Monday, October 17, 2011

Is there a connection between human nature and moral norms?

This post examines how natural lawyers view the connection between facts about human nature and ethical norms. To guide me through this difficult topic, I’m going to use an article by one of the leading contemporary natural lawyers, Patrick Lee. The article in question is called “Human Nature and Moral Goodness” and it appeared in the book The Normativity of the Natural: Human Goods, Human Virtues, and Human Flourishing.

The article is relatively short and covers three key points. First, it considers an incorrect view of the relationship between facts about human nature and ethical norms. Second, it considers a more correct view of that relationship. And third, it addresses some intramural theological worries about knowledge of basic moral principles. I’m not too concerned about the theological worries myself, so I'll skip those.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, it’s worth noting I have no interest in defending natural law myself, I’m merely interested in understanding it.

1. The Wrong View of the Connection
The wrong view of the connection between human nature and ethical norms is the simplest view. And the simplest view is the one that stipulates that whatever is natural is equivalent to what is moral. In other words, the “natural” simply is the criterion of the “moral”: if the world is naturally in State A, then it ought to be in State A. In the specific case of human nature this means that whatever it is the human beings do naturally (e.g. perform a certain biological function or engage in rational thinking), is the same as what they ought to do. We can call this the “whatever-is-is-right”-view (WIIR-view, for short), in honour of the line from Alexander Pope’s “Essay on Man”.

All Nature is but Art, unknown to thee;
All chance, direction, which thou canst not see
All discord, harmony not understood,
All partial evil, universal good:
And, spite of pride, in erring reason's spite,
One truth is clear, whatever is, is right.

Although the WIIR-view can be found at work in some natural law arguments, Lee thinks it is wrong. He uses an example to make his point. Suppose the natural function of speech is to communicate the truth as one sees it. Lying would then be a corruption of the natural faculty. Does it follow that lying is morally wrong? It would seem to, but as Lee points out that doesn’t seem to be a good enough reason to think lying is wrong. After all, why couldn’t it be that lying is some brilliant ethical innovation in the speech faculty, something that allows us, on occasion, to secure morally superior ends? (There are countless other objections not raised by Lee, e.g. how does one correctly discover a “natural” function as opposed to “artifactual” function).

A more sophisticated version of the WIIR-view can be found among the Aristotelians. The Aristotelians do not believe that all human natural functions are guides as to what is morally right. Rather, they believe that only those natural functions that are distinctively human are guides to what is morally right. They usually single out the faculty of reason as being the distinctively human faculty. And they propose that we ought to develop this faculty as much as possible in order to live the good life.

Lee rejects the Aristotelian view too. He does so on the ground that the Aristotelians are wrong to think that all aspects of our natures other than the capacity for rationality are shared with other animals. For example, although it is true to say that animals other than human beings have the capacity for reproduction, it wrong to say that it is the same capacity across all species. The human capacity for reproduction is distinct because humans reproduce a different kind of being when compared with other animals; they reproduce another human, complete with a rational “soul”.

There’s lots to disagree with Lee about here. But since I care more about his positive views than his negative views I shall move on.

2. The Correct View of the Connection
If the Aristotelian view and the WIIR view are too simplistic, how can we arrive at a view that is appropriately sophisticated? We must begin with an appropriate conceptualisation of a being’s nature.

The Nature of a Being : is the structure that is internal to the being itself, that provides it with inherent tendencies and potentialities, that distinguishes it from other types of beings, and that constrains what it is possible for that being to do.

Lee thinks it is wrong to think that human beings do not have natures. He knows that some existentialists maintain that humans have no intrinsic natures and that they are completely free to determine their own tendencies and life plans, but he thinks that even the existentialist must admit to the reality of an intrinsic nature. Why? Well, prior to implementing their freely chosen life plans, the existentialist will have to have acknowledged the differences between them and their surroundings, and to have taken note of the predictable ways in which they are affected by those surroundings. This requires the implied recognition of an intrinsic nature.

The presence of an intrinsic nature has ramifications for freedom of choice. It doesn’t necessarily hinder or limit our capacity for free choice and action — Lee insists that such an interpretation would be wrong wrong — rather it is the intrinsic nature that makes choice and action possible in the first place. For when we choose among options, the possibilities are set by our nature; and when we act, we are actualising one of our natural potentialities or tendencies.

Natural law theorists see the actualisation of our potentialities and tendencies as being the key to understanding the relationship between human nature and ethical norms. Our natural tendencies and potentialities are complex, but limited. Their actualisation is what constitutes the good for beings like us. Natural law theorists thus call the actualisations of our natural potentialities tendencies the basic goods , and these are the mark of what is moral.

But surely this is to say too much? After all, if every action is the actualisation of a natural potentiality, and if every such actualisation is a basic good, then it follows that all actions are morally good. Thus, we can never be said to act in a morally impermissible manner.

