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Modern PhilosophySeventeenth Century

Modern Western philosophy emerged in conjunction with the religious, political, and social upheavals that characterized the Reformation period and the first half of the seventeenth century. Early modern moral philosophy reflected the need to reassess the ways that European thinkers had viewed moral knowledge, the human good and the nature of moral value, and the relation between God's will and the principles of human conduct. The extent to which seventeenth-century moral thought represents a break with late medieval and Renaissance views is controversial. But by the early 1600s modern conceptions of the character and goals of the theory of morals differed significantly from their historical antecedents. Hugo Grotius (1583–1645) provided an alternative to Scholastic natural-law theory as well as a response to the skeptical views on moral knowledge put forward by sixteenth-century thinkers like Michel de Montaigne (1533–1592). Grotius took a broadly empirical approach to the question of universal natural law by considering the features of human nature that make law-governed cooperation between individuals both possible and necessary. When presenting the basic precepts of human conduct, Grotius tended to focus on the self-interested individual. While Grotius accepted that humans are naturally sociable, he did not ground his natural jurisprudence in a rich, substantive conception of the good life or the chief good for human beings. Rather, he offered key elements of a theory of natural rights. Grotius regarded natural rights as subjective qualities of the human individual that must be respected by morally viable forms of human association. Subsequent modern natural-law theories were generally in keeping with Grotius's minimalist conception of the good as well as with the Grotian idea of rights.

Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) combined a denial of natural sociability with an egoistic view of human motives. His works on moral philosophy were interpreted as providing a naturalistic account of obligation, an account based on the fundamental good (the self-preservation) of the separate agent. An important problem linked to Grotius's and Hobbes's moral thought was the relationship between the laws of nature and God. Samuel von Pufendorf (1632–1694) made the will of God the ultimate source of such laws, and made God's power to punish and reward the ultimate ground of our obligation to obey them. This voluntarist view of morality as obedience to the will of a superior generated the systematic theory of duties and rights found in Pufendorf's immensely influential works. A similar view underlies the treatment of moral ideas given by John Locke (1632–1704). Locke combined a hedonistic explanation of the origins of our ideas of moral good and evil with a voluntarist conception of the relationship between law and the sanctioning power of a superior.

The voluntarist view of morality was a primary target of early modern perfectionist philosophers. Baruch Spinoza (1632–1677) held that the world is not the separate creation of God but a natural whole completely determined by eternal truths and laws knowable by reason. The philosophically informed agent's moral task is not to obey God's commands. Rather, the task is to understand divine law as the expression of eternal truths and thus to grasp the object of law as the supreme good. The true knowledge and love of God represents the highest state of human perfection. Striving to know this good through reason, the agent transcends selfish motivation and narrow self-interest. Nicolas Malebranche (1638–1715) viewed the world as having causal order through continual divine intervention. According to Malebranche, we are wholly dependent on God, and morality is obedience to God. This obedience, however, does not involve blind or even self-interested acceptance of divine commandments. Obedience requires that we understand God's order, and our intellectual apprehension of this order moves us to act from love in accordance with God's will. Repudiating the central tenets of voluntarist morality, Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz (1646–1716) based his moral system on the supposition that all actions must have a sufficient reason, a supposition linked to the notions of divine omniscience and metaphysical perfection. While many possible worlds are conceivable, God's perfection and infallibility guarantee that he chose optimally, thus creating the best of all possible worlds. Humans act morally when they act from the habit of loving or willing the good; and they act in this way when they learn to act on their knowledge of the world's perfection. The ethics of Christian von Wolff (1679–1754) were generally in keeping with the Leibnizian perfectionist view, although Wolff modified Leibniz's metaphysical tenets in a variety of ways.

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Philosophy of Mind - Early Ideas to Planck lengthMoral - Modern Philosophy - Seventeenth Century, Eighteenth Century, Nineteenth Century, Twentieth Century, Bibliography