The Open Society and its Enemies
Chapter 5  Nature and Convention, Note 18

18 (1) The hope of getting some argument or theory to share our responsibilities is, I believe, one of the basic motives of ‘scientific’ ethics. ‘Scientific’ ethics is in its absolute barrenness one of the most amazing of social phenomena. What does it aim at? At telling us what we ought to do, i.e. at constructing a code of norms upon a scientific basis, so that we need only look up the index of the code if we are faced with a difficult moral decision? This clearly would be absurd; quite apart from the fact that if it could be achieved, it would destroy all personal responsibility and therefore all ethics. Or would it give scientific criteria of the truth and falsity of moral judgements, i.e. of judgements involving such terms as ‘good’ or ‘bad’? But it is clear that moral judgements are absolutely irrelevant. Only a scandalmonger is interested in judging people or their actions; ‘judge not’ appears to some of us one of the fundamental and much too little appreciated laws of humanitarian ethics. (We may have to disarm and to imprison a criminal in order to prevent him from repeating his crimes, but too much of moral judgement and especially of moral indignation is always a sign of hypocrisy and pharisaism.) Thus an ethics of moral judgements would be not only irrelevant but indeed an immoral affair. The all-importance of moral problems rests, of course, on the fact that we can act with intelligent foresight, and that we can ask ourselves what our aims ought to be, i.e. how we ought to act.
Nearly all moral philosophers who have dealt with the problem of how we ought to act (with the possible exception of Kant) have tried to answer it either by reference to ‘human nature’ (as did even Kant, when he referred to human reason) or to the nature of ‘the good’. The first of these ways leads nowhere, since all actions possible to us are founded upon ‘human nature’, so that the problem of ethics could also be put by asking which elements in human nature I ought to approve and to develop, and which sides I ought to suppress or to control. But the second of these ways also leads nowhere; for given an analysis of ‘the good’ in form of a sentence like: ‘The good is such and such’ for ‘such and such is good’), we would always have to ask: What about it? Why should this concern me? Only if the word ‘good’ is used in an ethical sense, i.e. only if it is used to mean ‘that which I ought to do’, could I derive from the information ‘x is good’ the conclusion that I ought to do x. In other words, if the word ‘good’ is to have any ethical significance at all, it must be defined as ‘that which I (or we) ought to do (or to promote)’. But if it is so defined, then its whole meaning is exhausted by the defining phrase, and it can in every context be replaced by this phrase, i.e. the introduction of the term ‘good’ cannot materially contribute to our problem. (Cp. also note 49 (3) to chapter 11.)
All the discussions about the definition of the good, or about the possibility of defining it, are therefore quite useless. They only show how far ‘scientific’ ethics is removed from the urgent problems of moral life. And they thus indicate that ‘scientific’ ethics is a form of escape, and escape from the realities of moral life, i.e. from our moral responsibilities. (In view of these considerations it is not surprising to find that the beginning of ‘scientific’ ethics, in the form of ethical naturalism, coincides in time with what may be called the discovery of personal responsibility. Cp. what is said in chapter 10, text to notes 27-38 and 55-7, on the open society and the Great Generation.) (2) It may be fitting in this connection to refer to a particular form of the escape from responsibility discussed here, as exhibited especially by the juridical positivism of the Hegelian school, as well as by a closely allied spiritual naturalism. That the problem is still significant may be seen from the fact that an author of the excellence of Catlin remains on this important point (as on a number of others) dependent upon Hegel; and my analysis will take the form of a criticism of Catlin’s arguments in favour of spiritual naturalism, and against the distinction between laws of nature and normative laws (cp. G. E. G. Catlin, A Study of the Principles of Politics, 1930, pp. 96-99). Catlin begins by making a clear distinction between the laws of nature and ‘laws .. which human legislators make’; and he admits that, at first sight the phrase ‘natural law’, if applied to norms, ‘appears to be patently unscientific, since it seems to fail to make a distinction between that human law which requires enforcement and the physical laws which are incapable of breach’. But he tries to show that it only appears to be so, and that ‘our criticism’ of this way of using the term ‘natural law’ was ‘too hasty’. And he proceeds to a clear statement of spiritual naturalism, i.e. to a distinction between ‘sound law’ which is ‘according to nature’, and other law: ‘Sound law, then, involves a formulation of human tendencies, or, in brief, is a copy of the “natural” law to be “found” by political science. Sound law is in this sense emphatically found and not made. It is a copy of natural social law’ (i.e. of what I called ‘sociological laws’; cp. text to note 8 to this chapter). And he concludes by insisting that in so far as the legal system becomes more rational, its rules ‘cease to assume the character of arbitrary commands and become mere deductions drawn from the primary social laws’ (i.e. from what I should call ‘sociological laws’).
