We are, in a defining way, beings that live by principles. No other animal on this planet lives by principles (and, admittedly, sometimes it feels that few humans do as well). Yet, what is it, or what does it mean, to be a being that lives by principles? I contend that it is not simply the case that we are such that we CAN live by principles but rather that we DO (whether we realise it or not) live by principles. It is a fundamental part of what it is to be us, as it were, that we be principled beings.
So, what are principles and what does it mean to live by them? Let us work with the short hand that a principle is the fundamental source or basis of something (whether we understand it in the sense of an Arche, or principium, such as the ancient Greeks were looking for, OR in the sense of being the foundations for a system of beliefs or behaviours). Indeed, the latter is a bit more of what I have in mind, but the former would fit into this discussion in interesting and perhaps theoretically amusing ways. So, a principle is a foundation, or that which underlies and upholds something else.Let’s begin with some basic facts from which we can derive several conclusions (that is, let us engage in a process of induction so that we may then engage in a process of deduction).
Fact one. It seems undeniable that persons act. Persons are in act and have activity (they are also in potency and have potentiality). Further, it seems undeniable that most, if not all, of the activity of persons is ordered or structured. Without getting into debates about the underlying theory of human action, suffice to say that human action qua human action is always directed and that it is impossible to understand an action as stemming from a human being that is not, in some way, a directed action (and by directed I have in mind something akin to free).
Fact two. All action can be described and, if it be human action, can be given an explanation. That is to say, can be given reasons for being what it is (at least in principle!). If not from the first person, subjective point of view, then at the very least from the third person point of view. It would seem that Aristotle is up to something like this in the Ethics with his account of the Practical Syllogism.
Fact three (intuitive fact). In order to give an explanation for an action, or a motion of any kind (and I do not mean merely physical movement, e.g. I raise my arm), one must have something in which the explaining is given. That is, there must be explanans and explanandum. Thus, we explain waves on the ocean in terms of wind and gravity, or we explain the movement of subatomic particles in terms of the vibrations of super-strings.
Fact four. At least some human actions qualify as ethical actions. That is, they have the character of being right or wrong and good or bad.
Fact five (intuitive fact). There cannot be an infinite regress of explanations; otherwise no actual explanation in the present will be possible. This is, it is safe to say, nearly an uncontroversial in epistemological circles (except among some rather annoying skeptics). I can think of no reason why it should not also be uncontroversial in ontological circles (again, except for some rather annoying skeptics).
Fact six (intuitive fact). Whatever genuinely explains something must actually possess explanatory power (perhaps this is redundant).
Deduction one. From fact five above it follows that there must be a terminus to a regress of explanations. Any genuine explanation must terminate in something, beyond which there is nothing.
Deduction two. From facts one, two, and three above it follows that human actions or activity can be explained in terms of some more fundamental explanandum (or, more correctly, exlanandi). That is, there is something more fundamental than human activity in terms of which that activity is explained.
Corollary one. From fact four and deduction two above it follows that ethical actions have fundamental explanations of the type we have been speaking about.
Deduction three. From facts two, three, four, and six above it follows that whatever explains ethical actions does so genuinely and from its own explanatory power.
Corollary two. From deductions one, two, and three above it follows that the terminus of ethical action possesses genuine explanatory power for said action and, further, there is no further terminus.
Corollary three. From corollary two above it follows that there can be one, and only one, terminus which is the explanation for all ethical action.
Corollary four. From corollary three and our working definition of a principle, it follows that this one terminus of human ethical action has the character of a first principle.
Corollary five. From corollary two above it follows that there is only one terminus for all action, simpliciter. For, given that ethical action is a species of action simpliciter, (i.e. it is a property of action that it is also ethical), it follows that what is the explanation for ethical action is also explanation for action. Therefore, whatever explained one ethical action also explained one action and, if there is only one terminus for that ethical action there must likewise be one terminus for the action simpliciter. Q.E.D.
Corollary six. From corollary three and five above it follows that all human action is also ethical action.
Corollary seven. From corollary four, five, and six above it follows that there is only one terminus for all human action and that this terminus of explanation has the character of a first principle.
Corollary eight. It follows from corollary seven and six above that all human action can be given ethical explanations in terms of correspondence to this one terminus principle.
Take home point one. This one terminus principle would seem to have the qualities of the first principle of natural law.
Take home point two. From take home point one above it follows that what it means, in a fundamental way, for us to BE is to be ethical beings. Further, we are fundamentally tied to the natural law (as if the name didn’t already give it away).
Take home point three. It follows from all of the above that I was recently listening to lectures on Baruch Spinoza, and may have been overtly attempting to copy his style.