Saturday, December 26, 2009

Sullivan Responds to the "New" Natural Law:

Andrew Sullivan responds to a New York Times piece on Princeton's Robert P. George, particularly on George's defense of the "new natural law." Sullivan has written at great length in books Virtually Normal and The Conservative Soul on the Aristotelian-Thomistic sexual ethic that has long anathematized homosexuals. I think he does a good job arguing for an alternative Aristotelian "natural essentialism" that finds a place for homosexuals in the natural order of things. (Of course most "serious thinkers" reject that there are essences found in nature; and that's why so few of them engage Dr. George's theory other than to dismiss it out of hand as nonsense on stilts.)

Sullivan also kindly links to a post I did where I reported discussing the differences between the new and old natural law with Dr. George at Princeton.

The relevant part of what I wrote in that post follows:

Robert P. George was nice enough to take the time and give me a detailed answer explaining the difference between the old natural law and the new. We discussed Andrew Sullivan's use of a blog post by Ed Feser which seemed to perfectly capture the traditional Aristotelian-Thomistic view of natural sexual practices. So Sullivan, in his new book, ends up using Feser as a proxy for the natural law view of sex which the Roman Catholic Church has long embraced. He then gets slammed by among others George, Feser, Ramesh Ponnuru for not understanding the difference between Feser's Aristotelian-Aquinas understanding of the natural law and George's. To which I asked "how many Aristotelian-Aquinas" natural law theories can there be? A bit of a rhetorical question.

But George did go into detail in answering my question. The bottom line as I understood, Feser's understanding is closest to Thomas' original and doesn't admit to any "inputs" but rather argues these principles can be determined from looking to nature via reason period. That leaves this theory perhaps vulnerable to what some term the "naturalistic fallacy." George's "new" natural law is more willing to admit to certain "inputs" that support its conclusion. I asked him whether the Bible was one of those "inputs" to which he gave an emphatic NO. Not that he had any hostility to the Bible (obviously as a devout Roman Catholic he does not). But the POINT of natural law since Aquinas was to be able to demonstrate these transcendent truths from reason-nature alone.

And here is Sullivan's response (in part; you'll have to read the whole post for the rest):

On marriage, it seems to me that George is right about something: heterosexual intercourse within marriage that begets children is a vital, sacred, wondrous and central fact of human life. I've never doubted that. I've never even argued that the sacrament of matrimony in Catholic tradition could be anything but heterosexual. Where I differ most from George is how one approaches the diversity of nature around this central - and largely civil - human institution.

George is selectively flexible on this (for an online discussion, see Jon Rowe's post here). He can see oral sex, for example, as okay even if it is not procreative, as long as it is somehow integrated into the procreative, i.e. foreplay. He is even prepared to endorse the sex lives of the infertile or post-menopausal, although both groups obviously have no natural way to procreate by sex. Why? Because they are engaging in something he calls "procreative in form," as long as he is on top and rubber-free. If it looks like heterosexual procreation, even if it actually isn't, it's kosher. Maybe if a man and a man had sex with one dressed as a woman and retained rigid gender roles, they might squeak through George's "procreative in form" loophole. But one suspects the loophole is there not to express compassion for the straight but to retain an iron-clad exclusion for the gay.

If the whole thing sounds like convenient sophistry to you, you're not alone.

Sullivan's response is important in two respects:

1) He addresses the natural lawyers' assertion that oral sex in marriage can sometimes be "natural." Previously (for instance, in TCS) Sullivan assumed Aristotelian-Aquinas natural law forbade such (I assumed it too). And it's easy to see how he would assume such a thing. These naturalistic arguments oft-reduce to designs of the body (as the former Pope once put it, the "theology of the body," one might put a "teleology of the body"). We've oft-heard it asserted men are designed for women -> penis is designed for vagina -> as it were, sperm designed for egg. Any break in the chain is equally unnatural. Hence contraception, even in marriage, is as unnatural as homosexuality. It follows then that mouth was not designed for genitalia (just as, some argue, anus is not designed for genitalia). Unless of course you can make such acts "fit" with sperm's natural end of fertilizing egg as some natural lawyers do. That's something where marital oral sex could work in a way that anal probably could not.

