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Essay on the Foundation of Natural Law and on the First Principle of the Obligation Men Find Themselves Under to Observe Laws 1 - Emer de Vattel, The Law of Nations, Or, Principles of the Law of Nature, Applied to the Conduct and Affairs of Nations and Sovereigns, with Three Early Essays on the Origin and Nature of Natural Law and on Luxury (LF ed.) 
The Law of Nations, Or, Principles of the Law of Nature, Applied to the Conduct and Affairs of Nations and Sovereigns, with Three Early Essays on the Origin and Nature of Natural Law and on Luxury, edited and with an Introduction by Béla Kapossy and Richard Whitmore (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2008).
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Essay on the Foundation of Natural Law and on the First Principle of the Obligation Men Find Themselves Under to Observe Laws1
What is the goal of those who teach natural law and ethics? Is it not to bring men to the observance of justice and the practice of virtue?
I. Natural laws, natural jurisprudence, and moral science are three things that are often confused in ordinary language because they all three have the same object: to know how to order the customs and conduct of men. But in handling a topic clearly and securely it is necessary to separate out carefully those issues that are in reality distinct.
II. A law is in general a rule by which we are obliged to determine our actions; and natural laws, in particular, are those that we derive from nature, or whose rationale is found in the essence and nature of man, and of things in general.
III.Natural jurisprudence is a general theory of the duties of man, considered simply as man, or a science, which teaches us what is naturally good or bad in man, what he must and must not do.
IV. Moral science or ethics is a practical science, which teaches us how we should direct our faculties to practice what is good, and avoid what is bad. Often the term moral science is employed to designate the study of behavior in general, and in this sense it includes natural law and ethics. Sometimes moral science seems to mean the theory of our duties, insofar as we are obliged to employ them, for ourselves, as rational creatures; and natural law includes the theory of these same duties insofar as we are bound to them in respect of other men, as members of human society, or as others have the right to require that we observe them. But our distinction (§III) is more tidy and convenient, and it contains everything, for natural law comprises also our duties toward ourselves.
V. With that established, we look for the foundation of natural law, and the principle which compels us to practice what it prescribes for us, and avoid what it forbids us. On these two points there have been major disputes among the learned.
VI. If by the foundation of natural law we understand the source from which can be derived the rules and precepts; the principle in which is found what can provide an explanation for why these rules and precepts are as they are, then we would not wish to look further than in the essence and nature of man and things in general. For, since natural law is the science which tells us what is naturally good or bad in man (§III), how shall we determine what is naturally good or bad for him, if not through his essence and nature, and by the nature and essence of things, through considering the degree of suitability between actions and this essence and this nature? This truth is confirmed a posteriori or by experience. To determine whether someone has given an accurate idea of the laws of nature, examine what there is in man and in other things that is in accordance with their essence and nature, and you will see how you will understand clearly from that why our free actions must be regulated and determined in the manner that natural law prescribes.2 It would be easy to give examples of this. But each person can put this to the test for himself.
VII. All the authors of different systems are obliged to agree with what we have just established, whatever their sense may be of the principle of obligation, which we shall speak of presently. Those who delude themselves that natural law was invented for the benefit of human society, must agree that the source of this view can only be the nature and essence of things and of man in particular. For, I ask you, where could these would-be inventors have learned with such certainty that some actions are useful to the human race and that others are harmful, if not by considering the harmony or disharmony of these actions with the nature of man and the nature of things? Therefore it is on this nature that they have had to base their whole theory of rules and the laws of natural jurisprudence.
VIII. The same must be said of those who assign the instituting of natural law to the arbitrary will of God. For, at the same time as they recognize God as a wise being, who ordains nothing without wisdom, they must agree that God could only give laws suitable to the nature of things, and particularly to the essence and nature of man, whom he instructs to observe them; laws whose rationale is found in this essence and nature. We can go further: how do these authors know that God has laid down such-and-such laws rather than others quite contrary to them? Doubtless it is because knowing that God is a wise being, they consider, rightly, that he could only give laws that are the most appropriate to man, the most advantageous to the good of society in general, and to that of each individual in particular. But how will they know these most advantageous of laws? They will consider the nature of man and things, and they will see which laws are most appropriate to them. They are required to draw on the same source as us. This is sufficient to show that natural law is founded on the essence and nature of things and of men in particular. Cicero recognized this when he said that law is established by nature: natura ipsa constitutum est jus.
IX. We attain knowledge of these laws through reason. This faculty of the soul teaches us what is the essence and nature of man and of things in general, and makes us see the aptness or inappropriateness of actions in relation to this essence and nature: from this we derive general rules or laws which constitute the body of natural jurisprudence.
X. But it is not enough that these laws exist and that they are known: for men to be obliged to obey them they must also be effective. Everyone agrees that they are so bound, but authors disagree on the principle of this obligation. Some derive it from the authority of a superior, which can only be God, the author of nature; others base it on the very beauty of virtue, which, by its nature, is preferable to vice. Finally, others say that man, being a rational and sociable creature, must act in conformity with this character. Let us try to determine the true and first principle of this obligation and reveal where all these authors agree and are right, and where their views err. To succeed in this it is absolutely necessary to develop a clear and distinct idea of things, and to provide good definitions. We shall see that it is as a result of having neglected this rule that clever authors have caused themselves so much embarrassment in this matter, and have seemed to fall into views that are so mutually opposed.
