Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm (1646–1716)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DA052-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved January 23, 2019, from

12. Ethics and political thought

Although Leibniz’s ethical and political writings are not widely read today, they constitute an important part of his corpus, unsurprising, given Leibniz’s own involvement in politics. Leibniz’s ethical and political thought, squarely within the natural law tradition, was based on the notions of justice, charity and virtue (see Natural law). Leibniz wrote: ‘Charity is a universal benevolence, and benevolence the habit of loving or of willing the good. Love then signifies rejoicing in the happiness of another, or, what is the same thing, converting the happiness of another into one’s own’ Codex Iuris Gentium Diplomaticus (The diplomatic code of the law of nations) [1693: introduction] 1988: 171). In a note on felicity (Leibniz [c.1694–8] 1988: 83–4), he connected justice, wisdom, and virtue to charity: ‘Virtue is the habit of acting according to wisdom.…Wisdom is the science of felicity, [and] is what must be studied above all things.…To love is to find pleasure in the perfection of another. Justice is charity or a habit of loving conformed to wisdom. Thus when one is inclined to justice, one tries to procure good for everybody, so far as one can, reasonably, but in proportion to the needs and merits of each’.

For Leibniz, human justice is the same as God’s justice, though, of course, less perfect. Leibniz wrote in the Monita quaedam ad S. Puffendorfii principia (Observations on the Principles of Pufendorf) ([1706] 1988: 69): ‘In the science of law…it is best to derive human justice, as from a spring, from the divine, to make it complete. Surely the idea of the just, no less than that of the true and the good, relates to God, and above all to God, who is the measure of all things’. Similarly, Leibniz wrote in Méditation sur la notion commune de la justice (Meditation on the common concept of justice) ([1702–3] 1988: 60) that ‘as soon as [the concept of justice] is founded on God or on the imitation of God, it becomes universal justice, and contains all the virtues’.

In so far as charity is defined in terms of universal love and benevolence, justice is something quite distinct from power. This is true even for God. ‘Justice, indeed, would not be an essential attribute of God, if He himself established justice and law by His free will’. In this sense, God is as bound by the eternal laws of justice as he is bound by truths of reason: ‘Justice follows certain rules of equality and of proportion [which are] no less founded in the immutable nature of things, and in the divine ideas, than are the principles of arithmetic and of geometry’ (Observations on Pufendorf [1706] 1988: 69). (Here, perhaps is the origin of the theodicy problem for Leibniz: if God is bound by the same ideal of justice that binds us, then we must show how the works of the all-perfect creator can be seen to conform to that ideal.) So, too, are we bound by a standard of justice that exists independently of our wills.

Leibniz recognized three degrees of justice. The lowest, a minimal sort of justice, is simply not to harm others. The second degree is to give each their due, what it is that is owed to them. The highest, though, is to behave with genuine beneficence toward others, and to do that which will promote their happiness; this is what Leibniz calls piety (Leibniz to Coste, 4 July 1706: appendix).

Leibniz’s conception of justice as the charity of the wise also placed virtue and obligation outside of the scope of a contract. For Hobbes, for example, the notion of justice arises from a contract that we make with one another in forming a society, and the notion of justice has no applicability outside that framework. Commenting on Shaftesbury in 1712, Leibniz wrote: ‘Our illustrious author refutes with reason…those who believe that there is no obligation at all in the state of nature, and outside government; for obligations by pacts having to form the right of government itself, according to the author of these principles, it is manifest that the obligation is anterior to the government which it must form’ (Leibniz 1988: 196). Indeed, he noted, there are societies, among the native Americans for example, in which the sovereign thought necessary by Hobbes is altogether absent: ‘entire peoples can be without magistrates and without quarrels, and…as a result men are neither taken far enough by their natural goodness nor forced by their wickedness to provide themselves with a government and to renounce their liberty’. In people sufficiently wise, then, justice and charity are sufficient to hold society together, without the need of a contract.

But Leibniz was a practical politician, as well as a theorist of politics. He generally worked for a Europe unified under the leadership of a unified church, a Christian Europe in which there are no conflicts between different Christian states. This, in part, is what was behind his plan for the reunification of the Catholics and the Protestants. It was also behind his attempt, as early as 1671, to persuade the French to attack Egypt, a non-Christian country, rather than to invade the Netherlands. In practice, however, Leibniz was an opponent of French expansionism under Louis XIV (as much as he was an admirer of French culture), and a supporter of a union of Protestant countries in Northern Europe (his Mars Christianissimus (1684b) was a brilliant satire directed against Louis XIV’s foreign policy). He was also an active participant in the successful campaign in support of the claim of the House of Hanover for the throne of England.

Citing this article:
Garber, Daniel. Ethics and political thought. Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm (1646–1716), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DA052-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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