Role of Ethics: Baruch Spinoza’s Determinism

Spinoza’s Ethics reconceives of the limits of human action, and sets out a system which radically changes the role of ethics in our lives.

Aug 11, 2022By Moses May-Hobbs, BA Art History w/ Philosophy Concentration

baruch spinoza role of ethics


In the Ethics (1677), Spinoza describes a totally determined world: endless chains of cause and effect in which physical events (what Spinoza speaks of as things considered under the ‘attribute of extension’) follow rigid laws, and result directly from earlier events. In Part III of the Ethics, Spinoza lays out the implications of his theory of causation for how we think about the emotions and actions of humans. Throughout the course of this explanation, Spinoza radically overturns prior ethical theories, and puts forward a model of the human mind with consequences for all ethicists that follow him.


Baruch Spinoza’s Conception of Persons as Causes

baruch spinoza ethics
A Page of Benedictus de Spinoza’s Ethics, 1677, via Wikimedia.


Spinoza distinguishes between adequate and inadequate, or partial, causes, just as he distinguishes between adequate and inadequate ideas. An idea is adequate when it is ‘clearly and distinctly understood’, in other words: an idea is adequate when the relation of the human mind contemplating it begins to understand it as it is understood in the mind of God. Causes, by a similar token, are adequate when we are able to understand their effects clearly and distinctly through them. If fully understanding one idea or event allows us to fully understand another, then that first event is an adequate cause of the second. If a cause doesn’t quite explain its apparent effect, however, then it is only inadequate, or partial.


This theory of causes has serious consequences for human actors, too. Since humans are just as entangled in the chains of causation that rule the material world as inanimate objects, they too become causes and effects. A person, then, can be either an adequate or inadequate cause of their own actions. To be the adequate cause of one’s actions, those actions must be fully explicable with reference to one’s nature, but when one acts reflexively and without understanding the causes that have influenced us in turn, one is only the partial cause of that action. This is because without understanding the causes that influence us, and thereby subsuming that understanding into our nature, we are really just a conduit for the things that have caused us.


Passivity and Passion

Baruch Spinoza drawing
Portrait of Spinoza, via Encyclopaedia Britannica.


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Spinoza distinguishes between activity, where people are the adequate causes of their effects, and passivity, whereby they are only inadequate or partial causes of what they do. Spinoza links this passivity with passion, the emotional winds and tides that batter us when we fail to properly understand the causes and effects of the events and ideas that surround and influence us. Where passions amass, the mind and body are reduced in their power to act, and where understanding prevails, the power to act increases.


Emotions, for Spinoza, are fleeting and often misleading. Also in Part III, he explains that emotional responses accrue associatively in the mind, because once we have experienced two emotions simultaneously, experiencing one of them again will summon the memory, and effects, of the other. The feelings that arise in this way are really only obliquely related to actual events, and merely distract us from perceiving clear and distinct ideas of things, from understanding – that is – the actual causes of our actions. Proposition XV asserts: ‘Anything can, accidentally, be the cause of pleasure, pain, or desire.’ The relationship between events and passionate emotional responses is therefore, for Spinoza, not a real causal relationship, but only an accidental by-production.


In light of this, emotional responses should not be indulged, by making us love or hate the causes of pain or pleasure, insofar as we want to increase, rather than diminish, the power of action that comes with understanding causation. We should not, for instance, hate God because we suffer pain and misfortune, but nor should we love God when we feel pleasure. Spinoza does, in the final, knotty section of the Ethics, propose that we should feel a kind of contemplative love for God, but this is a markedly different affection from passionate romantic or aesthetic love.


A Different Space for Ethics

baruch spinoza Wulfhagen
Benedictus de Spinoza by Franz Wulfhagen, 1664, via Wikimedia Commons.


What marks Spinoza’s Ethics as so different from the kinds of ethical theories we are accustomed to hearing is that, insofar as events under extension follow a fixed pattern according to physical laws, increasing our power to act doesn’t change the things we then appear to do. As such, making ethical rules about the sorts of things we are and aren’t allowed to do doesn’t make much sense, since such rules concern the kinds of actions or outcomes we are able to change.


