Angilbert (fl. ca. 840/50), On the Battle Which was Fought at Fontenoy

The Law of Christians is broken,
Blood by the hands of hell profusely shed like rain,
And the throat of Cerberus bellows songs of joy.

Angelbertus, Versus de Bella que fuit acta Fontaneto

Fracta est lex christianorum
Sanguinis proluvio, unde manus inferorum,
gaudet gula Cerberi.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Natural Law's Modern Cousin Germain: Hume's on Our Side?

AN ENTIRE SECTION OF CHAPTER 2 of the First Part of John Finnis's Natural Law and Natural Rights is devoted to Hume's "naturalistic fallacy" as the latter stated it in his A Treatise of Human Nature. These famous words, the supposed bane of every natural law jurisprude, are written here in toto:

In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remarked, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary way of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when of a sudden I am surprised to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is, however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, it is necessary that it should be observed and explained; and at the same time that a reason should be given, for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it. But as authors do not commonly use this precaution, I shall presume to recommend it to the readers; and am persuaded, that this small attention would subvert all the vulgar systems of morality, and let us see, that the distinction of vice and virtue is not founded merely on the relations of objects, nor is perceived by reason.

Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, III.i.1.* This frequently-quoted passage comes at the end of a section, representing a coda, a summarization or reprise, of the prior thought.

What is remarkable is that the passage does not appear to direct itself to nature, even human nature (unless human nature were to be defined as entirely speculative reason) as a source of moral value. In fact, it comes at the end of Hume's argument that speculative reason (as distinguished from practical reason) has nothing to do with morality because speculative reason is concerned with "is" whereas actions are moved largely by passions, sentiments, and desires. It would appear that these faculties (passions, sentiments, and desires) are more similar to, though certainly not identical with, what a natural law philosophy might consider something close inclinations or "intellectual feltness,"** or at least part of the human entelechy of human nature that ought to be considered part of the greater whole of human nature. The section itself is entitled by Hume as follows: "Moral distinctions not derived from reason."***

Hume's point seems to be that the mind has only perceptions, and that these are of two kinds: ideas and impressions. He asks whether either ideas or impressions in the mind are able to distinguish between virtue and vice and to determine good from evil. In answering the question, Hume rejects any notion of "conformity to reason" as being the "measures of right and wrong," for the simple reason that it presupposes the opinion "that morality, like truth, is discerned by ideas, and by their juxtaposition and comparison." In fact, Hume rejects the notion that reason (which the context reveals he understands as "speculative" reason alone) has anything to do with governing passions, unlike morals which may have a role. "Reason of itself is utterly impotent in this particular [to excite passions, or produce or prevent actions]. The rules of morality, therefore, are not conclusions of reason." (Elsewhere, he famously states: "It is not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger." II.iii.3.) Moreover, since reason is an inactive faculty, a "perfectly inert" faculty, and passions and action obviously an active matter, it follows logically that reason has nothing to do with morals. "An active principle can never be founded on an inactive." This also follows because, according to Hume, reason relates to truth or falsehood. And "passions, volitions, and actions," unlike speculative truths, "are not susceptible of any such agreement or disagreement" with real relations or with the relations of ideas to existence or to facts. Passions, volitions, and actions are not true or false, which is what reason is preoccupied with. "Actions may be laudable or blameable; but they cannot be reasonable. Laudable or blameable, therefore, are not the same with reasonable or unreasonable." Indeed, "upon the whole, it is impossible, that the distinction betwixt moral good and evil, can be made to reason." The source of the laud or the blame must be elsewhere other than speculative reason.

Even though this Humean paragraph palpably deals with speculative reason as a source of morality, the opponents of the natural law have recruited the paragraph to accuse advocates of the natural moral law who rely on a broader nature (which in the case of man includes his particularly rational nature, and understands reason more broadly to include both speculative components--which aim for truth--and more importantly for morality practical components--which aim for good--and which include inclinations) of the "naturalistic fallacy." It does not seem fair to be flogged with a whip that was designed for someone else. But all's fair in love, war, philosophy, and especially ideology.

