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Natural Law and Modern Ethical Theory

Author(s): John Wild

Source: Ethics, Vol. 63, No. 1 (Oct., 1952), pp. 1-13
Published by: The University of Chicago Press
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VolumeLXlII OCTOBER 1952 Number1



T HE modernanalytic approachto tain interesting suggestions concerning

ethics has raised questions of a the need for a new approachhave been
peculiarly basic character which made by participantsin the debate. Two
penetrate to the foundations of moral of these are in my opinion of special sig-
theory. Can goodnessbe definedor char- nificance.
acterized in any intelligible way? Is it The first calls attention to the pre-
properlyregardedas a quality or proper- dominanceof linguistic and logical anal-
ty? What is the nature of moral obliga- ysis in recent ethical debate and recom-
tion and oughtness?Is it anotherpeculiar mends a return to phenomenologicalde-
property entirely divorced from value, scription and analysis. Thus Professor
or is it in some way dependent upon it A. I. Melden says that "it is not the logi-
and deducible from it? How is the sub- cal analysis of concepts,but the discrimi-
jective urgency of this phenomenon to nation of the factors involved in the
be explained?Is it a noncognitivedesire, empirical fact of moral response that is
or is it intimately related to some form of required."'
cognition? Finally, what, in general, is The second goes even further in the
the relation of theoretical cognition to same direction. It calls our attention to
moral practice?What is meant by moral the rich array of variegated fact that is
reasonablenessand moral justification? involved in the concrete,ethical situation
These important questions have been and the need for larger perspectives to
pressed with a new rigor and force. But take account of all this relevant material.
no answeryet proposedby intuitionists, Thus ProfessorW. K. Frankenain a pen-
naturalists, or noncognitivists has met etrating reviewof recent trendsin ethical
with much success. Each school seems theory says, "We may elect to call this
strongeron destructive criticismof alien enlargedconceptionof method analytical
points of view than on constructiveelab- philosophy, as in fact we have been do-
orationand defenseof its own. The forms ing; but only if we do so can we claim
of debate have become somewhatstereo- that analytical philosophy suffices for
typed, and areas of agreement even at ethical theory, and, if we do so, the line
the phenomenological level seem to be between it and a minimal speculative
diminishing rather than widening. Cer- philosophy becomes rather thin and
shadowy."2 Frankena also points out tion with their pantheistic cosmology.
how recent criticismhas revealed certain This is also a mistake. The basic con-
weaknessesin the more extreme versions cepts and principles are implicit in the
of the opposed doctrines and urges the dialogues of Plato and are clearly ex-
need for a broader mediating approach pressed in the texts of Aristotle. The
which may avoid the major difficulties Stoic philosophersgave popular expres-
now clearly revealed in each of them. sion to these realisticideas. They did not
Broadly speaking, these are the failures originate them.
of intuitionism to justify its peculiar Realistic ethics has of course had a
propertiesand intuitions by a reasonable long history and has been subjected to
ontology and epistemology; of natural- divergent interpretations.The most dis-
ism to accountfor obligation;and of non- ciplined of these, however, share a com-
cognitivismto give an adequate explana- mon core. It is this basic core which I
tion of practical reason and moral justi- wish to bring into relation with certain
fication. issues of recentethical debate. But before
In my opinion, these remarks are this can be done we must guard against
sound.Sucha newapproachmight sustain prevalent tendencies to confuse this
the important critical insights achieved theory with other views of quite alien
in recent debate, widen the area of gener- structure and origin. The vague and
al agreement, and lift the whole discus- ambiguous term "eudaemonism,"often
sion to a new level. I also believe that applied to the ethics of Plato and Aris-
the realistic ethics of natural law, as we totle, has strengthenedthese tendencies.
may call it for the sake of convenience, Thus H. A. Prichard recently identified
meets the basic requirementsjust sug- this position with utilitarianism,3 and
gested and that, if properly understood W. K. Frankenaand others have assert-
and developed, it is capable of shedding ed that in essence it reduces to some
some light on the issues now under dis- form of naturalismor intuitionism.4But
pute. At the present time, it is widely these oversimplified reductions cannot
neglected and misunderstood. In this be defended,as we shall try to make clear
paper I shall attempt to clarify certain in the course of our argument.
misconceptions of this theory and to At this point we need only point out a
bringit into relationwith the basic prob- few basic differences.Realistic ethics is
lems mentioned above. founded on the basic distinction between
Realistic ethics is now often dismissed human need and uncriticized individual
as theologicaland authoritarianin char- desire or pleasure, a distinction not
acter. But this is a misunderstanding.Its found in modern utilitarianism. The
ablest representatives, from Plato and basic concepts of so-called "naturalistic"
Aristotle to Grotius,have defendedit on theoriesare psychological,whereasthose
the basis of empirical evidence alone of realismare existential and ontological.
without any appeal to superrational Furthermore, the ethics of natural law
authority. does not follow naturalismin attempting
Many histories of philosophy and ref- to exclude prescriptive principles from
erence books, like the Hastings Encyclo- the science of ethics. As we shall show, it
pedia of Religion and Ethics, assert that recognizes prescriptive moral laws but
the realistic ethics of natural law origi- asserts that these arefounded on tenden-
nated with the Stoics in close associa- tial facts which may be described.
Realistic ethics disagrees radically with as an existential mode, the realizationof
the intuitionist view that ethical terms natural tendency. On this view, the
name simple, indefinable, nonnatural world is not made up of determinate
properties. structures alone, but of determinate
In the context of recent discussion structures in an act of existing which
