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In Times of Moral Relativism is Spinozism the Cure?
Ethics by Spinoza - Short Essay
I’ve always been concerned about morality and have asked myself questions such as:
How can we determine what is immoral? How can we know what is right and wrong objectively? And why can’t we seem to agree on anything in this matter?
Was religion, or, in the case of the West, Christianity, our only option? Do we have to return to the pre-Socratics, become polytheistic, and let the rain and sun guide us blindly to what is universal goodness?
When it comes to morality, science, which provides us with an “objective reality,” cannot solve all of our problems. We might be able to know approximated dates for excavated bodies based on carbon, but science cannot tell us what actions will result in social justice, nor it will tell us what actions would be considered ethically good. At least, this is where morality stands today: as an unrelated, if not opposite, topic when it comes to science.
Axiology is the study of what is right and wrong in philosophy, and epistemology is the study of knowledge and how we acquire it.
Today, I’d like to focus on Baruch Spinoza, and before we get into his axiology and epistemology, it’s important to understand his metaphysics.
What is reality according to Spinoza? And why should we be concerned with metaphysics now that we have physics and more “objective” explanations for reality? Why are those things important to us? Aren’t those “things” from the past?
To understand why I will need to drive you through Spinoza’s view of the world and I promise you it will all make sense.
Spinoza divided reality in substances, attributes and modes. Attributes are the way we experience substances through Extension, or in other words our bodies, and through Thought, our mind.
To put it another way, imagine a large room where the only way to perceive it is through your Extension, your physical abilities, and your Thought, your mind. In that sense, imagine all the things that we cannot perceive as humans because of our limitations? What would we perceive if we could physically see time, for example?
There is an ongoing correlation and parallelism between Extension and Thought and for every Mode in extension, there is a corresponding Mode in thought.
A Mode is a form or shape the substance takes. Modes are modifications, “ways” in which an Attribute can manifest itself. Modes make it possible for us to perceive substances and to grasp them into reality.
For example, when we fall in love there is a very long line of physical reaction going on in our bodies, our pupils dilate, dopamine, oxytocin, and serotonin flow through our brains and so on; but in the attribute of Thought, we do not get this, we only get the “idea” of falling in love and maybe the desire of being with the external body that creates those physical reactions.
Every Mode that exists does so through each Attribute. For example, a dog, the very same dog, exists through Thought and Extension. These two attributes are just different ways of explaining the Mode of a “dog”, just like we did with our example of “love”.
Spinoza provides a twist, by saying that there cannot be two substances of the same nature, because a substance needs to be conceived through itself. This is a different view than that of Descartes, who believed that there was more than one substance and who claimed that God and matter cannot be identical.
For Spinoza, rain for example, cannot be a substance, because it is dependent on condensation to be created, in the same way condensation needs the sun in order to exist and so on.
If you connect the dots, until you get to the beginning of the line of causation, we end up with our only substance.
This is a very controversial topic in fact, humans have limitations, and as you go back in the chain of causes further and further you must come to a first cause, and to that first cause, which is invisible to human perception, we give the name of God.
This is when it gets interesting and as Bertrand Russell said in his book Why I am Not a Christian:
“If everything must have a cause, then God must have a cause. If there can be anything without a cause, it may just as well be the world as God, so that there cannot be any validity in that argument”. - Bertrand Russell
We then understand that nature itself is God for Spinoza. Nature is God because it is omnipresent. He cannot be inside or outside nature, nor can he be created by anything else, because if we wanted to continue the line of causation, we will find ourselves asking this question: “Who created God?”. In that sense we might as well just say “The world and nature are God”. But, humanity and its concept of “everything must be done for the sake of something else” into infinity, blinds us from this theory that could, in fact, be our absolute truth, it could in fact drive humanity into a more objective and clear direction, it could in fact guide us into the preservation of our own existence, it could in fact end a lot of our morality problems.
I would like to go deeper into Spinoza’s pantheism and why I think it is a very interesting perspective, another day. For the purpose of this text, what was said above is more than enough. Let’s now continue on our journey through Spinoza’s metaphysics.
If everything is the cause of something else, we can say that everything is connected, just like a chemical reaction, through a cause and effect.
To begin to understand ourselves, how we act and what we consider goodness, hence our ethics, we need to understand our world and how everything connects to each other. Everything is cause and effect; a seed becomes a tree, rain to more plants, the desire to self-fulfillment to the creation of something new, and with this the universe unfolds into an infinity of causes and effects that create everything in nature.
