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Aristotle, with whom this discussion must begin, posits the starting considerations in his opening lines of the Nicomachean Ethics: “Every craft and every line of inquiry, and likewise every action and decision, seems to seek some good; that is why some people were right to describe the good as what everything seeks.”[i] Notice that goodness is the subject matter of ethics once we notice that it is the object of human action. Interestingly, Aristotle anticipated two millennia beforehand what G.E. Moore would call the Naturalistic Fallacy. That is, Moore claimed that there is simply no set definition for “good”, and it is the naturalistic fallacy because whatever it is that we mean by “good” cannot be a natural property;[ii] i.e. it cannot be a fact of the matter discernible from something that is natural.[iii] Aristotle, and the tradition of natural law after him, will and must deny this claim to a fallacy. To say that there is a fact of the matter, and thus something is good or not, is not a fallacy. Notice, also, that this is to deny the so-called Hume’s Law, which is slightly different and potentially more potent. One can indeed move from statements of how or what a thing is to statements of how or what a thing ought to do; that is, there is no is/ought dichotomy.[iv] For example, if one is seeking one day Guinness as a good and pepto-bismol the next as a good, is one not forced to say that the two are the same thing, in the sense of numerical identity, namely good?[v] One simple reply, albeit not complete, is to point out that this is a problem of the use of general terms. In saying that Irenaeus is a man and that Origen is a man, we are not saying that Irenaeus is Origen, in the sense of numerical identity. We should not conclude, then, that there is nothing about them that disallows us from calling both “man”. Indeed, the difference here is that “goodness” is an analogical term and “man” is a univocal term.[vi]

We are able to make this second bold conjecture, concerning natural goodness, given teleological considerations. Human action, the subject of ethical theory, is purposeful. That is, all action is undertaken for the sake of some end, and this is considered good. The question, then, is what are the criteria for the good? Natural law makes use of the concept of teleological actions and ends because we are teleological creatures. That is, if human action is to have a moral character it must be about something, and that something which it is about is us. However, it is about us in a fundamental way: all human action is moral, given that it is sought for the sake of some (apparent) good, and this good is good just in case it is the sort of action that perfects or fulfills our natures as human persons.[vii] St. Thomas Aquinas speaks of human action as under the auspices of “the formality of goodness,” sub ratione boni.[viii] That is, whenever someone chooses something, or to act in some way, it is chosen since it is taken to be perfective of that person’s nature. This might not be realised, but all action is directed towards a perceived good. Thus, there is a distinction between some particular thing that is sought and the reason for which it is sought. A genuine moral reason must have the character of goodness, that is, must be genuinely rational; it must be directed towards the perfection of the agent. This feature of action under the ratio boni, the rational good, is common to all humans and thus applicable to all action. Aquinas puts the point succinctly in the Summa Theologica when he states:

Every individual human act needs to have some circumstance, at least regarding an intended act, that causes the act to be good or evil. For, since it belongs to reason to order, acts that issue from reason by deliberation, if they are not ordered to proper ends, are by that very fact contrary to reason and have the character of evil. And if the acts are ordered to proper ends, they are in accord with reason and have the character of good. But human acts are necessarily either ordered or not ordered to proper ends. And so every act by human beings that issues from reason by deliberation, every act individually considered, is necessarily morally good or evil.[ix]

Aquinas can say this given that he understands human action as having a bearing on what we are. This he inherits from Aristotle and helps to clarify: every action that is undertaken has an affect upon whom and what we are, and it does so precisely because of what we are.[x]

This is moving ahead of the story. First, the question must be asked as to what human action is directed towards. It has already been said to be the good, but why? All action, whether moral or immoral, is undertaken with the understanding that it is good and fulfills our nature as humans. Thus, the next question is what is the human nature? Here we take our clue from Aristotle once again. Humans are rational animals, in the least. Both parts of the definition are significant, as animal picks out the genus and rational is the specific difference. That is, “rational” picks out that essential characteristic of humans that separates them from all other animals. As such, it is at the core of the human essence to be rational. Any consideration of ethical theory must take this into consideration, then, as the starting point for discourse. We can understand this as a type of “Intelligibility Principle” for actions with moral worth; but this will be discussed more later. If we do not know precisely who and what we are it is implausible and irresponsible to posit a theory of ethics; we must understand ontologically what humans are before we can say what they can do, and further what they ought to do.


[i] Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. Terence Irwin editor. Indianapolis, Hacket Publishing Company, 1999, (1094a1)

[ii] See Moore’s Principia Ethica, page 9: “Good, then, if we mean by it that quality which we assert to belong to a thing, when we say that the things is good, is incapable of any definition, in the most important sense of that word.” Further, see his chapter II.

[iii] By “natural” here is meant ordinary middle-sized dry goods like mountains and sunsets, or ethical considerations like being honest or charitable.

[iv] One is reminded of MacIntyre’s example of a ship captain. From the fact that there is a ship captain we can infer that he ought to be a good ship captain and act in such a way as a good ship captain acts. The moral injunction is built into the very concept of a ship captain. As we will see, not all natural law theorists accept this denial and still hold to the is/ought dichotomy.

[v] I borrow this example from Ralph McInerny, who has a positive drove of witty examples.

[vi] Remembering the medieval distinction between three ways of predicating, univocally, analogically, and equivocally, is a helpful tool.

[vii] See McInerny, Ralph. Ethica Thomistica: the Moral Philosophy of Thomas Aquinas. Washington D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1997, pages 5-7.

[viii] See McInerny, 26-27, and further Summa Theologiae I-II, Q.16, C.

[ix] Aquinas. A Summary of Philosophy. Edited by Richard Regan. Indianapolis: Hacket Publishing Company, 2003, (138). See Summa Theologiae I-II, Q.18, A.9.

[x] As C.S. Lewis said, putting the point into a theological context, “And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing either into a heavenly creature or into a hellish creature.” Mere Christianity. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1978 (page 86).

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