Frank van Dun        Ph.D., Dr.Jur.     -    Senior lecturer Philosophy of Law.


  
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NATURAL LAW

SECTION 1
The concept of natural law  
Theory and praxis 
The natural law of mankind
Nature and convention
Current neglect of natural law
Positive law  
The caricature of  natural law
Rationalising injustice 
Natural law and morality 

SECTION 2 
Natural rights


 

The concept of natural law

The word 'law' means order, hence natural law is simply the natural order. In the sense in which natural law is relevant to jurists, it is the natural order of persons -- specifically, the order of natural persons: human beings that are capable of rational, purposive action, speech and thought. In short, natural law is the natural order of the human world.

Laws are patterns of order. Hence, natural laws are patterns of natural order -- and, in the juristically relevant sense, patterns of order among natural persons. 

Theory and praxis of natural law

A student of natural law studies the natural order of the human world. His primary theoretical objective is to discover and to identify the natural laws of the human world -- in short, it is to answer the question 'What is the natural law?'  Clearly, that theoretical objective implies no positive or negative valuation of that order -- its purpose is not to argue that the natural law ought to be respected. The theoretical study of natural law is a 'value-free' undertaking. 

Of course, not only jurists but also economists, anthropologists, and practitioners of other scientific disciplines as well, study the patterns of order in the human world. However, whereas, for example, economists focus on how orderly patterns of coordinated actions emerge in the human world, jurists focus on the order of persons as such. Their concern is with the conditions in which human persons can be and are distinguished properly from one another and from other things. By implication, they are also concerned with the conditions in which persons are or are likely to be confused with one another or with other things.   

The primary practical objective of the juristic study of natural law is to propose rules or practical principles that, if followed by human beings, are likely to maintain, strengthen and restore respect for the natural order of the human world. They are the principles and rules of justice. The word 'justice' literally means that which is conducive to ius. Like the word 'law' itself, 'ius' denotes the natural order of persons that are capable of solemn speech (Latin iurare, French jurer), of undertaking and honoring commitments and agreements (which are also called iura). In short, justice is the art of making law (Latin ius) prevail. 

Of course, the practical objective of the juristic study of natural law presupposes not only that we [can] know what the order of the human world is but also that it is a respectable order -- one that people ought to respect. In its practical aspect, the study of natural law is not a 'value-free' undertaking. A significant part of the philosophy of natural law concerns analysis and evaluation of arguments that set out to prove or to disprove the statement that people ought to respect the natural law. 

The most obvious (and to most people for all practical purposes sufficient) reason why we ought to respect the natural law primarily involves the fact that not doing so usually causes immediate harm or loss to some innocent people and is likely in the long rum to be harmful to many more. The harm results from the fact that in not respecting the natural law one fails to distinguish properly between persons and other things, or between one person and another.  

Note, however, that the assumption of the respectability of the natural law is compatible with the assumption that not respecting the natural law may, and often does, benefit those who do not respect it and perhaps others as well. However, unlike the utilitarian philosophers, the natural lawyers make a distinction between, on the one hand, justly or lawfully acquired benefits and justly or lawfully suffered harms and, on the other hand, benefits acquired and harms suffered as a consequence of unjust or unlawful actions. They can do this if the distinctions between persons, and between persons and other things are objective--which is something that few people doubt.

Opponents of natural law believe that there is no natural order of the human world or else that it is not a respectable order. Hence, they see no reason why they (or anybody else) should respect the distinctions that define that order.

The natural law of the human world

There is nothing mysterious about the natural law of the human world. To repeat, it is the order of natural persons -- human beings that are capable of rational, purposive action, speech and thought. 

Each one of us by nature is an element of the human world and each one us by nature is capable of doing, thinking and saying things, independently of what others are doing, thinking and saying at the same time. This independence marks each one of us as a separate person. It is true, of course, that people depend on others for many things and that we generally can succeed in what we do only with the passive or active cooperation of others. However, that cooperation is never automatic. It must be willed. It can be given or withheld. It implies our existence as separate persons, as individual personalities.

