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The Ethical Nature of Society

Text of a talk given on Friday 25th November 2011 by Joseph Milne

At the beginning of Progress and Poverty Henry George quotes Marcus Aurelius. Part of that quotation says:

For nothing is so productive of elevation of mind as to be able to examine methodically and truly every object which is presented to thee in life, and always to look at things so as to see at the same time what kind of universe this is, and what kind of use everything performs in it, and what value everything has with reference to the whole, and what with reference to man, who is a citizen of the highest city, of which all other cities are like families.

Henry George quotes this passage from Marcus Aurelius to call the reader’s full intelligence to the task of examining of the nature and laws of economics, and to see how human society is part of the greater order of the universe as a whole. This is not only a very apt quotation with which to begin Progress and Poverty, it is also highly significant that George should invoke the great Stoic philosopher and exponent of Natural Law. In the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius we have the only record that has come down to us of practical Stoic exercises. In the quotation George gives us we are given a description of the Stoic exercise called judgement, which is to see things as they are in themselves and in relation to the whole universe, so that any action taken may be in accord with the truth of things, with the proper purpose of things, and for the good of mankind. For the Stoic philosopher, the final test of any action is whether it is for the good of mankind and therefore in accord with universal providence. Only such actions are truly virtuous, free and lead to human happiness.

Progress and Poverty may been seen as a similar intellectual exercise, enabling the mind to move from right perception to right judgement, and from right judgement to action for the common good or justice, and from justice to the fulfilment of human nature and happiness. This sequence involves right perception, right judgement, and right action, and we might call it a “virtuous circle” since it moves from truth to goodness, or from the intellectual to the ethical. Put very simply, it is perception, thought and action ruled by justice, where we understand justice as action in accordance with the truth of things.

It is evident that this “virtuous circle” from perception to justice is for Henry George the most natural thing, the proper use of our human faculties, and in conformity with the proper end of life. In speaking of the law of human progress he writes:

The law of human progress, what is it but the moral law? just as social adjustments produce justice, just as they acknowledge the equality of right between man and man, just as they insure to each the perfect liberty which is bounded only by the equal liberty of every other, must civilisation advance. (Progress and Poverty, p. 526)

To assert that the law of human progress is a moral law is the same as to say that only the just society can flourish or, more radically, that only the just society is genuinely a society and may properly be called a society. This clearly suggests that ethics, or “the moral law” as George calls it, lies at the heart of society and civilisation, and that human society is firstly and essentially an ethical body.

This is the view that 1 wish to explore in this talk, and 1 shall be calling upon the ancient philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle to elaborate it. Before 1 launch into this properly 1 think it would be well to remind ourselves that this view is not the current view, especially when it comes to the understanding of economics. The prevailing way of understanding economics through mathematical models and as mere mechanism wholly precludes any account of the ethical meaning of the production and exchange of wealth. Indeed, many economists assert that the workings of the market are morally neutral or amoral, and the modern way in which the working of the economy is analysed supports this view. With the current crisis there appears to be an inevitable conflict between so called market forces and ethics, almost as if the market worked entirely by itself without any human participation.

This disconnection between the economy and the ethical sphere is a feature of the mode of thinking of our times, but its roots go back to the rationalists of the 17` century who attempted to view the world and human society merely as unconscious mechanisms. The consequence of this was to relegate ethics to the private sphere of the individual, despite the claims of universal human rights and human equality. This in turn has led to the prevailing culture of moral relativism. For relativism all “values” are held to be culturally conditioned and without any grounding in truth or reality, while truth itself is also only relative or conditional or provisional. These views are defended in the name of freedom, on the grounds that nobody or no institution has the right to impose its values on the morally self determining individual.1 But what use is the claim of universal moral freedom in a world where all moral values cancel each other out as merely relative or private?

I would like to emphasize that this disconnection between economics and ethics derives from confusion within the sphere of ethics itself. This confusion is crippling the attempts of economists and governments to remedy the current financial crisis. It seems almost impossible to think economically and ethically at the same time. This is because economics cannot now be seen as inherently ethical, as primarily ethical. The pursuit of wealth and the pursuit of virtue appear to be at odds with one another.

