Is morality rational?

Bonus question: is reason moral?

Matthew asked the following question in response to our discussion of the is-ought problem:

if “there is no rational way to convince me that I ‘ought’ to do anything” then the result is that either I am not compelled to do that thing (adhering strictly to rationality as the basis for action) or I still do that thing independently of what reasons/rationality compels me to do (perhaps out of desire or inclination or external influence). This points to the question of “what is the role of reason?” when it comes to our actions or judgments.

So I wonder in what sense are reasons (or rational justification) relevant to natural law. I haven’t given this much thought but perhaps there might be something to be said about whether or not natural law fits into the “orthodoxy” of moral philosophy which is typically to provide reasons or rational justifications for our judgments about what we ought to do (i.e. moral precepts), from which the is/ought problem arises.

If it is not necessary to provide a rational justification for why we ought to for example, “fulfill our essential nature”, or if somehow this whole enterprise or rational justification is based on a misconception about morality, then it would seem that reason/rationality is not essential to moral knowledge (or moral understanding) according to natural law theory and therefore natural law theory fits outside of the “orthodoxy” of moral philosophy.

Do you think this distinction between natural law theory and “orthodox” moral philosophy exists?

I think the key question is “what is the role of reason?” with regard to actions and judgements.

During my ill-fated PhD studies I took a closer look at the intellectualist perspective of the will, which informs the Natural Law perspective. Aquinas is pretty much the poster-boy of intellectualism, and in his view the will is defined as the appetite for the good as perceived by the intellect. In this sense, we are hard-wired to do whatever the intellect (reason) tells us is good.

What the intellect identifies as good is an open question. A skeptic can become paralysed by moral doubt, genuinely unable to decide what is truly good. An ordinary person might think twice about eating meat after seeing some horrific mistreatment of livestock. A tasty piece of food might suddenly become unappetising when you realise your three year old son dropped it in his potty by accident.

All our choices are underpinned by reasons. But the motive force – what moves us to make choices – comes not from intellect/reason but from will.

The purpose of Natural Law is to straighten out the operation of the intellect so that the goods it presents to the will are genuine goods. In other words, it seeks to ensure that our reasons are rational ones.

But how does the intellect know what is good? Doesn’t that just bring us back to the problem of how the intellect (reason) can determine what is good and what isn’t? Won’t we just get mired in meta-ethical debates at this point?

This is a genuine problem, by which I mean a practical one in addition to a theoretical one. If good means “that which the will desires” but the will desires based on what the intellect tells us, then good must be whatever the intellect determines it to be.

But as we’ve already explained, the intellect cannot reach those kinds of determinations without a given premise. Pure reason gets us nowhere. A pure moral skeptic cannot recognise any criteria for ‘good’, and thus doubt can stymie the will, the appetite for (unknowable) good.

Nonetheless, there is a way out of this cul-de-sac. There isn’t space to turn around, but we can hit reverse and find our way back to the open road.

While it may be true that, starting from scratch, we cannot determine what is good on purely rational grounds, it is also true that we cannot justify “starting from scratch”, nor the demand for purely rational grounds.

In the first instance, this means that Aquinas and his ilk set out not to create a rationalist or skeptical ethical framework from scratch, but to determine through observation how it is that we already make choices, how we already do ethics, and whether we can improve on what we already do.

This is where the analogy to psychology is quite reasonable. Psychologists don’t really know what mental health means as some absolute or refined category. They define it in the context of people’s ordinary lives, where the line between mental health and illness is drawn fairly broadly in terms of whether or not you can get on with living.

It would be a strange and (ironically) an unreasonable step for Aquinas to decide arbitrarily that from today he would start determining good and evil from a purely skeptical premise. He’d have to – to put it crudely – be a real believer in skepticism.

Instead, he took the much more reasonable approach of looking at how people – including himself – already identified things as good or evil, and sought to find clarity in that dynamic. That doesn’t mean he abandoned reason at all, rather, he identified the reason implicit in people’s ethical choices and judgements, and found that it was coherent even if it wasn’t absolute.

That is, there’s a reason why people prefer truth over falsehood, just as they prefer eating bread over eating dirt.

In this sense, the good in its varied forms is something Aquinas discovered through observation and analysis of human behaviour (and reading Aristotle). These goods are rational, which is to say, there is an order and a proportion and an appropriate relationship between the many things consistently and coherently identified as goods.

And the reason behind them can be compelling. But compelling in the hypothetical sense that presumes we all already have this practical ‘natural’ inclination toward certain things as good for us, not compelling in the sense that these reasons can move a skeptic. But then, a skeptic is someone who has chosen to take an immovable position.So I would agree that Natural Law is outside “orthodox” modern moral philosophy, but I think the is-ought problem and the question of rational justification are just symptoms of a deeper problem.The is-ought problem in its historical context was not a response to Natural Law, but to Moral Rationalists. Ironically, the group Hume sided with sound much more like Natural Law theorists:

The moral sense theorists (Shaftesbury and Hutcheson) and Butler see all requirements to pursue goodness and avoid evil as consequent upon human nature, which is so structured that a particular feature of our consciousness (whether moral sense or conscience) evaluates the rest. Hume sides with the moral sense theorists on this question: it is because we are the kinds of creatures we are, with the dispositions we have for pain and pleasure, the kinds of familial and friendly interdependence that make up our life together, and our approvals and disapprovals of these, that we are bound by moral requirements at all.

