Liberty Matters

The Science of Human Nature versus the Science of Morality


Knud Haakonssen reads Pufendorf as a thoroughly historicist social thinker. Haakonssen offers this view in opposition to the ubiquitous interpretation of Pufendorf’s Of the Law of Nature and Nations as offering:
a comprehensive inference from an anthropology in the sense of a theory of human nature and its “natural” condition, a large-scale deduction conducted by the formal method that he had adopted already in his first work on the topic.
Pufendorf’s apparent commitment to a demonstrative science of human nature, and by extension of morality, is according to Haakonssen a rhetorical strategy to further “establishing a common world of ideas with the reader by appealing to shared experience.” On this account Pufendorf is using his readers’ stock of concepts to draw them into a compelling world view they are in some ways already committed to. This is opposed to offering demonstrative arguments.
Most of what I know about Pufendorf is due to Haakonssen and to Ian Hunter. So my disagreements are sub specie my debt. But I must confess I am more sanguine that Pufendorf’s invocation of moral science is earnest, or at least more earnest than Haakonssen holds. Pufendorf himself wrote that “demonstrations therefore are here chiefly employ’d about Moral Qualities, so far as those Qualities appear for certain to agree to such Actions or Persons: When we enquire (for example) whether such an Action be just or unjust, whether such a Right, or such an Obligation, accrue to such a Person, consider’d in general, or as that personal capacity is common to others with him” (De jure naturae et gentium libri [DJNG] I.1.7). And many of Pufendorf’s contemporaries and near contemporaries (at least nearer than us) took it seriously. I worry about a reading that goes against a wide swath of peers.
I think part of the problem is the failure to distinguish between the science of human nature and the demonstrative science of morality. In order to draw this distinction I will suggest that natural religion, natural sociability, and the natural/moral distinctions can be read differently. And I will suggest that Pufendorf’s account is sufficiently well thought out and has sufficient similarities with his predecessors and successors that we ought to take it seriously on face value.
Haakonssen remarks that
It seems very difficult to deny that Pufendorf does have these two negative starting points, the reduction of religion to a slim social but not specifically political role and the denial of the naturalism that he found in the work of his otherwise cognate spirit, Hobbes.
Combined with Pufendorf’s rejection of Hobbesian naturalism – i.e., “natural rights and the legitimacy of authority” that can be derived “from the characteristics of human nature” – Haakonssen argues that:
there is no “foundation” for natural law in the sense of premises from which it is derived. Rather it is a common understanding of the human condition that is induced through the rehearsal and analysis of common experience.
Haakonssen is certainly correct that it was central for Pufendorf to untie religion and politics and to conceive of natural religion in a way that maintained the distinction. But its moral role was important. Pufendorf’s natural religion was more contentful than Hobbes’s and includes the recognition of divine governance and ordering (DJNG I.4.3). His natural religion seem closer to Grotius, who took natural religion as a necessary support to morality and social life (De jure belli ac pacis [DJBP] II.xx.45 §1). It seems Haakonssen wants to draw a line between, on the one side, science and natural religion as primarily rhetorical and, on the other side, history, social life, and morality. But Grotius’s third precept “that GOD takes Care of human Affairs, and judges them with the strictest Equity” (DJBP II.xx.45 §1)[7] – which is weakened but echoed in Pufendorf’s precept about divine governance – point to the connection.
Grotius followed this with a strong assertion of the importance of moral science, which I believe is also in the background in Pufendorf’s discussion:
The third is, that we carefully distinguish between general Principles, such as this, That we ought to live honestly, that is, according to right Reason, as also some that come very near to them, and are so manifest, that they can admit of no Doubt; as for Instance, that We ought not to take that which belongs to another: And between the Inferences drawn from them, of which some are obvious enough, as, that Admitting Matrimony, Adultery ought not to be allowed of…. It is here almost as it is in Mathematicks, where some Things are first Notions, or next to first Notions; some are Demonstrations, which are immediately both understood and assented to, some again are true, but not evident to all. [DJBP II.xx.43 §1][8]
Like Haakonssen’s Pufendorf, Grotius used rhetorical strategies throughout De jure belli ac pacis to draw his readers in. But that did not imply that he rejected the demonstrative science of morality even if his texts did not always recognizably incarnate it. It was rather an earnestly held and influential philosophical ideal which sat uncomfortably with numerous others. I would suggest that it is not clear that Pufendorf’s position is dissimilar, although devoid of Grotius’s Aristotelianism and naturalism.
