Man cannot possibly be good unless he stands in the right relation to the common good,

Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica

By , on September 8, 2011

Justice and the Good


Paper given to the Henry George Foundation February 2010
Joseph Milne

May I begin by saying that the question of the relation of Natural Law and ecology raises a host of difficult questions. What I shall present today is only a beginning in facing these difficult questions, but my hope is that with some general pointers we can gain some sense of where to look, and what to set aside.

The first difficulty that confronts us is that our modern conception of Nature is not that of the Greeks or Romans who thought so deeply about Natural Law. This means that the world as described by our modern ecologists and environmentalists is not the world of Natural Law. Even the great Gaia Theory of James Lovelock, which sees the earth as an integrated single system, does not unite all the elements of Nature in the way that Plato, Aristotle or Aquinas did. Two main elements are missing, the end towards which Nature tends, and the ethical dimension. I am not suggesting that Lovelock is wrong, only that his account of Nature is incomplete.

Our modern conception of Nature, or of the cosmos, is rooted in the mechanistic rationalism of the Enlightenment, where there was the attempt to strip Nature of any purpose or teleology and study it solely from the point of view of its mechanisms. By this means general observations may be made of the mechanisms of Nature which can then be refined into theories through which the processes of Nature may be predicted, for example the laws of motion or of gravity. These scientific conceptions of Nature have come to so dominate modern thought that we have become generally convinced that the scientific method is the only way of properly understanding the laws of Nature.

This, in turn, has changed the meaning of the concept of “law”. The modern notion of law means the general principles which determine things from outside themselves. Even in jurisprudence positive law is conceived in this way, as a rule imposed upon persons or institutions. Thus, for example, it has become fashionable to see the human individual as shaped by a mixture of genetic predispositions and environmental factors, and so the “person” is merely the result of these shaping factors. Or on the social scale society is viewed as the historical product of statistical mechanisms, or arbitrary rituals, conventions and ethical codes. In the social sciences society has no actual “nature” which belongs to it or purpose which it serves within the larger sphere of Nature or the cosmos.

The ancient conception of Law is quite different from this. It means the “essence” or “nature” of a thing. Thus the law of anything is its mode of being and its manner of participating among the many beings of the cosmos and in being as such. It also means the perfect actualisation towards which all things tend, the law of full development for each being and for the cosmos as a whole. This tendency of everything towards perfection is not a blind struggle for existence, but a nisus or effort of Nature to manifest its potential. It means that the perfect form of every being is inherent in its nature or essence, and that all processes of growth or change or transformation are governed by this essential form of each being, or of all things. It also means that Nature as a whole has an essence which strives towards actualisation or manifestation. For Plato and Aristotle this effort of all things towards perfection arises from the self-motion of each being or all things together.

The salient features of such a view of Nature is that it is a unity, acting as a whole, that it is self-moving, acting out of its essence, and that it is constantly striving to bring into being its ideal form. For Plato and Aristotle this striving towards perfection extends beyond things themselves towards the Good in Itself, or the One. Plato and Aristotle also call this striving Love or Eros. The perfection which all things seek is ultimately a non-material or transcendent perfection which can only be approximately attained in the material or temporal manifestation. Yet it is this striving towards the fullest approximation to perfection which is the origin of all motion – all motion is a seeking of rest in fullness or unity. Love or Eros is the desire in all things to actualise themselves in the Ideal Forms which is their essence, while the Ideal Forms themselves come from the One or the Good in Itself.

It is worth pointing out here that the order of Nature as conceived by Plato and Aristotle and subsequently in the Middle Ages does not present the world as designed from outside itself, but rather as ordered through its striving towards perfection, through Eros. For Aristotle this perfection towards which all Nature strives is the perfect knowledge of all things in the mind of God. That is to say, what attracts all things to perfection is God’s own self-knowledge, which is also the knowledge of each being’s essence.

