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§2. Some of Clarke ’s Main Claims

§2. Some of Clarke ’s Main Claims

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being should by the supreme ruler and disposer of all things be placed and

preserved in an easy and happy estate, than that, without any fault or demerit of its own, it should be made extremely, remedilessly and endlessly

miserable” (Schneewind, I:). God stands in such a relation to human

beings that, given the nature of God as Creator and their nature as subordinate rational creatures, it is more fit, in consequence, that God situate the

innocent so as to make them happy rather than unhappy.

. Further, the following:

(c) Fitness and the relation of “more fit than” are indefinable moral

relations, or else definable only in terms of each other. We should allow

that they might be definable in terms of other moral concepts, such as the

reasonable. They are not, however, definable in terms of nonmoral (nonnormative) concepts.

We may think of the indefinable relation of “more fit than” as specified

by ordered pairs of ordered triples, with agents (characterized by certain

natures) in a situation S and the various actions of those agents in that

situation such that it follows that action A1, say, is more fit than action B1.

To wit:

Ͼ([A1, rat1 . . . n, sit S][B1, rat1 . . . n, sit S]),

where A1 and B1 are actions available to agent1.

That an action is more fit is said to be necessary and known by reason.

Greater fitness is consequent upon the facts of the case. For example, it is

impossible that, given the nature of God and of human beings, and given

the relation of creator to created in which they stand, it should not be more

fitting for God to situate the innocent so as to make them happy rather

than unhappy. What kind of necessity or impossibility does Clarke have in

mind? I suppose it is metaphysical necessity: the thought is that it is not

possible, given the nature of God (with the essences of things in the divine

reason), that there should be a world—an order of things with their essences—such that the consequent relations of fitness are compatible with

its being more fit for God to make the innocent unhappy. None of this is

very clear, as the concepts here call for much explanation.

Note that for Clarke the basic concept seems to be that of comparative

fitness: this kind of action is more fitting than that kind of action in a certain

kind of situation. For example, surely it is more fitting that God should

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make the innocent more happy than that he should make them miserable.

I mention this because often the comparative claim seems more compelling.

. Clarke and Cudworth were concerned to argue against the view that

first principles of right and wrong are founded on the Divine Will. As a

matter of theological doctrine, the essences of things lie in the divine reason;

hence the relations of fitness consequent upon the essences of things and

situations are directives to the Divine Will. As Clarke says: “The will of

God always and necessarily does determine itself to choose to act only what

is agreeable to Justice, Equity . . . [as fixed by these relations]” (Schneewind,

I:). In this connection, Cudworth (Treatise, Bk. I, Ch. III [Schneewind,

I:ff.]) argues against Descartes, whereas Clarke spends much of his time

attacking Hobbes (Schneewind, I:f.). With this background, the following comments:

(d) The relations between the nature of things upon which the relations

of fitness derive are recognized by the reason of any sufficiently rational

being, divine, angelic, or human.

Thus I shall say that the nature of things specifies an independent and

prior order of relations of right and wrong, an order known by reason and

authoritative with respect to divine, and of course to human, will. This

order is independent in that it is not dependent on our knowledge of it,

nor on our will; it is prior in that it is necessary and immutable, eternal

and universal. In particular, it is independent of the distinctive constitution

of human nature and of the special features of our psychology.

. I digress for a moment to call attention to a contrast between the

rational intuitionism and the moral sense school. Hutcheson realized that

his doctrine of the moral sense implied the possibility that the content of

right and wrong as discerned by that sense might be different from the

content of right and wrong as known to divine reason. The rationalist doctrine asserting that content to be the same for all rational beings was given

up.3 God implanted the moral sense in us so that we approve and disapprove

of various actions and are moved to conduct ourselves accordingly. But the

ultimate reasons for our approvals and disapprovals—that is, God’s reasons

for arranging our moral sense so that we respond to actions and traits of

3. In Hume III, section , we noted that Butler said something like this in “On the Nature of


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character in certain ways—may be founded on different principles than

the principles expressed in our approvals and disapprovals. Hutcheson was

reluctant to pursue this possibility.