This combination of minimal but robust natural religion and moral demonstration can be found even even as far afield as in Francis Hutcheson’s Inquiry on Beauty.[9] In a discussion of the beauty of theorems, Hutcheson criticizes Pufendorf for the rigidity and awkwardness of his moral demonstrations:
How aukardly is Puffendorf forc’d to deduce the several Dutys of Men to God, themselves, and their Neighbours, from his single fundamental Principle of Sociableness to the whole Race of Mankind? (Inquiry on Beauty III.5)[10]
Hutcheson goes on to argue for a Newtonian method, which he held to be more appropriate to a demonstration of right. This is telling because it suggests that despite their many differences, Hutcheson and Pufendorf shared a commitment to some aspects of a demonstrative account of morality (as well as to natural religion). This suggests to me that even if Pufendorf did not often use moral demonstration explicitly, and even if he adopted a minimal natural religion, he was still committed to the importance and power of both in understanding and justifying morality. A similar and similarly uneasy rapprochement between these commitments can be seen in John Locke.
Haakonssen thinks that this reading is “impossible” due to a problem with the distinction between natural properties and imposed moral qualities that comes to a head in sociability:
[P]recisely because people cannot be assumed to be sociable ... the natural law’s injunction is necessary. If sociability were a natural feature of humanity, this would contradict Pufendorf’s starting point, that there are no moral values inherent in nature; it would, furthermore, deny his distinction between physical and moral entities. Sociability must itself be a moral entity, i.e., something imposed upon human nature, and that is the function of the law of nature.
This is a profound point. I agree that Pufendorf is not committed to a questionable moral naturalism and that there is a divide between natural properties and moral properties. A science of human nature may be relevant to the science of morality, but it is distinct insofar as Haakonssen correctly points out the object of the latter is not natural but imposed. But that doesn’t rule out the seriousness of a demonstrative science of morality.
My suggestion is that most moral modes should be viewed as organizing natural substances in a new way, and it is this governed organization that makes the mode non-natural: for example the way in which sociability is organized, structured, and sanctioned by a superior and imposed on us natural substances. This involves human nature, even depends on it for motivation and ends, but what is morally obliging is distinct from imposed obligations.[11] As Pufendorf noted, “But that it should be able to discover any Morality in Human Actions, without reflecting on some Law, is equally impossible as that a Man born Blind should make a Judgment on the distinction of Colours” (DJNG I.2.6). But the converse holds as well: one needs abilities such as sight to distinguish colors. The imposition organizes natural drives and desires in a new manner that renders them obliging. One can empirically access this order through history and society: the ways in which we value and carve the world into offices reflects this organization. A science of human nature may be relevant to understanding the elements (although not that and how they are organized to be obliging). Moral science clarifies these imposed organizations and shows them to be hierarchically, rationally organized, and natural religion provides a further anchor for this moral governance.
Pufendorf’s combination of moral science and divine voluntarism had long-standing antecedents, not the least of which Scotism, which continued to be enormously influential and mixed with Cartesianism in the 17th century. Scotists also held that a universal or common nature – the general stuff of a moral science – has “extra-mental existence only in the particular things in which it exists,” which fit well with Pufendorf’s empirical commitments.[12] That even Hutcheson shared some of the view[13] shows how powerful confused and confusing commitments and ideals can be even for philosophers as insightful as Grotius, Pufendorf, Locke, Hutcheson, and even Kant. That there was precious little moral demonstration can be taken to show the power of the ideal even when it was difficult or impossible to carry out.[14] Perhaps philosophers’ conflicting commitments and confusions are as much what makes for a tradition as the ideas that appear profound and exciting to us.
[7.] Hugo Grotius, The Rights of War and Peace, edited and with an Introduction by Richard Tuck, from the Edition by Jean Barbeyrac (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2005). Vol. 2. </titles/1947#Grotius_0138.02_867>.
[8.] Hugo Grotius, The Rights of War and Peace, vol. 2, </titles/1947#Grotius_0138.02_857>.
[9.] I write “even” because Hutcheson seems to consciously argue for the opposite of Pufendorf on most issues.
[10.] Francis Hutcheson, An Inquiry into the Original of Our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue in Two Treatises, ed. Wolfgang Leidhold (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2004). </titles/2462#Hutcheson_1458_159>.
[11.] Thanks to Johan Olsthoorn for help with this point.
[12.] Thomas Williams, “John Duns Scotus,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy [Spring 2016 Edition], ed. Edward N. Zalta online: <>.
[13.] Hutcheson held that Pufendorf’s mistake was in not recognizing a second sort of natural obligation above and beyond interest.
[14.] There is obviously much more to say about this, and the relation between moral science, obligation, and motivation.