Saturday, February 25, 2006

Some Thoughts on the Natural Law:

This piece on Princeton's Robbie George inspired some thoughts on the natural law. The natural law is what man can know from his reason unassisted by revelation or other sorts of unargued dogma. The natural law is Capital T Truth, something non-negotiable, and True regardless of how many people do or don't believe in it. For instance, even if 99% of the population denied 2+2 = 4, they'd still be wrong.

Natural law is often associated with a religious point of view -- doctrinaire Catholicism, because the Church's teachings have embraced the natural law through Aquinas.

But Aquinas didn't "invent" this concept -- the Pagan philosopher Aristotle did. And Reason itself is not beholden to any Church's doctrine; rather it's supposed to be the other way around. As Allan Bloom wrote in The Closing of the American Mind, "Aristotle...was used as an authority almost on a level with the Church Fathers and was assimilated to them. This was, of course, an abuse of Aristotle, who thought that authority is the contrary of philosophy....The essence of philosophy is the abandonment of all authority in favor of individual human reason." pp. 252-3.

And indeed, Reason has as often been used to question rather than support traditional religious doctrines. The Enlightenment was one big natural law project in that it posited Man's Reason as the ultimate discerner of Truth. That doesn't mean Church doctrine or Revelation were, according to natural law, untrue. But rather, they had to be Reasonable in order to be True. So it was under the auspices of the natural law, not only was America Founded, but so too was the French Revolution conducted. And there we saw that Reason turned out to be not too friendly to the Catholic Church.

Now, in researching the philosophical origins of the Founding, I've dismissed the "Christian Nation" thesis entirely. The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution simply did not come from the Bible. The Founders were very clear that whatever Truth may be found in the Bible, it was not the guidebook from which our government was constructed. However, I do take natural law claims to the Founding seriously, because the United States's government was founded under the rubrics of "Reason" and "Nature."

As John Adams put it in "A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America" [1787-1788]

"The United States of America have exhibited, perhaps, the first example of governments erected on the simple principles of nature; and if men are now sufficiently enlightened to disabuse themselves of artifice, imposture, hypocrisy, and superstition, they will consider this event as an era in their history. Although the detail of the formation of the American governments is at present little known or regarded either in Europe or in America, it may hereafter become an object of curiosity. It will never be pretended that any persons employed in that service had interviews with the gods, or were in any degree under the influence of Heaven, more than those at work upon ships or houses, or laboring in merchandise or agriculture; it will forever be acknowledged that these governments were contrived merely by the use of reason and the senses.

". . . Thirteen governments [of the original states] thus founded on the natural authority of the people alone, without a pretence of miracle or mystery, and which are destined to spread over the northern part of that whole quarter of the globe, are a great point gained in favor of the rights of mankind."

Political science, according to the Founders, was a form of natural science. The Declaration of Independence was a self-evident Truth as much as 2+2=4. The Founders no doubt due to the influence of Isaac Newton viewed "Nation Building" as part of the same system of "mechanical and mathematical foundations [that] served [the] grounding post for their scientific reasoning," in Jim Walker's words. (Gary North makes a similar point in this article.)

But how relevant is natural law to us today? After Carl Becker (who once famously said "to ask whether the natural rights philosophy of the Declaration of Independence is true or false, is essentially a meaningless question") it is assumed by many, perhaps most that the Founders were "wrong" in believing that the natural law of the Declaration was "True" like the principles of natural science and in refusing to distinguish between the two. As Charles Murray recently put it, the doctrine of natural rights "is not a falsifiable hypothesis."

Murray is right, I think, that the Declaration can't be proven like 2+2=4; but this doesn't mean the Declaration is not part of some larger metaphysical Truth. Whether the Declaration is ultimately True in an empirical and/or metaphysical sense is a question I leave open.

Another critique of natural law is, even if it is True, because people disagree over its content, the Declaration of Independence has no proper place whatsoever informing constitutional law. This is Justice Scalia's critique. He stated, (as a Catholic) he believes in the natural law. He just doesn't believe that nine lawyers on the Supreme Court are the final arbiters of what the natural law says.

While I disagree with Scalia on the natural law and its relationship to constitutional law (and I think so too would the Framers), he certainly is correct that people disagree over the contents of the natural law. For instance, the above article quotes Robbie George as believing:

"[T]he genitals of men and women are reproductive organs all of the time--even during periods of sterility," he writes. To curb sexual practices he views as immoral, including oral sex and masturbation (which he calls "bad" sex), George supports state laws banning sodomy, adultery and fornication.

This certainly looks nothing like the natural law in which I might believe.