The separateness of human persons is the natural law of the human world, the fundamental fact as far as our life as rational beings is concerned. It is fundamental to our biology, psychology and praxeology--to our lives, thoughts, feelings, and actions. 

However, the fact that we are rational does not guarantee that we are reasonable persons. It also does not guarantee that we always act and speak justly. We can think, speak and act reasonably and justly, in ways that respect the fundamental given of our existence as separate persons. We also can think, speak and act unreasonably and unjustly, in ways that inadvertently or purposively fail to respect it. 

If we do not respect the fact of our existence as separate persons then we create disorder in the human world. This happens, for example, when we try to obfuscate our true identity, leading others to believe that what we say or do are the words or deeds of others. It happens when we try to obfuscate the true identity of another person to lead others to believe that his or her words or actions were really our own. It happens when we unilaterally take another's work and make it appear that it was our own. It happens when we act towards another as if he or she were not a person at all but a thing or animal that we may use unilaterally as a means or resource for our own ends.  It happens most clearly when we treat another as a mere object that we may hit or hurt at our own pleasure. It also happens, and on a large scale, in most political societies that practice the arts of taking from some to give to others and of burdening or crippling some to give others a 'competitive advantage'. 

Actions of that kind create disorder in the human world because they make it difficult -- and, unless stopped and undone fairly quickly, even impossible -- to tell who said, did or produced what. They prevent us from correctly assigning responsibility or liability, praise or blame, by obfuscating the difference between the producer and the parasite, the felon and his victim, the agent and the patient,  the guilty and the innocent, the debtor and the creditor, and so on. In short, they interfere, sometimes intentionally, with the data that are essential to the working of our 'moral compass'. 

Such actions are rightly called unlawful and also injustices, because they deny or aim to deny to another what is rightly his -- in particular, of course, his existence and identity as a person. Indeed, the two main kinds of injustices are, first, treating a person as not a person at all and, second, treating him as if he were someone else. 

On the other hand, when we do respect the basic fact of our existence as separate persons, we maintain the order of the human world in what we do and say. No person is mistaken for a mere thing or animal; no person is mistaken for another. Then, we make sure that we can attribute every word, every action, every product to its true author or owner. In doing that, we are acting justly. In the words of a great Roman jurist, we attribute to each what is rightly his.

Basic patterns of order in the human world are respect for other persons and their property (see also Natural rights), and as an immediate consequence, the assumption of personal responsibility and liability for one's own acts whether they occur in the course of the execution of agreements (contracts) or not. Human actions that conform to those patterns avoid and forestall the confusion about persons that is the essence of injustice. Justice, to repeat, is concerned with devising principles, rules and methods of action the application of which ensures that conformity or seeks to restore it when there have been deviations.

It follows that while justice requires us to respect other persons, it also requires us to act against those who by their unlawful acts fail to respect others. That does not mean the requirements of justice are contradictory. A person who inadvertently or in a temporary fit violates the natural law can always volunteer to undo his transgression or to submit to a procedure of arbitration to determine the kind and amount of restitution he owes to another. No violent action against such a tort-feasor is necessary. 

However, one who refuses to undo his transgression and instead willfully and knowingly retains something that belongs to his victim and seeks to 'flee from justice' thereby announces that he wants to be outside the law. He announces that he does not want to be part of the world of human persons but wants to be a criminal, an indiscriminating person who refuses to recognize the separate and independent existence of his victim. He maintains a situation in which it is impossible for the victim (or one of his lawful successors) to have and enjoy what is rightly his without doing violence to the criminal. Consequently, the victims (or their lawful successors) do not commit an injustice when they use violence and force against a criminal to the extent that is necessary to restore respect for law. 

Nature and convention

Because the principles of justice apply to human beings as such, they are as valid for those who happen to occupy the social position of a king, a ruler or a politician as they are for those who occupy the social position of a subject, a servant or a citizen. Generally, the demands of justice are independent of one's social position, role or function. They are demands on natural persons, whatever their social status, whether they have a social status or not. Moreover, the demands that justice makes on you are the same whether the persons with whom you are dealing are, or are not, members of any social group to which you belong -- whether they are acquaintances or strangers.  

