Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Natural Law and Liberty

The “nature” of a thing, from an Aristotelian point of view, is, as we’ve seen, the form or essence it instantiates.

Feser will demonstrate the objective foundations for natural law, grounded in Aristotle’s metaphysics as developed by Aquinas and the Scholastics; the foundation is Aristotle’s four causes, culminating in the final cause.  If taken as understood by Feser, this will burden libertarians who lean on natural law as foundational to the development of libertarian theory.

Feser returns to his triangle: its essence, nature, or form will have three perfectly straight sides.  That the triangle we draw contains defects does not change this reality – the essence, nature, or form of a triangle.

The point is that these are defects, failures to conform to the nature or essence of triangularity…

Feser applies this to human organs – take an eyeball.  It has a final cause, to enable us to see.  That our eyeballs might have some defect does not change their essence or nature; that we wear glasses to correct this defect is at the same time not against nature – we are enabling our eyeballs to perform their final cause, according to their nature.  In other words, defects – even if natural in one sense – are not natural in the relevant sense of the essence of the thing. 

When applied to humans, we can think of many such defects – consider the possibilities and realities regarding defects of organs, limbs, etc.  Many, but not all, of these we would not consider as moral issues.  Eyes requiring glasses do not lead us to confession – or prison.

Feser now turns to such moral issues: “…there can be no satisfying explanation of almost anything that doesn’t make reference to final causes.”  Aristotle takes a thing’s form, essence or nature to determine the good for it – a “good” triangle” is one that conforms most closely to the perfect form of triangularity. 

What of the squirrel that eats crackers covered in toothpaste?  Even if one were to find a genetic defect in the squirrel – a defect that drove it to desire crackers and toothpaste – would we say that the squirrel was conforming to its nature?

Human beings also have a nature, or essence – and the “good” for humans is determined by this nature or essence, by its form:

Unlike other animals, though, human beings have intellect and will, and this is where moral goodness enters the picture.  Human beings can know what is good for them and choose whether to pursue that good.

Our intellect and will also have final causes, to allow us to understand the truth about things – including to understand what is good for us given our nature or essence – and to act accordingly; through our intellect and will, we are to pursue truth and avoid error. 

Just as we would know that a toothpaste-eating squirrel is not acting according to its nature….

…so too a good human being is one who successfully carries out the characteristic activities of human life as determined by final causes or natural ends of the various faculties that are ours by virtue of our nature or essence.

So how does this apply to moral questions?

To choose in line with the final causes or purposes that are ours by nature is morally good; to choose against them is morally bad.

To “choose” requires reason, but not reason as the moderns see it – reason as it has been developed since the Enlightenment.  Thanks to David Hume, “reason” has struggled with how to derive an “ought” from an “is,” or how to uphold morality in light of the fact / value distinction.  Nonsense, says Feser; there are no such issues if one builds on Aristotle.

Modern philosophers struggle because they have trashed the reality of final causes; reason serves a meaningful purpose only within a context that recognizes final causes: “…if we deny that anything has a final cause or that there are forms, essences, or natures in the Aristotelian sense,” reason falls apart.  Hume and the moderns deny just this.

Denying final causes means that there is no such thing as what is good for humans.  Without final causes, on what basis would “good” be determined?  Any basis that the moderns would choose; hence any argument is just as good as the next.

If there are no final causes, then reason does not have as its purpose the attainment of truth or knowledge of the good.  What we are left with are at best whatever desires we actually happen to have, for whatever reason – heredity, environment, luck – but these will be subjective preferences rather than reflective of objective goodness or badness.

In this case, all reason can tell us is how to achieve whatever our desire; reason is useless in finding ought.  Hence, there is no argument against the Peter Singers of the world who can see nothing wrong with bestiality or necrophilia.  To be against such things is just prejudice. 

Philosophers such as these are the descendants of David Hume, who offered that reason is the slave of the passions: what my passion desires, reason must deliver.

Once understood on a foundation of final causes, reason can be used effectively to understand many moral questions of the day: capital punishment, war and peace, property rights, social justice, abortion, family structure, sexual mores, etc. 

