The Principles of Natural and Politic Law (1748)

Jean Jacques Burlamaqui

Whether there be any morality of actions, any obligation or duty, antecedent to the laws of nature, and independent of the idea of a legislator?

I. THE morality of human actions being founded in general on the relations of agreeableness or disagreeableness between those actions and the law, according as we have shewn in the eleventh chapter of the first part; there is no difficulty, when once we acknowledge the laws of nature, to affirm, that the morality of actions depends on their conformity or opposition to those very laws. This is a point, on which all civilians and ethic writers are agreed. But they are not so unanimous in regard to the first principle, or original cause of obligation and morality.

A great many are of opinion, that there is no other principle of morality, but the divine will manifested by the laws of nature. The idea of morality, they say, necessarily includes that of obligation; obligation supposes law; and law, a legislator. If therefore we abstract from all law, and consequently from a legislator, we shall have no such thing as right, obligation, duty, or morality, properly so called.1

Others there are, who acknowledge indeed, that the divine will is really a principle of obligation, and consequently a principle of the morality of human actions; but they do not stop here. They pretend, that antecedent to all law, and independent of a legislator, there are things, which of themselves, and by their own nature, are honest or dishonest; that, reason having once discovered this essential and specific difference of human actions, it imposes on man a necessity of performing the one and omitting the other; and that this is the first foundation of obligation, or the original source of morality and duty.

II. What we have already said concerning the primitive rule of human actions, and the nature and origin of obligation,2 may help to throw some light on the present question. But in order to illustrate it better, let us turn back and resume the thing from its first principles, by endeavouring to assemble here, in a natural order, the principal ideas, that may lead us to a just conclusion.

1. I observe in the first place, that every action, considered purely and simply in itself, as a natural motion of the mind or body, is absolutely indifferent, and cannot in this respect claim any share of morality.

This is what evidently appears; for as much as the same natural action is esteemed sometimes lawful and even good, and at other times unlawful or bad. To kill a man, for instance, is a bad action in a robber; but it is lawful or good in an executioner, or in a citizen or soldier, who defends his life or country, unjustly attacked; a plain demonstration, that this action, considered in itself, and as a simple operation of the natural faculties, is absolutely indifferent, and destitute of all morality.

2. We must take care to distinguish here between the physical and moral consideration. There is undoubtedly a kind of natural goodness or malignity in actions, which, by their own proper and internal virtue, are beneficial or hurtful; and produce the physical good or evil of man. But this relation between the action and its effect is only physical; and, if we stop here, we are not yet arrived at morality. It is pity we are frequently obliged to use the same expressions for the physical and moral ideas, which is apt to create some confusion. It were to be wished, that languages had a greater exactness in distinguishing the nature and different relations of things by different names.

3. If we proceed further, and suppose that there is some rule of human actions, and compare afterwards these actions with the rule, the relation, resulting from this comparison, is what properly and essentially constitutes morality.3

4. Thence it follows, that, in order to know which is the principal or efficient cause of the morality of human actions, we must previously be acquainted with their rule.

5. Finally let us add, that this rule of human actions may in general be of two sorts, either internal or external; that is, it may be either found in man himself, or it must be sought for somewhere else. Let us now make an application of these principles.

III. We have already seen,4 that man finds within himself several principles to discern good from evil, and that these principles are so many rules of his conduct. The first directive principle, we find within ourselves, is a kind of instinct, commonly called moral sense; which, pointing out readily, though confusedly and without reflection, the most sensible and most striking part of the difference between good and evil, makes us love the one, and gives us an aversion for the other, by a kind of natural sentiment.

The second principle is reason, or the reflection we make on the nature, relations, and consequences of things; which gives us a more distinct knowledge, by principles and rules, of the distinction between good and evil in all possible cases.

But to these two internal principles we must join a third, namely the divine will. For man being the handy work of God, and deriving from the Creator his existence, his reason, and all his faculties; he finds himself thereby in an absolute dependence on that supreme being, and cannot help acknowledging him as his lord and sovereign. Therefore, as soon as he is acquainted with the intention of God in regard to his creature, this will of his master becomes his supreme rule, and ought absolutely to determine his conduct.