2) Sullivan addresses the natural lawyers response to post-menopausal sex within marriage. If one looks for an exception to the "sex is exclusively about procreation" rule, it's hard to explain why infertile couples should be permitted to have sex. Well, the natural lawyers have their way of making THAT kind of sex, "procreative."

These debates are like a game of intellectual ping pong. Once the natural lawyers assert post-menopausal sex is procreative in principle as long as the husband continues to plant his seed inside his wife's womb, there's really not much more to remark than either, yeah that makes sense, or no, that sounds like sophistry.


Tom Van Dyke said...

I think he does a good job arguing for an alternative Aristotelian "natural essentialism"

It appears to me that Sullivan commits the "naturalistic fallacy" instead.

As for George's "new" natural law, I believe the difference is that it doesn't depend on metaphysics whereas Feser's classic Aristotelian-Thomism does. Feser argues that the George-John Finnis version simply doesn't work philosophically, I believe because A-T natural law depends on telos, a natural end, and that's metaphysics. [If I understand the squabble correctly.]

George's sexual ethics might depend on purpose, however, as does the Dalai Lama's.

Regardless, I don't think Sully's in the ballpark. He may reject A-T natural law, but he can't defeat it on its own grounds. That man has a desire to do x does not make it inherently good. Natural law at its heart demands that right reason master the panoply of man's passions, and direct them toward the good.

Jonathan Rowe said...

It could be that Sullivan's theory commits the naturalistic fallacy. But, as most of our Humean friends would argue, nomoreso than George's or Feser's.

BTW: Here is the passage, if you don't remember, in Virtually Normal, where Sullivan argues his Aristotelian-Thomistic alternative in favor of homosexuality. Again, as far as I understand, Sullivan posits this as a rational alternative to -- not as something that necessarily defeats -- the traditional conclusions of Aristotle and Thomas.

But all these arguments are arguments for the centrality of heterosexual sexual acts in nature, not their exclusiveness. It is surely possible to concur with these sentiments, even to laud their beauty and truth, while also conceding that it is nevertheless also true that nature seems to have provided a spontaneous and mysterious contrast that could conceivably be understood to complement — even dramatize — the central male-female order. In many species and almost all human cultures, there are some who seem to find their destiny in a similar but different sexual and emotional union. They do this not by subverting their own nature, or indeed human nature, but by fulfilling it in a way that doesn’t deny heterosexual primacy, but rather honors it by its rare and distinct otherness. As albinos remind us of the brilliance of color; as redheads offer a startling contrast to the blandness of their peers; as genius teaches us, by contrast, the virtue of moderation; as the disabled person reveals to us in negative form the beauty of the fully functioning human body; so the homosexual person might be seen as a natural foil to the heterosexual norm, a variation that does not eclipse the theme, but resonates with it. Extinguishing — or prohibiting — homosexuality is, from this point of view, not a virtuous necessity, but the real crime against nature, a refusal to accept the pied beauty of God’s creation, a denial of the way in which the other need not threaten, but may actually give depth and contrast to the self.

This is the alternative argument embedded in the Church’s recent grappling with natural law, that is just as consonant with the spirit of natural law as the Church’s current position. It is more consonant with what actually occurs in nature; seeks an end to every form of natural life; and upholds the dignity of each human person. It is so obvious an alternative to the Church’s current stance that it is hard to imagine the forces of avoidance that have kept it so firmly at bay for so long.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Whenever someone uses the word "obvious," it's surely not obvious.

One cannot argue Hume against Aristotle, of course, the former's vocabulary self-limits itself from anything but the material. They talk past each other.

As logical as Sullivan's above-excerpted argument might be, it fails as a natural law argument ---which is his purpose, to defeat George or Feser [Sully has been accused, probably rightfully, of conflating the "new" and the traditional versions] on their home ground---because natural law is conceived as a universal law, applicable to every person. There cannot be gay and straight versions. [Even Kant argues for universals---it's not peculiar to natural law theory.]

However, unsaid in all this is that George conquers a major hurdle by arguing this "new" natural law, which claims to depend on neither revelation nor metaphysics---it obviates the charge that this traditional sexual ethics is religion-based, and therefore perhaps runs afoul of the First Amendment.

