The James Wilson Foundation on Natural Rights and the American Founding

“On the First Principles of Moral Reason”: Paul DeHart in Public Discourse

In an essay for Public Discourse, James Wilson Institute friend Prof. Paul DeHart continues his interaction with Prof. F.H. Buckley’s criticism of natural law reasoning. In an article for Law & Liberty, Prof. Buckley argued that “natural lawyers” fall victim to the “is-ought” problem pointed out by British skeptic David Hume – you cannot derive how something should be from how things are. In response, Prof DeHart first argues that natural lawyers do no such thing. Rather, natural law reasoning proceeds from axioms of moral reason which cannot be proven nor coherently denied. Citing C.S. Lewis, he points to the broad agreement across time and culture concerning the basic principles of moral reason. However, these principles are not axioms because they are broadly found. Rather, DeHart argues, they are broadly found precisely because they are axioms which are binding in all times and places.

Some quotes from the article:

“No natural lawyer has ever proposed inferring oughts from oughtless facts. Taking the locus classicus of natural law, Thomas Aquinas, as our point of departure, we discover something true of every major thinker in the classical natural law tradition. Natural lawyers of varying backgrounds begin moral reasoning from indemonstrable first principles of practical or moral reason that prescribe and therefore stipulate an ought right at the outset—namely, that good is to be done and evil avoided.”

“What about this claim of radical cultural variation in moral knowledge across time and place? Well, the claim is empirical. And, as it happens, the claim is also empirically false.”

“[F]or natural lawyers, the fundamental requirements of the moral law are inscribed on the human heart and attested by conscience, even if our fractured condition obscures them to some degree. In Christian terms, the Creator has not left Himself without a witness. When it comes to moral reasoning, natural lawyers start from there.”

The full article can be found here.

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Law and liberty cannot rationally become the objects of our love, unless they first become the objects of our knowledge.
— James Wilson, Lectures on Law, 1790