XI. To determine what obligation is requires first an examination of what is commonly understood when this term is employed. Ask any man who says, “We are obliged to do something,” and you will see that he means that we are under a kind of necessity to do this very thing; that we are compelled, bound, tied—as if forced—although not forced or constrained physically by an external cause that acts violently upon us, but morally, and in a way that free beings can be engaged to do something even against the urging of their passions. Now, what are the reasons which bring free beings to act even against their inclination, without physical compulsion or external causes? They can only be motives, which being immediate to the soul, perceived and evaluated by reason, make us feel the necessity of acting in such a fashion and resolve the will, often against the heart’s inclination and despite the resistance of the passions. How therefore are we compelled to take a certain action? It is through the linkage of a powerful motive with this action. Thus, there are two issues to consider in respect of obligation: 1. The principle which gives birth to or which constitutes it, which creates the obligation; 2. The condition in which we find ourselves when we are so obligated.
XII. Hence it follows that obligation is characterized as active and passive.Active obligation is the connection of the motive with the action. Passive obligation is a moral necessity3 to act or not to act.4 The former is the principle which sways the intelligent being, and the latter is the condition in which this being finds himself.
XIII. Passive obligation produces active obligation just as cause gives birth to effect. For, if it is morally necessary to act, it is necessary to wish to act. Now, there is no will in the soul without motivation; therefore to bring about the moral necessity to undertake a particular action, some motivation must be linked to this action, which you cannot separate from it.5
XIV. There is good reason why we pause to demonstrate this origin for passive obligation. It proves the reality of our definition and shows that we are in agreement with the most famous writers, though sometimes with this difference—that these authors have restricted themselves to showing the effect of obligation, without explaining clearly its content. Some have defined passive obligation and not active obligation: “Obligation,” says Pufendorf, “is a moral quality by virtue of which we are compelled, by a moral necessity, to accept or endure something.”6 But he does not say in what this moral quality consists. Grotius also uses this expression, that an action is morally necessary, to say that we are obliged to do it; but he does not in any way define obligation.7
XV. Those who only have extremely confused ideas of all this will perhaps object that it is duty which creates obligation, and that we are obliged to undertake certain actions because they are in line with our duty, and abstain from others because they conflict with it. Nothing is more common than this way of speaking; it is why it matters to throw light on the problem, although, as we shall see, it consists only of pure gibberish. Let us see therefore what is this duty on which obligation is based.
XVI. Our duty is no more than the way in which we must determine or direct our actions so that they are good and right.8
XVII. Now, a free action is good or right when it has its justification in the essence and attributes of the being that produces it,9 that is to say, when a reason or explanation can be given through the essence and attributes of this being as to why his action has had to be so and not otherwise.10 This recalls what we have said (§VI) about the match or mismatch of actions with the essence of the nature of man and of things, which creates the foundation of natural law and the source of the laws that compose it. It still remains to find out the nature of the obligation we are under to live according to our duty, and, in consequence, the objection we have just witnessed is only empty verbiage. The same outcome will hold good if the term duty is considered in another sense, according to which particular duty is an action decided on in accordance with law, in such a way that we are compelled to resolve on it in this way. For in this sense, it is obligation, which constitutes duty, and so, it does not stem from duty.
XVIII. Mr. Barbeyrac in his notes on Grotius and Pufendorf provides no definition of obligation at all; except that, while saying that there is no obligation without a superior, he makes it appear that we are subject to the will of a superior, which compels us to bring our conduct into conformity with this superior’s laws. But it is plainly a confusion to interpret obligation as dependency or submission. We still have to explain why this dependence binds us; why we must preserve this submission. If we ask this learned man, “Why must we obey a superior?” he will not reply, “Because we are obliged to.” This would be to say nothing and to explain like with like. Will he say that it is because this obedience is just, in conformity with the rules of order, or because this superior can punish us if we rebel against him? But in that case he is citing to us the motives which are linked to this action of obedience, and he falls back on our definition, according to which obligation is the connection or link of motive with action.
XIX. Now this definition is adequately established if the first principle of obligation can be found which binds us to the observance of natural law, to a principle which is truly primary, which does not stem from any other. Then it is clear that we can only find it in a general motive which moves us, without drawing its effectiveness from any other, and which, in contrast, all the others relate to as branches or subsidiary motives, which draw all their strength from this common source.
XX. Given that motives act on us in accordance with our desires, to discover what we are looking for, we must see if there is in our soul an affection or essential and basic desire, which does not derive from another, and on which all the others rely. We do not need a long period of reflection to convince us that there is no inclination, desire, or affection more essential to us, or more basic and general, than self-love, which causes us to desire and seek for our happiness or the perfection of our condition, whether internal or external, i.e., the perfection of our soul, the well-being of our body, and the prosperity of our fortune.
XXI. That being so, the most general motive that influences us, this basic motive which stems from no other, can only be what relies on this general and basic inclination. Now, what is this motive, which stems fromself-love or our desire for happiness? It is, for sure, our well-being, our expediency, our advantage. Experience reveals this truth clearly to the eyes of whoever wishes to pay some attention to what takes place inside his own mind. Let us investigate carefully, let us examine attentively the way in which our wishes are formed, and we shall see that we never determine on an action through the perception of some benefit that we think we perceive in it, whether for perfection or peace and the pleasure of our soul, or for the well-being of our body, or for the profit of our fortune. Every motive returns, ultimately, to real or perceived expediency. But we must observe in passing that if our greatest good comprises the perfection of our soul, then the motives that relate to it—for example, those which derive from obedience owed to a being such as God, independent of all fear, beauty, and virtue—these motives, I say, may be considered as the noblest with good reason. After them, those that are concerned with the good of the body are the most rational; finally, the motives that provide us with the condition of our fortune take the third place.
