on reason and morality

What to read

Citation: Samuel Clarke. A Discourse Concerning the Unchangeable Obligations of Natural Religion. 1708.

Read: pp. 45-97.

Where can you find it? Eighteenth Century Collections Online [requires University of Chicago internet connection]. Note: there are several editions there, I used the one from 1708.

What to look for

First, I apologize for the length of this reading. Thankfully, it’s more important to get the feel for it than to follow every argument.

Clarke explicitly claims that moral distinctions consist in relations. Very roughly, if something is good, then it cannot be evil, and neither human beings nor even God could make it evil. Clarke was impressed by a version of Plato’s argument in the Euthyphro 6e-11b : remember the question about whether the Gods love piety because it is pious or because they love it?

There is a point here since there is something paradoxical about thinking that something is good and also believing that it would have been evil simply by virtue of your thinking that it is evil. If something is good, it isn’t evil. So how would my thinking it is evil (or good) make it so?

Also of interest is an objection Clarke raises against Hobbes, namely, that a kind of promise, the social contract, has to be binding in order for the sovereign to be created. Since justice includes the requirement that promises be kept, Hobbes has not shown that justice is a wholly artificial creation. (I don’t think Hobbes was committed to denying that, but that’s another story). Does Hume’s different account of the artificiality of justice avoid this problem?

Incidentally, Hume also held that promissory obligations are artificial, meaning they are based on social arrangements. We don’t have that argument on the schedule, since it’s similar to his treatment of property and other rules of justice, but it’s very influential. See Treatise 3.2.5.