Monday, September 11, 2017

Natural law love-first metaethics

Start with this Aristotelian thought:

  1. Everything should to fulfill its nature, and every “should” fact is a norm specifying the norm of fulfilling one’s nature.

But not every “should” is a moral should. Sheep should have four legs, but a three-legged sheep is not morally defective. Here’s a hypothesis:

  1. A thing morally should A if and only if that thing has a will with an overriding norm of loving everything and that the thing morally should A is a specification of that norm.

On this theory, moral norms are norms for the same Aristotelian reason that all other norms are norms—all norms derive from the natures of things. But at the same time, the metaethics is a metaethics of love. What renders a norm a moral norm is its content, that it is a specification of the norm that one should love everything.

Why is it, on this theory, that I should be affable to my neighbor? Because such affability is a specification of the norm of fulfilling my nature. But that needn’t be my practical reason for the affability: rather, that is the explanation of why I should be affable (cf. this). What makes the norm of affability to my neighbor a moral norm? That I have a norm of love of everything, and that the norm of affability specifies that norm.

And we can add:

  1. A thing is a moral agent if and only if it has a will with an overriding norm of loving everything.

One could, perhaps, imagine beings that have a will with an overriding norm of self-benefit. Such beings wouldn’t be moral agents. But we are moral agents. In fact, I suspect the following is true:

  1. Loving everything is the only proper function of the human will.

Given the tight Aristotelian connection between proper function and norms:

  1. All norms on the human will are specifications of the norm of loving everything.

This metaethical theory I think is both a natural law theory and a love-first metaethics. It is a natural law theory in respect of the sources of normativity, and it is a love-first metaethics in respect of the account of moral norms. Thus it marries Aristotle with the Gospel, which is a good thing. I kind of like this theory, though I have a nagging suspicion it has problems.


Adam Myers said...

Why can't the 'normative ethics' be a natural law ethics too? After all, to love God one must observe the natural law. But observation has to do with normative ethics. Maybe to love God, and to love everything (ordinately), are a part of the natural law.

But I'm not sure what makes your metaethical theory a natural law account at all. Is it a natural law metaethics just in case nature provides the relevant norms? But not all norms are laws, right? Plausibly, just moral norms are laws. "Dogs have four legs": is that a law? But if moral norms are laws, then that sounds like normative ethics. But I find the language of 'norms' confusing, so that may be where my problem is.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Difficult questions!

I am inclined to think the observing of the natural law just comes down to observing the law of love.

It's true that the metaethics of this is only partly natural law: what makes the norms be norms is our nature, but what makes the norms be _moral_ norms is their content.

Adam Myers said...

Do you think that accounts where natural law plays an important role are accounts where only nature, and not the contents of norms, make an action moral? If so, that seems wrong. The fact that humans eat in order to maintain their existence is part of our nature, and relevant to the fact that feeding the hungry, on your account, would be a specification of the law of love.

If our natures were such that we were disgusted by the oral ingestion of food, it would be a violation of the law of love to feed the hungry. If that kind of reference to nature is an essential part of the 'wider context' of the morality of actions that fulfill the law of love, then there seems to be no clear separation between the natural law and the law of love, even in terms of the content of moral norms. The content is partly constituted by 'natural facts', e.g. humans are nourished by oral ingestion of healthy food. If our natures were different, moral norms would be too.

Alexander R Pruss said...


It seems to me that the nature of a being enters into morality on two sides: on the side of the agent and of the patient. We forget this, because most of the cases that we talk about are ones where the agent and the patient are both human. But of course morality needs more generality than that. Sometimes the agent is God and the patient is human; sometimes the agent is an angel and the patient is human; sometimes the agent is human and the patient is an angel ("don't make your guardian angel cry!"); there is a sense in which sometimes the patient is God, but one has to understand that carefully in line with divine impassibility. Sometimes the agent is human and the patient is a brute animal. Moreover, it is at least a theoretical possibility that sometimes the agent or patient is an alien while the respective patient or agent is human.

In my post, I was thinking about nature of the agent in respect of natural law. I think your response is about the nature of the patient. There I agree completely: the nature of the *patient* contributes important things to morality. How x should treat y is a function of the nature of x and the nature of y. And I agree I neglected that in this post. Thank you for bringing this to my attention. It is a point that, I think, is widely neglected, except in the special case of the relationship of God and creatures.

Adam Myers said...

All good points, tho' I'm not sure morality always has two sides like that. Or, do you think actions regarding our own appetites and passions--eating, drinking, fear, etc.--are properly construed as being reflexive, where one is both agent and patient? So that one fulfills the law of love, even of loving oneself, when one eats and drinks properly?

In that case, we're on familiar terrain of natural law accounts, where self-love is exhibited in actions undertaken to preserve one's own existence, indeed where self-love is a duty (e.g. the duty to maintain oneself in existence, hence not to commit suicide, etc.).

Alexander R Pruss said...

Yeah, in self-regarding actions one is both agent and patient. In one special case, however, you have self-regarding actions where the agent is agent in one nature and patient in another: the case of Christ as man relating to himself as God and vice versa.

So even in self-regarding actions, it makes sense to distinguish the nature of the agent and the nature of the patient.

Helen Watt said...

A more general point but would you agree that fulfilment is needed to understand nature and virtue is needed to understand value? You can't understand what are natural functions as opposed to dysfunctions without understanding actions, and can't understand actions without understanding the goods they are meant to serve. Humans also exhibit malice, but that does not fulfil them; in contrast, love does fulfil them, so that is part of their nature which it is (as JLA Garcia might say, stressing the 'primacy of the virtuous') virtuous-to-prefer ie good.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I am not sure we need to understand virtue to understand value. I suppose we need to *have* virtue to understand value, though.