this is a new theory, empiricallyoriented they determine toward further ap-
but with a much richerview of the rele- propriate acts of existing. When such a
vant empiricaldata. I shall now attempt determinate tendency is impeded, this
briefly to analyze this theory in relation privative mode of existence is what is
to three fundamental questions which meant by "evil" in its most universal,
have dominated recent debate: How is ontological sense.
value to be analyzed?What is the nature Thus it is in vain that we look for some
of moral obligation? What is the rela- peculiarquality or relationwhich we can
tion of theory to practice? identify with good or evil. Like the ab-
stract objects of mathematics, such pure
structures do not exist as such. Hence
At first glance, the recent attempts to they are neither good nor evil. Such a
analyze the notion of goodness seem to quest, if we stubbornlypersist in it, must
present us with an arrayof opposedtheo- lead to the conclusion of G. E. Moore,
ries which have nothing whatsoever in still maintained by others, that this
common. The naturalist takes goodness property, since it cannot be found or in-
to be a recurrentpsychologicalproperty, telligibly characterized, must be inde-
such as pleasure or satisfaction, or a re- finable or ineffable. This conclusion,
current psychological, relational struc- however, is necessitated by a tacit as-
ture, such as object of interest or desire. sumption that being must be either a
The nonnaturalist, on the other hand, determinateproperty or a relation, and
defends the view that goodness is a pe- by the ruling out of other alternatives.
culiar,irreduciblepropertywhich cannot The realist holds that such assumptions
be sensed but rather is grasped by in- are arbitrary and actually in conflict
tuition. with a wide array of empiricalevidence
Diverse as these theories are, they which shows that being is not only char-
neverthelesssharesomethingin common. acterized by definite structure but by
All of them conceive of goodness as a tendency and act as well.
fixed determinate property or relation As a matter of fact, we never find
which is either present or absent. The structure alone by itself without a cor-
realist questions this ontological as- respondingactive tendency, for if deter-
sumption that being consists exclusively minate structuresdid not act upon us in
of fixed, determinateproperties or rela- some way, we should never be able to
tions. Existence, for example, which per- know them. The reason we cannot char-
tains to both properties and relations, acterize value and disvalue as determi-
cannot correctly be conceived as either nate propertiesis not because they are
one or the other. Goodness, also, which ineffable or indefinable properties but
is closely related to existence, as a mode because they are not properties at all.
of being, is radically misunderstood as They are rather existential categories or
something fixed and determinate. It modes of existing.
must rather be conceived dynamically No determinatestructurecan be given
existence without determining active with a mode of existencein whichnatural
tendencies.When such a tendency is ful- tendenciesare thwarted and deprived of
filled in accordancewith natural law, the realization. This distinction is perfectly
entity is said to be in a stable, healthy, intelligible and can be readily illustrated
or sound condition-adjectives of value. by empiricalexamples. The young plant
When it is obstructed or distorted, the whose leaves are withering for lack of
entity is said to be in an unstable, dis- light is not nonexistent. It exists, but in
eased, or unsoundcondition-adjectives an unhealthy or privative mode. The
of disvalue. Goodness and badness in lame man is not nonexistent. He exists,
their widest ontological sense are not but with a natural power partially un-
phases of abstract structure, but rather realized. Similarly the uneducated man
modes of existence, ways in which the exists, but deprived of the activation of,
existential tendencies determined by certain intellectual tendencies deter-
such structures are either fulfilled or mined by his nature.
barely sustained in a deprived, distorted 2. This view is metaphysical, and
state. metaphysical entities are queer. Their
Abstract properties and relations as natures are unobservable and unveri-
such have no tendencies. They are fiable. Hence this theory is empirically
neither fulfilled nor thwarted, neither meaningless,and any discussionof it can
good nor evil, but simply what they are, lead only to futile verbosity.
logical possibilities,that may or may not We agree that the theory is metaphys-
exist. In abstraction, they may be de- ical if by this we mean the attempt to
fined and contrasted. Existential cate- clarify the most basic concepts and theo-
gories cannot be defined and charac- rems underlyingall intelligible discourse.
terized in the same way, for they refer That the objects of such concepts and
not to abstract possibilities but rather theorems are in no sense observed or
to modes in which such possibilities are verified, we must sharply deny. Exist-
actualized.This, however,does not mean ence certainlypertains to the most direct
that they are uncharacterizableand in- and evident data of experience, for a
effable. They can be describedand con- nonexistent datum is clearly impossible.
trasted in intelligible ways that do Furthermore, every determinate struc-
justice to the empiricalevidence. ture which is empiricallypresented to us
Three objections at once come to is fused with existential tendency. Every
mind, with which we shall attempt to so-called "property," for example, is a
deal briefly. dispositionalproperty.
1. This view identifies goodness with This is very clear in the case of those
existence, evil with privation or non- like solubility and elasticity, where the
being. Hence it cannotgive an intelligible activity is more sharply discerned than
account of the factual existence of evil the determiningstructure.It is less clear
as a positive reality. in those like the middle C sound and the
In answer,we may point out that this color red. But reflection will show that
view identifies value not with existence these qualities also, when presented to
but ratherwith the fulfilmentof tenden- us in the concrete, are fused with active
cies determined by the structure of the tendencies.If the color red, for instance,
existent entity. Furthermore, it identi- were not acting on the light in a certain
fies evil not with nonexistencebut rather way we should certainly never see it.

