Tag Archives: Pascal

On the Range or Scope of [Moral] Action


St Thomas Aquinas (ST IaIIæ.1.3 & ad 3) distinguishes deliberate from non-deliberate actions. Non-deliberate – to take his examples – are such automatic or semi-automatic gestures as the stroking of the beard or involuntary movements of hands or feet. We can add the involuntary and non-conscious dilation of one’s pupils in response to increased interest, the spontaneous effort to regain one’s balance or one’s instantaneous response to another’s stumble. Suchlike actions as do not “proceed from reasonable deliberation which is properly the principle of human action” he calls “acts of a man” because they occur in humans but are not chosen (note that it is possible by training to override some spontaneous responses as, for instance, trainee circus clowns train themselves to override their spontaneous effort to regain their balance.) The acts that proceed from reasonable deliberation and decision he calls “human acts.” We deliberate and decide in order to attain an end or goal. There are practical questions as to how an envisaged end is to be achieved but whether or not to choose the means, that is, the set actions judged likely to achieve the envisaged end, is not itself a practical question. Theft or embezzlement are well known means of attaining the envisaged end of gaining money; whether or not to employ them is a moral not a practical question. Whether or not, given the available technical and physical resources, one can build a bridge across a gorge is a practical question; if one cannot build the bridge the question as to whether or not to build one does not arise; if one can build the bridge that question may arise and is within the moral realm..

What I suggest here is that only and all human acts so defined constitute the moral realm. Correspondingly, the range or scope of [moral] action is the range or scope of deliberate action. A deliberate action is chosen. Some choices are, for various reasons, considerably more important than others – most will agree that the decision whether or not to get married is more important than whether or not or where to go on holiday – but no choice is outside the moral realm, and no choice, as Aristotle already made clear, is made in the abstract. All actual choices are made in the prevailing circumstances as they are understood by the person choosing. There are no abstract and no non-moral choices.


We are born unable to speak; we are potential but not yet actual speakers. We are infants – etymologically non-speakers. To become actual speakers we need to learn from those who can already speak. We learn our language from others – and notice that in learning our mother-tongue, we learn not only that particular language but also language; language exists only as particular languages just as birds exist only as particular species of bird. Puffins and geese are birds; but no bird is not a type or species of bird.

The twentieth century French linguist, Jean Gagnepain, in a lecture that I heard in Rennes thirty-six years ago, remarked that we learn our morals as we learn our language. As we learn our language from others, so we learn from others the moral views, the ethical code, prevailing in our community. And as we learn the prevailing code we also learn to become actually moral beings. We learn not only a particular code (a particular language) but also morality (language). We learn our morals while we learn our language and like the way we learn our language.

As we learn to speak we learn that speech can be correct or incorrect and we are coercively persuaded to speak correctly, and dissuaded from speaking incorrectly. “Correct” and “incorrect” are defined by what our teachers think. The child, however, does not know that. The child simply accepts what is taught. Think of these verbs in modern English: to sing, to bring, to fling. In the first person singular in the present tense, they are similar: I sing, I bring, I fling. In the simple or uncomposed past they not: I sang, I brought, I flung. Why those differences have emerged is a question within historical linguistics and young speakers incline to impose on their language a non-existent regularity and often say, for example, I bring, I brang, I have brung. They are taught that those regularities are mistakes but not why they are, and the young speakers are required to adopt the prevailing usage in their community. The present task is not to discuss the many and enjoyable vagaries of the very many ‘standard’ and ‘non-standard’ forms and changes in modern English, but to illustrate that in learning language, the infant learns what is correct and what is incorrect, what is acceptable and what is unacceptable, what is good and what is bad. What is good is what he ought to say and do; what is bad is what ought not say or do. (Notice that to speak is to do something.) He is taught that he ought to do what he is told to do, and to refrain from doing what he is told not to do; he is told that what is to be said is “cow” and “bovine”, “pig” and “porcine”, “bird” and “avian”, “horse” and “equine” but “elephant” and “elephantine”…and the answer to the question as to why that is so is commonly simply “that is what is said” as the rules of etiquette, what Hobbes called small morals, state “what is done”. The child is an hierarchical animal and, as other hierarchical animals, accepts the authority of those who impose it upon him. (In adulthood we remain to a greater or lesser extent hierarchical animals.)

Underlying the command to do or not do, is the assumption that the child is able to do or not do what he is told. It is useless to tell someone that he ought to do or not do something that quite literally he cannot do or avoid doing. It is useless to tell someone who has been pushed out a window not to fall, or who cannot read to tell what it says is in the paper. We do not deliberate, as Aristotle already noticed, about what we think cannot be otherwise.

