Character Education and Ethical Egoism : Spinoza on Self-preservation as the Foundation of Virtue

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Character Education and Ethical Egoism : Spinoza on Self-preservation as the Foundation of Virtue

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Title Character Education and Ethical Egoism : Spinoza on Self-preservation as the Foundation of Virtue
Author(s) Dahlbeck, Johan
Date 2016
English abstract
In recent years, character education and virtue ethics have undergone a form of renaissance in the philosophy of education (Sanderse, 2015). Virtue and character are Aristotelian notions that amount to key components of an ethical life. The Aristotelian conception of the highest good to strive toward (in life as well as in education) is expressed through the notion of eudaimonia. Eudaimonia is commonly taken to denote a form of happiness in the sense of a life well lived or a flourishing life. This form of happiness is construed as an end in itself and it is therefore also reasonable to posit eudaimonia as the end-goal of character education. Consequently, character education may be said to aim at ‘the formation of somebody’s character, which accommodates a whole range of virtues and in which cognition and emotion ideally form a unity’ (p. 383). Early modern rationalist Benedict de Spinoza (1632-1670) is a largely neglected philosopher in the context of the philosophy of education. In part, this can be explained by the fact that Spinoza never wrote any texts addressing education explicitly. This neglect is regrettable, however, since Spinoza offers a profound ethical theory – firmly grounded in his metaphysical system – raising important questions relevant for contemporary moral education. In his posthumously published magnum opus, the Ethics (first published in 1677), Spinoza writes that ‘[t]he striving to preserve oneself is the first and only foundation of virtue’ (4p22c). This conception of virtue has led Spinoza scholars to conclude that Spinoza is best read as an ethical and psychological egoist (e.g. Nadler, 2013). As Genevieve Lloyd points out, this means that for Spinoza ‘[s]elf-seeking – traditionally opposed to rational virtue – now becomes its foundation’ (1996, p. 9). At the same time, Spinoza’s ethical theory is often described in terms of a form of eudaimonistic ethics, highlighting the importance of developing a virtuous character for reaching a state of happiness or human flourishing (Kisner, 2011). This paper proposes an outline of a form of character education based on Spinoza’s ethical egoism, arguing that the self-preservation of the teacher is the main motivation for the Spinozistic teacher. Since the self-preservation of the teacher is conditioned by the moral development of the students – by virtue of Spinoza’s doctrine of the imitation of the affects – this, however, requires a reciprocal set-up, where the student is emulating the teacher (as role model) so that the teacher, in turn, may emulate his or her students. The paper closes by considering how a Spinozistic character education can facilitate the escape from bondage – for teacher and students alike. Method This paper makes for a philosophical discussion engaging with relevant parts of Spinoza's moral theory. It also draws from recent contributions discussing the pros and cons of Aristotelian character education so as to be able to investigate how a Spinozistically conceived model of character education could serve to address some perceived shortcomings of an Aristotelian model. Expected Outcomes A Spinozistic model of character education is centered on furthering the self-preservation of the teacher and students alike. Since the self-preservation of one is conditioned by the self-preservation of the other, this egoistic striving is greatly benefited by benevolence and friendship. Successful self-preservation is the foundation of virtue and the means to this end are construed as anything that empowers us. What empowers us most, however, is an adequate understanding of ourselves and our marginal place in the world which is why this kind of knowledge is the object of a Spinozistic character education. To gain this kind of knowledge requires practical experimentation, as we need to find out individually how different things affect us so as to get more information about our affective capabilities. It is greatly benefited, however, by being guided by general dictates of reason making sure that we strive for things that really do empower us rather than things that are only seemingly good for us. Moreover, a Spinozistic character education is guided by a strong sense of community insofar as the things that benefit our striving to persevere the most are available to all and can be enjoyed by all equally. This means that there is no reason to compete over the good, but instead, all the more reason to help others strive for it since the striving of others like me will benefit me in my own striving (4p18s). This amounts to a model of character education that is unhampered by the problematic notion of a free will and that can combine a strong sense of eudaimonism with a constructivist understanding of moral values.
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Publisher European Educational Research Association (EERA)
Pages 1-9
Language eng (iso)
Subject(s) Character education
Virtue ethics
Ethical egoism
Humanities/Social Sciences
Research Subject Categories::HUMANITIES and RELIGION
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