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1. Spinoza and metaethics: sources of misunderstanding

1 Spinoza’s language, system and theoretical approach have long puzzled those scholars who have tried to reconstruct his metaethics [1]. Following standard metaethical categories, we may say that Spinoza explicitly endorses an expressivist conception of moral judgment [2]: “It is clear that we neither strive for, nor will, neither want, nor desire anything because we judge it to be good; on the contrary, we judge something to be good because we strive for it, will it, want it, and desire it [3]” (E3p9s). On this account, as on other non-cognitivist viewpoints, moral judgments can be seen as expressions of attitudes towards a state of affairs, such as commendation, appraisal, condemnation, and refusal. These, insofar as they are attitudes of approval or disapproval, do not claim to represent moral properties as independent of an individual’s expression of positive or negative attitude. However, Spinoza also provides an account of “the true knowledge of good and evil insofar as it is true” (E4p14). If judgments about good and evil can be true or false, Spinoza seems to hold a cognitivist conception of moral judgments. How can this be consistent with his expressivism?

2 To complicate matters still further, Spinoza is a thoroughgoing naturalist in that he wants to “consider human actions and appetites just as if it were a question of lines, planes, and bodies” (E3pref.). It follows from this that morality is to be explained by appeal to the same laws as govern mental and physical events. Spinoza commits himself to reducing normative concepts to a set of descriptive ones and to criticizing and reformulating the common meaning of ethical concepts in the light of his naturalistic metaphysics.

3 This paper will attempt to solve the apparent inconsistency between expressivism and cognitivism by appealing to Spinoza’s general naturalistic approach. I will claim that by shedding some light on the metaphysical basis of morals, we can appreciate how expressivism and cognitivism are compatible. This claim will rest on two arguments: one based on the mind-body parallelism, the other on the theory of moral progress. The mind-body parallelism will explain the overall compatibility of expressivism and cognitivism. The theory of cognitive and moral progress will explain how we can say that judgments about the good can be true or false, while being always the expression of one’s conative state, depending on one’s level of knowledge. The paper will proceed as follows. First, I will discuss in further detail naturalism, expressivism and cognitivism. Next, I will analyze the thorny issue of the model of human nature. Finally, I will argue for my compatibility claim and show the importance of moral progress.

2. Naturalism and irrealism

4 Let us start defining the ways in which ‘moral naturalism’ could be understood in Spinoza’s ethics. There are three naturalistic claims potentially identifiable in the Ethics [4]: i) that ethical judgments, which seem prescriptive, actually express factual statements; ii) that moral facts (values, ethical norms, prescriptions) can be reduced to empirical facts (for example, for utilitarians, norms and values can be reduced to their conduciveness or non-conduciveness to increasing overall utility); iii) that ethics, normally conceived of as a prescriptive domain, should be reformulated in non-prescriptive terms [5]. Naturalism could operate on different and possibly intertwined levels. Thus, one could argue for a naturalistic conception (i) of moral judgments, (ii) about the ontological status of values and other normative elements, and (iii) about the role of ethical enterprise. An important step towards understanding the places of emotivism, naturalism and cognitivism in the Ethics will be to demonstrate that Spinoza can be defined as ‘naturalistic’ with respect to the second and third levels, and as ‘expressivist’ about moral judgment. In what follows, I will mostly focus on the first two points leaving aside the overall role of ethical enterprise.

5 At this point it is worth emphasizing that Spinoza does not conceive of moral values as natural facts, i.e. as if they were things existing in the world. “As far as good and evil are concerned, they also indicate nothing positive in things, considered in themselves, nor are they anything other than modes of thinking, or notions we form because we compare things to one another” (E4pref). Nor does he attribute value to some natural events or properties, as some Aristotelian naturalists do [6].

6 Since Spinoza does not promote an Aristotelian naturalism, he can consistently couple naturalism with a strong irrealism. In accounting for morals, naturalism is the general epistemological point of view through which the things are to be explained. It is compatible with an irrealism on the ontological side, holding that values do not exist independently of one’s conative activity. Thus Spinoza may seem to endorse a kind of error theory: human beings use terms like “good” and “evil” to describe and compare things, but there are no values in things in themselves and every comparison is erroneous since everything is equally perfect.

3. Expressivism, subjectivism, and cognitivism

7 We have made some progress in understanding the relationship between naturalism and expressivism in Spinoza. Now we turn to the question of what it means, in the Ethics, to call a thing “good” or “evil”.

8 To pursue this goal it is necessary first to introduce Spinoza’s theory of individual conatus. “Each thing, as far as it can by its own power, strives to persevere in its being” (E3p6) and this striving “is nothing but the actual essence of the thing” (E3p7). Each thing is defined and singled out by an irreducible power of existing. This is, with respect to substance, the principium individuationis and, with respect to other finite things, a relative capacity to act or to be acted upon. On Spinoza’s view, as there are no pre-established values, and the only measure of value is the way in which something relates to other things, the naturalistic commitment leads Spinoza to explain the meaning of moral terms by reducing them to their factual subjective origins.


