Self-Legislation, Obligation, Natural Law, the State, Evil and Small ‘l’ Liberalism

I herein babble and rant.

In an earlier post, I wrote about freedom, God and self-legislation. I spoke about the transition of thought in how we think about freedom and moral obligation. I noted that some people think of human persons as self-legislators, free from the heteronomous standards and impositions. For them, a person is morally bound and obliged by his individual will alone, for anything else would make him unfree and deny his autonomy. But this idea is wrong. Let me offer some explanation.

To be sure, each person is free to choose his actions, which is a necessary condition of being a moral agent and all the rest; this, I grant. However, that is just to say that moral agency requires freedom for choice; and thus, there can be no physical necessity making him do this or that. Nothing about this idea suggests that moral agency requires freedom from heteronomous moral obligation, for the moral law does not impose on our freedom for choice. Rather, the moral law just legislates what we should choose, not what we will choose.  Thus, on this understanding, we are free to choose the good, or choose otherwise, but we are not necessarily free from heteronomous obligation. Make sense? I hope so.

Now consider the prospects of self-legislation. If a person were free from heteronomous obligation, then that person would be obliged and bound by his own will alone; but that is just to eradicate moral obligation, because a person’s will cannot truly oblige itself. It would be like claiming a person is bound even if he handcuffs himself while still holding the key, an absurd idea. Such a person is not bound—he is free. He merely acts as though he were bound.

Consider a second reason why self-legislation is nonsense. Any act from a person knowingly contrary to his law would not be a violation of his will, for he also willed that contrary act; hence, such a person could not, even in principle, knowingly violate his own laws. But that is just to say that he has no real obligation or prohibition at all. Instead, he can just repeals his laws, acting however he wills. That’s not moral law—that is the abrogation of moral law.

Consequently, if the moral law is self-imposed, then is no moral law. Hence, if moral obligation exists, then it is external—it is heteronomous. Our job, then, if we are to be good persons, is to use our freedom of choice to conform ourselves to this external moral law, presuming that the moral law exists.

Following this presumption, we can ask, from where does this external moral obligation or law come? It can’t come from any other human person, for each man is no greater than any other. Of course, some men might be wiser than others, a moral sage, say, but that is not to say that he is the source of moral obligation itself, but just someone more competent to discern moral obligation. So moral obligation neither comes from oneself nor another human person. What else can we say?

Well, the state is also not the source of moral obligation, for it is just an organization of men, each of whom is no more the source of moral obligation than any other. This not to say that the state has no moral authority, nor that we are not obliged to follows its instructions or dictates in some circumstances, but just that it is not the source of moral obligation itself. Here’s another reason to think so: It is plausible to think that there are moral obligations apart from the state (say, the obligation not to commit an act like the Holocaust), which means that these sort of obligations are prior to the state, existing beyond it. Furthermore, it is also plausible to think that some moral obligations between states must also be prior to any state, for if the state were the source of moral obligation, then it would be difficult to make moral sense of WW2, or virtually any other war between states (Hegelians might say that the the Absolute State solves this problem, but I can’t make sense of that idea). For who would be in the right or wrong? It is nonsense. Instead, it makes much more sense to think that the source of moral obligation is unfounded in any state, human person or group, but is grounded elsewhere.  But where?

Some theorists might say that it rests in or emanates from a contract between persons, groups or states. But is this right? I don’t think so. For if it were, then it would difficult to see how any moral obligation could be inalienable, since that obligation might be renegotiated within a new contract. Thus, any act or resource can be made a matter of obligation or prohibition. Secondly, if we are morally obliged to uphold a contract, then that obligation could not also be part of a contract, lest we pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps. So, I don’t think that contractarianism can account for the moral obligation to honour contracts (presuming that there is one). Thirdly, contractarianism does not account for our moral obligations toward human persons who cannot enter into contractual relations (e.g., the mentally retarded, insane and infants); hence, contractarianism does not seem plausible. Perhaps it can source some moral obligations, but not all.

