Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Natural law and the state

I promised reader Ficino that I would write this post.  It came up because of an exchange that I've heard a few different times, on different subjects.  It goes like this:

Atheist: You shouldn't try to enforce your religion by law!
Catholic: Ah, but that's not my religion I'm enforcing by law!  It's my Thomistic philosophy.  Since philosophy is rationally provable, that makes it nonreligious and therefore okay to enshrine in the law.

Most non-Catholics find this argument completely ridiculous because Thomistic philosophy isn't something they're familiar with in the first place, and it sounds suspiciously like a religion.  I would argue that Thomistic philosophy is, in fact, indistinguishable from a religion.

For instance, the claim that this philosophy is rationally provable is something that many religions also claim.  Catholics especially.  They believe that is it possible for unaided reason to know the existence of God.  From there, I am not sure belief in the Catholic Church itself is supposed to be rationally provable, but it's at any rate assumed to be likely.

Like a religion, Thomistic philosophy is not actually provable.  I've gone back and forth with Thomists and what it usually comes down to is something like this: "We can prove xyz from first principles, but the first principles themselves you just have to accept.  But you have to accept something without any proof, something to base later beliefs on, and we think our first principles are reasonable to accept."

The trouble is, this argument could be used for almost anything.  You have to accept something without proof, to base later beliefs on . . . so why couldn't this first belief be that the bible is divinely inspired?  Or that Joseph Smith found golden tablets?  Or that Muhammad was visited by an angel?  What makes "all things have a final cause" any different from these premises?

Now it's true that we have to make moral judgments in order to decide what should be enshrined in law.  To some degree, it doesn't make sense to criticize "legislating morality," because that's what we all do.  Yet there are some versions of morality we don't want to legislate.  Some people believe that polygamy or child marriage are moral.  And the rest of us say, "We don't want that, because it's strictly part of your religion."  But is that really why we don't want it?  I'd say we don't want it because it's against our own morals.

Personally, I believe in an Enlightenment morality based on rights, such as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  And this is the moral code enshrined in our country's founding documents.  Can I prove this morality is better than natural law?  Perhaps not.  Especially not to people who have an attachment to natural law which stems from religion.  (Because people normally come to a belief in natural law because they are already Catholic.  It's pretty rare for it to happen the other way around.)  But neither can you prove to me, or to a majority of voters, that natural law is better.  You can say your system is provable, but that doesn't make it so.  To me the claim that "if you read this long book by Ed Feser, you'll understand and accept the proofs" is no different from "if you read the Book of Mormon, you'll feel a burning in the bosom and know that it's true."  It's a big claim, and yet in both cases you can find people who have read the books and not been convinced at all.  So it's possible that there is an error in the proofs.  In any event, the jury is out on whether your metaphysics is actually rational and provable. 

The real issue is that the dichotomy between "Catholic morality that comes from natural law" and "Catholic morality that comes from Scripture" is artificial.  Catholics don't actually see them as different (all are obligatory) and non-Catholics don't see them as different (all are religious).  And Aquinas himself, working this stuff out, ruled out any conclusions of natural law that might be opposed to Scripture or Catholic teaching of his time. 

And Catholic teaching itself never says that those moral laws that are known by faith shouldn't be enforced by law, while those known by reason should be.  The traditional teaching of the Church is that the existence of God is known by reason.  Therefore it would follow that it could be a crime to fail to worship God.  The modern Church has come out in favor of freedom of conscience, but as little as a hundred and fifty years ago, it taught that error has no rights and that it is legitimate to establish a religion or criminalize heresy.  And honesty, this view is more consistent with the inital assumption that anything a Catholic thinks is provable by reason can be legislated.  Yet I doubt the people arguing that it's valid to (for example) ban homosexuality on natural-law grounds would like to come out and say that what they want is a Catholic theocracy.  It's likely that they don't want that, but according to their arguments, I can't see why not.

Those of us who aren't Catholic may do better to simply say that unless a law can be defended from the first principles in our founding documents, it isn't valid.  As a nation, we already have a basic moral philosophy.  It might be very general, so that complex arguments may be required to lead from there to any specific law, but it has the advantage of having already been accepted by the nation at large.

