I just stumbled across an 8 part series on Spinoza (discussed by us here), completed today and begun here on 2/7/11, written by U. of Liverpool lecturer Clare Carlisle, who I see has written some books on Kierkegaard,which will give you some idea where she’s coming from.
I’ve not read the whole series, but it seems pretty clear and cogent, and will remind you (or fill you in on) terms like “conatus,” that were dropped in our podcast, i.e. the striving to persevere in existence, and to enhance its own power, that constitutes the essence of every individual being.”
Unlike many other philosophers, Spinoza does not think that living an ethical life involves overcoming our natural self-centredness. For Spinoza, the main obstacle to virtue is not egoism, but ignorance of our true nature. When we are subject to strong emotions, which we attribute to imagined causes, we are unlikely to act in a way that is good for ourselves, or for other people. Add to this our misguided belief in free will, and the messy, antagonistic reality of human relationships seems inevitable.
Carlisle elaborates this view, saying how this sets the stage for an ethics that depends on human, and often individual, needs, but yet is not subjective:
However, we shouldn’t conclude that Spinoza thinks values are merely subjective, in the sense of being relative to the desires, opinions and prejudices of each individual. In fact, he would emphatically reject such a view. Whether or not something is good for an individual – that is to say, whether or not it increases her power, enhances her life – is not a matter of opinion. Indeed, we may well be mistaken about what is good for us, and so our believing something to be valuable does not make it so. This means we come back to a notion of objective value: even if this varies from person to person and from context to context, it is nevertheless objectively true that, in each particular situation, something will be beneficial or harmful.
You can hear Carlisle talking about Kierkegaard’s “Fear and Trembling” on Philosophy Bites. (Our Kierkegaard discussion, which not coincidentally contains our other main discussion of “the self,” in which K. professed to reject Hegel but is really giving similar formulation of Hegel’s conception of self, is here.)
Her full list of Guardian articles, including series from Spring 2010 on Kierkegaard is here.