Work in Progress: Codes of Conduct in Benjamin Franklin and René Descartes
Friday 28 October 2022
In a PS to last week’s newsletter I mentioned having watched the Ken Burns documentary on the life of Benjamin Franklin. Oddly, what stands out in my mind in the light of that documentary (and without any supplemental reading that might alter my interpretation of events), is how Franklin stayed in England literally for years while his wife wrote him letter after letter asking him to come home. She died before he returned. And then after the revolution, Franklin’s son, who had remained a loyalist and who thus ended up in London, tried to patch things up with his father, but Franklin responded to him that there are duties that come before the political. Following this reasoning, Franklin’s family connection to his wife should have taken precedence over his efforts to prevent a breech between England and the colonies, but that is not how he acted. Both his indifference to his wife and his break with his son come across as quite cold. In any case, another thing I learned from the documentary was that, still as a relatively young man, Franklin had written a Plan of Conduct in 1726, which reads as follows:
- It is necessary for me to be extremely frugal for some time, till I have paid what I owe.
- To endeavour to speak truth in every instance; to give nobody expectations that are not likely to be answered, but aim at sincerity in every word and action — the most amiable excellence in a rational being.
- To apply myself industriously to whatever business I take in hand, and not divert my mind from my business by any foolish project of growing suddenly rich; for industry and patience are the surest means of plenty.
- I resolve to speak ill of no man whatever, not even in a matter of truth; but rather by some means excuse the faults I hear charged upon others, and upon proper occasions speak all the good I know of every body.
Almost a hundred years earlier Descartes’ formulated what philosophers have subsequently come to call his “provisional morality” (une morale par provision) in the Discourse on Method (1637), vowing to:
- “…obey the laws and customs of my country, and to adhere to the religion in which God by His grace had me instructed from my childhood, and to govern myself in everything else according to the most moderate and least extreme opinions, being those commonly received among the wisest of those with whom I should have to live.”
- “…to be as firm and resolute in my actions as I could, and to follow no less constantly the most doubtful opinions, once I had opted for them, than I would have if they had been the most certain ones.”
- “…to master myself rather than fortune, to try to change my desires rather than to change the order of the world.”
- “…to review the various occupations that men have in this life, in order to try to select the best one.”
This is an extreme abridgement of Descartes’ provisional ethic; the whole thing is given an exposition over several pages, in which each of the above points is expanded and given a reasonably sustained exposition. A have a couple of excellent books on the ethics of Descartes, which is not very intensively studied, Foundations of Cartesian Ethics by Vance G. Morgan and Descartes’ Moral Theory by John Marshall. Marshall argues that Descartes’ later writings, especially his letters and Passions of the Soul, continue the exposition of the provisional morality and suggest its final form, so that the Cartesian provisional morality is not necessarily perpetually provisional.
I find it instructive to compare these two codes of Franklin and Descartes. Franklin wrote his as a young man, and so his Plan of Conduct also constitutes a kind of provisional ethic; the two projects of Franklin and Descartes thus follow from similar motives. Moreover, Descartes, right at the beginning of the scientific revolution, is already applying an essentially scientific method to ethics: he posits a provisional morality as a kind of hypothesis, experiments with it by living the provisions of his ethic, and leaves it open to revision in the light of this experimentation.
However, what is most striking is that the two have little or no overlap. If one goes looking for overlapping moral concerns, and is willing to engage in come creative interpretation, one might show the two to be on the same page, but prima facie the two have little to do with each other. What the two do have in common is a concern with occupation, and, alongside this concern with occupation, an ambiguity as to whether this occupation is vocation or avocation; further, Franklin’s stated plan to devote himself industriously to whatever business he has in hand can be understood as being firm and resolute in his actions, and Descartes’ vow to be firm and resolute may be understood as applying to his occupation, among other things.
