A book on ethics and philosophy of values

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c) The Spinozist radicalization

If it is true that the works of Hobbes can be considered as the childhood of axiological subjectivism, perhaps we can continue this metaphor and see in Spinoza’s thought the maturity of this doctrine. It may be the case, especially if we consider that a radicalization is a maturation; for it appears that Spinoza radicalizes the Hobbesian intuitions, and brings them to fulfilment.

Indeed, there is a radicalization in this very famous proposition of the Ethics: in no case do we strive for, wish for, long for, or desire anything, because we deem it to be good, but on the other hand we deem a thing to be good, because we strive for it, wish for it, long for it, or desire it 1.

A similar idea was already present, in Hobbes’ work: whatsoever is the object of any man's appetite or desire, that is it which he for his part calls good; and the object of his hate and aversion, evil 2.
But we also find in his work the idea that the human desire for something is aroused by the pleasure that it gives. What is first for Hobbes is pleasure, and not desire, and pleasure is related to the nature of the object: certain objects are in themselves agreeable, and others disagreeable, because they help or hinder our vital movement. So our desires and aversions are, after all, in relation with a certain kind of objectivity.

With Spinoza, on the contrary, desire is first, and makes us attribute some qualities (‘good’, ‘bad’, ‘agreeable’, ‘disagreeable’), to the object: I desire something therefore I find it agreeable. We do not see what role the object still has, except that of neutral receptacle of my projections. To understand the difference between these two authors, the previous citation of Spinoza can be compared with the Hobbesian idea: Every man for his own part, calls that pulchritude, turpitude, which pleases, and is delightful to himself, good; and that evil which displeases him 3.

Here again, if I try an axiological translation of this moral theory, since Spinoza probably formulated an axiological doctrine by moral concepts, we can think that he affirms that it is not the value of something which causes our desire for it, but that it is desire which generates value.

The classical subjectivism of Spinoza is not creative, no more than the Hobbesian one; in other words, man projects qualities on the world, that it has not really – man does not create them. Thus good and evil do not exist in Nature 4. By way of consequence, every moral judgment is meaningless: To moralize is to misunderstand 5.

A. Comte-Sponville remarks the difference of treatment between truth, and morality (or value), in Spinoza’s works: From the point of view of God, there is no morality, nor humanity without morality. Here, a gap widens between theory and practice. A true idea is the same in God and me; but it is not the same in the case of values (Ethics, I, appendix): every truth is absolute, every value is relative (II, 11, corollary and 32-34 ) 6.

It is this radicalization, giving its full sense to the axiological subjectivism, which can be identified, I think, in Spinoza’s doctrine. That is why I consider Spinozism as the maturity of the classical subjectivism.

1. Ethics, III, 9, note
2. Leviathan, I, VI
3. Hobbes, About human nature, chap. VII
4. Short Treatise, I, 10 and II, 4
5. Deleuze: Spinoza, Practical philosophy
6. Dictionary of ethics and moral philosophy, article « Spinoza »