As the child learns to speak he also learns, through word and gesture, a large set of actions that, like speech, are distinguished into correct and incorrect; he learns the moral code of his community. He learns through persuasion and coercion so that it is easy, perhaps even inevitable, for him to learn to think of the code both as what is to be obeyed and as what defines morality. As the child grows he learns not only the code itself but also how the code is thought of. For many centuries in European culture important rules of the prevailing code were given in the Ten Commandments which, in turn, were thought of as given to Moses by God who was accepted as authorized to impose them. In the early Hebrew tradition the Law was given by God but freely and explicitly accepted by the people: “So Moses came, summoned the elders of the people, and set before them all these words that the Lord had commanded him. The people all answered as one: ‘everything that the Lord has spoken we will do.’ Moses reported the words of the people to the Lord.” (The Second Book of Moses or Exodus 19:7-8) As Christianity developed in Europe from its Hebrew roots the image of Law as covenant faded and the rhetoric of command, already prominent in the Torah, perhaps particularly in the Third Book of Mosts or Leviticus, became more prominent, and the idea of morality as obedience became widespread.

The Decalogue is in two parts; the first part sets out the rules governing how the people should be with their God; the second part sets out how they should deal with one another. Reflection on the second part reveals the rules to be very ordinary rules upon the reasonably common observance of which the enduring peace of the everyday life of a community depends. Considered in that way, they are functional. But, because they were thought to be imposed by God, the rhetoric of command tended to predominate and the rules began to be thought of by some – William of Occam being the prime and influential example – to be good because commanded. So, in the Occamian tradition, the rule that one should not bear false witness against one’s neighbour is thought to be good because God had so commanded, whereas for St Thomas’ , as later for Thomas Hobbes, not to bear false witness was intrinsically good, that is, intrinsic to the character or nature of the activity, and could be discovered to be good. It was, St Thomas thought, commanded by God in the Decalogue to teach us that it was good lest we corruptly overlook or repudiate it. (The question as to whether an action was good because commanded or commanded because good was not new but, as was well known, had been raised in Plato’s Eutyphro; it is Occam’s answer and its influence that is important as it is one of the roots of modern positivism where the ruler, “that great Leviathan, that Mortall God” takes the place of the immortal God.)


The child who learns the moral code of his community learns that what is commanded is good but why it is thought good is not often concentrated upon and two associated ideas begin to dominate. The first is the idea of moral action as obedience to authority. The second is the idea that the the range or scope of moral action is defined by what is commanded.

As we develop into adulthood we learn more or less clearly three unsettling truths. The first is that we cannot in the end always be compelled to obey; we cannot, for example, be compelled to believe what we hold to be false, although we may be more or less successfully coerced into pretending to believe. Coercive power is great but limited. The second truth is that we begin, or may begin, to question the goodness of at least some features of the prevailing ethical code. The third and incomparably the most important is that we discover that, in the detailed circumstances of our lives, we must ask– that is, we cannot but ask– what we ought to do, and decide whether or not to do what we think we ought to do, and that while we may choose in the light of the prevailing rules but even if they have contributed greatly to our personal moral context or background they do not determine our answer, for the good is always concrete and particular; it is what is to be done now in these circumstances. We ask what we ought to do and we decide, or fail to decide, to do it. We do not choose to be, we already are, moral beings.

One who reflects on those unsettling truths may, again more or less clearly, begin to grasp, in practice more than in theory, that the range or scope of [moral] action is not defined by a code, however good, but by the question: what in the present circumstances ought I now to do? That shift in attitude is a shift to an autonomous morality that does not necessarily, indeed does not usually, and perhaps cannot utterly, repudiate the prevailing code in all respects; it is a personal and responsible attitude to it. Morality is no longer obedience to another.

Whenever I do something, I bring into the world a situation that would not otherwise have existed. The question as to what I ought to do now may, therefore, be recast: what situation ought to be brought about in the present circumstances and what contribution ought I make to bringing it about? The situation that I judge that I ought to contribute to bringing about is what St Thomas, in the question referred to, calls “the [envisaged] end”. I act in order to bring about a situation which is the “end” of my decision. Whenever I judge that I ought to bring about a situation, I give myself a moral rule; whenever I decide and act in accord with my judgment, I obey the rule that I have given myself.

The situation that I conclude ought to be brought about is what I have judged to be good. But my judgment as to what is good is not merely fallible, as are all human judgements; it may well be corrupt. Moral judgment is neither more nor less certain than factual judgment but corruption is more likely as I may allow my own perceived benefit trump others’ entitlements. Nor does my moral judgement that I to do X determine that I shall choose to do X.