Nevertheless, as Finnis points out, the final paragraph of this section does establish what seems to be abstractly a valid enough, and hardly revolutionary, principle:
Hume [announces] the logical truth, widely emphasized since the later part of the nineteenth century, that no set of non-moral (or, more generally, non-evaluative) premisses can entail a moral (or evaluative) conclusion.
NLNR, 37.

Samuel Clarke, Hume's Real Target

As Finnis also notes, this passage, though it asserts a principle that is logically true, may be less an attack on advocates of classical natural law than an attack on eighteenth-century rationalists, in particular, Samuel Clarke (1675-1729). And indeed, it may in fact be an attack on those who neglect nature and its sound inclination (which may be part of what Hume calls the trilogy of "passions, volitions, and actions").*** It is, at least within its historical context, an attack on moral rationalism alone, a rationalism that does not give weight to natural inclinations, and tries to built a theory of morality based upon speculative reason alone, neglecting human nature's more extensive qualities of practical reason, sound inclinations, and natural teleologies. According to Hume, speculative reason alone cannot distinguish between an acorn growing from a sapling into a large oak and killing its parent and parricide. Speculative reason alone cannot distinguish between the coupling between dogs in a litter and incest between a brother and sister. The "relations" between oak and acorn, child and father, between the male and female of a litter, brother and sister are the same. Yet, as Hume himself recognizes, the moral circumstances between these relations are palpably different, the similar relation withal. Sound inclination in both cases finds parricide and incest among humans morally intolerable.

Now whether it is true or not that Hume's suggestion that speculative reason alone cannot establish the enormity of parricide or incest is besides the point. The point is that he was not taking aim at classical natural law theories, but was taking aim at hyper-rationalistic theories, corruption of the classical theories, like those developed by the Anglican divines Ralph Cudworth (1617-1688), Samuel Clarke (1675-1729), and Joseph Butler (1692-1752) who, enamored with Newtonian physics, sought to have mathematically precise moral theories based upon reason alone, and theories, moreover, that ignored nature and its inclinations.† These were Protestant Christian versions of morals ad more geometrico.

In fact, it appears that Hume's principal target in this section seems to have been Samuel Clarke's work with a rather cumbersome title, A Discourse concerning the Unchangeable Obligations of Natural Religion, and the Truth and Certainty of Christian Revelation (herein Discourse). A comparison of what Clarke taught and Hume's wording in this section make it rather apparent that he was criticizing--not classical natural law--but natural law a la Clarke.

Samuel Clarke, an Anglican cleric (he was rector of St. James Westminster from his appointment in 1705 to his death in 1729), was influenced by Descartes, with whom he had a sort of love-hate relationship. Clarke appeared to have accepted a Cartesian distrust of senses as the source of ultimate knowledge. He seems also to have accepted a Cartesian dualism between body and soul: mind is mind, matter is matter, and never the twain shall meet but by a form of fortuitous occasionalism. But if his relationship with Descartes was mixed, his relationship with Newton was quite a relationship of love and devotion. Clarke was an unflagging advocate of Newton, and a great supporter of Newton's physical and mathematical thought. He was perhaps best known for his correspondence with Leibniz on the matter of Locke, Newton, and English philosophy in general.

Clarke's thoughts on moral philosophy are concentrated in the second of his Boyle Lectures (delivered in 1705) which were later published as the Discourse. The Discourse is organized around a set of fifteen propositions. As Clarke summarized his ethical work, he "endeavoured to deduce the original obligations of morality, from the necessary and eternal reason and proportions of things." NLNR, 38-39. It is important to point out that Clarke did not look and man's nature as a source of "original obligations of morality," but looked at something that he called the "eternal different relations, that different things bear to one another." It is the relations of things, and in particular the fitness of things which was the source of moral obligation. Therefor it was the fitness of things that for Clarke was the source of moral law. It was a curious, rather vague theory, not particularly a classical natural law theory at all. There is nothing in Clarke's theory of practical reasoning or of inclinations. His aim was to construct a theory of morals that was exact, to build something in morals similar to what Newton had effected in mathematics or in physics. And he obviously confused speculative reason and practical reason.

In his quirky ethical theory, Clarke†† starts with the difference of things:

That there are differences of things, and different relations, respects or proportions of some things towards others, is as evidence and undeniable as that one magnitude is greater, equal to, or smaller than another.

