Are You an “Ought” or an “Is”?

The denial of natural law has led us to a period of moral and cultural self-asphyxiation. If we don’t know what we are or who we are, we can self-identify as anything.

(Image: Jan Antonin Kolar/

The categories of self-identification are exploding. For instance, there are now apparently more than 50 gender designations. The form I was asked to fill out to receive a COVID vaccine shot asked six questions regarding sex and gender. There is nothing as simple as checking the box – male or female – anymore. New government policies infesting the U.S. military and even U.S. foreign-policy are validating men pretending to be women, and women imagining themselves to be men, to the point of providing taxpayer support for their chemically induced metamorphoses and their surgical mutilations to achieve grotesque simulations of real men or real women. This is insane.

What supports this insanity? The answer is: a metaphysics of the will that justifies any self-assertion, any self-identification. How did this happen? The answer can only be understood against the background of the preceding metaphysics of reason – the loss of which has led us to the current madness.

Through reason, said Socrates, man can know “what is.” Aristotle held that “what is” operates according to the laws of nature. He taught that the essence or nature of a thing is what makes it what it is, and why it is not, and cannot be, something else. In the Politics, he said that “the ‘nature’ of things consists in their end or consummation; for what each thing is when its growth is completed we call the nature of that thing, whether it be a man or a horse or a family.” For example, as an acorn develops into an oak tree, there is no point along its trajectory of growth that it will turn into something other than an oak. That is because it has the “nature” of an oak tree and not of anything else. It is inwardly directed to be an oak tree. Hence, by nature or natural law, Aristotle meant the principle of development which makes any living thing what it is and, given the proper conditions, what it will become when it reaches its fulfillment.

This end state is its telos, the reason for which it is. The telos of the acorn is a fully mature oak tree. As Msgr. Robert Sokolowski said, “The end of a thing is its perfection; the nature is what is perfected. The nature and end of a thing are normative for that thing; the end, in particular, is how the thing should be.” The natural law for each thing is what allows us to know what it “ought” to be from what it is.

What is “good” for a thing are those things or actions that assist it in reaching its perfection. For example, the right kind of soil and moisture are “good” for the acorn in reaching its perfection as an oak tree. Likewise, those things that inhibit or prevent something from reaching its end are “bad” for it, as drought or poisoned soil would be “bad” for an acorn. In each case, Aristotle would refer to the good things for the growth of the oak tree as natural to it, and the bad things for its growth as unnatural to it. What is good or natural for something is, therefore, intrinsic to that thing, internal to and inseparable from it. It is not imposed from the outside, nor can it be altered.

What is the standard we should use to measure things regarding man’s nature and end, and how do we discern what is in accord with it or against it? Aristotle states that, “in order to find what is natural we must look among those things which according to nature are in a sound condition, not among those that are corrupt.” In the Politics, he says, “Thus the human being to be studied is one whose state is best, both in body and soul – in him this is clear.” Thus, because we know what a human being is in the fullest, we can understand what a privation is, including for each part of him. For example, let’s say for the sake of argument, that 20/20 vison is the best for the eye and blindness the worst. With 20/20 vison, the eye has reached its complete actuality. It is perfect as an eye. It possesses no potential to see better than it does. In each case of imperfection, there is something missing that ought to be there. For instance, a limb ought to be able to move in its full strength, the ear ought to be able to hear, and the eye to see. The further a thing is from its perfection, the more defective or “corrupt” it is – just as blindness is the furthest defect of an eye. A privation of the good cannot itself be good. In fact, as St. Augustine said, evil is a privation of the good.

Man alone has the ability to choose between those acts or things which are conducive to his end and those things which are not. Animals, plants, or rocks cannot do this. Only man can act in defiance of his nature, which is what defines “evil” for him. Since man freely chooses his behavior, he is the only one for whom the natural law is moral. This is why Aristotle said, “The moral activities are human par excellence.” Therefore, references to natural law in regard to man mean not so much the physical laws or instinct to which he is subject like the lower orders of being, but the moral law, which applies exclusively to him. Man does not get to fabricate his end or telos. Human nature is a given. Its meaning is not located in man’s will or desires, but in pre-existing reality – in what is. Consequently, while man can know what is good or evil, he does not have the prerogative to determine what is good or evil. “Oughtness” is already in the given nature of things. Therefore, man is morally obliged to choose the good that will bring about what “ought” to be. Otherwise, he will become less than fully human and what he “ought” not to be – perhaps even something worse than a beast, as Aristotle warned.