I end with two illustrations. The first is imaginary: I find myself in a situation in which there exists both the relevance and possibility of bearing false witness against my neighbour. I may be tempted to do so because it seems to me to be to my immediate benefit. I know that if I am successful I shall bring about a situation in which those concerned will believe the world to be other than it is. That is precisely what I intend; it is my envisaged end. Because to bear false witness is disapproved of, I can hardly avoid wondering if that is a situation that I ought to bring about but when it becomes habitual for me to lie whenever it is in my interest to do so that question fades. There is no axiom that I cannot repudiate even if sometimes, by avoiding squarely to face the question, I repudiate it only in corrupted practice. How I answer that question in the immediate and concrete circumstances, and how I habitually answer it, contributes to my developing construction of myself. How I habitually answer the question shows the kind of person that I have made myself. It becomes as it were the fragile existential moral context and axiom which is myself within which and from which I move. There exists a rule that, as St Paul wrote in Romans (13:8-10) sums up the entire Law: love your neighbour as yourself: Kærleikurinn gjörir ekki náunganum mein. Þess vegna er kærleikurinn fylling lögmálsins. (? ????? ?? ??????? ????? ??? ?????????. ??????? ??? ????? ? ?????. Love does no harm to another, therefore love is the fulfilment of the law.) But why one judges and decides to treat one’s neighbour as oneself derives not from some unavoidable axiom but from an attitude, a feeling, a way of being with others. Morality is not like a geometry where from an initial set of axioms one tries to discover the nature of an implied imagined world. A person’s fragile moral axiom is how he or she has chosen and chooses to be. Love may well do no harm to another and so fulfill the law – in Roman law (Institutes I.1.3 from Ulpian recalling Cicero) the second of the three traditional principles of justice is alterum non lædere (do not harm another). But why choose it as one’s originating moral attitude, as one’s way of being with others? The basic moral principle is not a rule however good; it is the human person him or herself who cannot avoid moral questions. The basic principle is oneself and we are present to ourselves as beings who must choose. To recall Pascal of whom Giorgio Baruchello writes in his paper at this seminar: what Pascal called the heart, the person as he or she now concretely is, is the source of choice.

The second illustration is existential; it is the situation in which we all now find ourselves. I presume that we have come here to honour and to thank Mikael as I now have the opportunity to do for over twenty years of generous friendship. there may well be other reasons that I do not know. What I do know is that each of us has some reason or reasons for being here rather than elsewhere; I do know – on the presumption that no-one has been physically coerced – that each of us has, for whatever reason, chosen to be here. The judgment that each of us individually made that it was good for him or her to come rather than to stay away is a moral judgment. The decision to act on that judgment is a [moral] choice.

The scope or range of [moral] action is, then, the scope or range of the moral questions: what ought I to do now? what kind of person ought I to be? What kind of person do I choose to be? What will I do now? My specific choices are limited to what is now possible for me; those human acts for which I can now be responsible. The range of morality is the range of responsibility.

What is Morality? Pascal’s Heartfelt Answer




I had the good fortune and privilege of meeting Mike when I was a student, back in 1995, and I owe him so much in so many ways, both as a man and as a scholar, that no words of mine will ever be able to convey my gratitude, my admiration and my friendship. A bottle of red wine might do instead. Also, as a humble token of recognition and a heartfelt recollection of the times when we first met, I decided to answer the question that he has chosen for this symposium by going back to an author, Blaise Pascal (1623-1662), who was influential in making me interested in philosophy as a boy, but whose work I have not dealt with as a scholar. Thus, what follows is both old and new, being a first step into a terrain upon which I have not trodden for many years.

In effect, had I been asked to give an immediate answer to the question ‘what is morality?’ I would have said: ‘an instance of civil commons’, that is, an instance of “social constructs which enable universal access to human life goods without which people’s capacities are always reduced or destroyed.” (John McMurtry, “Human Rights versus Corporate Rights: Life Value, the Civil Commons and Social Justice” Studies in Social Justice 5(1): 11-61, 2011, p.17) In line with my academic studies over the past decade, I would have placed myself in the ideal position of an external observer and determined what role morality has been playing vis-à-vis the most regular aim displayed by human beings, both individually and collectively: to lead a tolerable life. Now, referring to the civil commons would give a description of morality that focuses upon its life-enhancing function. It would be a description of morality from the outside. Another description is also possible, however, that focuses upon the feelings of outrage, remorse, shame, distress, empathy, pleasure, pain, as well as the calls of duty and the spontaneous sense of what is right and what is wrong that populate at least my experience of morality—inside. All these emotions, the related beliefs, the reasoning processes that they set in motion, the subsequent acts of will and the corresponding physical actions that one imagines and hopes to materialise constitute the domain of morality as felt being, or lived personal experience.

It is primarily within this domain that Blaise Pascal develops his reflections on morality, which, despite his enduring fame as a scientist and a thinker, have received very little attention by modern Anglophone ethicists, who have written instead endless volumes on the epistemology of his wager or le pari (“the machine”, 680)[1]—itself a piece of apologetics and an early example of game theory. They have labelled Pascal a ‘philosopher of religion’ and pretty much left him there, as marginal as religion itself seems to be these days.[2] Yet, Pascal did have a moral philosophy of his own and one that can help us answer the question ‘what is morality?’ from the perspective of lived personal experience.[3] It is not an easy one to detect, for it is scattered across his unsystematic maxims, short reflections and aphorisms, themselves scattered across a number of differing manuscripts. Reconstructing and outlining it here today is the chief aim of my paper.[4] Knowing that some of today’s participants are greatly interested in French philosophy, literature and culture at large, Mike himself included, I hope you will appreciate my effort.