XXII. If our expediency and our well-being are therefore the predominant motivation, the most basic motive that drives us, we must conclude that this good, this expediency, is the first principle of all obligation, and in particular of the obligation to keep to natural law. There is no doubt that our expediency is linked to this observance, for natural law is a science that teaches us what is naturally good or bad in man (§III); and the natural laws that comprise this law only prescribe some actions and forbid others as a result of the harmony or disharmony of these actions with our nature and the nature of things (§VI).
XXIII. Man is a social animal; society is natural to him; indeed, it is even essential to him if he is to pass his life happily. From this observation the judicious Grotius adopted the sociability of man as the foundation of natural law; and that is very reasonable provided that we do not take it as the first principle of obligation, but only as the next principle from which the duty derives for all men to follow the laws which must govern the natural society which exists among them, and without which they cannot survive.
XXIV. Each individual has as a general and overriding motive his own self-interest, and this motive creates the obligation to which he is liable: it is the unvarying principle of his decisions, against which it would be absurd to claim that he could be made to act. But if society is useful and even necessary to him, and this society is unable to subsist without laws or general rules observed by all its members, he is obliged, by virtue of his own expediency, to follow them. He ought not even consider sacrificing them to an immediate advantage, because they are what guarantee him peaceful enjoyment of all his other goods.
XXV. That is the foundation of civil laws and the principle of the submission that we owe to them. Men, who are required by their needs to form individual societies, will definitely not give up their own self-interest and expediency on entering them. On the contrary, it was doubtless on account of this very benefit that they each decided to make these commitments. But readily perceiving that such a host of evils and disadvantages might arise among people so often blinded by or taken up with their passions (if every individual had the freedom to decide, in particular instances, what was the best course of action for him), they understood that they had to establish laws that were sufficient to guarantee the happiness of society. They adjusted them, so far as was possible for a majority, to the interest of each member. Everyone felt that these laws, if they were to achieve the desired effect, must be observed religiously; that exceptions could not be made from them without weakening or destroying them, and that therefore on this occasion they had to sacrifice an immediate advantage to a greater good, since laws are the basis of our peace and security. That is the true principle of the obligation we have to observe them, a principle to which all men subject themselves without difficulty.
XXVI. The view that I established (§XXI) on the principle of obligation is not new, and I find in a note of Mr. Barbeyrac, on the great work of Pufendorf,11 a passage in which I see with a particular pleasure, that a learned Englishman shared exactly the same views: “According to him, duty or obligation, in respect of man, can only be a reason or motive put forward in an appropriate manner, which makes him decide to choose or to prefer one way of acting over another; and this reason or motive can only be the avoidance or acquisition of a very high degree of unhappiness or happiness, which cannot be avoided or gained by acting in another manner. He does not acknowledge any other obligation—or if there be some other type, he believes that by examining it carefully it will be seen to resolve itself into the same kind.” Thus Mr. Bernard expresses the thoughts of Mr. Gastrell:12 which are precisely in line with what I have tried to establish.
XXVII. But let us see what Mr. Barbeyrac puts forward in the same note: “The motive for obligation, or what brings about most effective compliance with it, should not be confused with the foundation of obligation or the reason why we are absolutely required to do one thing or another. This reason is nothing other than the will of a superior, whose power, in relation to our own good or evil, then stimulates our will to determine our present duty.” The whole problem between this learned commentator and ourselves derives from the fact that he does not define obligation as we have done (§XVIII). Expediency, he says, is the motive for obligation, it is not the foundation: we are required to obey a superior. But we may ask him: what, therefore, is the foundation of obligation, and for what reason am I to obey a superior? You will tell me that it is my duty to obey him because I am dependent on him. That still does not enlighten me.
XXVIII. I continue: why must I respect this dependency? Why must I fulfill my duty? And if I violate it, what will happen? You will punish me, you will say. And there we have the motive that creates my obligation to this duty: by breaking with it, I bring harm to myself. But if I could avoid the punishment, would this transgression still be an offense? Yes, you say—and why? Because I must obey a superior who has a legitimate authority over me: my disobedience would be a bad act. But why should I not commit an evil act when it will draw down no punishment upon me? You cannot respond with anything more rational than this: “In committing an evil act, an act contrary to order and reason, you depart from the perfection of your being.” And that brings us back to my view, which bases obligation on expediency, for it is without doubt advantageous to me to be perfect. Let us not pursue any further a matter we have already touched upon (§XVIII).