The lack of overlap between the practical moral codes formulated by Descartes and Franklin is suggestive, and reminds me of something I’ve been thinking about lately. Also in last week’s newsletter I mentioned Ruth Benedict’s focus on contingency in her Patterns of Culture, in which she argued, somewhat following Spengler (though anything but slavishly), that different cultures or civilizations take up some small part of life and embroider this to create their way of life, while neglecting other aspects of life. Benedict’s exposition of this radical contingency of civilization is expressed repeatedly in the book. Here is a passage different from the one I have previously cited, making the same point:
“The cultural pattern of any civilization makes use of a certain segment of the great arc of potential human purposes and motivations, just as we have seen in an earlier chapter that any culture makes use of certain selected material techniques or cultural traits. The great arc along which all the possible human behaviours are distributed is far too immense and too full of contradictions for any one culture to utilize even any considerable portion of it. Selection is the first requirement. Without selection no culture could even achieve intelligibility, and the intentions it selects and makes its own are a much more important matter than the particular detail of technology or the marriage formality that it also selects in similar fashion.” (Chapter VII)
One might make the same observation of the Cartesian and Franklin codes of conduct, i.e., that they reflect a certain segment of the great arc of potential human purposes and moral motivations, but that no code of conduct could be intelligible without also being highly selective. I am not yet sure that I accept this — I think that Benedict makes too much of contingency under the influence of Boas, whose cultural relativism naturally entails the kind of contingency that Benedict makes much of — but it is an interesting way to come at the question of codes of conduct, and it is, again, suggestive.
Thinking on these examples I have become weirdly interested in explicitly formulated codes of conduct, admiring the detail of the multi-page NPSE (National Society of Professional Engineers) Code of Ethics for Engineers and the comparative brevity of the SNAME (The Society of Naval Architects and Marine Engineers) Code of Ethics. I looked at these codes because the organizations seem relevant to the design and construction of spacecraft. Perhaps someday The Society of Spacecraft Architects and Space Engineers will have a professional code of ethics.
Now, I can imagine the argument being made that something like these professional codes of conduct must be narrow and selective, as is implied by their peculiar relevance to a given profession, but society has a great many specialized codes of conduct of this kind, some of them mutually exclusive, simultaneously at work in any given society. When I say that professional codes of conduct can be mutually exclusive, I am thinking of the range of fiduciary duties, which vary from country to country and are extensively legislated and litigated, but which generally require that a personal serving in a fiduciary role have the particular trust of their fiduciary charge, and that they may have to act as the agent of their fiduciary charge to the point of neglecting the needs of others who are not similarly in their trust. A lawyer is expected to be an advocate for his client, and it is not his business to be concerned about the other side in a legal dispute, though that other side may well have the better claim, whether legal or moral.
The fact that mutually exclusive codes of conduct exist within one and the same society implies a higher and more comprehensive moral umbrella under which all these various profession codes must shelter. Thus individual professional codes of conduct partake of the contingency that Benedict emphasizes, but intuitively it seems to me that the higher and more comprehensive moral umbrella that shelters all these various professional ethics needs to be something more than a contingent elaboration of some small section of arc abstracted from the human condition.
The ethic that pervades and unifies a civilization must engage with the substance of life, and must provide an adequate context for every aspect of the ordinary business of life. It cannot be quite so selective as any professional ethic must be in order to be effective within the boundaries of a given profession. The multiplicity of professional ethics points to some glue that holds them all together, or the mutually incompatible professional ethical codes would cause a rupture in society that would grow until the rift tore that society apart.
The selective cultural highlighting of some feature of life such as Benedict sees as providing the patterns of culture could still serve this function, but given that human beings have pretty consistent needs for the basic necessities of life, and that a society must be able to facilitate differential survival and reproduction (otherwise the society in question would go extinct), an ethic based on this wholeness would be more effective than some nearly arbitrary detail of life elevated to social prominence. To really test this idea, some quantitative distinction would have be made among aspects of life that are narrow and selective and aspects of life that are broad and comprehensive, and then these aspects would have to be identified in various societies, so that these societies could be rank-ordered according to the selectivity or comprehensiveness of the pattern of their culture.
For the same Boasian reason that Benedict emphasized contingency, we will not anytime soon see anthropology or sociology take up a research program of this kind. It is, and will remain, the road not taken for anthropology and sociology, and we will all be the poorer for this, as there is much that could be discovered in this way, and what we discovered could be practically applied to our own society, or, at least, to some future iteration of it.