This theory made Spinoza very concerned with free will, because if everything is caused by something else. Are we really choosing freely? If everything is caused by something else, by an event that happened before, then in the mind there is no absolute free will; it is all determined by a cause which is also determined by another cause. In other words, we experiment “effects”, and perceive them as voluntary actions.
For example, when we experience thirst and drink water. Are we choosing freely? Spinoza says that we rarely reflect on the long line of causation of things, and we therefore think we are free. We are conscious of the actions and ignorant of the causes by which they are determined. We create our reality without thinking about the causes and effects of things, without reflecting on the causes of everything we perceive and interact with.
I like to compare Spinoza’s line of causation with economics. We rarely reflect on what caused things and therefore forget the effects that they might have, especially when those effects manifest themselves after a very long time, we often almost react to things based on our current perspective and situation.
The human mind contains ideas. Some of these ideas, sensory images, perceptual data and particles of the imagination are just phenomena; being the expression in Thought of states of the body as it is affected by the bodies surrounding it. In other words, ideas are just perceptions we get when our bodies are affected by something, because remember, we experiment reality through our bodies and our thoughts, hence there are limitations on what we can perceive.
The senses show things only as they appear from a given perspective at a given moment in time. Human ideas do not transmit adequate and true knowledge of the world, but only a relative, partial and subjective picture of how things presently seem to be to the perceiver.
“As long as the human mind perceives things, it does not have an adequate, but only a confused and mutilated knowledge of itself, of its own body, and of external bodies” - Baruch Spinoza
We therefore have inadequate ideas about the effects of things and the trick to “truth” is then having adequate ideas since the inadequate ones are just ideas lacking information.
Adequate ideas are rational and are formed in an orderly manner, they are in short, necessarily true and revelatory of the essence of reality. Spinoza says that the first kind of knowledge, perceived through our senses, is inadequate and the second kind of knowledge, reason, which comes after perception, is adequate knowledge. Spinoza also talks about a third kind of knowledge, intuition, which comes from intellectual reasoning rather than imaginative cognition or perception. He claims intuition is “necessarily true” as it comes from intuitive knowledge based on the second kind of knowledge, hence if our ideas are based from the bat on rational ideas they become “truth” as well, because we come to understand the effect produced based on its necessary causation. I personally have some problems with this theory, as I believe that intuition can be influenced by belief, and belief most of the time comes from inadequate knowledge, but let’s continue our journey by understanding that there are adequate and inadequate ideas in our minds.
For Spinoza, “A true idea means nothing other than knowing a thing perfectly, or in the best way”. And for this to happen we would need to know how things were affected or created, and not base our knowledge only on our first perception of things.
This is critical, because it implies that nothing, absolutely nothing, is good or bad in itself, but only relative to the thing that happened before that thing and even to the effect this thing has on other things.
We tend to think of things as good or bad, beautiful or ugly, moral or immoral, but in reality we just attach properties to objects and think of them as being certain things. We forget that it is us who attach the property to those things. In fact, these aren’t properties, they are only descriptions based on relations, and description comes from language, which is an invention of mankind.
When we believe something is good, it is because we have been affected by it before and it has had a positive effect on our well-being. But this fact becomes an issue, because if things cannot be defined by properties or language, but only by relations, then they must be understood only in their capacities to do things to other things, their capacity to be affected, by the affections of which they are capable, the things they react to and even the things that do not affect them, it means we would need to know a thing perfectly by its causes and effects.
Mankind strives for perfection, mankind wants to experience the world with things that affect them positively, all the time.
Food is good for us, because it reduces our hunger, which is just an alarm telling us that we need to eat, that we need to reach a better state. Spinoza sees goodness as perfection, not that we think we need to be perfect, in the sense we as modern readers think of, but that with the strive for perfection we obtain well-being, goodness, a better long-lasting sense of staying in a good state for a longer period of time.
Just think about it, when you buy something on Amazon we automatically see something that lasts longer as more perfect than another one that doesn't. This is because we strive for a longer-lasting sense of well-being. That iRobot that crashes all the time and makes us moody and desperate won’t put us in a better state, we will lose time, money, get frustrated, and in the end won’t help us attain that state in which we might have more time for ourselves for example, hence a better state of mind, more well-being.
In nature things always want to exist for as long as they want, because they all want well-being and goodness. This whatever obstructs our strive to attain goodness, we call evil. The only way something can cease to exist is through an external cause that reduces a state of perfection, something that affects the body in a negative way.
This thing that pushes us to obtain a better perfect state, a state of goodness is called conatus, and it is an innate inclination of a thing to continue to exist and enhance itself, to achieve more goodness or perfection, to avoid pain and evil. Each thing in the universe, as far as it can by its own power, tries to stay in existence.
