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FYI: Blackstone on the laws of our morally governed nature

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Sometimes, a classic reference provides food for thought:

>>Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765-1769)

Sir William Blackstone

INTRODUCTION, SECTION 2
Of the Nature of Laws in General

Law, in its most general and comprehensive sense, signifies a rule of action; and is applied indiscriminately to all kinds of action, whether animate or inanimate, rational or irrational. Thus we say, the laws of motion, of gravitation, of optics, or mechanics, as well as the laws of nature and of nations. And it is that rule of action, which is prescribed by some superior, and which the inferior is bound to obey.

Thus when the supreme being formed the universe, and created matter out of nothing, he impressed certain principles upon that matter, from which it can never depart, and without which it would cease to be. When he put that matter into motion, he established certain laws of motion, to which all movable bodies must conform. And, to descend from the greatest operations to the smallest, when a workman forms a clock, or other piece of mechanism, he establishes at his own pleasure certain arbitrary laws for its direction; as that the hand shall describe a given space in a given time; to which law as long as the work conforms, so long it continues in perfection, and answers the end of its formation.

If we farther advance, from mere inactive matter to vegetable and animal life, we shall find them still governed by laws; more numerous indeed, but equally fixed and invariable. The whole progress of plants, from the seed to the root, and from thence to the seed again – the method of animal nutrition, digestion, secretion, and all other branches of vital economy – are not left to chance, or the will of the creature itself, but are performed in a wondrous involuntary manner, and guided by unerring rules laid down by the great creator.

This then is the general signification of law, a rule of action dictated by some superior being: and, in those creatures that have neither the power to think, nor to will, such laws must be invariably obeyed, so long as the creature itself subsists, for its existence depends on that obedience. But laws, in their more confined sense, and in which it is our present business to consider them, denote the rules, not of action in general, but of human action or conduct: that is, the precepts by which man, the noblest of all sublunary beings, a creature endowed with both reason and freewill, is commanded to make use of those faculties in the general regulation of his behavior.

Man, considered as a creature, must necessarily be subject to the laws of his creator, for he is entirely a dependent being. A being, independent of any other, has no rule to pursue, but such as he prescribes to himself; but a state of dependence will inevitably oblige the inferior to take the will of him, on whom he depends, as the rule of his conduct: not indeed in every particular, but in all those points wherein his dependence consists. This principle therefore has more or less extent and effect, in proportion as the superiority of the one and the dependence of the other is greater or less, absolute or limited. And consequently, as man depends absolutely upon his maker for every thing, it is necessary that he should in all points conform to his maker’s will.

This will of his maker is called the law of nature. For as God, when he created matter, and endued it with a principle of mobility, established certain rules for the perpetual direction of that motion; so, when he created man, and endued him with freewill to conduct himself in all parts of life, he laid down certain immutable laws of human nature, whereby that freewill is in some degree regulated and restrained, and gave him also the faculty of reason to discover the purport of those laws.

Considering the creator only as a being of infinite power, he was able unquestionably to have prescribed whatever laws he pleased to his creature, man, however unjust or severe. But as be is also a being of infinite wisdom, he has laid down only such laws as were founded in those relations of justice, that existed in the nature of things antecedent to any positive precept. These are the eternal, immutable laws of good and evil, to which the creator himself in all his dispensations conforms; and which he has enabled human reason to discover, so far as they are necessary for the conduct of human actions. Such among others are these principles: that we should live honestly, should hurt nobody, and should render to every one his due; to which three general precepts Justinian1 has reduced the whole doctrine of law.

But if the discovery of these first principles of the law of nature depended only upon the due exertion of right reason, and could not otherwise be obtained than by a chain of metaphysical disquisitions, mankind would have wanted some inducement to have quickened their inquiries, and the greater part of the world would have rested content in mental indolence, and ignorance its inseparable companion. As therefore the creator is a being, not only of infinite power, and wisdom, but also of infinite goodness, he has been pleased so to contrive the constitution and frame of humanity, that we should want no other prompter to inquire after and pursue the rule of right, but only our own self-love, that universal principle of action. For he has so intimately connected, so inseparably interwoven the laws of eternal justice with the happiness of each individual, that the latter cannot be attained but by observing the former; and, if the former be punctually obeyed, it cannot but induce the latter. In consequence of which mutual connection of justice and human felicity, he has not perplexed the law of nature with a multitude of abstracted rules and precepts, referring merely to the fitness or unfitness of things, as some have vainly surmised; but has graciously reduced the rule of obedience to this one paternal precept, “that man should pursue his own true and substantial happiness.” This is the foundation of what we call ethics, or natural law. For the several articles into which it is branched in our systems, amount to no more than demonstrating, that this or that action tends to man’s real happiness, and therefore very justly concluding that the performance of it is a part of the law of nature; or, on the other hand, that this or that action is destructive of man’s real happiness, and therefore that the law of nature forbids it.

