Alexander Hamilton’s Natural Law Reading List

“If you will follow my advice, there still may be hopes of your reformation. Apply yourself, without delay, to the study of the law of nature. I would recommend to your perusal, Grotius, Puffendorf, Locke, Montesquieu, and Burlemaqui. I might mention other excellent writers on this subject; but if you attend diligently to these, you will not require any others.”–Alexander Hamilton, The Farmer Refuted [1774]

Jean-Jacques Burlamaqui [1747]:

“Moral instinct I call that natural bent or inclination which prompts us to approve of certain things as good and commendable, and to condemn others as bad and blameable, independent of reflexion. Or if any one has a mind to distinguish this instinct by the name of moral sense, as Mr. Hutchinson has done, I shall then say, that it is a faculty of the mind, which instantly discerns, in certain cases, moral good and evil, by a kind of sensation and taste, independent of reason and reflexion.

Examples.II. Thus at the sight of a man in misery or pain, we feel immediately a sense of compassion, which prompts us to relieve him. The first emotion that strikes us, after receiving a benefit, is to acknowledge the favour, and to thank our benefactor. The first disposition of one man towards another, abstracting from any particular reason he may have of hatred or fear, is a sense of benevolence, as towards his fellow-creature, with whom he finds himself connected by a conformity of nature and wants. We likewise observe, that without any great thought or reasoning, a child, or untutored peasant, is sensible that ingratitude is a vice, and exclaims against perfidy, as a black and unjust action, which highly shocks him, and is absolutely repugnant to his nature. On the contrary, to keep one’s word, to be grateful for a benefit, to pay every body their due, to honour our parents, to comfort those who are in distress or misery, are all so many actions which we cannot but approve and esteem as just, good, honest, beneficent, and useful to mankind. Hence the mind is pleased to see or hear such acts of equity, sincerity, humanity, and beneficence; the heart is touched and moved; and reading them in history we are seized with admiration, and extol the happiness of the age, nation, or family, distinguished by such noble examples. As for criminal instances, we cannot see or hear them mentioned, without contempt or indignation.”

This is what separates man from the mere beasts.  Man knows what is good and what is not-good when he sees it. “Natural law” is rooted in man’s nature, not the Bible, nor in arbitrary positive law.

Read the whole thing.

Tom Van Dyke

Tom Van Dyke, businessman, musician, bon vivant and game-show champ (The Joker's Wild, and Win Ben Stein's Money), knows lots of stuff, although not quite everything yet. A past contributor to The American Spectator Online, the late great Reform Club blog, and currently on religion and the American Founding at American Creation, TVD continues to write on matters of both great and small importance from his ranch type style tract house high on a hill above Los Angeles.


  1. If that’s your conception of natural law, then I have absolutely no complaint. I’ve long maintained that the “natural law” is just the expression in language of our innate moral intuition. And further, that this intuition is the result of the inexorable logic of natural selection working over countless generations of the human animal living in social groups. Quite simply, those who possessed this particular formulation of innate moral rules were pre-disposed to form social groups that, by virtue of being superior in internal cooperation, out-competed other groups whose members may have been endowed with different internal moral rule-sets.

    It may be a reductionist–and inherently scientistic and non-theistic formulation–but it works for me and is internally consistent.

    Implicit in this formulation is the existence of variation between individuals in the exact composition of this internal moral rule-set. And while this variation can take various forms, it seems reasonable to assume that there are only a small number of internally consistent sets that can arise from these innate dispositions. So there is a conservative rule-set, a liberal rule-set, a libertarian rule-set, etc., that form the basis of our political dispositions.

    So perhaps where discussions of natural moral law runs into the ditch is in the–quite natural!–assumption that there is a singular natural moral law that is accessible to all when in fact there are several such formulations. No amount of discussion and argument can bridge these gaps when, at the end of the day, what you’re saying just feels fundamentally wrong to me and vice versa.

    Finally, perhaps this is an argument in favor of racially and ethnically homogenous political states, whose members would perhaps more naturally share compatible moral intuitions.