From all this, then, it is clear that we neither strive for, nor will, neither want, nor desire anything because we judge it to be good; on the contrary, we judge something to be good because we strive for it, will it, want it, and desire it

10 As already anticipated, our moral judgments depend on agreement between the external thing and our appetites. When something is in agreement with one’s nature (i.e. with one’s individual essence and conatus), one’s power to act is increased and one passes from a lesser to a greater power to exist. But how can one detect whether a thing is more or less conducive to increasing one’s power to act? Spinoza claims: “By joy, therefore, I shall understand in what follows that passion by which the mind passes to a greater perfection. And by sadness, that passion by which it passes to a lesser perfection” (E3p11). In so doing, he can be misinterpreted as a sort of normative hedonist. However, as Broad points out, Spinoza is not a hedonist, in the strict sense.


States of mind and actions are not good because they are pleasant or conducive to pleasure, nor they are bad because they are painful or conducive to pain. But pleasure and pain, though they are thus not the ratio essendi of good and evil, are the ratio cognoscendi thereof [7].

12 Spinoza claims that in making moral judgments we not only express an attitude or an emotion but also come to know a thing: “By good I shall understand what we certainly know to be useful to us. By evil, however, I shall understand what we certainly know prevents us from being masters of some good” (E4d1, d2). Moreover, “the knowledge of good and evil is nothing but an affect of joy or sadness, insofar as we are conscious of it. Dem. We call good, or evil, what is useful to, or harmful to, preserving our being (by D1 and D2), that is (by IIIP7), what increases or diminishes, aids or restrains, our power of acting” (E4p8). To restate the main question, how can Spinoza claim both that value judgments are purely dependent on agreement with one’s appetite and that, when we assess something morally, we are legitimately using our cognitive capacity?

13 To answer this question and understand better Spinoza’s expressivism, we have to refer to one of the main assumptions of his approach: the mind-body identity thesis. However, I will not attempt a complete explanation of Spinoza’s account of the distinction of the attributes within the unity of the substance. Suffice it here to state the main formulation of this thesis: “The order and connection of ideas is the same as the order and connection of things” (E2p7). Spinoza’s monism is based on the principle that each thing in the attribute of extension has a correlative state in the attribute of thought, and vice versa. “The result is that the order, or connection, of things is one, whether Nature is conceived under this attribute or that; hence the order of actions and passions of our body is, by nature, at one with the order of actions and passions of the mind” (E3p2S) [8]. Unlike in occasionalism, the order of extension and the order of thought are not in principle divided and coordinated by God. Rather, according to Spinoza, there is only one substance whose finite modal expressions can be seen either as extensions or as thoughts. Thus bodily movements and ideas of the mind are correlated expressions of one and the same individual activity.


Therefore, (by the definitions of joy and sadness in IIIP11S), insofar as we perceive that a thing affects us with joy or sadness, we call it good or evil. And so knowledge of good and evil is nothing but an idea of joy or sadness which follows necessarily from the affect of joy or sadness itself (by IIp22). But this idea is united to the affect in the same way as the mind is united to the body (by IIP21), that is (as I have shown in IIP21S), this idea is not really distinguished from the affect itself, or (by the general definition of the affects) from the idea of the body’s affection; it is only conceptually distinguished from it. Therefore, this knowledge of good and evil is nothing but the affect itself, insofar as we are conscious of it

15 The mind-body identity thesis and the above passage enable us better to understand how value judgments can be at once expressions of appetite and cognitive activity. The way in which one reacts to an external thing, whether adequately by increasing or inadequately by decreasing one’s power to exist, determines both cognitive and emotional responses of an individual (i.e. ideas and affections). However, given this, and taking a parallel dual point of view, Spinoza’s commitment to expressivism and cognitivism might be understood as similar to Simon Blackburn ‘quasi-realism’. In other words, moral judgments could be regarded as projections of our attitudes onto the structure of the world, as if moral predicates were properties of the world. Quasi-realism holds that:


the surface form of moral discourse is propositional or cognitive […]. All of this suggests that moral sentences represent states of affairs, moral predicates denote properties, and moral judgments express beliefs. But of course, the projectivist wants to deny that the surface form of moral discourse is an accurate guide to its deep form: although moral statements appear propositional or cognitive on the surface their fundamental role is actually expressive [9].

17 Although Spinoza defends a kind of “error theory”, he does not simply charge ordinary language with mistakenly representing the world as if it had moral properties. In fact, Spinoza neither distinguishes the surface of a moral judgment from its deep nature, as Blackburn does, nor distinguishes assertion from expression, as A. J. Ayer did. His concern is, rather, with the relationship between moral expressions and the existential status of the individual: a moral judgment can be both a pure expression of one’s attitude and a true cognitive act, if it is expressed by an active and adequate individual [10].

4. The model of human nature

18 Although we have shed some light on how expressivism and cognitivism can coexist, it remains unclear what the standard of the moral cognition is. We have seen that “good” is to be understood as what is useful to us and in accordance with our conatus. Without going into detail on other aspects of Spinoza’s ethics, it is unclear whether this claim commits him to a kind of utilitarianism or whether what is ‘useful’ should be understood as a means to achieve some further end. But, in the latter case, what is the source of value beyond utility? As already suggested, this primary natural basis of value is (the increase in) one’s power of existing. Everything, whether human being, animal or inanimate object, strives and seeks to pursue what increases its power of existing and acting. However, at the beginning of the fourth book of the Ethics, Spinoza limits the scope of his enterprise and applies these naturalistic principles specifically to the human life. Against this backdrop, good and evil, although only modes of thought and relative to one’s individual conatus, are to be understood in terms of increase or decrease of one’s power of existing.