As the New Atheists are overly obsessed with the issues of sexual morality, Feser spends time dealing with this specific issue.  I will not go through Feser’s arguments here: suffice it to say: the final cause for sex is procreation; the final cause of pregnancy is to give birth; the final cause of the father is to provide for the family; the final cause of the parents is to raise healthy children.

Keep in mind, what Feser has discussed thus far is natural law; he offers the path from here to natural rights.  The two are not the same and should not be confused.

…every human being has a natural right to life, which can be lost only in the way other rights (such as the right to liberty) can be lost, viz. by committing a serious crime.

Aristotle did not have a theory of individual rights; but the Scholastics built on Aristotle to develop just such a view.  Nature has set for us certain ends and natural law enjoins on us the pursuit of those ends.  As we live in a society with others who also pursue their ends, we can all pursue our ends only if not subject to interference by another – from this we can identify our natural rights.

Hence the existence of the natural law entails that we have certain rights against interference with that pursuit.

Our individual rights include – and only include – rights that are ours based on the natural law; this natural law is built on Aristotle’s final causes.  My natural rights are only derived from the natural law that binds all men.

For example, I do have the right not to be murdered, as this disrupts my final cause.  I think it also follows that I have no “rights” that are NOT derived from the natural law that binds all men; here you may insert just about every made-up “right” of the last century or two.


I mentioned at the beginning that Feser’s treatment will burden libertarians who base their views on natural law.  From natural law, one can clearly derive the non-aggression principle; however natural law provides much more – it provides guidance on moral issues.

Many libertarians will say that libertarianism is agnostic on moral issues.  So I am clear: I am not considering punishment for non-violent moral transgressions; yet, I am not sure what to make of leaning on natural law for non-aggression but not for morals.  Is one sustainable without the other?

We can speak of certain transgressions deserving of punishment and other transgressions that do not deserve punishment.  But I wonder if a libertarianism built on the natural law must have something to say about both types of transgressions.


Nowhere in his presentation has Feser leaned on morality from scripture or traditional religious teaching; Feser has not leaned on revelation. 

Traditional morality does not rest on arbitrary divine commands backed by the threat of punishment but rather on the systematic analysis of human nature entailed by classical philosophy.

I think for a political philosophy to be whole, it must take into account the totality of human nature.


  1. A) And the final purpose of society it to leave a better world for the next generation. (This is important as I think this is the major problem of today where society only focusses on itself as the final purpose)

    B) This is getting awfully close to propertarianism. But rather than final causes, propertarianism constructs natural law from empiricism.

    C) Non related (well...) I have goten it in my head that the true advantage of the west may have been the discovery of truth. All others, and all that came before it were based on mysticism.

  2. "I think for a political philosophy to be whole, it must take into account the totality of human nature." - BM

    Rothbard thought of libertarianism as the complete science of liberty, so perhaps he would agree with you. Maybe there is more to the 'science of liberty' than the just use of force in society or the non-aggression principle.

    "In my own particular case, the major focus of my interest and my writings over the last three decades has been a part of this broader approach—libertarianism—the discipline of liberty. For I have come to believe that libertarianism is indeed a discipline, a “science,” if you will, of its own, even though it has been only barely developed over the generations. Libertarianism is a new and emerging discipline which touches closely on many other areas of the study of human action: economics, philosophy, political theory, history, even—and not least—biology. For all of these provide in varying ways the groundwork, the elaboration, and the application of libertarianism. Some day, perhaps, liberty and “libertarian studies” will be recognized as an independent, though related, part of the academic curriculum." - Rothbard, Egalitarianism as a Revolt Against Nature

    But 'more to' does not equate with 'a refutation of', so I don't see this as a negation of the non-aggression principle; Feser, however, would. I was pointed to his supposed demolition of the non-aggression principle a while back by a 'former Rothbardian' who had repented his libertarianism and had seen the light of Feser's brilliance. I was unimpressed.