Thus the order of Nature is not imposed upon it from outside , but rather through it being granted existence it strives towards the perfection of its origin in the One or the Good. It seeks to “imitate” so far as this is possible the eternal perfection, or the wholly actual, from which it originated. The motion is an autonomous striving towards perfection, rather than an impulse from perfection. The modern idea of Intelligent Design fails, by comparison with the Greek understanding, to grant Nature the dignity of yearning out of its own essence for the Good, the True or the Beautiful. In other words, the Intelligent Design theory denies the autonomy of the cosmos. We can see how the theory of Intelligent Design arises from the modern conception of Law, as a rule or power imposed upon things from outside themselves. For Plato and Aristotle the Law of Nature is Eros, the desire or yearning for perfection.

This desire for perfection in Nature is taken up later by the Stoics and again in the cosmology and metaphysics of Aquinas. It is the striving towards transcendent perfection that gives the inner order to the cosmos. Let me quote to you an early Christianised understanding of this cosmic order. This is from Maximus the Confessor writing in the early 7th century:

The cosmos is a unity and is not divided up along with its parts; rather, precisely through its tendency to rise towards its own single and undivided being, it puts limits on the differences of its natural division into parts. So it proves that the parts are always the same as itself, even in their unconfused differentiation; that every whole dwells within every other whole; that all of them fill up the one whole as its parts and are in turn made one and are completely filled in themselves because of the integrity of the whole. In fact, the whole intellectual world appears as mystery, expressed in meaningful forms through the whole sensible world, to those who are privileged to see it; and the whole sensible world dwells within the whole intellectual world, reduced through the Spirit of wisdom to its basic intelligible meaning. The material, that is, dwells in the intellectual in the mode of intelligible meaning, and the intellectual dwells in the material in the mode of images; but the result of both is a single world.

In this passage we see how Maximus saw a mutual reciprocity between the intellectual and sensible realms, and how the principle of unity is the key to the nature of the cosmos which brings together all its parts and all its levels. The cosmos is, for him, all these things taken together, the invisible dwelling in the visible, and the visible in the invisible.

The second element in our modern conception of Nature which differs from the ancient conception concerns the ethical dimension. How we conceive ethics determines how we conceive the nature of Law as such, so it is vitally important. The modern mechanistic conception of Nature has no ethical element, and this even includes the more recent theory of altruism attributed to certain species.

How, then, does an ethical dimension enter our understanding of Nature? Aquinas explains it this way. Since all things are by nature inclined towards perfection, and are therefore purposive, they express this according to their different modes of being. He says:

All natures bring with them natural tendencies or appetites or loves. Wherever there is the nature of mind there is natural tendency in the will; wherever there is sense awareness, a natural tendency to sense-stimulated appetite; where there is no awareness there is an orientation of nature itself to things. (ST. 60. 1)

In this passage it is clear that orientations, appetites and loves are three distinct orders or levels of inclination towards perfection or the Good, manifest in three distinct modes of beings. From what we have already said about Nature in general the tendencies and appetites have already been explained. It is the step from the sense awareness of the animals to the act of will of mind in human nature, “the natural tendency of the will”, which calls for special attention here.

It is obvious, first of all, that the human being contains all three levels – the autonomous activity of the organism, the appetitive activity in relation to desires, and the acts of will according to reason. It is at this third level that inclinations and desires come into reflective consciousness, and with this comes the realm of elective will or the capacity to set goals. This, clearly, is a new level of autonomy, and with this new level of autonomy comes a new level of relation to all other beings.

This means there can be a new level of unity between the human mind and Nature, from which can arise action that is truthful to both human nature and to Nature universally. To put that more strongly, the integrity of human autonomy is bound up with acting according to the universal integrity of Nature. This kind of action is what the Stoics called “acting in agreement with nature”, which means to act according to the truth and integrity of Nature. According to the Stoics, the human being can only attain its own perfection, or actualise its own nature, through truthful conscious relation with Nature, for it is only through acting in accordance with the truth of things that the proper realm of human activity and being opens up.

