Wednesday, August 01, 2007


In this essay I look at Heinrich Rommen’s work on the concept of oughtness, principally his contention that ought to must be a metaphysical ought (in keeping with Aquinas) and Freud’s concept of the Super Ego, or moral/societal censor in human action and behaviour. Freud’s work on the tripartite division of the human psyche suggests some interesting arguments for and against the notion of a metaphysical ought. I will also be drawing on Vitoria’s political writings, principally the construction of societal authority.

The use of the term ought or ought to imply a call to action, or in some cases inaction. The concept of Natural Law as a binding principle upon human society requires an ought or oughtness as an underlying principle of social appeal among its members. To be ought is to be compelled by obligation or duty, or to be expected or likely to be so. Oughtness refers to the being of ought or being-ought. Natural Law is defined as a body of law or a specific principle held to be derived from nature and binding upon human society in the absence of or in addition to positive law. (Webster’s Dictionary).

When the terms ought and being is conjoined, ought or ought to become an act of being or being-ought. This necessarily occasions an act of being-ought, or oughtness. Ought can be used as ought-to or ought-not-to, as in you ought-to do this, but you ought-not do that. When conjoined with being, {the state or act of being} ought becomes an act-of-being or a being-ought. The implications of this being-ought, or oughtness are important for political philosophy, jurisprudence and theology.

Rommen’s approach to oughtness rests in his reading of Thomism against a rationalist empiricism. He sees the Thomist concept of form and being as essential to a non-reductionist application of Natural Law to moral/legal oughtness.

The idea of natural law obtains general acceptance only in the periods when metaphysics, queen of the sciences, is dominant. It receded or suffers an eclipse, on the other hand, when being (not taken here in Kelsen’s sense of mere existentiality or factuality) and oughtness, morality and law, are separated, when the essences of things and their ontological order are viewed as unknowable.

Rommen contends that natural law depends on Thomism, principally Aquinas’ metaphysics (ontology) of being. As suggested above, when being and ought is conjoined, the result is a being-ought, or an esse of being as action and moral agency. Rommen also contends that if moral philosophy and legal philosophy are to have a solid foundation they must be based in metaphysics.

In this connection “being” does not denote simple existence, the imperfect form of being. It means essential being, the esse essentiae.

What Rommen has in mind is essential being in an Aquinian sense, a reaching towards perfection. In this manner ought, or oughtness becomes an esse-ought with the supreme omnipotent will of God as the source of all norms. He uses Occam’s concept of a supreme will (God’s will) which necessarily conjoins existence and oughtness, thereby avoiding what he refers to as an extreme empiricism.

For being and oughtness must in the final analysis coincide. Or to express it differently, being and goodness, the ontological and deontological or moral orders must at bottom and ultimately be one.

Rommen is concerned with the implications of a hollow rationalism that has no basis in metaphysics, allowing for a radical relativism. By using Thomistic philosophy as a foundation for natural law this relativism can be avoided. Rommen outlines Aquinas’ concept of sensible knowledge and its application to oughtness. Man understands by means of the senses and the intellect, and in this manner the things themselves are the cause of knowledge, not an epistemic rationalism or a purely intellect knowledge. Following a Thomistic epistemology or metaphysics, Rommen suggests,

At first, then, the intellect is passive. Reality exists prior to the intellect. The mental image is a copy whose original is the real. This real, moreover, presupposes for its actuality only God the Creator, the first creative intellect, who as the All-actual and All-operative gives things their measure.

The intellect, or human mind, knows things in agreement with reality, or the things themselves. Natural Law theory allows for an adjustment of knowledge with reality, but with the omnipotence of God’s will as its essential referent. Rommen agrees with Aquinas that moral philosophy and the science of law require experience, both the sensible and the intellectual, a sort of reasonable empiricism or formal essence of being. Universality in this manner is a conjoining of form and substance.

But the nature becomes universal and hence representative of the essence, the quiddity of the thing, when it is abstracted, as St. Thomas says, ab utroque esse, when it is viewed apart from existence in things of the external world as well as from existence in the thought of some intellect.