    His basic argument was that since God owns us, we can't own ourselves. My simpleminded retort is that since God is for our purposes an absentee owner (He does not stop or punish offenders in this world for breaking His Law), we still have to figure out how to organize earthly governance vis a vis each other - hence libertarianism and the principle of law most reflective of Jesus's ultimate interpersonal commandment of 'loving our neighbor as our self', the non-aggression principle.

    I would further argue that it is precisely because God owns each of us that none of us has any right to act as the owner of anyone else - by decreeing laws of behavior in discord with God's most explicit laws, the Decalogue, since that would be a violation of God's property!

    I suppose the real question is if God own's all of us, are we supposed to enforce His Law 'by any means necessary' or has He provided guidance in the way of proportionality in this regard? I believe he has done the latter. The case can sooner be made, if the New Testament is the fulfillment of the Old, that all crimes are to be forgiven and not punished (pacifism) than the case that non-violent crimes are to be punished with violence (statism).

    1. I have not read Feser on the topic of libertarianism, however it seems pretty plain to me: whether God owns me or I own me (and I think it matters not which one each individual concludes for himself), what is certain is that my fellow man does not own me.

      From here we can begin a discussion about the proper use of physical force. If you find some New Testament teachings that advocate aggression, let me know.

      Jesus taught us to shake the dust off of our feet, not to shake the recalcitrant into submission.

    2. So now you mention the problem with the Catholic church of the Middle Ages in regards to liberty. In the area of theology they did in fact "shake the recalcitrant into submission". The spread of Christianity through Europe after Constantine was a story of state sanctioned religion. Maybe in other areas the influence of the Church did lead to political liberty, which you have explained very well in your blog, but in other areas there was repression and in many cases graft and theft.

      The error of the Reformers wasn't to add something new in terms of punishing immorality but to continue and sometimes amplify some of the pre-existing errors of the Church. The Reformers essentially reformed soteriology and ecclesiology but left much un-reformed.

    3. Charlemagne was the worst.

      With any institution made up of humans, there will be liabilities. The issue is one of a balance sheet: are there more assets than liabilities?

      The issue also is one of law - even if the law is not perfectly followed, is the law as understood the objective for society? Is the law reasonably libertarian?

      The medieval law was rather libertarian.

    4. This should sum up Feser's take on libertarianism for you (from his Road from Libertarianism):

      "Now the thesis of self-ownership was, as I have said, the core of my own commitment to libertarianism. But as I came to see, the thesis was hopelessly indeterminate, certainly way too indeterminate to ground libertarianism and even (as I now think) too indeterminate to be very interesting at all." - Feser

      And yet I'm sure his "still quite firm commitment to limited government and private enterprise" must be boundlessly precise and non-arbitrary.

      "I think that moral principle should lead us to take a broadly center-right approach to matters of politics rather than a broadly center-left approach." - Feser

      I guess not.

      He does raise some interesting points that I'm sure you and others here would appreciate (as I did), but overall, he is the example par excellence of Rothbard and Hoppe's criticism of Hayekian thought: philosophical imprecision.

      Insofar as he is an Aristotelian/Thomistic, free-market, limited government, Catholic who didn't fall for 'distributism', he is more or less in accord with my thinking. The one interesting contention he makes, that I believe is relevant here is this:

      "it became clear the more I thought about natural law theory that since the very point of natural rights was, on that view, to safeguard our ability to fulfill the ends nature had set for us, there could in principle be no such thing as a natural right to do what is positively contrary to those ends. That does not mean that everything that is morally wrong should be outlawed; that’s not the point. The point is rather that from A-T natural law theory, there is no way you are going to get the absolute right of self-ownership -- a natural right to do even what is morally wrong as long as it violates no one else’s rights -- that natural rights libertarians like Nozick and Rothbard thought we had."

    5. Regarding political philosophies that are "indeterminate": show me one that isn't, or at least doesn't end with my neck at the end of a rope. If one is looking for a solid dividing line when it comes to human relations, one is expecting a bit much.

