Airaksinen on Berkeley’s Theological Ethics
April 22, 2017 — 11:04

Author: Kenny Pearce  Category: Divine Command Religion and Life Virtue  Tags: , , , , , , , ,   Comments: 0

The 11th and final chapter of Idealism and Christian Theology is “Idealistic Ethics and Berkeley’s Good God” by Timo Airaksinen. This is a rich, complex, and careful treatment of Berkeley’s ethical thought. It is the only essay in the volume that pays careful attention to Berkeley’s own theological commitments. Further, by specific attention to the theological context of Berkeley’s ethical thought Airaksinen is able to show that Berkeley’s thought in this area is richer and more complex than philosophers have often supposed.

The discussion is focused around Berkeley’s Alciphron. Surprisingly little attention is paid to Passive Obedience, though good use is also made of Berkeley’s sermons (which scholars have often ignored). Further, the article concludes with some interesting discussion of the development of Berkeley’s thought about evil in the world over the course of his career.

It is widely recognized that Berkeley’s ethical thought contains both divine command elements and rule utilitarian elements. A disputed question is how these elements fit together. On this subject, Airaksinen makes the provocative statement, “Berkeley is no utilitarian, rather God is” (221). What Airaksinen means by this is that, on Berkeley’s view, morality for us is fundamentally a matter of obedience to God. Yet we should not conceive God as a tyrant issuing arbitrary commands which we follow solely out of hope of reward or fear of punishment.* Rather, such obedience should be based on our attitude of love and trust toward God, which are in turn based on our faith in the goodness of God. Now this requires that we be able to make sense of God’s being good in some way that is not wholly arbitrary or trivial. On Airaksinen’s reading, Berkeley appeals here to the fundamental or intrinsic goodness of happiness, which is closely related to but perhaps not identified with pleasure. God’s goodness means that God seeks to promote these ends in God’s design of the natural and moral order of the world. Insofar as this is a genuine order it must be based on rules. It is in this sense that God is a rule utilitarian: God has instituted a moral system which is optimal with respect to the promotion of the happiness of creatures. Proper religious attitudes should include not mere acquiescence in this moral system, but active endorsement of it. That is, the genuinely moral/virtuous person buys into God’s plan for the natural and moral order of the universe. It is in this sense and for this reason that, according to Airaksinen’s reading of Berkeley, religious faith is required for genuine virtue.

What does all of this have to do with idealism? According to Airaksinen, Berkeley’s ethical thought is idealistic in two senses. First, Berkeley holds that “one cannot define moral notions and conscience without a reference to the mind and its functions or, in this case, God’s will” (217). This is idealism in the sense in which that term is used in contemporary metaphysics, that is, the claim that things we might not ordinarily think of as mental are grounded in or reducible to mental phenomena. Second, Berkeley’s view (according to Airaksinen) is idealistic in the Platonic sense that it appeals to a transcendent moral ideal, namely, God (217). Now, Airaksinen says that “His [Berkeley’s] ethics rests on idealistic metaphysics—it is metaphysically informed as it tracks God” (217). However, I don’t see any particular connection here to idealism in the sense of immaterialism, and in fact immaterialism makes no (explicit) appearance in either Passive Obedience or Alciphron. In fact, most of Christian ethics has been idealistic in the two senses Airaksinen defines. So I was left puzzled about the connection to idealism in the sense in which that term is understood in the rest of this volume. Nevertheless, this is an excellent essay which handles Berkeley’s text carefully and advances our understanding of his ethical thought.

(Cross-posted at

* I note that Airaksinen seems to me to underemphasize the extent to which Berkeley does want to defend reward and punishment as sources of moral motivation in Alciphron. However, Berkeley certainly does not think that this is the best sort of moral motivation.