I hesitate to write this post because often discussion of these issues generates highly unpleasant firestorms, so at the outset I should emphasize that I’m not taking a position here one way or another. Lately I’ve been thinking a good deal about Spinoza and, in particular, the Theoligico-Politico Treatise (warning .pdf). Following Nadler’s A Book Forged in Hell, the treatise is truly one of the least read classics of modern political thought. Three central claims of the Theologico-Politico Treatise are that 1) sacred texts impart no knowledge of the natural world or being (the stories depicted in these texts are not to be taken as accounts of the world), 2) the primary function of sacred texts is to convey moral truths or truths about how to live, and 3) that because the prophets that formulated these moral truths lacked knowledge, these moral truths are formulated in the form of commandments (e.g., “thou shalt not eat shellfish”) and prohibitions rather than causal claims.
With respect to this third claim, Spinoza’s idea seems to be that the more causal knowledge we have about our bodies, our psychology, world, and how the social world functions the more we’ll be able to dispense with ethical commandments. Here it’s important to be clear. Spinoza’s thesis is not that the more causal knowledge of body, mind, world, and society we develop the more unethical we’ll become. Rather, Spinoza’s claim is that as we acquire knowledge of body, mind, world, and society our reasons for doing things will change.
To understand Spinoza’s thesis it’s best to draw on examples that aren’t ethically charged. Suppose I go to my doctor and he tells me that I need to cut things like fried okra and similar foods out of my diet. If I live in a state of ignorance, I will encounter this statement as a commandment or prohibition. My reasons for ceasing to eat fried okra will be because I respect the authority of my doctor and because I fear reprimand and punishment from him if I eat fried okra. However, if I have causal knowledge of my own body and okra and how my body and okra interact, my deliberation about okra will now change entirely. My reason for not eating okra will now no longer be that my doctor commands it, nor that he will disapprove of me eating okra and punish me accordingly. Rather, I will strive to cease eating fried okra and fried foods in general because I understand that by virtue of how these foods combine with my body they raise my cholesterol causing health conditions like heart disease.
Based on the foregoing, Spinoza’s understanding of ethics can be described as “deflationary” or “eliminativist”. For Spinoza, deontological ethics or ethical commands and prohibitions such as we find in sacred texts are heuristic devices we use in the absence of knowledge about causes and effects. For example, Mosaic law dimly sensed that shellfish are potentially dangerous for our health (a contentious claim), but lacked causal knowledge of how or why this is so. For this reason, it formulated the principle of not eating shellfish in the form of a commandment or prohibition, rather than as a causal claim about what’s likely to happen.
The advantage of norms or commandments is that they are able to motivate behavior in the absence of the person possessing causal knowledge. The person who lacks knowledge of shellfish and how it’s likely to interact with the body will, if they accept the authority of the person or deity issuing the commandment, avoid eating shellfish. The problem with deontological approaches to ethics is that in their structure as commandment they tend to foreclose any way of evaluating commandments to determine whether they are well founded. The prohibition against eating shellfish makes this point clear. If my reason for not eating shellfish lies in God’s command, then anything I might learn about the properties of how my body and shellfish interact is irrelevant to whether I ought to eat shellfish. The prohibition is absolute and there are no circumstances under which I should eat shellfish. However, if it turns out that moral commandments are really dimly perceived causal claims, then it follows that further knowledge of how my body and shellfish interact, coupled with the development of safe ways of preserving shellfish and of evaluating whether they’re safe to eat could lead the community that formulated this prohibition to abandon it. Something along these lines seems to have taken place in contemporary society surrounding prohibitions against premarital sex, sex outside of marriage, and sex for the sake of pleasure. In a society where there’s no reliable birth control, these prohibitions make good causal sense. However, with the development of reliable forms of birth control, they no longer make sense.
Spinoza’s ethical project could thus be described as deflationary or eliminativist. His aim seems to be the replacement of ethical commandments, prohibitions, and norms with action motivated by a knowledge of causes and effects. Such a project– shared by the Epicureans –would be an “elimination” of ethics. To eliminate ethics does not mean that we become “unethical”, but rather that we choose what to pursue and avoid not because of norms or commandments, but based on a knowledge of causes and effects in the domains of body, mind, world, and society. Ethics would be a branch of medicine and ethicists would be similar to nutritionists; where we consult with the nutritionist to determine the best diet for living well and we consult with the ethicist to determine the best way of living well (and there are obviously all sorts of daunting questions here as to how this is determined; but there are daunting questions in more traditional ethics as well). The greater our knowledge of body, mind, world, and society is, the more we would witness a disappearance of ethics in the form of imperatives or commandments. So what do others thing? What are the problems with Spinoza here? And in posing that question, I would encourage readers to avoid the knee jerk reaction of proclaiming that we can’t drawn an “ought” from an “is”. Certainly when affect is taken into account this is far less of a daunting problem than has traditionally been suggested by ethicists.