Another interesting question: How relevant is a Thomistic view of the natural law to the Declaration of Independence? Robbie George, Hadley Arkes, and the Claremont Institute are notable for conflating the two theories. But in fairness, they would assert that the natural law is what the natural law is: The Declaration of Independence is part of it; so too are Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas.

Moreover, they seem to argue that 1) government has the right to enforce the natural law (even in its Thomistic sense) and 2) public policies which contradict (their understanding) of the natural law weaken America's natural law Foundation by contradicting the Declaration of Independence.

So for instance, Harry Jaffa might argue: 1) the Declaration of Independence derives from the natural law; 2) slavery violates the natural law and the Declaration; 3) sodomy violates the natural law; 4) moral approval of sodomy destroys our ability to make moral judgments under the natural law such that, "If then sodomy is not unnatural...then nothing is unnatural, and nothing (including the persecution of sodomites) is wrong." Jaffa would probably go so far as to assert: "Moral approval of homosexuality destroys the Declaration of Independence."

Claremont disproportionately focuses on the "sodomy" part of the natural law, but not so much on masturbation, oral sex, and contraception, and for good reason. Since much of the public holds an unfavorable view of homosexuality, Claremont's argument might resonate with them. However, should the Thomists argue something along the lines of "if we accept a teenager masturbating as natural, then the Declaration of Independence unravels and we can't even say, as a matter of moral certainly, slavery and genocide are wrong," most of the public would laugh this off as a self-evident absurdity.

Some other complicating factors for those who would conflate Thomism with the Declaration:

1) The Founders virtually never invoked Thomas Aquinas (at least in a positive sense). This is probably because Aquinas is indissolubly connected with the Catholic Church. And because of said Church's poor record on religious toleration, our Founders, if you've read what they've said about the Roman Church, were practically anti-Catholic bigots.

Still the Founders did invoke Locke and other philosophers who inherited a Anglican natural law tradition from Richard Hooker, which ultimately traces back to Aquinas and Aristotle.

2) Even the Thomists disagree on some issues. For instance, Jaffa has tried to give himself an "out" and argued that contraception between married couples is not unnatural (if you have time to read the entire link from which this passage was taken, you will see how far off his rocker Jaffa is on these sexual issues).

Chan writes that "contraception would be just as immoral as homosexuality since it frustrates the natural purpose of sex." I believe this view to be mistaken, although it is one easy to make, because it is how the Catholic Church has interpreted the natural law. According to Aristotle -- the fons et origo of all natural law teaching -- all the moral virtues must be exercised according to the dictates of prudence....Mr. Chan attributes to me the absurd opinion that "the most important thing about man's nature is his ability to perpetuate the species." Other species may fulfill their natural destiny by generation alone, but mankind seeks his end in and by the soul no less than by the body. One's duty to one's progeny only begins with the circumstances of birth. It is the nurture and, above all, the education of the young, that parents must undertake when they bring children into the world. If the resources available to the parents are such that they have to choose between failing in their duty to many, or fulfilling their duty to a few, choosing the latter course may indeed be prudent.

So here we begin to see how in using the same natural law premises, we come to different outcomes. Jaffa and the Church differ on whether contraception can be "natural." However....

3) Just as natural law arguments can be made on behalf of contraception, so too can they be made on behalf of homosexuality. Natural law is after all premised on an observation of nature and homosexuality clearly exists within both animal and human nature. When one observes a minority in nature that deviates from a general trend, one can either anathematize it as "unnatural" or simply view it as a natural variation, part of biological diversity. (See Andrew Sullivan's Virtually Normal, pp. 46-8).

Dr. David Mazel, though he doesn't believe in the natural law, engaged in a thought experiment on my blog, where he made a pretty convincing natural law case on behalf of homosexuality. An excerpt:

But again, wait. If there is not one common Human, but rather two forms of humans, why not more? Who's to say that we should not in fact be speaking, not of Man and Woman, but of Heterosexual Man and Heterosexual Woman, in order to distinguish them from those other forms, Gay Man and Lesbian?

Perhaps the essence of Gay Man is different from that of Heterosexual Man, and the essence of Lesbian different from that of Heterosexual Woman, just as the essence of Man differs from that of Woman. If so--and Feser has given us absolutely no reason why it might not be so--then it stands to reason that Gay Man and Lesbian--as well as those naughty organs, Gay Penis and Lesbian Clitoris--have been designed by their Creator toward rather different ends than Heterosexual Man and Heterosexual Woman. Who can say? Perhaps Feser can read the Mind of God, or perhaps the Pope can, but I cannot, and anyway I'm trying to proceed on the basis of reason rather than revelation.

