On The Systematicity of Descartes' Ethics: Generosity, Metaphysics, and Scientia

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posted on 27.11.2018 by Saja Parvizian
Descartes is not widely recognized for his ethics; indeed, most readers are unaware that he had an ethics. However, Descartes placed great importance on his ethics, claiming that ethics is the highest branch of his philosophical system. I aim to understand the systematic relationship Descartes envisions between his ethics and the rest of his philosophy, particularly his metaphysics and epistemology. I defend three main theses. First, I argue against the recent trend in the literature that claims that the chief virtue in Descartes’ ethics—generosity—is acquired in the Meditations. On this view, the presence of moral virtue in the Meditations shows that ethical practice is intertwined with metaphysics and epistemology. I argue that generosity cannot be acquired in the Meditations because acquiring generosity presupposes several metaphysical and physical truths that the meditator cannot access given her epistemic position. Thus, I maintain that metaphysics and epistemology is foundational to ethics. Second, I resolve the tension between Descartes’ description of distinct virtues, and his insistence that there is only a single virtue—the disposition to judge well. Drawing from his theory of conceptual distinction in his metaphysics, I argue that Descartes offers a unique account of the unity of the virtues. Although Descartes describes different virtues, he thinks that all of them are identical to each other because they are reducible to the disposition to judge well. Nonetheless, we can conceptually distinguish between the virtues because we can regard the disposition to judge well in different ways given the various applications it has in different types of moral situations. Third, I show that some of Descartes’ ethical concepts inform his epistemology. I draw from Descartes’ theory of virtue to address “the problem of knowledge preservation,” that is, how to render perfect knowledge—scientia—stable in light of the instability of clear and distinct perceptions. I argue that Descartes intends to preserve scientia by grounding items of scientia in virtuous habits of belief. These habits of belief are established through repeated engagement with cognitive routes to clear and distinct perceptions, and are ultimately grounded in memory. This reading has the advantage of explaining Descartes’ notoriously confusing remarks about memory in response to the Cartesian circle.



Whipple, John


Whipple, John



Degree Grantor

University of Illinois at Chicago

Degree Level


Committee Member

Fleischacker, Samuel Sutherland, Daniel Hilbert, David Nelson, Alan

Submitted date

August 2018

Issue date