Thus it was, thanks to Greek philosophy, that reason became normative. It is through reason that man can discern what is just from what is unjust, what is good from what is evil, what is myth from what is reality. Behaving reasonably or doing what accords with reason becomes the standard of moral behavior and, therefore, the standard of law. To do what is unreasonable is wrong. As Aquinas, reflecting Aristotle, would later say, the essential character of sin or vice is its irrationality.

All of this changed in the late Middle Ages with William of Ockham, who challenged the Thomist teaching that God’s will proceeds from his Divine Intellect. This is the core issue of that time and our own. Aquinas argued that, since God is Logos or Reason itself, his “will follows upon intellect.” Reason rules; will follows. The Word precedes action. This was not a new teaching in Christianity. Going back to the third century, Hippolytus said of God: “He thought of it (the cosmos), willed it, spoke the word and so made it.” Hippolytus placed God’s thought before his will, which then carried out God’s thoughts. The primacy of intellect is clear. The intellect directs the will. The will then acts in accord with reason.

Ockham flipped the relationship between intellect and will. God’s will now becomes primary, and his intellect subordinate to it as a mere instrument. This changes everything. It is no longer God’s knowledge that constitutes being; it is his will that does so. In fact, God knows because he wills; will precedes knowledge. It is the act that produces knowledge, not knowledge that produces the act. Will becomes the ontological principle. Let’s be clear. Either reason rules and will follows, or will rules and reason follows. In the latter case reason simply becomes a tool for the will to use in however it wishes to accomplish what it wills.

This was a revolutionary change with seismic consequences. Unless the divine intellect is precedent to the divine will, logos cannot be imprinted in creation as its essential aspect. Spanish scholar J. A. Fernandez-Santamaria wrote, “Occam has done away with the Logos … and all that is left in God is will, a will that cannot be bound or limited by the reason-inspired actions or assumptions of man.” French philosopher Etienne Gilson said, “Having expelled from the mind of God the intelligible world of Plato, Occam was satisfied that no intelligibility could be found in any of God’s works. How could there be order in nature, when there is no nature.” Creation is not imprinted with reason. It cannot reflect what is not there. As a result, there is no rational order invested in the universe upon which one can rely, only the second-to-second manifestation of God’s will, which he can change for no reason.

Philosopher Edward Feser pithily states the devastating consequences: “As Servais Pinckaers has put it, in place of the ‘freedom for excellence’ emphasized by Aquinas – that is, freedom for the pursuit of the ends set for us by nature – Ockham put a ‘freedom of indifference’ – indifference to the good or indeed to any particular ends at all…For the modern liberal autonomous self is something like Ockham’s God writ small – a little bundle of sheer willfulness, unrestricted by the demands of reason or of an objective moral order, and forever asserting his ‘rights’ to the objects of his appetites, as if the mere assertion sufficed all by itself to generate said rights.”

Without an inherent human end by which to judge the goodness or evil of his actions as taking him toward or away from the perfection of his nature, man is adrift. He has no natural good to guide him in reality. This loss of intelligibility provided the foundation for David Hume’s famous is/ought distinction, made in the eighteenth century, or what later came to be called the fact/value distinction, which continues to afflict us today. This asserts that there can be no moral guidance from what exists or what “is”, to what “ought” to be. One cannot derive an “ought” from an “is” or a value from a fact. This is the consequence of claiming that nature cannot be normative because there are no ends in it – no telos to guide things to become what they should be in their fullest according to their essences. In short, there is no foundation in reality for what “ought” to be. Once one is rid of essences, there is not an “ought” in sight. We are simply left with what “is”. It is no surprise that Hume concluded that, “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.”

As a consequence, one gets to make up one’s own “values.” Truth is relocated to the will. As God is pure will, so too does will predominate in man – self-will without reference to anything outside itself. This becomes a very dangerous teaching when it is politicized. If law is no longer reason, what is it? Man’s law becomes its own standard, based only on the will of the ruler (whether one or many), predisposed to nothing but itself. As Bertrand de Jouvenel warned, “The man who finds in God before all else will and power, will be disposed to the same view of human government.” Benedict XVI warned: “When natural law and the responsibility it entails are denied, this dramatically paves the way to ethical relativism at the individual level and to totalitarianism of the State at the political level.”