IV. Let us not separate these three principles. They are indeed distinct from one another, and have each their particular force; but in the actual state of man they are necessarily united. It is sense, that gives us the first notice; our reason adds more light; and the will of God, who is rectitude itself, gives it a new degree of certainty; adding withal the weight of his authority. It is on all these foundations united, we ought to raise the edifice of natural law, or the system of morality.

Hence it follows, that, man being a creature of God, formed with design and wisdom, and endowed with sense and reason; the rule of human actions, or the true foundation of morality, is properly the will of the supreme being, manifested and interpreted either by moral sense or by reason. These two natural means, by teaching us to distinguish the relation, which human actions have to our constitution, or, which is the same thing, to the ends of the Creator, inform us what is morally good or evil, honest or dishonest, commanded or forbidden.

V. It is already a great matter to feel and to know good and evil; but this is not enough; we must likewise join to this sense and knowledge an obligation of doing the one, and abstaining from the other. It is this obligation, that constitutes duty, without which there would be no moral practice, but the whole would terminate in mere speculation. But which is the cause and principle of obligation and duty? Is it the very nature of things, discovered by reason? Or is it the divine will? This is what we must endeavour here to determine.

VI. The first reflection, that occurs to us here, and to which very few methinks are sufficiently attentive, is, that every rule whatsoever of human actions carries with it a moral necessity of conforming thereto, and produces consequently a sort of obligation. Let us illustrate this remark.

The general notion of rule is the idea of a sure and expeditious method of gaining a particular end. Every rule supposes therefore a design, or the will of attaining to a certain end, as the effect we want to produce, or the object we intend to procure. And it is perfectly evident, that, were a person to act merely for the sake of acting, without any particular design or determinate end; he ought not to trouble his head about directing his actions one way more than another; he should never mind either counsel or rule. This being premised, I affirm, that every man, who proposes to himself a particular end, and knows the means or rule, which alone can conduct him to it, and put him in possession of what he desires, finds himself under a necessity of following this rule, and conforming his actions to it. Otherwise he would contradict himself; he would and he would not; he would desire the end, and neglect the only means, which, by his own confession, are able to conduct him to it. Hence I conclude, that every rule, acknowledged as such, that is, as a sure and only mean of attaining to the end proposed, carries with it a sort of obligation of being thereby directed. For, so soon as there is a reasonable necessity to prefer one manner of acting to another, every reasonable man, who intends to behave as such, finds himself thereby engaged and tied as it were to this manner, being hindered by his reason from acting otherwise. That is, in other terms, he is really obliged; because obligation, in its original idea, is nothing more than a restriction of liberty produced by reason, inasmuch as the counsels, which reason gives us, are motives, that determine us to a particular manner of acting, preferable to any other. It is therefore true, that all rules are obligatory.

VII. This obligation indeed may be more or less strong, more or less strict, according as the reasons, on which it is founded, are more or less numerous, and have more or less power and efficacy of themselves to determine the will.

If a particular manner of acting appears to me evidently fitter than any other for my preservation and perfection, fitter to procure my bodily health and the welfare of my soul; this motive alone obliges me to act in conformity to it. And thus we have the first degree of obligation. If I find afterwards, that, besides the advantage now mentioned, such a conduct will secure the respect and approbation of those, with whom I converse; this is a new motive, which strengthens the preceding obligation, and adds still more to my engagement. But if, by pushing my reflections still farther, I find at length, that this manner of acting is perfectly agreeable to the intention of my Creator, who is willing and intends I should follow the counsels, which reason gives me, as so many real laws he prescribes to me himself; it is visible, that this new consideration strengthens my engagements, ties the knot still faster, and lays me under an indispensable necessity of acting after such or such a manner. For what is there more proper to determine finally a rational being, than the assurance he has of procuring the approbation and benevolence of his superior, by acting in conformity to his will and orders; and of escaping his indignation, which must infallibly pursue a rebellious creature.