So what then? I suggest that we source obligation in natural law. On this proposed model, goodness is obtained when we realize or develop our natural ends.  Our natural ends are not contingent upon culture or time, nor the human will or contract. Instead, they are an objective part of what we are as human beings. Our duties, then, on this model, are just those sort of things that nature prescribes to us as necessary for our natural ends, and these ends flow from our nature. Thus, these moral obligations are not contingent upon our will or contract, but exist objectively apart from them. Our job, as men who wish to pursue the good, is to discern, through reason or revelation, what these natural ends are and then conform our wills to their obtainment.

So what then of the state? On this model, man is a social animal with social goods; thence, he should not live in isolation, but in some sort of society. But men and groups cannot secure every good of the common good. Thence, we have the state. The state’s function is to help secure the common good within society, though only doing the work that no individual or community organization can do well on its own (principle of subsidiarity).  For example, the state might enforce laws, protect borders, or ensure some sort of a safety net for the most vulnerable members of society.

Contrary to what some of my conservative brethren think, the state should not be a laissez-faire regarding the moral culture of society, choosing to allow individuals to act and behave however they wish so long as others are unharmed (one might herein ask, what is it to be harmed?). For the behaviour and ideas of others is often not isolated to the private realms, but expands toward the public, scandalizing and deluding other people’s consciences away from the good. Ideas have consequences, after all, those that can frustrate the good and advance evil. Thus, I take no issue to some moral legislation, because it is necessary to fulfill the state’s function to further the common good.

I realize that what I am saying here sounds alarming to libertarians and the don’t-tread-on-me conservatives, because I am talking about moral legislation, but these conservative thinkers prize the wrong sort of freedom. They prize freedom of indifference and choice, though that sort of freedom is only a good so that we can have the freedom for excellence. Alternatively, you might say that the freedom of indifference is a means by which we attain excellence, but not an end to itself (which is how libertarians and their ilk see it). Once they see that it is excellence we should be after, and not maximal avenues of free choice, state involvement seems far less intrusive. So yes, moral legislation can be a good thing, and that might mean that people are coerced within the moral realm.

Sometimes philosophical liberals (small l) remark that while they have moral reservations about some beliefs or actions of others, they grant the political right for them to think and do as they wish, tolerating evil for the sake of their political right (see the last link). No offence, but that is some bullshit. If evil is to tolerated, it is only because doing the contrary would be lead to a greater evil. There is no right to do evil. That’s crazy talk. Political rights are always subordinate to natural law, and so no natural right can be broken for the sake of a political right. Case in point: Abortion. The right to life is the foundational natural right, for all other rights presuppose and depend upon life; hence, if the fetus has a right to life, then the mother’s political right to bodily autonomy, or privacy, promised to her by Roe vs. Wade or R v Morgentaler, take the back seat. Democrats and SJWs use “reproductive rights” as a euphemism to hide the fact that what they are talking about it is a right to kill. Here’s another: Assisted Suicide. If man has a natural right to life, then a man has a duty not kill a human being, including himself, for he is no less a man if he is ill. Likewise, is true for any doctor or professional. Euphemisms such as “Assisted Dying” are sneaky words aimed to hide the fact that these doctors are directly causing death, not merely assisting the process of dying.

I passed 1600 words now, so I’ll stop there and rant again later.

1 Comment

  1. Are you *sure* you’re not giving the libertarian alternative short shrift? It’s a very common occurrence, you know. Set up an imaginary committee of the top 5 libertarian thinkers of all time and see what more-than-minimal govt controls you could get past them. (Assume the top 5 have also read all the other prominent libertarian literature, including e.g. Den Uyl and Rasmussen’s extensive and subtle writings on the relation between Aristotelian perfectionist ethics and non-perfectionist politics. That’s assuming these two thinkers aren’t already among the top 5, of course. Also, the 5 will have read and digested Sciabarra’s totally researched ‘Total Freedom.’ Also, presume familiarity with John Hospers’ pithy Rand-inspired libertarian dictum: “Other men’s lives are not yours to dispose of.” Oh, and good familiarity with “This is John Galt Speaking,” something the Rand-rejecters are shockingly lacking in, as they probably skimmed/skipped over it. Stuff in there about, e.g., force as antithetical to mind/thought. Should I go on?)

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