To make the same point in different words, natural law is not the order of any society or social organization (in Dutch maatschappij); it is not concerned with the complex and often fanciful social distinctions of status or position, role or function that characterize such an organization. Rather, it is the order of conviviality (literally, the order of living together, cf. Dutch samenleving) of people as people. 

The conditions of conviviality are universal, independent of time and place; they are the same here and now as they were in Ancient China or Ancient Greece. The reason is that conviviality is a relation between natural persons, and human nature is not different here and now from what it was there and then. Of course, some and perhaps most of our customs and regulations here and now are very different from the customs and the regulations of those ancient civilizations in any period of their existence. So are our clothes and tools. But none of those things has any bearing on the natural law or the conditions of conviviality that the rules and principles of justice aim to preserve. They are conventional things, not natural things -- and, as already the Greek Sophists of Antiquity pointed out, it is a grave mistake to confuse nature and convention, or the relative notions of legality or social conformism and the universal notion of justice. It is sensible to demand that our customs, regulations and conventions conform to the requirements of justice. To demand that we derive our notion of justice from our social conventions is like insisting that we derive the proportions of a healthy body from the clothes in our wardrobe.

Unlike the natural law, which is in the nature of things and therefore unaffected by desire or opinion, social orders are always conventional. They reflect what at least some people at a particular time and place want, hope for and fear, and how they think they can achieve their goals and avoid what they perceive as dangers. The proponents of a given social order are likely to insist on a general respect for the conventions of their society, whether these are in accordance with principles of justice or not. However, as even a cursory knowledge of history soon will reveal, few conventions can stand the test of time. With changing circumstances, knowledge, technologies, sources of wealth, ambitions, opinions and beliefs, not only the support for but also the raison d'Ítre of particular conventions may wax or wane. Evidently, the factors of social change may well affect also the support of various groups in society for the principles of justice, but they do not, and cannot, affect the raison d'Ítre of those principles. 

Throughout history, many societies have perfected the art of organizing injustice by the skilful application of techniques of human resources management: punishments and rewards, intimidation, threats and promises, propaganda and indoctrination. To most members of those societies, the injustice of their conventional life is thereby hidden from view -- at least it is a taboo, which it is dangerous to question in public. However, outsiders, contemplating such societies from a safe distance in space or time, readily can see the injustice of their conventions. We need not be specialists in the social organization of Ancient Rome to know that Roman slavery was a paradigm of injustice, but unless we have some knowledge of Roman Law, we have no way of knowing whether it was legal or not. 

Current neglect of natural law

Nowadays, the study of natural law virtually has been banned from the training of lawyers. What remains of it in the academic curriculum of most law schools is no more than a little bit of 'intellectual history', which is devoted mainly to the works of a handful of ancient, medieval and early modern writers and philosophers. Often, students get the impression that natural law is something that can be found only in books (in the same way that statutory law, the verdicts of courts and international treaties are mere texts). They are led to believe that the natural law is nothing but a collection of theories of natural law. It is not. Nor, of course, is the physical universe nothing but a collection of theories of physics.

The practice of natural law also has been eliminated almost completely by the legal profession. Very often, the study and the practice of natural law are scorned if not ridiculed.

The reasons for this desultory attitude towards natural law are many. One reason is ideological. Many people subscribe to an ideology that is virulently anti-human. They do not think that there is anything respectable about human beings as they are. Usually, they combine this belief with the idea that 'human nature can and should be changed' so as to make it conform to their own ideal of Man. Thus, they claim that men and women should be taught or forced not to respect the order of human world but to respect instead the imaginary 'normative order' that the ideologues prefer. They should be forced or taught not to respect one another for the human beings they are but only the ideal 'new man' that they should become. 

However, the most important reason for the negative attitude is that the legal profession has discovered that there is much more money to be made from focusing on highly politicized complex, constantly changing systems of social regulation than it ever could hope to make from the study and practice of natural law. 