If Gay Man and Lesbian are Forms of their own, then natural law tells us that the moral thing for gays and lesbians to do is to strive to realize their essence qua Gays and Lesbians. The immoral thing for them to do would be to frustrate that realization. BTW, that applies to straights as well--including, I will assume, Feser. It is immoral for Feser or anyone else to deliberately frustrate the ability of gays and lesbians to realize their essence as Gays and Lesbians. (Read the entire thing here.)

4) Not only did the Founders rarely if ever invoke Aquinas, they also rarely discussed issues of "natural sexuality." Rather, they spent most of their time explicating Hobbes's/Locke's "state of nature" teachings on government; though they did discuss how natural rights related to issues like slavery and religion. On slavery, the case was clear: Slavery violated the natural law, and in a sense, the Declaration spelled the eventual end of that inhumane institution, even as the Constitution preserved slavery's legality.

On religion, according to the most philosophically minded Founders, the Trinity violated the natural law. The Trinity was simply an irrational and unreasonable doctrine. As Abigail Adams put it in her May 4, 1816 letter to John Quincy Adams, "There is not any reasoning which can convince me, contrary to my senses, that three is one and one three." Remember, that the majority of people at the time may have thought otherwise is irrelevant to natural law issues. 2+2 = 4 irrespective of whether the population at large accepts it or not. And just as we could say that the Declaration of Independence spelled the eventual end for the institution of slavery, so too did Jefferson believe that the Declaration spelled the end for the institution of Trinitarian Christianity when he declared, in 1822, "I trust that there is not a young man now living in the US who will not die an Unitarian."

Now, of course, one can make a natural law argument in favor of the Trinity. The point of stressing these differences is to note that because we differ on the finer details of the natural law, it is not possible for government to justly enforce the natural law simpliciter. This is what Jefferson believed when he wrote, in Notes on the State of Virginia that "The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others."

Indeed, I would assert that our natural rights republic is structured such that we have the right to do what arguably violates the natural law. Whether the Trinity is unnatural or not is irrelevant given that the rights of conscience are unalienable; thus people have the absolute right to believe and proselytize for any religion, no matter how orthodox, unorthodox, irrational or bizarre. Jaffa et al., support the right to privacy and the Griswold holding, meaning that individuals have a natural right to do what arguably violates the natural law (use contraception).

Moreover, the natural law generally doesn't need a government to enforce it; rather it enforces itself. Government is only needed to protect individuals' natural rights. Indeed, the Declaration of Independence holds that men have an unalienable right to liberty in its broad and general sense. The Declaration seems to dictate that most of man's decisions, even if they end up violating the natural law, be left in the private sphere of society, that man, in his "pursuit of happiness," is guaranteed the right to figure out for himself what life best leads to human flourishing, even if he ultimately gets it wrong.


DSH said...

I agree that the Founders most certainly did not have Aquinas in mind for the reasons given (i.e., he was a Roman Catholic).

"Natural law" is not as clear cut as its proponents suggest. Aquinas at ST, I-II, 94, ii, states that the natural law derives from the eternal law, and that the law in man is reason. If this were what most people thought was natural law, I probably wouldn't find it entirely objectionable (although still obviously false).

Pope John Paul II used the concept repeatedly in all his encyclicals, but it's clear he has Suarez's conception, not Aquinas's, in mind. His conception is that the "natural purpose of x is y" is ubiquitous.

But the whole notion of "final ends," (teleology) established in the first by Aristotle, is fuzzy category. In the human production of things, the notion is simple and obvious: I do A to obtain B results. B is the final end. A is the licit means. But is A the only means? Rarely. Too often natural law insists on only one A. That's untenable.

Since Newton, the notion of "natural ends" has dropped from salience. While we do think that the natural end of an acorn is to be an oak tree, it's also possible that its natural end is to remain an acorn or chipmunk food. Teleology, in other words, no longer has any hold in the natural/scientific realm.

Almost concurrently, David Hume raised what would later become known by G. E. Moore as the "naturalistic fallacy." Can one derive "ought" (morals/values) from "is" (fact)? The obvious answer is no. For example, the fact that the penis can insert itself into the vagina doesn't further instantiate that it must, much less "should." Celibates and homosexuals demonstrate it can either not be used at all or used in quite different ways.

I suggest that George, Finnis, et alia make the most convincing case for natural law in the past 500 years. But no matter how one constructs it, either on Aquinas's "reason" or Suarez's "natural nature," or these latter-day advocate, this bird may have wings, but it can't fly (ala Penguins). After all, isn't the function of wings and their final end is to fly; but Penguins, Ostriches, etc. have wings, but do not fly. Have they broken the natural law?