This is, as it were, the foundation of Clarke's moral theory. It was the "differences of things" that gave rise to duty, that gave rise to law. The law arose from the "properties and relations," in the "proportions," of those different things. The properties and relations and proportions of things were "of eternal necessity," are part of the "things themselves," and so are "absolutely unalterable." Clarke distinguishes between things natural or mathematical (such as figures, numbers, weights, colors, etc.) and things moral (persons, actions, and circumstances), and his moral theory is concerned with things moral, i.e., persons, actions, and circumstances. Ultimately, however, everything comes down to relations between persons. As James Edward LeRossignol††† summarizes it:
Actions are actions of persons, circumstances are circumstances of persons. therefore things moral are in reality only persons, in their various relations to themselves and other persons.
LeRossignol, 37.

Just as the relations and proportions between things natural or mathematical are "eternal and unchangeable" (e.g., the relationship between the area of a circle and its radius is eternally and unchangeable A = πr² or the law that two parallel lines will never enclose a space because they will never meet), so likewise are the proportions and relations among things moral "eternal and unchangeable." Thus there are proportions and relations between persons, actions, and circumstances that are "eternal and unchangeable."

From this base, Clarke introduces another concept: the "fitness of things." There is a certain "fitness" or "agreement or disagreement" of things moral. That is, with respect to the proportions and relations between persons, actions, and circumstances, there is a certain "fitness" or a certain "agreement or disagreement." As Clarke himself says it:

That from these different relations of different things there necessarily arises an agreement or disagreement of some things with others, or a fitness or unfitness of the application of different things or different relations, is likewise as plain as that there is any such thing as proportion in Geometry and Arithmetic, or uniformity or difformity in comparing together the respective figures of bodies.

This "fitness of things," their "agreement or disagreement," is, for Clarke, the moral law. It predates, precedes any human positive law, and no law or opinion of man can change this inherent "fitness " or "agreement or disagreement" in things moral. As LeRossignol describes Clarke's view:
As no law or opinion of men can change the differences of things, so no human law or opinion can in the least degree alter the fitness of things. As things existed before all positive law, institution, or government, so no law or power, not even of an all-powerful Leviathan, can alter the eternal distinctions of right and wrong. So long as things exist, just so long do the fitnesses of things remain unchangeable, as the law of nature to man and the rule which God himself follows in the government of the world.
LeRossignol, 40. There is both a fitness of ends, arising largely from relations between persons, and a fitness of means, and indirect fitness relating to the relationship that actions have to those ends. In this latter view, he seems to brush up against an incipient utilitarianism.

Clarke states that there is a common consensus or common agreement on the relations and proportions in both mathematical and natural realms and in the moral realm. Clarke insists that "the differences, relations and proportions of things both natural and moral, in which all unprejudiced minds thus naturally agree, are certain, unalterable and real in the things themselves." So there ought to be in the uncorrupted and unprejudiced mind similar assents to moral truths as there are to mathematical or natural truths. Thus what is "fitting," what is "agreeable," and what is therefore morally good, is something that is perceivable by reason.

Now what these eternal and unalterable relations, respects, or proportions of things, with their consequent agreements or disagreements, fitnesses, or unfitnesses, absolutely and necessarily are in themselves, that also they appear to be, to the understanding of all intelligent beings; except those only who understand things to be what they are not, that is, whose understandings are either very imperfect or very much depraved.

There are some obvious lacunae in Clarke's thought, the most apparent being that he "nowhere gives a definition of the words fit and fitness," leaving the central part of his moral philosophy also "the most obscure part of his ethical philosophy." LeRossignol, 45-46.

With this most elementary of introduction into Samuel Clarke's notions of relations and fitness (which are the driving forces of his moral theory), it is apparent at once that Hume is referring to Clarke's moral theory in this section of his Treatise. Hume's invocation of Clarke is unmistakable. "Those who affirm that . . . there are eternal fitnesses and unfitnesses of things" are proposing that "morality, like truth, is discerned merely by ideas . . . ." "But . . . to show, that those eternal immutable fitnesses and unfitnesses of things cannot be defended by sound philosophy . . . ." "If . . . the character of virtuous and vicious . . . must lie in some relations of objects . . . ." "There has been an opinion very industriously propagated by certain philosophers, that morality is susceptible to demonstration . . . . to an equal certain with geometry or algebra. Upon this supposition, vice and virtue must consist in some relations . . . ." Hume's focus on the notions of fitness and relations in the matter of morals in this section of his Treatise is a clear reference to Clarke's presentation of his moral theory in the latter's Discourse.