Universals are not substances as Plato suggests, but existence and essence, a quiddity of form and substance. In this way the essence of things allow us knowledge of them, a universality of form and substance. As man’s greatest desire is to attain perfection, an imperfection in the face of God’s perfection, natural law lays the foundation for this attainment. As the divine will brings things into existence either immediately as first cause or indirectly through secondary causes, nature law is essential, a prospect of God’s divine will. According to Rommen this forms the basis of natural law, allowing for or suggesting the concept of oughtness as essence and being, or being-ought.

Now the goodness of moral actions is contingent on the immutability of the natural law, its un-changeableness. In this manner essences are unchanging, and the action drawn from these immutable natural laws form the basis for moral action or oughtness.

…the essence (form) which constitutes the real thing in its being is also the end, the final cause, of the thing. The Aristotelian-Thomistic theory of knowledge starts essentially from the actual fact of motion, of self-change or of being changed, in short, from the attempt to comprehend becoming. Thence came the distinction between an inner, enduring core, the form, and the changeable element, the matter, that which is formed or molded in every material thing.

This striving towards perfection implies a striving towards goodness, which is based in natural law; and the full realization of this end, or goal, is the realization of quiddity or existence, which is attainable only in a philosophy of morals and law that is founded in natural law. In this manner Rommen suggests a teleology of moral law, a striving towards goodness that implies an ought-to or an oughtness conjoined with being or essence.

The teleological conception, grounded in the metaphysics of being, is therefore the basis of the essential unity of being and oughtness, of being and goodness.

If moral philosophy and the philosophy of law are founded on an esse-oughtness, they are inseparable from natural law; they’re very nature depends on a greater will, the unchangeable divine will of God. Ought and being are adjoined, they are as substance and form is to being and in this way one single act, esse-oughtness. One acts as an essential-being, not as a particular body separated and divisible from essence, form and substance. This conjoining of being and ought or essence and moral action shuns relativism, hollow or otherwise.
Now I will look at Freud’s topographical outline of the psyche, Vitoria’s concept of authority and community and Rommen’s oughtness, a tripartite of metaphysical, political and psychological ought. These three conceptual edifices form an interesting conjoining of societal, onto-metaphysical and psychoanalytic oughtness. Rommen’s ought can be used to show how Freud’s topography of the psyche and Vitoria’s conception of authority and community share in a common notion of esse-being, a tripartite of the societal, metaphysical and psychological.

Freud’s topography of the psyche suggests an interesting, albeit competing notion of human behaviour and action. With its tripartite construction the psyche is a storehouse of memories, rebuses, a call-to action, motivation or intention. The Id or the libidinal aspect of the psyche, the ego, which perceives and engages with reality, and the super ego, which acts as a censor between the two, form the tripartite topography of the human psyche. In keeping with Rommen’s notion of a metaphysical ought, Freud’s super ego represents the authoritative or societal mediator between ought and ought not. Jones writes,

We have good grounds for supposing that to the activity of the super-ego we are mainly beholden for the imposing structure of morality, conscience, ethics, aesthetics, religion—in short, to the whole spiritual aspiration of man that sunders him most strikingly from the beasts.

The ought that Rommen refers to has commonalities with the Freudian super-ego in that ought, or ought to has both metaphysical and psychological referents. Rommen’s ought is both an ontological and metaphysical ought, in that it requires an act of being, or esse oughtness. In the Freudian sense of ought, or ought to, the act of being, or ought esse is one where an authority, or censor, determines the act of ought or oughtness. This authority is first derived from familial authority, then a social-anthropological one that changes with life experience and societal norms. Jones writes,
The conscience is plainly the guardian of morality in the fully developed sense of that term: what is socially right (according to the mores) and ethically laudable. Now the super-ego is certainly not moral in that sense—in extreme cases, for example, it may even dictate an act of murder as both desirable and commendable—and yet it possesses an important attribute that closely mimics it. That is the sense of urgent ‘oughtness’, a categorical imperative. Actually this ‘oughtness’ in the super-ego may get attached to attitudes that are either moral or immoral as judged by our reason and conscience, although in both cases it is at least as strong and compelling as any corresponding dictate of the conscience.[9]

Both the metaphysical ought and the psychological ought have censors or authorities’ as part of the act or oughtness. In this manner a normative quality is included in, or mitigates the act of ought to. In the psychological case that norm can be either familial or societal, in the metaphysical case theological or societal.