The whole concept is a confusion of thought. First, it raises the specter of essentialism (covered in the main article) that just can't be sustained. The notion of essences has largely been abandoned ever since Wittgenstein alighted onto "family resemblances." If essences qua essences are amorphous to start, then defining a particular essence is even more suspect. Is "man is a rational animal" (Boethius) man's essence? Or, "man is an emotional animal" ... "a linguistic animal" etc.

Since there are no natural ends (teleology) in natural science, why do we think there are natural ends that guide us in moral/political discoure? Ever since Aristotle's Four Causes have been reduced to one (efficient), it's no longer intelligible to talk about first, formal, and final causes, simply because these are metaphysical speculations. Natural law is entirely a metaphysical construct based on an outdated Aristotlean science.

Next, anyone who retains fondness for the natural law concept need only read G.E. Moore's "Principia Ethica" of last century to see clearly how misconceived the whole notion is. One simply cannot derive "ought" from "is." To try to do so is a categorical mistake (Ryle). Yet, that's the very heart of natural law theory.

Even the most benign interpretation (e.g., natural law = reason) doesn't add anything to the discussion. The problem with "this" kind of reason is that it tries to piggyback on facts of nature to derive moral platitudes, and so even at it's neatest divide, we're back to the naturalistic fallacy. If the matter were simply the equation as stated, then we've added absolutely nothing to the forum. Facts from nature are either explicit or implicit in every natural law moral/political claim.

As I said at the outset, George is probably the best defender of an archaic, untenable, unintelligible system of thought known as natural law theory, but to defend the indefensible gets us nowhere. Indeed, I could rattle off hundreds of deeply mistaken errors that natural law theorists have caused millions of people anxiety and ill. Just one example: Forbiddance of Contraception. It's coherent ONLY if you grant that the facts of nature can teach us moral lessons. Well, it can't. Since it can't pass initial muster, it belongs in the dustbin of history.

Jonathan said...

Brilliant comment.

I'll feature it in a post.

Charles Johnson (Rad Geek) said...


I can't say that I'm convinced by your philosophical overview.

1. First, the is-ought problem, the fact-value distinction, and the naturalistic fallacy. You refer to all of these topics as if they were three different ways of speaking of the same thing. In fact they're not: they are three distinct topics. Moore, for one, would be very surprised to hear that he endorses the fact-value distinction; in fact he takes for granted that there are objective moral facts and characterizes ethics as a theoretical science aiming at giving true general propositions about the things that are good and the nature of goodness as such (PE 1-5). For a painstaking argument, see Chapter III and Chapter IV of Moore's sequel Ethics (1912), on "The Objectivity of Moral Judgments." Importantly, you should note that Moore would object just as much to those non-cognitivists who analyzed "X is good" as merely expressing an attitude towards X rather than making a factual assertion; since the analysis into other concepts such as "commendation" treads on the conceptual simplicity that he thinks "good" has, and the claim that judgments of good assert nothing is explicitly denied in PE 13.

Moore defined the 'naturalistic fallacy' (at PE 10) as the fallacy of attempting to offer a definition of "good" in terms of simpler concepts (Moore held the term, when used in the sense of intrinsic value, to be a simple term that does not admit of further conceptual analysis). When using the term in diagnosing other philosophers arguments, he typically uses it to identify confusions between a synthetic statement claiming that everything that is good has some other non-moral property (which needs to be defended by argument or intuition), with an analytic statement claiming that "good" just means having that other non-moral property (which supposedly needs no further defense). Cf. PE 10: "But far too many philosophers have thought that when they named those other properties they were actually defining good; that these properties, in fact, were simply not 'other,' but absolutely and entirely the same with goodness. This view I propose to call the 'naturalistic fallacy' and of it I shall now endeavour to dispose"; cf. also PE 6. Moore, of course, refuses to call the property of goodness "natural" but he does not deny that it is a matter of objective fact, or that statements to the effect of "X is good" can be judged objectively true or false. His complaint is against reductionist theories of ethics, which attempt to analyze "good" as just meaning some complex of non-moral properties.

The is-ought problem, as classically set out by David Hume, doesn't have to do with definition at all, but rather with entailment; Hume claims it to be impossible to derive "ought" sentences from "is" sentences without an auxiliary premise using "ought." The idea here is that ought-statements aren't entailed by is-statements alone (the issue is not analyticity vs. syntheticity, but rather whether or not you can make the inference of the ought-statement from the is-statement apriori without any further premises). Now, Hume took this to point towards a genuine and unbridgeable gap between facts and values; but not every philosopher who recognizes the problem feels the same way. One such philosopher was Aristotle, who both believed all of ethics to be founded in natural facts and also wrote the first known expression of the "is-ought" problem in the philosophical literature, at NE 1144a.

