- Doing Without Free Will: Spinoza and Contemporary Moral Problems eds. by Ursula Goldenbaum and Christopher Kluz
Spinoza’s moral philosophy is trending. This is the fourth book written in English in six years devoted to various aspects of it; that may not qualify as viral, but it is progress. The volume’s five essays cover moral responsibility, akrasia, moral realism, and Spinoza’s model of human nature: the free man. Hence its subtitle is misleading. There is nothing uniquely contemporary about the issues discussed, as is evident from the essays themselves. Also, the moral problems are not the type one might expect. You will not find an analysis of Spinoza’s position on the moral status of non-human animals, for example. What you will find is an effort to bring Spinoza into contemporary debates. In their introduction, Goldenbaum and Kluz offer a historical overview of the free-will debate, which, according to their account, has culminated in a present-day stalemate. The upshot is that it is time for philosophers to give Spinoza consideration because, according to the editors, his views defy the categories that led to the predicament.
Goldenbaum and Kluz set a laudable goal for the book. But the essays are of uneven quality and, in my judgment, only one will be of interest to non-historians. I will summarize each, starting with one of my favorites.
In “Freedom from Resentment: Spinoza’s Way with the Reactive Attitudes,” J. Thomas Cook compares Spinoza’s and P. F. Strawson’s theories of moral responsibility. As Cook points out, others have noted and discussed similarities and differences in their views (e.g. Jonathan Bennett’s A Study of Spinoza’s Ethics), but no in-depth comparison had been made. While providing clear synopses of their views, Cook focuses on a subset of reactive attitudes (i.e. blame and indignation) and organizes his discussion around questions that arise about their doctrines and arguments. The result is philosophically interesting and a contribution to scholarship.
In “Rehumanizing Spinoza’s Free Man,” Matthew Homan’s aim is to show that Spinoza’s model of human nature is attainable. Two questions are central to this issue. First, how ideal is Spinoza’s free man? Second, how imperfect are Spinoza’s actual human beings? According to Homan, the free man is an ideal, but the model’s freedom is not perfect freedom. Rather, it is a “very human” ideal (80). Homan maintains that Spinoza’s actual human beings are imperfect, but not so imperfect that we cannot attain the free man’s human-caliber freedom. By a careful examination of the free man propositions, Homan makes a strong case for his interpretation, and in doing so contributes to the current scholarly debate.
In “Recovering Spinoza’s Theory of Akrasia,” Julia Haas defends a reading according to which the core of Spinoza’s account of akrasia is contained in the propositions that open Ethics 4 (i.e. 4p1–4p8). At issue, in part, is whether there is a valid basis for Spinoza’s talk of an emotion’s strength (4p9). Contrary to a view held by Bennett and Michael Della Rocca, Haas argues that Spinoza has the resources to underwrite this move. While Martin Lin (JHP [End Page 676] 44:3, 2006), as Haas notes and whose view she discusses, covers much of the same ground, Haas amends and strengthens their approach by highlighting the emotive dimension of adequate knowledge.
In “Moral Responsibility without Free Will: Spinoza’s Social Approach,” Kluz’s goal is to disclose Spinoza’s novel conception of moral responsibility and help resolve the purported free-will stalemate. According to Kluz, what in part distinguishes Spinoza’s view is that the utility of social conventions and of civil laws justifies rewards and punishments, including praise and blame (16; cf. 8). Holding individuals morally responsible is a social convention with the purpose of maintaining security and stability. But, as Kluz knows, a consequentialist view of moral responsibility is not new and predates Spinoza. Still...