      • You’re welcome. I guess. But it would be nice to know what part you’re saying “No” to.

        • “Nice?” You forfeited that benefit of the doubt and courtesy many exchanges ago, Rod, and you know exactly what I wrote “no” to. You’re clearly one of the smartest of all the participants @ LoOG, Top 5 easy, mebbe Top One.

          Peace, bro.

  2. This is a formulation of natural law with which no one can disagree. When it comes to “black and unjust action, which highly shocks [any man], and is absolutely repugnant to his nature,” it’s all well and good to say that it violates natural law.

    But, unfortunately, this formulation doesn’t do what you want it to do. Natural law arguments are not usually invoked regarding such universally despised things (because, of course, there’s no need for argument about such things). Rather, it only comes up when there’s a disagreement about whether something is moral or permissible.

    • Fnord,

      The OP provides the supporting premise to my recent post about the giving of justifications. As you acknowledge, there is certain conduct whose wrongness we cannot dispute. I think we can assume that it is wrong for the law to treat people differently unless there is a moral justification for the different treatment. Allowing one person to buy a house and disallowing another person to buy the same house for the sole reason that the first person is white and the second is black is wrong, because there is no moral justification for racial discrimination. In the same way, taxing one person at an effective rate of 10% and a second person at 30% because the first is white and the second is black is wrong for the same reason.

      In each example, we are making two moral judgments: First, that different treatment is generally wrong; and second, that the basis offered does not rise to the standard of a moral justification for that treatment.

      But say we change the latter example so that the basis of the different treatment is that the second person has more money. Does that rise to the level of a moral justification? To put it a different way, does a person’s paycheck or bank statement reflect on his moral praise- or blame-worthiness, justifying treating him better or worse than his fellows? Surely not. Of course, that is not the end of the inquiry, because we also recognize the existence of certain supererogatory duties. So the inquiry may go further, such as, to ask what the excess money taken will be used for. If used to fulfill a recognized supererogatory duty, then it may be justified. If not — e.g., if it is used simply to fill potholes on roads we all use in common rather than to provide dire services to those who otherwise must go without — then the higher effective tax is a morally wrongful act without a moral justification.

      What is important in the acknowledgment of natural law is that pragmatic justifications are off the table. We do not assuage the moral blameworthiness of an act by pointing to some indirect benefit — i.e., we cannot justify differing effective rates of taxation, for example, by making vague claims about making society nicer. Many opponents of natural law suggest that it is lazy thinking, when in reality they have it exactly backwards.

      • And yet many people can see progressive tax rates mentioned without contempt or indignation. And, you know, it feels kind backwards to me that progressive taxation is morally impermissible discrimination while gay marriage is not only not mandatory but arguably forbidden.

        Which brings me to my real objection to natural law theory, as it’s applied. In practice, it’s used as a way to avoid giving justifications, not to demand them. If it really were a matter of trying to develop a (somewhat) comprehensive ethical system from basic moral intuitions, that’s all well and good. In fact, that’s basically how I view ethics; I don’t consider my moral intuitions a reflection of any external, objective moral criteria, but that’s not really a practical disagreement.

        But that’s not how I see it used. To say that taxing a rich man at 30% and a poor man at 10% is discrimination because taxing a black man at 30% and a white man at 10% is discrimination is lazy thinking. Not because it doesn’t admit pragmatic justifications, but because it’s a lazy generalization. The difference between rich and poor is not the same as the difference between white and black. There’s a lot of things we could do to elucidate that difference: talking about loans as well as taxes, considering mutability, etc. But to establish that there is a moral difference, it’s enough to simply note the differences in instinctual response, because that instinctual response is the foundation of moral reasoning.

        That doesn’t mean we can’t after reflection and justification, conclude that progressive taxation is immoral. But it takes more than just comparing to hypothetical racially discriminatory taxation. Rather, that comparison seems to be a way to avoid engaging with the justifications that supporters of progressive taxation have offered, like Blum and Kalven’s argument on the amorality of the market, or various ideas about the diminishing marginal utility of money.