Not so fast. Lee argues that there are two ways in which to actualise a potentiality. One of these is morally acceptable the other is not. The first way is to act so that each good respects and honours the basic goods that are not actualised in that particular act. The second is to act so that one good is honoured at the expense of the others. The first way is morally acceptable, the second is not.

This then is how Lee thinks our nature can begin to provide us with moral guidance.

3. From Practical Oughts to Moral Oughts
Although the actualisation of potentialities is a first approximation of how our natures provide us with moral guidance, it is not the whole story. Lee is persuaded by Hume’s famous claim that you cannot derive an “ought” from an “is”. He thinks that moral norms are ontologically grounded in our natures, but not logically derived from them. But this then raises the question: how do we derive practical oughts?

In answer to this question, Lee, like most of the new natural lawyers, appeals the self-evident nature of the basic goods. In other words, to the idea that there are some ends to which practical reason can be directed that are self-evidently good. These ends include life, personal integrity, friendship, marriage (Lee explicitly includes this in his list of the basic goods), knowledge, sociality, aesthetic experience and play. When it comes to these things there is no need to ask the question “what is it that makes them good?”, it is just obvious that they are.

Self-evidency claims of this sort can be more or less persuasive. For instance, Finnis makes a pretty good case for the self-evident good of knowledge. How does he do this? By pointing out that there would be a self-contradiction (of sorts) present in anyone who denied the value of knowledge. The person who argued that knowledge of X was not valuable, would first have to know what X was. In other words, it is only after knowledge of X is attained that value judgments can be made about it. Other self-evidency claims are less persuasive. For instance, it’s not clear to me that life is always and everywhere a good. There would seem to be some situations in which life is necessarily traded off against other basic goods (e.g. as in euthanasia scenarios).

This leads to a more general criticism of Lee’s position on moral norms. In distinguishing between practical oughts and moral oughts, Lee once again points to the difference between actions that honour all the basic goods and those that sacrifice some in order to promote others. The former are morally permissible, the latter are not. There are two important clarifications to be made of this position: (i) it means that morality is not a set of rigid hard-and-fast rules, there is some flexibility as to what one ought to do; and (ii) it does not mean that we cannot promote one good more than the others, it only means we cannot promote one good at the expense of the others.

What’s the problem with this position? Well, in order for it to be practicable it must be the case that no moral dilemmas actually exist. After all, a moral dilemma is a situation in which, no matter what you do , at least one morally undesirable outcome will occur. As such, any choice in a moral dilemma would involve a trade-off between recognised goods. And so, under Lee’s view, no matter what you do in a moral dilemma, you are doing something morally impermissible.

Take the ticking bomb scenario as an example. If the scenario exists (and I think variations on it probably do), you are forced to choose between (a) torturing someone and thereby causing pain and promoting mental/physical disunity; or (b) not torturing somebody and allowing many people to die. This seems to involve a necessary trade-off between the good of life and the good of personal integrity. How can a natural lawyer like Lee deal with this?

I mention this example for a good reason. Lee has actually written an article about interrogational torture in which he defends his natural law approach. I read this several years ago, but as far as I recall the article illustrates the problem I’ve highlighted here. Lee resolves the dilemma by engaging in questionable definitional practices. In particular, he narrows the definition of torture so as to allow for the permissibility of certain coercive interrogational practices. I think the definitional game he plays highlights the problem that natural law has with moral dilemmas.


  1. "These ends include life, personal integrity, friendship, marriage (Lee explicitly includes this in his list of the basic goods), knowledge, sociality, aesthetic experience and play."

    When I originally read this, I interpreted them all from a personal perspective (i.e. my life, my experience of friendship, my knowledge, etc.). However, I assume that the natural philosophers are speaking in a more humanistic sense (i.e. human life, human friendship, human knowledge, etc). Or do they refer to all life (from bacteria to human) and all knowledge or friendship (regardless of what animal is involved)?

  2. They are referring to all human life. The idea is that all practical reasoners - which, under the natural law view, is one of the essential traits of a human being - see these things as being intrinsically good, i.e. worth pursuing for their own sake.

    Whether that's actually true is a different matter.

  3. John Danaher,
    A wonderful read as usual, but my question is a bit off topic. A while ago you said you wanted to make an ebook with your best reviews. Are you still committed to this task? Are we going to see it soon?

  4. Fair question. I would like to but I'd like to do it properly. In other words, I don't just want to compile all the best posts into an ebook; I want to substantially revise and rewrite them (if needs be) and make the ebook a nice standalone piece.

    Unfortunately, such a project requires time. And my time is limited since taking up my new job. I reckon the easiest posts to do this with at the moment are the posts on philosophy of mind and the various ethics related ones. I'll see whether I get the opportunity to do a test run over the next few weeks.