      "That does not mean that everything that is morally wrong should be outlawed; that’s not the point. The point is rather that from A-T natural law theory, there is no way you are going to get the absolute right of self-ownership..."

      All very valid from what I can tell. Still, whether I own me or God owns me, I am certain that my fellow man does not own me.

  3. My initial thoughts reflect a bit what ATL writes about above. I love the idea of a final cause. However, the idea begs a huge question! Is the final cause to feel as much pleasure as possible? Is it to vanquish all others and control the world? Is it to live a humble and quiet life?

    If you look at philosophy after Aristotle, that is one of the main discussions. What is really "good". What is really the purpose of life (i.e. the final cause). Aquinas was not the first Church Father to fill in the answer with Christian virtue and morality. It started in the 2nd Century actually.

    That 2nd and 3rd generation of Christianity did something interesting. They melded Greek philosophy with the Bible. For many years I have seen that as the greatest tragedy in history, because it lead to many doctrinal problems that finally were corrected by the Reformation and Protestants in the following centuries.

    What your blog has highlighted for me though is what good did come out of that thinking. Philosophy was based on observing the world and trying to understand it through logic. From that perspective there is nothing that contradicts the Bible per se. There were some very correct insights derived from Philosophy that were helpful in understanding how we should understand the world and humanity and subjects like society, law, politics, nature, science, education, etc. Aquinas and other Catholic scholars did a good job with that.

    I guess what I am learning is that everything is complicated. Well meaning humans trying to help things cause good and bad things to happen. It also points me back to the purity of the Bible and using it to determine my viewpoint and behavior. The key is being aware of all it says while not doing more than it says. Maybe in 1 Timothy 3:16 the good works can be thought of as Aristotle's final cause or what constitutes human good.

    1. Thank you; I am exploring as well.

      If we consider Jesus as the ultimate expression of the material / formal cause, I think we will find the final cause.

    2. RMB,

      "They melded Greek philosophy with the Bible. For many years I have seen that as the greatest tragedy in history"

      Since St. Paul and St. Luke were both Hellenistic Greeks, and since over 50% of the New Testament can be attributed to them combined, I don't think you can divorce the Bible from Greek influence.

    3. Luke was but Paul studied under Gamaliel as a Pharisee since he was young. Pharisees viewed Greek influence as contamination. It was one of the things they were trying to purify themselves from.

      Either way, I am not talking about the authors writing. I am talking about how the audience interpreted. The method of interpretation changed in the late 2nd century/early 3rd century.

      The Greeks interpreted all spiritual writing allegorically to avoid some problematic themes and other nonsensical portions found in the myths. Interpreting all of the Bible as allegory leads to huge problems in theology and doctrine. It is why the Reformation was necessary in many ways.

  4. Sorry for the multiple comments but they are all a little different in emphasis.

    My last comment for now is in reference to Mises' Human Action. I am reading through it and was disappointed to read that he largely rejects natural right and natural law. I think it one of the most important concepts for liberty as I am reading your blog.

    Maybe I am misunderstanding Mises. In the context of Human Action and discussing markets, social cooperation, and division of labor he may simply be explaining that natural law/rights are unneeded to have markets work. I still would have been more excited to read him extolling the virtues of natural law/rights. Have you come across those statements, BM, ATL or Rien?

    1. "The case of Mises is particularly interesting, for he was, of all the economists in the twentieth century, at one and the same time the most uncompromising and passionate adherent of laissez faire and the most rigorous and uncompromising advocate of value-free economics and opponent of any sort of objective ethics." - Rothbard, The Ethics of Liberty

      Mises was a pure utilitarian as far as I understand it, even if he was somewhat unconscious of this fact. Rothbard even criticized him a bit for this, because Mises always held his positions on the questions of economics to be 'Wertfrei' or value-free. Rothbard demonstrated convincingly that Mises, though his economic theory was rigorously objective and scientific, always held as a baseline assumption that all policy should be adopted for the 'greatest good for the greatest number'.