I mention this not only as an exegetical and historical point, but also as a critical one. There's a big difference between (1) arguing against the reducibility of good to any non-moral property, (2) arguing against the validity of any argument with entirely non-normative premises and a normative conclusion, and (3) arguing against the notion that there is any such thing as a moral fact. I think that the reasons that you offer above, aside from the appeals to philosophical authority, support at the very most (1) and perhaps (2); they don't support (3) (and while Hume thought they did, Moore rightly denied it). This is a matter of some importance, because Aristotelian moral philosophy actually accepts the reality and importance of irreducibly moral or normative facts; the idea that there is some further (metaphysical? supernatural?) fact that undergirds and explains goodness is a Platonic, not an Aristotelian doctrine. But the idea that the factuality or objectivity of goodness is undermined by not having some further fact beyond the moral fact to undergird and explain it, is merely to flip over the Platonic coin. Aristotle (like Moore) rejects the idea that you have to choose between propping up objective goodness with further facts, or giving it up as a myth.

I think that this is rather important, actually, to understanding the status of the "natural law," as Aristotelians understand it: as a free-standing natural fact that can be true and be recognized in its own right (a fact, or set of facts, about the way we ought to treat one another), not something that you derive from empirical observations of nature or by appeal to your mystical observation of the Forms.

2. Wittgenstein and essences. You claim straightforwardly "The notion of essences has largely been abandoned ever since Wittgenstein alighted onto 'family resemblances.'" I take it you're referring to Philosophical Investigations 67. But Wittgenstein doesn't take the lesson of 67 to be "there aren't any essences" or even "there aren't any words that admit of strictly limited general definitions." He thinks there are lots of words that do, and that any word can in the right conversational context (cf. PI 68). There are language-games for which the old account of linguistic simples and complexes defined in terms of them are "really valid" (cf. PI 48); it is just that there are other language games where it doesn't help us understand what's going on.

I don't know who you mean when you say that the notion of essences has largely been abandoned. Certainly there are lots of philosophers who don't put much stock in the notion, but there are lots of others who do; it's an issue of some debate in metaphysics and philosophy of language both. One of the most notorious essentialists in contemporary philosophy (Kripke; cf. Naming and Necessity) happens to be deeply influenced by Wittgenstein in particular. Most of the anti-essentialists, in Analytic philosophy at least, are not influenced mainly by Wittgenstein, but rather by Quine or by Rorty.

3. Aristotelian teleology. It's certainly true that Galileo and Newton helped put the kibosh on the old Aristotelian system of natural ends and final causes as an explanatory framework in physics. And the long shadow that their reputation has cast has tended to make natural ends and final causes seem shabby and disreputable in any natural science. But it's not at all clear to me that this is the way it needs to be or ought to be. There's no reason to believe that the methods and explanatory framework that works best for physics and chemistry will also work best for all the other sciences; and in fact I think that really rubbing out teleological notions would simply mean the death of natural history and biology at large as sciences. See Michael Thompson's The Representation of Life for a good extended discussion, or my post The ends in the world as we know it for a brief and partial discussion of one of the central issues.

Again, this is a matter of some import, which certainly deserves more argument than you've given it here (that is to say, it needs at least some argument...) because if teleological notions play an important role in our understanding of the "forms of life" in the natural world, then they give us an important point of reference for what sort of facts the facts of natural law -- if there are any -- might be.

The point here is not to suggest that you are wrong about the natural law. I happen to think that you are, but I haven't argued it here. What I do think is that you have not supported your case nearly as strongly as you've presented it. The specific points you urge against the notion of natural law are not the uniform consensus of contemporary philosophy or scientific method and they need considerably more argument and attention to detail than the historical overview you've tried to give here.


One thing that might help clear up some of the difficulties that you're concerned with here is a clear differentiation between different things that "natural law" might be taken to mean. The way that the term is used by those who want "natural law" reasoning to be an important part of political or legal norms is substantially different from some sort of idea that "whatever is natural, in the appropriate sense, is licit, and whatever is unnatural, in the appropriate sense, is illicit." Natural law is first and foremost a theory of the source and limits of rightful political authority; the idea is specifically that there is a natural law, prior to and independent of any statutory law, that can be discovered by the natural light of reason, that provides the basis for all legitimate authority and that dissolves all illegitimate claims to authority. (This is how you get the idea that a statute in violation of natural law is thereby null and void; if nobody can claim legitimate authority to do X, then any law that claims to do X cannot possibly be binding, any more than arbitrary commands that I happened to issue to my neighbors.) Call this the constitutional natural law.

