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Essay on Descartes and Morality

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Morality is a topic that has fascinating writers for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. As such, the various views of morality that the world holds are often topics of discussion and research by students of all age levels. Though the level of analysis will increase in complexity as students mature, Rene Descartes is a writer that offers insight for people of all grade levels. This sample essay explores Descartes' "Discourse on the Method", which seeks to lay down a set of maxims for the living of a functional lifestyle. Specifically, these three maxims lay the foundation for the attainment of subsequent knowledge.

Providing provisions for a change in morals

Rene Descartes’ Provisional Morality was conceived in his first published work, titled Discourse on the Method. Descartes sought to overhaul the structure of his philosophical method and outlined his process for doing so in the aforementioned discourse. Over the course of his discourse, Descartes put everything he knew into doubt in order to fully discuss the attainment of knowledge. Descartes then created a set of provisional morals to maintain a functioning lifestyle while redefining his own thought process.

The morals served as a type of temporary lodging that Descartes could reside in while clarifying his method for arriving at knowledge. Descartes restarted from ground zero and thus knew no truths. He used the provisional morals in combination with his developing method to identify new truths and continue onward in this fashion. There were three morals that were made applicable to all situations and cultures. Although said maxims offered little in terms of moral instruction, they provided a solid foundation for attaining knowledge.

The First Maxim

The first of the maxims regarded the regulation of ones conduct, at a point where one possessed no known truths. Descartes stated:

The maxim was “to obey the laws and customs of my country, adhering firmly to the faith in which…I had been educated from my childhood and regulating my conduct in every other matter according to the most moderate opinions” (Descartes).

He went on to clarify that moderate opinions were best simply because of their far removal from those that are extreme. By following the most moderate opinions, Descartes protected himself in cases of error. In the situation where a person ended up on the morally wrong end of a belief, following the most moderate form of that opinion placed the subject in the closest proximity to the morally correct side. The tactic was equivalent to hedging one's bets. Free will to choose one's morals was not an option, as no opinion leaves one in a useless position.

There was no real point to thought and analysis if there was no result. The maxim detailed an adherence to the laws and customs of one’s country, which left the subject free of prosecution but invited questions in terms of the morality of a countries customs. For example, the situation where a country held murder as a tradition or custom must be considered. A person who followed the customs of this country would be obliged to commit murder, which was morally wrong in almost all cases. At the bare minimum murder became acceptable according to the laws and customs of one’s home country.

Although concerns arose over the morality of a country’s customs, it must be remembered that Descartes was attempting to restart from a point of no knowledge. Without preexisting opinions on the morality of certain actions, it seemed more reasonable to follow a country’s laws and customs. Regardless of the requirements of such customs, following them at least put the subject in a position agreeable to the rest of society. From said position, one can then work toward attaining one’s own knowledge of what was morally right or wrong. Descartes used a reliance on the most judicious member of a society, as well as a constant willingness to alter one's beliefs to minimize issues of customs and laws. The most judicious person was seen as the best example to follow, with insistence on a moderate position protecting one from any extreme mistakes of judgment.

Descartes summarized this position saying:

He “had from that time begun to hold my own opinions for naught because I wished to subject them all to examination, I was convinced that I could not do better than follow in the meantime the opinions of the most judicious” (Descartes).

Descartes believed moral judgment changes over time and people shouldn't be so quick to judge a person's beliefs. He mentioned that one should always put more faith in a person’s actions rather than their words, as actions tend to hold more of the truth of a person’s beliefs. The conflicts that existed between possible moral conflicts, and following the example of a judicious person or a country’s customs created much indecision in the mind. Descartes detailed his next maxim to deal with this mental waffling.

The Second Maxim

Maxim number two stated:

Descartes would “be as firm and resolute in my actions as I was able” (Descartes).

A course of action was best fulfilled when one engaged in it whole heartedly. Questions of morality tended to cause great indecision in the mind, and such a maxim laid a foundation for achieving solid results in ones work despite any nagging concerns. A focused approach to decision making assisted the workings of Descartes’ first moral. Descartes felt that if one could not determine what was definitively true, they should still act with reference to what is most probable (Descartes).

Thus in the case of customs and laws, it was most probable that the most judicious member of society was acting based on good morals. The level of probability was not seen as in issue for Descartes, who felt that all decisions should be carried out with the same level of dedication. He used the metaphor of a lost traveler wandering in the wilderness. The traveler, while completely lost, was still likely better off traveling as steadfast as possible in one direction rather than continuously circling back to the same spot, even if the one direction was not ideal.

By proceeding wholeheartedly with one course of action, the mind could insure that at least progress in some direction was being made. From there, one considered any new truths based upon the path that they were already on, which was deemed superior to being on no path at all. The second maxim did not suffer the same moral questioning as the first. Even if bad morals were absorbed from one's culture, proceeding with them to develop truths still appeared more productive than circling around one original discussion. Bad morals that developed into a set of false truths would still provide some information on what was false if the person realized their error. To proceed without conviction, or constantly revisit the same starting point created no movement in either a good or bad direction.