Pascal’s Moral Philosophy

According to Pascal, morality is behaviour consistent with the correct apprehension of moral value, i.e. goodness, through “the heart, which perceive[s] wisdom” (339). The heart [coeur] is the faculty that feels or senses good and bad or, in other words, it is the moral sense, perhaps an organ of perception, analogous to hearing (41) or seeing—hence Pascal’s writing in the same passage about “the eyes of the heart” (cf. also 804 [from the Manuscript Guerrier, not Copy B]). And if the eyes can see many things, so does the heart deliver much more than just the immediate apprehension of moral truths or values, whether ‘explicitable’ (e.g. “homicide is wrong”, 450) or not, since all forms of knowledge rely upon first principles that cannot be rationally demonstrated, but only intuited:

We know the truth not only through our reason but also through our heart. It is through the latter that we know first principles, and reason, which has no part in it, tries in vain to challenge them. The skeptics, who have only this for their object, labor uselessly. We know we are not dreaming, however powerless we are to prove it by reason. This inability demonstrates only the weakness of our reason, and not, as they claim, the uncertainty of all knowledge. For knowledge of first principles, such as space, time, motion, number is as firm as any we derive from reasoning. Reason must use this knowledge from the heart and instinct, and base all its arguments on it. The heart feels that there are three dimensions in space and… Principles are felt, propositions are proved; all with certainty, though in different ways (142).[5]

Analogous remarks appear in his 1658 Art of Persuasion (Harvard: Harvard Classics, 1993-2013 [1909-14]), where Pascal distinguishes between knowledge that enters the heart through the spirit, and knowledge that enters the spirit through the heart.[6] Perhaps the heart should be better described as a skill than a faculty, indeed one relying upon long-internalised skills, such as seeing or hearing; this is certainly a difficult issue to resolve, given the ambiguity of many passages in Pascal’s work. However, the actual crux of Pascal’s emphasis is the following: sane human beings grasp and believe in the existence of, say, space, time, extended bodies, moral wrongfulness, and upon them build their sciences, whether these eventually reflect adequately the original intuition or not.[7] “Ethics” itself, albeit “special”, is, for Pascal, a “universal science” (598).[8] What is important in it, is to rely upon correct, intuited principles, which we may have experienced in childhood, if we had good enough a natural disposition (157-9, 527), and before education, local customs[9] or excessive faith in discursive or demonstrative reason could lead astray (97-8, 132, 171): “Wisdom leads us back to childhood” (116).[10]

It is important to highlight that the heart’s sentiments combine emotional, intellectual and volitional elements. We may separate them in abstracto, but they are joined in actual experience.[11] These sentiments are “internal and immediate feeling[s]” (360; emphasis in the original), but they are also forms of comprehension, insofar as they engender certain beliefs and interpretations (287), and they prompt us into action, including successive discursive or demonstrative rational processes (662). As Pascal famously asserted: “The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know.” (680; emphasis added) Typically, philosophers have emphasised the negative part of this statement. However, the positive is at least as important. Pascal was an intuitionist and believed sentiments to be the springboard of morality, but he was no sentimentalist or, to use a 20th-century label, no emotivist. “Religion”, as he writes, “is not contrary to reason” (46). “The principle of morality” is, for Pascal, “to think well” (232; cf. also 106, 117). Pascal does not posit an impassable contradiction between blind subjective bodily passion on the one end, and cognising objective disembodied reason on the other. Rather, he tries to reveal how different types or levels of belief, certainty and knowledge, wisdom included, can be acquired through our different faculties, one of which, the heart, also characterisd as “instinct” (187), can grasp fundamental truths that discursive or demonstrative reason cannot grasp.[12] Indeed, science itself would not be possible if we were not trustful enough in our intuitions (cf. also 455). Thus, Pascal condemns “Two excesses. Excluding reason, admitting only reason.” (214).[13]

True to his intellectual hero, Augustine of Hippo (A.D. 354-430), and to Augustine’s motto “credo ut intelligam”,[14] Pascal sees the limits of human reasoning and believes our sentiments to be able to spur (142 cited above), integrate (e.g. 287) and, when necessary, substitute our discursive or demonstrative reason (e.g. 662). A famous mathematician and physicist, Pascal reminds himself nonetheless to “write against those who delve too deeply in the sciences. Descartes” in primis (462). There are much more important subjects than the scientific ones, such as “the study of man” (566), to which science can contribute nothing, for it cannot address the ultimate questions of existence (57). The strictly rational conceptual tools of science are inadequate: “The heart has its order; the mind has its own, which consists of principle and demonstration. The heart has another. We do not prove that we should be loved by displaying in order the causes of love. That would be absurd.” (329).[15] Thus, gifted with intuition, a humble child may attain moral truths that an adult, even the keenest scientist or theologian, fail regularly to grasp (13). As Pascal puts it: “The greatness of wisdom… is invisible to carnal or intelligent men. These are three different orders. Of kind.” (339). The most intelligent philosopher’s reason may demonstrate, the libertine’s body desire; but the sage’s heart loves, allowing for forms of understanding that escape reason. After all, to expect that one faculty or one mode of reasoning suffices for all possible domains of experience and investigation is a foolish form of “tyranny” (92).[16] For Pascal, there are “different kinds of right thinking: some in a certain order of things, and not in other orders, where they talk nonsense” (669).[17]