XXIX. I flatter myself that by developing ideas carefully and defining the meaning of terms precisely, as I have tried to do, the reader will see a way of reconciling Mr. Barbeyrac with us, and that this scholar will himself come to agree.13 The will of a superior, as we have just seen, is not the first principle or the foundation of obligation. But it is, doubtless, a proximate principle of real substance: firstly, because disregarding the integrity inherent in the action that is prescribed for us, it is fine and praiseworthy to obey a legitimate superior; and secondly, because this superior can recompense or punish us, independently of the good or evil that our action naturally entails. And when this superior is recognized as very wise, and all-powerful, his will alone imposes on us a true obligation, even if we might not perceive the integrity of the action that he prescribes to us, or the relation that it can have in itself with our happiness. I would go further: even if we believed we saw something harmful to us in the situation—in a word, when we do not know the reasons for the law that he gives us. For we can relate to him; we rely on his wisdom for the integrity of the action and on his goodness for the usefulness of this very action; and it is by virtue of this legitimate trust that we can say when he prescribes a law that his will takes the place of reasons.14 Moreover, while this act might be unimportant in itself, whether in terms of its integrity or our self-interest, or even contrary to it, the act becomes good and praiseworthy as soon as he prescribes it, and he is the master through his omnipotence who can attach such a reward as he considers appropriate, and compensate us a hundredfold for the harm that it will have caused us. To God alone, as a wise and all-powerful superior, is this unlimited trust due. But as a result the occasion for action can only exist when this sovereign legislator gives us revealed laws. For natural laws, we only know them to be the laws of God, by the reasons for these laws—by the reasons which show their justice and expediency; so, if we do not see wise reasons for undertaking a particular action or abstaining from it, we cannot know if it is the will of God that we should do it or avoid it. Let us recall here a passage of Mr. Barbeyrac, even if it is a little long; the reader, on comparing it with what we have just said, will see clearly the heart of the problem, how our principles cause it to vanish, and how they may serve to reconcile opinions which at first sight seem so opposed:15 “The author [Grotius] here imagines that there might be an obligation to do or not do certain things, even if he did not have to answer to anybody for his conduct. And there is no need to be astonished that his ideas on this point are not quite in order, since we still see today, not only that the majority of philosophers and scholastic theologians, but also some authors who elsewhere are very judicious and in no way slaves to scholastic prejudice, are all obstinate in maintaining that the rules of natural law and ethics, impose in themselves an absolute obligation, independent of the will of God. Nevertheless, some argue in a way that suggests that there is only a dispute over the meaning of words between the latter and others who are not of the same opinion. I am going to try, albeit in a few words, to update thoroughly the state of the debate, and the basis of the disagreement I have with the author. It is not a matter here of arguing whether by disregarding the will of an intelligent being or even the will of God our minds can discover the ideas and relations from which the rules of natural law and ethics can be deduced. We must agree in good faith with the supporters of the view that I am combating, that the rules are effectively based on the very nature of things; that they are in conformity with the order that we conceive as necessary to the beauty of the universe; that there is a certain proportion or lack of proportion, aptitude or unsuitability between the majority of actions and their objects, which makes sure that we find beauty in some and ugliness in others. But from that alone it does not follow that anyone is properly obliged to do or not do one thing or another. The fitness or unsuitability, which we can call the natural morality of actions, is indeed a reason which can cause action or its refusal, but it is not a reason which imposes an absolute requirement, such as the idea of obligation implies. This necessity can only come from a superior, i.e., from an intelligent being outside ourselves, who has the power to restrict our freedom and to prescribe rules of conduct for us. For proof, here is my reasoning. If there were some obligation, independent of the will of a superior, either the nature of things would have to impose it or our own reason. The very nature of things could not impose any obligation on us, in any real sense. That there may be a harmonious or disharmonious relationship between our ideas, this alone does not require a recognition of this relationship—something further is required to compel us to make our acts and life conform. Nor can reason by itself place us under an indispensable necessity to follow the ideas of harmony or disharmony that it sets before our eyes as based on the nature of things.” (I do not copy the proof that the author gives of it, which is found word for word in his reply to the Judgment of Mr. Leibniz, which I shall look at shortly.16 Let us move on to his conclusion.) “From all these points I conclude that the maxims of reason, however congruent they may be with the nature of things, and with the makeup of our being, are in no way binding, until this very same reason has revealed to us the Author of existence and of the nature of things, who gives the force of law to these maxims by his will, and imposes on us an indispensable necessity of conforming to them by virtue of the right he has to limit our liberty as he considers appropriate, and to set such boundaries for the faculties he has given us as seem good to him. It is true that God can ordain nothing contrary to the ideas of harmony or disharmony with which reason furnishes us in certain acts; but that does not alter the fact that the obligation to regulate ourselves according to those ideas stems uniquely from his will. It matters not whether this will is arbitrary or not; it is always the will alone which imposes the necessity. Finally, a proof that the will of God is the source of every duty and obligation, lies in that fact that when those who have a religion, adopt the rules of virtue and the maxims of natural law, they must do so, not chiefly because they recognize that these rules are in conformity with the natural and unvarying ideas of order, harmony, and justice, but rather because God, their sovereign master, wishes them to follow the rules in their conduct.” A charming proof, which precisely defines what is at issue. But perhaps there is a path of reconciliation between us. We reply to all this reasoning that men would be obliged to follow natural laws even by setting aside the will of God, because they are praiseworthy and useful. But this will undoubtedly adds a great weight to this obligation: it is a very legitimate and solid foundation although this foundation is not a basic principle since it derives itself from another from whom it draws its strength—I mean, our self-interest. Will not the learned commentator on Grotius be obliged to agree, and will he not admit that his note is useless against a similar system? He adds, “that ultimately it would otherwise be fairly purposeless that God prescribed anything (to men), since they would already be held to it: the will and authority of God would only in this case be a kind of accessory, which would not contribute anything further than to make the obligation stronger.” That issue, I do not consider as a difficulty. In no way does it detract from the authority of God to say that everything he ordains for us in natural laws is so fine and useful in itself that we would be obliged to adopt it, even if God had not ordered it.