A small, religious minority who feels they have a better answer, who would like to legislate not based on life, liberty, and happiness, but on beliefs that are not general to non-members, should in my opinion stick to making rules for their own members.  I think that Catholics would acknowledge this if we were talking about, say, Muslims.  And they wouldn't at all buy the notion that a certain rule wasn't from the Quran, but rather worked out by Averroes from pure reason.  If it's really reasonable, the argument will have to be made by appealing to life, liberty, and happiness.  If it can't be--perhaps it's reasonable only based on first principles the rest of the country doesn't accept.  And in that case, it's indistinguishable from a religious argument.


ficino4ml said...

Good article, Sheila, thanks for posting!

Some wag long ago pointed out that natural law ethics may use reason in generating its list of ethical norms, but it's funny that what's on the list always turns out to coincide with what the RC church wants on the list.

Right now I'm reading Arguments About Abortion by Kate Greasley. A lot of good analysis. I saw two reviews that faulted her for failing to bring A-T hylomorphism into her discussion of human personhood, but she comes close when she discusses Robert P. George and Christopher Tollefsen on personhood essentialism and substantial identity. Greasley needless to say thinks that it IS vital to grapple with personhood, but that personhood is attained gradually, not in a "pop" moment, whether a moment of conception or later. (George BTW is a "new natural law" theorist, not a Thomist.)

Sheila said...

Well, it's no surprise to Catholics that the natural law lines up with the revealed law...because both are from God. Though it does seem to me that they should at least *consider* whether their conclusions are in any way influenced by their preconceptions. After all, evo-psych is basically the same thing (let's figure out what our impulses are FOR and then we'll know what to do with them!) and its practitioners come up with very different answers from Catholic ones.

I should read that book. I feel abortion is a moral question upon which there is no clear and obvious answer, and it infuriates me when people on either side assume that there is, so that anyone who disagrees is stupid or evil. It rests on two different unanswerable questions:

1. Which is more important, life or liberty (bodily autonomy)?

2. What is a person?

For the second question, I recommend the Star Trek episode "Measure of a Man." As we create artificial intelligence and possibly encounter aliens, we're going to need a better definition than "has a soul" (how would we check for one?) or "member of the human species" (we're in trouble if our first encounter with aliens results in our cooking them for lunch).

But, all in all, people form their opinions based on answers to this question that they feel are true, rather than that they can prove, because I am not sure there is a proof.

And that's why I don't usually argue about abortion. But I'd read a book!

the real jesus christ said...

It seems to me that morality is fundamentally a subjective thing. There's no such thing as a probably right moral framework, just ones that are probably inconsistent with the values that people actually hold.

the real jesus christ said...


Sheila said...

That's just, like, your opinion, man.

In seriousness, I believe some moral judgments are objectively true, like "other people are as important as yourself." Though of course those do rely to some degree on what people want. If you want to be a terrible asshole I probably can't convince you otherwise, but most of us don't, and there are objective ways to be decent.

Others are more subjective, and depend on individual wishes.

the real jesus christ said...

"Importance" itself is a subjective concept. It constitutes a value judgement which is intrinsically subjective. Remover the entity making a judgement and the concept of importance ceases to make any sense. For this reason, importance cannot be an objective quality of the things whose importance is being judged. It is instead a quality of the judge.

the real jesus christ said...

Bear in mind that "subjectivity" is not the same thing as mere opinion, but rather, something that is an aspect of the observer rather than the observed.

Sheila said...

Ah, well I'd agree with that I think. There's no "objective" position with which to observe humanity from. Since I learned the term "intersubjective" I've been getting lots of mileage out of it.

ficino4ml said...

Hi Sheila, I'm still working on the abortion discussion over on SN. No worries if you have no time or nothing to say about the following, but if you do have time, I'd appreciate any thoughts you may have. Do you think the following will work as a refutation of the A-T form of the “nature of the kind” arg that the zygote already is a "person" in the moral sense, with rights etc?

