December 30, 2009

Thought for 12.30.09

I am struck by how much theories of Natural Law share principal characteristics with Creationism, Phlogiston, and the Lumeniferous Æther... as opposed to Evolution, Thermodynamics, and Relativity.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG


IT said...

O yes, it is all based on ignorance and superstition. Why these people can't use their purportedly God-given minds to THINK.....!

Tobias Stanislas Haller said...

Thanks, IT. I'm more concerned with the logical inconsistencies and fallacies (and the need for "fixes") and of course, the tendency merely to enshrine one particular view as "what everyone thinks." Thus even primary precepts of "natural law" often turn out to be examples of begging the question. For instance, the first precept, "That one should do what is good and shun what is evil" immediately stumbles upon the question of "What is Good?" Other concepts such as "preservation of life" are decent principles, but why is there a need to posit some substratum -- that is, a general philosophical realism or "thinginess" -- rather than simply accepting that this is a widespread notion arising out of experience?

And as applied in specifics, well, that's where the real problems begin!

JCF said...

Rather like the "Moral Majority", I think "Natural Law" is neither.

Marshall said...

My wife works for a hospice agency of our local Catholic Charities. Yesterday she said she couldn't imagine how feeding through a tube could be considered "ordinary" rather than "extraordinary" care. I responded that they were still Neoplatonists. Instead of deducing principles from observations, they induce activities from principles.

There are times when it's reasonable to do either. However, as you note it's a very different approach to theology.

Murdoch said...

Down with Natural Law, starting with the Letter to the Romans, where Paul proposes that the purposes of God are clearly evident in Creation. In illustration, he cites the example of males who lust after their own kind, when contemplation of Nature shows that everyone is heterosexual. Clearly, those deviates are intrinsically disordered . . . Then Paul goes on to convict everyone of not reading Nature the way he does, and offers a Greek demi-god figure as the remedy . . .

Erika Baker said...

Would that be because we resort to the idea of natural law only when science cannot prove our wishful thinking?

Tobias Stanislas Haller said...

Marshall, the spinning out of the implications of natural law are where its essential artificiality show most clearly. It is a moral system based on an objective falsehood, spun out through the means of logical fallacies! No wonder it ends up with conclusions so far afield from the very "common sense" that purportedly underlies the theory!

Murdoch, I'm not so sure Paul is talking "natural law" so much as "natural theology." Either way, though, I agree it is problematical, because not all people read "nature's book" the way Paul does. The fundamental flaw in N.L. is the notion that "all people agree that certain things are good and others bad." That is simply not true.

Erika, I would say N.L. is a prime example of wishful thinking. It is a form of idealism (or classical Realism -- which has little to do with modern realism!) As with Creationism, NL insists that certain notions are "just there" by nature, unassailable and inevitable. When compared with other moral theories (which also have their flaws, true) it seems the most doctrinaire and abusive. For example, in keeping with my analogy about Evolution, it seems much clearer to me that moral concepts of right and wrong evolved (along with the human brain) out of a complex of internal drives to self-preservation and a growing social structure in which it became obvious that total self-preservation could lead to social-destruction. As a theory for morality this seems to meet the evidence much better than the "just there" Creationist-style theory.

Bryan Owen said...

Regardless of the merits or demerits of natural law theory, I cannot take someone seriously who would suggest (must less level the blanket charge) that anyone who draws on natural law theory has failed to "use their purportedly God-given minds" and are thus mired in "ignorance and superstition." That would mean simply dismissing out of hand some of the greatest intellectuals in the Western tradition, including Thomas Aquinas and Richard Hooker. Leveling such a blanket charge smacks of self-congratulatory hubris and raw prejudice.

Tobias Stanislas Haller said...

Bryan, that may be a statement too far, but the fact is even the greatest intellectuals are prone to error. Aquinas in particular, in many passages, is simply risible, and one can observe his desperate efforts to preserve his underlying theses at all costs. Even the magisterium itself demanded he reconsider some of his assertions.