But though this is so, still we must retain these words [good and evil]. For because we desire to form an idea of man, as a model of human nature which we may look to, it will be useful to us to retain these same words with the meaning I have indicated. In that follows, therefore, I shall understand by good what we know certainly is a means by which we may approach nearer and nearer to the model of human nature we set before ourselves. By evil, what we certainly know prevents us from becoming like that model
(E4pref, p. 545).

20 This passage has often been interpreted as radically changing Spinoza’s previous arguments, since it introduces a normative model that supplements and possibly contradicts expressivism about moral judgments and irrealism about the ontology of values. It is here that the actual ethics, as commonly conceived of, is introduced: that is, as a set of substantive values guiding human actions. In the first three books of the Ethics Spinoza, strictly speaking, has only been explaining human behaviour according to the laws of nature. However, this passage is problematic because it also clashes with his previous commitment to abandoning the use of universal concepts, as products of an inadequate knowledge, and dismissing them as inadequate ideas.


Those notions they call Universals, like Man, Horse, Dog, and the like, have arisen from similar causes, namely, because so many images (e.g. of men) are formed at one time in the human body that they surpass the power of imagining […] But it should be noted that these notions are not formed by all in the same way, but vary from one to another, in accordance with what the body has more often been affected by, and what the mind imagines or recollects more easily. […] Hence it is not surprising that so many controversies have arisen among the philosophers, who have wished to explain natural things by mere images of things

22 Here, as well as in other passages, Spinoza clearly dismisses universals (whether Aristotelian or Platonic), as a kind of imaginative knowledge. How should we understand the model of human nature in light of Spinoza’s nominalism? If it is a universal, as with the idea of Man, it can neither provide knowledge nor provide an adequate end for human life, since in Spinoza’s system knowledge is always coupled with moral adequacy.

23 This passage has generated many disputes among commentators. Let us summarize the main positions. Jonathan Bennett argued that the model of human nature is a “relic of a time when Spinoza planned to make the concept of a favoured model of mankind”, which he afterwards abandoned, since he definitely held an egoist system of value (although, according to Bennett, Spinoza’s egoism was of a rational and informed kind) [11]. On the other hand, Sergio Landucci and others locate the basis of Spinoza’s cognitivism and intuitionism in the model of human nature, interpreting the model in this way as a strong substantive value commitment [12]. Other scholars have interpreted the role of the model of human nature as a practical device with no clear cognitive or ontological status [13].

24 In line with these last interpretations, my understanding is that the only way to account for the ethical role of the model of human nature is to admit that it may have an ethical value without having a correlative cognitive value. To be true, this would be an uncommon position in Spinoza’s theory that can be endorsed only through a closer inquiry into his statements.

25 A particularly important passage precedes Spinoza’s introduction of the model of human nature in the preface to part 4:


But after men began to form universal ideas, and devise models of houses, buildings, towers, and the like, and to prefer some models of things to others, it came about that each one called perfect what he saw agreed with the universal idea he had formed of this kind of thing, and imperfect, what he saw agreed less with the model he had conceived, even though its maker thought he had entirely finished it. Nor does there seem to be any other reason why men also commonly call perfect or imperfect natural things, which have not been made by human mind. For they are accustomed to form universal ideas of natural things as much as they do of artificial ones. They regard these universal ideas as models of things, and believe that Nature (which they think does nothing except for the sake of some end) looks to them, and sets them before itself as models. So when they see something happen in Nature which does not agree with the model they have conceived of this kind of thing, they believe that Nature itself has failed or sinned, and left the thing imperfect. We see, therefore, that men are accustomed to call natural things perfect or imperfect more from prejudice that from true knowledge of those things. For we have shown in the Appendix of Part I, that Nature does nothing on account of an end.
(E4pref, p. 544).

27 Within this framework, Spinoza goes on to claim that “perfection and imperfection, therefore, are only modes of thinking, that is, notions we are accustomed to feign because we compare individuals of the same species or genus to one another’ and that good and evil ‘indicate nothing positive in things, considered in themselves, nor are they anything other than modes of thinking, or notions we form because we compare things to one another” (E4pref, p. 545). Good and evil, in other words, are redefined as things conducive or not conducive to Spinoza’s model of human nature.

28 How, then, should we understand good and evil? We have seen (i) that they are dependent upon one’s appetite, (ii) that they are nothing except modes of thought, and (iii) that they should be considered with respect to the model of human nature. Are good and evil only subjective conative states? Or do they have an objective status? If the model of human nature is to be understood as a substantive ideal, we should opt for the latter. But I suggest there are arguments for the former.