It hardly needs to be said that this is the natural ground for ethics and for the virtues, as well as for the study of Law. For Man, authentic being means authentic participation in the order of Nature as a whole. Mind, consciousness or intelligence brings with it the double power of inner contemplation and outer apprehension, and for the ancient philosophers these two directions of the human gaze belong with one another. Restrict one, and the other is diminished. Thus Plato says in the Timaeus “God invented and gave us sight to the end that we might behold the courses of intelligence in the heaven, and apply them to the courses of our own intelligence which are akin to them”.

Because the prevailing modern notion of the cosmos and Nature denies any natural purpose or teleology, the ancient understanding of the relation between the human inclination towards the Good and the world at large has been broken. Thus the Good, or the moral sphere, has been relegated to the private conscience of each individual human subject, on the presupposition that in the public sphere each individual acts solely for their own particular good. In the most extreme example of mechanistic thinking the neo-Darwinian theory of the struggle for survival has been projected onto society and onto all economic activity, as shown in some schools of sociology and psychological evolution. From this arises the common belief that legislation and law in general is required to place a restraint upon selfish inclinations. But this is law for the sake of mitigating the effects of the so-called natural order, of curbing the tendencies of human nature. I would suggest that it is because law is now generally conceived in terms of mitigation of unwanted consequences that there has been great expenditure of effort in formulating human rights.

Let us grant that the quest for human rights springs from the desire for justice and the Good, even though ambiguously. The difficulty is that justice is being sought within a conception of Nature and the universe which is totally indifferent to justice. How can there be justice within an amoral universe?

This brings us directly to the question of Natural Law and ecology. How do we look at this challenge from the perspective of Natural Law? If, as we have seen, all things incline towards perfection, both in themselves and in unity with the whole, and this is the foundation of the meaning of Natural Law, then it follows that if human society acts in any way contrary to the natural inclination of the natural order, then society is also acting contrary to its own nature, and contrary to human nature. We said a moment ago that for mankind authentic being means authentic participation in the order of Nature. According to that principle human society is part of the ecology of the earth and the universe. It therefore must follow that if mankind acts contrary to the natural order, this will produce human suffering and failure, because nothing can thrive contrary to its own nature or essence.

It is unfortunate that very little attention is given to the question of human nature in the ecological and environmental literature. Out of concern for the flourishing of the biosphere in general this literature sometimes even gives the impression that humanity is not part of Nature, or that Nature would thrive all the better without mankind. But this separation of humanity and society from Nature is part of the Enlightenment inheritance we observed earlier, in which Nature is reduced to mere mechanisms, and human society regarded as artificial and therefore outside Nature. This notion is reinforced by the evolutionary claim that intelligent life itself is an accident or mere chance occurrence in the universe. It follows from this way of thinking that human society not only has no nature of its own to accord with, it also has no unique part to play in the greater scheme of the earth or the universe.

Given this diminished conception of humanity it is no wonder that there is general confusion about how to respond to the present environmental problems. The biosphere and the thinking sphere have no connection with one another, and therefore no inherent ethical connection either, which is the basis of Natural Law. If there is a remedy to this split, then, according to Natural Law, it can only be through bringing human nature into accordance with itself, and therefore in accordance with the earth and the universe as a whole. This means opening up human nature to its full potential and therefore to greater participation in Nature.

I appreciate that this way of looking at the environmental question strikes a path rather different from the prevailing environmental thinking. In general, this argues for imposing physical solutions on the environment and society without taking account of human nature, or the ultimate place of human society within Nature. Approaching the question from the human side, however, is grounded in the understanding that all things in Nature seek the universal Good, and that the natural inclinations and desires and ultimate aspirations of human nature are likewise oriented towards the universal Good. The question of how that Good is to be attained has several levels and several ways of being addressed. Here we are trying to address it in terms of the nature of society and the nature of economics. Addressed in this way, the question that is raised is: What is the nature of human work? What is the task of mankind?

So long as we see work as warding off want and live in fear of poverty the real meaning of work becomes obscured. And yet, so long as we remain ignorant of the real meaning of human work we remain in poverty! Our human poverty and the harming of the earth are the same poverty, or they reinforce one another.

