Kantian Journal

2018 Vol. 37. No. 4

Is Spinoza’s Ethics Heteronomous in the Kantian Sense of the Term?


The prevailing interpretations of Spinoza’s ethical theory view it as an example of heteronomy in the Kantian sense of the term. I make a case for the claim that is not in harmony with such interpretations. In the course of the argument I discuss Kant’s concepts of autonomy and heteronomy showing how they refer to will and to ethics. Then I describe a group of interpretations which portray Spinoza’s moral theory as heteronomous. My critique begins by presenting some textual evidence which vividly contradicts some of the boldest heteronomous renditions of Spinoza’s ethics. Then I move on to argue for the existence of conditions in Spinoza’s thought that make every heteronomous interpretation of his practical philosophy extremely unlikely. These are i) identification of moral value in the quality of an agent’s law-oriented motivation, ii) distinction between human nature as rational and affective, ascribing different sets of laws to each, iii) endowment of reason with moral content, iv) recognition of the non-subjective notion of goodness. Added to this is my discussion of freedom and necessity in Kant and Spinoza in which I show that Spinoza’s overarching determinism is not an impediment for autonomy in the Kantian sense of the term. I end the article by presenting possible explanations of the fact that Spinoza’s ethics is frequently seen as a case of heteronomy.

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