No tendency is ever given to us without by abundant empiricalevidence. We are

being a certain kind of tendency deter- never satisfied with things as they al-
mined by some structure. It is equally ready are, because they are always ten-
true that no structure is ever actually dentially incomplete.What is good is the
present without fused activity. No biolo- fulfilmentof being. We strive to complete
gist can understand the nature of any our existence. The widespreadidea that
living species without also understand- we strive for nonbeing (unless we are
ing the kind of activities required to nihilists) is not only bad philosophy but
realize it. bad phenomenologyas well.
Once this is understood, it is possible It is true that human aspirationaims
to distinguish between the normal and at a goal that is at first only imagined
the frustrated state. We have already and not yet fully actual. But what we
given empirical examples of this basic strive for is precisely the realization of
distinction which underlies the whole this ideal, whatever it may be. Suppose
procedure of every therapeutic art, in- we could have all the most marvelous
cluding human medicine. In the light of glories and perfections, under the one
all this, I think we must conclude that condition that they would not exist but
existence, tendency, and frustration are would remain mere possibilities. Would
as directly observable and analyzable we be any better off? This is enough to
as any data of science. show that value cannot be divorcedfrom
3. The third objection is more basic existence. The "realm"of value is very
and runsas follows.Your whole theory is wide and very rich. But it is no richer
based upon the tacit assumption that than the realm of being, for beyond this
existence itself is good, at least in the realmlies only nothingness,not value.
sense that it is better to be than not to
be. But this metaphysical assumption
is unempirical,illicit, and even absurd. Obligation is a peculiar datum of hu-
If existenceas suchwere good, we should man experiencewhich includesa factor of
be satisfied with things as they already apprehension,together with a subjective
are, for surely they are. But this would feeling of urgent tendency toward what
be the end of aspiration and of ethics. is apprehended. Both factors are re-
What we strive for, rather, is whatis not. quired, each in union with the other. An
Such a nonexistent value is the goal of unconsciouscompulsionis not an obliga-
our aspirationpreciselywhen it does not tion. On the other hand, no judgment
exist. This is enoughto show that a good as such, even though it is concernedwith
thing is equallyvaluablewhetherit exists the most lofty and appealingvalues, can
or not. Value is a certainproperty, or set establish an obligation unless it calls
of properties, entirely indifferent to forth a peculiarfeeling of oughtness and
existence,and existenceas such is neutral binds or obliges us to act.
to value. The two realms are separate The chief difficulty now confronting
from each other. contemporarytheories is that of giving
In answer,we may point out that this an intelligibleexplanationof both factors
metaphysicalobjectionis based upon the in that peculiar union which constitutes
common assumption that existence is an obligation.Naturalistic theoriesbegin
fully finished or complete. As we have with the theoretical side and emphasize
alreadynoted, this assumptionis refuted certain empirical facts of pleasure, or