VIII. Let us follow now the thread of the consequences, arising from these principles.

If it be true, that every rule is of itself obligatory, and that reason is the primitive rule of human actions; it follows, that reason only, independent of the law, is sufficient to impose some obligation on man, and consequently to furnish room for morality and duty, commendation and censure.

There will remain no manner of doubt on this subject, if, abstracting for a moment from superiority and law, we examine at first the state of man alone, considered merely as a rational being. Man proposes to himself his own good, that is, the welfare of his body and soul. He searches afterwards for the means of procuring those advantages; and so soon, as he has discovered them, he approves of some particular actions, and condemns others; and consequently he approves or condemns himself, according as he acts after a manner conformable or opposite to the dictates of his reason. Does not all this evidently demonstrate, that reason puts a restraint on liberty, and lays us therefore under an obligation of doing or abstaining from particular things?

Let us proceed. Suppose that man in the forementioned state, becomes the father of a family, and has a mind to act reasonably; would it be an indifferent thing to him to take care of, or to neglect his children, to provide for their subsistence and education, or do neither one nor the other? Is it not, on the contrary, evident, that, as this different conduct necessarily procures either the good or evil of his family, the approbation or censure, which reason gives it, renders it morally good or bad, worthy of praise or blame?

It would be an easy matter to pursue this way of arguing, and apply it to all the states of man. But what we have already said shows it is sufficient to consider man, as a rational being, to be convinced, that reason, pointing out the road, which alone can lead him to the end he aims at, lays him under a necessity of following this road, and of regulating thereby his conduct; that consequently reason alone is sufficient to establish a system of morality, obligation, and duties; because when once we suppose it is reasonable to do or to abstain from certain things, this is really owning our obligation.

IX. “But the idea of obligation, some will say, imports necessarily a being, that obliges; and who ought to be distinct from the person obliged. To suppose that he, who obliges, and he, who is obliged, are one and the same person is supposing, that a man may make a contract with himself; which is quite absurd. Right reason is, in reality, nothing but an attribute of the person obliged; it cannot be therefore a principle of obligation; nobody being capable of imposing on himself an indispensable necessity of acting or not acting after such or such a manner. For supposing a necessity, it must not be removable at the will and pleasure of the person subject to it; otherwise it would be void of effect. If therefore the person, on whom the obligation is imposed, is the same as he, who imposes it, he can disengage himself from it whenever he pleases; or rather, there is no obligation; as, when a debtor inherits the estate and rights of his creditor, the debt is void. Now duty is a debt, and neither of them can be admitted but between different persons.”5

X. This objection is more specious, than solid. In fact those, who pretend that there is properly neither obligation nor morality without a superior and law, ought necessarily to suppose one of these two things; 1. either that there is no other rule of human actions besides law; 2. or, if there be any other, none but law is an obligatory rule.

The first of these suppositions is evidently unsupportable; and after all, that has been said, concerning this subject, we think it quite useless to stop here to refute it. Either reason has been idly and without a design bestowed upon man, or we must allow it to be the general and primitive rule of his actions and conduct. And what is there more natural than to think, that a rational being ought to be directed by reason? If we should endeavour to evade this argument by saying, that, though reason be the rule of human actions, yet there is nothing but law, that can be an obligatory rule; this proposition cannot be maintained, unless we consent to give the name of obligation to some other restriction of liberty, as well as to that, which is produced by the will and order of a superior; and then it would be a mere dispute about words. Or else we must suppose, that there neither actually is, nor can even be conceived, any obligation at all, without the intervention of the will of a superior; which is far from being exactly true.

The source of the whole mistake, or the cause of the ambiguity, is our not ascending to the first principles, in order to determine the original idea of obligation. We have already said, and again we say it, that every restriction of liberty, produced or approved by right reason, forms a real obligation. That, which properly and formally obliges, is the dictate of conscience, or the internal judgment we pass on such or such a rule, the observance whereof appears to us just, that is conformable to the light of right reason.

