Within the framework that bases the natural law on the Will, "right" and "wrong," as Heinrich Rommen pointed out, become matters of opinion. Morality becomes "situational," based on the personal faith of the individual with little or no reference to reason or common sense. Reason itself becomes something to ridicule, if not rejected outright. Faith alone justifies all of our acts and beliefs, just as William of Occam concluded. As Rommen explains the results of this kind of thinking,
For Occam the natural moral law is positive law, divine will. An action is not good because of its suitableness to the essential nature of man, wherein God's archetypal idea of man is represented according to being and oughtness, but because God so wills. God's will could also have willed and decreed the precise opposite, which would then possess the same binding force as that which is now valid — which, indeed, has validity only as long as God's absolute will so determines. Law is will, pure will without any foundation in reality, without foundation in the essential nature of things. Thus, too, sin no longer contains any intrinsic element of immorality, or what is unjust, any inner element of injustice; it is an external offense against the will of God.Obviously, opinions based on faith are invalid outside of whatever group accepts those specific concepts or shares that particular interpretation of some document of faith or of revelation, or has or obtains the power to force others into compliance with what they assert must be the divine Will. (Hence the accusation so frequently heard these days that attempting to assert any absolute standard of the good is "forcing your morality on others.") Basing the ideas of right and wrong on opinion necessarily results in the creation of an elite "inner circle" that alone is privy to the full truth that the great mass of humanity simply lacks the capacity to understand.
As a result, Occam, who sees only individual phenomena, not universals, the concepts of essences, can likewise admit no teleological orientation toward God is inherent in all creation and especially in man; or at least he cannot grant that it can be known. The unity of being, truth, and goodness does not exist for him. Moral goodness consists in mere external agreement with God's absolute will, which, subject only to His arbitrary decree, can always change. . . . Hence there exists no unchangeable lex naturalis, no natural law that inwardly governs the positive law. Positive law and natural law, which indeed is also positive law, stand likewise in no inner relation to each other. The identity of this thought structure with The Prince of Machiavelli, with the Leviathan of Hobbes, and with the theory of will of modern positivism (the will of the absolute sovereign is law, because no higher norm stands above him) is here quite obvious. (Rommen, op. cit., 52-53)
Thus, within this framework, it becomes the duty (or, more correctly, the delusion) of the elite to force the masses to comply with its personal interpretation as to what constitutes the good. Naturally, the means by which compliance is forced on the rest of humanity is the State, which has a monopoly on the instruments of coercion. Implicitly rejecting the natural equality of all humanity — that is, that every human being by the mere fact of being human has an analogously complete capacity to acquire and develop virtue — the human race is divided into two groups. These two groups are 1) a necessarily small group of rulers — masters — and 2) the much larger group of ruled: natural slaves. Since this arrangement is presumably based on God's Will, the rulers have their positions by divine right, while the ruled are under a holy obligation to obey the rulers on peril of their immortal souls . . . to say nothing of their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor, which must in all cases be sacrificed if the elite in control of the State so demand or command.
These assumptions are at the root of such productions as Sir Robert Filmer's Patriarcha, or, The Natural Power of Kings (1680) and, of course, Thomas Hobbes's virtual manual for totalitarian government, Leviathan, or, The Matter, Form, and Power of a Commonwealth Ecclesiastical and Civil (1651). Within this framework, individuals have no inherent, that is, natural rights. All rights are a grant from the ruler, and are thus the result of prudential judgment on the part of the State as to what rights can be permitted, and how they are to be exercised.
This extends even to the natural rights of life, liberty, pursuit of happiness (the acquisition and development of virtue), and, especially, private property. Some modern commentators, claiming to be "authentic" interpreters of, e.g., the social teachings of the Catholic Church (based on the natural moral law, in common with all the major religions), have taken it on themselves to redefine the institution of private property as being "a right, but not an absolute right." This is a meaningless statement once we understand the difference between possessing a right, and exercising a right. Nevertheless, the idea that all rights come from the State is pervasive today, and is based on a presumption of totalitarian State power in one form or another. As Hobbes asserts,
A Fifth doctrine, that tendeth to the Dissolution of a Common-wealth, is, That every private man has an absolute Propriety in his Goods; such, as excludeth the Right of the Soveraign. Every man has indeed a Propriety that excludes the Right of every other Subject: And he has it onely from the Soveraign Power; without the protection whereof, every other man should have equall Right to the same. But if the Right of the Soveraign also be excluded, he cannot performe the office they have put him into, which is, to defend them both from forraign enemies, and from the injuries of one another; and consequently there is no longer a Common-wealth.Note the subtlety of the change from the traditional understanding of the natural law. As far as Aristotle and Aquinas were concerned, every human being is a natural person, and thus necessarily has those natural rights that define something as a "person." How those natural rights are to be exercised, however, is a matter of prudence, subject however always to the proviso that the exercise of natural rights must never be defined in any way that effectively negates the right itself. Aristotle and Aquinas disagreed as to whether all human beings have the full — analogously complete — capacity to acquire and develop virtue, and thus the full spectrum of natural rights, but the fact of natural, that is, absolute, rights is not a matter of dispute.
And if the Propriety of Subjects, exclude not the Right of the Soveraign Representative to their Goods; much lesse to their offices of Judicature, or Execution, in which they Represent the Soveraign himselfe. (Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, II.29)
That is, all human beings necessarily and absolutely have such natural rights as life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness (the acquisition and development of virtue). They could not otherwise be defined as human beings. It is essential to the understanding of humanity as political animals that we realize each of us has the full spectrum of natural rights, and we have possession of these rights absolutely — or, again, we could not be defined as "human."
No one, however, has or could possibly have the absolute exercise of any right, even a natural right. This is impossible in any event, given humanity's social nature. No right can be exercised except within the confines of the common good, which in turn precludes the exercise of any right in any way that harms the right holder, other persons, or the common good. You cannot legitimately violate anyone's rights by the proper exercise of your own rights. As John Locke pointed out, you are not even "allowed" to violate your own rights, e.g., by voluntarily selling yourself into slavery or committing suicide. That would imply that your presumably inalienable rights to life and liberty are, in fact, alienable. If you can alienate your own rights, even with your own full and free consent, what is to stop others from alienating your rights without your consent once the precedent of alienation has been established?
Ultimately, the claim that a ruler holds his or her position by some kind of divine right, that is, either by a direct grant of authority from God or some other Power, or believes it to be self-generated or unaccountable, is a claim to divine status. Thus, by claiming that ordinary people do not have absolute possession of their natural rights — in effect, that natural rights are not, in fact, rights at all, but "prudential matter" — the State (or the ruler who claims to personify the State, especially by his or her own authority) usurps the place of God.
Understood in this way, basing the natural law on the Will rather than the Intellect is clearly contrary to reason — and, possibly, one of the reasons why Aquinas declared that the law is discernible by reason alone. Basing the natural law on the Will is one of those seemingly "small errors" in the beginning that lead to big errors in the end, as both Aristotle and Aquinas pointed out. Nowhere is this more evident than in how we relate to the institutions of the social order, those props intended and presumably designed to assist each individual in the task of acquiring and developing virtue, and thereby becoming more fully human. That is what we will begin to examine in the next posting in this series.