From this it is clear that Henry George’s claim that the law of progress is a moral law cannot be easily grasped at this time, and that even we who study George can easily forget that his primary concern is justice and the perception of justice in the natural order of society. Our modern inability to see the ethical nature of things seems to me to be related to a fundamental law of civilisation. Over that last four years 1 have been tracing the history of the understanding of natural law, from Plato to the present, and through all the variations and changes in thinking one sees over this long period of time, one law that emerges clearly into light is that a society flourishes to the degree that it is able to reflect upon its own real nature. Whenever there is a flowering of culture, as in Classical Greece, or in the 0, 12 h or 15 th centuries in Europe to give obvious examples, this is always accompanied by a rich articulation of the nature of society, of human nature, and the place of these within the cosmos. This capacity to reflect on human nature and its part within the greater whole, or the All as the Stoics called it, inevitably comes accompanied by the consideration of the nature of the Good. For Plato and Aristotle, and also the great Christian theologians, to reflect upon the truth of things ultimately comes to the same thing as reflecting on the Good. The True and the Good cannot understood separately from one another. To illustrate this, here are a few short quotations from Aquinas which he has distilled from the philosophy and theology that has come down to him:

Every creature participates in goodness in the same degree as it participates in being.

Everything that is, and in whatever way it is, is good in so far as it exists.

Being itself is like goodness. Good and Being are convertible ideas.

Good and true and being are one and the same thing in reality, but in the mind they are distinguished from each other.

Good and the inclination to good follow from the very nature of a being; hence, so long as the nature remains, the inclination to good cannot be removed, not even from the damned.

The rational, intellectual nature is related to good and evil in a way that distinguishes it above all other beings. For every other creature is naturally ordered to some particular, partial good. On the other hand, only the intellectual nature apprehends the universal idea of the good itself through its intellectual knowledge, and is moved by the desire of the will to the good in its universality. (The Human Wisdom of St. Thomas, 37  41, 70)

There are a number of important things to notice about what Aquinas says here. First, each observation relates the universal and the particular. Thus, although he speaks of universal being or good or the true, he relates these to particular beings, goods or truths.

Second, that everything that exists is inclined to the good, and this inclination springs from the essence of each being. This inclination towards the good which is manifest in every part of Nature, either through the natural motion of things or instinct, is the inclination towards the perfection of being. That is to say, each thing is inclined to the perfection of its own nature within the overall order of Nature or the universe.

Third, the inclination to the perfection of being or the good manifests at the intellectual or human level as ethical reflection. The human intelligence has a capacity to grasp the universal order of Nature and see how each kind of creature is inclined to its particular good, and how that particular good forms part of the overall inclination towards the perfection of the whole universe. And because human intelligence has this capacity to reflect upon the total scheme of things, it is placed in a unique position in relation to the whole. Because of this unique place of reflection in the total order of Nature, human nature “is moved by the desire of the will to the good in its universality” as Aquinas puts it.

In terms of modern ethics this looks rather strange and abstract. As we noted earlier, the modern relativist view of morality asserts the independent autonomy of the individual over all values, and this evades or cancels out the question of any universal good. Not only that, whole spheres of life are regarded as amoral, for example the market economy, the arts, physics, or even education. But for Aquinas, as for Aristotle and Plato, there are no amoral spheres either in Nature or in human activity. This is because the true, the good, and being cannot be separated from one another. “Good and true and being are one and the same thing in reality, but in the mind they are distinguished from each other”, as Aquinas says.

Again, we can trace the seeds of this separation back to William of Ockham and the rise of Nominalism in the 10′ century, which asserts that only individual entities have real existence and that universals exist in name only. This is reinforced by the 17 h century rationalism where the universe is reduced to unconscious mechanism and “knowledge” becomes conceived as wholly detached from any type of participation in, or responsibility towards, the things known. Truth itself is reduced to mere measurement and impartial representation of things. Truth is no longer a universal that belongs to things in themselves, but becomes a human construct imposed upon things from outside. Such a conception of knowledge and truth cannot be related to the metaphysical universals of being or the good, and so they appear now as completely separate or independent realities. This unnatural separation has enormous ethical consequences which appear to have no resolution. For example we are confronted with such problems as whether the human genome can be patented or not, or species of plants privately owned, or if life is owned by the individual. The notion that all knowledge is morally neutral creates startling ethical difficulties and injustices.

1 would like to suggest that the way any age conceives the relation between truth and goodness will both reflect and determine its whole culture, its politics, its system of law and its relation to Nature as a whole. So while it may seem impractical to discuss obscure metaphysics while we could be campaigning for change, at the end of the day it will be the kind of answers given to the highest metaphysical questions that will determine the destiny of a society. This is the insight of Plato and Aristotle, who saw man as the being who reflects on the truth of things. Once there is a creature in Nature who reflects on Nature, we have the emergence of the ethical sphere, for the being who can reflect on Nature gains a responsibility to the truth of Nature that no other creature has. The human realm is the ethical realm. This is why at the beginning of his Politics Aristotle calls man the political being, because man has the power of language, and the “citizen” is the being with the gift of foresight and the capacity to make laws. The emergence of man as the reflective ethical sphere of Nature has been very richly shown in the works of Teilhard de Chardin, who writes:

From man onwards, the cosmos is constructed of moral magnitudes. Consequently spiritual action, so despised by science, is now effortlessly placed at the head of material energies, so far the only ones considered by physicists…. We are now correlatively to fuse into a common dimension two apparently opposite characteristics of experience. We are no longer surrounded by a physical realm and a moral realm. There is only the physicomoral. (Teilhard de Chardin, Human Energy, London, 1969, p. 11  22)

Although Teilhard is giving us a new insight in scientific, evolutionary terms, this is an old and essential insight in Platonic and Christian terms. The physical sphere is not seen in its real aspect if separated from the ethical, or in its truth if separated from the good. But the convergence of the physical and the ethical manifests at the human level, where truth, being and the good emerge together in reflective consciousness or thought. This is man’s place in Nature, and consequently the human sphere, society, shows itself as the responsible reflection on the truth of things. Once we glimpse how this is the human place in Nature, then all human activity takes on a fuller meaning. Society is no longer closed in upon itself, or serving only itself, but is part of a larger scheme in which the fullness of being is seen to be the orientation of the whole of reality. Thus Teilhard writes in another essay, “The more an individual, as a consequence of his metaphysical convictions, recognizes that he is an element of a universe in which he finds his fulfilment, the more closely he feels that he is bound from within himself to the duty of conforming to the laws of the universe..” (Toward the Future, London, 1975, p. 131  132)

The implication of what Teilhard says here is that human nature cannot realize or fulfil itself if it regards itself as separate from Nature as a whole, and that through conforming itself to the laws of the universe it conforms to its own nature from within itself.

Again, this may sound metaphysically very grand, but curiously it brings us to a moral question at the heart of our modern confusions about morality: the question of human freedom? It is surely true to say that the highest aspiration of modern democracies is the attainment of freedom. It is the quest for freedom that inspired the various charters and declarations of human rights since the 18 h century, and that human rights express the conscience of our age.

There is, however, a serious flaw in the modern conception of freedom which takes us back once again to the rise of Nominalism of the 14 th century. As we noted a moment ago, the Nominalist view holds that only particular entities exist, and that each entity is autonomous and closed in on itself. This conception was applied both to God and to all created things, including the human person, and since the essence of each being now becomes its autonomy, the cc will” becomes the first principle of being, or even precedes being. The consequence of this conception of the essence of things was that “free will” becomes the decisive characteristic of human nature. Free will came to mean the absolute autonomy of will over things, regardless of their nature. That is to say, free will becomes an end in itself, indifferent to reality external to itself. This Nominalist view lingers on in the existentialism which claims existence precedes essence, for example in the famous novel of Camus, The Outsider.

Given this conception of free will, based on a metaphysical notion of reality composed of separate entities, the philosophers and political economists of the 17` century looked at the framing of society and its laws as essentially protecting the freedom of each individual from either the power of the state or from all other individuals. Thus the conception of the modern liberal society was founded in the notion of the essential competition of each against all, and so laws were made not for the sake of the common good, or for conformation to Nature, but for the protection of the individual against all other individuals and the power of the state. And the power of the state itself, and its laws, were seen as arising from the will of the ruler.

It was from this conception of society that the modern ideals of human rights arose. Human rights were conceived in terms of the good of each private individual, not in terms of the common good, or the good of the whole, or the natural order. Through the agency of human rights the individual asserts his will over all other individuals and institutions.

This conception of human freedom is profoundly different from that of the ancient philosophers, and so it is illuminating to contrast them. For Plato and Aristotle, freedom means the capacity for excellence. That is to say, the capacity for education, for virtue, justice and to fully participate in the universal good.

This conception of freedom arises from an entirely different conception of human nature and the nature of things. It is founded in the understanding that all things are by nature oriented towards the Good, each in its own nature and as a part of the greater whole. For human nature this means that the natural inclinations and instincts are oriented towards the good and perfection. Thus the natural state is a harmony between human nature and Nature generally, and between all human individuals.

Understood in this way, “free will” cannot be the mere assertion of autonomy. On the contrary, free will now becomes the capacity to discern the true and the good and act from that ground. Thus for Aquinas, the free will arises from the act of discerning the true with the intellect, and the good with the will, and free will arises as the decision for excellence. The act of free will is in fact the capacity to make decisions in the light of the good and the true. To put that another way, as we often find in the Stoics, it is the ability to conform to the providential laws of the universe. The classical understanding of free will presupposes a receptivity to, and a participation in, the universal truth and good. It is essentially ethical. It is the capacity to assent to the true and the good through reflection.

