Saturday, January 19, 2019

Natural Rights and Morality

Can one have natural rights without a natural moral law?  The moderns certainly believe so; Feser begs to differ.

One will not find the idea of natural rights explicitly stated by Aristotle or Aquinas; however, later Scholastic thinkers developed this idea based on the earlier work.  Natural rights follow from Aristotelian formal and final causes:

If every man has, by virtue of having the same form or nature, the same ultimate natural end (God) and various subsidiary natural ends (those associated with natural capacities like reason, procreation, and so forth), then they have the same basic moral obligations under natural law.

While reading Feser, I continue to return to this idea of natural law – and, specifically, the reliance on natural law by many libertarians as a philosophical foundation.  Is it possible to take from natural law only the negative (do not interfere with my achieving my natural ends) without the positive (the moral obligations) derived from the same natural law?  Can one exist without the other?

The same natural law that blocks others from interfering with our natural ends also places obligations on us.  These are more than merely reciprocating regarding the prohibition of interfering with another (e.g. violating my natural right not the be murdered); natural law, as developed by Aristotle and Aquinas, places moral burdens on us – precluding us from actions that would otherwise not violate the non-aggression principle.

The child wants to enjoy the benefits of living under daddy’s roof but doesn’t want to live by daddy’s rules.  Is this workable?  Does such a relationship have any possibility of longevity?

Now, what becomes of natural rights if there are no formal or final causes, and thus no universal human nature nor any natural ends or purposes by reference to which rights get their point?

What do you aim at if there is no target?  This was the task of the moderns – Hobbes, Lock, Hume, Kant, etc. – as they believed they could aim without a target.  Feser examines these.

Hobbes understood this most clearly: without the target, everyone can do what he wants: murder, steal, and harm others as he wishes.  No one has a right to not be killed, stolen from, etc.  Morality would have to be invented by us in order to avoid the naturally resulting chaos.

Locke would have none of this; without final causes, he would rely on God’s ownership of us.  Therefore, we do not have any rights ourselves; God has all the rights and whatever rights we enjoy are derivative.  But without formal and final causes, there is still no target to aim at.

Take Locke’s theory of property: it leaves more questions than it provides answers.  Most basic: what counts as “mixing”?  How much mixing?  Why not build a small fence around your neighbor and thereafter claim all property outside of it?

One could appeal to divine revelation, but then this turns Locke’s theory into theology.  I have often answered “custom” or “tradition,” but without a target to aim at, custom and tradition can stray (and has strayed) far from any definition of “good” you can come up with.

To deny that there are any formal or final causes in the natural world is implicitly to deny that there is any objective standard of goodness in the world either.

The early moderns could toy with such ideas because they lived within a custom and tradition that was well-grounded in the “good” of Christian ethics.  Hence, the destructiveness of losing the target was not obvious.  But, it has been demonstrated that the target cannot sustain itself; we have seen the devolution over the last two centuries.

Where does this leave reason?  It is every man’s reason for itself: reason can tell us what to do to achieve our objectives, but what of the objectives?  Without ultimate values based on formal and final causes, what do we aim at?

Is the elimination of slavery good?  Why or why not?  The acceptance of divorce, homosexuality?  What if it is accepted to kill unwanted babies?  It already is accepted for the unborn child, why not the newborn?  Old and sick people; Jews, blacks, Muslims?  Nazis, communists, pro-choice activists?  Why…or why not?

Well, we just “know it.”  But consider how drastically different much of what we “know” today is from what we “knew” even a few decades ago – even a few years ago.  Were we wrong then?  Are we wrong today?  Is change the same as progress?  Can reason tell us when reason has no target to aim at?

Do we aim for the greatest happiness for the greatest number?  Good luck measuring or quantifying that one.  You can’t even say why anyone would care about the greatest happiness for the greatest number.  On what basis is this better than the good of the many outweigh the good of the one?  What is “good”?

Why exactly should we believe that reason tells us to follow [Kant’s] Categorical Imperative – as opposed to being the “slave of the passions” (in Hume’s sense) or following our rational self-interest (as Hobbes says)?

Reason to what end?

The bottom line is that by abandoning formal and final causes, modern philosophy necessarily denied itself any objective basis for morality.

Including, it seems, the morality of the non-aggression principle.


Would you be more inclined rigorously to abide by policy X if you were truly convinced that God or nature unconditionally commands it, or if cooked up because it is “mutually advantageous” (even if you don’t see much advantage to  following it yourself just now)?