satisfaction, which may be expressed in ing that I ought to have done something
judgments that such and such has whichI actually did not do and now can
pleased me or has pleased millions of never do. Oughtness cannot be reduced
people. But they fail to explain why to probableexpectation.
such facts should in any sense give rise Neither can it be reduced to any feel-
to the unique sense of necessitation or ing or judgment concerning subjective
binding to action which characterizes states or conditions already attained.
the actual phenomenon.Most thinkersof This is notorious. Because I now feel
this school now pride themselves on some desire within me, it does not follow
being empiricists, and by "empiricism" that I ought to be desiringthis. Because
they mean an atomic theory of experi- I now feel pleasure, it does not follow
enced data, which rulesout all dynamism that I ought to feel it.
and tendency and, therefore,makes any Obligation seems to be some kind of
tendential connection between discrete necessity that obliges and binds. So some
data inconceivable. For such thinkers, have assumed a type of necessary, psy-
obligation is a hard nut to crack. chologicallaw, like psychologicalegoism,
The only sort of empirical judgment which would explain why certain judg-
they can admit with any relevance to ments, such as, "x is pleasing," would
ethics is the sort we have mentioned, necessarily arouse subjective urgency of
stating some psychological fact: that desire.Such a theory would seem to come
such and such has arousedinterestbefore closest to the actual phenomena but is
or has pleased vast multitudes of people. still far wide of the mark. Obligation
But because this is so, why should I be does not necessitate in this sense, for
bound in any way? How does it follow people often do not fulfil their obliga-
that because others have been pleased I tions, knowing that they do not. In addi-
ought to be pleased?It certainlydoes not tion to this, there are many insuperable
follow with any analytic necessity, for difficultiesin psychological hedonism as
oughtness cannot be identified with any a theory of human motivation-and in
such facts as these. Nor would it seem any similar theory.
to follow with any psychological neces- Obligation cannot be reduced to the
sity, since I may be different.No matter statement of a finished fact or to the ex-
how many people have been pleased by pectation of a probablefuture fact or to
something, it is not necessary that I the recognition of a necessary psycho-
must be pleased by it. Why then should logical law governing specific objects of
the statement of any such law be binding desire, if any such law exists. No atomic
upon me? empiricist has yet suggested a plausible
At best it might lead to the prediction theory of obligation. And I believe it is
that it is highly probablethat I might be possible to see, on the basis of such an
pleased. But when I really feel that I analysis as we have given, that no such
ought to do x, this is not equivalent to theory can possibly account for the facts.
the assertion that it is likely that I shall Impressedby these difficulties,anoth-
do x, and the feelings that attend such er school, the so-called "intuitionists,"
an assertion. I often feel that I ought to have insisted that rightnessor obligation
to do somethingwhich it is highly unlike- is a simple,irreducible,and even indefin-
ly that I shall do. SometimesI go on feel- able quality, which is directlyapprehend-

ed or intuited as belongingto certainacts desire and persuasively as its diffusive