But Hume does precisely this and goes beyond it: he abandons entirely

the idea of a theological basis of morality and proceeds to treat the virtues,

both natural and artificial, as well as our moral sentiments as natural facts.

It is of no concern to him that our moral beliefs should be peculiar to us. He

treats our judgments of moral approval and disapproval as part of human

psychology, and he observes the similarities between our psychology and

that of animals (see I:iii:, II:ii:). Why we have a morality, how we acquire it, and the way it works, is one of the moral subjects to which he is

applying the experimental method of reasoning. With Hume we are in

another world altogether.

. To return to the rationalists. In order to explain, or perhaps better

to illustrate, how relations of fitness founded on the nature of things might

be known by reason, both Cudworth and Clarke appeal to an analogy with

the truths of arithmetic and geometry.

(e) First principles of more and less fitness are known by reason in the

way the truths about numbers and geometrical figures are known: such

truths are seen to be necessary and self-evident, at least in the case of the

axioms, such as the axiom that the whole is greater than its parts.

That there is a fitness or suitableness of certain circumstances to certain

persons, and an unsuitableness of others founded in the nature of

things and the qualifications of persons, antecedent to all positive appointment . . . is as manifest as that the properties which flow from the

essences of different mathematical figures have different congruities or

incongruities between themselves; or that in mechanics certain weights

and powers have very different forces and different effects one upon

another, according to their different distances or different positions and

situations in respect of each other.

For instance: that God is infinitely superior to men is as clear as

that infinity is larger than a point, or eternity longer than a moment.

And ’tis certainly as fit that men should honour and worship, obey and

imitate God, rather than on the contrary in all their actions endeavor to

dishonour and disobey him. (Schneewind, I:f.)

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It might be an axiom of fitness that it is more fitting to do more good

rather than less. Admittedly, this is rather trivial, but Clarke talks as if there

are certain basic axioms of fitness from which further principles can be

derived. But he doesn’t try carefully to spell out what these axioms are,

and the derivations are loosely sketched.

. It is striking that Clarke insists on the following:

(f ) Acting wrongly is the same thing as deliberately asserting falsehoods.

’Tis as natural and (morally speaking) necessary that the will should

be determined in every action by the reason of the thing as ’tis natural

and (absolutely speaking) necessary that the understanding should submit to demonstrated truth. And ’tis as absurd and blameworthy to

mistake negligently plain right and wrong . . . as it would be absurd

and ridiculous for a man in arithmetic matters, ignorantly to believe

that twice two is not equal to four; or wilfully and obstinately to contend, against his own clear knowledge, that the whole is not equal to

all its parts. . . .

In a word, all wilful wickedness and perversion of right is the very

same insolence and absurdity in moral matters as it would be in natural

things for a man to pretend to alter the certain proportions of numbers,

to take away the demonstrable relations and properties of mathematical figures, to make light darkness, and darkness light, or to call sweet

bitter, and bitter sweet. (Schneewind, I:)

. Earlier I said that Clarke’s doctrine sees moral thought as a form of

theoretical, and not of practical, reason. Our survey indicates why one is

drawn to say this. For one thing, fitness and comparative fitness are determined by the essences of things and follow from those essences. Presumably

these matters are known by theoretical reason. For another, acting wrongly

is said to be the same absurdity as willfully asserting a false statement, or

refusing to recognize a true statement. Moral error is put on all fours with

the denial, or the attempted denial, of mathematical truths.

Finally, the essences of things and the consequent fitness of actions suffice to determine obligations. For Clarke, obligations are separate from and

independent of divine command; God’s commands do indeed enjoin these

obligations but are not needed to make them obligations. In this sense,

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God’s commands are secondary.4 All this seems like regarding moral

thought as a form of theoretical reason.

