Whenever philosophy seems abstruse, hairsplitting, or frivolous, it’s worth meditating on G. K. Chesterton’s definition of what philosophy is all about:

Philosophy is merely thought that has been thought out. It is often a great bore. But man has no alternative, except between being influenced by thought that has been thought out and being influenced by thought that has not been thought out.

In the interest of thinking through our thoughts—specifically, our thoughts about how we ought to live—this article is the first in a series of three about natural law ethics. In this first installment, we give a general account of some problems about ‘social reality’ for ethics. In the next article, we apply the account sketched here to the issue of abortion as well as other difficult moral problems, and show how to apply the principle of double effect. In the final piece in the series, we address some of the main big-picture objections to the project of natural law ethics.

Natural law ethics is perhaps unique among competing contemporary moral theories in the degree to which it attempts to respect the distinctiveness of moral experience while, at the same time, fitting its account of that experience into a general picture of the world. To be committed to the project of natural law ethics is to be committed, at least to some extent, to the thesis that ethical principles draw their content from natural facts, facts about the essential constitution or ‘natures’ of things, especially human things. These natural facts include, first, the facts about the nature of human beings as individuals—that is, as rational animals comprised of body and soul—and second, the facts about the relationship between individual human beings and the societies in which they participate. Natural law theorists and their sympathizers have recently revisited the first of these issues in an impressive number of important books. Indeed, Philippa Foot, Kevin Flannery, J. Budziszewski, Rosalind Hursthouse, Anthony Lisska, Timothy Chappell, David Oderberg, Robert George, Christopher Tollefsen, Patrick Lee, Mark Murphy, and Alasdair MacIntyre have all written books in the last few years that examine individual human nature and the moral goods which perfect it.

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With the notable exceptions of Flannery and MacIntyre, contemporary natural law theorists have paid less attention to how facts about the relationship between human individuals and society are relevant to the moral analysis of actions. Aristotle famously taught that man is a zoon politikon—a ‘city-dwelling animal.’ Although the social aspect of human nature is acknowledged in the natural law accounts of law and politics, too often its relevance to casuistry is overlooked. Attending to man’s social nature is crucial not only for legal and political philosophy, but also for solving difficult moral problems about the actions of individual people.

What somebody does when he acts—what he does intentionally, as philosophers say—partially depends upon the nature of the social practices in which he is a participant. Many moral dilemmas about whether or not individual actions are good or bad cannot be solved without understanding those discrete actions as parts of ongoing practices, that is, as aspects of the practice of soldiering in warfare, healing in medicine, protecting in policing, and so on. Social practices provide principled grounds for drawing moral distinctions between just tactical bombing and murderous terror bombing, restorative surgery and harmful mutilation, just self-defense and murder, and other distinctions, which, in hard cases, can otherwise be made to appear sophistical. Indeed, without appeal to social practices, it may be impossible to justify moral absolutes. Before broaching the subject of social practice specifically, however, we need first to look at social nature more generally.

In attending to social nature, the ethically minded metaphysician must avoid both the Scylla of atomistic individualism and the Charybdis of organic collectivism. The attempt to navigate successfully the narrow strait between them has been a recurring theme in Western metaphysics, from the time of Plato to the present. The organic collectivist holds that the most fundamentally real things (the “substances”) are complete and sovereign human societies; on this view, typified by Jean Jacques Rousseau, for example, individual human beings are merely cells of the social organism, with a nature, an identity, and an existence wholly dependent on that of the whole. In contrast, the atomistic individualist, such as Ayn Rand, holds that individual human beings are the substances, with societies as mere aggregations or “heaps” (to use Aristotle’s expression).

These metaphysical propositions carry heavy ethical weight, since it is substances that have natural ends or teloi, and it is these natural ends that define real and intrinsic value. Take fish, for instance. What it is for a fish to be a good and flourishing fish is a function of the natural ends of the fish form of life. What’s good for fish isn’t good for foxes because the fish and the fox have different forms of life with different natural ends. What counts as a good and flourishing fox is a function of its specific form of life. As with fish and foxes, so with human beings.

