Supporting Item #2: Log Paper 2

Dustin Lantz

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Spinoza’s Ethics describes a logical chain of assertions that was received as radical in its time and still is today. Spinoza’s ontology claims not only that all things are extensions of God, but also addresses why humans do what they do and how we should think about these actions. I intend to briefly highlight some of the major points of Spinoza’s Ontology, and then consider what the ramifications might be if his ontology was widely known and believed in today’s society. In order to discuss the ethical ramifications of Spinoza’s Ethics, a quick understanding of Spinoza’s ontology is necessary. The beginning of Spinoza’s Ontology is focused on logically deducing the truth of substance. Spinoza reasons that a substance exists with or without attributes or modes, whereas modes and attributes cannot exist without underlying substances. He goes on to reason that different substances have different essences and attributes, and thus they cannot have causal relationships. However, essence involves existence necessarily, which would mean that substance is self-caused. A self-caused substance must then be infinite. If substance is infinite, then a substance of infinite attributes, also known as God, cannot not exist. So then, God exists, and as a single substance relies on no other substance. God is the only substance, and all things, are expressions of God’s self through modes. In addition to this, all things modes do are causal, meaning that there is no true free will. Something causes all things within a mode of God. With a solid foundation, Spinoza continues his ontology using what he has thus far proven to guide his assertions. In particular I am interested in his assertions regarding affects. Humans are often subject to passive affects brought about by inadequate ideas that keep them in bondage. Adequate ideas allow humans to pursue active affects, thus allowing them to master the passions that attempt to rule them. In addition to this, all things strive to persevere in their own being. Pleasure and perfection are the routes to persevering through the power of being. Thus, things that increase a creature's power of being, such as love, increases perfection and is good. Things that decrease a creature’s power of being, such as hate, decreases perfection and is evil. No action then is inherently evil or good, evil is only caused by actions that decrease a beings power of existence. So then, what would be the ethical ramification for us in the United States if everyone behaved as though Spinoza’s ontology were true, or at least if they believed it to be true? On a large scale, I believe that the impact of such a sweeping belief would actually be very minimal. Only in a relatively small amount of matters would a belief in Spinoza’s ontology actively change how people behave, or how we judge their actions. Michael LeBuffe discusses the difficulty of living a life of active affects, even with knowledge of them. The problem of understanding when we are under the influence of passion is generated, in large part, by the facts that we can desire particular external ends, in most cases, either from reason, as a means to perseverance, or from passion and that desires from reason or passion, again in most cases, differ only in their causal sources and the names Spinoza uses for them, not in their phenomenal characteristics. (390, LeBuffe) So because acting due to passions and acting due to active affects are so similar, identifying whether or not an action is being done truly as a means to increase power of perseverance is difficult for the actor and outside observers. Difficulty appending blame to actions is already a part of our societies ethics, meaning that while the context would change, the end result of ethical discussion and judgement would likely be just as confused. In addition to this, there are some areas in which applying Spinoza’s ethics can be counter intuitive, and whether this is a fault in his ethics or in our perceptions is unclear. For instance, “Spinoza’s assertion that the free man always acts honestly, not deceptively… suggests that whenever I find myself in a circumstance where I have lied or am contemplating dishonesty, I lack power and virtue in that circumstance” (390). This seems clear-cut, but what about a situation in which telling the truth would decrease another creature’s power of being? If the situation is one in which lying protects one creature from another, and thus leads to a greater power of being in others, but not ourselves, is it still an evil deed brought about by inadequate ideas? Beth Lord’s interpretation of the text asserts that, “it is impossible that our nature should determine us to harm another person, for then we would act contrary to our own advantage,” so then all scenarios in which another’s harm is caused is not in our nature but rather a passive affect (118, Lord). Should one then strive for the most power of being they can in the circumstances, despite lacking power? Does this then mean that matters would ultimately be reduced to a utilitarian balancing of moral scales to determine the best way to increase power or avoid reducing power? Spinoza’s ontology, or at least our application of it, is strained under the weight of life, as all ethical systems are. The most ideal outcome of a society believing in Spinoza’s ontology would be a society of introspection and community. Such a society would strive to increase the power of all members, while looking down upon slaves to inadequate ideas such as greed and gluttony, and attempting to teach them the power of active affects. However, humans often hold contradictory ideals. Even if all people understood and believed in Spinoza’s Ethics, it seems plausible that life would go on much as it does now, with people seeking to increase their own power without thinking about the reasons they do so. Many widespread human beliefs already espouse messages of community and promotion of virtues similar to Spinoza, and yet society at large does not accurately reflect these beliefs. Whether Spinoza’s ontology were true or just universally believed to be true, humans and their nature would remain the same.