        • It appears my moral instinct is not as developed as yours. For my benefit, can you put into words what is it about receiving a lower income that you instinctively approve of as good and commendable, and about the state of receiving a higher income that you instinctively condemn as bad and blameable?

          • I think you just proved my point about this not being about giving and evaluating justifications, since neither of the justifications I gave required considering rich people to be bad and blameable.

          • Then I’m not following your argument. My argument is that, as a matter of moral intuition, it is wrong to treat people differently unless there is some moral justification for doing so. Income does not arise to a moral justification, and so progressive taxation presents a problem. I’m disappointed that you would accuse me of engaging in “lazy thinking,” particularly based on a mischaracterization of my argument, since I acknowledged that this does not end the inquiry, as we would have to consider the issue of supererogatory duties, for example.

            But this very much is about “giving and evaluating justifications” — in this instance, a justification for treating people differently based on income. At least, it would be if you gave one for us to evaluate.

          • FTR, Tim, even as a natural lawyer I can let the progressive income tax slide if that’s the only way this all works. I get yr point, but I don’t think natural law dictates “tax fairness.”

            Neither does the Bible. Jesus is laid in the rich man’s own bought and paid for tomb, which Joseph of Arimathea donates.

            [As it turns out, Jesus only ends up borrowing it for a few days, but that’s another story…]


          • I’m with you — nothing to get worked up over, but it’s a useful exercise, employing moral intuitions and the offering of justifications.

          • I did find yrs a meaningful shot across the bow, TK. If the bleat is “fairness,” the graduated income tax is patently unfair. That doesn’t bother me, as I’m not a “cosmic justice” type.

            They handicap horse races to make them “fair,” make the better horse carry more weight than the lesser one so that the bettors can pick this or that horse while betting against each other.

            Thing is, Secretariat never got to run without the handicap weight on his back. Although he was the greatest racehorse of all time as far as we know, we’ll never know how good he actually was, what time he could have run with only a rider and a saddle.

            That kind of sucks. As Kor said to Kirk, had they been permitted to fight, and the metrosexual Organians not got in the way, it would have been glorious.

          • Let me take a stab at this. Fnord mentioned the diminishing margin of utility of money, and I think this is the right track.

            Start with the assumption that a functioning government is a legitimate public good that we all agree should exist (recognizing that this throws some anarchist libertarians out of the convo). We can also stipulate that such a government requires at least some funds to effectively operate and that taxation of some form is therefore required. Finally, we can safely stipulate that paying taxes is at least unpleasant.

            So the question boils down to how to distribute the burden of taxation in the most moral fashion. In general, a “beneficiary pays” arrangement best fits the bill but there are at least some goods (e.g., national defense) that are non-excludable. For taxes to cover these expenses, since taxation incurs discomfort the most morally equitable scheme would distribute this discomfort equally.

            Bearing in mind the caveats of attempting to compare inter-subjective utility, it’s safe to assume that in general there exists a diminishing marginal utility to money. Consequently, there is also a diminishing marginal discomfort to taxation. Put simply, the more money you have the less taxes hurt. And it’s not just proportional. Levying a 50% tax on a median wage earner will knock that person down to or below poverty level. Levying the same tax on a multi-millionaire puts him in a somewhat smaller mansion.

            The difficulty is in trying to quantify all this (see Jason’s post about Austrian utility theory) in order to properly set the marginal brackets.

            FWIW, this is why I’m not a fan of income taxation. I prefer a scheme of Georgist land value taxation and other beneficiary pays schemes. But politically that isn’t on the table right now.

          • So, you think treating people differently is wrong, period. Obviously it would be wrong for a banker to refuse to offer loans to black people. So should banks not use income and assets when determining whether to offer people loans?

  3. Man knows what is good and what is not-good when he sees it.

    And how would we know that? Good/not-good must have a standard. Either that standard is wholly human-based, in which case natural law becomes a circularity, or it is extra-human, in which case we cannot know if we are meeting the standard or not.

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