The denial of natural law has led us to a period of moral and cultural self-asphyxiation. If we don’t know what we are or who we are, we can self-identify as anything. This self-identification is not the result of knowing oneself but of willing oneself. If what one wills is the principal constituent of reality, there is no standard by which one act of the will can be differentiated from any other act of the will. Therefore, “I have no right to judge your values and you cannot judge mine.” The common good is the casualty. Thus, a man can self-identify as a woman. However, why can’t I self-identify as someone who finds that utterly absurd? Why can’t I call a privation of the good evil, instead of being obliged to call it good – if I don’t want to be cancelled?

But we can get an “ought” from an “is,” but only if we recover natural law. It is also what is required if we are to restore our country to “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God,” on which it was founded. Failing this, we lose everything.

(Editor’s note: Parts of this essay have been adapted from the author’s book America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding.)

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About Robert R. Reilly 13 Articles
Robert R. Reilly was Senior Advisor for Information Strategy (2002-2006) for the US Secretary of Defense, after which he taught at National Defense University. He was the director of the Voice of America (2001-2002) and served in the White House as a Special Assistant to the President (1983-1985). A graduate of Georgetown University and the Claremont Graduate University, his books include The Closing of the Muslim Mind, Making Gay Okay, and Surprised by Beauty: A Listener's Guide to the Recovery of Modern Music. His most recent book, America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding, is published by Ignatius Press.


  1. A few years ago, I was required to update the medical record kept by my Shih Tzu’s veterinarian. I filled out that his species was “canine” but told the clerk, “Some days, he identifies as ‘feline,’ but I’m not going to get the surgery for him, because the next thing you know, he will be back to identifying as ‘canine.'” What I like in this article is the description of the acorn becoming an oak. It is not, because of the laws of nature, ever going to be another type of tree. Natural law determines the identity of everything. Thank You, God!

    • I’ve noticed that insurance companies don’t play this game yet selling their products. There’s only two options for sex on applications.
      But give it time…

  2. When Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life” HE summed up natural law…God’s LOGOS embodied in a man. LOVE is its end…embodied in men.

    When the government says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life” IT sums up demonic law… Satans will to be embodied in the laws of men. Stealing, killing, and destruction are its end… always

    • I would say “individual or group of individuals” rather than “government”, but I don’t disagree. Ultimately, anyone or any body politic that puts his/her/itself in the place of God is embracing evil.

    • Could not agree more sir. Love is the reason we are here, and is the solution….God’s love alive inside each of us😁

  3. The questions being asked today about gender are getting disturbing. It’s either Male or Female; there are no other genders. Just because one has destroyed and distorted their life does not change one’s gender. I hope science will one day make that fantastic discovery.

  4. These things didn’t “just happen.” The problem is that the Church was tolerant of erroneous ideas – which DON’T deserve ANY tolerance. It wasn’t until The Syllabus of Errors that the Church stated that She had the ability to judge philosophy. This was a full three and a half centuries after “the Reformation.” At this point, the Church was fighting a losing battle and She had lost the allegiance of many rulers who might have done something helpful.

    If Ockham’s works had been banned and burned, then things might have turned out differently. The corrupt leaven of his – and others who are now associated with modern “philosophy” (The Index of Forbidden Book is a “who’s who” of modern “philosophers”) – eventually was spread until the whole intellectual climate was POISONED.

    There was and is a certain corruption with the Church. Far too much deference is paid to the “laws” created by the state. If Catholics had retained and lived by the idea that there is no shame and – to the contrary that there is virtue – in civil or even uncivil “disobedience” then things might have turned out differently. The unjust “laws” – while not morally binding – became fait accompli because Catholics were more interested in preserving “peace” than in engaging in a teachable moment. The idea that French Catholics could have stood by in the early 20th century while their children were forced into “schools” that were manifestly irreligious is inexcusable. If more Catholics had been or were like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., then the dominance of the wicked would have been challenged and perhaps overthrown.

    The idea of values in its modern context came from the ATHEIST Nietzsche. It shouldn’t be surprising that he was an inspiration for the Nazis.

    The decline of reason as the standard for judging laws is how the idea of an unjust “law” became ineffective. People believed and probably still believe that reasons were actually rationalizations. Thus, it wasn’t because an unjust “law” could be demonstrated through reason to be unjust, but because a person didn’t like the law.

