- Descartes’s Moral Theory by John Marshall
In this concise, well-wrought and provocative work, John Marshall sets two primary goals for himself: 1) to show that Descartes, contrary to the received view, does provide us with the foundational elements of a full fledged ethical theory, and 2) to prove, again contrary to standard interpreters, that Descartes’s early theory of morals, as sketched in the Discourse, is at one with the later theory propounded in The Passions of the Soul and numerous correspondences with Princess Elizabeth.
The book is divided into three parts. The first section includes a thorough discussion of Descartes’s self-described morale par provision which provides the philosophical inquirer with practical guidance while the theoretical foundations of his or her belief system are shorn by radical doubt. These four maxims—to follow the customs of one’s country, practice one’s faith and rely on the opinions of the wise, to act resolutely in the face of uncertainty, to master one’s passions and to live the life, at least in Descartes’s case, of a philosopher—should not, Marshall argues, be viewed as ‘provisional’ in a pejorative sense (16–19). Instead, Marshall claims that Descartes takes them to be derivable from his four rules of method (14; 32–33). Therefore, the morale par provision is not some sort of “convenient” compromise but actually forms the second order core of a viable ethical theory (16). The second part, Descartes’s “Final Morality” is devoted to exploring Descartes’s conception of virtue and his notion of the good life (57). Succinctly, the good life for Descartes is happiness which, according to Marshall, in a very weakly Neo-Stoic sense is taken to consist in virtue and wisdom. Formally defined, Cartesian virtue is “the disposition always to judge as well as we can what is the best plan of action and to adhere strictly to that plan” (63). In turn, in a letter to Elizabeth, we are informed that behaving virtuously requires one to display strength and firmness of will, to judge well, and to possess well ordered desires—evidence which Marshall takes to show a close correspondence with the maxims of the earlier morale par provision. (74–5). Contra commentators such as Geroult, an apparent conceptual continuum between the early and later theories thereby obtains. (See Martial Geroult, Descartes’s Philosophy Interpreted according to the Order of Reasons, translated by Roger Ariew [Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985], Chapters 19–20.)
Unfortunately, and as Marshall readily admits, Descartes provides us with little substantive guidance concerning his axiology and theory of right action. Thus, the third, and more “speculative” part of the work seeks to correct this deficit by delving into a proposed Cartesian metaethics (115). Marshall begins by fleshing out Descartes’s [End Page 677] concept of the Summum Bonum, i.e., virtue. Cartesian virtue is a second-order good which instructs us to strive after and promote various intrinsically valuable first-order goods such as joy, knowledge, friendship, free will, the love of God, etc. (118). As such, Descartes seems to provide us with a fairly straightforward teleological conception of ethics. Nonetheless, when we turn to moral theory proper, Marshall wants to claim that Descartes exhibits certain proto-Kantian leanings, entailed by his concept of generosite as discussed at length in The Passions. The genereux, i.e., those who display generosite, are individuals who, Marshall argues, always act with “respect” towards others and thus treat their fellows both benevolently and justly (152). The basis for this respect is to be found, and this is somewhat of a stretch, albeit an interesting one, in our mutual capacity for free and rational willing (156). From here, of course, it would be a rather short step to Kant. More work needs to be done, however, to square this seemingly non-consequentialist conception of right action with Descartes’s teleological axiology.
Regardless, Marshall has accomplished his first task—the normative theory outlined in The Passions, although rudimentary, certainly deserves to be viewed as ethical, not simply prudential, in...