      I think we all are utilitarians if you dig deep enough. Would you advocate liberty purely based on the moral argument even if it's real world effect could be reliably predicted to cause bad outcomes for most people? As libertarians, we spend a good deal of our time learning, discussing, and arguing over why and how a stateless society will work. If we weren't utilitarians, we wouldn't care if it would 'work' or not.

    2. I agree that Mises was a utilitarian. He explicitly states that the market is good simply because it leads to the greater good for the greater amount of people. I believe that too and so do you. But I have a hard time understanding how the utilitarian argument for human market interactions can be proven. To really know you have to prove it empirically. It leaves the door open to detractors pointing out problems with capitalism and suggesting a new alternative or suggesting socialism hasn't really been tried. Of course I disagree with them and there is empirical data proving Mises correct for all the systems tried so far. My concern is for proponents for the next different system.

      I have a touch of utilitarian in me too of course. However, as a believer in Jesus, I am to follow Him even if that means I enjoy less good but experience more suffering in my life. Jesus' call was to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow Him. That is a call to sacrifice not maximizing experiences that are necessarily "good". It depends on how you describe good though. In this discussion, I define good how Mises does, which is having more things or acting to satisfy more desires. However, if the desire is for holiness and obedience then it doesn't quit line up with Mises' definition.

      I still think overall the more people obey God, the more true good things we experience in life. But because of sin we desire things that are bad and act to experience them. And other people seek to do us harm sometimes because of our faith in God. Like I said somewhere else. These issues get extremely complicated.

    3. "To really know you have to prove it empirically"

      Well Mises and Rothbard would disagree. They believed that the benefits of unhampered trade could be ascertained 'a priori' through disciplined logical deduction from an observed axiomatic truth. This was the essence of Mises' epistemology.

      I believe what is good is 'beatitude', abiding Jesus' teachings to the best of your ability. Short of the faith, the ancient Greek 'eudaimonia', or a life lived through virtuous conduct, is also good.

      I believe 'the good' is also having access to healthy food and comfortable shelter, a loving family and convivial community, and government that more or less leaves you alone unless you hurt someone else. Apart from these things, it gets a bit subjective in my mind.

      I don't know that the Reformation was necessary, and I don't know that much good really came of it. It seems that the Reformation was the punctuation mark on the end of Latin Christendom and marked the birth of the modern state - two things I wouldn't consider 'good'. That's a whole other topic though.

    4. I cannot help but hold the view that by doing right we do the most good; as it is applicable here: by hewing to natural law, prosperity (materially and otherwise) is maximized for the maximum number of people.

      We see this to be true where we work; we see it to be true with our customers; we see it to be true with our families; we see it to be true with the spouse.

      But the guiding light must be the doing what is right part, not the focusing on the maximum good for the maximum number. People want to know the rules of the road and that these are fairly and evenly applied; with this, they feel good about not being thwarted in maximizing their own good.

      Once the discussion turns to how big the pie is and how big my slice is, fights ensue - first in the universities and halls of government, eventually on the streets.

    5. I am having trouble understanding how you can prove a utilitarian argument a priori. A statement about producing the most good for the most people seems to me that the discussion is now out of the realm of logic and into the realm of experience.

      This is what was puzzling to me about Human Action so far. Most of Mises' writing is an a priori proof regarding human nature, agency, and cooperation. In order to support the market system all he had to do was tie it to natural law and rights to continue his a priori argument. But he doesn't do that. He then pivots his argument.

      I get why, maybe. He didn't want people to reject market capitalism if they didn't believe in natural law/right. And he probably thought the 150 years previous to his writing was clear enough evidence to show how well capitalism meets human need.

      Either way it would have been intellectually satisfying for me if he would have tied natural law/right to private property and market interaction via a priori reasoning. He then could have commented that the superiority of capitalism didn't rely on that logical link because you can look at history to see its results.

    6. ATL, one question just so I understand where you are coming from, are you Catholic? Your comments about the Reformation seem to come from that viewpoint. If so, they make a lot of sense. If not, I am a bit curious how you came to your conclusions.