By contrast with this, the Nominalist idea of free will as the absolute autonomy of the individual has no ethical basis. It is merely the assertion of absolute autonomy and is as such amoral. It is precisely because of this notion of free will as autonomy that modern theories of ethics are conceived in terms of limiting the scope of free will, as rules, obligations and duties that are imposed on the individual from outside. If human nature is not inherently ethical, then ethics can only be conceived in this way, as imposed from outside. It follows that law can only be conceived in this way too, and so the traditional understanding of Natural Law can have no place.

It is extremely unfortunate that this notion of free will as autonomy, originating with William of Ockham, overcame the earlier understanding of free will as decision for excellence as richly elaborated by Aquinas, and reduced all ethical thinking to the imposition of obligations. It is also unfortunate that this conception of free will serves as the foundation of the modern formulations of human rights.2 These rights, which are said to spring from human nature as such, are actually formulations of claims upon other persons and obligations imposed on them. They are assertions of will, not formulations grounded in the common good or universal justice. They arise from the Nominalist notion of human nature, in which metaphysics and ethics are separated.3 Simone Weil claimed that the declarations of human rights reduce human beings to mere legal entities and are wholly contrary to the Christian understanding of man made in the image of God. She wrote in her essay Human Personality:

The notion of rights is linked with the notion of sharing out, of exchange, of measured quantity. It has a commercial flavour, essentially evocative of legal claims and arguments. Rights are always asserted in a tone of contention; and when this tone is adopted, it must rely upon force in the background, or else it will be laughed at. (Simone Weil, An Anthology, London, 2005, p. 81)

These are radical assertions, as we would expect from Simone Weil,4 but they have the advantage of pushing us to find higher ground for a real foundation for ethics. This higher ground must raise the question of free will to the very highest level. For Aquinas it resides in the understanding of man created in the image of God. The good, true and being have their ultimate ground or origin in God, and the human faculties and their natural inclinations towards the true and good are finally oriented towards mystical union.5 From this high perspective, the desire for mystical union, which is the essence of the free will, not only brings human nature to God, it also brings it wholly to itself and into harmony with the truth of all created things. From the Christian perspective, this transforms the virtue of justice, which epitomises the genuine action of free will, into the virtue of charity  and charity means participation in the divine love God has for all beings. Henry George likewise makes this connection between the moral law of human progress and the spiritual desire of man:

Political economy and social science cannot teach any lessons that are not embraced in the simple truths of that were taught to poor fishermen and Jewish peasants by One who eighteen hundred years ago was crucified  the simple truths which, . . . seem to underlie every religion that has ever striven to formulate the spiritual yearnings of man. (Progress and Poverty, p. 526)

To sum up, it is through ethics that the human being and society are brought into their true and natural relationship with Nature. This is true, however, only so long as ethics is understood to arise from that natural inclinations of human nature, which are oriented towards truth and goodness. The human sphere is the ethical sphere, because human nature has the power to reflect on the nature of things, as well as human nature itself. As the reflective being it surely must follow that all human action is at any time a manifestation of the degree to which the true and the good are understood. So where there is economic injustice or poverty, there is ignorance of the laws of Nature and the proper role of human society within in Nature. Or, to put that more gently, so long as society is not established as first and primarily ethical, it will fail to fulfil its own proper ends. This is especially the case with the understanding of economics, because the creation and exchange of goods can either liberate human nature or enslave it. This, 1 believe, is the central truth that Henry George perceived and which inspired his enquiry into the laws of political economy.


1 The philosopher Isaiah Berlin argued that all moral values are subjective and have no universal ground in truth, and are in perpetual conflict with one another simply as part of the human condition.

2 For a detailed study of the emergence of human rights see Costas Douzinas The End of Human Rights, Hart Publishing, 2000

3 Teilhard de Chardin writes: It follows, then, that moral science and metaphysics must inevitably be seen as, structurally, the two aspects (the intellectual and the practical) of one and the same system. A metaphysics is necessarily backed by a moral science, and vice versa. Every metaphysics entails its own moral science, and every moral science implies its own metaphysics. Essentially the two go together in pairs.” (Toward the Future, Can Moral Science Dispense with a Metaphysical Foundation? p. 131)

4 Even if we regard Simone Weil’s view as excessive, nevertheless a great deal of modern political rhetoric for military intervention is clothed in the language and claims of human rights.

5 Meister Eckhart says “Wisdom and goodness are one in God. That same thing that is wisdom is also goodness, and that same thing that is mercy is also justice. If in God goodness were one thing and wisdom another, the soul could never find fulfilment in God. The soul is by nature inclined to goodness, and by nature all creatures desire wisdom. If goodness were one thing and wisdom another, the soul, in pouring itself completely into goodness, would have to suffer the pain of leaving wisdom. And if it wanted to pour itself into wisdom, it would have to suffer the loss of goodness.” (From Meister Eckhart.. Teacher and Preacher, edited by Bernard McGinn, Paulist Press, 1986, Sermon 84)


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