Thomists like Bonnette adduce Boethius' definition of "person" as what Bonnette says is "a supposit of a rational nature" (Boethius actually wrote an "individual substance of a rational nature"). This is endorsed by Aquinas at among other places ST 1a 29.1. The Thomist argument against abortion is that the fertilized ovum is a form matter composite, the form is the form of human, the form human contains "rational" in its essence, so the zygote already now, actually not potentially, has a rational nature. Therefore it is a person, etc.

Against this, I am thinking:
Actuality is a completion of a work or action, but when something is in motion toward an end, its actuality is not that end state but its motion; cf. Aquinas In III Phys l. 4 C305, l. 5 C309; “Formae autem quae sunt in materiis sunt actus imperfecti, quia non habent esse completum,” SCG II.91.5. Motion is the actuality of the thing that exists in potency, “actus existentis in potentia,” ST 1a 45.2 arg 2, quoting Arist. Phys. III.1, 201a10. Form is the principle of motion: “in motibus corporalibus movens dicitur quod dat formam quae est principium motus,” ST 1a 105.3 c. So the fetus is in motion toward rationality, but its actuality is not existing as rational but its existing as potentially rational. And possession of a human soul does not allow it to reason, since cognitive operations are not the acts of the soul but of the human by means of soul: “To perceive is not a property of soul or body but of the composite,” De Somno et vigilia 1, 454a7, De Anima I.4, II.2, 414a12-19 “that by which we primarily, πρώτως, live and perceive and think;" cf. soul spoken of as an instrument, like the hand, DA III.8, 432a1-2. So the actuality of the fetus is not being rational but being in motion toward rationality.

Therefore, the “nature of the kind” as a threshold of personhood collapses into potentiality, and the Nature of the Kind argument collapses into an argument from potentiality after all. And A-T exponents admit that potentiality arguments for the personhood of the zygote etc are not sufficient, since the reason why they want to ground personhood on something actual is precisely to escape the weaknesses of potentiality arguments.

Sheila said...

What, it's still going?! I got no more notifications so I assumed it was over. I guess it's the typical thing where people ignore all my best arguments and just dismiss the rest.

My answer to that would basically be, what is the proof that we should categorize beings by species rather individually? Doesn't his entire argument rest on accepting hylomorphism, a thesis which is proposed by Thomas without proof?

*If* things have natures by species, and *if* having the form of the thing is proof that it has the nature of that thing, I think you have to give the argument to the Catholics. Because what is a form but information? DNA is, arguably, a form. (Though as we grow, our form becomes more complex than that, imo, but Thomists wouldn't accept that, since they say all humans share the same nature which is only different insofar as each human is made of different matter. Which is something that DNA-as-form wouldn't allow, since DNA is unique...)

But, you see, I don't admit of the existence of natures or the reality of distinct species. (Cue the accusation of armchair philosophers everywhere: "You're a nominalist!" Yeah, so?) Because if rights came from species, what are we to do with a mutant chimp or whale which has developed the ability to reason? Thomists would say either that it's a chimp and its individual ability to reason is irrelevant, or conversely that it's now a man because it is a rational animal and isn't a chimp even though it's like a chimp in every other way. Thomas did not know that species weren't constant and unchanging, and I feel his philosophy doesn't work now that we know.

The other day, in a different discussion, I came up with a definition of personhood that seems to me to work better than rationality, having a soul, or being of a species that can be rational. Or part of a definition. I feel that a person must have subjectivity. It must have an inner experience of some kind. That may not be a sufficient condition for human rights (cows have subjectivity and I'm not a vegan yet) but it certainly is necessary. Because, to me, the whole reason we respect human life is because we respect the inner subjectivity of the other person. If it's not that, what is it? If morality isn't for the good of another person who will experience that good, who's it for? God? That would imply atheists can't be good, which of course they do think, but I don't of course!

Personally, I don't think you'll be able to beat Thomists at their own game, disproving their conclusions with Thomism alone. That's why I prefer to argue against Thomism in the first place-that, and total inability to believe in it. But I may be wrong.

ficino4ml said...

Hi Sheila, thank you for responding so quickly and for commenting over on SN. I think you see that I agree with most of what you write above. I plug along on the assumption that some people who look at comments on SN may not be convinced already. And then, you never know about others. Not that I am error-free, hah hah.