The ‘deeper problem’ I mention is simply that the approach to ethics changed. I’m not sure if it changed with Descartes, and the more general philosophical revolution, but change it did. As a result, subsequent theories of ethics seem to want to reproduce not Natural Law but Divine Law outside of a religious context.














Dharma and Natural Law

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Law of nature: buddha eat too much, buddha get fat.

In the usual broad strokes, and with unforgivable brevity stemming from a bad mood that is, let’s face it, probably intrinsic, let me kill two birds with one stone and reply to Dtcwee’s comment on the is-ought problem under the guise of presenting an esoteric observation from religious philosophy:

Dharma and Natural Law are basically the same thing.

But only basically, of course. If they were entirely the same thing it would be obvious to everyone. On the other hand, Natural Law alone is not obvious to many people, as evidenced by how people usually respond to my efforts to convey it.

[Either I’m really bad at communicating, or other people are really bad at understanding. Obviously I prefer the latter option, but there’s a third possibility: that the things I’m trying to communicate simply cannot be communicated easily.]

First let’s try to find some examples to cover the is-ought problem as requested.

Let’s say a friend says you ought to buy gold right now. You ask why. He replies “because the price is about to go up”. You reply “so what?” He explains that if you buy gold now, and the price then goes up, you’ll have made money easily.

So what?

Your friend, despite his misgivings, explains that money is not always easy to make, but in this case it will be quite easy to make quite a lot of money.

So what?

Your friend, now thinking you’re trolling him, nonetheless resolves himself to crush your whimsical spirit and proceeds thus: everyone – including you – needs money to live. Without money, you will waste away in poverty and deprivation.

So what?

Oh, so that’s how this is gonna go, is it? Okay, well, poverty and deprivation are horrible and humiliating and painful.

So what?

Well, your former friend says through gritted teeth, you should do whatever you can to avoid horrible, humiliating and painful circumstances.


Because they’re bad!


Well…nobody likes them!

So what?

So you should avoid things you don’t like.


Because….if you don’t, further bad things will happen to you.

So what?

So…eventually you’ll die and everyone will spit on your grave?

So what?

So, that’s a really bad thing to happen to you!


Because…everyone views it as a bad thing.

So what?

So you should too!


Because it’s normal.

So what?

Don’t you want to be normal?

Should I?

Look, we both know that you know all this. You do understand the value of money, and you will follow my advice to buy gold once this tedious argument is over, because you do want to avoid pain, suffering, and humiliation, don’t you?

Yes. But ought I?

Okay, I hope that wasn’t too painful to read, but if you look at it carefully (or maybe it’s obvious) you’ll see that every time the friend makes an ‘is’ statement – a statement about the way the world is – the other guy replies ‘so what?’. Every time the friend makes an ‘ought’ statement – should, ought, or ‘bad’ which implies ought – the reply is ‘why?’

The friend keeps trying to use ‘is’ statements to justify ‘ought’ statements, but he can never really convince the annoying moral skeptic that he ought to do anything.

The discourse does manage to trace the specific ‘ought’ of “you ought to invest in gold right at this moment” back to the more general underlying ‘ought’ of “you ought to act in a way that avoids future pain, suffering, humiliation, etc.”

But that’s as good as it gets for the friend. No matter what he says, he can’t explain to the skeptic why he ought to accept an ought. The skeptic isn’t even convinced by his own desires. He knows he wants to avoid pain, suffering, humiliation etc., but he also knows that he can turn his skepticism against his own wants and desires.

Just because I desire something doesn’t mean i ‘ought’ to do it. Why ought I follow my desires anyway?

There’s no real answer to this question. But that doesn’t mean it’s a good or telling question. All it really shows is that if you choose pure skepticism as a starting point there’s nothing within the limits of skepticism that can take you out of it.

The rules of the game only work if you accept them. The rules do not countenance convincing unwilling people to play the game. Monopoly doesn’t have penalty cards for sullen turds who don’t want to play.  Sure you won’t win the game if you don’t care, but the whole point is that I don’t care, right?

This is actually a pretty good analogy for Natural Law and, while we’re at it, Divine Law and its Eastern counterpart of Dharma.

Dharma is prominent in all Indian religions: Buddhism, Hinduism, Sikhism, and Jainism. Its meaning varies in different contexts, but broadly accumulates around the concept of “cosmic law and order”.

What makes Dharma especially interesting is that in a Buddhist context the word takes on multiple meanings, from the aforementioned “law/order” to the teachings of the Buddha, to a philosophical term for phenomena generally.

