The Reading Room

God, Grotius, and Moral Truth: Barbeyrac’s Critique

In “God, Grotius, and Moral Truth: Part I,” I presented Grotius’s view that, if there are sound basic moral/political principles, their truth and their obligatory force do not depend upon God’s willing or commanding those principles.  I turn here to Jean Barbeyrac’s critique of Grotius’s shocking contention as this critique appears within Barbeyrac’s notes to his edition of Grotius’s The Rights of War and Peace.  I conclude with a few critical reflections upon Barbeyrac’s stance.
Barbeyrac accepts one aspect of Grotius’s Rationalist stance, viz., that,
. . . the Maxims of the Law of Nature are not merely arbitrary Rules, but are founded on the Nature of Things; on the very Constitution of Man . . .” (RWP 89 n.1) 
On the basis of the Nature of Things, Right Reason can identify certain actions as reasonable and fitting and other actions as unreasonable and unfitting. Nevertheless, contrary to Grotius, Barbeyrac maintains that,
[T]he Duty and Obligation, or the indispensable Necessity of conforming to these Ideas, and Maxims [which are themselves grounded on the Nature of Things], necessarily supposes a superior Power, a supreme Master of Mankind, who can be no other than the Creator, or the supreme Divinity. (RWP 89 n.1)
In his most lengthy discussion in his notes for RWP, Barbeyrac says,
Now the Nature of Things cannot impose any Obligation properly so called. . . . Reason [cannot] of itself lay us under an indispensable Necessity of following those Ideas of Fitness or Unfitness, which it places to our View, as grounded on the Nature of Things. (RWP 151-2 no.3)
Thus, Barbeyrac affirms the voluntarist view that God’s will makes reasonable and fitting actions lawful and obligatory and makes unreasonable and unfitting actions unlawful and forbidden. (I admit that here I am sliding by a complication that agitated many late Scholastic thinkers. Besides there being acts that are lawful and obligatory and acts that are unlawful and forbidden there are acts that are lawful and (merely) permissible.) In this way, Barbeyrac stands between full-fledged Rationalism and full-fledged Voluntarism. How, in the context of his discussion of Grotius, does Barbeyrac defend the voluntarist aspect of his stance? Here is my understanding of the two phases of Barbeyrac’s argument.
Phase 1. Barbeyrac reads Grotius as holding that, when reason consults “the Nature of Things” or “the very Constitution of Man,” it discovers that the reasonableness and fittingness of an agent’s conduct consists in its serving that agent’s self-interest. As Barbeyrac reads Grotius, the author of RWP thinks that actions are determined to be reasonable or unreasonable, fitting or unfitting, entirely on the basis of a self-interested calculation. The sole reason to abide by others’ rights is that doing so is personally advantageous. Passion may push one to violate another’s rights. But Reason tells us not to because, given the Nature of Things, everyone will be better off living in a world of reciprocal compliance with these rights. Thus, according to Barbeyrac, Grotius' case for abiding by the Law of Nature reduces to its being prudent to do so. As Barbeyrac puts it,
How much soever a Man acts in contradiction to his real Interest [by violating one of the norms detected by Right Reason], he will, on this [i.e., Grotius’] Supposition, be only imprudent. (RWP 152 no.3)
Phase 2. Barbeyrac then maintains that, if one’s reason for compliance with a norm is entirely a matter of one’s self-interest (i.e., of prudence), then in transgressing the norm one “. . . will be guilty of no Violation of any Duty or Obligation, properly so called.” One might think that prudence involves an obligation to oneself to promote one’s own good. But Barbeyrac maintains that this would be no genuine obligation. 
If then the Person obliged, and the Person who lays the Obligation be one and the same, he may disengage himself from it, when, and as often as he pleases; or rather there will be no real Obligations. 
So, according to Barbeyrac, 
The Fitness or Unfitness, which may be termed the natural Morality of Actions, is indeed a Reason for acting, or not acting; but then it is not such a Reason as imposes an indispensable Necessity, which is implied in the Idea of an Obligation. This Necessity can come only from a superior.  . . . I conclude, that how conformable soever the Maxims of Reason be to the Nature of Things, and the Constitution of our Being, they are by no Means obligatory, till this same Reason has discovered the Author of the Existence and Nature of Things, whose Will gives those Maxims the Force of Law, and imposes an indispensable Necessity on us of conforming to them. (RWP 152 no.3)
Although God’s will does not determine which actions are reasonable and fitting, God’s willing that people do what is reasonable and fitting makes those reasonable and fitting actions obligatory. And although God’s will does not determine which actions are unreasonable and unfitting, God’s willing that people eschew those actions makes those actions unreasonable and unfitting unlawful and obligates people not to engage in them. Only if there is a God who wills that human beings conform to certain norms can any human actions be morally obligatory and lawful or morally forbidden and unlawful.
I believe that the first phase of Barbeyrac’s case is mistaken; it is incorrect to think that in Grotius the reasonableness of compliance with others’ rights is purely a matter of the prudence of compliance. In his characterization of Grotius’s approach, Barbeyrac ignores the role that the “Desire of Society” which is “a certain Inclination to live with those of his own Kind, not in any Manner whatever, but peaceably, in a Community regulated according to the best of his Understanding” (RWP 79) plays in Grotius’s account of natural rights and our obligations to abide by them. Unfortunately, an explanation of why the Desire of Society provides individuals with an other-regarding reason for abiding by others’ rights cannot be provided within this entry. 
However, I will mention a problem for Barbeyrac’s belief that invoking God’s commands can do the job of engendering genuine obligations to comply with the maxims that Right Reason identifies. The problem is that God’s commanding this compliance seems merely to provide a self-interested reason to comply and to eschew non-compliance. That reason is that God will provide a heavenly reward for compliance and will provide a hellish punishment for non-compliance. Yet Barbeyrac himself insists that self-interested reasons cannot yield genuine obligations. Even were Barbeyrac correct that the Nature of Things cannot impose obligations on people, he is mistaken to think that God’s promise of rewards or his threats of punishment can impose genuine obligations.