It may be that my suggested argument above would be easy for a Thomist to refute just by insisting that the DNA transmits the entire substantial form and leaving it at that. I think the problem of incomplete substances is a major strike against A-T.

When I converted from Calvinism to Catholicism, my main concerns were whether the Roman church taught true Christian doctrine and whether the Reformers taught false doctrine. It was only decades later, after becoming an atheist, that I went back to Aquinas and picked up from where we had left things in a wonderful medieval philosophy course I took in college. Certainly gurlfriend was a genius, and I'm not, but I keep seeing what look like holes in the Thomistic edifice. I'm sure you are used to the dismissive reply from convinced Thomists, "You simply fail to understand Aquinas."

I can think of someone who simply fails to understand utilitarianism, but I shall not name any names.

Cheers, F

Sheila said...

The nesting on those comments is unbearable. It takes me hours of clicking to find where the most recent comments are. After quite a while I realized you were starting new threads-unfortunately after I'd already commented on the old ones. There's got to be a better system out there!

I have been told many times I just don't understand Thomas. And it's true I never got as in-depth on him as some others; however, my objections are low level enough that I don't really need to know every detail. That hylomorphism was never proved (and as you say, is not even falsifiable) is clear even without knowing all the intricacies of the entire Summa. But of course that argument is always usable. Less against you than against me, though! You certainly understand it better than anybody there- not that it helps any.

The misunderstanding of utilitarianism is driving me nuts at this moment. That and the whole concept of deontology. I remember believing it, but I also remember when I realized it was opposed to love of neighbor, and I always expect that when I explain this, people will change their mind exactly like I did. Alas, they never do.

ficino4ml said...

Yes, disqus drives everyone crazy. Thomists and atheists are agreed on that.

I just posted to Mark in line with some of what we've just talked about. I'd paste a link, but I don't know how to link to a particular comment in disqus!

ficino4ml said...

Oh, just thinking about your sex-with-a-Nazi to save children scenario: it might be more robust against a natural law ethicist if it's specified as, say, submitting to anal or oral sex, since those are explicitly defined in Catholic tradition as contrary to nature. That way the natural law defender can't say, "well, sex with a Nazi is only against human law cuz you're not married, but it is not against natural law if a child could issue from that unlawful union."

Sheila said...

Oh gosh. To think my argument could be dismissed because I didn't say I would *fellate* the Nazi. Though I think it would hold either way because he was focused on acts that are objectively evil, which adultery is as well.

ficino4ml said...

Robert P. George, a leading Catholic natural law ethics proponent, filed an amicus curiae brief when the Supreme Court was hearing args on Lawrence vs. Texas. George WANTED "sodomy" to remain a crime. Then he filed an amicus curiae brief against same-sex marriage when that was debated before the Court. George is against birth-control. It goes without saying that his is one of the loudest voices proclaiming the personhood of the zygote.

Now he is on a State Department committee. I am becoming more and more terrified. If a lot of people don't feel motivated to vote for whoever are the Democratic candidates for President and Senate, a lot of us can be in trouble.

This is why I'm trying to persist and resist in the little ways I can.

Sheila said...

It's still going, let's see if this link helps you find where:

Unfortunately a lot this stuff I don't have firm opinions on yet. I mean, it's good that I'm working stuff out, but it's bad because when you don't have clear ideas, it's easy for a debate opponent to catch you out.

Sheila said...

Aaaand I think I'm out. I am getting angry and I can't do any good like that. It just infuriates me beyond words when I hear that pregnancy is a minor inconvenience and anyway mothers naturally go above and beyond for their children. Implication, if you don't want to do that, you're a monster.

And to be told all this by a bunch of men . . . I mean, where's the intellectual humility?

ficino4ml said...

I know, I just posted in line with yours before it saw yours.

Our definitions trump your life.

You have posted many very insightful comments over there. I hope people "stopping in" will read them.

Persist and resist.

Sheila said...

Thank you for that. Your comment cheered me up.

Do people ever stop in? I thought that website was for hosting dialogue, but really it seems to be a bunch of Catholic Thomists talking down to anybody unlucky enough to blunder in. Not much of a dialogue.

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