This means that, in Clarke’s view, agreement in moral judgment is to

be understood as founded in the same way as agreement in arithmetic or

geometry: as the common recognition of truths characterizing an order of

objects and their relations, prior to and independent of our practical reasoning and our conceptions of person and society that enter into it. I return

to this last point when we come to Kant.

§. The Content of Right and Wrong

. Clarke sees the content of first principles concerning our relations with

other human beings as given by:

(g) A principle of equity and a principle of benevolence, stated thus: “In

respect of our fellow-creatures, the rule of righteousness is, that in particular

we deal with every man as in like circumstances we could reasonably expect

he should deal with us; and that in general we endeavor, by an universal

benevolence, to promote the welfare and happiness of all men. The former

branch of this rule, is equity; the latter, is love” (Schneewind, I:). The

first, the principle of equity, he states as: “Whatever I judge reasonable or

unreasonable for another to do for me, that by the same judgment, I declare

reasonable or unreasonable that I in like case should do for him. And to

deny this either in word or action is as if a man should contend that, though

two and three are equal to five, yet five are not equal to two and three”

(Schneewind, I:). This is then carefully qualified and explained in an interesting way as follows:

4. This point seems to be a new departure with Clarke and a break with the tradition of natural

law (which I mentioned the first day) as it had come down from the late scholastics Suarez and

Vasquez and followed by Grotius, Pufendorf, and Locke. To explain: suppose that our reason informs us of what is right and wrong. Now consider the question: Why is it obligatory to do what

is right and not do what is wrong? By the beginning of the seventeenth century, the standard answer

was this: right and wrong depend on the nature (the essences) of things and on what is conveniens

(fitting) to their nature, and not on the decrees of God. Yet the motivating significance and the

bindingness of a norm of right and wrong depends essentially on there being a command expressing

God’s will that the right be done and the wrong be avoided. On this point, see the instructive

discussion in John Finnis, Natural Law and Natural Rights (Oxford: Oxford University Press, ),

pp. ff., which I follow here.

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In considering what is fit for you to do to another, you always take

into the account, not only every circumstance of the action, but also

every circumstance wherein the person differs from you; and in judging

what you would desire that another, if your circumstances were transposed, should do to you, you always consider not what any unreasonable passion or private interest would prompt you, but what impartial

reason would dictate to you to desire. For example: A magistrate, in

order to deal equitably with a criminal, is not to consider what fear

or self-love could cause him, in the criminal’s case, to desire; but what

reason and the public good would oblige him to acknowledge was fit

and just for him to expect. (Schneewind, I:)

There is a lot packed into this statement. Something resembling it appears in Leibniz’s “Common Sense Idea of Justice” (–),5 and Kant’s

categorical imperative articulates an analogous idea with considerable elaboration, as we shall see. Note also that Clarke thinks of impartial reason

as informing us what to desire, which presupposes a capacity to be moved

by reason in a way that Hume rejects. “The second branch of right and

wrong is Universal Benevolence, that is: Not only the doing barely what

is just and right, in our dealings with every man; but also a constant endeavoring to promote in general, to the utmost of our power, the welfare and

happiness of all men” (Schneewind, I:).

. Finally, two last points already evident as follows:

(h) The first principles binding upon us as human beings are the same

principles, have the same content, as the principles binding on all rational

beings, since the same principles are known by such beings in virtue of

their powers of reason. “That the same reason of things, with regard to

which the will of God always and necessarily does determine itself to act

in constant conformity to the eternal rules of justice . . . and truth, ought

also constantly to determine the wills of all subordinate rational beings, to

govern all their actions by the same rules, is very evident” (Schneewind I:

; my italics).

Of course, in applying these principles we must take account of the

5. Patrick Riley, trans. and ed., The Political Writings of Leibniz (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, ), pp. ff.

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§2. Some of Clarke ’s Main Claims

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