and not to others. Acts of promise-keep- tendency. Such languagemay be good or
ing, for example, possess this peculiar, bad, i.e., approved or disapproved by
nonnatural property. Such an act is in- us. It is neither true nor false.
tuited to be right, irrespectiveof whether While this theory has performed an
its consequencesare hedonically attrac- important function in bringing home to
tive or unattractive.This kind of theory modern thought the existence of a non-
has shown a markedcapacity to take ac- cognitive factor in all practicalreflection,
count of certain unquestionable moral its extremeirrationalismhas laid it open
data and to reveal the weaknesses of to serious charges, of which we shall
naturalistic and utilitarian theories. But mention only two. The first is this: Why
recent discussion has revealed serious should the desiderative element in obli-
weaknesses of its own. gation be thought of as a blind eruption
For one thing, to call a property non- of arbitraryimpulse, and thus identified
empiricalor nonnaturalis to give a pure- with raw appetite? Many facts seem in-
ly negative definition which conveys a compatible with such a conclusion. Be-
minimumof informationabout the prop- cause I want something, it does not fol-
erty in question and leaves an indefinite low that I ought to want it. There are
numberof alternativesopen. But, though many cases where obligation conflicts
the question has been pressed as to what with blind impulse and raw desire.
this peculiarpropertyis, the defendersof In connection with this, many propo-
the theory have been unable to present nents of the theory concede that cogni-
us with any adequateanswer.They have tive evidence may qualify and redirect
produced negative epithets, pointed at desire once it has arisen. But if such evi-
examples, and then sometimes fallen dence (true or false) may thus moderate
back on the last refuge of indefinability. desire, why can it not elicit and direct
But this is unsatisfactory. Essential such active tendency in the first place, as
ambiguity at such a basic level is bound the facts of moral experience seem so
to permeate the whole theory and fill it clearly to indicate? Thus, suddenly be-
with vagueness and confusion. coming aware of certain facts, expressed
This weakness has now brought forth in certain judgments that are true or
a noncognitive or emotive theory of false, acute suffering before me, and
ethics which reduces the whole phe- powers at my command,I may suddenly
nomenon of obligation to the subjective experiencea new sense of obligationhav-
compulsionof raw appetite or desire. To ing nothing to do with my raw appetites
feel obligation is simply to be bound by and even radically opposed to them.
an urgent appetite for or against some- The second objection is even more
thing. Once such a desire has arisen, it critical. Unless obligation is in some
may be qualifiedand redirectedby cogni- sense grounded on verifiable cognitive
tion of relevant facts. But its origin is judgments that are true or false, moral
independent of cognition. Ethical terms justification is impossible. According to
like "good and bad," "right and this theory, it is impossible. When a
wrong,"have no descriptiveor cognitive moral decision is questioned, all we can
meaning. They are rather to be under- do is to reiterate some active propensity
stood expressively as manifestations of in expressive or persuasive language.
Such questions then are out of place and predict a tendency. In concrete nature
even meaningless.But we all feel justified one is never found without the other. A
in raising such questions, and they are peculiar relation of fitness holds between
not adequately answered by emotive the two.
diatribes.They can be answeredonly by A similar relation of fitness holds be-
judgments that are true or false in the tween a tendency and its fulfilment,
light of moral evidence. Sometimes we though this is not necessary.Many tend-
find that one act is more justifiablethan encies exist in a privative or unfulfilled
another and may alter our behavior ac- state. But we cannot understand the
cordingly. Facts of this sort are ubiqui- tendency without also understanding
tous and well known. The theory cannot something of the fitting fulfilment. As
be reconciledwith them. Hence an em- soon as a biologistgrasps the nature of a
piricist must reject it. mode of vital action, he also graspswhat
Having noted these current moral will complete such action-the sound or
theories and certain major difficulties healthy condition.Two points need to be
confrontedby them, let us now turn to noted about such knowledge.
moral realism. Can it shed any light on First, it does not necessarily involve
obligation?I think it can. But we shall any attribution of consciouspurpose or
have to be very brief in confiningour at- teleology to the tendency in question. A
tention to certain phases of the theory meteorologistcharts the course now re-
which are relevant to the issues we have quired to complete the tendencies al-
raised. ready observed in a storm without as-
The logical atomist regards goodness suming any conscious purpose in the
as a fixed determinate structure rather weather. What underlies such lawful
than as an existential category. We have "predictions"is merely a knowledge of
noted some of the difficulties in this the observed dispositions and their in-
view. As the realist sees it, most of these trinsic readiness, barring external fac-
difficultieswith obligation are rooted in tors, for a certain mode of completion.
a similaratomistic tendency to conceive The secondpoint to notice is that this
it as a property. No such determinate relation of fitness can be read in two
univocalpropertyis found. Hence we are ways-from tendencyto fulfilment(good-
led to the dogma of indefinability.Reali- ness) or back fromfulfilmentto tendency
ty is not made up of propertiesalone but (rightness). The formeris less necessary
of existentpropertieswith active tenden- than the latter but more factual, in the
cies. Obligation is another existential sense of sheerthereness.The tendency re-
categoryfoundedon this fact of tendency quires its realizationas somethingmore,
which can be intelligibly described and not yet included in itself. Such required-
characterized. ness is not strictly necessary. The tend-
Each entity necessarilytends to act in ency may be warpedor impeded.But the
accordancewith its structure.So close is fulfilment entails the tendency as some-
this ontological connection that each thing includedwithin itself. The tenden-
may be inferredfromthe other. Fromob- cy persists in its realizations. This is
servinga kind of action in its measurable strictly necessaryand binding.
effect, the physicist can infer something The tendencies of inorganic things
about the structure of the entity, and, have such a low level of quality and so
from his knowledgeof structure,he may little existential autonomy and scope