XXX. Another few words about self-interest. There is something ambiguous about this term: some define it unreasonably narrowly, and seem to mean by it a crude expediency restricted to property. It is what gives rise to this note by Mr. Barbeyrac: “There are here two extremes to avoid: one is the work of those who by confusing integrity and expediency, and measuring this expediency according to their own particular interest, destroy thereby every idea of virtue and vice, all natural law and morality; the other, on the part of those who believing (with reason) that the practice of all the virtues, and of all the rules of natural law, is truly and infallibly to the advantage of all men in every respect, confuse this expediency with the natural integrity of actions. The first is only an ineluctable consequence of the other, and a feature from which we can discern what is truly honorable from what is only so in the erroneous opinion of men. When I say, we should repay evil with good, but not good with evil; and men must obey the will of their creator, God, there is in these statements a congruence so clear and evident that, however little attention we pay to them, we cannot refrain from acquiescing, and judging the views they contain both fine and honorable, without needing to think at all about the advantage which flows from following them. We are convinced from that point on that any action contrary to these maxims is a sin against reason, and we are forced to blame ourselves. The concept of duty derives from that recognition alone, as does the rational end to follow duty. It is true that to give full force to all these like maxims where we reveal a natural beauty and harmony, we must have been convinced of the truth of the second example I gave. But even when everything is properly reduced to this basic rule, there is no need at all to consider the unlimited expediency which flows from it as a way of perceiving the obligation we are under to conform to it. More to the point: it is precisely not on account of this self-interest that we must currently perform what is in line with the will of God: it is solely because we admit we are his dependents and that it is fine and honorable to obey him; and this would still be so even if (which would be impossible) he demanded something absolutely without purpose. Whatever view we take of self-interest, we must not view it simply in itself, but in terms of the product of the natural and wonderful union that the Creator has established between the duty and happiness of his creatures. In a word, to set up expediency itself as the most real and universal foundation of moral integrity and of obligation as such, is to muddle concepts and to make what is secondary into the principal. Let us also recognize that those who have not known about or have imperfectly understood this expediency have insufficiently acknowledged the intrinsic integrity of the majority of actions that conform with natural law.”17 It is surely sufficient to respond that when we say that self-interest provides the foundation or the principle of obligation, we are speaking of a noble and agreed expediency, which is located mainly in the observance and practice of virtue—because this observance and practice bring us closer to perfection. I would argue that that point alone is enough to bring this reasoning tumbling down, and to lighten the difficulties in which the author entangles himself, from which he cannot extract himself with the help of his principles. When we have a correct understanding of self-interest; when we have constituted it mainly in the perfection of the soul, a perfection that already defines our happiness in itself, and which reconciles us with the good will of the Creator, what danger is there in confusing the meaning of integrity with expediency? Furthermore—the doctrine of those who by distinguishing between integrity and expediency maintain that there are honest things that are not useful and useful ones that are not honest—is it not, as the ancients have observed, as pernicious as it is insecure? On this point let us consider the fine words of Cicero: The usage of this word has been corrupted and perverted and has gradually come to the point where, separating moral rectitude from expediency, it is accepted that a thing may be morally right without being expedient, and expedient without being morally right. No more pernicious doctrine than this could be introduced into human life.18And so, we have heard, Socrates used to pronounce a curse upon those who first drew a conceptual distinction between things naturally inseparable.19 Now that we know what we must understand by the word expediency, let us conclude with Horace: Self-interest itself is almost the mother of justice and fairness.20
XXXI. Since we have begun to examine the reasoning that Mr. Barbeyrac develops to support his hypothesis, let us add some reflections on what the same scholar, at the end of his translation of the treatise On the Duties of Man and Citizen, sets up against the judgment that Mr. Leibniz had delivered on this work of Pufendorf. This discussion will conclude by highlighting the use that we can make of our principles. We conclude this dissertation with these remarks not with the goal of criticizing an able man, but so as to demonstrate the advantage of a precise method, and to show how by defining ideas, by making them clear and defining terms, we can unravel almost painlessly the debates in which many scholars have obstructed us.