What changes, and what Spinoza refers to when he says that we increase the powers of both mind and body simultaneously, is the extent to which we are, as thinking entities, sufficient causes of the actions that proceed from our bodies. To this end, Spinoza offers a telling distinction (in his letters to Blyenbergh, Letter 36) between the powerful Orestes, and the passionate Nero. Both commit matricide, but while Orestes reasons his way to an intentional murder – to acknowledging the deterministic necessity of his action – Nero acts according to passions, without becoming an adequate cause of the matricide he commits. For Spinoza then, contrary to today’s legal conventions, premeditation is a good thing, the mark of true action, which ethically distinguishes Orestes’ killing of his mother from the externally identical crime of Nero.


remorse nero murder mother waterhouse
The Remorse of the Emperor Nero after the Murder of his Mother  by John William Waterhouse, 1878, via Wikimedia Commons.


In the long note that begins Part III of the Ethics, Spinoza cautions against the prevailing moral attitude, which attributes harmful actions ‘to some mysterious flaw in the nature of man, which accordingly they [“most writers on the emotions and on human conduct”] bemoan, deride, despise, or, as usually happens, abuse’. Spinoza instead perceives those actions as just as much a part of nature as the movements of planets, and accordingly sees little reason to assign ethical value to predetermined events. Instead, Spinoza suggests, the site of ethics should be relocated to matters of thought, where determinism’s grip seems a little looser. Here, Spinoza thought, we have grounds to meaningfully attribute fault – not to mysterious flaws that cause actions, but to failures of understanding that render us passive with respect to our effects in the physical world.


Given what has already been explained regarding Spinoza’s diagnosis of the origins of emotions, it is a total repudiation of traditional ethical thought when he declares: ‘Therefore the knowledge of good and evil is nothing else but the emotion, in so far as we are conscious thereof.’ (§4 Prop. 8, Proof; all references to Ethics unless stated otherwise) Reducing our assessments of good and evil to mere responses to pleasure and pain, which Spinoza has already told us not to take seriously, quietly but effectively dismisses the entire arena of ethics we are used to talking about, leaving us instead in the expansive wilderness of Spinoza’s God.


Determinism in Extension, Determinism in Thought

baruch spinoza grave haag
Spinoza’s Grave in Den Haag, via Wikimedia Commons.


Problems arise, however, from Spinoza’s simultaneous assertions that the attribute of thought mirrors that of extension, and that the mind’s interior processes are less determined than events considered under the attribute of extension. What immediately arises is the question of whether it is coherent for Spinoza to envision a single substance, which may be considered under an infinity of attributes, but wherein some attributes are beholden to determinism and others not. Are we really still talking about a single substance if the attributes exhibit differing and contradictory sets of laws? But even putting aside this larger question, we encounter difficulties resulting from the necessary internality of thought.


Baruch Spinoza Barend Graat
Portrait of a Man, thought to be Baruch de Spinoza, by Barend Graat, 1666, via NRC.


The example of Nero and Orestes may be intended more as a cross-section of the ethical character of our passions than as a straightforward case-study in activity versus passivity, but it raises the problem of externalizing Spinoza’s ethics. After all, it is not just the act of matricide that is determined in the behaviour of Nero and Orestes, but all their accompanying emotional expression, their words, and their manner. If we take the example literally, nothing we can perceive of the two figures’ attitudes or interior states can be taken as evidence of their actual, properly volitional, thought, since all such perception is of occurrences in the extensive world, and beholden to its causal laws. Even if, then, there is total freedom of will under the attribute of thought and thus, in Spinoza’s estimation, awe have good reason to treat it as the province of ethical action (and of ethical failure, in the form of passivity), it is an utterly incommunicable and unobservable ethical life. This total interiority precludes ethical judgements of others, insofar as the territory of their will remains always out of sight.