According to Vitoria power is of two kinds, public and private. An authoritative power arises from or out of a society, and does not exist outside of the formation of society. Authority appears as a moment within the appearance or establishment of a society or community. In this manner authority and power are contingent, meaning, there would be no authority without a society over which or for which it rules and exercises power. As with Freudian psychodynamics the topography of the psyche is comprised of id, ego and super-ego, each with its own specific function and purpose as part of the whole. Each of its own would not, nor could it function or exist outside of the whole or tripartite nature of the psyche. The super-ego as discussed earlier mediates between the outside and the inside, the ego and the id, or libidinal drives. In this manner the super-ego acts as an authority or censor that appears as a moment within the topography of the psyche. As with Vitoria, the power or authority of a society exists as part of that society, not as something extraneous to it. Rommen’s metaphysical ought functions within or as part of a whole.
Vitoria sees society as a living organism, a function of parts. In order for these parts to coexist they must share the possession of power; and this power is vested in an authority, but a power and authority that works for and as part of the whole. Vitoria writes,
So it is that, in order to make up for these natural deficiencies, mankind was obliged to give up the solitary nomadic life of animals, and to live life in partnerships (societates), each supporting the other.[10]

Vitoria stresses the Aristotelian notion that for mankind to progress in both soul and understanding it must not live in isolation from its fellow man; and in this manner Justice can only be exercised in a multitude. As each man and woman seeks out his or her perfection, a partnership formed as a community bests serves this aim. Vitoria says,
Since, therefore, human partnerships arose for the purpose of helping to bear each other’s burdens, amongst all these partnerships a civil partnership (civilis societas) is the one which most aptly fulfils men’s needs. It follows that the city (civitas) is, if I may so put it, the most natural community, the one which is most comfortable to nature. The family provides its members with the mutual services which they need, but does not make it whole and self-sufficient (una sibi sufficiens), especially in defence against violent attack.[11]

This partnership requires an authority or governance that will serve the whole and its parts. The problem of who is to hold and exercise this authority is as long and varied as history itself.

In Rommen, Freud and Vitoria the age-old problem of authority and power, restraint or delimit of freedom, be that private (individual) or public (community) continue to challenge, often resisting change or amelioration. Vitoria’s proposition for a partnership or fellowship of mankind invariable encourages the problem of authority and power, as in Freud’s tripartite psyche and Rommen’s metaphysical ought.
Rommen’s reliance on a metaphysical or non-relativistic ought requires an agreement or partnership between members in a societal whole; and this in turn requires the ceding of authority to one authority or power vested with authority to rule over the members of a society. Vitoria writes,
Just as the human body cannot remain healthy unless some ordering force (uis ordinatrix) directs the single limbs to act in concert with the others to the greatest good of the whole, so it is with a city in which each individual strives against the other citizens for his own advantage to the neglect of the common good.[12]

No one part is given exception over the other, and in this manner the whole strives for a common good. The same may be said of the psyche, as the topography of id, ego and super-ego work in concert towards a common goal, even though the libidinal drives appear to strive towards narcissistic ends. In Rommen the authority rests with a metaphysical ought, an authority that is founded in a normative though non-relativistic common goal. In Vitoria this authority is derived out of the conception of society, in the moment of its beginning, as a part of the fabric of the societal whole. Although it is true that the super-ego is formed out of the id and ego, it has vestiges long before its final formation; it changes with maturation and societal change, but in many ways is static or unchanging.

The problem of authority is a common theme shared by all three authors, metaphysical, political and psychological. All three can be woven together as a whole, or found within the fabric of one another; authority of the individual, authority of the community and a tripartite of authority formed from societal, metaphysical and psychological.

