Prompted by Lewis’s mention of Cudworth, a post or two on Cudworth’s most famous argument.
Book 1 of Cudworth’s Treatise Concerning Eternal and Immutable Morality [TEIM] contains a relatively short, and apparently free-standing, argument that morality cannot arise merely from decisions, either human or divine. Hobbes is among Cudworth’s targets, but so are Descartes and others. But some commentators have thought the the crucial passage in Cudworth’s text fails to do what he thinks it does, because it is merely tautological. Thus Zagorin (1992, 131-2): “As John Tulloch pointed out in his classic study of the Cambridge Platonists, Cudworth failed to realize that he was guilty of a tautology” (cf. Passmore 1990, 41-2).
The central passage in Cudworth’s argument is the following:
Wherefore, in the first place, it is a thing which we shall very easily demonstrate, that moral good and evil, just and unjust, honest and dishonest (if they be not mere names without any signification, or names for nothing else but willed and commanded, but have a reality in respect of the persons obliged to do and avoid them) cannot possibly be arbitrary things, made true by will without nature; because it is universally true, that things are what they are, not by will but by nature. As for example, things are white by whiteness, and black by blackness, triangular by triangularity, and round by rotundity, like by likeness, and equal by equality, that is, by such certain natures of their own. Neither can Omnipotence itself (to speak with reverence) by mere will make a thing black or white without whiteness or blackness; that is, without such certain natures, whether we consider them as qualities in the objects without us according to the Peripatetical philosophy, or as certain dispositions of parts in respect of magnitude, figure, site, and motion, which beget those sensations or phantasms of white and black in us (TEIM 16).
Cudworth does rely on the claim that “things are white by whiteness, and black by blackness, triangular by triangularity, and round by rotundity, like by likeness, and equal by equality”. And this does sound something like a list of tautologies. However, his talk about natures is relevant. Something can’t be made white, he says, without also being given the nature of a white thing. Even God can’t just declare something to now be white. Taking the talk about natures in a mechanical way, that means that even God would have to arrange the small parts of the object so as to make it white. That new arrangement of the small parts then explains why the object is now white.
So, things do not acquire features just by decision, even by divine decision, but by acquiring the nature of a thing with that feature. Not even God can make a thing red just by deciding it shall be red – even God has also to give it the underlying nature of a red thing, say by arranging the minute parts of its surface in the appropriate way. That something could be made red without being given the nature of a red thing would “imply a manifest contradiction: that things should be what they are not” (TEIM 17). Lacking the nature of a red thing, it wouldn’t really be red; but having been made red, it would be. And so by analogy, even God cannot make thing good just by deciding it shall be good – even God has also to give it the underlying nature of a good thing, whatever that may be. (And similarly for other moral qualities.)
So when Cudworth says “things are white by whiteness”, ‘white’ and ‘whiteness’ name two different things. On the one hand there’s a way the object is: in this case, white. On the other hand, there’s the underlying nature – what Cudworth calls the ‘whiteness’ – that explains why the object is that way. Sticking with the mechanical explanation, the whiteness is, roughly, the arrangement of the small parts of the object. Saying that the whiteness makes the thing white is giving an abbreviated explanation, not stating a tautology.
So says Cudworth. Of course, his opponents have some possible responses open to them. Not all obligations, one might well argue, arise from the natures of the things we’re obliged to do. For instance, if I promise to do X, there may be nothing in X considered alone that makes it obligatory. But it nevertheless is obligatory, just because I promised to do it. Cudworth does respond to that argument. More on that, and where it might lead, in my next post…
Cudworth, Ralph. Treatise Concerning Eternal and Immutable Morality, edited by Sarah Hutton (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1996).
Passmore, John.1990. Ralph Cudworth: An Interpretation. Bristol: Thoemmes.
Zagorin, Perez. 1992. “Cudworth and Hobbes on is and ought”, in Kroll, Ashcraft, and Zagorin (ed.), Philosophy, science, and religion in England, 1640-1700 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).