that we ignore their relatively slight in- such natural needs as distinct from
trinsic value but think of them rather in ephemeraldesires is the first step in the
terms of the extrinsic value they may transformation of raw appetite into
have in aiding or hinderingother tenden- moral obligation. These needs are felt by
cies of a higher level. But in the case of the individualas unfinishedtendenciesin
subhumanliving things we referto incipi- himself and others.
ent tendencies by value terms like "re- Now no tendency can be clearlyunder-
quirement"or "need" and to their fulfil- stood without some understanding of
ment by others like "normal,""sound," what it requires for its completion. As
or "healthy." When we analyze the soonas we recognizea need, we also recog-
structurein this way, we are recognizing nize the universal value that will satisfy
the existential category of goodness- the need. The apprehensionof such uni-
realization of imperfect tendency. Fur- versal values, not relative to the particu-
thermore, we sometimes argue back lar interests of this or that individual or
from the realizationto what it requiresof groupbut tendentially relative to human
the incipienttendency and speakof a dis- nature as such, is the second step in the
eased or warpedplant in terms of how it complex experienceof moral obligation.
should have grownor of a maimed animal At this stage we have the felt urge of
in terms of what it ought to have done to existential, common tendencies and the
avoid the injury. There is no implication rational insight into nonexistent values
of any consciousteleology in this. We are requiredto complete them.
merely recognizingexistential tendencies That which will complete an inchoate
requiring further acts for their fitting tendency is some form of activity, either
realization in accordance with nature. individualor co-operative.Rights can be
This requirednesslies at the root of what realizedonly by "acts." Hence from uni-
we call "obligation." versal values, satisfying human needs,
Human existence is constituted by certain modes of action necessarily in-
diverse tendencies,some sharedby every volved in them may be strictly deduced.
human individual and indispensable to Such modes of action, always required
human life, others peculiar to certain in- for the realization of human rights, are
dividuals, or groups, and dispensable. "right" acts, or universal "duties" of
The latter are commonly called "de- man. The recognition of such "prima
sires," "interests," or "compulsions." facie duties," as Ross has called them, is
The former are rightly distinguished as the third step in the structure of obliga-
"needs." They must be realized to some tion. We now have felt, propulsiveurge,
degreeif humanlife is to be lived at all- recognized as need, cognition of value
for example the need for food and the satisfying the need, and deduction of
need for education.When clearlyfocused necessary acts from the value.
by rational insight, they are called The fourth step is the subsumptionof
"rights." the individualin a concretesituation un-
They have a "right" to be realized der a universalconclusionof the preced-
not merely because someone happens to ing deductions. I vaguely feel the desire
feel them, or a great numberof men, but to learn the truth from others. I clearly
because they are requiredby human na- and abstractly understandthis as a nec-
ture itself and the cosmic causes of hu- essary condition of human communica-
man nature. The rational recognitionof tion, without which human co-operation

