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IT IS INDEED PUZZLING that so many modern philosophers should sniff at the very term “nature” as an injection of mysticism and the supernatural. An apple, let fall, will drop to the ground; this we all observe and acknowledge to be in the nature of the apple (as well as the world in general). Two atoms of hydrogen combined with one of oxygen will yield one molecule of water—behavior that is uniquely in the nature of hydrogen, oxygen, and water. There is nothing arcane or mystical about such observations. Why then cavil at the concept of “nature”? The world, in fact, consists of a myriad number of observable things, or entities. This is surely an observable fact. Since the world does not consist of one homogenous thing or entity alone, it follows that each one of these different things possesses differing attributes, otherwise they would all be the same thing. But if A, B, C, etc., have different attributes, it follows immediately that they have different natures.[1][2] It also follows that when these various things meet and interact, a specifically delimitable and definable result will occur. In short, specific, delimitable causes will have specific, delimitable effects.[3] The observable behavior of each of these entities is the law of their natures, and this law includes what happens as a result of the interactions. The complex that we may build up of these laws may be termed the structure of natural law. What is “mystical” about that?[4]

     In the field of purely physical laws, this concept will usually differ from modern positivistic terminology only on high philosophical levels; applied to man, however, the concept is far more controversial. And yet, if apples and stones and roses each have their specific natures, is man the only entity, the only being, that cannot have one? And if man does have a nature, why cannot it too be open to rational observation and reflection? If all things have natures, then surely man's nature is open to inspection; the current brusque rejection of the concept of the nature of man is therefore arbitrary and a priori.

     One common, flip criticism by opponents of natural law is: who is to establish the alleged truths about man? The answer is not who but what: man's reason. Man's reason is objective, i.e., it can be employed by all men to yield truths about the world. To ask what is man's nature is to invite the answer. Go thou and study and find out! It is as if one man were to assert that the nature of copper were open to rational investigation and a critic were to challenge him to “prove” this immediately by setting forth on the spot all the laws that have been discovered about copper.

     Another common charge is that natural-law theorists differ among themselves, and that therefore all natural-law theories must be discarded. This charge comes with peculiar ill grace when it comes, as it often does, from utilitarian economists. For economics has been a notoriously contentious science—and yet few people advocate tossing all economics therefore into the discard. Furthermore, difference of opinion is no excuse for discarding all sides to a dispute; the responsible person is the one who uses his reason to examine the various contentions and make up his own mind.[5] He does not simply say a priori, “a plague on all your houses!” The fact of man's reason does not mean that error is impossible. Even such “hard” sciences as physics and chemistry have had their errors and their fervent disputes.[6] No man is omniscient or infallible—a law, by the way, of man’s nature.

     The natural law ethic decrees that for all living things, “goodness” is the fulfillment of what is best for that type of creature; “goodness” is therefore relative to the nature of the creature concerned. Thus, Professor Cropsey writes:

The classical [natural law] doctrine is that each thing is excellent in the degree to which it can do the things for which its species is naturally equipped. . . . Why is the natural good? . . . [Because] there is neither a way nor a reason to prevent ourselves from distinguishing between useless and serviceable beasts, for example; and . . . the most empirical and . . . rational standard of the serviceable, or the limit of the thing’s activity, is set by its nature. We do not judge elephants to be good because they are natural; or because nature is morally good—whatever that would mean. We judge a particular elephant to be good by the light of what elephant nature makes it possible for elephants to do and to be.[7]

In the case of man, the natural-law ethic states that goodness or badness can be determined by what fulfills or thwarts what is best for man’s nature.[8]

     The natural law, then, elucidates what is best for man—what ends man should pursue that are most harmonious with, and best tend to fulfill, his nature. In a significant sense, then, natural law provides man with a “science of happiness,” with the paths which will lead to his real happiness. In contrast, praxeology or economics, as well as the utilitarian philosophy with which this science has been closely allied, treat “happiness” in the purely formal sense as the fulfillment of those ends which people happen—for whatever reason—to place high on their scales of value. Satisfaction of those ends yields to man his “utility” or “satisfaction” or “happiness.”[9] Value in the sense of valuation or utility is purely subjective, and decided by each individual. This procedure is perfectly proper for the formal science of praxeology, or economic theory, but not necessarily elsewhere. For in natural-law ethics, ends are demonstrated to be good or bad for man in varying degrees; value here is objective—determined by the natural law of man's being, and here “happiness” for man is considered in the commonsensical, contentual sense. As Father Kenealy put it:

This philosophy maintains that there is in fact an objective moral order within the range of human intelligence, to which human societies are bound in conscience to conform and upon which the peace and happiness of personal, national and international life depend.[10]

     And the eminent English jurist, Sir William Blackstone, summed up the natural law and its relation to human happiness as follows:

This is the foundation of what we call ethics, or natural law . . . demonstrating that this or that action tends to man's real happiness, and therefore very justly concluding that the performance of it is a part of the law of nature; or, on the other hand, that this or that action is destruction of man's real happiness, and therefore that the law of nature forbids it.[11]

     Without using the terminology of natural law, psychologist Leonard Carmichael has indicated how an objective, absolute ethic can be estab­lished for man on scientific methods, based upon biological and psycho­logical inquiry:

because man has an unchanging and an age-old, genetically determined anatomical, physiological, and psychological make-up, there is reason to believe that at least some of the “values” that he recognized as good or bad have been discov­ered or have emerged as human individuals have lived togeth­er for thousands of years in many societies. Is there any reason to suggest that these values, once identified and tested, may not be thought of as essentially fixed and unchanging? For example, the wanton murder of one adult by another for the purely personal amusement of the person committing the murder, once it is recognized as a general wrong, is likely always to be so recognized. Such a murder has disadvantageous individual and social effects. Or to take a milder example from esthetics, man is always likely to recognize in a special way the balance of two complementary colors because he is born with specially con­stituted human eyes.[12]

     One common philosophic objection to natural law ethics is that it con­fuses, or identifies, the realism of fact and value. For purposes of our brief discussion, John Wild’s reply will suffice:

In answer we may point out that their [natural law] view identifies value not with existence but rather with the ful­fillment of tendencies determined by the structure of the exist­ent entity Furthermore, it identifies evil not with non-existence but rather with a mode of existence in which natural tendencies are thwarted and deprived of realization. . . . . The young plant whose leaves are withering for lack of light is not nonexistent. It exists, but in an unhealthy or privative mode. The lame man is not nonexistent. He exists, but with a natural power partially unrealized. . . . . This metaphysical objection is based upon the common assumption that existence is fully finished or complete. . . .   [But] what is good is the fulfillment of being.[13]

     After stating that ethics, for man as for any other entity, are determined by investigating verifiable existing tendencies of that entity, Wild asks a question crucial to all non-theological ethics: “why are such principles felt to be binding on me?” How do such universal tendencies of human nature become incorporated into a person's subjective value scale? Because

the factual needs which underlie the whole procedure are common to man. The values founded on them are universal. Hence, if I made no mistake in my tendential analysis of human nature, and if I understand myself, I must exemplify the tendency and must feel it subjectively as an imperative urge to action.[14]

     David Hume is the philosopher supposed by modern philosophers to have effectively demolished the theory of natural law. Hume's “demolition” was two-pronged: the raising of the alleged “fact-value” dichotomy, thus debarring the inference of value from fact,[15] and his view that reason is and can only be a slave to the passions. In short, in contrast to the natural-law view that man's reason can discover the proper ends for man to follow, Hume held that only the emotions can ultimately set man's ends, and that reason's place is as the technician and handmaiden to the emotions. (Here Hume has been followed by modern social scientists since Max Weber.) According to this view, people's emotions are assumed to be primary and unanalyzable givens.

     Professor Hesselberg has shown, however, that Hume, in the course of his own discussions, was compelled to reintroduce a natural-law conception into his social philosophy and particularly into his theory of justice, thus illustrating the gibe of Etienne Gilson: “The natural law always buries its undertakers.” For Hume, in Hesselberg's words, “recognized and accepted that the social . . . order is an indispensable prerequisite to man's well-being and happiness: and that this is a statement of fact.” The social order, therefore, must be maintained by man. Hesselberg continues:

     But a social order is not possible unless man is able to conceive what it is, and what its advantages are, and also conceive those norms of conduct which are necessary to its establishment and preservation, namely, respect for another's person and for his rightful possessions, which is the substance of justice. . . . But justice is the product of reason, not the passions. And justice is the necessary support of the social order; and the social order is necessary to man's well-being and happiness. If this is so, the norms of justice must control and regulate the passions, and not vice versa.[16]

     Hesselberg concludes that “thus Hume's original 'primacy of the passions' thesis is seen to be utterly untenable for his social and political theory, and . . . he is compelled to reintroduce reason as a cognitive-normative factor in human social relations.”[17]

     Indeed, in discussing justice and the importance of the rights of private property, Hume was compelled to write that reason can establish such a social ethic: “nature provides a remedy in the judgment and understanding for what is irregular and uncommodious in the affections”—in short, reason can be superior to the passions.[18]