For organic, collectivist pictures of human life, the good of individual human beings carries no weight, since, strictly speaking, there is no such thing as an individual: the good of the society as a whole is everything. For atomic individualists, the ‘common good’ consists of nothing but the sum of measures of the individual welfare of participants. The organicist can make no room for individual rights or respect for individual autonomy, and in summing all individual goods into one general good, the organicist fails to acknowledge what John Rawls called ‘the separateness of persons.’ The atomist, meanwhile, who cannot acknowledge any distinctively common or public good, is forced to treat all social institutions instrumentally, and is saddled with an insoluble ‘free-rider problem’ if he attempts to explain why individuals should care about society when it inconveniences them. The correct view must involve some kind of synthesizing of the two opposites; but this is not a trivial matter, since it is almost axiomatic that no single substance can be composed of other, equally self-subsistent substances: either the whole is dependent on the parts, or the parts on the whole.

In the contemporary American context, too often political and moral debates are cast as winner-take-all contests between the false alternatives of organic collectivism and atomistic individualism. Thus ‘conservatives’ are supposed to be individualists who assert the claims of the individual against society and ‘liberals’ are organicists who want to promote social goods by limiting individual freedom. But the rhetoric of either individualism or organicism renders the full range of human concerns inexpressible. We can see this when individualist conservatives suddenly backtrack towards organicism when, say, they defend the social importance of marriage against assertions of personal autonomy; so, too, when organicist liberals defend an extreme individual right to self-expression that conflicts with their professed concern for social welfare.

The puzzle’s solution lies in the conception of a ‘social practice,’ a conception that has played a central role in much of twentieth-century philosophy. Philosophers as diverse as Tyler Burge, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Alasdair MacIntyre, Joseph Raz, John Searle, and others have shown how social practices are a significant feature of philosophical anthropology. In order to understand what social practices are, and to see their relevance to our problem, we need to shift the focus from human individuals to the acts performed by human individuals. We will also need to draw a technical distinction between what we’ll call social institutions and social practices, although these terms are interchangeable in everyday use.

In brief, the solution to the problem is this: social institutions, like a state or a university, are aggregates of the human individuals who compose them, and so the goods of human individuals are prior to the goods of the social institutions of which they are parts. Social institutions ‘host’ social practices like politics and education. Social practices, however, are comprised not of human individuals themselves, but of the acts of human individuals. Human acts are the parts that compose social practices, and human acts are determined by the social practices they compose. In other words, social practices are not mere aggregates, and the relation between individual acts and social practices is analogous to the relation between cells and the whole organism of which the cells are parts.

Thus both organic collectivism and atomic individualism have their kernels of truth, which the natural law account of social practices and social institutions preserves. The collectivist goes wrong in supposing that all social forms are, like social practices, organic wholes. The individualist goes wrong in supposing that all social forms are, like social institutions, aggregative. But the social world is populated both by aggregative social institutions (the NFL, the American Bar Association, the New York Philharmonic) and by the holistic social practices (football, law, classical music) that the corresponding social institutions promote and sustain.

On the natural law account, then, each individual human act has a dual dependency, both on the individual subject (the human agent) who performs it and on the particular practice (or practices) to which it belongs. The individual act draws its nature and its individuality from both sources: it wouldn’t be the very act it is if it had either a different subject or belonged to a different practice. For instance, consider your pulling of the voting lever in the booth on November 4, 2008; that action was what it was because of the social practices in which you were a participant. It was an act of voting, an exercise in justice of your civic duty, a parent’s teaching his child by example, and so on. You intended to pull the lever, and pulling the lever was part of the aforementioned social practices.

The human nature of each individual human being is the ground both for the capacity of the human being to enter into social practices and for the need to do so. It is in this sense that we are social or political animals. When an individual human being participates in a social practice, he allows himself to become an agent of the practice by taking into his intention the intrinsic end (telos) of the practice itself. For instance, in order to play baseball, I must act as a baseball player, which involves making the intrinsic end of the game (victory of my team in accordance with the rules) the end of my baseball-related acts. The nature or essence of the act does not depend solely on the agent’s internal psychology: it depends also on the essence of the social practice to which the act belongs.

Social practices are, in part, conventional. There is, however, a very significant non-conventional aspect to many, if not all, practices. Social practices are not always mere arbitrary constructions of societies—witness, for example, languages, marriages, or legal systems, all of which are natural conventions. It is natural for human beings to speak, to marry, and to order their common concerns by law, even if the particular form that language, marriage, and law takes varies by time and place. This variance may be benign, as in the way that French differs from English, or vicious, as in the way that polygamy differs from monogamy. Whether a variance amounts to a deviance depends upon that convention’s contribution to or frustration of the natural ends of the specifically human form of life.

In the next article in this series, we analyze some difficult ethical case-studies about dangerous pregnancies in light of the natural law account of social practices we have sketched here.