XXXII. “The anonymous author,”21 says Mr. Barbeyrac,22 “manifestly confuses duty with the effects or the motives for its observance; the strength that duty has in its own right with the force it exercises over the minds of men in the way that most of them are constituted.” He should say all men here rather than most. For Mr. Leibniz’s statement that duties have no force without motives is true of all men without exception; we have established this earlier by showing how obligation is nothing other than the link between motive and action (§XI and XII); and this philosopher, without any reference to another life, had grounded his view in the same fashion: “If we are born with such dispositions, and if we have not been brought up in such a way that we find a great pleasure in virtue and a great distaste for vices (it is fortunate that everyone has not!), there will be nothing that can deter us from a major crime, when we will be able, through committing it, to acquire great rewards with impunity.”23 And above all there will be nothing that can induce us to sacrifice our goods and our lives for the sake of our country, or for the support of law and justice.24 For in the imaginary instance a man would have no motive to make this sacrifice, not even those people who can argue for the beauty of virtue. However, Mr. Barbeyrac opposes a doctrine which seems to us so self-evident: “We are obliged,” he says,25 “not only not to do harm to anyone in the course of obtaining some advantage for ourselves, but also to give up on occasion our goods, honors, and even our lives, quite independent of any consideration of the life to come; and for this sole reason, that these are the duties which the wise Author of natural law and sovereign leader of the universe has imposed upon us.” What does the term obliged mean here? If Mr. Barbeyrac has the same concept of obligation that we have (§XI and XII), then for sure what he proposes is unsustainable: for there is no motive remaining to be linked to the action in the case in question. If this scholar means that it is a rule of law, a maxim of the virtue of sometimes sacrificing our property, etc., we would agree with him. But how does this relate to a man who, as we imagine him here, has no taste for virtue and in no way prefers it to vice? It is not a matter of determining the maxims of right or virtue, but of knowing the outcomes to which men will be brought or obligated in one case or another. How will we be able to impose on them a requirement for action, without recourse to the constraints of physical force? They are bound to these actions, says our author, by this single reason—that they are the duties which the wise Author of natural law and sovereign Leader of the universe has imposed on them. But what purchase has this reason on a man who has no expectation of this sovereign Legislator, and who has no love for virtue, and supports as well the hypothesis against which we are reasoning?
XXXIII. “Which of these two moral outlooks, I ask you,” adds Mr. Barbeyrac, “is the most pure, noble, and conformable to the ideas of the wise pagan authors who have distinguished so clearly between integrity and expediency?” Without getting into an argument about the epithets pure and noble, let us ask in turn what is the goal of those who teach natural law and ethics? Is it not to bring men to an observance of justice and to the practice of virtue? Which moral system is therefore the most reasonable and useful? The one that, based on the nature of man, bears him toward virtue through considering his best interests? Or the one that is so pure and noble that it is outside our reach and entirely useless as an influence on our will? As for the ideas of the wise pagan authors, we have seen that the wisest had sharply turned away from a clear separation of integrity and expediency.Socrates, says Cicero, execrated those who were the first in their opinions to have separated things that nature had closely united.
XXXIV. Mr. Barbeyrac continues: “But how does the reasoning of our anonymous author match up with what he says here, that there is a level of natural law which can exist even in the case of an atheist? And also with what he argues later (§XV) that there would be some natural obligation, even if someone argued that there is no Divinity?” The anonymous author, or Mr. Leibniz, has not contradicted himself. He argues (p. 445)26that to neglect consideration of a life to come, which has an inseparable link with divine Providence, is to destroy several duties of life. He does not say that it would destroy all of them: on the contrary, he concedes that there would still be a large number of duties for an atheist, because there are, in fact, several where the reasons or motives which bind us, reside in their expediency, even in respect of this life; and an atheist can also in several instances readily find sufficient motives in the beauty of virtue alone. Mr. Barbeyrac, at the same time as he accuses his adversary of a contradiction, cannot prevent himself stating in the two following pages (446 & 447), what destroys this alleged contradiction. We can read these pages, and I pass on to another passage.
XXXV. “There is no middle course: either the obligation of the rules of justice among men is absolutely independent of the Divinity, and based uniquely on the very nature of things, as is the case with the principles of arithmetic and geometry, or it is not based on the nature of things in any respect.”27 And why might there be no middle ground There is one to be sure, and here it is: obligation derives from the very nature of things, but the Divinity is among the number of these things, whose nature determines the rules of justice and injustice, and provides the motives which constitute obligation. Moreover, we have noted earlier (§XXIX) that the will of God is also an immediate and very powerful principle of obligation. It is not difficult to prove what Mr. Leibniz advances—that the opinion of those who derive every right from the will of a superior is devoid of foundation, and that we need always to come back to the nature of things. When a man who has no other lights but those of reason identifies that one action is good and that another is bad, what proof does he have that it is the will of God that creates the former and is absent from the latter? His reason, you will say, teaches him that God wishes for all that is good. Very well. But this response itself demonstrates that the intrinsic quality of the action is already a reason to prefer it, disregarding the will of God; and that the very will of God orders itself according to this reason. This will is therefore not the first principle, the foundation of the preference that places the good above the bad: it adds only a great weight to reason derived from the nature of things; and when it is clearly known, it must take the place of everything, and provide us with a sufficient reason to determine our action without further investigation, on the particular merits of the prescribed end (§XXIX).
XXXVI. “The nature of things in itself,” adds Mr. Barbeyrac,28 “could not impose on us an obligation, as such. Whether there is this or that relation of equality and proportion, harmony or disharmony in the nature of things, that alone does not require us to recognize this relation: something further is required to limit our freedom and subject our actions to regulation in a particular manner.” It is true that the relations of harmony or disharmony, which exist between things, do not in themselves require recognition of these relations; but the influence that these very things can have on our happiness by virtue of these connections is a powerful motive which compels us to act or not since obligation is the link between motive and action (§XI). There is the extra factor that Mr. Barbeyrac requests to limit our freedom and subject our actions to regulation in a particular manner.