     We have seen from our discussion that the doctrine of natural law—the view that an objective ethics can be established through reason—has had to face two powerful groups of enemies in the modern world: both anxious to denigrate the power of man’s reason to decide upon his destiny. These are the fideists who believe that ethics can only be given to man by supernatural revelation, and the skeptics who believe that man must take his ethics from arbitrary whim or emotion. We may sum up with Professor Grant’s harsh but penetrating view of

the strange contemporary alliance between those who doubt the capacity of human reason in the name of scepticism (probably scientific in origin) and those who denigrate its capacity in the name of revealed religion. It is only necessary to study the thought of Ockham to see how ancient this strange alliance is. For in Ockham can be seen how philosophic nominalism, unable to face the question of practical certainty, solves it by the arbitrary hypothesis of revelation. The will detached from the intellect (as it must be in a nominalism) can seek certainty only through such arbitrary hypotheses. . . .

     The interesting fact historically is that these two anti-rationalist traditions—that of the liberal skeptic and the Protestant revela­tionist—should originally have come from two . . . opposite views of man. The Protestant dependence upon revelation arose from a great pessimism about human nature. . . . The immediately apprehended values of the liberal originate in a great optimism. Yet . . . after all, is not the dominating tradition in North America a Protestantism which has been transformed by pragmatic tech­nology and liberal aspirations?[19]

[1]Henry B. Veatch, in his For an Ontology of Morals: A Critique of Contemporary Ethical Theory (Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1971), p. 7, states:

Recourse must be had to an older notion than that which has now come to be in fashion among contemporary scientists and philosophers of science. . . . Surely in that everyday world of common-sense existence in which, as human beings, and for all of our scientific sophistication, we can hardly cease to live and move and have our being, we do indeed find ourselves constantly invoking an older and even a decidedly common sense notion of "nature" and "natural law." For don't we all recognize that a rose is different from an eggplant, and a man from a mouse, and hydrogen from manganese? To recognize such differences in things is surely to recognize that they behave differently: one doesn't expect of a man quite the same things that one does of a mouse, and vice versa. Moreover, the reason our expectations thus differ as to what various types of things or entities will do, or how they will act and read, is simply that they just are different kinds of things. They have different "natures," as one might say using the old-fashioned terminology.

Leo Strauss (Natural Right and History [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1953]) adds:

Socrates deviated from his predecessors by identifying the science of . . . everything that is, with the understanding of what each of the beings is. For "to be" means "to be something" and hence to be different from things which are "something else": "to be" means therefore "to be a part" (p. 122).

[2]For a defense of the concept of nature, see Alvin Plantinga, The Nature of Necessity (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1974), pp. 71-81.

[3]See H.W.B. Joseph, An Introduction to Logic, 2nd rev. ed. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1916), pp. 407–9. For a hard-hitting defense of the view that causation states a necessary relation among entities, see R. Harre and E.H. Madden, Causal Powers: A Theory of Natural Necessity (Totowa, N.J.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1975).

[4]See Murray N. Rothbard, Individualism and the Philosophy of the Social Sciences (San Francisco: Cato Institute, 1979), p. 5.

[5]And there is a further point: the very existence of a difference of opinion seems to imply that there is something objective about which disagreement can take place; for otherwise, there would be no contradictions in the different "opinions" and no worry about these conflicts. For a similar argument in refutation of moral subjectivism see G.E. Moore, Ethics (Oxford, 1963 [1912]), pp. 63ff.

[6]The psychologist Leonard Carmichael, in “Absolutes, Relativism and the Scientific Psychology of Human Nature,” in H. Schoeck and J. Wiggins, eds., Relativism and the Study of Man (Princeton, N.J.: D. Van Nostrand, 1961), p. 16, writes:

We do not turn aside from what we know about astronomy at any time because there is a great deal we do not know, or because so much that we once thought we knew is no longer recognized as true. May not the same argument be accepted in our thinking about ethical and esthetic judgments?

[7]Joseph Cropsey, “A Reply to Rothman,” American Political Science Review (June 1962): 355. As Henry Veatch writes, in For an Ontology of Morals, pp. 7–8:

Moreover, it is in virtue of a thing’s nature—i.e., of its being the kind of thing that it is—that it acts and behaves the way it does. Is it not also in virtue of a thing’s nature that we often consider ourselves able to judge what that thing might or could be, but perhaps isn’t? A plant, for example, may be seen to be underdeveloped or stunted in its growth. A bird with an injured wing is quite obviously not able to fly as well as others of the same species. . . . And so it is that a thing’s nature may be thought of as bring not merely that in virtue of which the thing acts or behaves in the way it does, but also as a sort of standard in terms of which we judge whether the thing’s action or behavior is all that is might have been or could have been.