Let me emphasise once more that Pascal is not advocating irrationalism, rather a form of understanding that does not rely primarily upon abstract conceptual expression (e.g. Descartes’ ethically “useless” rationalism, e.g. 445), logical reasoning (e.g. the “corrupt” Jesuits’ casuistry attacked also in his Provincial Letters, e.g. 498; 770 [from the Manuscript Périer, not Copy B], 800 [from the Recueil Original, not Copy B]) and algorithmic computation (e.g. his own calculations of utility for the libertine’s sake, 680). As difficult to pinpoint as it may be, for he never offers more than a sketchy phenomenology of the heart in action (cf. 87, 544), Pascal’s account of moral experience entails an embodied rationality that is intuitive rather than discursive or syllogistic, as well concomitant and intertwined with emotions and wilfulness, and capable of grasping objective truths about the world. As Pascal writes, “We know this in a thousand things” (680).[18]

Immediate, intuitive apprehensions of good and bad are not the end of Pascal’s moral philosophy. Rather, they are its beginning. In primis, there is the issue that we might be mistaken in our apprehensions, which may then require correction, as when we hear ‘cabbage’ instead of ‘baggage’ inside a noisy airport, or claim to have seen Woody Allen when in fact we had seen Mike. Yet this is not an issue that Pascal is interested in as such. His focus is moral and apologetic, not epistemological. As Richard Rorty would possibly put it, it is relevance, not rigour, what guides Pascal’s endeavour (cf. Objectivity, Relativism and Truth Cambridge: CUP, 1990). Pascal wants to help his fellows to lead a better life, not to get entangled into technical debates. Indeed, Pascal cautions us against over-rationalisation as a path leading away from our intuitions’ potential clarity: “Reason acts slowly, and with so many perspectives, on so many principles, which must be always present, that it constantly falls asleep or wanders, when it fails to have its principles present. Feeling does not act in this way; it acts instantaneously, and is always ready to act. We must then put our faith in feeling, or it will always be vacillating” (661). Consistently, he warns his readers against people who no longer have any “common sense”, such as “academics, students, and that is the nastiest type of man I know.” (662)

Pascal is much more intrigued by the fact that despite our possible immediate grasp of moral value, human behaviour is all but consistent with it. Even moral philosophers, who might be inclined to making morality an important feature in their lives, fall prey of professional pride, pettiness and resentment. A devout Catholic, Pascal was well aware of the endless list of sins that human beings are capable of. How can we sense what is good and bad and, between the two, opt for the latter? Pascal’s penultimate answer to this crucial ethical question lies in his account of imagination, which reshapes and reinterprets the immediate givens of the heart. And this is bad. Far from extolling the virtues of this faculty, which Romantic and post-modern philosophers have done in later centuries, Pascal worries about the imagination’s “dominant” role within the human psyche (78) and its ability to distort in self-serving fashions the data of sentiment, which is particularly prone to being twisted in over-intellectualising minds: “I am not speaking of fools; I am speaking of the wisest, and they are those whom imagination is best entitled to persuade. Reason may well protest; it cannot determine the price of things.” (Id.)

Reason does not fix values within and around us; imagination does. Appealing to our “proud” and selfish thirst for power, knowledge and pleasure, “imagination… has established a second nature in man” and “disposes of everything. It creates beauty, justice, and happiness, which are the whole of the world.” (Id.) Instead of allowing the humble acknowledgment of our helplessness and imperfection, which is grounded in our feelings (689) and is rationally as undeniable as our mortality (e.g. 195-8, 686), imagination leads each person to attribute an overwhelming amount of value upon herself and “makes [her]self the center of everything” (494), when it is quite obvious that she is not (cf. also 509-10). Far from the exaltation of amour-propre or “self-love” that will characterize much French and Scottish Enlightenment moral philosophy, Pascal writes:

The nature of self-love and of this human self is to love only self and consider only self. But what will it do? It cannot prevent the object it loves from being full of faults and wretchedness. It wants to be great and sees itself small; it wants to be happy, and sees itself wretched; it wants to be perfect and sees itself full of imperfections; it wants to be the object of men’s love and esteem and sees that its defects deserve only their dislike and contempt… No doubt it is an evil to be full of faults; but it is a still greater evil to be full of them and to be unwilling to recognize them, since this adds the further evil of a deliberate illusion. (743).

