spinoza is further elucidating his unique conception of the duality of mind and body. This time, however, it is to demonstrate that both mind and body share in their pursuit for increased power of activity. The conatus of mind and body is what constitutes their existence and the successful exercise of this conatus brings a human being, Spinoza argues, closer to perfection. The human mind, through its experience of emotion, is hard-wired into the principle of conatus. As stated above, human beings are finite modes expressing God s attributes of thought and extension. God, as the infinite substance, is necessarily active and his attributes have infinite power of activity. As modes of these attributes, the human mind and body, when active, are more like God. For, as Spinoza states, God s power, whereby he and all things are and act, is his very essence (24). Human emotions react to this flirtation with God s perfection. Spinoza writes, when the mind regards its own self and its power of activity, it feels pleasure. (88). This is the case because pleasure is the passive transition of the mind to a state of greater perfection (68). The feelings of pleasure or pain, therefore, are directly linked to the conatus of the mind and body, that is, the endeavor to persist in being. Insofar as the mind is active, or succeeding in the exercise of its conatus, it is passing into a state of greater perfection and feels pleasure. The emotions of pain and pleasure give a human being an immediate positive or negative response to the status of his or her power to act. Spinoza hammers the point home when he writes, desire is the very essence of man; that is, the conatus whereby man endeavors to persist in his own being. Therefore, the desire that arises from pleasure is assisted or
6 O'Day 5 increased by the very emotion of pleasure (111). The human feeling of pleasure that arises from the fulfillment of one s desire to preserve oneself is a strong motivator. Spinoza solidifies the importance of conatus by designating it as the very measure of human virtue. Spinoza explains that virtue is the very conatus to preserve one s own being, and that happiness consists in a man s being able to preserve his own being (112). Moreover, one s perception of good and evil is directly related to the feeling derived from the exercise of the conatus. Spinoza argues, knowledge of good and evil is nothing other than the idea of pleasure or pain which necessarily follows from the emotion of pleasure or pain (108). When the mind is conscious of its emotion of pleasure it knows the good. The virtuous human being, therefore, is one who is able to preserve himself and is consequently happy. When a human being passes into a state of greater activity, that is, successfully exercising his conatus, he feels the emotion of pleasure. His awareness of this emotion, furthermore, is what constitutes knowledge of the good. Spinoza s ethic, it would seem, turns on the fundamental principle of self-preservation by which a human knows the good and experiences happiness at the feeling of pleasure derived from greater activity of the mind and body. Spinoza has given a comprehensive account of the universe and a human being s place within it. Humans are definite modes of God s infinite attributes. God, as the infinite substance and that from which all activity is derived, is the perfect being. Insofar as human beings are active, that is, insofar as they are exercising their conatus, they are more like God. This transition into a state of greater perfection is the source of pleasure and happiness, the idea of which is the knowledge of the good. Since the knowledge of the good, the feeling of happiness, and the emotion of pleasure are all directly related to
7 O'Day 6 the virtue of self-preservation, can there be any other motivation for human activity? Is it ever virtuous to engage in activity that is not informed by the conatus? In other words, is altruism consistent with Spinoza s ethical theory? At this point it would seem likely that Spinoza rejects this notion. Indeed, he says very strongly that the essence of man, rather of all finite modes, is the endeavor to preserve oneself. It is the present thesis, however, that an argument can be made for both sides of the question, and that even if Spinoza may not allow for pure altruism in his account of human ethics he at least makes room for altruistic motivation. First, one must consider the fact that Spinoza offers plenty of grounds to reject the notion of altruism as consistent with reason and a positive basis for human activity. He writes, to act from virtue is nothing else in us but to act, to live, and to preserve one s own being under the guidance of reason, on the basis of seeking one s own advantage (114). He is clearly suggesting that the human capacity for reason is fundamental to one s power of activity. Reason, Spinoza explains, is the human s ability to form universal notions from the fact that we have common notions and adequate ideas of the properties of things (51). In other words, reason is the faculty by which humans understand the various modes of the infinite substance as having a common relation to the corresponding attribute of God. Moreover, Spinoza argues, every idea which in us is absolute, that is, adequate and perfect, is true (48). Reason, or the capacity to have adequate ideas of universal notions, enables human beings to find truth. Acting under the guidance of reason consists of the mind s having adequate ideas, and therefore recognizing the truth, of universal notions. The conatus, derived from the power of God s activity, is universal to all finite modes. Because the mind is aware of its own