As to Hooker, as I note, although he makes use of some of the principles of Natural Law, he does so in a particularly humble way -- and indeed assaults and dismisses one of the basic premises of NL: that the purported universality of a notion is sufficient proof of verity. So Hooker is far from being a Natural Law purist; his emphasis is on positive, not natural, law.

Ultimately, a strict natural law philosophy is in itself an example of hubris -- as it consists in projecting one's own (or one's culture's) opinions upon a purported universal substrate. It is wishful thinking, and in the long run deleterious to morality. So I would phrase the statement more charitably and simply say that a strict reliance on Natural Law demonstrates a failure to take account of all evidence, perhaps as a result of a desire for greater systematization and certainty than is warranted. It is, ultimately, an entirely prejudicial system, on its own grounds (that the moral principles it holds do not derive from reason, though they may be explicated by it, and are universal and unassailable by any "right-thinking" person -- thus automatically discounting all opposition via a form of logical fallacy). It relates, it seems to me, more to personality than to philosophy. The demerits of NL are evident, and those who ignore them are indeed failing to make the best use of their minds, perhaps out of some emotional need, perhaps in the interest of the maintenance of some system either of belief or control.

So, in short, I think the charge of hubris and prejudice ought first be lodged with the advocates of NL, not its opponents.

Bryan Owen said...

Wow, Tobias. That's quite a charge to level against an entire strand of the Western philosophical/theological tradition. And it's really not about the "purity" of any particular thinker's natural law adherence.

It's one thing to note that thinkers are prone to error (who isn't?). It's quite another to level a blanket charge of hubris and prejudice because (a) someone is prone to error and/or has made an error, and/or (b) one disagrees with someone's philosophical position.

In the case of the first comments posted in response to this piece, it strikes me that we're dealing more with the rhetoric of ideological warfare than with reasoned discussion/debate. Hence the almost instantaneous slide into ad hominem diatribe.

Tobias Stanislas Haller said...

Bryan, I fear that your response is as much ad hominem, in that it doesn't address the thesis, but the thinker. But, as you rightly note, the first comment was also of that sort.

My effort is to return to the thesis, which I am prepared to defend, that the Natural Law philosophy is objectively false and fallacious, from premise through implementation. It is also inherently hubristic and prejudicial, for the reasons I laid out briefly above. A reasoned response would address the evidence, for instance, that a strict NL approach admits of no error, by definition -- that is, it presents its primary thesis as beyond human judgment. That, it seems to me, is a form of intellectual hubris of the first order, as it does not simply present itself as a premise or postulate, but as objective truth. If you think not, why not?

As I note, Hooker does not adopt that principle and is not a strict NL thinker. It is in fact the "purity" of certain contemporary strands of NL that I am addressing, btw -- and the "purer" a NL thinker's thinking, the more erroneous it is. My initial though above, by the way, was sparked by a post on another blog, in which a leading NL proponent is arguing that what the religious should be most concerned about today is abortion and same-sex marriage, and that feeding the hungry and caring for the poor, while commendable engagements, are secondary issues. This statement is in keeping with strict NL, and I hope you would see the problem with any philosophical system that could lead to such a conclusion.

As with Creationism, I think that clinging to an erroneous philosophical system is unhealthy and deleterious to human culture, primarily to the extent the philosophy attempts to influence the culture. (What people believe in their own hearts is no concern in this regard.) When the flaws in such a system can be positively demonstrated, yet its proponents continue to exercise sway in the public forum (and for many of them this is precisely "warfare", it is all the more important to bring the matter forward for critique. This has nothing to do with them as persons (though I do surmise there may be reasons they find such a philosophy personally attractive) but with the idea itself -- a deadly strand in the Western philosophical tradition, that has caused untold sorrow and misery, and not only in the West. Not to be consequentialist, but that hardly commends the system.