29 Spinoza sets forth a model of human nature neither as a discovery nor as a law of nature. Rather, it is put forward “because we desire to form an idea of man, as a model of human nature which we may look to” (E4pref: 545). The model of human nature is, thus, a practical need, a sort of pragmatic device that one may formulate in order to advance one’s knowledge and the capacity of one’s body [14]. Since each thing strives to increase its power of acting, each thing (and we may say at this point each person) sets forth a model dictating the direction in which the endeavours are to be made [15]. The activity of ascribing value depends on individual essence and conatus. Thus, assuming as Spinoza does that each individual essence is unique and irreducible, we should suppose that there can be as many models of human nature as individuals, because the directions which are value-giving will be different for different individuals. This last statement shouldn’t be understood as implying that on Spinoza’s view the true nature of individuals leads them to a solipsistic life in which individuals don’t share anything. On the contrary, the more individuals are free, the more they have things in common with other individuals and can agree with them on many things [16]. The idea that each individual essence is unique and irreducible means, rather, that the way of achieving self-realization is different, but its full and true realization is compatible with other individuals, and the way to bring it about depends on one’s positive relations with others despite the mutual compatibility of free human beings. However, Spinoza only mentions one model of human nature for all. But, how can it have a practical and epistemic value if the value-generating capacity of each conatus is different from those of others and Spinoza has discarded the epistemic status of universal entities?

30 This question can be only answered if we assume that the ideal of human nature is empty and is to be filled by each conatus. This means that it is not a substantive ideal because it entails only the idea of a maximum power of existing. No other action, duty or virtue is specified in the model, so the peculiar way in which individuals express their power of existing is not predetermined [17]. Spinoza seems to suggest that, in order to pursue each individual way of life, the consideration of the model of human nature, i.e. the general idea of becoming free, may be helpful [18]. What kind of actions should be performed cannot be dictated by the model of human nature itself, whose function is solely that of representing the idea of being free, so as to make clear to each individual mind the general aim to pursue. But this is just a sort of preliminary goal setting. How such a goal may be reached is independent of the model of human nature and forms the whole of the Ethics’ content. He gives us many hints about this and he also outlines a sort of “cognitive therapy”: a strategy of liberation from the passions. But, given that every essence is peculiar and irreducible to the others, the model of human nature is not the end in itself. Rather, the end is each one’s increase of power of existing, whereas the model of human nature is the universal, maximum and formal representation of each one’s individual direction of becoming free.

31 Admittedly, at the end of the fourth book of the Ethics, Spinoza appears to outline the specific features of the free man, to whom the model of human nature might represent the closest approximation. But, on closer inspection, even here the features of the free man represent a formal model of freedom as autonomy, with which a number of individual versions are compatible. Indeed, the free man will: not think of death (E4p67), avoid dangers rather than overcome them (E4p69), avoid ignorant people (E4p70), be thankful to other free men (E4p71), be honest (E4p72), and be more at ease with life in community than in solitude (E4p73). These kinds of actions are meant to show how individuals could become free in their own way without imposing a unique substantive model of freedom.

32 One might stop at this point to wonder why we ought to assume the model of human nature as a guide towards one’s action. Whence does it derive its normative status and force? The normative status could come simply from the fact that the individuals treat it as a normative model. But this conventionalist answer cannot provide the basis for Spinoza’s universalistic approach. Rather, Spinoza assumes that it is plain and natural to prefer more power than less power, and to adopt the model of human nature as a guide to achieve more power (i.e. more freedom). More power is better than less because it is the very nature of one’s conatus that drives each individual to strive for more.

33 If the preference for or the prevalence of what is more over what is less is rooted in the striving of the conatus (i.e. in a natural irreducible element), every value could in principle be reduced to a natural fact. But Spinoza does not want to endorse this radical and thorough reductionism. The construction and the pursuit of a model of human nature is originally dependent on one’s essence and conatus, as any other normative action is [19]. In sum, there is nothing exceptional in the model of human nature if we understand it as having the practical function of representing the overall idea of a maximum power of existing.

34 Thus far, we have explained the practical role of the model of human nature, but we still have to understand how moral judgments can be both an expression of one’s conative attitude and true or false. To understand it, we need to discuss the issue of moral progress.

5. Moral progress and metaethics

35 So far we have explained the function of naturalistic explanation and we have made some progress toward showing the compatibility of expressivism and cognitivism. But a full understanding of this compatibility can be reached only by looking at Spinoza’s commitment to an ethics of moral progress. A first step in this issue has been made thanks to the analysis of the model of human nature, whose practical function is that of showing an ideal of maximal power. Despite its being cognitively indeterminate it can be useful as a starting point for human moral progress. More generally, the most important thing we must highlight here is that moral progress shows the connection between cognitive level and existential condition. Spinoza deals mainly with the progress of knowledge from imagination to intuition. Nonetheless, if we take seriously the principle that “the order and connection of ideas is the same as the order and connection of things” (E2p7), the progress (or regression) involves the whole of the individual [20]. Moreover, Spinoza explicitly equates the dimensions of cognition and volition: “The will and the intellect are one and the same thing” (E2p49cor). Clearly, an idea is not the same as a desire. Rather, Spinoza sees them as occupying the same place in two different but corresponding orders. In general, this means that


both the decision of the mind and the appetite and the determination of the body by nature exist together – or rather are one and the same thing, which we call a decision when it is considered under, and explained through, the attribute of thought, and which we call a determination when it is considered under the attribute of extension and deduced from the laws of motion and rest

37 It follows from the mind-body identity thesis that those who act from inadequate knowledge suffer not only from a lack of knowledge, but also from a passivity of the body. Perhaps the tendency to underestimate this point derives from the fact that in the Ethics Spinoza’s analysis focuses mostly on the human mind, thus leaving only very few hints as to the analysis of the body’s dynamics. But, according to the principle of parallelism, to each level of conatus of the mind there is a correspondent level of conatus of the body. In other words, overall the individual’s conatus expresses itself through the two attributes in a parallel way.

