Goodness and the Natural Law

January 12, 2009

While at a low, practical level, tastes are subjective, what is ultimately beneficial for a man is determined neither by choice nor by accident, but is immutably determined by the nature of creation (the concept of “rightly understood interests” to which some praxeologists refer, that people’s interests are not necessarily what they sincerely desire). What is ultimately desirable in this manner is called “good”.1 However, only rarely can action reach such an ultimate good directly; more often, approach to the ultimate good requires many intermediate steps, which may also be called good by imputation from their object.

Furthermore, causes are attached to effects.2 While many actions (voluntary causations) produce proximate effects that are of no intrinsic desirability, the desirability of their ultimate effects depending on external circumstance, certain actions, even though the specific net state change effected may vary with circumstance, are invariant in the desirability of that change; these actions may be termed absolutely good or bad, depending on the nature of their effects.3

Thus arises a natural law for human behaviour: certain actions are contrary to nature and will always bring harm upon the actor.4 This natural law is not extraneous to creation but an integral part of it, a direct consequence of causality and the existence of universally desirable ends.

This natural law must be differentiated from divine law both in nature and in consequence. Natural law is a property of creation, incapable of change without a change to the created order, with its punishments similarly innate to cause and effect. Divine law, on the other hand, is extraneous to creation, revealed directly by God, and with its punishments accomplished in this world by divine intervention (which need not, of course, be immediate). The two are in consonance, for the creator who commands what he has ordained to be harmful in his creation would be truly perverse (or, from the other perspective, who would arrange creation to punish what he commands). The two need not, however, be coextensive; revealed law may command what is not commanded by natural law, but will not command what is forbidden by it.

The clearest application of the natural law is to individual behaviour; once an action has been determined to be contrary to the natural law, it may be avoided with no need to rederive the harm produced. But natural law seems to have found its greatest influence in legal theory; its application there is murkier. Clearly, a legal system not in consonance with natural law cannot, from the definition of natural law, be beneficial; the same also applies to laws. But consonance with natural law does not (at least directly) imply that laws ought to add to the punishments prescribed by the natural law, for it is in no need of assistance in that respect. Instead, it means that the enforcement of the laws must not involve a violation of the natural law by any party. What this specifically means for government I shall address in a later post.

1 “Good” is predicated of actions, objects, and people in analogous ways; strictly speaking, it refers to a gross state. Attributed to an action, “good” means that the action will result in a better state than the present (but not, it must be noted, necessarily better than all possible states of affairs, for which reason what is good in itself may not be good in a specific instance); attributed to an object, that possession of the use of that object would result in a better state; attributed to a person, that the person does what is good. God is good in both of the latter senses; association with him is desirable and he does what is desirable (the latter being a simple deduction from his omnipotence and omniscience).

2 For the purposes of this discussion, I divide effects into proximate effects, which necessarily and immediately arise without dependence on circumstance not assumed by the action, and ultimate effects, the net state change resulting from the action. Between those extremes is a spectrum of mediate effect.

3 This is a specific case of the general principle of action that certain means are inappropriate to achieve certain effects (such as that price controls are an inappropriate means to achieve the reduction of a shortage); to be termed good or bad, an action must be inappropriate not for one specific ultimate effect, but for all bad or good effects, respectively.

4 Natural law is descriptive, like all other laws, but it describes effects, not behaviour. Many people have commented that it is possible to violate natural laws, albeit with penalty, while it is impossible to violate physical laws; this misstates the point. The actual law is the penalty, not the prohibition.


Government Under the Law

October 27, 2008

Government Under the Law

Most Americans, and other Westerners, claim to value a government under the law. But to what law do they refer? This law could be a law the government sets for itself, but then the statement would be meaningless: even a despotism is likely to have some standard procedures, yet no one would consider such a government to be under the law. Indeed, such a system does not strictly fit the statement, for the government would be simultaneously over and under the law, rather than purely under it. Thus, the government cannot be the source of this law.

Perhaps, then, this law is a law set by the people, yet unique to the government. But following this standard, any representative government (directly or indirectly) would be under the law, for the people in those circumstances establish a law for the government, but that law may yet be highly mutable. The Athenian admirals were executed in consonance with the laws established by the Athenians, yet few would consider the Athenian ochlarchy to be government under the law. Really, this is naught but a special case of the first instance, where the government sets the law; for in a representative, the people are the government, and thus no law alterable (or even once established and then immutable) by the people can base a government under the law.

Thus the law under which a government under the law operates comes not from the government, nor from the people. Whence else can it come? If from some external, active source, merely considering that source of law to be the government restores the objection. Thus, the law must be eternally immutable, existing outside any human agency: the natural law. A government under the law means a government under the standards of human rights established in the essential order of the universe.

Government under the law and rule by law compared

This definition of government under the law dissatisfies some, for it describes a government where the laws accord with natural law, but in which men may still rule. Should we not seek a form of government in which laws and not men rule? No, for it is impossible. Government under the law is possible, if difficult to attain and to maintain; rule of law cannot exist. Only that possessed of agency can truly rule, and agency is to God and his rational creations alone; to say that anything else rules is merely to inaccurately say that men rule in accord with laws. But they are under no necessary compulsion to do so. If a judge judges by whim, and not by law, what power has the law to punish him? Only another ruler, a man and not a law, can do so, and that ruler is either under the authority of another man or is a law unto himself. What legislator, legislating from inclination and contrary to the Constitution, has been struck by lightning emanating from the violated article? To ask the question is absurd, for parchment cannot act.

Government under the law is a condition of government, transient with each new law and each new judicial decision, and not a form of government. No form of government can assure adherence to natural law by elevating laws above men; we must only seek that form most likely to uphold natural law.