In the present condition of civilization, people generally have more to fear from their government than from occasional acts of criminality or negligence committed by their likes. In the course of history, states have monopolized rule-enforcement within their territories. Not surprisingly, they have given more attention to enforcing their own regulations than to enforcing the rules of justice. After all, the purpose of a state is not the enforcement of the rules of justice but making people comply with its own demands and regulations. Moreover, if states were really intent on eradicating injustice then they would achieve by far the greatest part of their purpose by eradicating themselves -- for whatever it is states generally do, respecting persons or their property is no part of it.

Justice, then, is only an accidental and often marginal concern of the state. On the other hand, legality or conformity to the rules it imposes or wants to be obeyed is its central concern. (The word 'legality' derives from the Latin lex, which denotes a general command issued by a public authority, which originally was a military authority.)

Understandably, in such circumstances, people are willing to pay more for advice on how to keep the government and its agents off their backs and on their side than for advice on seeking justice. Unlike the basic principles of justice, which any person with a modicum of common sense can discover for himself, social regulations are merely what other people say they are. The only way to get to know the regulations is to pay close attention to what those others are saying. Few people have the time or the inclination to do that; most of them are willing to pay for information and advice about such regulations if and when they need it. 

Lawyers have responded to that situation by abandoning the study and practice of law and becoming specialists in current social regulation. However, rather than admit as much openly, they generally have tended to redefine the word 'law' so that it now is virtually synonymous with politically imposed or sanctioned social regulation.

Positive law

'Law', indeed, now usually refers to some national system of social regulation -- a system of social regulation imposed by the rulers of a nation-state and otherwise coordinated by their agents and servants. By extension, 'law' now refers also to regulatory systems to which the rulers and diplomatic agents of various nation-states have agreed. All of this goes under the academic label of 'positive law', which covers any one of the many particular imposed ('posited') systems of regulation by legal rules that we find in various politically organized societies.  

Positive law consists of the elements of such a system, for example its legislative, executive, administrative, judiciary and military and police 'organs', its offices and officers, the rules they follow and apply, and the decisions they make. Those systems have no necessary connection with natural law or justice. They define only what is legal in a particular society, not what is lawful among human beings. 

The positive law is not the natural order of the human world. It is the artificial order that some powerful people (individuals and groups) in a particular society currently try to impose on others. It is an order, not of relations among human persons as such, but of relations among social positions, roles and functions. Thus the positive law of a particular country tells us what powers, immunities, rights, duties, claims and liabilities legally attach to the social positions, roles and functions of a general, a minister, a representative of the people, a citizen, a registered alien, a pensioner, a police man, and so on. In the same way, the rules of chess tell us what a king, queen, knight, pawn or other piece is or can or cannot do. 

Like a king or queen in chess, a general, citizen or police officer is not a natural person but a position or function in a particular sort of game (usually and grandiloquently referred to as 'a social system'). Typically, the position is occupied and the function performed by a human natural person but that need not be the case. It is a grave mistake to confuse the position with its occupant. Whatever the positive law [of this or that country] may tell us about what a citizen is, or can or cannot do, it tells us nothing about what a human person who happens to fill that position at a given moment is or what he or she can or cannot do.  

Positive law, then, pertains primarily to 'artificial persons', to social positions, roles and functions within a particular social organization, especially one that is imposed by a state or a group of states. It pertains to human beings only indirectly, to the extent that they are supposed to supply the physical and intellectual labor that those positions require. In other words, it pertains to human beings as means or resources for organizing social activity.  

However, it is conceivable -- in some cases, it already is a fact -- that automated machines take the place of human suppliers of socially required labor. Conceivably, a social organization could develop so that it becomes independent of the availability of human persons to supply particular skills. Then human beings are reduced to the status of mere objects to which social action can be applied. If and when that happens the relations between human individuals and 'society' are analogous to the relations between cattle and a farmer or between a collection of pets and their caretaker. Such an outcome is in fact the wish of [philosophical] socialists, who accept at least one and usually both of the following propositions: 1) Individuals belong to society, which therefore has the right to make them obey its prescriptions; 2) Society should take care of individuals because individuals are incapable of decently managing their own lives and affairs.  