and life is impossible; I understand the this imperativeurgency to act which lies
nature of truth-telling as a universal at the root of obligation. This expansive
value of man; I deduce the duty of tendency inheres in our very being.
truth-telling from this. Finally, I realize Hence it is felt as something which
that in the situation beforeme I can tell obliges us or binds us to act-to become
the truth, and, subsumingmyself under what we are. That which will complete
the generalization, I recognize that I or activate a tendency is good. If the
ought to tell the truth here and now. tendency belongs to man as such, if it
But the concrete situation is always must be activated to some degreein any
very richand confused.The needs of man living of a genuine human life, then it is
are multifarious.The duty of telling the a universal and intrinsic good for man.
truth may not only conflict with certain As we gain further insight into these
subjective desires over which it should tendencies and their goals, our thought
clearly take precedence;it may also con- is able to pass from the goal to the acts
flict with other basic needs of man such which this goal strictly implies and
as that of preservinglife. In this case I thereforedemands from every man and,
must weigh against one another the finally, fromus in the concrete.This feel-
values to be achieved by alternative ing of deductive strengthening, which
courses of action and attempt to devise obliges us, is expressed by the word
creatively some unique course of action "ought."
that will minimize the sacrificeof value. We are now bound by a certainlogical
Such a weighingof divergentvalues is al- necessity. But of course this is only hy-
ways involved in any serious process of pothetical. This is not what must be done
deliberation. but what must be done if a certain ten-
It certainly has a quantitative aspect. dential pattern is to be realized.But why
Where conflictingvalues are on approxi- should it be? Here we are expressingthe
mately the same qualitative level, this profoundneed for justification. Can this
quantitative aspect may be decisive. But hypothetical premise be justified? Can
usually those of different qualitative we reverse the logical process and con-
levels are at stake. In this case there is no firm it by evidence accessibleto all?
univocalquality or propertyunderwhich If not, our basic moral choices are
the differentvalues can be subsumed to wholly arbitrary,and ethics as a respon-
make a quantitative calculus possible. sible discipline is impossible. There can
But an existential comparison is pos- be no such thing as ethical argument,but
sible. Value is realizationor activation of only persuasive and suggestive propa-
being. Deliberationbringsthe most basic ganda. As a matter of fact we do ask for
ontological categories into play and de- moral justification both from ourselves
pends more especiallyon our insight into and from others. We do argue over the
the peculiarbeing of man. Human exist- correctness and incorrectnessof choice.
ence is at stake. Ontologicalinsight is re- This implies that modes of action may be
quired. But the processis not purely the- based on mistaken factual premises and
oretical. that certain obligationsmay be based on
Fused with it from beginningto end is factual judgments capable of verifica-
the urge to activate our nature which tion.
permeates all the psychical and physical How is this possible? How can the
phases of our being. It is the feeling of "ought" be deduced from or inferred