(3) This is a very strong statement of spiritual naturalism. Its criticism is the more important as Catlin combines his doctrine with a theory of social engineering ‘which may perhaps at first sight appear similar to the one advocated here (cp. text to note 9 to chapter 3 and text to notes 1-3 and 8-11 to chapter 9). Before discussing it, I wish to explain why I consider Catlin’s view to be dependent on Hegel’s positivism. Such an explanation is necessary, because Catlin uses his naturalism in order to distinguish between ‘sound’ and other law; in other words, he uses it in order to distinguish between ‘just’ and ‘unjust’ law; and this distinction certainly does not look like positivism, i.e. the recognition of the existing law as the sole standard of justice. In spite of all that, I believe that Catlin’s views are very close to positivism: my reason being that he believes that only ‘sound’ law can be effective, and in so far ‘existent’ in precisely Hegel’s sense. For Catlin says that when our legal code is not ‘sound’, i.e. not in accordance with the laws of human nature, then ‘our statute remains paper’. This statement is purest positivism; for it allows us to deduce from the fact that a certain code is not only ‘paper’ but successfully enforced, that it is ‘sound’; or in other words, that all legislation which does not turn out to be merely paper is a copy of human nature and therefore just.
(4) I now proceed to a brief criticism of the argument proffered by Catlin against the distinction between (a) laws of nature which cannot be broken, and (b) normative laws, which are man-made, i.e. enforced by sanctions; a distinction which he himself makes so very clearly at first. Catlin’s argument is a twofold one. He shows (a1) that laws of nature also are man-made, in a certain sense, and that they can, in a sense, be broken; and (b1) that in a certain sense normative laws cannot be broken. I begin with (a1) ‘The natural laws of the physicist’, writes Catlin, ‘are not brute facts, they are rationalizations of the physical world, whether superimposed by man or justified because the world is inherently rational and orderly.’ And he proceeds to show that natural laws ‘can be nullified’ when ‘fresh facts’ compel us to recast the law. My reply to this argument is this. A statement intended as a formulation of a law of nature is certainly man-made. We make the hypothesis that there is a certain invariable regularity, i.e. we describe the supposed regularity with the help of a statement, the natural law. But, as scientists, we are prepared to learn from nature that we have been wrong; we are prepared to recast the law if fresh facts which contradict our hypothesis show that our supposed law was no law, since it has been broken. In other words, by accepting nature’s nullification, the scientist shows that he accepts a hypothesis only as long as it has not been falsified; which is the same as to say that he regards a law of nature as a rule which cannot be broken, since he accepts the breaking of his rule as proof that his rule did not formulate a law of nature. Furthermore: although the hypothesis is man-made, we may be unable to prevent its falsification. This shows that, by creating the hypothesis, we have not created the regularity which it is intended to describe (although we did create a new set of problems, and may have suggested new observations and interpretations), (b1) ‘It is not true’, says Catlin, ‘that the criminal “breaks” the law when he does the forbidden act .. the statute does not say: “Thou canst not”; it says, “Thou shall not, or this punishment will be inflicted.” As command’, Catlin continues, ‘it may be broken, but as law, in a very real sense, it is only broken when the punishment is not inflicted ... So far as the law is perfected and its sanctions executed,.. it approximates to physical law.’ The reply to this is simple. In whichever sense we speak of ‘breaking’ the law, the juridical law can be broken; no verbal adjustment can alter that. Let us accept Catlin’s view that a criminal cannot ‘break’ the law, and that it is only ‘broken’ if the criminal does not receive the punishment prescribed by the law. But even from this point of view, the law can be broken; for instance, by officers of the state who refuse to punish the criminal. And even in a state where all sanctions are, in fact, executed, the officers could, if they chose, prevent such execution, and so ‘break’ the law in Catlin’s sense. (That they would thereby ‘break’ the law in the ordinary sense, also, i.e. that they would become criminals, and that they might ultimately perhaps be punished is quite another question.) In other words: A normative law is always enforced by men and by their sanctions, and it is therefore fundamentally different from a hypothesis. Legally, we can enforce the suppression of murder, or of acts of kindness; of falsity, or of truth; of justice, or of injustice. But we cannot force the sun to alter its course. No amount of argument can bridge this gap.

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