  5. Authority on religious doctrine has shifted from monarchical deference to the State with transition to democratic republics. In France it barely survived during the Revolution in America established by Protestant progressives opposed to State religion Catholicism was forced to submit to final adjudication on religious issues abortion, now sexual identity. America’s Church remains beholden to the State for fear of losing tax exemption. Consequently except for a few strong voices among the hierarchy, only emerging recently it’s perceived as a Church of silence. State, having replaced Church as the arbiter of morality, threatens with punitive measures if challenged. Challenge we must and vigorously. Draconian measures are necessary to reverse the trend the Church divesting itself of exemptions, financial inducement change it’s upper class lifestyle dramatically and become the poor Church of the poor and disparaged. Christ if given total support can and will do great things.

    • As God is pure will, so too does will predominate in man – self-will without reference to anything outside itself. This becomes a very dangerous teaching when it is politicized (Reilly). Insofar as Man Robert Reilly is clearly correct as evident since the election. There is however a nuance of compartmentalization in “God is pure will”. God is Pure Act in Aquinas, which isn’t given to acts of the will as we have with Man. Unless Reilly incorporates will in God with Pure Act as he likely does, “There is will in God, as there is intellect: since will follows upon intellect” (ST 1a 19, 1). Now with Man both reason and the will are naturally inclined to the good. Thus enabling it to identify the good to be pursued outside the self. Man’s perennial tragedy has been the denial of what he knows within to be true.

  6. Reilly: “Let’s be clear. Either reason rules and will follows, or will rules and reason follows.”

    The latter path encompasses not only the arbitrariness of post-thought willfulness in the post-Christian West, but also the fatalism of resurgent Islam as a religion. And, yet, there are fragments of the Qur’an and the hadith that echo a personal an interior empathy with baked-in natural law…

    “O People! Listen to my words as I may not be another year with you in this place. Be humane and just among yourselves. The life and property of each are sacred and inviolable to the other. Render faithfully everyone his due, as you will appear before the Lord and He will demand an account of your actions. Treat woman well; they are your helpmates and do nothing by yourselves. You have taken them from God on trust. O people! Listen to my words and fix them in your memory. I have revealed to you everything; I have left to you a law which you should preserve and be firmly attached to, a law clear and positive, the Book of God and the Examples” (hadith).

    Note the similarity of the last line to the cribbed Deuteronomy: “Give heed, O Israel, to the commands of the Lord, and inscribe them in your heart as in a book” (Deut 4:1). But, assuming a common “fraternity” among religions as such (a “plurality” of religions) is problematic at best. Instead, the “witnesses” to Christ might still strive to have a good “dialogue” with some “followers” of Islam.

  7. A couple of “caveats” regarding this helpful reflection:

    First, as the Divine Being is absolutely simple, His Intellect and Will are identical to His Essence. I.e., God is at once His Will and His Intellect. The distinction of terms are purely logical re God, whereas in angels and human beings the terms refer to actually distinct faculties.

    Second, David Hume’s “naturalistic fallacy” states that moral “ought” cannot be derived from the “is” of human nature via syllogistic logic. Hume’s position is consistent with orthodox rejection of “computational” moral theories per which human goods are fungible. However, Hume’s position is inconsistent with orthodoxy if taken to deny a rational (vs. affective) basis for moral discernment. Hume like Descartes dismissed the rationality of all modes of reasoning lacking mathematical or syllogistic rigor.

    • Yes, as to your first point, I should not have deleted the following sentences, which I did because the article was getting too long. I had written: “The Word precedes action. This was not a new teaching in Christianity. Going back to the third century, Hippolytus said of God: ‘He thought of it (the cosmos), willed it, spoke the word and so made it.’ Even though for God all things are simultaneous and instantaneous, Hippolytus placed God’s thought before his will, which then carried out God’s thoughts. The primacy of intellect is clear.”
      As to your second point, as Hume was an empiricist and since morality is not quantifiable, he obviously found no rational basis for it. So much for Aristotle and Aquinas.

  8. David Hume ironically grasped a truth that Aristotle identified in the Nicomachean Ethics that moral truth is apprehended by an interior ‘sense’, not by ‘science’ seemingly consistent with Hume’s conclusion we need rely on sentiment for moral discernment. Aquinas agrees with Aristotle, although he clarifies this inner sense is intellectual, an intuitive act of the intellect [verified by Synderesis]. An inherent capacity of Man in which subject and predicate are known in one act of apprehension. So, in a roundabout way the strict empiricist arrived at a truth even if in part. Reason is jettisoned, Kant will follow with the dangerous moral imperative in which reasoned assessment [deliberation] is excluded.

  9. If I may be so bold as to quote a prominent American official – “It depends on what the definition of “is” is.”

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