Malebranche, Nicolas (1638–1715)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DA055-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved October 26, 2021, from

5. Ethics

For Malebranche, God’s ubiquitous causal activity does not eliminate freedom of the will in human beings. God is the direct source of an invincible inclination or ‘natural motion’ in the soul towards good in general. We cannot not will to be happy, and we necessarily love what we ‘clearly know and vividly feel’ to be good. But it is in our power to allow or to refuse to allow this general determination towards good given to us by God to rest upon one or another of the particular things we believe to be good. All minds, he notes, love God ‘by the necessity of their nature’, and if they love anything else, it is by a free choice of their will. We sin when, rather than directing the will by a clear and distinct perception of the supreme good to the love of God, we allow it to be directed away from God towards the pleasing but false goods presented to us by our senses.

In the Traité de morale (1683b), Malebranche elaborates on just what this love of God involves, providing a fuller account of our ethical duties. Within God, there lies an immutable order or law which God consults when acting. This order is constituted by what Malebranche calls ‘relations of perfection’, which in turn entail a hierarchy of value among beings. Order dictates, for example, that a beast is more perfect, hence more worthy or ‘estimable’ than a rock, and a human being more perfect and worthy than a beast. A human being is thus to be treated with more consideration than a horse. Through our ‘union with the eternal word, with universal reason’ we can have rational knowledge of order. Our duty, then, consists in ‘submitting ourselves to God’s law, and in following order’. We ought, like God, to regulate our actions and esteem by consulting it. In this way, ‘there is a true and a false, a just and an unjust’ that is binding upon all intelligent beings. Malebranche insists that our principal duty and our ‘fundamental and universal virtue’ is to love order and obey its precepts.

Citing this article:
Nadler, Steven. Ethics. Malebranche, Nicolas (1638–1715), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DA055-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2021 Routledge.

Related Searches