The power of imagination can be so deep-reaching that we may no longer be able to distinguish between sentiment and the fantasies that imagination—also “fancy”—delivers in order to please our self-love:

All our reasoning reduces to giving in to feeling. But fancy is similar and opposite to feeling, so that we cannot distinguish between these two opposites. One person says that my feeling is fancy, another that his fancy is feeling. We should have a rule. Reason is proposed, but it is pliable in every direction. And so there is no rule (455)… It is a nothing that our imagination enlarges into a mountain: another turn of the imagination makes us discover this without difficulty (456)… We need a fixed point in order to judge… The harbour decides for those who are on a ship. But where will we find a harbour in morals? (576)

In the midst of such uncertainty and confusion, which are epitomised by the madness of human love affairs (cf. “Cleopatra’s nose”, 31-2, 228), given that intuition itself can become as unreliable a source of belief as reason, tradition can come of use and help us. When something is not “demonstrable” and “doubting” leads nowhere, “submission” becomes reasonable (201; cf. 203-13). In Pascal’s case, that means submission to religious tradition, and specifically to the Catholic one (cf. “Luther: everything outside the truth.” [791] {from the Recueil Original, not Copy B}); in this sense, then, “all morality is concupiscence and grace” (258).[19] “Religion is such a great thing”, as Pascal writes, also because it grants “[c]omprehension of the words ‘good’ and ‘evil’.” (709-10). Submission to religious tradition means, in essence, to follow “[t]wo laws” that “suffice to rule the whole Christian Republic better than all political laws” i.e. to love God and to love one’s neighbour, as of Matthew 22:35 (408); “charity” or love “in morals” being able “to produce fruits against concupiscence” (458) and turn the energy of potentially sinful “passions” into “virtues” (500; cf. 759 [from the Manuscript Périer, not Copy B]).[20]

Still, even within religion does imagination make moral life difficult: “Men often take their imagination for their heart, and they believe they are converted as soon as they think of being converted.” (739); they can therefore remain “duplicitous in heart… neither fish nor fowl” (451); their “blinded” minds leading to quarrels, schisms and sectarianism that “destroy… morals” (447-8); their misplaced self-confidence making them “sinners, who believe themselves righteous” (469; cf. 753 [from the Manuscript Périer, not Copy B]), “corrupt the laws” of “the Church” (558), and “do evil… completely and cheerfully… out of conscience” (658). Consistent with his picture of the human being as an erring wanderer prone to error yet also capable of greatness, Pascal offers no easy path to wisdom, which may be perceived at times, even patently exemplified in saints and sages, yet still elude us in spite of our best efforts to grasp it and make it truly ours.

Furthermore, according to Pascal, imagination is the first step in a process of moral self-deception, which reasoning can take farther by: (A) adding the uncertainty of sceptical considerations to the distortions of the imagination; and (B) making religious self-correction ineffective. We may even be most thoughtful and honestly good-willed, but without divine grace there is little likelihood of success. The good may still escape us—even the brightest and most celebrated minds amongst us. As Pascal remarks, there are “[t]wo hundred eighty kinds of supreme good in Montaigne” (27; cf. also 16, 714).[21] Starting a theme that will play an important role in the moral philosophy of 20th-century French existentialists, Pascal deems self-deception the main springboard of immorality, not our inability to perceive what is right or wrong, or our incapacity to comprehend what is good and what is bad. Quite the opposite, according to Pascal, we would appear to have the faculties needed to perceive and understand all this; but we also possess another, imagination, which, combined with our passions and with self-love in particular (e.g. 699; 744 [from the Manuscript Périer, not Copy B]), distorts our perceptions and understanding to the utmost degree.[22]



Reading a classic is always a worthy endeavour, especially if it offers opportunities for genuine philosophical meditation. However, there are some more specific reasons why I think that rediscovering Pascal may be advisable for today’s Anglophone ethicists.

First of all, his moral conceptions and his celebrated literary style highlight the importance in human morality of sentiments. This is no minor issue, for the impact of sentiments upon people’s actual behaviour tends to be much stronger than that of abstractions or complex reasoning.[23] And yet philosophers have been pursuing relentlessly the path of abstraction and complex reasoning, leaving that of sentiment to others. Now, if we wish to engage in meta-ethics alone, such a division of labour may be fine. But if we want to change the world a little, whether as educators or public intellectuals, then some familiarity with the realm of sentiments may be a boon, since we may aim at “impassioning” rather than just “instructing”, as Pascal would word it (329; cf. also 496, 702).

Secondly, moral intuitionism has been on the rise over recent decades because of its recurrent empirical substantiation in psychology (e.g. J. Haidt (2001), “The Emotional Dog and its Rational TailPsychological Review 108:8, 14-34). Still, as far as I know, the only philosopher who has taken seriously Pascal’s notion of a different, heartfelt understanding—embedded, embodied, united with sentiments—and built an ethics upon it was Max Scheler (1874-1928). Amongst contemporary Anglophone intuitionists, Pascal is as absent as Scheler himself, who has long lost the enormous popularity that he enjoyed in the early 20th century. Yet Pascal’s moral philosophy is based upon the notion of intuition and constitutes an attempt that treads upon the tight rope set between rationalism and sentimentalism, and one that could be mined for insights and for the enduring rhetorical power of his writings.