To ask this question is to answer it.


Feser has apparently walked a path through libertarianism and then moved on.  Someday it might be important to me to understand why, but not today.  That he has walked such a path does not discount for me the points he raises in this book.


  1. I question whether individuals or society as a whole has the obligation or even the right to impose moral obligations on others. I believe such laws would not result in a moral or free society, but the exact opposite. I don't even think it would mater whether those obligations were derived from scripture or from the musings of the latest liberal populist. The end result would be the same.

    1. "...impose...moral...laws..."

      Jeff, other than for moral laws on things such as murder and theft, I am not here - nor have I ever - suggested such a thing.

      To be clear: I do not advocate for laws or legal physical punishment for trespasses that fall outside of the NAP.

    2. BM, my apologies. I didn't mean to imply you were advocating such laws. But I did believe you implied Feser was doing so.

    3. Thank you, Jeff.

      I am not sure about Feser on this. If I have read his view on this in the book, I don't recall.

    4. I am clearly missing some subtle point. The NAP is after all a logical construct that defines enforceable laws; laws that represent the maximum limits on human behavior without also restricting liberty. If moral obligation is not enforceable, why compare it to the NAP? If the point is to show the Left's morality leads to tyranny, one only has to show the Left violates the NAP by imposing on everyone its ever changing definition of moral obligation.

    5. Jeff,

      Feser does I'm pretty sure. He's a Hayekian. So basically, he's a social democrat with free market and conservative leanings.

    6. Jeff, I use the word "trespasses" because I am not sure what else to use. To make objective my subjective comment:

      There are still some people who consider prostitution a trespass of a moral law. Do I advocate a secular law that requires punishment? No.

      Murder is violation of a moral law, deserving of punishment; prostitution is violation of a moral law, not deserving punishment.

    7. Sorry for the slow reply. Work has been crushing me this week.

      ATL, thanks. That was my take on it just from the quotes BM posted. I would be interested in his opinions on who gets to define those requirements.

      BM, I think you and I are in agreement on the application of punishment, though I disagree with you on the morality of prostitution in at least some cases : ) Feser just seemed to be following a darker path IMO.

  2. That really is the fundamental issue of the day isn't. Those who believe there is a formal and final cause of humanity and those who don't. The left thinks there is no fundamental human nature and the right does.

    1. RMB,

      That's a great point. I will take this into consideration for my ongoing project of delineating between right, left, conservative, and liberal.

      What I've discovered so far from the works of others (in both the European and American contexts of the words):

      right = excellence; natural order of social stratification and private property; polycentric rivalrous authority; meritocracy: governance by will of competent minority; structure built on family model.

      left = equality; artificial order of social uniformity and public property; centralized monopolistic authority; mediocracy: governance by will of common majority; structure built on Monastic model.

      conservative = tradition; when disgruntled: reactionary; gain power by secession; parochial: local or provincial allegiance; liberty as self-determination; man as neither angel nor devil.

      liberal = reason; when disgruntled: radical; gain power by revolution; cosmopolitan: national or international allegiance; liberty as universal law; man as either angel or devil.

      In this breakdown, your point about final causes would apply more to conservative and liberal, than right and left, but either way it is a valuable insight. Thank you! And you too Bionic!

      This may be relevant as well:

      "The great line of demarcation in modern politics, Eric Voegelin used to point out, is not a division between liberals on one side and totalitarians on the other. No, on one side of that line are all those men and women who fancy that the temporal order is the only order, and that material needs are their only needs, and that they may do as they like with the human patrimony. On the other side of that line are all those people who recognize an enduring moral order in the universe, a constant human nature, and high duties toward the order spiritual and the order temporal." - Russell Kirk, 10 Conservative Principles

  3. I read Feser's description of his journey in and out of Libertarianism. Sounds like his beliefs have quite a bit of overlap with yours BM. Sounds like he has thought pretty deeply about these issues too. Not sure I agree with him 100% but he raises some good points about the NAP not being enough.

    1. RMB,

      It would be great if he only said the NAP is not enough (which it isn't), but he goes further to say it is incorrect and insupportable, and so much so that it is not even interesting to discuss it.

      I agree that he does bring up interesting points about the the nature of natural law and governance, but his attempted refutation of the NAP and self-ownership is not much to get excited about.

    2. NAP "Necessary, but not sufficient" - terminology used by economists. Peg

    3. "Sounds like his beliefs have quite a bit of overlap with yours BM."

      RMB, you know how to get my attention! I have read through the one piece by Fester; I am going to write about this.

