Natural Law and Human Motives

Manent, Pierre. "Natural Law and Human Motives." Modern Age: Winter 2017.


“The very notion of natural law presupposes or implies that we have the ability to judge human conduct according to criteria that are clear, stable, and largely if not universally shared. It demands that the motley diversity of the human phenomenon, which is apparent to anyone, be reduced to a single set of characteristics common to all humanity, and thus suitable to provide the foundation for rules of justice that are comprehensible and acceptable by all. We have suggested that the principal motives of human action—the pleasant, the useful, and the noble—constitute such characteristics. There is the question, however, how we can accord a decisive role to the motives of action, that is, to the factual bases of human acting, in an investigation into natural law, that is, into action’s norm.

Sometimes the emperor of our philosophical scruples isn’t wearing much. A case in point are the modern philosophers who are eager to reproach their predecessors or some of their colleagues for confusing “is” with “ought,” or succumbing to the “naturalistic fallacy.” But in reality there is neither a leap nor a chasm nor an abyss between “is” and “ought,” but only a gentle slope along which we can confidently walk. This, I say without vanity, is what I am now doing. To consider attentively the way in which human beings act, to grasp the reasons of their actions, and from this to discern the best way to judge and guide such actions—this not only involves no paralogism; it in fact constitutes the only way to proceed if we want to escape the alternative of deciding arbitrarily what rule, norm, or law we will declare valid, or on the other hand renouncing to seek it. This in any case is what I propose, and it is a modest proposition in all respects.

The principle of this proposition can be summed up roughly as follows: a society, a regime, or an institution that does not give sufficient place to the three great motives that we have enumerated, that does not open up sufficient space for them, cannot be considered in conformity with natural law, that is, with this order of practical life that is not made by human beings but within which they not only live better and more happily, in a way that is more in conformity with human nature and its vocation, but in which they also find more complete and exact self-knowledge. I would like to show by a few examples that this proposition, though it may not provide for the elaboration of what the Greek philosophers called the “best regime,” gives us the means to arrive at appropriate judgments on the great practical and political questions. As I have said, this is a modest proposition; strictly understood it leaves much to be desired and thus calls for complements and refinements. But it does help us arrive at practical truths on questions that it is very important for us to evaluate judiciously.”

Modern Age