Thirdly, Pascal’s approach is relevant because it makes the ground of moral value independent of the individual, who can only apprehend it for what it is, lest her imagination is so corrupt as to distort apprehension. In that case, Jesus Christ, that is, revealed religion is the fixed point of equilibrium that Pascal opts for (e.g. 570). Since the global affirmation of industrial society, we live in the first age in human history in which our species has become a threat to its own survival, as another religious-minded ethicist, Hans Jonas (1903-1993) underscored repeatedly in the 20th century (cf. The Imperative Responsibility Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984 [1979]). Pascal’s moral philosophy is relevant in this respect because, like Jonas’, it reminds us of the possibility that the ground of moral value may not be individualistic, relativistic, or even anthropocentric. The risk of species-wide annihilation may reveal something much more objective, such as planet-wide life-conditions and eco-system-wide life-needs, which we can only acknowledge and comply with, lest we prefer perishing to living, hence destroying the fundamental precondition for all preferences. As such a reminder, Pascal’s moral philosophy can then serve as a token of civil commons. And there I am, again: civil

[1] All references are by fragment number as they appear in the latest complete English translation of the 1976 Sellier edition of the so-called “Copy B” of Pascal’s thoughts, that is, the second copy prepared for his sister and least likely of having undergone third-person reordering (Pensées, edited and translated by Roger Ariew, Indianapolis/Cambridge: Hackett, 2005). When preparing this paper, I have also made use of the original French and related Italian translation of Pascal’s thoughts by Adriano Bausola contained in Pensieri (Milan: Rusconi, 1993).

[2] A valuable and possibly unique recent exception is constituted by: William D. Wood (2009), “Axiology, Self-deception, and Moral Wrongdoing in Blaise Pascal’s PenséesJournal of Religious Ethics 37(2): 355-84; the first footnote in Wood’s essay contains also a brief account of the negligible record of Pascal studies in modern Anglophone ethics.

[3] Pascal’s religious focus is as much a result of his moral philosophy as his moral philosophy is the result of his religious focus: “Man’s true nature, his true good, true virtue, and true religion, are things that cannot be known separately” (12).

[4] The main difference with regard to Wood’s own commendable 2009 attempt is my further avoidance of strictly epistemological and theological considerations, to either of which Pascal’s moral philosophy is regularly reduced. Also, I attempt hereby to provide more numerous references to relevant fragments in Pascal’s Pensées.

[5] Pascal’s emphasis upon intuition vis-à-vis first principles is analogous to Aristotle’s epagoge in connection with the fundamental laws of thought that cannot be obtained through any set of syllogisms but that underpin them all nevertheless (Anal. Post. II, 99b-100b; Meta. 980a-981a).

[6] This is not to be confused with Descartes’ distinction between empirical and innate knowledge. Rather, Pascal wishes to separate knowledge that we can reach through explicit reasoning processes of demonstration, whether deductive or inductive, and the indemonstrable fundamental principles that make them possible.

[7] Henri Bergson, probably, would be sceptical that they do so (cf. Time and Free Will London: Allen, 1910 [1889]).

[8] Given the regular use of “wisdom” rather than “knowledge” in connection with the moral considerations expressed in his Pensées, I would venture to argue that this different object is one of the reasons why “ethics” is said to be a “special” science.

[9] Customs, for Pascal, are very powerful, to the point of establishing causality itself (661), though theyr are neither absolute (e.g. 527) nor certain (e.g. 94-6).

[10] Some human beings, according to Pascal, are fortunate enough as to be able to attain religious faith through the same mode of apprehension: “As if reason alone were capable of teaching us! Would to God, on the contrary, that we never had need of it, and that we knew everything by instinct and intuition. But nature has refused us this good, giving us instead very little knowledge of this kind… That is why those to whom God has given religion by intuition of the heart are very fortunate and, in fact, properly convinced” (142). The least fortunate, instead, who are devoid of a piously “incline[d] heart” (412; cf. also 443, 448, 450, 646, 717) or have been hardened (580) or corrupted to the extreme point of cynical disinterest for the most important things, such as the fate of our immortal soul (2, 5), may have to think through Pascal’s wager or “machine” and determine whether it is advantageous to lead a pious life rather than a selfish one (680).

[11] Pascal’s account is reminiscent of Mihail Polanyi’s Personal Knowledge (London: Routledge, 2002 [1958]); perhaps morality is an eminent example of tacit knowledge that is difficult to make explicit and cannot be turned into a neat system of axioms, theorems and corollaries

[12] On repeated occasions (e.g. Gesammelte Werke, Bern: Francke Verlag, 1971-97, volume V, p.104) did Max Scheler praise Pascal and his spiritual mentor Augustine for attempting to overcome Western thought’s long-standing prejudice that grants epistemic objectivity and evidential value to rational proofs alone, ignoring sentiment and religious revelation or, worse, condemning them as subjective and dangerously irrational.