XXXVII. “Nor can reason,” he continues,29 “considered in itself, and independent of the Creator who has given it to us, place us under an absolute necessity of following these ideas, although it approves them as based on the nature of things. For, first, the passions set against these abstract and speculative ideas, ideas based on emotion and sensibility etc.” If reason shows us clearly that by following these ideas based on the nature of things we are working toward our greater good, to our true happiness, then it sets us under a necessity of following it; since this necessity is nothing other than passive obligation (§XII), which derives from active obligation (§XII), which consists of the link between motive and action (§XI & XII). Given that self-love and a desire for happiness are the strongest and most all-encompassing of our passions (§XX), will that passion be able to overcome the counsels of reason successfully, when reason will show us clearly the link between our happiness and a certain action? Rather it will enlighten us as to the truly appropriate route to our happiness, and our passions themselves will bring us to perform our duty.
XXXVIII. “Why,” says our author on the same page, “should we follow the lights of our own minds, rather than the inclination of our hearts, if there is no external principle—no being beyond us—to whom we are subject?” It is because we understand that the lights of our minds will lead us more securely to happiness than the inclination of our hearts. And setting aside this thought, what might be this principle external to our will? And how might this being beyond ourselves compel us to follow his orders freely, rather than our inclination? For sure, he can only make us his subjects by motives capable of influencing our wills. He might force us through physical action, but this would no longer be a matter of a required obligation, for we would no longer be acting freely. For sure, it is true that regard for a sovereign Master, our Creator, is highly efficacious in placing an obligation on us to practice the duties of morality. It is why Mr. Leibniz said earlier that to neglect consideration of the life to come, which has an inseparable link with divine Providence, is to deprive natural law of the finest of its parts, and to destroy at the same time several duties of life. Indeed, although every good action is useful in itself, and every bad action harmful, there are a thousand instances in which we do not see clearly enough the influence that actions have in themselves on our happiness, however much this reflection bears down on the strength of our inclinations. But the concept of a wise God, a good and just disposer of good and evil—this concept, I say, is always at the forefront of our minds—and directs us to an action that we know to conform to his will, even though we do not perceive at that moment the reasons bound up in the very nature of this action which should bring us to give it our preference. Besides, we should note that this concept of a divinity only acts on us as a motive. Why therefore is it so powerful in making up our minds and placing us under such a strong obligation? It is because we are convinced that nothing is more important for our happiness than a perfect obedience toward an omnipotent Being, who holds our fate in his hands and whose orders are always wise and just.
XXXIX. Mr. Barbeyrac has foreseen this reply. Let us look at his response.30 “Reason, you say, shows us clearly that by following the rules of harmony, based on the nature of things, we will act in a fashion more in line with our interests, than if we allow ourselves to be led by our passions. But is not every man free to give up his interest, insofar as there is nothing besides to prevent him, and there is no other person who is concerned that he does not act against his interests, and has the right to require that he pursue them?” It is not a matter here of some petty interests, or some advantages of fortune which we recognize each man is free to renounce; it is a question of our greatest interest, since the author himself says that all things considered, our interest requires that we follow what reason dictates. And he has to be understood in this sense, for otherwise all his reasoning would be meaningless against ours. But, good God, what a moral system! And for what kind of beings will it be created? If every man were free to give up his greatest interest, what would become of obligation? Where would duties be? What obligation, I ask you, or what duties would there be for a man who gave up his temporal and eternal happiness? If he is capable by himself of renouncing it, what could there be besides to prevent him? And why should the rights of another person concerned about his conduct matter to him? I agree that this other person will have the right to restrain him as a madman is restrained with a tourniquet; but this person will never be able to oblige him to act voluntarily. Our author would never have advanced such unsustainable paradoxes if he had worked out clear notions of these matters, and if he had begun by providing good definitions of terms. We have shown (§XI & XII) that obligation can only be understood as the connection between motive and action, from which it follows that there is no obligation at all for a man who renounces all his interests. And as for duty, however we may define this term, we shall never be able to show that a man capable of giving up happiness has duties. If we say that our duty is the manner in which we must determine our actions, whether they are good or bad (§XVI), or that a duty is an action resolved in conformity with law, insofar as we are obliged to resolve it in this way; we have shown (§XVII) that all the strength of duty in this sense, comes from obligation, as we have defined it (§XII). If duties, as they are often defined in theology, are things that we must practice if we wish to please God and to be happy, it is all the more clear that there is no duty for the man who has given up all interest. What does it matter to such a man that God approves, wishes, or commands an action? Why would he obey him if he does not care at all about doing what is fine and praiseworthy, or working to be happy? Now, he will not care one bit if he can renounce all interest. Finally, in a particular sense our duties in respect of others are things that they have the right to require from us, that we owe them, so that they could with justice do us harm if we refuse to fulfill our obligation. But in this sense also, what would these duties become for anyone who gave us his own interests? And how could he be brought to recognize them other than by force? Will he do for anyone else what he will not do for himself?
XL. Here is another objection: “But what we must reflect carefully on above all is that our reason, considered outside all dependence on the Creator from whom we possess it, is ultimately nothing other than ourselves. Now, no one can impose on himself an absolute necessity to act or not in one way or another.”31 This is a pure begging of the question. The objection is based on the view that we have already refuted, that all obligation comes from an external principle, the will of a superior. Besides, we should note that it is not our reason that imposes obligation on us: reason only makes apparent the link between motive and action that constitutes obligation. This link comes from the nature of things, and it is the Creator who established it when he made the world as it is. There is also a response which anticipates what Mr. Barbeyrac adds: “For necessity to truly exist, it cannot cease at the will of the person subject to it—otherwise it is reduced to nothing.” This necessity or obligation for sure cannot cease at our behest, for we cannot separate a motive from an action to which it is joined by the nature of things.