38 The further advantage of this reading is that binding physical and mental overall conditions is the only way to account for the following proposition: “Knowledge of evil is an inadequate knowledge. […] Cor. From this it follows that if the human mind has only adequate ideas, it would form no notion of evil” (E4p64). The knowledge of evil is inadequate because, when one incurs an evil, one’s power of existing is diminished, and, therefore, one’s knowledge is inadequate.

39 Thus, those individuals who live inadequately see good and evil in inadequate ways, whereas those who live adequately know what is good. In both cases, moral judgment expresses one’s appetite, but in the former case it produces a false knowledge, in the latter a true one [22]. This apparent double point of view has misled some scholars into thinking that Spinoza defends a double morality: the first, inadequate one for the masses; the second, adequate one for the sage. On this view, in the first system of morality, moral judgments would be seen as mere utterances of approval or disapproval, having no truth-value, thus allowing for a purely descriptive and emotivist ethics, which limits itself to looking at the fact of moral judgment without engaging in establishing the real moral values. In the second system of morality, Spinoza would provide for a substantive model of human nature, thus theorizing a cognitivist ethics [23]. Similarly, Andrew Youpa has argued that there are two theories of value. The first (Val 1) is a desire-satisfaction theory and obtains for all unfree individuals; the second (Val 2) holds true for free individuals and is a perfectionist (and objective) theory of value [24].

40 It is possible to avoid attributing a double morality to Spinoza and a double value theory, by showing that he is both emotivist and cognitivist at each stage of moral progress. This is possible because Spinoza is committed to the identity of will and thought, that is, the identity of the appetitive and cognitive spheres at each stage of one’s ‘existential’ status. The mind-body identity thesis, that is the specification of the thesis of parallelisms in the attributes of thought and extension, implies that the individual conatus in the dimension of the mind has a correspondent power in the dimension of the body. A mind composed of many adequate ideas has a correlated active body characterized by positive affections, whereas to an imaginative mind the corresponding body is passive. To my insistence on the idea that the power of mind and the power of body are always on the same footing, one might rebut that Spinoza seems to consider the mind more independent from the power of external causes affecting individuals. As Susan James argues, “reasoning or understanding provides a means to resist the arbitrary power that external things exercise over us, as well as the psychological laws that contribute to our dependence [25]”. This is true. However, it does not mean that Spinoza held that through rational strategies alone individuals can become (more) independent of external causes. In other words, Spinoza does not adopt a purely cognitive strategy towards the achievement of human freedom. Rationality and the capacities of the mind are, though, the object on which Spinoza focuses more in depth in the Ethics without implying that a purely cognitive approach to freedom is the only available possibility.

41 Both in imaginative and rational kinds of knowledge, moral judgments are expression of one’s conative status, but in the former case the conatus can express only inadequate and false knowledge. So, even though moral judgments are expressions of one’s attitude, they are, for Spinoza, legitimately truth apt. Although metaphysically distinct the orders of thought and extension are structurally parallel. Hence, what is good for a dimension has a correspondent feature on the other dimension [26]. That is to say that what is good for the mind is correspondingly although not in the same sense good for the body, and vice versa [27].

42 By considering Spinoza’s theory of moral (cognitive and existential) progress and his theory of conatus, it becomes clearer how moral values, which are dependent upon individual appetite, can, at the same time, be objective.

43 For the mind, progress is the passage from unclear and imaginative ideas, through intellectual common notions, to intuitions. For the body, progress is the pursuit of one’s utility which can be achieved through the body’s encounter with external things positively combining with it. “Insofar as a thing agrees with our nature, it is necessarily good” (E4p31). Thus, progress is the acquisition of those things that increase one’s power of mind and body, by positively agreeing with one’s individual nature. With this end in mind, it is easier to understand the role of the model of human nature as a starting guide, which will be better defined and more individually fine-tuned along with the individual progress, as soon as persons change positively or negatively their existential condition. Individuals who are no more completely acted on by, and passive with respect to, the external circumstances are able to outline their own model of human nature, i.e. their own model of maximum power and activity [28]. But once individuals outline their own model, such a model is no more an abstract idea, for it is rather the individualized projection of one’s conatus towards the specific form of its fulfilment. Hence, it is an individual project, not an abstract model suffering from epistemic weakness.