Or do you think otherwise? I realize blog comments are not the ideal place for philosophical debate, nor am I sure you really want to take up the other side on this matter.

Anglocat said...

At the risk of re-opening a discussion, we've already had, I'd value your readers feedback on the "third way" I raised in our discussion of my critique of Robert George:

The principal difficulty of applying natural law theory is, of course, determining what the content of natural law is--often one is forced into an unsustainable "universiality" requirement, which allows only for a sharply limited quantum of content, or a "right reason" approach like that of George, which falls into the trap described in the main post.

At the risk of revealing a small "c" conservative side to my thought, there is a third approach, that which I (gingerly and with a volume's worth of qualifications) favor: common law reasoning within an established tradition. As John Jay Osborn points out in his novel "The Associates" (what? How do I know how much legal background anyone reading this has?), a rule of law can either become generative, and, over time, grow, evolve and become an integral part of jusrisprudence (Ronald Dworkin calls this "fit") or it can be eroded over time, and become an isolated aberration in the law. The former can be thought of as candidates for "natural law" status--they work. The second class? Not so much.

Additionally, there is (if you'll allow me) a body of natural law that is grandfathered into the Constitution--the established rights and privileges vis-a-vis the State which were part of the given legal landscape at the time of the adoption of the Constitution, and their progeny. See, e.g., Terry Brennan, "Natural Rights and the Constitution: The Original 'Original Intent,'" 15 Harv.J.Law & Pub.Pol. 965 (1992), or my old teacher Charles L. Black's "On Reading and Using the Ninth Amendment," in The Humane Imagination (1987). Black also persuasively argued that the Declaration of Independence was a potential source for rights, as a solemn juridical enactment of the Continental Congress.

These analyses avoid many of the theological questions posed by natural law by pointing out that the natural law tradition is very much a part of the positive law tradition--that is, in the US, we crafted our institutions with natural law as an unspoken presumption, which even has a textual way in, through the 9th Amendment. As the main post suggests, that doesn't get us out of the problem of what content, and what law gets in this way--which might be worthy of a follow up post instead of this brief precis, but, yes, I meant to tease George's assumption that natural law = his political wish list, and not ridicule the ancient approach to such issues dating back at least as far as Aristotle and Sophocles, if not further back.

Full thread is here:

Tobias Stanislas Haller said...

Thanks, Anglocat, for the further elucidation and the link to the seminal discussion, which I definitely should have included.

I find your more pragmatic or realistic (in the modern sense) approach much to be preferred to the idealistic and Realistic (in the medieval sense) advocated by the strict NL proponents, particularly those from within the religious tradition. Yours is precisely the approach Hooker takes in his "Laws" -- practical and rational in a common-sensical way, without a doctrinaire insistence on an inviolable substrate.

The tangle between natural law and natural rights is an interesting one, and in general I find the "rights" side to be a bit more capable of a common law understanding. It is where these two schools clash that I think we see the differences between them -- as in the abortion debate, in which, apart from the question of the time of the beginning of life, there is a need to balance various rights: to life, to health, to self-determination, etc. One finds the same in the clash over same-sex marriage, where the "law" of a purported ideal is conflicting with the right to form a companionable relationship as a societal unit, and the right to contract. Also in end of life issues: is the absolute preservation of life by heteronomous interference (NL) to take precedence over personal autonomy and a right to quality of life and freedom from pain? So, as you say, the issues are at an intersection.

My comments here and above, and at your place, are by no means intended as "ridicule" -- even if I cast them in the medieval tradition of the sententiae or as an epigram -- and certainly don't stem from hubris (though perhaps in response to what I see as hubris), but represent a very real concern that there is something mistaken about NL at its roots -- yes, going back to the Greeks -- and that in spite of its utility in some regards, the more closely those roots are clung to the worse will be the fruit of the tree -- as in George's cherry-plucked hierarchy of what is the greatest good in our present time.

Christopher said...