from the "is"? Can realism throw any justifying itself. But if this were true, the
light on this matter? We shall conclude question of justification would never be
this paper by attempting to indicatehow seriouslyraised.
varioussuggestionsalreadymade may be How then is moral justification to be
fitted into an affirmativeanswer to this explained?
question. We cannot explain it without recog-
nizing that certain moral premises must
somehowbe based upon facts. What kind
of facts are these?And what is meant by
It is clear that justificationis in some "based upon"?Accordingto realism,the
sense a logical process. If one of my sub- chief difficultieswe have with this ques-
jective tendencies or acts is to be justi- tion arise from our tendency to think of
fied, I must discover some universal all facts as finished properties and to
evaluational premise based upon facts ignore their existential status.
open to observation, under which I can Existence is dynamic, indeterminate,
subsumemy tendency or act. Two things and incomplete. It is not a property but
about such a premiseneed to be especial- a structualized activity. Such activities
ly emphasized.In the first place, it must are a kind of fact. They can be observed
be a universal principle evident to any and describedby judgmentsthat are true
unbiased observer. Unless I can explain or false: human life needs material arti-
my act to such an observer,I am not jus- facts; technological endeavors need ra-
tified. In the second place, this principle tional guidance; the child has cognitive
must be relevant to my own subjective faculties that need education. Value
tendencies. Otherwise it could not sub- statements are founded on tendential
sume my act or have any binding power facts of this sort. They do not merely
over me. state the observed fact; they go beyond
Recent criticism has shown that cur- it. But they are founded on the directly
rent ethical doctrines are unable to pro- verifiable fact of tendency or need. The
vide us consistently with any principles value or realizationis requirednot mere-
of this sort and are thus unable to ac- ly by UlS but by the existent tendency for
count for the phenomenonof justification. its completion.From a sound description
Intuitionismholds that we can intuit cer- and analysis of the given tendency we
tain universalprinciplesof rightnessand can infer the value foundedupon it. This
goodness.But in defendingthe nonnatu- is why we do not say that moral prin-
ral and nonpsychological character of ciples are mere statements of fact, but
these principlesit is unable to accountfor rather that they are "foundedon" facts.
their binding power. In what way are Universal tendencies like that of hun-
these isolated normsand oughts relevant ger, which are common to all men, will
to me? In accounting for this, the intu- found universal values. So moral argu-
itionists have had to assume rationalistic ment has a factual foundation. It may
theoriesof motivation which are entirely find support or fail to find it in descrip-
lacking in empirical support. The natu- tive judgments that are true or false.
ralists and noncognitivists, on the other SupposeI have performedan act of type
hand, have been forced to fall back on z and raise the question as to whether it
the felt propensity of an individual or a is justified. If observableevidence shows
group, as though this were capable of y to be a universal need of man and if z
is reasonablyinferredto be a value com- justify it are simply two ways of reading
pleting y, then it is justified. the same logical process,which mutually
So far, however, we have only a com- confirmand illumineeach other. But the
plex set of inductive and inferentialpro- evidence is very rich. The inferencesare
cedures, leading to certain principles of complex. Thus, in attempting to justify
value founded on observable fact. Why an obligation, we often discover new ob-
are such principlesfelt to be binding on ligations, and, in doing this, we are led to
me? This is the last thing to be explained. a new process of justification. On the
The answershouldbe clearfromwhat we whole, it is clear that those most sensi-
have already said. The factual needs tive to obligationsare better able to jus-
which underlie the whole procedure are tify themselves and vice versa. The one
common to man. The values founded on process is the inverse of the other.
them are universal. Hence, if I have The great social and political struggles
made no mistake in my tendential analy- of our era have called forth widespread
sis of human nature, and if I understand and intensive reflectionon the nature of
myself, I must exemplify the tendency, law and its foundations. As in the past,
and must feel it subjectively as an im- such reflectionhas led to a serious ques-
perative urge to action. If I am confront- tioning of that positivistic legal theory
ed with such a principle, together with which denies any natural foundationsfor
the implied acts it requires of me, and prescriptive principles and reduces all
then feel no obligation,one of two things law to the level of subjective, human de-
is true. Either the principle is not ade- cree. In many law schools an interest in
quately grounded,and thereforefalse, or moral realism and natural law is being
I do not understandmyself. revived. This interest is now shared by
In the case of any deductive argument all those who have any living hope for the
we may pass from the premises to the establishment of a world community
conclusionor, in checkingour steps, from without the use of military force. The
the conclusionback to the premises and realistic doctrine of natural law has re-
the facts on which these premises are ceived its most recent, and in certain
based. This is also true of moral reflec- ways its most adequate, political formu-
tion. In the process which leads to the lation in the recent UnitedNationsDecla-
sense of obligation we pass from certain ration of Human Rights. A covenant for
universalfacts to premisesbased on these the legal enforcement of these rights is
facts and then to certain deductive con- now under consideration. Such a cove-
clusions which state obligations. In try- nant would revolutionize international
ing to justify ourselves, we reverse this law and also modify the internal law of
process. Here we begin with a supposed many countries,includingour own.
obligation, a sense that we ought to do These expressionsof moral realismare
something which is subject to question widely discussedand debated throughout
and needs to be confirmed.In so far as the world. Unfortunately, however, this
this feeling is justified, we are able to world-wideinteresthas not penetratedto
"pass back" to certain values which re- departmentsof philosophyand coursesin
quire the acts, to certainneeds which the ethics. The conceptsof moralrealismand
values satisfy, and to factual evidence natural law are hardly touched upon in
showingthese needs to be essentialrights current texts. If not entirely neglected,
of man. To discoveran obligationand to they are confusedwith other theorieslike

utilitarianism, Kantianism, and intui- and that it is able to take account of

tionism, from which they are really quite many evident data of moral experience.
distinct. Early versions are sometimes To those ethical theorists who have be-
touched upon in historical contexts come dissatisfiedwith the one-sided em-
where they are deprived of that close phasis of current schools, this new doc-
study and disciplined criticism of which trine may have an appeal as a broader,
they are desperatelyin need. mediative point of view. Others,dissatis-
This paper is only a fragmentaryin- fied with the recent emphasis on linguis-
troduction to the subject. We have had tic analysis, may be interested in a doc-
no time for the considerationof many ob- trine which will certainly lead them to a
jections whichmay be broughtup. I have close study of the phenomenology of
tried to show that the theory is radically moral experience-the final test for any
distinct from others now familiar to us, empirical,moral theory.
that it is capable of coherent exposition, HARVARD UNIVERSITY

1. "On the Method of Ethics," Journal of Phi- 3. Moral Obligation (Oxford University Press,
losophy, XLV (1948), 179. 1948), chap. iii, esp. pp. 52-53.
2. "Main Trends in Moral Philosophy at Mid- 4. Op. cit., p. 46.
Century," Philosophical Review, LX (1951), 50.