Benjamin Franklin: Some Philosophical Undertakings

Written by: Samantha Bertolino

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin observes virtues not only for the sake of promoting good behavior, but to better understand the state of nature, which Franklin believes to be inherently good.

In this autobiography, Benjamin Franklin expounds upon theories that extend to a refined political philosophy that continues to be relevant today. In examining the moral obligations of men, Franklin explores the ideas that closely reflect those of past philosophers.

However, his own speculations are unique.

Franklin’s nuanced thought can be seen in this early analysis he conducts within The Autobiography: During his first voyage from Boston, Tyron’s people capture a “great many” cod, which Franklin considers a kind of “unprovoked murder” (27). Franklin perceives the fish to have caused “no such injury” which might have justified their slaughter. However, he later balances “some time between principle and inclination,” recalling that, “when the fish are opened, smaller fish are taken from their stomachs” (27). He observes, “if you eat one another, I don’t see why we mayn’t eat you” (27).

Thus, Franklin discounts any moral objection to feeding on fish, who otherwise would sate their hunger on one another. This sort of thinking evinces a thread of natural standards to which humans are accountable, and therefore cannot be faulted. 

Read Franklin’s autobiography for free at https://www.gutenberg.org/files/20203/20203-h/20203-h.htm

Later in life, Franklin furthers the concept of righteous obligation by trying to reach something he calls “moral perfectionism” (63). In this, he attempts—perhaps unreasonably—to live “without committing any fault at any time,” and discovers, at length, that the “speculative conviction that it’s in our interest to be completely virtuous is not sufficient to prevent our slipping” (63-64).

This implicates the belief that humans must want to achieve goodness for the sake of goodness itself. A righteous person can reap certain rewards (such as a greater reputation), but this alone cannot influence his conduct. To this line of thinking, Franklin composes a list of thirteen virtues, joined each by a short precept. In attempting to follow this list, he reflects: “I never arrived at the perfection I had been so ambitious of obtaining, but fell far short of it, yet I was, by the endeavor, a better and happier man than I otherwise should have been” (70).

The want of betterment, then, should give one a heightened sense of dignity. It does not, however, make you a better person. 

In part, this idea seems to contend with Franklin’s earlier notion of natural tendencies being essentially infallible. Franklin explains this contradiction through his own interpersonal relationships. While initially considered to be vain and proud, Franklin “put on with some violence to natural inclination, which became at length so easy… that no one heard a dogmatical expression escape [him] since” (72).

From this, we can infer that society perceives man’s “natural passions” (i.e. sexual desires) as faults. However, according to Franklin, behavioral tendencies should not resemble natural inclinations, which are born in the state of nature. Such qualities cannot be justified the same way opening a fish can be justified, and therefore, they would require some reform. Franklin was known to exercise these “natural passions” with regularity, while his wife waited and worried for him across continents. 

While Franklin’s Autobiography details countless achievements, his philosophical theories are by far the more fascinating. In observing the significance of virtue for its own sake, Franklin contends the difference between “natural passions” and inclination. The ideas in this
narrative shape a larger understanding of moral obligation and the righteousness of man.

We observe that philosophy is nowhere near a perfect profession, and even the best fall short of moral perfectionism, (though they may try).


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