Orestes Pursued by the Furies
Orestes Pursued by the Furies, William-Adolphe Bouguereau, 1862, Chrysler Museum


This ethical privateness, not only from other people but from one’s material effects, is a strikingly radical implication of Spinoza’s philosophy in its own right, but it appears to conflict with Spinoza’s mirroring of extension and thought (§3 Prop. 2, Proof and Note). More specifically, although Spinoza maintains that no causal relationship exists between mind and body (the two are simultaneous and identical in action and alteration, since ‘mind and body are one and the same thing, conceived first under the attribute of thought, secondly, under the attribute of extension’ [§3 Prop. 2, Note]), mind and body are intimately entangled: an increase in the power of the mind to act is also an increase in the power of the body. However, if the mind is free from the fetters of physical laws, its capacity to elevate the power of the body starts to look a lot like an effect, since the body can have no mirror-image for the act of mental volition. Furthermore, this intrusion of events under thought upon life of the body, even if only insofar as it has the capacity to cast off the symptoms of the passions, as in Orestes’s case, seems to violate the determinism of the extensive world.


Evading Death and a Happy Eternity According to Baruch Spinoza

memento mori mosaic pompeii
Memento Mori mosaic, 1st century BC, Pompeii (Naples), via Wikimedia Commons.


In Part III of the Ethics, Spinoza enumerates a list of emotions, all of which – he emphasizes – have to do with desiring certain things, rather than performing actions satisfying those desires. The lustful person, Spinoza explains by way of example, does not cease to feel lust just because the object of their desire is not fulfilled. In doing so, Spinoza carries the privateness of his ethics to its conclusion: the only place where we actually choose to do one thing rather than another is within thought, and within thought that decision and its consequences remain. Here Spinoza has already seriously unseated the assumption that the ethical character of our behaviour has anything to do with how it affects other people, or society at large. Rather our behaviour, insofar as it is volitional, will never touch another soul, and will always remain inaccessible to the minds of others, acting ethically is for ourselves, and for God insofar as we are part of God’s substance.


Spinoza’s case for why we should resist succumbing to states of passion is therefore one which appeals more to self-interest than to communal good, or rational laws. Spinoza argues that it is only natural to aspire to immortality, that this aspiration is the hallmark of all existing things. Fortunately, says Spinoza, eternity is possible, since – in further violation of the straightforward mirroring of body and mind attempted earlier in the Ethics – when the body is destroyed parts of the mind survive. What survives, however, is only what can be assimilated back into the mind of God, that is to say, adequate ideas. Since God is the amalgamation of ‘particular things’, it is by better understanding parts of the material world and its workings (by ratiocination, rather than by direct experience) that we save more of our mind from being destroyed with the body. We cannot, for Spinoza, take with us into eternity the particularities of our emotions and perceptions, the contingencies of our partial ideas about the world. If you want eternity, you had better start stripping your mind of those trinkets early, and focus on acquiring adequate knowledge.


bust of nero by roger fenton
Bust of Nero by Roger Fenton, c. 1854-58, via the J. Paul Getty museum.


In contrast with the privateness of Spinoza’s ethics, this vision of eternity is remarkably impersonal, and even a little bleak. An immortality founded on dissolving one’s mind into the world before death even comes knocking sounds a little like an early taste of death. There is, however, a payoff for the subject, whatever trace of the ‘I’ remains in this vision of immortality. Spinoza, in what sounds an awful lot like a lapse of passionate emotion, insists that the acquisition of this knowledge brings an ever-increasing bounty of delight, and that that delight proceeds from an ‘intellectual love’ of God. Intellectual love, Spinoza claims, is the only kind of love that can survive eternity, and the decay of the body. Unlike all the whims and misunderstandings of passionate love – for other people, for food, for beauty, for possessions – the intellectual love is a good bet if we want to go on feeling delight throughout eternity. Heaven, or as close as we get to something like it, is forgetting our particularities as soon as possible, so that we can get on with eternity. Perhaps we will have to take Spinoza’s word on this.

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By Moses May-HobbsBA Art History w/ Philosophy ConcentrationMoses May-Hobbs is a recent graduate of Cambridge University. His writing focuses on aesthetics, the philosophy of art, and film criticism. He is currently working as a contributing writer and editor, while writing in his spare time on the philosophy of language, perception, and affect.