[8]For a similar approach to the meaning of goodness, see Peter Geach, “Good and Evil,” in Philippa R. Foot, ed., Theories of Ethics (London: Oxford University Press, 1967), pp. 74–82).

[9]Contrast John Wild, in "Natural Law and Modern Ethical Theory," Ethics October 1952): 2, who says:

Realistic ethics is founded on the basic distinction between human need and uncriticized individual desire or pleasure, a distinction not found in modern utilitarianism. The basic concepts of so-called "naturalistic" theories are psychological, whereas those of realism are existential and ontological.

[10]William J. Kenealy, S.J., "The Majesty of the Law," Loyola Law Review (1949–50): 112–13; reprinted in Brendan F. Brown, ed., The Natural Law Reader (New York: Oceana, 1960), p. 123.

[11]Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England, Book 1: quoted in Brown, Natural Law Reader, p. 106.

[12]Carmichael, “Absolutes,” p. 9.

[13]Wild, “Natural Law,” pp. 4—5. Wild continues on p. 11:

Existence is . . . not a property but a structuralized activity. Such activities are a kind of fact. They can be observed and described by judgments that are true or false: human life needs material artifacts; technological endeavors need rational guidance; the child has cognitive faculties that need education. Value statements are founded on the directly verifiable fact of tendency or need. The value or realization is required not merely by us but by the existent tendency for its completion. From a sound description and analysis of the given tendency we can infer the value founded upon it. This is why we do not say that moral principles are mere statements of fact, but rather that they are "founded" on facts.

On pp. 2–4, Wild says:

The ethics of natural law . . . recognizes prescriptive moral laws but asserts that these are founded on tendential facts which may be described. . . . Goodness . . . must . . . be conceived dynamically as an existential mode, the realization of natural tendency. In this view, the world is not made up of determinate structures alone, but of determinate structures in an act of existing which they determine toward further appropriate acts of existing. . . . No determinate structure can be given existence without determining active tendencies. When such a tendency is fulfilled in accordance with natural law, the entity is said to be in a stable, healthy, or sound condition—adjectives of value. When it is obstructed or distorted, the entity is said to be in an unstable, diseased or unsound condition—adjectives of disvalue. Goodness and badness in their ontological sense are not phases of abstract structure, but rather modes of existence, ways in which the existential tendencies determined by such structures are either fulfilled or barely sustained in a deprived, distorted state.

[14]Ibid., p. 12. For more on a defense of natural law ethics, see John Wild, Plato's Modern Enemies and the Theory of Natural Law (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1953); Henry Veatch, Rational Man: A Modern Interpretation of Aristotelian Ethics (Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1962); and Veatch, For An Ontology of Morals.

[15]Hume in fact failed to prove that values cannot be derived from facts. It is frequently alleged that nothing can be in the conclusion of an argument which was not in one of the premises; and that therefore, an "ought" conclusion cannot follow from descriptive premises. But a conclusion follows from both premises taken together; the "ought" need not be present in either one of the premises so long as it has been validly deduced. To say that it cannot be so deduced simply begs the question. See Philippa R. Foot, Virtues and Vices (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978), pp. 99–105.

[16]A. Kenneth Hesselberg, "Hume, Natural Law and Justice," Duquesne Review (Spring 1961): 46–47.


[18]David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, quoted in Hesselberg, "Hume, Natural Law, and Justice," p. 61. Hesselberg adds perceptively that Hume's sharp ought-is dichotomy in the earlier chapters of Hume's Treatise stemmed from his restricting the meaning of “reason” to finding pleasure—pain objects, and determining the means to achieve them. But, in the later chapters on justice, the very nature of the concept compelled Hume “to assign a third role to reason, namely its power to judge actions in terms of their suitability, or conformity or disconformity, to man’s social nature, and thus paved the way for the return to a natural law concept of justice.” Ibid., pp. 61–62.

     For some doubt whether or not Hume himself intended to assert the fact-value dichotomy, see A.C. MacIntyre, “Hume on ‘Is’ and ‘Ought,” in W.D. Hudson, ed., The Is-Ought Question (London: Macmillan, 1969), pp. 35—50.

[19]George P. Grant, “Plato and Popper,” The Canadian Journal of Economics and Political Science (May 1954): 191–92.

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