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Only in the last twenty-five years have scholars begun to appreciate Samuel Pufendorf’s importance for the history of ethics. The signal element of Pufendorf’s ethics for recent commentators is his idea that morality arises when God imposes his superior will on a world that can contain no moral value of or on its own. But how, exactly, is “imposition” accomplished? According to Pufendorf, human beings do not simply defer to God in the way elephant seals do to a dominant male. Rather, imposition is realized through recognition of God’s authority to direct and hold us answerable. This brings a whole battery of concepts into play—recognition, accountability, imputation, and authority—along with the capacities to operate with them in practical thought. What is brilliantly original in Pufendorf is his appreciation of these conceptual connections and his awareness of their implications for moral psychology. Authority is a kind of “moral power,” as Pufendorf calls it, which agents can exercise only within a social, moral space that is constituted by their respective obligations to and rights against one another, and whose exercise directly affects those rights and obligations. Only “sociable” beings with the capacity for mutual recognition are thus capable of moral obligation.
Recent commentary has generally missed these important aspects and so, in my view, what is most fascinating and original in Pufendorf’s thought. Pufendorf was far from the first thinker to hold some version of a divine command theory of morality. But he may have been the first to attempt to work out what such a view must look like if it is to take seriously the conceptual links between authority, recognition, and accountability, as well as the psychology necessary for these to be realized in the moral life. In the end, however, this introduces an instability into Pufendorf.s view. I argue that whereas Pufendorf seeks to derive human moral powers, equal dignity, and sociability from God’s superior moral power, the very idea of moral powers, including God’s, seems already to presuppose a more basic moral power or dignity that is shared by any being who is capable of sociable relations.