Considered in this way the first thing that strikes us is that the work appropriate for mankind must correspond with human nature and with Nature as a whole. This means that human nature flourishes through work just as the rest of Nature flourishes through its natural activity and inclinations. As the social and political being, work calls forth the latent talents and potentialities of human nature, bringing the faculties to full development. Yet this flourishing of human nature must correspond with the laws of Nature as a whole. So long as human society lives closely off the abundance given freely by Nature, this correspondence happens naturally. But once human work rises above the task of subsistence, then a new order of relation with Nature arises which calls upon reflection. It is at this point that what we broadly call “civilisation” arises, in which collective reflection produces works that embody human understanding as the end of work. This work manifests as the arts and religion and the human sciences.

This new order of human work has many implications. First, it embodies man’s reflection on the truth of things. As has been said in many ways by the philosophers, man is the being who reflects on the nature of being. This, it would seem, is a major part that humanity has to play within Nature. The human mind is Nature reflecting on herself.

This higher order of work does not remain in the realm of mere thinking or learning, it passes into and informs the manner in which the “ordinary” or “necessary” tasks are performed and transforms them into craftsmanship and ornaments of beauty, so that even the most physical things that serve the body may also serve the spirit.

Yet another element emerges through human work at this point. If human civilisation embodies Nature reflecting upon herself in this way, then it also must ultimately embody affirmation of the Truth of things and the Good. Such affirmation is a necessary aspect of the reflection, just as admiration is a necessary aspect of perceiving beauty. I would like to suggest that this affirmation is the inmost meaning and fulfilment of human work and human nature. It is what brings man into a truthful participation in Nature, which calls forth all the human virtues and talents, and which contributes to Nature’s end.

I appreciate that this sounds very idealistic and far from what today gets called “the real world”! I am convinced, however, that it was that kind of “rationalist” protest that sundered the tradition of Natural Law from the Western tradition in 18th century. If one is to consider Law, then one has to start from the highest principles first and trace the way these flow down into the so-called “real world”. According to Plato and Aristotle the intellect has a primordial intuition of the highest or most universal principles, and that the appropriate study of things brings these to light. There is a yet further point to mark here. How a society conceives the nature of the world determines its relationship with the truth of things and therefore its own possibilities. The quality of human reflection on Nature, and upon human society, is determinative of the state of society whether we call such a view idealist or not. The present environmental crisis is the direct product of how modern secular thought conceives the world and the manner in which man participates in Nature. It really is the thinking that makes it so. And in terms of Natural Law, it is unethical to conceive Nature falsely.

According to Aristotle all “use” is ethical. This is worth pondering. In our age we have come to think of things in terms of ownership or acquisition, especially in economic thinking. But Aristotle does not regard ownership to be of particular significance, and this is because the real relationship with things lies in the manner of their use, and the manner of use of things is immediately ethical, because use treats things according to ends within the totality of reality. All use embodies a dedication to an end or purpose of some kind, and this act of dedication is an ethical act. It embodies in that moment what is held to be the Good. And what may be held to be the Good depends upon the degree to which the true is recognised in things.

To put this in the terms in which Aquinas expresses it, every intentional act is an act of the will, and the will is governed by the intellect. But the will or the volitional aspect of human knowing has an immediate intuition of the Good, and all decisions or acts of will by nature seek the Good. The intellect, on the other hand, has an immediate intuition of the True, and all intellectual acts by nature seek the true. Virtue is the embodiment of the unity of the intellect and will, the good and the true. Since it is the seeking of the Good that moves the will, all willing belongs to the ethical sphere. And, finally, the human act of willing is the emergence into the sphere of mind of the orientation of all things in Nature towards the Good. It is this emergence of the orientation of Nature towards the Good into the sphere of mind that gives birth to the ethical and the genuinely human. This in turn manifests as the economic and political spheres, in which the human community acts as part of Nature as a whole and according to the laws of Nature as a whole.



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