Positive law, when taken to its logical socialist extreme, is the scheme by means of which 'society' manages its human and other resources, analogous to the schemes a farmer uses to manage or take care of his human and other resources. 

It follows that positive law has no logical or necessary connection with human life and action. The concept of 'positive law', as noted before, is the concept of an artificial order -- an order of artificial persons.

However, no matter how much social regulation there may be, as long as human nature is what it is and always has been, the search for knowledge and understanding of the natural order of the human world remains a valid objective. 

The positivists' caricature of natural law

Regrettably, students nowadays get most of their information about natural law from positivists, whose understanding of it is virtually nil. For the positivists, as we have seen, 'law' denotes a set of legal rules and associated juridical verdicts and administrative decisions. Positive law, for them, is such a set -- namely, one that is currently effectively 'posited' (imposed, adhered to by the rulers and their followers in a given society). Consequently, positivists can only think of natural law as another set of rules, verdicts and decisions -- namely, one that is not 'posited' by the authorities in a given society but by some mythical, supernatural or impersonal imagined authority (God, Nature, Reason, or what have you).

Thus, the positivists think of natural law as an alternative system of rules, verdicts and decisions that supposedly applies to, or regulates, the same things as does the positive law. This is a serious mistake. 

Rules, verdicts or decisions are things one can obey or disobey. However, to say that one can obey or disobey the natural law makes no sense at all. The natural law, as noted before, is an order of things (in particular, an order of persons). Such an order one cannot obey or disobey. One only can respect it or fail to respect it. Now, respecting an order of things does not imply obeying that order -- no more than respecting a person implies obeying that person; no more than respecting an old building implies obeying that building.

To repeat, the natural law is the natural order, the order of conviviality of natural persons. It is not concerned with any artificial order (say, the order of kings, queens, knights, pawns, etcetera in the 'social system' of chess, or the order of presidents, members of the cabinet, secretaries of state, MP's, or citizens in the 'game' of some State). 

The natural law and the positive law are not alternative systems of rules that apply to the same thing. The natural law is the law of natural persons and positive law is a law of artificial persons. Thus, natural law and positive law relate to different things. Therefore, a conflict between natural law and positive law is conceivable only because the artificial persons of the positive law are no more than social positions, roles and functions that -- at least for the time being -- happen to be occupied, or performed, by natural persons. Even so, there is a real conflict only for those intellectual and moral weaklings who derive their self-esteem from their identification with their social position. A mature adult is supposed to know the difference between the real world and the games people play, between the natural and the artificial. He or she is supposed to be able to keep such things in perspective. 

Rationalising injustice

An old but adequate definition of the natural law of the human world is that it is an order of freedom among likes. Human beings are free (in the sense of separateness and independence that we noted above) and they are all alike (in the sense of being members of the same natural species).

The practical objective of the student of natural law is to instill respect for that order of freedom among likes -- that is, to instill the sense and practice of justice.  That respect obviously has personal costs because in many circumstances a person or group can profit enormously from not respecting other persons or their property. On many occasions, crime, dishonesty, fraud and shifting the blame do pay -- sometimes handsomely, especially when they are organized on a large scale.

Justice often requires that you do not do what you have the power to do. Thus, the powerful and the influential, be they individuals, groups or organizations, usually find justice to be a hindrance to the realization of their designs. The same is true, on a theoretical level, for many ideologues and idealists. They understand that the implementation of their ideas and ideals for 'another and better world' would be virtually impossible if it had to conform to the requirements of justice -- if they had to respect not only the different ideas and ideals but also the skepticism of others.

Here, we can see part of the point of H.L.Mencken's famous saying that 'Injustice is relative easy to bear; it is justice that stings'. Justice, if rigorously enforced, deprives the powerful, the ideologues and the idealists of much of the possibilities for enacting their schemes. Justice, if cherished as an objective value, stands as a forceful rebuke of the self-congratulation with which such people usually propose their plans and projects.

