“Every feeling is the perception of a truth”: Moral Knowledge in the New Essays

This paper examines Leibniz’s main argument for the innateness of moral knowledge in New Essays. I show that this argument turns on the continuity between our innate “natural feelings” or instincts, and the practical truths or precepts which Leibniz’s takes to be their rational expressions. This account of innate moral knowledge, I further argue, indeed serves as the very foundation for Leibniz’s perfectionist ethics. But at the same, it also marks a significant difference between Leibniz’s account and Locke’s, in spite of Leibniz’s assurances to the contrary: While Locke views inclinations such as our instinct to seek pleasure as mere non-cognitive tendencies, Leibniz maintains that there is merely a difference in degree of distinctness between our moral instincts and our knowledge of moral truths.