Vitoria foreshadowed many of the problems and challenges facing contemporary political thinkers, Marx, Rawls and the Frankfurt School to name but three, so perhaps a further look at Vitoria is in order. As we have seen with Freud, the psyche can be understood as a topographical model of human behaviour, and Vitoria’s political writings in many ways precursory to the human psyche as a political topography. With Aristotle we have the body as a template for society, the harmony of disparate parts all striving for a common good. As with many thinkers of his time Vitoria drew heavily from Aristotle and Aquinas, building upon those extrapolations a societal theory of power and authority. Vitoria writes of authority as having a divine source and a social or civil one,
Divine and natural law require there to be some power to govern the commonwealth, and since in the absence of any divine law or human elective franchise (suffragium) there is no convincing reason why one man should have power more than another, it is necessary that this power be vested in the community, which must be able to provide for itself. If no one was superior to any other before the formation of cities (ciuitates), there is no reason why in a particular civil gathering or assembly anyone should claim power for himself over others.[13]

The power to govern arises out of the formation of the commonwealth, and is responsible and accountable to the commonwealth and its members. The ought or ought to that Rommen speaks of arises out of the commonwealth and is enacted and acted upon by its members as part of the common whole or good of the civil society. In Freud the super-ego plays the role of authority, though in a much less civil and organized manner; as it is at constant odds with the id, whose libidinal desires often challenge the ought or ought to that is first learned from familial then societal sources.
As with all three topographies, the source of authority and governance poses a threat to individual desires and freedom; however in a civil society the need for a common authority is paramount, as without a common good of disparate parts (members of the society) the commonwealth collapses. A collective or contractual ought, which arises out of the formation of a civil society, assures against this occurring, and when it does provides for laws to adjust such behaviours. Vitoria writes,
Therefore the commonwealth, in which ‘we, being many, are one body, and every one members one of another’ as the Apostle says (Rom. 12:5) ought not to lack the power and right which individual men assume or have over their bodies, to command the single limbs for the convenience and use of the whole. Individuals may even risk the loss a limb if this is necessary to the safety of the rest of the body; and there is no reason why the commonwealth should not have the same power to compel and coerce its members as if they were its limbs for the utility and safety of the common good.[14]

In this manner the commonwealth is likened to the body, or in the Freudian topography, the psyche. When the id or libidinal desires overtake or compete with the common good of the psyche as a whole, it is the authority of the super-ego to mediate and intervene between the id and the ego, thereby re-establishing stasis or psychical harmony. The ought lies in the function of the super-ego, as it does in the common good of the civil society or commonwealth through the formation of a governing principle or authority.

Rommen, Freud and Vitoria, as a threefold model of authority and civil society, allow for a functional whole of parts. When one member takes precedent over another, or the id tries to take control of the psyche disharmony occurs, one that requires a mediator or authority to re-establish a striving for the common good or a harmony of parts of the whole. Freud’s topography of the psyche and Vitoria’s conception of the civil society and Rommen’s notion of oughtness, share in a striving towards a stasis or common good, that of the human being or of the commonwealth.

1Heinrich A. Rommen, The Natural Law, A Study in Legal and Social History and Philosophy, Indianapolis, Liberty Fund.
[2] Ibid
[3] Ibid
[4] Ibid
[5] Ibid
[6] Ibid
[7] Ibid
[8] Jones, Ernest, Papers on Psycho-analysis, London: Bailliere, Tindall and Cox, 1948, p.145
[9] Jones, Ernest, Papers on Psycho-analysis, London: Bailliere, Tindall and Cox, 1948, p.146
[10] Vitoria, Francisco de, Political Writings, New York: Cambridge University Press, p.7
[11] Ibid
[12] Ibid
[13] Vitoria, Francisco de, Political Writings, New York: Cambridge University Press, p.11
[14] Vitoria, Francisco de, Political Writings, New York: Cambridge University Press, p.11

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"Poetry is the short-circuiting of meaning between words, the impetuous regeneration of primordial myth". Bruno Schulz