XLI. I believed that these few reflections on what the learned translator of Pufendorf objects to in Judgment of an Anonymous Author could serve to shed more light on the subject, and it is in the same light that I shall conclude by recalling the fine words of the anonymous author, or Mr. Leibniz:32 “What we have just argued is very useful in relation to the practice of true piety; for it is not enough to be subject to God as if we were in obedience to a tyrant; for we must not only fear him on account of his greatness but also love him because of his goodness. These are the maxims of right reason, as well as the precepts of Scripture, and they are where the good principles of jurisprudence lead, which are in accord with sound theology and which lead to a true virtue. Those who perform good actions not through a motive of hope or fear in respect of a superior but following the inclination of their hearts, do not act with justice. On the contrary, those who act most justly are those who imitate in some way the justice of God. For when we have done good through love of God or our neighbor, we take pleasure in our action itself (such is the nature of love), and we need no further spur or command of a superior. It is of such a person that it is said ‘the law is not made for the just.’33 It is indeed against reason to argue that law or constraint alone creates the just man. However, we must concede that those who have not reached this point of perfection are only made subject to obligation through hope and fear. It is above all in the expectation of divine punishment that we find a full and complete necessity, which has power to compel all men to follow the rules of justice and equity.”
[1. ] [[For persons and books referred to in these essays, see the biographical sketches and the bibliography of works cited by Vattel. Droit has been translated as “right” or “law,” according to context. Utile/utilité has been translated as “self-interest,” “expediency,” or “interest,” according to context. Honnêteté and its cognates have been translated as “integrity.”]]
[2. ] See Wolff, Phil. Pract. Univ., part I, §cxxxvii.
[3. ] A thing is morally necessary when it cannot fail to happen, given the nature of the intelligent being which produces it; just as it is said that a thing is physically necessary when it cannot fail to happen, given the nature of the physical agent that creates it.
[4. ] See Wolff, Phil. Pract. Univ., part I, §cxviii.
[5. ]Idem, §cxix.
[6. ]Droit de la nature et des gens, book 1, ch. i, §xxi.
[7. ]De Jure Belli ac Pacis, l. I, c. 1, §x.
[8. ] In Latin rectae. The correctness of an action, rectitudo, means what is understood by the words right, just, good, praiseworthy, etc.
[9. ] The difference which exists between free actions, in respect to this correctness, is what is called the morality of actions.
[10. ] Wolff, Theol. nat., part I, §dccccl.
[11. ] Book I, ch. vi, §v, note 4.
[12. ]Nouvelles de la République des Lettres, April 1700, p. 408. [[In 1699 the French Reformed theologian Jacques Bernard began a continuation of Pierre Bayle’s Nouvelles de la République des Lettres (1684–87), which appeared until 1710.]]
[13. ] At the time of writing Mr. Barbeyrac was still alive.
[14. ] “Thus will may stand in the place of reason.” Wolff, Phil. Prac. Univ., part 1, §cxxxii, in note.
[15. ] Translation of On the Law of War and Peace, of Grotius, book I, ch. I, §x, no. 2, note 4.
[16. ] [[The great German natural jurist Samuel Pufendorf published an abridgment of his De jure naturae et gentium (On the Law of Nature and Nations, 1672) as De officio hominis et civis juxta legem naturalem (On the Duty of Man and Citizen According to Natural Law) in 1673. The latter work was translated into French as Les devoirs de l’homme et du citoien in 1707 by the Swiss Huguenot Jean Barbeyrac and became famous throughout Europe. Barbeyrac’s successive editions were increasingly heavily annotated, and his fourth edition of 1718 included a French translation, with Barbeyrac’s response, of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz’s critique of Pufendorf’s De Officio in a Latin letter composed in 1701. Barbeyrac gave Leibniz’s letter the title “Jugement d’un anonyme sur l’original de cet abrégé.” The letter had been printed in 1709 as the Epistola Viri Excellentissimi ad Amicum, quâ monita quaedam ad principia Pufendorfiani operis, De Officio hominis et civis, continentur, but had circulated in manuscript since its composition. Barbeyrac’s response has been published for the first time in English from the Latin original in Samuel Pufendorf, The Whole Duty of Man, According to the Law of Nature, ed. I. Hunter and D. Saunders (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2003). Vattel is here concerned, as he notes, with Barbeyrac’s fourth edition of Les devoirs of 1718.]]
[17. ] Translation of On the Law of Nature and Nations of Pufendorf, book II, ch. III, §x, note 6.
[18. ]De officiis, book II, ch. iii.
[19. ]Ibid., book III, ch. iii. [[Translations taken from Loeb edition edited by Walter Miller (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1913).]]
[20. ]Satires 3, book 1.
[21. ] Mr. Leibniz.
[22. ] P. 444. I use the 4th edition published in Amsterdam in 1718. [[See note 16.]]
[23. ] P. 442.
[24. ] P. 441.
[25. ] P. 445.
[26. ] From the cited [[1718 fourth French edition of On the Duties of Man and the Citizen, in which the “Judgment of an Anonymous Author” (Mr. Leibniz) has been interpolated with the reflections of the editor.]]
[27. ] P. 470.
[28. ] P. 470.
[29. ] P. 471.
[30. ] P. 471 & 472.
[31. ] P. 472.
[32. ] §xvi, p. 476.
[33. ] Timothy I, 9.