Clearly, many people have a strong interest in 'debunking justice', that is, in 'rationalizing injustice'. (Usually, of course, this debunking takes the form of 'redefining' justice as something else than justice: few are willing to forego the prestige that the word 'justice' has accumulated throughout the ages.)

Because justice is respect for the order of freedom among likes, debunking justice proceeds by attacking the respectability of either freedom or likeness ('equality'). This can be done in either of two ways:

* 1) by arguing that freedom (the separateness or independence of persons) or equality (the likeness of persons) does not exist, that it is at best an illusion that can be dispelled by adopting some 'true metaphysical system'; or
* 2) by arguing that freedom or equality, though an actual property of human persons, is not a respectable property, perhaps even a dangerous one.

Thus, Plato (and a long line of political thinkers after him) argued that likeness (equality) was a fact, but that people ought to be taught that it was not, lest they refuse to accept the different benefits and burdens that come with different positions in a politically organized society. Aristotle, on the other hand, argued that likeness is but a superficial illusion. Thus, he taught that there is no true likeness between Greeks and barbarians and that consequently there was nothing wrong with the superior Greeks holding other inferior people as slaves. 

Rousseau (and many socialists after him) maintained that human freedom was a fact of nature but that people should be taught to believe that it is dangerous and that they ought to renounce their human nature in favor of the artificial condition of citizenship. In that condition, everybody is supposed to be a creature, not of nature, but of the laws (leges) enacted by the state (which is but name of the collectivity of citizens). In short, natural persons should become artificial persons, that is citizens -- wittingly or unwittingly, willingly or by legal compulsion.

Marx, on the other hand, appealed to the much more radical idea of universal socialism. He claimed that no human being is free but that only the human species can be free. As far as individuals are concerned, freedom is an illusion. Hence, it can not justify any claim. However, those who identify themselves with humanity as a whole are universal individuals. As 'species-beings',  who know themselves to be identical with the human race, they are the true communists. As such, they represent a superior evolution of mankind. They should not be deterred by the illusions of morality and justice of those who still are mired in the false consciousness of their particular individuality.

Politicians and power-seekers have little use for the metaphysical systems underlying such attempts to debunk natural law and justice. However, they usually are more than willing to refer to the prestige of such systems among intellectuals to justify attempts to impose systems of regulation that are in flagrant violation of the principles of justice. 

A potent motive for debunking justice in the Western world stems from the fact that justice is central to the Christian outlook on the human condition. With the rise of anti-Christian and anticlerical movements in Europe, many people have been led to extend their sometimes valid criticism of Christian theologies and Church practices to everything the Christian tradition stands for -- especially its commitment to justice as the primary virtue of human relations.

Sometimes this criticism extends even farther, amounting to a debunking of every moral notion whatsoever, whether Christian or not. Hence, many have been led to espouse the ideology that mankind must be liberated from 'the shackles of morality' and be taught to live 'beyond good and evil' or beyond 'freedom and dignity'. The argument suggests that this would be for the good of Man -- not, course, for his 'moral' good but for his 'utilitarian' good, the satisfaction of his desires.

By making the satisfaction of desire the supreme good of Man, such views provide justification for the idea that others may be sacrificed and coercively regulated whenever they stand in the way of what one believes to be desirable for Man -- or, to use the fashionable euphemism, in the way of Man's democratically expressed desires. However, because this 'Man' is not a real individual but merely a statistical construct, those views tend to reduce human individuals to a statistic for use in some (usually unspecified) calculus of utility-maximization.

Natural law and morality

One of the major positivistic critiques of natural law theory is that it confuses law and morality. Indeed, there is a close connection between natural law and morality, but it is not the sort of connection that positivists take for granted. 

As we have seen, in its practical aspect, the study of natural law assumes that people ought to respect the natural order and consequently ought to abide by the principles and rules of justice. According to the positivist critique, this supposedly amounts to a confusion of law and morality. It does not. 

