Natural Law for Catholic Educators. Part II
Moral Agency, the First Principle of Morality, and the Precepts of Natural Law

Douglas P. McManaman
September 21, 2021
Reproduced with Permission

Moral Agency and the First Principle of Morality

Unlike brute animals, the human person is a moral agent. The reason is that the human person has a will, and only those who possess the faculties of intellect and will are held responsible for the choices that they make. We don't hold cats and dogs responsible for the choices that they make, because we know they are governed by their sense appetites and instincts - they have no real choice in the matter. The human being, on the other hand, does have a choice to rise above his sense appetites and make reasoned choices. For example, I have an emotional desire to eat, but I have a "reason" not to eat for the next 12 hours; the reason is that I am required to take a blood test, which requires me to fast for 12 hours before the test, which will determine a number of things with respect to my own health, and my health is a basic intelligible human good. The two powers that enable me to rise above my sense appetites are precisely "intellect" and "will"; the intellect provides reasons, and it is my will that determines me to one of a number of possible alternatives (i.e., disregard the test and eat; fast in order to get properly tested, cancel the appointment and reschedule, etc.).

We don't choose to be inclined towards basic intelligible human goods; we are naturally inclined to them. It is only when we make free choices that we actually enter the moral realm. The first principle of morality is: good is to be done, evil is to be avoided. That is the most general principle of morality, and as such, everyone agrees with it, even the criminal; disagreement centers on what precisely is a good action that is to be done, and what constitutes an evil action that is to be avoided. For the thief, he sees your new television and DVD player and concludes that because he wants it, he is entitled to it, so he arranges to take it while you are away on vacation. Hence, good is to be done (plan the theft and execute it properly), and evil is to be avoided (executing poorly and getting caught and arrested). You, on the other hand, have a rather different understanding of what constitutes a good and evil action in this regard.

Intermediate Precepts of Natural Law

The first principle of morality obviously is far too general to govern concrete decisions. One needs more specific moral principles to determine the moral goodness of specific actions. These are intermediate moral principles or precepts. These precepts are derived through a process of deductive inference. Since we know naturally, through self-knowledge, what is humanly good (we are naturally inclined to basic intelligible human goods), all we have to do is consider the first principle of morality in this light and draw out, through deductive inference, the basic precepts of the natural moral law. People who have reached the age of reason do this quite naturally, albeit imperfectly and imprecisely, or confusedly, which is the reason most people understand the basic precepts of natural law without having formally studied morality.

Think of the first principle of morality as a kind of light, such as the light from the sun, and think of the entire network of basic intelligible human goods as a single prism. When the light passes through the prism, it breaks up into the color spectrum. Similarly, the first principle of morality (like a single beam of light), when considered in light of the entire network of basic intelligible human goods (the prism), breaks down into a number of more specific moral principles that govern our relationship to basic intelligible human goods. These more specific moral principles are intermediate or secondary precepts; they are really the first principle of morality articulated more specifically.

Good is to be done, and of course Religion is a basic intelligible human good. In fact, God is Goodness Itself, the Supreme Good and origin of all that exists. Hence, relationship with God is the greatest good to be achieved. Hence, the first precept of natural law is: