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THE FOUNDATIONS OF NATURAL MORALITY

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By S. Adam Seagrave

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The Montréal Review, May 2015

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"This is an extraordinary book, combining very original work in history of philosophy with very original work in political philosophy itself to produce striking new answers to some very old questions."

--Michael Zuckert, University of Notre Dame

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It is difficult to view the intellectual trends of the past 50 years—or even the past 200 years, for that matter—alongside the argument of this book without thinking that this argument is either hopelessly anachronistic or especially timely. As the author, I hope it is the latter.

I argue that natural rights and the natural law exist, and that they exist in harmony with one another because they are both derived from our common human nature. This argument strikes a resounding chord, I think, in the basic opinions of most ordinary people. People tend to think that they possess a special dignity that follows from their humanity—i.e., natural rights—and also that human beings should generally act in accordance with their best judgment rather than the blind passions or narrow interests of a moment—i.e., in accordance with the natural law.  

These are ideas that matter deeply to most people in one form or another. It is difficult to make sense of our identities as individual human beings without drawing on the ideas of natural rights and the natural law in some way. The resonance of these ideas jars badly, however, with significant intellectual and cultural trends whose seeds were planted long ago but whose growth has seemed to accelerate in the past century. The crux of these trends as they are relevant to natural rights and the natural law is this: human nature does not exist.

This line of thought originated in the philosophical nominalism most commonly associated with William of Ockham, received powerful reinforcement from the Enlightenment’s rejection of formal and final causality in nature, and was vindicated by Darwin’s theory of biological evolution. As Darwin put it in The Origin of Species, “The term species thus comes to be a mere useless abstraction,” a name “arbitrarily given, for the sake of convenience, to a set of individuals closely resembling each other.” There is no such thing as human nature, and therefore there are no human beings—only individuals to whom we arbitrarily give the name “human” for the sake of convenience.

As they became progressively freed of the constraining moral shadow of human nature, human societies in the twentieth century prosecuted and witnessed some of the most shocking spectacles of inhumanity and tragedy in human history: World War I, the Holocaust, the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Soviet Gulags. In his recent book Politics Without Vision: Thinking Without a Banister in the Twentieth Century, prominent political theorist Tracy Strong traces “a general collapse of the possibility of transcendental moral standards,” and argues that “to the degree that moral principles are derived not from this world but from something beyond it…the events of the twentieth century have made the belief in or the acceptance of such principles impossible for any person who faces the world as it has shown itself.”

In light of this historical trajectory and our current situation within it, it seems that the persistent intuition of many that our humanity serves as a source for moral standards constitutes, in Tocqueville’s eloquent phrasing, “one of those sterile beliefs that the past bequeaths to the present and that seem more to vegetate deep in in the soul than to live.” This belief does, though, continue to “vegetate” in spite of the forces arrayed toward its destruction because it is so strongly confirmed by our ordinary experience of ourselves and of the world around us. Towering intellectual achievements and momentous events (particularly apt examples might be Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil and Nazism) provide shocking challenges, but even these have not successfully effaced widespread—if usually latent and often unacknowledged—belief in natural moral standards.

This is because human nature is not only a “transcendental” or external standard, but also an integral, internal component of the individual human being; and because, as James Madison eloquently explains in Federalist 55, this human nature is not itself a simple entity: “As there is a degree of depravity in mankind which requires a certain degree of circumspection and distrust, so there are other qualities in human nature which justify a certain portion of esteem and confidence.” These considerations speak against the famous woody metaphors associated with the twentieth-century political philosophers Isaiah Berlin and Hannah Arendt: the “banister” of human nature is not merely an external crutch, and the “timber of humanity” is not entirely “crooked.” The modern, post-modern and contemporary eras have indeed contributed original insights, but the reports of their demolition of pre-modern ideas of human nature have been greatly exaggerated.

In light of this more nuanced assessment of recent developments, my book aims to clarify, unite, strengthen, and revivify belief in natural moral standards; to enable the ideas associated with such standards to live in philosophy, culture and politics rather than vegetate in the undisturbed recesses of our minds. Reversing centuries of intellectual historical trends and widespread assumptions is, needless to say, not an easy task. But if such a reversal is possible, the realm of morality is the place to start. It is in this area that the skeptical, anti-foundationalist or nihilist positions regarding the nonexistence of human nature appear the most dubious and contrary to both lived experience and deeply-held convictions.

Human nature has its crooked banisters but also its solid pillars; the trick lies in discerning and building upon the latter so as to counteract the infirmities of the former. The ideas of natural rights and the natural law I attempt to explain and unite constitute, in my opinion and that of many others throughout intellectual history, crucial examples of such pillars. This book represents a starting point for recovering them from the rubble of recent intellectual developments so that they might enrich and inform public discourse in the twenty-first century.

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S. Adam Seagrave is assistant professor of political science at Northern Illinois University.

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