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§2. Some of Clarke ’s Main Claims
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.
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
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
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.)
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,
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.
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.