As with social conventions and regulations, it makes sense to demand that one's morality conform to the natural order of the human world. It does not make sense to demand that the natural order of the human world conform to one's moral convictions.

The truth is that a morality (or moral theory) that is not predicated on respect for the natural order of the human world must condone injustice and therefore reasonably cannot claim to have universal validity. Thieves, robbers, conquistadors, politicians -- all of them may develop a morality of their own and take great pride in it (as, supposedly, mafiosi take great pride in their code of honor), but one hardly can expect their victims and subjects to share their feelings for it.

Respect for the natural law is a precondition of morality. This is not to say that because there is only one natural law there can be no more than one morality. On the contrary, there may be any number of different moralities, all of which are compatible with respect for the natural law. 

To understand this, keep in mind that the purpose of a morality is to direct a person in living 'a good life'. Obviously, no person can discover what the good life for him is except through the actual experience of his life, his personality and circumstances. The knowledge of those things is not innate. Because of its purpose, a morality is 'agent-relative'. If it is carefully constructed on the basis of relevant facts about a person, his life and circumstances, it is objectively valid for that person, but not necessarily for any other. At the limit, every person may have his or her own true 'moral theory'. However, all of those moralities must presuppose the respectability of the same natural law, if they are to be at all valid. One that does not necessarily will direct a person to be unjust towards others. It cannot be a respectable moral theory and therefore will not be able to lend any weight to claims and arguments that are based on it.

Moreover, respect for the natural law is a necessary condition for learning how to be moral. One's experience by itself does not tell one whether, or to what extent, one's ideas on how to navigate the sea of life are compatible with the ideas of others. In that regard, a person's experience is instructive only when the natural law is respected -- when there is a reasonable amount of order in the human world. Then, people can be reasonably sure that they face, and have to give accounts for, the consequences of all, and only, their own words and actions. 

Where the natural law is not respected, there is confusion about who did, produced or said what. Then people have no way of knowing whether they are doing well by doing good or by doing evil, or whether they are doing badly despite doing good. Only experience can tell them whether they are doing well or badly; but only when their experiments in living are not contaminated by confusion about who said, did, or produced what, can they learn much from the results of their own words, actions and work. 

Thus, where the natural law is not respected, responsibility and liability are likely to be directed to the wrong persons. Consequently, bad (irresponsible, hence immoral) behavior is likely to generate undue rewards, while good (responsible, hence moral) behavior is likely to remain fruitless. Under such conditions, being a responsible, moral person 'does not pay' while irresponsibility and immorality are, as it were, subsidized. 

Social organizations often are set up expressly to divert and even dissipate responsibility and liability. That is particularly true in political societies. For example, in democratic states, the responsibility and liability for the actions and decisions of ruling politicians are diverted to something called 'the voter', 'the electorate' or 'the citizen'. However, if we try to pin liability on 'the voter' we immediately discover that the rules of the democratic game do not permit us to do so. Responsibility and liability are dissipated completely. There is nothing in the rules of the voting game that might discourage people from acting irresponsibly. In their political roles, they are encouraged to act as if they owed respect to no one. 

To take another example: under present institutional arrangements, decisions of a few central bankers (in the American Federal Reserve System , the European Central Bank, or the Bank of Japan) have repercussions on the lives and fortunes of hundreds of millions of people. Yet, they are not liable for what they do. As long as they stay within the rules of the game, they have the 'perfect excuse' of 'only doing their job'. As for the politicians who organized that game and created the positions of those monetary potentates in the first place, they also have a 'perfect excuse': the central bank is 'independent'.  Having been socialized, money -- which is the medium of exchange and the primary condition of coordination among large numbers of people -- now is divorced completely from the natural law and hence from moral life. 

 

Bibliographical note:

For a detailed analysis of the concept of an order of [natural] persons, see The Logic of Law (djvu) and Natural Law, a Logical Analysis (pdf).

For more on the distinction between artificial social orders ('societies') and the natural convivial order, see The Lawful and The Legal (html).