The Theory of Law by Helvetius, Free Essay in Philosophy

Published: 2022-03-03
The Theory of Law by Helvetius, Free Essay in Philosophy
Type of paper:  Essay
Categories:  Law Ethics Philosophers
Pages: 6
Wordcount: 1486 words
13 min read

Helvetius tries to make Ethics an empirical and descriptive science, in the manner of modern physical sciences, rather than a normative science that exhorts and denounces, as it was then understood. For this he proposes that the valid starting point to guide the moral educator is the understanding of what human action produces; origin that is materialized in forces of material type, continuing with the metaphor of physics. Helvetius, in his description of human action, observes that men pursue, by necessity, the satisfaction of their own interests, and from there derives that the first principle that guides human behavior is private interest. What in physics is movement, in moral science is interest; therefore, behind every action or every intention, there is always an interest. He is so convinced of this statement that he does not hesitate to assert, "Although the physical universe is subject to the laws of motion, the moral universe is no less subject to those of interest."

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The recognition of this reality in man, that is, the constant search for his interest, means for Helvetius to leave the darkness of ignorance that has brought so many evils to society and that has obscured it for so many centuries. Only by favoring pleasure and avoiding what causes pain, citizens will be virtuous and morality will be useful to society. For Helvetius no morality that is not useful is valid.

"It is necessary to reveal to the nations the true principles of morality, to teach them that, insensibly dragged towards apparent or real happiness, pain and pleasure are the only motors of the moral universe and that the feeling of love of it is the only basis on which the foundations of a useful moral can be laid."

Hence the importance of legislation as the promoter and ultimate responsible for the moral education of a nation. Helvetius defends that the only way to teach citizens to respect the general good is through laws that are pleasurable.

"[...] it follows from what I have just said that it is not possible to be proud of making any change in the ideas of a people more than after having made changes in their legislation. [...] Only the force of laws displaces the mass of a nation. "

Proof of this is that despotism makes brutal men, unconcerned with virtue and general well-being, while good-useful laws create a natural harmony between individual and public interests, thus producing the well-being of society. In that, harmony lies precisely the good functioning of society and the fulfillment of its ultimate purpose, which is nothing other than well-being; and in this purpose, all good legislators must have their eyes on them, since morality and legislation are considered as one and the same science. The principle that directs the action with a view to achieving harmony will, it cannot be otherwise, that of utility.

"However, it is the uniformity of the aims of the legislator, the dependence of laws on each other, to which their excellence is due. To establish this dependence it is necessary to refer all to a simple principle such as that of public utility, that is, the greatest number of men subject to the same form of government. "

Any moral education that does not follow this principle is doomed to fail: it will be the case of men who are forced to perform 'virtuous' actions contrary to their inclinations and tendencies so, of course, they will escape from that law and they will fall into vice, driven by their natural tendencies. That is why he does not hesitate to say that "the vices of a people are, if I may say so, always hidden in the depths of their legislation: this is where we have to look for the root cause of their vices." On the contrary, "the true virtues are those that unceasingly increase the public welfare and without which society cannot subsist."

"Virtue is nothing more than the desire for happiness of men and in this way probity, which I consider as the virtue put into action, is not, in all peoples and in all different governments, more than the custom of the actions useful to the nation."

Examples of these virtues are audacity, magnanimity, disinterestedness or disdain for life, all founded on a great love of country and freedom. The conclusion drawn by Helvetius from the principle of utility was that a wise legislator would use the passions of his citizens in such a way as to make them compatible with the interests of all men. Incapable of this union by themselves, the citizens depended on the 'manipulation' of their passions by the legislators.

"He must remain more strongly attached to this principle, since motives of temporal interest, handled with skill by a skillful legislator, are enough to train virtuous men. [...] Therefore, only through virtuous laws can virtuous men be formed. All the art of the legislator consists in forcing men, through their feeling of love of themselves, to always be just towards each other. "

Using this "good use" of the passions of the citizens, Helvetius proposes a double means to achieve the desired harmony between interests and, in the long run, the general welfare. Those two means are punishment and reward, only possible when the ruler enjoys a power strong enough to put them into practice.

The man portrayed by Helvetius is a being determined by his natural tendency to seek pleasure and flee from pain, at the service of which he puts his passions and unable to perform virtuous actions unless he obtains "great rewards" from them. Like its predecessor Hobbes, it also contemplates a fictitious State of Nature of war of all against all and amoral. In order to satisfy their vital needs, a pact is created and a law, that determines the just and the unjust, the good and the bad and that is based on the criterion of interest, which "is the measure of the actions of men. "This law managed to unify in a certain way the interests and guarantee the goods to each one in such a way that:

"[...] it was thus that of all the interests of individuals a common interest was formed that baptized the various actions with the name of just, permitted or unjust, according to whether they were useful, indifferent or harmful to societies."

The creation of society makes sense as a response to the natural tendency to happiness. Happiness that Helvetius identifies with the only real thing to take into account: physical pleasure and the sensations produced by it in the human being. He does not even try to discredit or criticize the notion of the summum bonum, as Hobbes did in the Leviathan, nor to justify his own notion of happiness, but he takes it for granted and builds on it his ethical-political proposal. In this theory operates a materialism that reduces everything to sensations and that barely leaves the individual free, rather pushes him to seek in everything and always his own interest and welfare. From this determinism is understood the decisive role played by the ruler or the legislator in the search for happiness, not only personal but also collective. In their hands is the key to the success of society, which consists in the education of the citizen, that is, in using their passions so that, exciting their desire for glory and praise, perform useful actions to society that at the same time report to him honor. On the other hand, he will not perform those that require a sacrifice of personal interest and do not cause him any pleasure (understanding this pleasure as esteem, honor, glory or good as the enjoyment of a physical pleasure). Educating citizens is making them virtuous, which is only achieved through good laws. Only in this way will the private interest be harmonized with the general interest and a pleasant state of general well-being for all be achieved.

In this approach, it is evident that the protagonist in the attainment of welfare is, ultimately, the State in charge of governing and making laws. Would not it be licit to baptize it with the name of Welfare State already in the 18th century? This is not a government that, like Locke's, guarantees citizens their rights and freedom, rather the opposite happens: there is no place for them where determination operates so strongly. However, the purpose of the State is to promote well-being and comfort, so that although they do not enjoy this freedom, if they are provided with a happy, that is, pleasurable life, virtuous and well educated citizens will contribute to the well of the whole society and they will have no reason to complain. By placing so much emphasis on the influence that education and the State exert on individuals, Helvetius reduces his freedom and his ability to choose and highlights the enormous "formative" power of the State and the laws that emanate from legislature.

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