Now, there are other senses of the word "natural law." For example, "natural law" is sometimes used to refer to the universal or general empirical truths about nature, which we discover through observation and reasoning. But this is only "law" in an analogical sense, and thus competing claims such as "Homosexuality isn't found anywhere in nature!" and "Homosexuality is found everywhere in nature!" have to do with "natural law" in the scientific sense, but not in the constitutional sense. Call this the scientific natural law.

Finally, claims about whether homosexuality or contraception violate or pervert the natural form of life that humans enjoy, and whether or not this entails that they are wrong, could be said to fall under a normative meaning of "natural law." But they don't fall under the strict constitutional meaning that I mentioned above; they have to do with what it may be right or wrong to do, not what you do or don't have the right to claim authority to make people do. Call this the moral natural law.

So I'd suggest that folks who want to appeal to the moral natural law, but also want their appeals to have direct bearing on questions of what laws can be legitimately enforced (e.g. whether we should treat sodomy or contraception as a crime), are either just equivocating between the moral and constitutional senses of "natural law," or else hiding a premise that moves from the claim about virtue and vice to a further claim about the legitimacy of a particular claim of authority.

It's possible to mount an argument like this. For example, if you're a particular kind of Catholic you might suggest that the use of contraception (for example) violates the natural law because it involves an attempt to usurp the rightful Lordship of God (and thus ought to be prohibited by statute). If someone offers an argument like this, then there are at least three possible responses: (1) you can deny that contraception attempts to usurp God's authority; (2) you can deny, as a matter of natural law, that human rulers have the rightful authority to try to enforce God's prerogatives on their fellow creatures; (3) you can deny that God exists, and thus that She has any authority to usurp. I'll leave it up to the reader which, if any, is the best tack to take; the important point here is that rational conversation can continue; it doesn't just devolve into bludgeoning each other with conflicting intuitions about the content of the natural law.

Incidentally, you mention that you don't think the Declaration "can ... be proven like 2+2=4." I take it you mean the foundational claim that "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. [etc.]" Maybe these claims and the following admit of proof, and maybe they do not; but Jefferson, at least, wouldn't consider that a criticism. He states, after all, that they are self-evident, and thus suggests that they need no further proof, that they recommend themselves to sober reflection just as they are without prior argument.

DSH said...

I concede I over-condensed G.E.Moore, and you rightly identify him and his notion of the naturalistic fallacy as more concerned with "the good" than the "is" vs. "ought" distinction. It's good to bring this point out, although I'm not sure what it adds. Two caveats: (1) The naturalistic fallacy, despite Moore's locus on "the good," almost always refers to Hume's fact/value dichotomy. Whether this is etiologically sound, I defer. (2) Moore was vitriolic in his contempt for the natural law, for simplicity's sake = Suarez's account, but I agree it wasn't his locus. (See, Chap. IV of PE). I concede I have no use for Moore's or Murdock's locus on the "good" for the same reason I can't get my arms around "justifiable." What in the world can "good" possibly identify that's ethically meaningful?

Important: Don't confuse Strauss's "natural rights" for "natural law."

Which raises the issue of "natural law." The Stoics, Aquinas, Suarez, Locke, et alia, all had slightly different versions of it. The Founders only had in mind Locke's concept. But it's news to me that Aristotle subscribed to the "natural law." Indeed, Aristotleans use it "as if" it was indigenous to Aristotle, but I could not find a single reference IN Aristotle where he used it in terms of ethics. Perhaps you could point the way. My understanding, perhaps corrupt, is that natural law's aetiology was the Stoics, many centuries later, which was the original piggyback of "lessons from nature" onto "ethics." Aquinas, to me, at least partially redeems the theory by his locus of the natural law in reason (ST, I-II, 94, ii). But as I wrote, he uses Aristotle's archaic "four causes," esp. final cause, to apply it. Where does that get us? The penis/vagina example is directly from Aquinas. So, maybe "reason" was intended to be the equivalence, but when it came to application, Aquinas did the very same thing as Suarez (probably vice versa; otherwise an anachronism).

Other than Finnis, Grisez, Boyle, and George, what other philosopher, American or Continental, accepts natural law? Roger Scruton, a likely candidate, certainly doesn't. A few Thomists, perhaps (e.g., Maritain). Otherwise the slate is clean. I admit that teleology is useful, when applied to production of human artefacts. But other than Aristotleans and Thomists, who seriously applies "natural" teleology to ethics?

On the issue of homosexuality, see my 3/8 post.