Correct me if I'm wrong but my reading of Hooker is such that he provides correction to Natural Law approaches through means of Common Law approaches, such that particular cases have merit of their own and may in fact lead to development of our understanding of that which is natural? It is a commonsensical approach that neither dismisses that there is natural law, a way by which we be what we are intended to be, without pretending there is not particularity to that and without pretending that we may not have gotten some things wrong. It is willing to admit the possibility of error and development, even change.

I have to say I have aversion to Natural Law approaches because they are so often used to justify prejudices and worse. I'll never forget someone quoting Althaus at me. Althaus was a German theologian of the 1930s par excellence who stood strongly on a Lutheran sense of the order of creation (rather than Luther's Creator's orderings, I might add--not quite the same thing in Luther's existential approach). Althaus was used to denigrate my partnership as not showing forth divine glory like a different-sex pairing. I reminded the quoter that Althaus' order of creation theory was also used as support for Nazi actions toward the Jews. Natural Law has an underside, and that underside is the tendency to dehumanize that not understood or different AND to not provide for correctives.

Hooker's approach provides for corrective and that is the foundational step for providing for the elimination of the dehumanization tendency. Unless one has been on the receiving end of that tendency, one does not understand the why Natural Law might be found wanting.

Bryan Owen said...

As my last words here, I find it disheartening that, in response to my calling out IT's ad hominem comments in response to this posting, I am charged as guilty of ad hominem comments, too. Perhaps there's more going on here than I first anticipated ...

Tobias Stanislas Haller said...

... or less. Withdrawing from the discussion does not demonstrate willingness to engage the actual issues, or further a quest for understanding. An ad hominem is a comment addressed at the person rather than the thesis. I agree that IT's original comment took that form. But so did yours, by assuming hubris rather than addressing the content of the assertion.

The topic under discussion is not, "Were Aquinas and Aristotle good or wise?" but "Is Natural Law, at base, a strictly demonstrable logical system, based on sound premises?"

Christopher, thanks. That is exactly Hooker's approach.

Anonymous said...

Fr. Tobias--

You obviously have not studied thermodynamics. There is the theory of the science and then there is its practical application with varying degrees of correspondance. Natural Law reminds me greatly of thermo. NL also reminds me of the "ethereal" theologies of the Trinity one encounters from Augustine on through the scholastics. Logical inferences and deductions are not an inherently bad way to do theology, although like everything else they require reality checks with the Deposit of Faith reposing in Sacred Scripture and Tradition.

Not being a creationist or knowing the Special and General Theories of Relativity more than what is taught at a bachelor's of science degree level survey Physics course, I can't speak of how they diverge or converge with NL. One really has to get into the mathematics to speak intelligently of them, so I'll be quiet here.


Tobias Stanislas Haller said...

Actually, Fr M., I have studied thermodynamics. You are clearly not of a scientific bent, or have long since abandoned a scientific worldview, if you can say with any seriousness that "there is the theory of the science and then there is its practical application with varying degrees of correspondance [sic]." (The scientific view is that if there is a failure of correspondence with reality then the theory is in error and must be abandoned or reformed.) In addition, the "reality check" you propose in testing logic against Scripture and Tradition is exactly backwards. Reason can function apart from Scripture, but Scripture cannot function apart from Reason.

I would be fascinated to hear more, however, on the points you think Natural Law has in common with Thermodynamics. My comparison with the Phlogiston theory is based on that theory's mistaken belief that there was some "substance" that was used up in combustion -- related to the idea that heat is itself a fluid of some kind -- whereas combustion is a recombination of elements, and heat is a form of motion. Similarly, NL (in its classical formulation) posits that there is a substantive, objective moral law which is perceived by human reason. Wider experience of human anthropology and culture put such a notion to death, though some continue to cling to the cadaver. NL theory fails because it does not meet the evidence, and posits a magical explanation for something better explained by a study of cultural evolution.

JCF said...