8 O'Day 7 conatus through the affections of the body, the mind has an adequate idea of the universal notion of self-preservation. Thus, when the mind and body are acting in such a way as to increase a human being s power of activity and ability to preserve oneself, it is acting rationally. Acting on the true knowledge of one s conatus is the fundamental example of rationality. If the basis of human rationality is acting with the purpose of increasing one s own advantage and power of activity, then it is difficult to imagine a scenario where rational human action holds a different end for itself. There is plenty of reason to believe, therefore, that Spinoza rules out the possibility for action that takes its end as something other than the preservation of oneself, such as altruism. Indeed, he almost explicitly argues as much. He presents reason as the ability to form universal notions from common notions of the properties of things. Recognizing the universal notion of the conatus as self-preservation, therefore, is a rational process. To do otherwise would be to engage in thinking that is contrary to reason. God is infinite activity. Human beings, as modes of the God s infinite attributes, can only aspire to perfection by increasing one s power of activity. Indeed, this is the foundation of virtue and happiness. Rational human action, therefore, does not include the ability to act out of a motivation for anything other than self-preservation. Altruism, it seems, does not a have a leg to stand on. The present thesis, however, suggests that one can take an alternative view on this issue. Spinoza links virtue directly to human power of activity. He writes, the more every man endeavors and is able to seek his own advantage, that is, to preserve his own being, the more he is endowed with virtue (113). This again seems to frame the good of human activity solely within increasing one s own advantage. There is a sense, however,
9 O'Day 8 in which virtue includes the aim of mutual benefit. Spinoza explains, the highest good of those who pursue virtue is common to all, and all can equally enjoy it (119). Like the benefit from living under the guidance of reason (which, of course, is a prerequisite for living virtuously), virtue offers a good in which all humans can participate. It is, Spinoza explains, a good that is common to all men and can be possessed equally by all men insofar as they are of the same nature (119). Spinoza clarifies that this commonality of virtue is a necessary consequence of the nature of reason. Reason is the ability to conceive of universal notions from common notions of the properties of things. Virtue, as acting under the guidance of reason, can be common to all because reason itself is a property common to humans. Moreover, by exercising reason, humans come to understand that virtue is something in which all human beings can participate. As stated above, however, Spinoza takes this argument even further to establish that mutual human benefit could also be an end of virtue. He writes, the good which every man who pursues virtue aims at for himself he will also desire for the rest of mankind, and all the more as he acquires a greater knowledge of God (120). Here Spinoza establishes an actual desire of the individual human for the betterment of other humans. The human mind is the finite mode of God s infinite attribute of thought. Knowledge, that is, the possession of adequate ideas, is the goal of the mind s activity. Given that God, insofar far as he has the infinite attribute of thought, includes all adequate ideas, the human mind will aspire to more fully know God. As human beings engage in reason and come to know God, they are acting as a finite example of that which characterizes the universal substance in terms of thinking. Knowledge of God, in other words, is the aim of the common desire to live by the guidance of reason. For this reason,
10 O'Day 9 Spinoza argues, the more the essence of the mind involves knowledge of God, the greater the desire with which he who pursues virtue desires for another the good which he seeks for himself (120). Of course, human beings do not always live virtuously and are constantly subjected to the power of emotions. There is even more reason, therefore, to live in harmony and wish for the benefit of others. Regarding society, Spinoza argues, it is necessary for them to give up their natural right and to create a feeling of mutual confidence that they will refrain from any action that may be harmful to another (121). Virtue, therefore, can include the desire for another s benefit. Moreover, the fact that human beings do not always live virtuously, that is, from the guidance of reason, makes the principle of harmonious living even more crucial to one s survival. There seems to be a sense, then, in which a desire for other s benefit is a principle aspect of virtuous living. On top of living under the guidance of reason to increase one s own power of activity and achieve greater perfection, virtue includes mutual benefit of all mankind. Spinoza establishes that acting under the guidance of reason is acting in accordance with one s nature. Since human beings are of the same nature, using reason as one s guide allows for the community of human beings to live more harmoniously. Virtue, then, is of the greatest benefit to all mankind, and a single person s acting virtuous is commensurately beneficial to the human community. Furthermore, to a certain degree, virtue takes the benefits of others as an end. In exercising reason, humans are pursuing an effort for greater knowledge of God. As all humans are just finite modes of God s attributes, knowledge of God is something in which all humans can participate. Virtue, then, includes the idea of all humans achieving greater knowledge, and therefore one s desire to know God includes a desire for the rest of mankind to know God.