[13] The notion of a golden mean between too much and too little of something is a recurrent theme in Pascal’s thoughts and it applies, inter alia, to the effect of age on judgment (25), thinking (25), the distance from an object of observation (25), the speed of one’s reading (75, 601) and the constitution of virtue (645). Whether it can be attained, however, is doubtful, given the dual nature of man (cf. especially 145-67, 230-4, 690, 707-8; 753 [from the Manuscript Périer, not Copy B]), who is a “thinking reed” cast between two opposed infinities (i.e. meaninglessness and all-embracing thought), experiencing opposed tendencies (e.g. fear and courage, pain and pleasure) and possessing two opposed natures (i.e. animal and angelic). Jesus Christ alone seems capable of embodying opposites successfully (e.g. 736; 749 & 771 [from the Manuscript Périer, not Copy B]).

[14] “I believe in order to understand”; cited in Perry Cahall, “The Value of St Augustine’s Use/Enjoyment Distinction to Conjugal LoveLogos (8)1: 117-28, 2005, p.117; under this perspective, Pascal’s heart can be seen as opening a hermeneutical horizon, which embraces much more than just the knowledge that can be rationally demonstrated.

[15] This is another notion that Pascal derives from Augustine, i.e. the “order of love” [ordo amoris].

[16] One generation after Pascal, Vico would describe reason’s hypertrophic disregard of bodily and emotional components of life and related understanding the “barbarism of reflection” (The New Science, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1948[1744]). Today, faced with the notion of a particular mode of reasoning (e.g. scientific ‘Method’, homo oeconomicus‘ self-maximisation) being regarded as the only one possible, we would speak of cultural or disciplinary imperialism.

[17] There is no lack of vagueness and ambiguity in Pascal’s writings. For one, “heart” itself is not used only as the term denoting our faculty of intuition, but also more loosely as referring to will or desire (182, 536, 681-2; cf. also 544 in which “the will” is said to be the human faculty that “loves”), mere feeling (210), and a person’s soul or character (especially in connection with the Old Testament’s use of it, e.g. 309, 311, 378, 504; cf. also 707). Furthermore, it does not help that Pascal stresses so often the opposition between heart and reason, as though they were irreconcilable enemies at “war” with each other (29; cf. also 144, 164, 203, 414, 503, 514)—and here we get truly to the negative part of the cited famous statement about heart’s reasons.

[18] Whether in matters of mathematics, love, or religion, intuition anticipates, grounds and eludes whatever subsequent reasoning we may attempt to build upon it. As morals are concerned, Pascal believes logical reflection to be inadequate within the domain of the intuitive spirit for fine things, or “ésprit de finesse”, as opposed to the logical spirit of geometry, the “ésprit de géometrie”. Whilst the former is subtly acute, delicately nuanced, highly personal, and mixed in its being both cognitive and affective, the latter is forcefully trenchant, rigorously explicit, methodically interpersonal and allegedly purely rational. These two forms of comprehension are not mutually exclusive in absolute terms. For example, a mathematician may sense analogies or truths and conjure thereof new hypotheses, which he can test according to standard geometric methodology. Moreover, explicit knowledge may be internalised to the point of becoming intuitive, as with the acquisition of a skill (531; cf. Polayi, supra). Still, Pascal knew that these two forms of comprehension could subsist separately. A mystic, for one, could cultivate the former to the point of becoming unfamiliar with the latter: “Those who are accustomed to judge by feeling do not understand matters involving reasoning. For they want first to penetrate at a glance, and are not used to looking for principles.” (622) On their part, persons relying upon logical reasoning can become so removed from their own heart and the realm of intuition that they end up quite ignorant of them both and incapable of ascribing any order or intelligibility to them: “And others, on the contrary, who are accustomed to reason from principles and being unable to see at a glance” (Id.)

[19] Pascal does seem to allow for cases of commendable moral virtue in non-Catholic and non-Christian settings, e.g. “the Jewish religion” (276; cf. 692-6, 715).

[20] Christ’s two laws go to the very heart of human behaviour towards oneself and others, hence they can make the eradication of vice fairly effective, since “[t]here are vices that take hold of us through other ones, and that, when the trunk is removed, are carried away like branches”. (457)

[21] Humbly, Pascal remarks: “It is not in Montaigne, but in myself, that I find everything I see in him.” (568)

[22] Wood (2009) argues convincingly that the imagination’s detrimental deceptions are, for Pascal, one of the consequences of the Biblical fall, i.e. the ultimate cause of immorality. For Pascal, having tasted perfection before the fall, we are condemned to sense and seek truths that, however, escape us (e.g. 25, 62, 90-1, 165-6, 180-1).

[23] Abstraction and complex reasoning are relied upon in somewhat particular circumstances, such as bioethical committee’s deliberations about technology-driven dilemmas and adjudications by courts of justice. Under normal circumstances, mothers, teachers, priests, novelists and TV stars affect people’s sentiments to a much greater degree than any ethicist or judge, shaping a fortiori people’s moral and immoral behaviours. As Richard Rorty noted in Contingency, Irony and Solidarity (Cambridge: CUP, 1989), Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin did much more to let Americans see the true horror of slavery than all liberal philosophers since John Locke’s day.