Oh, Tobias, BRAVO! :-D (I know someone like FrM will just see me as a sycophant, but the way your Bullsh*t-o-matic slices&dices, sometimes just takes my breath away!)

Anonymous said...

Fr. Tobias--

I was an practicing engineer prior to seminary and thermodynamics was a central part of my career.

My reference to NL and to thermo is that thermo has certain laws that seem to be universally applicable to the scale of the systems I dealt with (we're not speaking of quantum physics or speed of light regimes here). When the plant engineers would encounter a situation where plant parameters were neither matching prior norms nor expectations of our equations and models then we knew we had a situation to investigate.

Per NL: even though technology has advanced since Paul and Romans 1, the idea that God has imprinted a basic morality onto we, His creatures, remains valid. Different scenarios might arise involving investigation, but the basic laws remain the same. In thermodynamics for example, the world of power plant and propulsion technology has advanced greatly since the early 1800s when Fulton was playing his steamboat along the Hudson. Yet the same physical laws about entropy, heat flows, etc. govern both. In the moral world of humanity, we are the same creatures we were 2,000 years ago, even though we live in different technological world. Many of the presenting issues of morality and theology have changed, but the basic principles (NL) of morality and theology (SS and ST) remain valid.

Got to go but will revisit this thread after the weekend.


Tobias Stanislas Haller said...

Thank you, Fr Michael, for a near-perfect example of the logical fallacy "begging the question" (petitio principii). The assertion that there is a "basic morality imprinted" upon the human creature is the primary premise of NL, and is the very concept that is at issue. You posit this as as obvious as the laws of thermodynamics.

But the laws of thermodynamics are testable arise from observable physical realities. The assertions of natural law are just that -- assertions, which may have seemed reasonable for a time, and with limited evidence and a self-referential frame of mind ("what is good is known by all; and those who disagree are corrupt, perverse, etc." -- an obvious example of "special pleading" that dismisses evidence to the contrary a priori). But ignoring evidence is not going to make it go away.

Paul's setup argument, in Romans, to explain the etiology of evil on the basis of idolatry obviously doesn't hold -- since not all idolaters are evil (in doing the other things Paul considers wrong) nor are all evildoers idolaters. Of course, to read Romans 1 as a theological defense of natural law, rather than a rhetorical flourish on the faults of the Gentile world, to be turned on the Jewish readers in Romans 2, completely misses Paul's point in Romans as a whole: neither the Law of Nature nor the Law of Moses can save. Salvation does not lie in keeping the law, but in becoming a new person in Christ, by grace through faith. Law cannot save -- natural or otherwise.

The assertions of Natural Law are "valid" to those who accept them -- fewer and fewer these days, as alternative explanations for the origin of human concepts of morality have emerged from close observation of many human cultures spread over time (many of which Paul had no access to or knowledge of, even were it his real concern.)

Some will, no doubt, still cling to the earlier theory as an explanation for the existence of some common moral sense (such as there may be), and you are of course free to do so -- but my point is that this is similar to a modern chemist clinging to alchemical explanations (which were the genesis of the phlogiston theory). Such theories may have "worked" for a time, but as we learn more about human nature and culture, alternative explanations present fewer difficulties, and prove more helpful in understanding moral issues, and the circular reasoning inherent in natural law thinking will be seen as less and less satisfactory as a framework for moral discourse.

scott gray said...


i would propose that the following conditions constitute a portion of natural law for homo sapiens:

for ‘people in:’

male + female = offspring
male + male = null set
female + female = null set
male + female + contraception = null set
male + female + mechanical malfunction = null set
male (celibate) = null set
female (celibate) = null set
coercion/rape (male + female) = offspring
incest (male + female) = offspring
underage (male + female) = offspring
test tube (male + female) = offspring

and for ‘people out:’

individual + [causal agent] = death

causal agents include mechanical wearing out (old age), mechanism malfunction (birth defect, auto immune, double recessive, anacephalism, for example), disease organism (plague), accident (tsunami, earthquake), violence (wild animal, enemy without such as war, enemy within like a murderer), choice to die (suicide), and inadequate resources (starvation, thirst, shelter, other homeostasis needs).