11 O'Day 10 It is unlikely, however, that Spinoza would accept strict altruism as a rational exercise of human desire. In fact, Spinoza would most likely reject the preceding paragraphs insofar as they suggest that humans can take something other than their own personal advantage as an end of human activity. In the first place, there are the reasons already presented above, namely that, for Spinoza, to act rationally is by definition acting from one s own self interest. It was also suggested, however, that one could take certain aspects of the principle of virtue to include ends that are not fundamentally self-serving. In other words, Spinoza s account could be interpreted so as to include this altruistically motivated exercise of virtue. But this is exactly where Spinoza would most likely object. It is impossible, he would argue, to understand virtue outside the pursuit of what is advantageous to oneself. Indeed, he states very clearly, it follows firstly that the basis of virtue is the very conatus to preserve one s own being, and that happiness consists in a man s being able to preserve his own being (112). Human thought is aware of its conatus and acts from that principle so as to move closer to perfection. God, as infinite power of activity and infinite adequate ideas, is the example against which finite beings compare themselves. As infinite, God is always persisting. In order for human beings to achieve perfection and be more like God, they must act from the principle of preserving oneself. To act altruistically is to forsake that which one derives from God, namely the desire for clear and distinct ideas and eternality of being. An ethic is a system of principles by which an individual chooses to conduct him or herself. In his Ethics, Spinoza attempts to explain the nature of the universe and the proper motivation out of which a human being should rationally act. Of course, human beings live in vast communities. A student of ethics, then, may be disappointed to find
12 O'Day 11 that Spinoza seems to leave little room for taking into consideration the concerns of others at the expense of one s own, which is a tenet of altruism and philanthropy. In fact, ethics that hold self-preservation and egocentric desire as foundational principles can be very insidious to human civilization. Clearly humans will find it difficult to live in peace if one is only ever concerned with one s own advantage and disregards the interests of anyone else. Given the crucial role of self-preservation in his philosophy, one may be surprised to discover that Spinoza is acutely aware of this. In fact, creating a system in which human beings are ignorant of each other s well-being is far from his purpose. Spinoza s emphasis on the endeavor to seek one s own advantage should not be interpreted as egocentric or selfish. As he explains, it follows that men who are governed by reason, that is, men who aim at their own advantage under the guidance of reason, seek nothing for themselves that they would not desire for the rest of mankind (112). This is the case because, insofar as humans are living under the guidance of reason, they are in a greater state of agreement with one another. This solidarity between human beings is immensely beneficial to everyone. Indeed, Spinoza explains, Men, I repeat, can wish for nothing more excellent for preserving their own being than that they should all be in such harmony in all respects that their minds and bodies should compose, as it were, one mind and one body, and that all together should endeavor as best they can to preserve their own being, and that all together they should aim at the common advantage of all (112). Seeking one s own advantage, that is, living under the guidance of reason, is living more in accordance with human nature. As more and more humans live according to their nature, which is Spinoza s wish, they enter a greater harmony with one another. This harmony gives humans the ability to achieve greater happiness and work closer to
13 O'Day 12 perfection. As Spinoza explains, if two individuals of completely the same nature are combined, they compose an individual twice as powerful as each one singly (112). A reader who may initially be concerned about self-preservation as the crucial motivation for human action in the Ethics should rest assured that justifying one s gain at the expense of someone else is far from Spinoza s goal in writing the treatise. Rather, Spinoza seeks to establish a system in which humans achieve the greatest possible solidarity with one another and thus experience common happiness by approaching the divine. Altruism is useful in a world where the interests of different people are in conflict. This conflict, however, is in Spinoza s mind a defect of human activity. If one s interests are in conflict with another person, then those people are not living under the guidance of reason and have allowed their minds to be clouded with indistinct ideas and falsity. In that human beings share in the same nature, our interests are also the same. To the extent that humans are able to shake of the binds of emotion and finally form clear and distinct ideas about the world, they will live in an ever-greater state of harmony with one another. If one lives by the tenets of Spinoza s ethical philosophy, there is no need for altruism; the mutual benefit of all mankind is built in. Work Cited Spinoza, Baruch. The Essential Spinoza: Ethics and Related Writings. Ed. Michael L. Morgan. Trans. Samuel Shirley. Indianapolis: Hackett Company, Print.