    4. Please do, BM. I'm curious to read your (and ATL's, et al) take on Feser's position on self-ownership; his arguments on the ultimate indeterminacy thereof are quite compelling from where I sit.

    5. EMP,

      I'll wait for Bionic to write it up before I offer my two cents on Feser and his rejection of self-ownership and the NAP. I will say that I think Feser makes a poor argument against it, and I'm certainly unconvinced of his "right of center" political prescription. His argument reflects a Hayekian mindset which is 'squishy' (or indeterminate) on the concepts of property and coercion.

      I will say that his argument is worthy of discussion (which is more than he'd say for my views).

  4. "Is it possible to take from natural law only the negative (do not interfere with my achieving my natural ends) without the positive (the moral obligations) derived from the same natural law?" - BM

    That is certainly a great question. I am more and more convinced it cannot, but contrary to Feser, I think this conclusion only provides an opportunity for refinement of libertarian theory, not refutation.

    From the recognition of common moral obligations it does not follow that we must command the restriction of all immoral acts by force. I still believe only some of them (murder, theft, etc.) demand violent reprisal and then only in proportion to the committed or credibly threatened offense.

    1. ATL, I am with you on this. As I commented earlier, I am going to go through Feser's work on this topic; but my initial thoughts: why throw the baby out with the bathwater? Why not educate the child before deciding he is hopeless?

      The NAP draws on so much of the tradition Feser admires; I feel it better to try to build on that.

    2. Totally agree. I didn't understand Feser to say he supports law/punishment in violation of NAP.

      If he does I strictly disagree with him.

  5. How exactly does random muons, gluons, quarks, neutrons, protons,electrons, positrons, neutrinos, atoms, molecules, etc., randomly colliding and interacting with each other, develop a system of ethics?

    It is too hard to have the kind of blind faith to be an atheist!

    1. To be convinced He doesn't exist takes just as much if not more faith than to believe He does. I often get the impression that atheists do recognize God exists, they just are, like their leading and fallen star, in rebellion against Him for whatever reason. I have much more respect for agnostics.

    2. ATL,

      I read your posts on this site with alacrity, for I find them as interesting as the Mosquito’s. But your statement here has me flummoxed. I was never a believer, even as a child. Nor did I ever put much effort into either believing or disbelieving, as you state either of these positions requires. Frankly, I don’t know why some people are believers in a higher power, but have occasionally wondered if there is a genetic predisposition. I’m not rebelling at all, simply indifferent. I, on the other hand, don’t have much respect for the fence-sitters, hoping to fall off in a favorable spot when the occasion calls for it. Peg in Oregon

    3. Peg,

      Sorry, most atheists I've met are an unpleasant, egotistical, state/science worshiping sort. You on the other hand seem much more pleasant and reasonable. I would have never guessed you were atheist!

      "I’m not rebelling at all, simply indifferent"

      It seems like maybe you're not giving this question its proper due. You're indifferent about life after death? Indifferent about meeting loved ones again who've passed before you? About meeting your Creator? About whether life has a meaning or we're all just agglomerations of particles colliding by some fantastic cosmic accident?

      Whether its reality or fantasy, it is a big question. I think it is better to be a contemplative 'fence sitter' wrestling with the choice of embarking into a greener pasture than one complacent in the desert indifferent to consider what the other side of the fence has to offer.

      "Nor did I ever put much effort into either believing or disbelieving"

      Well start! Whether to bolster your atheism or to rid yourself of it. I'll pray for the latter. =)

    4. ATL says, "Sorry, most atheists I've met are an unpleasant, egotistical, state/science worshiping sort."

      Peg says, I don't know many atheists but if they were as unpleasant as that, I doubt I would choose to know them very well. I don’t personally know many atheists, nor do I seek them out.

      I have no objection to you praying for me. I thank you and anyone else who is willing to do so on my behalf. It is an act of kindness. Peg, stuck in the Oregon rain.

  6. "The whole modern world has divided itself into Conservatives and Progressives. The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of Conservatives is to prevent mistakes from being corrected. Even when the revolutionist might himself repent of his revolution, the traditionalist is already defending it as part of his tradition. Thus we have two great types — the advanced person who rushes us into ruin, and the retrospective person who admires the ruins. He admires them especially by moonlight, not to say moonshine. Each new blunder of the progressive or prig becomes instantly a legend of immemorial antiquity for the snob. This is called the balance, or mutual check, in our Constitution."

    G. K. Chesterton