44 A further advantage of this interpretation, that binds progress (and dynamics) with the truth-aptness of moral notions, is that we can understand the full compatibility of the following two propositions which would otherwise seem utterly inconsistent:


If men were born free, they would form no concept of good and evil so long as they remained free. Dem. I call him free who is led by reason alone. Therefore, he who is born free, and remains free, has only adequate ideas, and so has no concept of evil (by P64C). And since good and evil are correlates, he also has no concept of good


Knowledge of evil is an inadequate knowledge. Cor. From this it follows that if the human mind had only adequate ideas, it would form no notion of evil

47 Knowledge of pure evil, strictly speaking, is completely false, because in experiencing a pure evil, we are completely passive and incapable of forming any adequate idea. On the contrary, insofar as we are active, we form ideas and behave in an at least partially autonomous manner. The idea of a completely free man enters here as the ideal of human agency, which is impossible to achieve. If it were reached, individuals like these would have no concepts of good and evil because they would be like God, that is, completely active. So, pure evil and completely free men are mental experiments which never occur in the dimension of finite modes. They are useful devices only insofar as they show us what complete freedom and bondage are. On this basis, ethical life should be understood only in terms of relative increase or decrease of power.

48 To return to our original problem, Spinoza can consistently hold expressivism and cognitivism because:

49 1. a person’s ascriptions of good and evil are expressions of his conative states (expressivism);

50 2. one’s conative attitude can be adequate (or inadequate) and to that extent one can know (or fail to know) what is really good (or evil) (cognitivism);

51 3. all moral facts can be explained in natural terms (natu­ralism);

52 4. whether one’s conative attitude and cognitive capacity is adequate (or inadequate) depends on one’s level of mental and existential power (theory of moral progress).

53 ***

54 To conclude, the arguments so far have not had the effect of claiming that in Spinoza’s system every element is consistent with every other and that there are no problems at all. I have, however, suggested that some theses in Spinoza’s system, which may seem incompatible outside it, are consistent. One may ask, finally, why we can reconcile these metaethical positions as unproblematic in Spinoza. Does this depend on Spinoza’s being unaware of Hume’s and Moore’s famous metaethical theses? We cannot respond here to the question of whether Spinoza can be charged with deriving ought from is and committing a naturalistic fallacy. Suffice it here to consider the peculiarity of Spinoza’s metaphysics where independence of the attributes of extension and thought is coupled with their parallelism. Besides Spinoza’s idiosyncratic monism, many different metaethical positions are made compatible in his system in virtue of the double function of his thought that aims both at a naturalistic reductionism and at providing guidance for moral progress. Such unique combination of theory’s metaphysical theses and practical function seems currently non reproducible but serves, nonetheless, to highlight how in contemporary thought some deep conceptual divisions have become prominent and apparently insurmountable.