We humans organize our world in this sense, all the time, to achieve goodness; and based on this, mankind began to form universal ideas, to prefer some things or models of things to others, it became “perfect”, what we all saw agreed with the universal idea of perfection.
But going back to our epistemological claim. What if these ideas are based on inadequate knowledge?
To understand inadequate ideas as beliefs can be very helpful for the modern reader. Inadequate ideas that come only from perception can themselves cause further ideas that are also inadequate.
Spinoza gives an example of a human body under the sun. Imagine you are walking, and you see a bright yellow circle situated about 200 feet away in the sky, shining like a bright sphere. No matter how hard one tries, it may be impossible to shake the feeling that the sun is hundreds rather than billions of feet away. Spinoza points out that such a feeling and the corresponding desire to make an assumption about the distance of the sun are not at all false. These are true psychological facts explained by the interaction between the body of the sun and the body of the person looking at it. The sun does present itself as a nearby golden object given the particular effect it produces on the human body and the mind.
If I were going through life believing that there is a big golden object above us that is 200 feet away, we might start to create more ideas based on this belief. Which is what was actually done in ancient Greece with Thales, for example. He actually believed that the universe was based on just water, because that was the most predominant visible element to our perspective at that point in time. Now, we know that these beliefs are nothing but a lack of knowledge, and in our example, nothing but a lack of rational knowledge concerning the real distance between the earth and the sun.
Going back to mankind striving for perfection, we may start to understand the affects as signals of the body and mind changing to different states. Pain for example, is a man passing from a greater state of perfection to a lesser one.
Anxiety and sadness are also signals, they are just affections that tell us that we are passing into a lesser stay of perfection. Everything that causes these affects is undesirable for the human being.
Just like the cause and effect lines that form the connection of things in the universe, affections are signals of passage into a better or worse cause or situation, a reaction to an effect.
Now that we know all this, we need to focus on the relationship of things, to avoid inadequate ideas, since this is the true good of being free; free from the wild maze of the affects, free from the slavery of being acted upon.
In our daily life, what is good or bad for us individually, guides us on how we act and think.
Spinoza might be seen as some sort of egoist by claiming that “reason demands that everyone seeks their own advantage,” which would be a very useful claim for liberalism, for example. But this might be contrasted with his other claim that says that “we become normatively bound to behave in certain ways on the basis of agreements or contracts we make when we live in society with others,” on agreements on what is goodness for the common all, but again, a lot of these agreements most of the time are made based on inadequate ideas hence beliefs.
Humans do not strive for something because it is good, we think something is good because we strive for it. Understanding is the key to everything, is the key to freedom. We need to understand the real causes of our affects, to make sure they are helping us and the only way is through being active and reasonable, by going through the causes and effects enough to be able to overcome emotions.
Adequate ideas take into account all the factors of what is good for us, things might in the moment have a stronger affect on our desire, but if we study all the factors on the things we are deciding we might consider it is more rational to do something else.
Morality is then based on conscious acts that increase the well-being of an individual without putting anyone else in a lesser state of goodness, in other words, without affecting others.
Greed, for example, an immoderate desire for wealth, esteem and power. Could possibly be thought of as good in the short term, but once we study the cause and effect of it in the long term, we might decide to do something else that enhances our well-being and goodness without affecting ourselves and others negatively in the long run. Greed is then something that possibly increases someone’s conatus at the expense of others, and therefore may be considered immoral.
With this in mind, we should all look around us, in nature, to perfection to understand what is good for the common all, to go deep into the line of causation that comes before and after all our acts.
We should look at the world in a wider way. For example, I remember getting annoyed by a person one day while walking my dog. This person got scared and tried to walk away from me. For a second, I was annoyed, my inadequate ideas, my distorted and mutilated ideas, my beliefs, did not understand why this person acted this way. How can someone be scared of my dog? He is not a Rottweiler nor is he a Pitbull, he is just a cute Cavalier King Charles Spaniel wanting love and affection from anyone that crosses his way.
But once I stop to understand, using my intuitive knowledge, my third kind of knowledge, reflecting on the causes and effects that might have occurred to this person before this event, I came to the conclusion that maybe this person was bitten by a dog once, this certainly would have a different affect on a person, than me for example, who has never been affected in that way, this is thus an adequate way of seeing the world and understand myself and other people's affections. This example might be just a daily life situation, but bigger social issues can be addressed if we could think of them in this way.
“By separating an emotion-affect from the thought of the external cause and joining it to other thoughts, then the love or hate towards the external cause is destroyed, lessening the blame or negative emotion we feel towards one thing or one person.” - Baruch Spinoza
An affect vanishes only if another affect stronger than it comes into existence, just like a desire of the future can be restrained by a desire of the present moment.