XI. “But does not this manner of reasoning, some will reply, contradict the clearest notions, and subvert the ideas generally received, which make obligation and duty depend on the Intervention of a superior, whose will manifests itself by the law? What sort of thing is an obligation, imposed by reason, or which a man imposeth on himself? Cannot he always get rid of it, when he has a mind; and if the creditor and debtor, as we have already observed, be one and the same person, can it be properly said, that there is any such thing as a debt?”

This reply is grounded on an ambiguity, or supposes the thing in question. It supposes all along, that there neither is, nor can be, any other obligation than that, which proceeds from a superior or law. I agree, that such is the common language of civilians; but this makes no manner of alteration in the nature of the thing. What comes afterwards proves nothing at all. It is true that map may, if he has a mind, withdraw himself from the obligations, which reason imposes on him; but, if he does, it is at his peril, and he is forced himself to acknowledge, that such a conduct is quite unreasonable. But to conclude from this, that reason alone cannot oblige us, is going too far; because this consequence would equally invalidate the obligation, imposed by a superior. For in fine the obligation, produced by law, is not subversive of liberty; we have always a power to submit to it or not, and run the hazard of the consequence. In short the question is not concerning force or constraint, it is only in relation to a moral tie, which, in what manner soever it be considered, is always the work of reason.

XII. True it is, that duty, pursuant to its proper and strict signification, is a debt; and that, when we consider it thus, it presents the idea of an action, which somebody has a right to require of us. I agree likewise, that this manner of considering duty is just in itself. Man constitutes part of a system or whole; in consequence whereof he has necessary relations to other beings; and the actions of man, viewed in this light, having always some relation to another person, the idea of duty, commonly speaking, includes this relation. And yet, as it frequently happens in morality, that we give sometimes a more extensive, and at other times a more limited sense, to the same term, nothing hinders us from bestowing the more ample signification on the word duty, by taking it In general for an action conformable to right reason. And then it may be very well said, that man, considered even alone, and as a separate being, has particular duties to fulfil. It is sufficient for this end, that there be some actions, which reason approves, and others, which it condemns. These different ideas have nothing in them, that is opposite; on the contrary they are perfectly reconciled, and receive mutual strength and assistance from each other.

XIII. The result of what we have been now saying is as follows.

1. Reason being the first rule of man, it is also the first principle of morality, and the immediate cause of all primitive obligation.

2. Man being, by his nature and state, in a necessary dependance on the Creator, who has formed him with design and wisdom, and proposed some particular views to himself in creating him; the will of God is another rule of human actions, another principle of morality, obligation, and duty.

3. We may therefore say there are in general two sorts of morality or obligations; one antecedent to the law, and the work of reason? the other subsequent to the law, and properly the effect thereof, it is on this, that the forementioned distinction of internal and external obligation is founded.6

4. True it is, that those different species of obligation have not all the same force. That, which arises from the law, is without doubt the most perfect; it lays the strongest restriction on liberty, and merits therefore the name of obligation by way of preference. But we must not thence infer, that it is the only one, and that there can be none of any other kind. One obligation may be real, though it be different from, and even weaker than another.

5. It is so much the more necessary to admit these two sorts of obligation and morality, as that, which renders the obligation of law the most perfect, is its uniting the two species; being internal and external both at the same time.7 For were there no attention given to the very nature of the laws, and were the things they command or prohibit not to merit the approbation or censure of reason; the authority of the legislator would have no other foundation, but that of power; and laws being then no more than the effect of an arbitrary will, they would produce rather a constraint, properly so called, than any real obligation.

6. These remarks are especially and in the exactest manner applicable to the laws of nature. The obligation, these produce, is of all others the most efficacious and extensive; because, on one side, the disposition of these laws is in itself very reasonable, being founded on the nature of the actions, their specific differences, and the relation or opposition they have to particular ends. On the other side, the divine authority, which enjoins us to observe these rules, as laws he prescribes to us, adds a new force to the obligation they produce of themselves, and lays us under an indispensable necessity of conforming our actions to them.