There is then a certain "unfitness of things," if we may be allowed to adopt Clarke's words, when opponents of natural law invoke Hume's argument against someone advocating a theory of morality which is clearly not a classical theory of natural law, and then using that argument (an argument that Hume himself ignored when it served his purposes) against another theory altogether. It is somewhat akin to blaming a grandfather for the faults of his grandchild, and a double bastard grandchild at that.

*I have updated the spelling and spelled out the words that have been contracted.
**The term "intellectual feltness" is my term, and is my best grasp of the notion of inclination, which is something that is based upon the faculty of reason, but is something that is almost impulsive or felt, something fundamental, and ordering, a tendency, an intellectual, if not entirely conceptually rational, entelechy. The subject has been treated in various postings, but one may access the discussion of inclination and natural law in the context of the natural law teachings of Jacques Maritain. See Jacques Maritain and Natural Law: Inclination and Law.
***In natural law literature, reason and human nature are sometimes treated as equivalent terms. Because man's nature is as a rational animal, the term "reason" is used as a synecdoche for human nature as a whole. But the reason that is equated with human nature is something different from mere speculative or theoretical reason (that reason concerned with
truth); rather, it is a reason that incorporates, in addition to the speculative, the practical reason, a reason whose purpose is to grasp the good. The reason that Hume attacks here is speculative reason. For Hume, the practical reason was not the source for determination of good; rather, it was only a means, a "slave of the passions," see Treatise, II.iii.3. It is for this reason that Copleston's assessment (see Note † below) would appear wrong.
****In fact other than pure speculative reason, Hume was suggesting other "mental factors, such as conscience, moral sense, sentiment, and other passions." NLNR, 38, n. 44; Treatise, III.i.1.
Indeed Frederick Copleston, S.J., detected remnants of natural law thinking in Hume behind this critique:
[Hume's] insistence on the original constitution or fabric of human nature suggests that this nature is in some sense the foundation of morality or, in other words, that there is a natural law which is promulgated by reason apprehending human nature in its teleological and dynamic aspect.
Frederick Copleston, History of Philosophy (Westminster, Md: Newman Press, 1959), Vol. 5, 34 (cited in Howard P. Kainz, Natural Law: And Introduction and Re-Examination (Peru, Ill.: Carus Publishing, 2004), 71). As Kainz observes, some more extreme defenders of Hume even call him a "'closet' natural lawyer." Kainz, 71. It is true that, Hume himself would seem to betray his own principle in that he suggests that ethics be "founded on fact and observations" about what sorts of characteristics and actions bring about moral approbation or disapprobation from men. NLNR, 37 n. 42; See An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, § 1. Even though Hume invokes certain aspects of human nature (volition, passions, sentiments) in his moral theory, I certainly would not place the skeptic Hume in the natural law camp, and certainly not in any classical or Thomistic natural law camp. More probable is the view that Hume advocated something similar to the "moral sense" theory of Hutcheson, rather than any concept of natural law. Kainz, 72. Finnis has a very interesting observation on Hume. Not only is Hume inconsistent with his own principle in building Humean "oughts" from "ises," Hume lapses into another fallacy beyond that of reasoning from "is" to "ought." He also seems to confuse "ought" to "will" or "must," that is, that something is morally obliging only if it in fact is forcibly compelling. NLNR, 41 (Those who find the "naturalistic fallacy" argument contained in Hume's words in III.i.1 "should be disconcerted by this manifestation of Hume's indifference to the distinction between the 'forcible' and the 'obligatory', between what ought to move the will and what 'must' (i.e., necessarily does) move it.")
†Clarke's Discourse is available on line at various places, most conveniently as the Christian Classics Ethereal Library. See Discourse.
James Edward LeRossignol, The Ethical Philosophy of Samuel Clarke (G. Kreysing 1892) (hereinafter LeRossignol).
‡Hume himself in other writings expressly confirms this. See NLNR, 38, n. 46.

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