none of these is moral or immoral per se; there is no ‘right or wrong’ or good or bad’ if we consider them natural law. they are as true of giraffes, snakes, fish, birds, and mice as they are of homo sapiens. they carry the same inherent goodness or badness that the laws of gravity, thermodynamics, and entropy do.

the ‘right/wrong’ and ‘good/bad’ are feelings and judgments that we make, individually and collectively, about the mechanisms and balance of these conditions that happen to exist.

the feelings and judgments, these moral and ethical determinations, are ours to make in response to natural law. they are not a part of natural itself. i’m sure that you, like me, have moral and ethical feelings and judgments about these situations for homo sapiens (and other animals as well). but i would argue that there is no universal set of these moral/ethical feelings and judgments. if there were, there wouldn’t be so much discussion about what is moral and ethical, and what isn’t.

to attribute our traditionally developed set of morals and ethics in response to natural law to a god-driven template, as fr michael does, is to treat what ought to be a conclusion (there is a god, and that god did this template implanting in homo sapiens) as an axiomatic presupposition. from my understanding of natural law above, different environmental, geographical, climate, social, economic, and military conditions would create a whole slate of moral and ethical codes, each of which is in response to natural law, and none of which is ‘natural law’ per se.



Tobias Stanislas Haller said...

Reposting to correct a confusing typo...

Thanks, Scott. You've very clearly demonstrated the difference between real natural law (that is, the observable physical laws of the universe) and Fr M's version -- which is a mental/emotional/cultural construct. As you rightly observe, if this latter form really were "natural" there would be no argument. But in fact, the movement from "is" to "ought to be" is a testimony to the disjunction! The notion dear to natural lawyers that "people really do know better but are fallen / perverse / etc." of course is an insult to the dignity of those who disagree with their reading of "what everyone knows ought to be."

"Natural Law" is just one ethical/moral system among many. If I were not a Christian, I'd lean towards Kant, but I actually prefer the ethics of Jesus. And I won't try to force it on anyone who wants to think differently (though I think it "works" better than "natural law").

scott gray said...


i like your addition of ‘is/ought’ to the ‘good/bad’ and ‘right/wrong’ feelings and judgments as our reactions to amoral ‘natural law’ situations in my last comment. i’d never thought of it that way before, but as soon as i read it, it resonated nicely. i do have ‘is/ought’ reactions to natural law situations regarding ‘people in’ and ‘people out.’ but like you, i take ownership of my moral/ethical codes as my choice. not a template from god i have no control over.

which is not to say that we aren’t hardwired to certain responses to some of the situations. i think we are. for instance, i find it difficult to see people bleed without getting queasy, and i think this is part of my hardwiring. (from god or evolution or where ever, it doesn’t matter where the hardwiring for these response comes from). it influences my choices about moral and ethical responses, but in and of itself, queasiness over the sight of blood is neither good nor bad. as reasoning beings, we are able to acknowledge the (sometimes visceral) response to a situation, and then make choices about it. if we couldn't respond this way, beneficial surgery would never exist.

some of the sexual morality arguments rooted in theological principles (the ‘template comes from god and therefore has authority and primacy’ argument is rooted in theological principles, not a natural/physical principles) and rooted in social principles (the codes of conduct we collectively live by) are, i would argue, also rooted in the physical principle of biological hardwiring. but just as surgery is possible because we can reasonably respond contrary to some of our hardwiring, so are a variety of sexual responses reasonably engaged in that are contrary to some of our hardwiring. for example, as a healthy, fertile male, i would argue that i am hardwired to impregnate as many healthy, fertile females as i can possibly make happen. i am hardwired to fight off other males who want to do the same. i am hardwired to do this regardless of the age or willingness of the female involved. i am hardwired to kill the offspring of other males and replace them with my own. these behaviors are not, in and of themselves, immoral, from a ‘natural law’ point of view.

