My Natural Right Problem - Expanded

When thinking about the problem of Natural Right, I have to confess that I am only beginning to get a grasp of this problem. As I see it, the fundamental crisis of belief in Natural Right is more radical than just doubts as to what is naturally right or right by nature, but the very existence of any law that is not conventional, based on custom, practice, or tradition, or even arbitrary fiat. This particular articulation of my thoughts regarding the matter must be taken as provisional, since my aim is to get it as good as I possibly can. To that end, I am putting it out there for any and all criticisms.

When I read “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal” etc., I am struck with a question. The question is one of supreme importance, since as an American, I have a vested interest, not only for my benefit, but for my cultural identity as such. My question is “says who?” I hate asking that. I want to believe it to be true, but I am compelled to seek after the basis for such a claim. I want to hold these truths to be self evident, and I am embarrassed that I do not. I am driven to find the founders’ reasoning behind such a claim. I believe I have come across some help from reading Leo Strauss’ Natural Right and History. It has given me, if not a solution, certainly a start at attempting to grasp the problem, which to my limited mind is very troublesome indeed.

Whether this position is adequate or not, I will ask you to imagine a very primitive society that is ruled by some kind of law, however primitive you like. It draws its justification on the idea that custom and time has made it true, demonstrated it to be true, whatever you like. This is custom (nomos). Custom comes first. As the law is changed, there becomes a certain kind of skill in making laws that are more efficient, more effective, etc. This skill can be found in other growing enterprises of the community, such as house building, farming methods, hunting, war, etc. An idea of art (techne) begins to manifest itself, and we see now two concepts beginning to come into awareness – custom and art. Take farming as an example: a farmer learns new methods to further ensure a good crop. If he plants the seeds into the ground, chance will play a large role in the development in the growth of these seeds. One begins to become aware of something resembling nature (physis), which is a process of growth toward maturity (telos). If one plants a seed, one may ignore it and leave it to chance, one may actively try to kill it or stunt it, or one may cultivate it. The emergence of nature as the way something is supposed to go toward a maturity shows itself and nature is discovered. Keep in mind that while custom and art are first used by man, nature obviously comes first, since it abides with or without man being aware of it. Nature comes to light, as just about anything else, in the light of something else. We can better understand dry land and open air because of their differences, but understand them even better when we are aware of water. I wonder if a fish is aware of water if he never gets out of it.

Nature, as I am using it and will continue to use it, shouldn’t be understood as anything but a default process, a process of growth toward maturity. If a tree is planted and allowed to grow but is weighed down or hacked at a certain height, anyone would agree upon seeing it that it was a mutilated tree, and an idea of how the tree should have developed will present itself in their minds. Nature is the being of becoming, a process of growth or emergence that is always the same for each thing. The path between the start and the maturity (not the finish or end point) is nature, the process of becoming that is always the same. One may cultivate a thing and give it every possible help toward its maturity, caring for it, seeing that it gets what it needs to mature toward the best mature thing it can become.

Reason can be cultivated - and reason is a very great thing, but it needn’t be complex - seeing something of causality and experience leads to that cultivation, however minor, of reason. Immediately reason is employed toward whatever man seeks for himself. This is pleasure. As much as I hate to say that man seeks after pleasure, it is inescapable. The pursuit of pleasure is divided between actively pursuing pleasure and also avoiding pain. Further, man seeks after utility, or convenience for increasing the duration, profundity, frequency, etc. of his pleasures and avoiding his pains as best he can. Man pursues what is considered by convention to be good or noble not for its own sake, but for the good that accompanies a reputation for being noble. No amount of money can buy the genuine applause of others for being noble, and that praise and regard is intrinsically pleasing. It feels good to be liked and respected for being a good person. The pleasures that are of the highest dignity are those pleasures that are independent of other people, and they are the purest and most lasting. The highest of these is wisdom and the active contemplation of such wisdom. I provisionally call this activity “thinking”. To know that one knows how to do something is a pleasure that, once had, continues so long as one employs such knowledge. Imagine how pleased you were when you understood algebra or how to garden well, or rebuild an engine, or how the circulatory system worked. These pleasures do not require a partner, a multitude, or money or goods to enjoy. Just remember the magnitude of the pleasure that comes even with imagining something. Thinking is not merely pleasing, it is the most pleasing activity of man, especially when it is done well, or done as best as possible, regardless of accomplishment of the objects of thinking, and the best pleasures will come from the highest kind of thinking, and this is happiness.

Just as a plant has a nature and a maturity, so does a human being. A human being, when left to chance, will grow and develop, but stunted, maimed, or killed, that growth will slow or stop and never reach its potential of full development. In order for such development to occur, man’s nature must be cultivated with the utmost care. One may object that such a view is outdated, or untenable, but if one looks at a doctor and a doctor’s art, one sees that the doctor, because he has knowledge of parts of man’s nature or process of growth is able to help man get back on course in his development. Granted, this is only a part. The physical aspect of man’s nature isn’t the whole of man’s nature. Let these other aspects of man’s nature be called virtues or vices – things like courage, moderation, justice, and wisdom. When a doctor speaks of illnesses, he is speaking of dysfunctioning or malfunctioning capacities. He is making judgments; factual judgments when speaking of blindness or cancer, and value judgments if he wants to correct these states because he knows them to be defects. To say a baby is blind and this is why a baby is blind is one thing, but to say that this baby is blind and I want to help it quite another. To believe that blindness is undesirable is a value judgment. I have no problem with value judgments, and neither should you, because it is obviously part of our nature to make them and live by them. No one would want a doctor that didn’t care about their child’s blindness; they would want a doctor that was capable, to be sure, but they would want this same one to want to help their child because blindness is not good if it can be helped. I in no way mean to disparage the blind. It is obvious that knowledge about parts of man’s nature is accessible to man’s unassisted reason, such as medicine and health, and examples like Plato and Aristotle to name only two have sufficient knowledge of the other parts of man’s nature to offer satisfying accounts of his longings and tendencies. The culmination of man’s nature lies in the culmination of his natural faculties or powers as best as he can. This is man’s completion or purpose or maturity in the fullest sense.

Such maturity of man’s natural abilities is but a means to an end. The question arises as to what one should do with them once they are attained. We cannot help but admire men and women who have cultivated their natural abilities to a high degree. It is impressive. The obvious question is and will likely always be “What is the best life?” and we immediately see that wisdom of all things is required to answer this question. Since our knowledge is defective, our answer is and always will be defective until we arrive at perfect knowledge, which is very probably impossible. The best life is the life in pursuit of wisdom, since wisdom is needed to answer the question. If one were to find the answer after perfect wisdom was attained, one would still need wisdom to know how to live well, to accomplish the newly discovered end, etc. Either way you slice it, wisdom is needed and is the most important goal in living. Further, we have already mentioned that wisdom is most pleasing. Wisdom consists in learning the permanent fundamental problems of man’s existence. Ideas such as love, friendship, justice, beauty, politics, art, nature, etc. are always with man and as long as man exists, they will have these ideas with them. It is amazing to see how little our notions of these things have changed. Friends are still valued, trusted, and loved as friends, love still drives men to do noble and base deeds, and beauty is still appreciated according to past ideas. When we learn these problems in their fullness, we can administer to man in satisfying ways to help their natures reach maturity. Such knowledge is part of wisdom, and knowledge of how best to administer such knowledge is also part of wisdom.

If a wise man who knew these parts of man’s nature and knew what I needed and wanted better than I did, because my desires are subject to my knowledge of what I believe I want, and my knowledge would likely be mistaken, but if this man really knew what was best for me, and I knew he knew what was best for me, I would be either stupid or irrational to reject his suggestions. I am not always rational, however. I have irrational beliefs, I have irrational desires, and I am stubborn. Only through luck or supreme effort and concentration do I act rationally. Human beings are no less irrational. Among them, I may claim to be more rational than the bulk of human beings, but by no means among the most rational, not to say smart. I cannot be counted on to consistently do what is in my best interest. I recognize this as a shortcoming. I rely on myths to guide me, until I realize they are myths. These myths may have been helpful and may have even been fulfilling to me on very deep levels, but when I become aware that they are myths, I will no longer believe them as I did before, and because of that, they will become necessarily less satisfying, and I may even come to resent them. I will then hopefully be guided toward genuine knowledge of the truth and pursue or act upon it. Through myths I will subjugate (or even sublimate) my own desires in service to what I believe to be true and good for me. Knowing and believing are not the same, just as knowing that I know something is much more certain and satisfying than believing that I know something.

To my knowledge, there is no word for nature in the Semitic languages before the artificial introduction of such a term. Wisdom is universally regarded as a good thing, and in the Hebrew bible it is second to fear of the Lord. Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and it must come first. There is no natural standard for the custom or convention or law, but God. The first commandment is “I am the Lord thy God. You shall have no other gods before me.” God is the basis for the law. Hammurabi’s code is based in the authority of Hammurabi, which is given by the chief god Marduk.

Because of the geographical constraints of India, livestock farming becomes an impossibility, so the necessity for keeping cows alive to produce milk for food becomes good for man here, since it is the best way possible to help them develop toward their maturity. Starvation would make such a development impossible. A myth is required to keep the unreasonable from killing the few cows. We begin to see rational reasons for strange (to us) conventions.

Knowledge of nature is required for knowledge of natural right. Knowledge of nature presupposes reason. Without reason and knowledge of nature, natural right will not be discovered. One must transcend art and convention to discover nature.

We begin to see that since people tend to be irrational, stubborn, and willful, we also cannot help but notice that the force of necessity makes a perfectly just society perfectly impossible. Doing what is according to nature would be the most pleasing for its own sake and for our own sake, but it would not require compulsion if we were all perfectly rational. Compulsion seems to be against nature, since doing what our nature requires would not be painful or violent, and compulsion is both of these things and is a decisive component of custom or law.

Justice comes to light, at least provisionally, as the best possible good for the most people possible, given the circumstances.

entropy Responded:

Your taste for the natural disgusts me...

There is nothing that is by nature right. Nature doesn't care about you, and nature may not even exist. Everything is in flux. How can you say so confidently that nature exists, or that man possesses this faculty called "reason"? Doesn't it feel dishonest?

There are no self-evident truths, otherwise everyone everywhere, so long as this "reason" was available and accessible to man as man, would also hold these "truths" to be self-evident. It is always a man or group of men who say what is right that dictates what should be done. In reality, since everything is in flux, there is no right or wrong, so don't worry about your "Natural Right Problem".

Further, there is no "best way of life". There is only "life". We know there is no natural justice, for justice is man-made. To say there is a best life means you know what it is. Do you know what it is? Who can say? We all have different tastes, and so we will always have different "bests", which means no "best" life.

Does your argument not seem to depend on God or gods? God(s) give purpose, but nature is indifferent.

Response to entropy:

My taste for the natural delights me...

I read your comment with delight. I am pleased that my little attempt at the problem prompted some response. I will give it the attention that it deserves, along with my thanks. You have lifted me up from the mundane hum of existence and reminded me that I have neglected my duties regarding this fundamental problem.

Any errors in this explanation are entirely my own and due solely to my sluggishness, stupidity, or misunderstanding.

I am not personifying nature, so I don’t want to give you the impression that I think it cares for me, you, mankind, or even itself. Nature, as I use it, is a process, not a consciousness or even really a force. I apologize if I made it seem that way. Nature – understood as a process of growth – does exist, doesn’t it? How can it not? Do we not see with our eyes a phenomenon of plants growing, puppies becoming dogs, etc.? I am at pains to think of a simpler way of explaining this. Further, I don’t believe that everything is in flux. This process seems to be pretty consistent through time, and it seems more reasonable (if you’ll forgive the word) to believe that nature (as a process, if not THE process, of growth) abides through time. I also mentioned earlier that this process will continue as it always does and has, all other things being equal, unless acted on by something that interferes with it. I am sorry if this wasn’t clear. I believe it is obvious. It seems certainly more obvious that saying that everything is in flux.

Since man can look at nature and see this process, interact with it, subvert, pervert, or invert it, it seems that it does exist, and that man can (at the very least partially) understand it. This faculty that can understand nature, among other things, I call reason. Imagine reason however you like, as logos, speech, ratio, whatever you like, because all of these particular names give us an insight to the faculty itself. Logos as discussion, speech, or account is helpful to see how it depends upon a description of something, not just for our benefit but for others who share in speech or discussion, and ratio as seen as measuring, calculating, and comparing. Do we lack such faculties, all united to superlative degrees in this one beautiful English word? How can we? That I am communicating with you right now to any degree at all seems to refute the assertion that reason does not exist. Even if you don’t understand every nuance of my message, you understand that I believe nature exists, that I don’t think everything is in flux, and that I have a difficulty with understanding something I call natural right.

This is not the whole of reason by any means, and I don’t want you to think I equate reason with mere communication and measuring. Such a limited definition fits my conception of science but not reason, since reason transcends science, and not the other way around. But this is surely not yet the place for such a discussion.

Now, what is meant by “Right by nature”? I will have to reformulate my meanings and avoid the word “right”…
Does man as man have a nature? (Yes, see above.)
Since man has a nature, what is his nature’s maturity?
Man’s maturity lies in cultivating his excellence.
How do I reach this maturity? I reach this maturity by avoiding mutilation and other stunting influences (whatever they may be, and such a discussion will be long, but the ultimate end of the conversation would be something to the effect that the maturity of a human being involves his excellence as a human being as a human being, not a defective human being, or an Irish human being, or a female human being, or a god-fearing human being), and reach it to a higher degree by seeking out cultivating (intrinsically edifying) influences, I should look to the most needful of excellences to understand what is best. The most needful is wisdom. Wisdom is needful for a complete understanding of what the best life is, so wisdom needs cultivation. We cultivate wisdom through reason. A life seeking after wisdom is in accord with nature, and puts man in a position to know what is good for himself and others as human beings. I suppose an easier way to say all of that and so much more is “What is the best regime?” Wisdom enables us to attempt answers to this question. Others, since they share the same nature, can cultivate their reason to a high degree and participate in the good also. A society cultivating their individual excellences will cultivate their communal excellences, too. Take the example of reason as the individual excellence, and by cultivating it, there are certain inescapable conclusions that will make other things clear, like we as human beings do so much better by being social animals rather than solitary animals. The reason for this might be that we really are social animals by nature. Anyway, this meandering rabbit hole is getting me annoyed, so I will say simply that what is in accordance with our default process of growth is best.

But the best is rarely possible. When conditions like geography come into the fore, the best may become impossible. This is ok, since what is in accordance with nature doesn’t mean hard and fast rules that cannot be broken, but instead means that best means best possible in practice, but for understanding the limitations of the existing regime, we must look at what is the best simply and compare all regimes to it to see the shortcomings and how better to fix problems. The best simply may never exist in reality, but this is not discouraging by any means! That we can imagine the best simply is proof of reason, nature, telos, and idea.

Whew. I will try to be briefer. Please forgive me. Everything being in flux is an attractive statement, but I wonder if it is true. Surely there are things that are in flux, but philosophy and reason are used to transcend what is in flux. I mean, there is a logical argument that blows this right out of the water… if everything is in flux, how do we know that everything is in flux since if everything was in flux we would not grasp the flux. This is merely academic and unsatisfying. We know certain things that are not in flux. We know how to make a shoe or build a house, and we know how to do these things well. A shoemaker that is a master shoemaker can make very good shoes and also bad shoes. His art is not in flux, but is controlled. Things change, but not everything.

Because external conditions arise and limit the cultivation of reason (geography, wars, scarcity, opulence, selfish desire, stubbornness, etc.), self-evident truths that are discoverable by reason may not become self-evident and reason may not be fully or even well-cultivated by human beings under the oppression of the above-mentioned vices or disadvantages. I addressed this earlier.

I think we can all agree that to make hard and fast rules is an exercise in futility if we want to be purely reasonable. Exceptions arise, I do not deny it. Unfortunately, there are people who want to go against reason for the above reasons and more, and they require a limiting agent (we tentatively may call them laws) to keep them from ruining everything for everyone else. A legislator becomes a great benefactor, even in a tyranny, if he limits human freedom for human excellence. If this point needs clarification, please let me know.

Tastes are not opinions. Opinions are capable of being flat wrong. Opinions need to be informed. Reason informs opinions. Right opinion is needful. Right opinion will inform tastes. I will also say that I agree that justice is not simply natural, but injustice is, and we naturally long for justice and naturally (through art) make justice. I’ll go with that, but that doesn’t refute anything I’ve said. I thought I hinted at that in the first post. Justice is conventional if we see it as lawmaking. Done well, it is conventional and art. Surely no one will disagree that penalties are artificial. But there are natural consequences to unjust acts, too. Are we not worried that our teeth may be forcibly modified by someone we cheat?

The beautiful thing about reason is that it is accessible to man as man, and while some will say that it is informed or completed by God, I will add that it doesn’t require God’s voice to be convincing. Perhaps to some, God’s voice is required to make it obeyed or even heard, but is it really convincing? There’s the rub.

Again, I’m happy you posted, I’m happy you brought up difficulties, and I hope I addressed them. If not, and even if I did, please post again. I enjoy these little chin-wags, since they are avenues toward the best life, even if you don’t believe there is one.