With this Spinoza says that “men are moved by opinion rather than by true reason”, because reason lacks affecting power, reason is not a passion. This is why it is very easy to drown in the sea of inadequate ideas, passions and beliefs. The strength of the affects is caused by an external cause, often stronger than reason.
“Once men are governed by true reason, they will seek their own advantage according to their nature, rather than seeking "their own advantage" guided by the passions of the affects.”- Baruch Spinoza
Getting out of the black hole of affects is key to getting perspective of the fact that all that exists is one substance, and everything on it is caused by another thing and so on.
Morality should be grounded in the fact that every organism wants to increase their own conatus. In community, everyone should try as hard as they can to stay in existence, everyone together should seek for themselves what is common advantage for all, and with this reach the common aspiration for all, happiness and well-being.
Something is only immoral if it is a conscious act that negatively affects the well-being of someone, morality should not be based on established laws or beliefs.
Morality in our time is becoming relative, because in the past it was grounded in religion, just like we passed from mystical claims to science to understand the physical world more “objectively”, we can and should pass from a religious based morality to some sort of reason-based morality. Morality based on metaphysical claims, causes and effects and not on beliefs and inadequate ideas.
The world is now multicultural, which has been an effect of the current capitalistic system in place, not that this is unacceptable, but it just means that belief cannot be the base of morality anymore, because religion forms part of a worldview that is often not shared by a multicultural society.
This can generate moral relativism, and this is something we cannot live with, because when we label acts as “wrong” in the name of tolerance, what causes is that basic rights are relativized, and this opens the door to intolerance and hence negative effects on the well-being of the people who want certain things to be morally accepted. It creates a negative effect, it enhances the problem that was intended to solve in the first place.
An example of our current modern world could be the question about the morality of homosexuality. It does not negatively affect the well-being of anyone and on the contrary being openly homosexual increases the mental well-being of these individuals, and helps them attain happiness.
Is transsexuality immoral? It does not negatively affect the well-being of anyone, and on the contrary being able to identify and live accordingly by who you truly are increases mental well-being, and then happiness comes as a consequence.
The homosexuality debate has been almost resolved, there is a lot of proof that points out that being openly homosexual and having the same rights as other people, does not affect anyone negatively; and that it just increases well-being.
On the other hand, the transsexuality debate is still on the table for a lot of people, as it takes time to get to the final line of causation. Because although submitting oneself to a clinical surgery as a transsexual individual increases well-being, there are still a lot of questions in regards to the free and open expression of these ideas to young individuals, and the possibility to submit oneself to a clinical surgery at a young age. There is a moral debate in which some people think it is actually beneficial for individuals to know these things during their childhood so that they can grow without being mentally confused and lost, and consequently increase their mental well-being; offering possibilities and answers to their identity early on in life. Others say this is immoral because it can negatively affect the well-being of individuals at a young age; it can confuse them into thinking they are something when in reality an individual during their childhood and teenage years is just trying to discover and understand himself, the world and who they are. Periods like this, of mental and identity development are crucial, and making permanent changes during these stages can create regret later on.
All these morality questions are on the table, and it is necessary that we lock ourselves out of the wild maze of belief and try to sit down to study the line of causation of these things. Everyone has different beliefs and rational knowledge based on what has happened to them through life, based on what has affected them negatively or positively. Being able to stop getting trapped in negative emotions like hate, whenever someone says something that contradicts our beliefs, should be the first step to escape from the maze so that we can start getting to rational conclusions for everyone and finally escape moral relativism.
In the case of our example above, perhaps openly expressing these ideas is a good thing for all, and in the same way, perhaps restricting these operations to young individuals is also a good thing to do, allowing them to take the decision only when they have reached a certain age, like adulthood.
“He who conceives another as affected with hatred, will thereupon be affected himself with hatred, that is with pain, accompanied by the idea of an external cause. But, by the hypothesis, he conceives no cause for this pain except him who is his enemy; therefore, from conceiving that he is hated by someone, he will be affected with pain, accompanied by the idea of his enemy; in other words, he will hate his enemy in return” - Baruch Spinoza
Only time will tell; nevertheless, we should always keep in mind that we assemble the world to avoid sad passions, and some of them are more common than others; some sad passions might be caused by things that aren’t as common for all, but they are still sad passions, and if they were yours, I confidently say, you might as well want to avoid.
This text does not provide absolute solutions or answers, it just tries to ask the right questions.
Ethics - Baruch Spinoza
Why I Am Not a Christian - Bertrand Russell
Spinoza - Michael Della Rocca
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