but i impose, individually, and we impose, collectively, limits on these behaviors. we determine or decide the ‘good/bad’ limits, the ‘right/wrong’ limits, the ‘is/ought’ limits. and i think from a social principle point of view, determined through tradition, and reason, and relationship experience, these limits are of value. a code is constructed, rooted in natural law, but not natural law itself. and because situations and conditions change, these limits, these constructs, are not fixed. and they’re definitely not hardwired by god. that’s a theological principle (a theological construct, in my world view).

one last thought. like you, i, too, see great value in the jesus teachings as a source of wisdom for my own personal (and our collective social) moral and ethical codes. but as an agnostic, i make this choice without the theological primacy/authority that believing christians are bound by.



Tobias Stanislas Haller said...

Thanks, Scott, for the additional thoughts, which I find to be very reasonable and persuasive. I would concur with most of what you say, with the added proviso that the "hardwiring" is always individual -- that is, the wiring of any individual human being may well determine such things as a reaction to the sight of blood or a capacious bosom -- but that the wiring is specific to the individual, and not generic: the wiring is "real" -- a "thing" or process of neurons governing instinct. So even if there may be a lot of commonality, there are few if any "wirings" that are universal and identical in all people -- even the generic "man" will react differently to some stimuli than the generic "woman" -- and when we get to individuals you will find a great deal of variety. To be physical about it, there is a genetic difference among various populations in how they reaction to bitter tastes -- some people don't taste certain things as bitter while others do, so their reactions and diets will differ.

To take your example, I can testify that the sight of blood in and of itself does not bother me, and never did -- there is no innate repulsion-wiring I had to overcome. At the same time, I confess I cringe on seeing injections via hypodermic -- on myself or others. I doubt that is "hard-wired" in one sense since the human wiring system predates the advent of hypodermic needles! I find it more likely to think it may be based on some deeper instinctual concern with "wounding" and perhaps some early bad experience with an injection in my own personal history.

All I'm saying is that it is perilous to generalize too broadly -- though I accept that there are an assortment or range of animal instincts, a collection of which are still part of each individual human makeup -- but there is no universal set of instincts that are part of all humans' makeup. The main problem with "Natural Law" is that it universalizes and hypostasizes what is (or may be) only a very common shared set of feelings.

And actually I agree with your final point. I do not accept the moral teaching of Jesus because I believe in the Incarnation (which I do), but because, of all of the ethical systems I have evaluated, it seems to me that his teaching is the most rationally acceptable, best covers the evidence, and promotes a humane and ordered society. "Do as you would be done by" and "Love your neighbor as yourself," cover a lot of moral ground. I wish more of the "natural lawyers" would follow it!

Anglocat said...

Many thanks for the interesting comments, and in paricular the interplay between yourself, Tobias, and Scott. As a moderately pro NL type, on the natural rights front at least, let me add a couple thoughts:

1. For me, NL's existence means nothing more than believing that God's perspective (if we coud but know it) would inform us as to the objectively true principles of behavior.

2. In discerning such principles over time, we have gingerly reached accord over some of them. E.g., slavery = bad; racism (in the eugenic sense) = false ideology. The Kantian principle that no person can morally be used as a means to an end, but must be accepted as a means. Agreement on these, and the lack of a reasonably credible counterargument to them, suggests that even though prior ages have held to the contrary, we have over time discerned what may be called provisionally a true natural law on these issues.

3. The ethics of Jesus are, I believe, natural law as well--in that they reveal the life to which God calls us--but that does not mean that they are a legal *code* of policy proscriptions. (This notion of a universal code book, if we would just accept it is what George is banging on about, and it seems to me it is a large part of Tobias's quite proper reservation against NL theory in general.

In sum, there seems to me a vast difference between saying that there is a true ethic and moral "law" and assuming we all can claim to know its specific content and application to every situation.