The Final Maxim

The final moral focused on the curtailment of one’s own expectations for what was possible in the world.

Descartes endeavored “always to conquer myself rather than fortune, and change my desires rather than the order of the world, and in general, accustom myself to the persuasion that, except our own thoughts, there is nothing absolutely in our power” (Descartes).

The removal of power protected Descartes from any negative feelings that would accompany a failure in an endeavor where he tried his absolute best. All external objects then fall under the same criteria, as unattainable except by the whim of some greater power, or pure luck. Descartes felt that once objects were understood to be unattainable, any lack in them would cease to drag on the human mind. This philosophical theory also is the basis for secular Buddhism and the path to end suffering. The knowledge that one’s own thoughts were the only attainable item left the subject contented and removed the desire for external objects.

Although Descartes hoped the maxim would bring contentment to any practitioners, there existed quite a strong possibility for induced laziness. Once the individual ability to attain items was removed, one could easily become contented with failure. Skepticism brought to mind the attainment of knowledge, and whether or not it was in one's power to attain knowledge at all. Knowledge and truth were generally thought to exist outside the confinements of one’s mind, and the maxim may lead one to believe that no truths were attainable.

Looking at all three maxims together, the set provided little instruction on what was morally right or wrong. Only the first moral truly offered guidance in terms of what morals a person should follow, and even their ;morality was based on the actions of others. The set gave the basis for creating an individual set of morals based on what laws and customs exist in the given society. The absorption of morals through culture was always central to moral discussions:

As “we learn what morality demands through rules such as those against killing and stealing. These rules explain our general moral obligations” (Lombardi).

Although morals were learned through community interaction, morality as a topic only held value in situations where morality was not purely subjective. He believed there was a fine line between behaviors and ethic cultivated through nature and nurture. Descartes encouraged individual consideration in regards to all types of knowledge, moral or otherwise.

Thus, if a man’s “practical grip on his morality is reasonably firm, he may nonetheless be vulnerable to a number of doubts about it…he may also have some doubts about the importance of morality in his life” (Marshall).

In order to counteract the doubt, a person desired additional knowledge to assist his or her considerations of the purposed topic (Marshall). Here Descartes third maxim hurt the moral guidance of his first since the additional knowledge can only be willfully attained in a person’s mind. The subjective nature of the knowledge biased any moral conclusions that arose, leaving the subject with morals based only on the customs or laws of their culture. An evaluation of Discourse on the Method suggested that the provisional morals, or “par provision can best be understood as relating to informality” (Gilby). The provisional nature of Descartes morals allowed for constant reconsiderations. A liquid state of morality was somewhat frightening but fit best with the guidelines laid out in Descartes discourse. Whether or not objective morality existed, it was certainly hard to obtain, and one cannot operate in life with a blank moral code.

Evaluating Descartes' philosophical views

Despite the fact that Descartes three provisional morals avoided the topic of direct moral interpretations, they managed to outline a solid set of practices to use in constructing one’s own morals. The maxims additionally provided a method for attaining knowledge and advancing one's beliefs from a clean slate position. Although there were various skepticisms regarding each piece, the combination of the three morals produced a strong structure.

The maxims played off of each other in guiding the subject to a place of contentment. A lack of direct moral judgments or strategies did not stop the maxims from positively guiding a follower’s actions. Descartes wrote the piece in the first person, which removes some overarching qualities from the work. Nonetheless, the discourse still led the reader to the same end position as Descartes. A person’s moral foundations were created by their country, and since the mind was the only trustworthy vehicle for advancement, it was up to each person to further any moral discussions.

Works Cited

Lombardi, Louis G. Moral Analysis: Foundations, Guides, and Applications. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1988. Web. http://books.google.com/books?hl=enlr=id=C-3EeRbtOC8Coi=fndpg=PR7dq=Rene Descartes provisional moral analysisots=zkSy6BJljksig=TizGaBpbtuXK5R9n6L-NiGdvrNk

Marshall, John. Descartes's Moral Theory. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1998. Web. http://books.google.com/books?hl=enlr=id=CGodFV3OSUQCoi=fndpg=PR9dq=Rene Descartes provisional moral analysisots=4TwT1jAx1Rsig=iOoZ-jUSS0c_7Z8gzITVcPBGbRk

Gilby, Emma. "Descartes’s ‘morale par provision’: A Re-evaluation." French Studies: A Quarterly Review. 65.4 (2011): 444-458. Web. 25 Feb. 2013. http://muse.jhu.edu/login?auth=0type=summaryurl=/journals/french_studies_a_quarterly_review/v065/65.4.gilby01.pdf.

Descartes, René. Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting the Reason, and Seeking Truth in the Sciences. 1636.



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Ultius, Inc. "Essay on Descartes and Morality." Ultius | Custom Writing and Editing Services. December 20, 2013. https://www.ultius.com/ultius-blog/entry/essay-on-descartes-and-morality.html.

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Ultius, Inc. "Essay on Descartes and Morality." Ultius | Custom Writing and Editing Services. December 20, 2013. https://www.ultius.com/ultius-blog/entry/essay-on-descartes-and-morality.html.

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