The drama of Cartesian morality

Vance Gregory Morgan, Marquette University


One of the expected fruits of Descartes' philosophical enterprise is "the highest and most perfect moral system", a system which, organically developed from its metaphysical and physical foundations, will provide the moral agent with direction and purpose in each of life's contingencies. Yet, Descartes' published work contains no such moral system, and commentators have generally agreed that Descartes "has entered the history of philosophy as perhaps the only systematic philosopher of the first rank who failed to provide any methodical treatment of moral problems". In this dissertation, I contend that through a careful investigation of primarily Descartes' Correspondence and his final treatise, The Passions of the Soul, it is possible to identify the framework of a working ethical system. While Descartes' metaphysics are remarkable for their insistence on indubitably clear and distinct principles, his ethic is equally remarkable in its conclusion that indubitably certain, inviolable principles are unavailable in the realm of morals and human activity. Virtue is not defined with reference to the results of one's actions, nor to one's faithful adherence to a set of rationally derived moral directives, but rather is defined as the constant resolution to put into action the directives of one's best intellectual evaluation. At the same time, one must always recognize that in the realm of morals, one's best intellectual evaluation may be insufficient or incorrect. Hence, virtue consists in the moral attitude with which one lives one's life, the psychological conviction that one has always resolutely acted upon the best intellectual activity of which one is capable. The development of Descartes' ethic is traced beginning with the formation of the Cartesian method, as well as the distinction between metaphysical and moral certainty. Through an analysis of the provisional morality of the Discourse, and an investigation of the substantial union of mind and body in the Meditations and Correspondence, it is shown why the moral system derived from Cartesian metaphysics and physics must necessarily lack metaphysically clear and distinct principles. Finally, the specific nature of Cartesian morality is developed through a detailed investigation of relevant letters from the Correspondence, as well as The Passions of the Soul.

Recommended Citation

Morgan, Vance Gregory, "The drama of Cartesian morality" (1991). Dissertations (1962 - 2010) Access via Proquest Digital Dissertations. AAI9133803.