  • [1]
    Albert Heinekamp clearly summarizes the complexity of applying multiple categories to Spinoza’s metaethics. “Wenn man diesen Begriff des Guten nach der Begrifflichkeit der heutigen Analytischen Philosophie einordnen möchte, könnte man sagen, er sei 1. relationalistisch, weil das Gute in Beziehungen besteht, 2. idealistisch, weil die Relationen nach Spinoza zu den entia rationis zu zählen sind, 3. subjektivistisch, und zwar a) weil er weniger über das Objekt als über das Subjekt aussagt, und b) weil er nur für das bestimmte Subjekt verbindlich ist, 4. emotivistisch, weil die Emotionen die Grundlage für die Unterscheidung zwischen gut und schlecht sind, 5. naturalistisch, weil der Begriff des Guten zurückgeführt wird auf nichtwertende Sachverhalte, nämlich das faktische Reagieren von Subjekten auf bestimmte Gegenstände”, “Metaethik und Moral bei Spinoza”, in Theoria cum Praxi. Zum Verhältnis von Theorie und Praxis im 17. und 18. Jahrhundert. Akten des III. Internationalen Leibnizkongresses, Bd 2, Spinoza Studia Leibnitiana Supplementa, 20, Wiesbaden, Steiner, 1982, 62-92, p. 86.
  • [2]
    I understand expressivism (and analogously emotivism) as the thesis that moral terms do not depend upon moral properties inside or outside the empirical world, but on the expression of the agent’s conative state. However, in doing so I do not intend to equate Spinoza’s position with that of Alfred J. Ayer, Language, Truth and Logic. New York, Dover, 1946. Rather, I maintain that by endorsing an expressivist account of morals Spinoza simply wants to discard a realist conception of values and hold an irrealist one. See also Dennis A. Rohatyn, Spinoza’s Emotivism, in James B. Wilbur (ed.), Spinoza’s Metaphysics: Essays in Critical Appreciation, Assen, Van Gorcum, 1976, 29-35. This position might be named with the more recent category of “projectivism”, as suggested by Michael LeBuffe, From Bondage to Freedom. Spinoza on Human Excellence, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2010, p. 154. I discuss projectivism via ‘quasi-realism’ below in § 3.
  • [3]
    Spinoza, Ethics, in The Collected Works of Spinoza, Edwin Curley (ed.), Princeton, Princeton University Press, vol. I., 1988. Henceforth, with E I will simply refer to the Ethics’s passage using the traditional reference method, where p stands for proposition, s stands for scholium, d for demonstration, pref. for preface.
  • [4]
    Alexander Douglas, “Was Spinoza a Naturalist?”, Pacific Philosophical Quarterly, 96 (1), 2015, pp. 77-99, has recently and provokingly argued that Spinoza cannot be properly defined as a naturalist because, if we want to employ the idea of a naturalist approach in a specific sense, we must define it as a pure attitude toward knowledge of the world. This means that Spinoza’s commitment to the provision of ethical guidance and moral progress cannot be defined as naturalistic. Despite the interest of this interpretation, in what follows I will stick to the standard use of the term because it still seems capable of making sense of Spinoza’s explanatory approach. Indeed, as known, Spinoza’s approach tends to be a form of reductionism, where a phenomenon can in principle be described according to its most elementary constitutive components. And naturalistic reductionism is one of the standard uses of the term.
  • [5]
    “For example, despite his reference at 4p18s to “what reason prescribes to us”, there is an almost complete absence from his writings of such terms of obligation and duty as ‘ought’, ‘must’, ‘should’, and ‘may’”, Don Garrett, Spinoza’s Ethical Theory, in Don Garret (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Spinoza, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1996, 267-314, at p. 285.
  • [6]
    The recent strongest exponent of this moralization of nature is Philippa Foot, Natural Goodness, Oxford, Clarendon, 2001.
  • [7]
    Charlie D. Broad, Five Types of Ethical Theories, London, Routledge, 1967, pp. 51-52.
  • [8]
    And similarly in other passages: “In just the same way as thoughts and ideas of things are ordered and connected in the mind, so the affections of the body, or images of things are ordered and connected in the body” (E5p1).
  • [9]
    Alexander Miller, An Introduction to Contemporary Metaethics, Oxford, Polity, 2003, at p. 60. See also Simon Blackburn, Spreading the World. Groundings in the Philosophy of Language, Oxford, Clarendon, 1984, chap. 6.
  • [10]
    By adequate individual here I mean an individual who is capable of self-determination in action. As Eugene Marshall, “Man is a God to man. How Human Beings Can Be Adequate Causes”, in M. J. Kisner and A. Youpa (eds.), Essays on Spinoza’s Ethical Theory, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2014, 160-177, at p. 164, appropriately points out, adequacy for finite modes is to be understood as a property of actions (of thought and extension) not of the essence of the individual because only God can be adequate in itself.
  • [11]
    See Jonathan Bennett, A Study of Spinoza’s Ethics, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1984, pp. 296-8.
  • [12]
    See Sergio Landucci, “L’etica e la metaetica di Spinoza”, Rivista di filosofia 3, 2001, 387-409, pp. 389-394. Andrew Youpa, “Spinoza’s Model of Human Nature”, Journal of the History of Philosophy 48(1), 2010, pp. 61-76, also claims that the model of human nature can be interpreted as conveying an objective ideal if we understand the idea of free man as identical to the idea of God. That interpretive move would certainly make an idea an adequate one, however the specificity of this model would completely disappear in the all-encompassing idea of God. Similarly, Matthew J. Kisner, Spinoza on Human Freedom. Reason, Autonomy and the Good Life, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2011, characterizes the model of human nature as the “object of our rational desires”, p. 99. However, in doing so, he seems to take for granted that the model has a clear and unambiguous cognitive status. In what follows I will argue against this reading.
  • [13]
    “In sum, I believe that Spinoza himself held (a) that the initial clarity of the model of human nature which he was going to present fitted it, or made it epistemologically acceptable, for use in the subsequent course of his own argument; and (b) that it is mainly that subsequent argument itself which reveals the ‘ethical’ acceptability of that model or, hence, of the definitions which depend, implicitly or overtly, on the idea of it”, Paul D. Eisenberg, “Is Spinoza an ethical naturalist?”, in Siegfried Hessing (ed.), Speculum Spinozanum 1677-1977, London & Boston, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1977, 144-164, at p. 160. For other proponents of this interpretation see also the next footnotes.
  • [14]
    “What Spinoza calls here aliqua humana natura is a moral model which serves as an intermediate function. It is a type of human nature or cha­racter which comes closer than does one’s present condition toward realizing the perfection available to human agents. Its purpose is the interim one of proposing a practicable degree of power or virtue, a concrete pattern of actual affects within one’s own reach. […] Far from substituting itself for the highest ideal, it serves as a directional lead and incitement toward the plenary goal of the human conatus”, James Collins, Spinoza on Nature, Carbondale and Edwardsville, Southern Illinois University Press, 1984, p. 180.