This law of nature, being coeval with mankind and dictated by God himself, is of course superior in obligation to any other-It is binding over all the globe in all countries, and at all times; no human laws are of any validity, if contrary to this: and such of them as are valid derive all their force, and all their authority, mediately or immediately, from this original.

But in order to apply this to the particular exigencies of each individual, it is still necessary to have recourse to reason; whose office it is to discover, as was before observed, what the law of nature directs in every circumstance of life: by considering, what method will tend the most effectually to our own substantial happiness.>>

Food for thought. END

11 Replies to “FYI: Blackstone on the laws of our morally governed nature

  1. 1
    kairosfocus says:

    FYI: Blackstone on the laws of our morally governed nature

  2. 2
    Martha K says:

    Very thought provoking. Thank you.

  3. 3

    Excellent post. Thank you.

  4. 4
    Seversky says:

    Wasn’t Jeremy Bentham somewhat critical of Blackstone’s positions in Commentaries

  5. 5
    kairosfocus says:

    Sev, do you really want to go to utilitarianism and its implications? And do you think that mere objection is decisive on warrant? (What does this tell us about the impact, absurdities and follies of falsificationism/ radical fallibilism, hyperskepticism and subjectivism/relativism, not to mention pragmatism?) I also note that Blackstone, notoriously, had direct impact on the US founders and framers and that his Commentaries were in fact the standard legal education textbook for over a century. The above was pivotal, starting with the first two key paragraphs of the US DoI, 1776. KF

    PS: I excerpt with commentaries from that DoI:

    When . . . it becomes necessary for one people . . . to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them [–> cf. OP], a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

    We hold these truths to be self-evident, [–> cf Rom 1:18 – 21, 2:14 – 15, also previous OP’s on SET’s and moral SET’s, also Cicero on law], that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. –That to secure these rights [–> cf Const preamble . . . sets framework for understanding, cf Storey on interpretation, on Blessings of Liberty i/l/o Congressional calls to prayer of esp 1776 May, 1777 Dec, 1779], Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed [–> We the people, in the 12th year of the independence of the USA, and in the year of our Lord 1787], –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. [–> Now, right of general election as a peaceful means, context is dual covenants of nationhood under God and government under God with consent of the governed, and the interposition of lower magistrates acting for the people, including popular representatives such as explicitly Moses; cf reformation era texts from Vindiciae 1579 on and state papers from Dutch DoI 1581] Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security . . . .

    We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions [ –> Cf. Judges 11:27 and discussion in Locke, God’s intercession/judgement against invaders or usurpers requested in battle, also the various calls to prayer by Congress from 1776 on, noting the very specifically Christian nature of the calls to penitence under the favour of God, viewing war etc as a sign of sins opening the way to lifting the umbrella of protective blessing], do, in the Name, and by the Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown [–> Crown having turned towards tyranny and rejected interposition], and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved [–> Terminus of the compacts setting up the states]; and that as Free and Independent States [–> consequence], they have full Power to levy War [–> was was already in progress since April 1775], conclude Peace, contract Alliances [–> France], establish Commerce [–> freedom of the seas to be defended], and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence [–> Cf theology of Providence], we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor [–> Action of the interposed magistrates].

  6. 6
    kairosfocus says:

    PPS: Excerpts Dutch DoI, 1581, re Philip II of Spain as a Hapsburg monarch:

    . . . a prince is constituted by God to be ruler of a people [–> People, i.e. nationhood], to defend them from oppression and violence as the shepherd his sheep [–> civil peace of justice]; and whereas God did not create the people slaves to their prince, to obey his commands, whether right or wrong [–> The just God as supreme], but rather the prince for the sake of the subjects (without which he could be no prince), to govern them according to equity, to love and support them as a father his children or a shepherd his flock, and even at the hazard of life to defend and preserve them. [–> First in the attack, last in the retreat, first in the counter-attack] And when he does not behave thus, but, on the contrary, oppresses them, seeking opportunities to infringe their ancient customs and privileges . . . then he is no longer a prince, but a tyrant [–> tyranny], and the subjects are to consider him in no other view . . . This is the only method left for subjects whose humble petitions and remonstrances could never soften their prince or dissuade him from his tyrannical proceedings [–> interposition]; and this is what the law of nature [–> note this phrase in an explicitly Reformation era context a full century before Locke et al] dictates for the defense of liberty, which we ought to transmit to posterity, even at the hazard of our lives [–> Blessings of liberty] . . . . . So, having no hope of reconciliation, and finding no other remedy, we have, agreeable to the law of nature [–> again] in our own defense, and for maintaining the rights, privileges, and liberties of our countrymen, wives, and children, and latest posterity from being enslaved by the Spaniards, been constrained to renounce allegiance to the King of Spain, and pursue such methods as appear to us most likely to secure our ancient liberties and privileges.

