Berkeley’s 1712 Passive Obedience is the closest thing to a systematic work of moral theory he ever wrote, and it isn’t very close. The overarching argument can be paraphrased as follows:
- We have a negative moral duty of passive obedience to government.
- No negative moral duty admits of any exceptions – i.e. we are morally obligated to fulfill our negative duty in absolutely all cases.
- We are morally obligated passively to obey the government in all cases.
The work is concerned primarily with the defense of (1) and (2).
(A few terminological clarifications. A negative duty is just a duty not to do something. Passive obedience means not doing the things the authority tells you not to do, as distinct from active obedience, which is doing the things the authority tells you to do. The doctrine of passive obedience – which was a standard Tory position at the time – is thus a predecessor of the view that non-violent resistance is sometimes justified, but violence is not.)
Passive Obedience has puzzled commentators, because in the course of defending (1) and (2) Berkeley seems to endorse two conflicting moral theories, namely, rule utilitarianism and divine command theory. Now, as far as an extensional normative ethics – that is, a theory of what sorts of things are right and what sorts of things are wrong – there is no conflict, because Berkeley is quite explicit that he thinks that God has commanded precisely those rules which, if everyone followed them, would maximize the well-being of his creatures. So Berkeley can consistently hold that the right actions are all and only those prescribed by rule utilitarianism, and also that the right actions are all and only those commanded by God, since the two coincide. The problem arises because Berkeley also sometimes seems to be making stronger claims, claims about why those rules are binding. He often seems to be supposing that the rules prescribed by rule utilitarianism are right just in virtue of their maximizing well-being (if everyone follows them), but he also explicitly says “that nothing is a [natural] law merely because it conduceth to the public good, but because it is decreed by the will of God” (sect. 31). I want to propose a simple resolution to this conflict.
Early in Passive Obedience Berkeley seems clearly to be grasping one horn of the Euthyphro dilemma. Specifically, he seems to be claiming that God commanded the rules which maximize utility because they were already (independent of God’s command) right. But then in sect. 31, he says that God’s decree is the only thing that can make a rule a natural moral law. There is no contradiction between these claims unless ‘R is a morally good rule’ entails ‘R is a natural moral law.’ However, in Medieval and early modern philosophy it was often thought to be a conceptual truth that a law is a rule imposed by some authority and enforced by some system of reward and punishment. Now the fact that a rule is morally good certainly doesn’t entail that it is imposed and enforced by an authority (unless God exists necessarily and necessarily commands all the good rules). So my simple solution is just this: the utilitarian rules are morally good, and indeed obligatory, quite independent of God’s commands and his system of rewards and punishments. However, it takes God’s command and his system of rewards and punishments to make those moral rules into laws.
Let me conclude by mentioning one other odd feature of Passive Obedience that I think has not been sufficiently appreciated by its (few) commentators. It is not clear how utilitarian what I’ve been calling the ‘rule utilitarian’ theory really is. Berkeley says that what God commands is “the observation of certain, universal, determinate rules or moral precepts which, in their own nature, have a necessary tendency to promote the well-being of the sum of mankind, taking in all nations and ages, from the beginning to the end of the world” (sect. 10, emphasis added). Berkeley’s view is not that we must follow those rules which, if followed, would actually maximize human well-being. Rather, his view is that we must follow those rules which, by their own nature, have a necessary tendency to promote the general well-being. This actually makes Berkeley’s theory much more permissive than standard version of rule utilitarianism (maybe too permissive to capture his actual moral views), since there can’t possibly be very many rules like that!
(cross-posted at blog.kennypearce.net)