Re: the "self-evident" postulates of Jefferson, see my review of Thomas Reid's philosophy on Jefferson's "self evidence" is an appeal to authority; if there's an "argument" in the classical sense, I couldn't find it. Sometimes, one must just claim "self evident" as a first principle. Reid is guilty of finding more "first principles" than Carter has pills, which dilutes the whole concept of first principles and self evidence. Oh, how different the world would be if Descartes simply admitted the veridicality of sensory experience? And the "Ghost in the Machine" he bequeathed is only recently overcome.

Re: Wittgenstein, see David Stern (reviewed on Personally, I find most LW incoherent. Even the "themes" he's credited with are not powerhouse issues for me. The Humanities, conversely, adore him (after the Frankfurt School and Derrida). E.g., Altieri, "Act and Quality" and most issues of "New Literary History," esp. Vol. 24, No. 3.

I truly appreciate the feedback.

Charles Johnson (Rad Geek) said...

DSH: I concede I over-condensed G.E.Moore, and you rightly identify him and his notion of the naturalistic fallacy as more concerned with "the good" than the "is" vs. "ought" distinction. It's good to bring this point out, although I'm not sure what it adds.

My primary point is that you are running together three different issues that are in fact separate (the alleged naturalistic fallacy, the alleged is-ought gap, and the alleged fact-value distinction). Speaking as if they are all the same thing drastically oversimplifies intellectual history -- which is a problem for you, specifically, because a lot of the argumentative force throughout your remarks rests on appeals to an alleged consensus among philosophers about what has been proven, demonstrated, is plausible, etc. You need to be much more careful if you are going to try to rest on these kinds of appeals to the consensus of philosophers rather than a critical explanation of some particular argument or another.

My secondary point is that you're mischaracterizing Moore's view. Moore does not accept the "fact-value" distinction. He considers "X is good (as an end)" to be a statement of fact which is either true or false, depending on whether or not X has or has not got the objective property of intrinsic goodness, and he took ethics to be a theoretical science that aims at asserting all those propositions about goodness that agree with the facts and denying all those that do not. He considered this property to be "non-natural" (which he characterizes in PE 26 as meaning that it does not exist in time and is not an object of study for the natural sciences or psychology). He was rather famous for believing this in the early 20th century because many other philosophers (emotivists, prescriptivists, other objectivists who were mystified by what "non-natural" properties were, etc.) disagreed with him. In PE he spends a bit of time on the objectivity of the good; in Ethics he spends two long (and very good) chapters on it. This isn't a matter of "over-condensation" on your part; you just stated something about his view and his arguments that is flatly false.

It's also specifically important to recognize that Moore's discussion in PE Chapter I is focused on an issue of definition and not of inference because both the characterization of the fallacy that Moore offers and the argument that he gives for its fallaciousness depend on a particular view of language and definition (specifically, the idea that all terms are either simple or complex, with simple terms admitting of no definition and complex terms being definable entirely in terms of simple terms) that has been widely criticizedin Analytic philosophy since 1903 (Wittgenstein was one of the first to criticize it; see the remarks on the Theatetus in PI 46 et seq). Unless you intend for your comments to turn on an extremely controversial view of language now regarded by many philosophers as outmoded and wildly oversimplified, you're better off sticking to Hume's authority and not Moore's.

DSH: (2) Moore was vitriolic in his contempt for the natural law, for simplicity's sake = Suarez's account, but I agree it wasn't his locus. (See, Chap. IV of PE).

I don't know where you're finding this in Chapter IV, which deals with what Moore calls "Metaphysical Ethics" and explicitly distinguishes from "Naturalistic Ethics" (with which he deals in Chapter II and Chapter III). In PE 74-76 he accuses Kant of confusedly treating moral laws as if they were (1) analogous to "natural laws" (which Moore consistently uses to mean a universal truth about what in fact happens in nature) and (2) analogous to laws in the legal sense of command. The closest he comes to any discussion of natural law theory (vitriolic, contemptuous, or otherwise) is his discussion of Stoic ethics (along with a mention of Rousseau) in PE 27). But his objection here has nothing to do with a fact-value distinction; it has to do with a spat over the meaning of the term "natural" (and one in which I think Moore is actually rather obviously being unfair to the target of his criticism).

DSH: I concede I have no use for Moore's or Murdock's locus on the "good" for the same reason I can't get my arms around "justifiable." What in the world can "good" possibly identify that's ethically meaningful?

Well, Moore's answer would be that it identifies goodness, and there's an end on't. His suggestion is that you either grasp the concept or you don't, and if you don't, there isn't anything he can to do explain it to you, other than to keep pointing to cases and hoping that you begin to cotton on to it.

Whether Moore is right about this or not, the important question for you is, why would you invoke Moore's authority if you think that he is fundamentally wrong? Why mention the naturalistic fallacy if its explicit concern (the meaning of the term "good") is something that you have no use for and doubt the meaningfulness of?