  7. 7
    Bob O'H says:

    In consequence of which mutual connection of justice and human felicity, he has not perplexed the law of nature with a multitude of abstracted rules and precepts, referring merely to the fitness or unfitness of things, as some have vainly surmised; but has graciously reduced the rule of obedience to this one paternal precept, “that man should pursue his own true and substantial happiness.”

    Or, as was observed later, “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.”

    Presumably this means if torturing children for fun will lead to “true and substantial happiness”, it’s morally good by these standards.

  8. 8
    StephenB says:

    KF, thanks for the reference to Blackstone. It’s a timely reminder that some civil laws are just and others are unjust. When asked about their standard of fairness, our adversaries say such inane things as, “the law is the law” or “that is the law of the land,” unless, of course, the law rules against them.

  9. 9
    StephenB says:

    Presumably this means if torturing children for fun will lead to “true and substantial happiness”, it’s morally good by these standards.

    Perverse pleasures are not synonymous with substantial happiness. If a man could become happy by torturing children, the moral law itself would be perverse.

  10. 10
    Bob O'H says:

    StephenB @ 9 –

    Perverse pleasures are not synonymous with substantial happiness.

    I suspect some psychopaths may disagree with you. That you would not find happiness in such acts doesn’t mean that others won’t. People are different.

    If a man could become happy by torturing children, the moral law itself would be perverse.

    Indeed, which was my point. If the moral law is akin to “do what thou wilt”, then it’s missing something, and I don’t think making the assumption that this means people will therefore be nice to each other is realistic. Some will, some won’t. Again, people are different.

  11. 11
    Seversky says:

    Thus when the supreme being formed the universe, and created matter out of nothing, he impressed certain principles upon that matter, from which it can never depart, and without which it would cease to be.

    “Created matter out of nothing”. I doubt even an all-powerful creator could do that, any more than he could make a square circle. As we’ve agreed before, if there had ever actually been nothing, there would still be nothing.

    But laws, in their more confined sense, and in which it is our present business to consider them, denote the rules, not of action in general, but of human action or conduct: that is, the precepts by which man, the noblest of all sublunary beings, a creature endowed with both reason and freewill, is commanded to make use of those faculties in the general regulation of his behavior.

    So Blackstone endorses the principle that humanity draws up the laws and, by extension, the moral codes by which the behavior of individuals in society is regulated.

    Man, considered as a creature, must necessarily be subject to the laws of his creator, for he is entirely a dependent being. A being, independent of any other, has no rule to pursue, but such as he prescribes to himself; but a state of dependence will inevitably oblige the inferior to take the will of him, on whom he depends, as the rule of his conduct: not indeed in every particular, but in all those points wherein his dependence consists.

    This is suspect as it is effectively saying that might makes right which, in my view, is indefensible.

    This will of his maker is called the law of nature. For as God, when he created matter, and endued it with a principle of mobility, established certain rules for the perpetual direction of that motion; so, when he created man, and endued him with freewill to conduct himself in all parts of life, he laid down certain immutable laws of human nature, whereby that freewill is in some degree regulated and restrained, and gave him also the faculty of reason to discover the purport of those laws.

    These may be Blackstone’s personal religious beliefs but they are not necessarily shared by the rest of us.

    Considering the creator only as a being of infinite power, he was able unquestionably to have prescribed whatever laws he pleased to his creature, man, however unjust or severe. But as be is also a being of infinite wisdom, he has laid down only such laws as were founded in those relations of justice, that existed in the nature of things antecedent to any positive precept. These are the eternal, immutable laws of good and evil, to which the creator himself in all his dispensations conforms; and which he has enabled human reason to discover, so far as they are necessary for the conduct of human actions.

    So Blackstone endorses the view that God is as much bound by moral codes as we are.

    For he has so intimately connected, so inseparably interwoven the laws of eternal justice with the happiness of each individual, that the latter cannot be attained but by observing the former; and, if the former be punctually obeyed, it cannot but induce the latter. In consequence of which mutual connection of justice and human felicity, he has not perplexed the law of nature with a multitude of abstracted rules and precepts, referring merely to the fitness or unfitness of things, as some have vainly surmised; but has graciously reduced the rule of obedience to this one paternal precept, “that man should pursue his own true and substantial happiness.” This is the foundation of what we call ethics, or natural law.

    I wonder how Blackstone addresses the problem of the psychopath who creates happiness for himself by creating great unhappiness for others.

    This law of nature, being coeval with mankind and dictated by God himself, is of course superior in obligation to any other-It is binding over all the globe in all countries, and at all times; no human laws are of any validity, if contrary to this: and such of them as are valid derive all their force, and all their authority, mediately or immediately, from this original.

    The Divine Right of Kings transposed into the Divine Right of Laws? Sorry, not for me.

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