  • [15]
    Compare the Ethics’ formulation of the model of human nature with that of the Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect: “But since human weakness does not grasp that order by its own thought, and meanwhile man conceives a human nature much stronger and more enduring than his own, and at the same time sees that nothing prevents his acquiring such a nature, he is spurred to seek means that will lead him to such a perfection. Whatever can be a means to arrive – together with other individuals if possible – at the enjoyment of such a nature”, Spinoza, Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect, in The Collected Works of Spinoza, ed. By Edwin Curley, Princeton, Princeton University Press, p. 10, chap. 13.
  • [16]
    I am grateful to an anonymous reviewer for pressing me on this.
  • [17]
    “As finite beings that can never be the adequate cause of all our affects (E4p4c), it is inevitable that we are subject to many things that do not follow from our nature […]. Nonetheless, we are constantly striving to preserve our being […]. Hence it is a function of our striving in time that we produce ideals that approximate the unconstrained (i.e., and timeless) striving of our nature. This is the idea of our own essence as seen in the light of a general idea of human essence or nature. The projection of our ideal nature guides us as an end in action. Of course, for Spinoza, the ideal itself is mostly a fiction, but it is a useful one. Even though models of human nature have no real metaphysical basis, they are nonetheless necessary as a guide to individual decisions”, Michael A. Rosenthal, “Tolerance as a Virtue in Spinoza’s Ethics”, Journal of the History of Philosophy 39, 2001, 535-557, p. 540.
  • [18]
    “I take it that Spinoza’s view is that we can form a general idea of a certain kind of person, and that once we have done so, that general idea sorts itself out from the other general ideas of man we might have as being the idea of a kind of person we necessarily desire to be. The most general characterization of that kind of person might be that he/she possesses much greater power of action than any other being a human is capable of becoming”, Edwin Curley, Behind the Geometrical Method. A Reading of Spinoza’s Ethics, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1988, p. 123.
  • [19]
    That the model of human nature is “constructed” should not lead us to think that Spinoza adopts a constructivist position. Unlike Charles Jarrett, “Spinozistic Constructivism”, in M. J. Kisner and A. Youpa, Essays on Spinoza’s Ethical Theory, 57-84, I do not think that the mere fact of being constructed makes the model of human nature the basis of a genuine constructivist position because construc­tivism needs a proper procedure of construction, whereas merely constructed ideals may point to a projectivist approach. On this see Michele Bocchiola, “Moral Constructivism and the Attack of the Eutyphronics”, manuscript.
  • [20]
    “Consequently, increasing our mental power by attaining the highest good must increase our bodily power in precisely the same way. In other words, perfecting the intellect entails perfecting the corresponding bodily states”, Matthew J. Kisner, Spinoza on Human Freedom, p. 78.
  • [21]
    “There could be no kind of causal priority of a particular desire for a thing over the thought that the thing was good: the desire would, so to speak, already come intellectualized, the thought affectivised”, Robert J. Delahunty, Spinoza, London, 1958, p. 229.
  • [22]
    For this reason William Frankena is wrong in maintaining that Spinoza “is committed to the position that there are two kinds of KG [knowledge of good], one adequate and the other inadequate, and both true, one confusedly and the other clearly and distinctly”, William K. Frankena, “Spinoza on the Knowledge of Good and Evil”, Philosophia 7, 1977, 15-44, p. 30. Spinoza is both emotivist and cognitivist at each stage of moral progress, but inadequate moral judgments, though truth-apt, are false.
  • [23]
    See in particular Landucci, “Etica e metaetica in Spinoza”, p. 406.
  • [24]
    Andrew Youpa, “Spinoza’s Theories of Value”, British Journal for the History of Philosophy, 2010, 18(2), pp. 209-229.
  • [25]
    Susan James, “Freedom, Slavery, and the Passions”, in Olli I. Koistinen, The Cambridge Companion to Spinoza’s Ethics, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2009, p. 239.
  • [26]
    “If fully understanding a thing, or having an adequate idea of it, consists in being capable of bringing it about, this presupposes not just a mind, but a body with certain powers”, Susan James, “Spinoza, the Body, and the Good Life”, in M. J. Kisner and A. Youpa, Essays on Spinoza’s Ethical Theory, at p. 153.
  • [27]
    For this reason Jon Miller, while correctly discussing Spinoza’s dualism, fails to understand the importance of parallelism. Indeed, it is misleading to say that because “we have two radically different powers of action, there must be two different kinds of goods contributing to the maintenance and increase of these powers”, if by this we mean that there is a “dualism of value in Spinoza’s text”, Jon Miller, “Spinoza’s Axiology”, in Daniel Garber & Steven Nadler (eds.), Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2005, pp. 149-172, at p. 155.
  • [28]
    “Ainsi se constitue ce que nous pourrions appeler un isolat axiologique. La condition pour offrir à l’homme des occasion de valeurs positives revient à sélectionner les rencontres et puisque c’est par ces rencontres que se produits l’utile, à les restreindre aux choses et aux êtres qui ont avec nous une convenance de nature. [...] Les effets de la multiplicité quantitative des bonnes rencontres se cumulent dans l’âme qui devient de plus en plus affirmative de soi. Tel est le principe existentiel de l’axiologie spinoziste : un transfert d quantitatif au qualitatif. Par son développement éthique, l’homme peut parvenir à ce que ses actions deviennent de plus en plus déterminées par sa propre nature”, Lucien Mugnier-Pollet, “Esquisse d’une axiologie de Spinoza”, Les Études philosophiques 2, 1972, 385-397, pp. 395-397.

I attempt to solve the apparent inconsistency between expressivism and cognitivism in Spinoza’s metaethics by appealing to Spinoza’s naturalistic approach. According to Spinoza, good and evil are neither properties of the world, nor entities independent of individual appetite. It is the very activity of one’s conatus that defines as good and evil certain events. But, insofar as each conative state has a correspondent cognitive state, each evaluative judgment is both an expression of one’s conatus and a cognitive statement. Spinoza can be both expressivist and cognitivist because the reality of moral facts depends on one’s conatus, but these moral facts can, nevertheless, be either adequate and true, or inadequate and false.

Federico Zuolo
Università di Pavia
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