DSH: Important: Don't confuse Strauss's "natural rights" for "natural law."

The notion of "natural rights" is not limited to Strauss or Straussians. (Strauss actually is primarily concerned with tracing the idea of "natural right," singular, which he identifies with the tradition of "natural law.") The phrase "natural rights" was used extensively before Strauss hit the English-speaking intellectual scene; for a few aleatory examples of pre-Straussian and non-Straussian usages, see Sam Adams (1772), New Hampshire state constitution (1783), T. H. Huxley (1890), H.L.A. Hart's "Are There Any Natural Rights?" Philosophical Review 64 (1955), etc. Jefferson's claim of "inalienable" or "inherent and inalienable" rights with which we are endowed by virtue of our equal creation is generally taken to have been considered straightforwardly synonymous with a doctrine of "natural rights" (as mentioned by Adams et al.) in the milieu in which Jefferson was writing.

DSH: Which raises the issue of "natural law." The Stoics, Aquinas, Suarez, Locke, et alia, all had slightly different versions of it.

Very different, actually; Locke's view, in particular, represents a radical departure.

DSH: But it's news to me that Aristotle subscribed to the "natural law."

I don't think I claimed that he did. What I said is that he claims to ground ethics in (a particular sort of) natural facts, which is a different claim (a very different one, actually). The most famous text in regard to this claim is probably NE I.7, where Aristotle suggests that eudaimonia, and thus a characterization of the good, is to be found by considering the characteristic function of a human being. For a good overview of how this connects with the notions of ends and nature, in Aristotle's ethical, political, and physical writing, see e.g. SEP on "Presuppositions of Aristotle's Politics", and follow the citations from there.

DSH: Other than Finnis, Grisez, Boyle, and George, what other philosopher, American or Continental, accepts natural law? Roger Scruton, a likely candidate, certainly doesn't. A few Thomists, perhaps (e.g., Maritain). Otherwise the slate is clean. I admit that teleology is useful, when applied to production of human artefacts. But other than Aristotleans and Thomists, who seriously applies "natural" teleology to ethics?

Putting it this way is rather like saying, "Other than Kantians, who seriously suggests that the universalizability of a moral principle is an important criterion of rightness?" "Aristotelians and Thomists" include many important and well-respected writers on moral philosophy. Some prominent recent examples include Philippa Foot (cf. Natural Goodness), G.E.M. Anscombe (cf. "On Promising and its Justice"), Michael Thompson (cf. "The Representation of Life"), etc. (Note also that although each of these writers is explicitly interested in reviving ideas that they identify with Aristotle, they are not primarily identified as "Aristotelians" or "Thomists." (They are more influenced by Frege and Wittgenstein than by the Thomist tradition, for one.)

A prominent example popular amongst libertarians, if not widely read elsewhere, would be Lysander Spooner (cf. "Natural Law, or the Science of Justice," "Letter to Bayard," etc.), who is not particularly indebted to either the Philosopher or to St. Thomas.

Of course, even if nobody at all in contemporary philosophy advocated the idea, it might still very well be true. But I don't think that you have the right to appeal to philosophical consensus here, anyway.

DSH: Re: Wittgenstein, see David Stern (reviewed on Personally, I find most LW incoherent. Even the "themes" he's credited with are not powerhouse issues for me. The Humanities, conversely, adore him (after the Frankfurt School and Derrida).

So do a number of prominent Analytic philosophers (Putnam, Armstrong, Hacker, Cavell, Conant, Diamond, Foot, Kripke, etc.). Anyway, you're entitled to your opinion of L.W., but if you find him incoherent and do not care about the things that he's publicly identified with, why bring him up at all? You're the one who invoked his authority, not I. The problem is that he clearly does not say what you suggest he says.

DSH: Re: the "self-evident" postulates of Jefferson, see my review of Thomas Reid's philosophy on Jefferson's "self evidence" is an appeal to authority; if there's an "argument" in the classical sense, I couldn't find it.

You're missing the point. Jefferson does not intend to give an argument, from authority or otherwise. If you hold a truth to be self-evident then you are holding that it needs no argument of any kind, because it recommends itself just as it is. (For useful discussion, see also Moore, in PE 86.) Maybe you think they're not self-evident; maybe you think Jefferson needs to give some further argument that they are self-evident, or at least some explanation. But then that's a different sort of complaint. (How are we supposed to identify the claims that are self-evident and distinguish them from the ones that aren't? Well, I don't know, but Jefferson wasn't intending to write a declaration on epistemology anyway, so I'm not sure he can be faulted for not discussing the topic.)

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