UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Diderot's moral and social thought Langdon, David Jeffrey


This thesis attempts to present a synthesis of the views on moral and social questions which may be found dispersed throughout Diderot's works and correspondence. In the course of the presentation a number of alleged contradictions are either denied or resolved, and it is demonstrated that the philosopher's mature doctrine attains a substantial, though not total, unity. After his early deistic period, Diderot never departed from a materialistic and deterministic conception of the world and of man. It is inaccurate to say that on an emotional plane he rejected the determinism of which he was convinced intellectually. Moreover, between his denial of free-will and his social utilitarianism he admits no real incompatibility. In claiming that in a deterministic world the concepts of vice and virtue are meaningless and in replacing them by those of maleficence and beneficence, he retains the essential distinction between moral good and moral evil, but stresses that one must look especially to improvements in the structure of society to encourage individuals to act in the general interest. Diderot's radical criticism of the moral code prevailing in his own society, especially with regard to sexuality, should he regarded not as advocacy of an anarchism which would run counter to the whole notion of a harmonious society, hut as an appeal for a more rational.social morality. His thinking, as it relates to moral conduct in existing social contexts, and his suggestions for possible reform of the moral code are cautious and imply a considerable degree of relativism. A major spokesman of eighteenth-century liberalism, Diderot protests eloquently against arbitrary government and social injustice. He proclaims the principle of popular sovereignty, though he does not propose either direct or representative majority rule as an effective political solution. Disillusioned regarding the possibility of an absolutism dedicated to the general interest, he increasingly favours constitutionally limited monarchy. His vision of an anarchical, yet harmonious, society is a purely speculative ideal; for practical purposes, human imperfection renders government and legislation necessary. While fearful, of the immediate consequences of revolution, Diderot nevertheless suggests that it may well be the only means of instituting a political structure more favourable in the long run to general happiness. Although Diderot lays great emphasis on the value of individuality, and deplores the pressures which lead to a dull uniformity of character, he stops short of condoning the kind of individuality which must express itself in anti-social acts. His admiration for the grandeur d'ame of certain criminals in no way implies moral approval of their conduct. Diderot's ethical thought is not merely critical. He rejects, extremes of moral relativism and seeks to base a universal moral law on the nature of man and of human relations. The moral obligation of the individual to obey this law presents Diderot with a difficult problem. He tries to show that the individual's self-interest, if correctly understood, must always prompt him to act in accordance with the general interest. To demonstrate this proposition, Diderot is obliged to appeal to elusive subjective factors such as remorse. Even so, he is not thoroughly convinced that this doctrine of the bond between virtue and personal happiness is universally valid, for it conflicts with his recognition of the great variation in individual human nature. He is thus torn between his emotional need to believe a certain ethical doctrine and intellectual doubts regarding its validity. Here is the true conflict between head and heart in Diderot and the only important point upon which his ethical thought falls short of complete unity.

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