lauantai 10. maaliskuuta 2012

Christian Wolff: Reasonable thoughts of human acting and letting others act upon you - Finding the greatest good

In Kantian ethics greatest good is only something that people could hope for: moral actions certainly wouldn't guarantee that one would find greatest good, although they would undoubtedly make one deserve it. In the days of pre-Kantian innocence, one could still believe that the connection between good actions and greatest goodness could be positively proven. Indeed, we have seen that Wolff simply states moral actions to aim at nothing else but the growth of the perfection in oneself and in others. The perfection itself is best one could hope for, but just as a further incentive, God is willing to make anyone happy who wants to act in a moral manner.

Doing the right thing becomes then a mere question of mental calculation: in each situation, you should determine the best possible outcome you could hope for and the most suitable means for acheiving the outcome – and then you already have incentive enough for doing the thing. The final goal should then be organizing all the actions so that they are geared towards the perfection of oneself and others.

The idea of people actually solving all their problems through an ethical calculus sounds quite fabulous. Indeed, Wolff himself admits that actual moral problems are usually too detailed for any humanly calculus. Instead, the ideal of ethical calculus should be applied only to the problem of discovering general principles of action. Thus, an investigator of ethics should try to discover which actions in general work for the human perfection and which hinder its progress. A prudent person would then just follow these general principles, even if they did not hold perfectly in any particular case, because he would understand their reliability.

Still, one might still be uncertain how Wolff would account for the cases where a person acts against such principles due to sensuous influences and desires. Wolff's strategy is to rely on his theory of sensations as a source of confused information. Conflict between ethical reasoning and sensuous desires becomes thus a conflict between two kinds of information: clear and distinct vs. dark and indistinct. A person could in theory free herself from the slavery of sensuous infuences through a perfect clarification and analysis of her consciousness. In practice, this is impossible for human beings, thus they must pit sensuous influences against one another.

Wolff ponders also the possibility of using sensuousness as a general instrument for advocating morality in society at large by representing difficult ethical thoughts through symbolism and ceremonies. Wolff has probably in his mind at least the sacraments of church, but when he discusses how one could invent as rational symbols and ceremonies as possible, Wolff's ideas start to resemble Adam Weishaupt's later society of Illuminati and the more traditional freemasonry. One might wonder if Wolff himself was part of some masonic lodge.

Next time we shall learn how to read other people's minds.

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