BTW, Tobias, I've ordered a set of Hooker's works based on your comments about him. Wish me luck with him!

Tobias Stanislas Haller said...

Thanks, A.C. The distinction I am trying to make is similar to that of Maimonides in his critique of "natural law." There may indeed be some general rules of thumb, but a religious person will think that any sense of order must come from God, ultimately.

The problem becomes one of epistemology -- how do we know that what we perceive as "natural" is from God or our own minds? The rigorous NL theorist posits no real distinction: God made our minds so as to perceive this truth in this way, and anyone who doesn't is just "off" or, in that wonderful phrase, "invincibly ignorant." The rabbinic tradition answered that God has not kept silent, but has given guidance in positive law. Now, that too can be taken to far (as in a kind of Barthian "revelation or nothing").

Personally I would prefer to take a moderate position, such as you suggest. My problems come with the extremists (and I think Dr. George comes off as one even if he doesn't intend it) and also with some of the particular spinnings-out of natural law theory; which I reject not only because I don't like the conclusions, but because I think they are not based on verifiable premises and sound logical argument. The birth control debate, for instance, is one example of a very tendentious spinning-out of a very fine thread.

Thanks again for sparking an interesting discussion. And I hope you enjoy Hooker -- I think you will.

Anonymous said...

Fr. Tobias:

I'm sorry that I wasn't able to participate in this thread as I had hoped: two prominent parishioners died this week and the pastoral care for their families properly has absorbed my time and energy. You surely have been in such a situation multiple times over the span of your ministry.

On your very last comment to this thread you made reference to the "rigorist NL theorist" position. I would add something here that hasn't come up yet: the relationship between the divine law-- the "mind" of God, so to speak-- unchangeable versus the Natural Law, man's understanding of Divine Law. Without making too much hash of it by this rushed entry, John Paul II distinguishes between the two in Veritatis Splendor.


Tobias Stanislas Haller said...

I have read Veritatis Splendor and I do understand it represents an attempt to "save" the doctrine of Natural Law -- at least as the magisterium understands it. Still, that is, for me, where the problem lies, in that the magisterium confidently asserts, in a number of places, that it and it alone has the competent and correct understanding of the natural law -- and indeed this is the express purpose of the encyclical! (see ¶ 3-4 (see also ¶25-29 and ¶47-48).

A few key critiques:

The document in some spots confounds natural law with the positive or divine law (indeed I think this is a key problem with the whole text) which gets very confusing when an almost Dispensationalist series of divine laws is attested to at ¶12. How can there be a development in that which is supposedly universal? (I do not deny that the divine law evolves; what I deny is that it is coterminous with any "natural law" -- the existence of which I deny.)

The pope also seems not to be aware that the exaltation of the individual conscience that he finds so troubling in ¶32 is in fact no more philosophically troublesome than the exaltation of the magisterium -- the accusations of subjectivism and individualism surely apply to the Papacy!

I cannot accept John Paul's "theology of the body" (which I see as a form of idolatry) as a terminus for moral discourse, because it is not the body merely ('the permanent structural elements of man connected with the profound truth of his being' -- ¶53) but the body as interpreted -- and I think the magisterium has gotten its interpretation of the body (as much as of the Scriptures) wrong!

I would say that ultimately, while Truth may be absolute, morality is always relative -- of necessity and by its very nature. No act exists apart from the actor, the circumstances, the motives, the consequences, and so on -- and morality (of various forms and theories) must take account of these relations. Above all, any Christian morality must be based on the Great Commandment -- and love requires relationship, which perforce introduces relativity, if not relativism.

scott gray said...


i would add that morality is always relational in addition to relative. morality does not exist outside of relationship; righteousness (right relationship) is the root of morality, and it takes at least two entities.


Tobias Stanislas Haller said...

Thanks, Scott. That is exactly what I mean, and the reason for it. (I used "relativity" here to hearken back to the original "thought.") Reality itself is about relationship.