Wednesday, April 24, 2013

"Natural law," and all that....

Ever since a session in a writing class I took about 25 years ago, during which the Professor expressed her incomprehension of "Natural Law," I've been trying to understand the concept.

Somehow I stumbled on Edward Feser, a philosophy professor at a California college (and a Catholic), who likes to write about it.   Feser has been engaged for at least a couple of months now in an online debate about "Natural Law" with David Bentley Hart, an Eastern Orthodox theologian.  This is the most recent post about all this from Feser's blog:
In a widely discussed piece in the March issue of First Things, theologian David Bentley Hart was highly critical of natural law theory.  I was in turn highly critical of his article in a response posted at First Things (and cross-posted here).  Hart replied to my criticisms in a follow-up article in the May issue of First Things.  I reply to Hart’s latest in an article just posted over at Public Discourse.

For related recent posts, see my responses to Hart’s defenders Rod Dreher and Thaddeus Kozinski.

I'm slogging my way through these things at this moment.  I don't have a single bit of training in philosophy, so a lot of what is said simply eludes me.  Slowly, though, a little bit of light is getting through, and I don't feel as ignorant about it all as I used to.

As far as I can tell, the basic assumption of "Natural Law," is the (widely and often disputed) premise that you can, in fact, "derive an ought from an is."  That is to say, Natural Law assumes that we can reason out "morality" from what we find in "nature."  

It's seemed to me for a long time, after I first got an inkling of the outlines of what "natural law" was, that it's really a statement coming from a particular point of view that describes, basically, "the way we think things ought to be."  There seems, in other words, to be a lot that's just plain subjective about the whole thing - and that you could come up with diametrically opposed premises, depending in particular upon what you wanted to emphasize as "the good." 

I've just finished reading the Hart article in the May First Things; below are the last three paragraphs.   I think he's saying something really interesting here in the last paragraph, about what sorts of things we all bring to bear on understanding reality and "how we ought to live."  I don't know if what he's saying is new, or if it's a commonplace, though.  Probably you should go read it all - but this is a powerful section that I think can stand on its own.
The question relentlessly left open in all of this is what “reason” really is. It is perfectly possible to believe that the whole natural dynamism of our reason and will is toward the good, and even to desire a true moral cultural renewal, and yet still to deny that natural law theory provides a sufficiently rich or logically coherent model of how the intellect can know moral truths. There is nothing scandalous in this unless one creates a false dilemma by imagining a real division between the discrete realms of supernatural and natural knowledge. Feser thinks of revelation as an extrinsic datum consisting in texts and dogmas, and of the supernatural as merely outside of nature, and believes there really is such a thing as purely natural reason. From that perspective, one cannot deny philosophy’s power to demonstrate objective moral truth without denying reason’s intrinsic capacity for the good. Like a Kantian (the two-tier Thomist’s alter ego), one must believe that philosophical theory’s limits are also reason’s.

These divisions are illusory. What we call “nature” is merely one mode of the disclosure of the “supernatural,” and natural reason merely one mode of revelation, and philosophy merely one (feeble) mode of reason’s ascent into the light of God. Nowhere, not even in the sciences, does there exist a “purely natural” realm of knowledge. To encounter the world is to encounter its being, which is gratuitously imparted to it from beyond the sphere of natural causes, known within the medium of an intentional consciousness, irreducible to immanent processes, that grasps finite reality only by being oriented toward a horizon of transcendental ends (or, better, “divine names”). There is a seamless continuity between the sight of a rose and the mystic’s vision of God; the latter is in fact implicit in the former, and saturates it, and but for this supernatural surfeit nothing natural could come into thought.

It does not then represent some grave failure of natural reason that philosophy cannot achieve definitive moral demonstrations, or that true knowledge of the good is impossible without calling upon other modes of knowledge: the (ubiquitous) supernatural illumination of a conscience—a heart—upon which the law is written, Platonic anamnesis (of the eternal forms or of what your mother taught you), cultural traditions with all their gracious moments of religious awakening (Jewish, pagan, Christian, Hindu, Taoist, Buddhist, Muslim, Sikh, and so on), prayer, inspiration, the cultivation of personal holiness, love of the arts, and so on. There is no single master discourse here, for the good can be known only in being seen, before and beyond all words. Certain fundamental moral truths, for instance, may necessarily remain unintelligible to someone incapable of appreciating Bach’s fifth Unaccompanied Cello Suite. For some it may seem an outrageous notion that, rather than a collection of purportedly incontrovertible proofs, the correct rhetoric of moral truth consists in a richer but more unmasterable appeal to the full range of human capacities and senses, physical and spiritual. I, however, see it as rather glorious: a confirmation that our whole being, in all its dimensions, is a single gracious vocation out of nonexistence to the station of created gods.

From what I understand and have read myself, Catholic teaching does use "natural law" - does, that is, use reasoning (perhaps from Aristotle via Thomas Aquinas?) that "derives ought from is."   You can find the phrase within the Catechism itself; for instance, paragraph 1952 says:  "There are different expressions of the moral law, all of them interrelated: eternal law - the source, in God, of all law; natural law; revealed law, comprising the Old Law and the New Law, or Law of the Gospel; finally, civil and ecclesiastical laws."

And in Benedict XVI's encyclical Deus Caritas Est, you find this statement:  "The Church's social teaching argues on the basis of reason and natural law, namely, on the basis of what is in accord with the nature of every human being."

So, I'm trying to find out more about this.  What's actually quite interesting here, when you think about it, is that First Things - a Catholic publication - is giving space to David Bentley Hart - an Eastern Orthodox theologian - in a dispute over one of the basic underpinnings of Catholic teaching.  This is the way things ought to be!

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