This gives it allusions that are analogous to those implicit in Natural Law, once you understand that Nature really refers to essence, the metaphysical principle by which blank existence is informed in the creation of all things.

In other words, both Dharma and Natural Law take on the highest significance when they are viewed as reflections of ‘the way things are’ on the deepest level.

Better still, Dharma in a Buddhist context retains its significance despite the Buddhist emphasis on Sunyata or ’emptiness’ as the ultimate level of reality.  So the impression that Buddhism transcends rules and laws and phenomenal reality is belied not only by the continued recognition of Dharma as having some kind of relevance on a mundane level, but moreso on the depiction of the Buddha’s teaching itself as the Dharma.

Dharma dharma everywhere, nor anything permanent to cling to.

To my mind, this perspective of Dharma keeps morality in the right tone as a part of, firstly, the order of reality, and secondly the path to Enlightenment laid out by the Buddha and his followers.

In other words, it maintains a good balance between morality and metaphysics, a balance that is sometimes lost when we recognise the divine implications of the moral order, and (sometimes) ditch natural law in favour of the easier-to-grasp divine command theory.

I’m sure the same problem occurs in practice in Buddhism: perhaps people become fatalistic or moralistic with regard to Dharma and karmic bonds. In this case, the remedy to both is to remember the ‘order’ of which the law is only one aspect.

Natural law is, after all, the law implicit in the created order, where law is etymologically “something laid down and fixed”, without necessarily conveying the juridical or punitive aspects of law.

Natural law is, as NL theorists never tire of saying, more analogous to “the laws of physics” than to the justice system.

But as with the monopoly example, Natural Law and Dharma are really both the rules of the game. The difference is that you can’t help but play, like it or not.

Some people like to gloat that religious morality or religion itself is a self-interested prospect: that people only follow it because they want to avoid suffering or pursue happiness. That is, of course, the underlying mechanism of the whole game.

And while that might leave religion incapable of convincing the utter skeptic, don’t forget that skepticism itself is a choice, one that cannot be compelled on its own terms either.

Rethinking the Is-Ought problem

From wiki:

Hume also put forward the is–ought problem, later called Hume’s Law, denying the possibility of logically deriving what ought to be from what is. He wrote in the Treatise that in every system of morality he has read, the author begins with stating facts about the world, but then suddenly is always referring to what ought to be the case. Hume demands that a reason should be given for inferring what ought to be the case, from what is the case. This because it “seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others”.

To put it another way, there is no rational way to convince me that I ought to do anything. All such efforts must come down to some presupposition or assumption that cannot be rationally compelling.

For example, though it may be true that human beings desire happiness, it does not follow that they ought to desire happiness, or accede to this desire, or that this desire is therefore good.

Nor that it would be bad or wrong to act against this desire, or to desire unhappiness instead.

The fact that I do desire happiness does not rationally compel me to accept that this desire for happiness has normative power.

This argument can be used against any system of ethics. Or indeed, against any normative statement.

The problem with it is that it attempts to rationalise ethics to a point that neglects or misconstrues what ethics actually is.

Ethics is an applied science that arises only because people desire happiness. If we did not desire happiness, then we would not need ethics. If we had no stake in outcomes, we would not need ethics. If we were purely rational observers, we would not need ethics.

That doesn’t mean we would only act rationally…remember, you can’t get an ought from an is, so even a purely rational being would not be able to convince itself that it ought to act rationally.

Reason is neutral. Human beings are not.

That is why I refer to ethics – by which I mean ideally the Natural Law theory of ethics – as an applied science, applied reason, or practical reason.

It is reason applied to the problem of happiness as a desired albeit ambiguous state of being.

Unfortunately, ethics has shifted and changed a great deal over the centuries, and in part thanks to the general effort to make Philosophy and Ethics more like the natural sciences, we’ve ended up with a confused understanding of what ethics is, or was ever meant to be.

The lost vision of our ethical heritage

I never had much time for ‘ethics’ until I came upon the natural law tradition.  I’ve since learned that ‘virtue’ is of course inseparable from the path of spiritual development, and so it is frustrating to find time and time again that many people relegate ethics to questions of political control and permission.  Ethics is much more than that; however much we fall short of the ideal, it is surely better than rejecting the ideal entirely?

My latest piece on MercatorNet attempts to clarify some of the context and purpose of natural law theory, for those who are interested:

While it may be feasible to reach a conclusion on the basis of non-heredity and rarity, the fact is that natural law does not approach attraction or desire from quite the same perspective as something like the loss of a limb. Rather, the whole point of natural law theory as an ethical system is to guide and inform those who are not content to accept their own desires at face-value, but who wish to shape their desires according to a more complete understanding of what it is to be human, with the goal of what Aristotle enigmatically terms eudaimonia – a term not entirely captured in the translation “happiness”, but which is often rendered “flourishing”, and in a literal sense implies the protection of a benevolent spirit.