7. From these remarks it follows, that those two ways of establishing morality, whereof one sets up reason and the other the will of God for its principle, ought not to be placed in opposition, as two incompatible systems, neither of which can subsist without destroying or excluding the other. On the contrary, we should join these two methods, and unite the two principles, in order to have a complete system of morality, really founded on the nature and state of man. For man, as a rational being, is subject to reason; and as a creature of God, to the will of the supreme Being. As these two qualities have nothing opposite or incompatible in their nature, these two rules, reason and the divine will, are perfectly reconciled; they are even naturally connected, and strengthened by their junction. And indeed it could not be otherwise; for in fine God himself is the author of the nature and mutual relations of things; and particularly of the nature of man, of his constitution, state, reason, and faculties; the whole is the work of God, and ultimately depends on his will and institution.

XIV. This manner of establishing the foundation of obligation and duty is so far from weakening the system of natural law or morality, that we affirm, it rather gives it a greater solidity and force. This is tracing the thing to the very source; it is laying the foundation of the edifice. I grant that, in order to reason well on morality, we ought to take things as they are, without making abstractions; that is, we should attend to the nature and actual state of man, by uniting and combining all the circumstances, that essentially enter into the system of humanity. But this does not hinder us from considering likewise the system of man in its particulars, and as it were by parts, to the end, that an exact knowledge of each of those parts may help us to understand better the whole. It is the only method we can take in order to attain the end.

XV. What has been hitherto set forth may help to explain and justify at the same time a thought of Grotius in his preliminary discourse, § 11. This author having established, after his manner, the principles and foundation of natural law, on the constitution of human nature, adds, that all he has been saying would in some measure take place, were we even to grant there was no God; or that he did not concern himself about human affairs. It is obvious, by his very manner of expressing himself, that he does not intend to exclude the divine will from the system of natural law. This would be mistaking his meaning; because he himself establishes this will of the Creator, as another source of right. All he means is, that, independent of the intervention of God, considered as a legislator, the maxims of natural law having their foundation in the nature of things, and in the human constitution; reason alone imposes already on man a necessity of following those maxims, and lays him under an obligation of conforming his conduct to them. In fact it cannot be denied but that the ideas of order, agreeableness, honesty and conformity to right reason, have at all times made an impression on man, at least to a certain degree, and among nations somewhat civilized. The human mind is formed in such a manner, that even those, who do not comprehend these ideas in their full exactness and extent have nevertheless a confused notion thereof, which inclines them to acquiescence so soon, as they are proposed.

XVI. But while we acknowledge the reality and certainty of those principles, we ought likewise to own, that if we proceed no farther, we are got but half way our journey; this would be unreasonably attempting to establish a system of morality independent of religion. For were we even to grant, that such a system is not destitute of all foundation; yet it is certain it could never produce of itself so effectual an obligation, as when it is joined with the divine will. Since the authority of the supreme Being gives the force of laws, properly so called, to the maxims of reason, these maxims acquire thereby the highest degree of strength, they can possibly have, to bind and subject the will, and to lay us under the strictest obligation. But (once more we repeat it) to pretend therefore, that the maxims and counsels of reason considered in themselves, and detached as it were, from God’s command, are not at all obligatory, is carrying the thing too far; it is concluding beyond our premises, and admitting only one species of obligation. Now this is not only unconformable to the nature of things, but as we have already observed, it is weakening even the obligation, resulting from the will of the legislator. For the divine ordinances make a much stronger impression on the mind, and are followed with a greater subjection in the Will, in proportion as they are approved by reason, as being in themselves perfectly agreeable to our nature and extremely conformable to oar constitution and state.


   1.    See Puffendorf, Law of Nature and Nations, book i. chap, ii. § 6.
   2.    See part i. chap. v. and vi.
   3.    See part i. chap. xi. § 1.
   4.    Part i. chap. v. 81 part ii. chap. iii.
   5.     Nemo fibi debet (says Seneca de Benef. lib. 5. cap. 8.) hoc verbum debere non habet, nifi inter duos, locum.
   6.    See part i. chap. vi. § 13.
   7.    See part i. chap. ix. § 12.