The argument must then shift to the "you can't legislate morality" argument, which as you know, I argue we legislate morality all the time [see Michael Vick].

Jonathan Rowe said...

One cannot argue Hume against Aristotle, of course, the former's vocabulary self-limits itself from anything but the material. They talk past each other.

Well I think one can argue Hume against Aristotle only in the sense that Hume may be right, or not.

It's not my call to dismiss natural law as violating the is/ought gap or naturalistic fallacy; but, my mind is open to the notion that Hume et al. are right.

There cannot be gay and straight versions.

I agree completely and I think Sullivan doe as well. Since gender differences are at the heart of this dispute, asserting Sullivan's theory posits a "gay" natural law v. a "straight" natural law is like saying George et al. posit a "male" natural law v. a "female" natural law. Ditto with a black/white/asian/latino version of the natural law. With all, the same moral rules apply. Men/women, gay/straights, black/white/asian/latino are all commanded to and forbidden from doing X on equal terms.

And you know I (and a lot of other libertarians) don't argue the "you can't legislate morality" strawman line. However, I do defend the notion that it's a terrible terrible idea to try and legislate any comprehensive system of morality. And THAT'S where libertarianism proves the most superior, in principle, political system: It posits a lowest common denominator moral system that gets legislated that all sane folks believe in and nothing more.

Tom Van Dyke said...

And THAT'S where libertarianism proves the most superior, in principle, political system: It posits a lowest common denominator moral system that gets legislated that all sane folks believe in and nothing more.

Nah, that's making relativism the prevailing philosophy, and is no less coercive, that the Constitution demands society's abandoment of all ethos [ethoi].

As for separate male-female natural laws, perhaps there's something there, but if there is, gender differences cannot be reassigned as abstract concepts; they must have some foundation in actual nature, i.e., in actual gender.

Hume might be right, I dunno. My point [made at PL more clearly with the add of a couple words] is that George's critics of his philosophical truth cannot insist on their truth as self-evident anymore than he can insist on his.

What they cannot do is steamroll over his truth with theirs, or with relativism's version of uncertainty, for no attempt at diving or legislating moral good is anymore self-evident than another, whether it's Michael Vick or a "right" to health insurance.

The uncertainty swings both ways. This does not demand we abandon the attempt to order society toward any "good" that's not material. That's begging the question in favor of Hume.

Hume might be wrong, too, and the very fact that man asks questions that rise above [transcend?] simple material concerns suggests that those questions are valid. Dawkins might dismiss them as "memes," but again that begs the question.

Jonathan Rowe said...


I don't quite get how libertarianism's lowest common denominator of minimalistic moral assertion = relativism.

This is not relativism: This is unbridled moral assertion of certain principles (i.e., don't steal, don't harm, and don't deceive in the business context, along with the idea that political liberty is sacred in metaphysical-like sense).

Relativism, as I understand it, means we can't morally distinguish between George Washington and Hitler. Each simply represented the political expression of different "values," neither of which can be "judged" as superior to the other, just relative.

One major appeal of libertarianism, as I see it, is how it makes room for otherwise competing comprehensive worldviews that potentially could have the purveyors of which fighting wars -- whether metaphorical or real -- with one another.

Feser used to be a libertarian but then went off on a riff on how libertarianism is not "neutral" as it claims (or as some have claimed, or as Feser may originally have thought it was).

Well, libertarianism certainly isn't "neutral" on force, fraud, property rights, or political liberty.

But beyond that it permits a theoritical political world where a fundametnalist can be a good fundamentalist and a gay can be a good gay without stepping on one another's toes in the legal world. It does forbid, however the religious conservative and the gay from using the organs of the state to enforce their comprehensive worldviews.

And that I think became Feser's problem with libertarianism. He, somewhere along the line, concluded that he and his had to use the organs of the state to enforce his political-moral worldview and then went on this quest to debunk libertarianism's "neutrality."

Tom Van Dyke said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tom Van Dyke said...

It does forbid, however the religious conservative and the gay from using the organs of the state to enforce their comprehensive worldviews.

Surely you jest, Jon. The only question today is whether the "libertarian" view will gain control of the organs of the state to force their "lowest common denominator" upon the underlying society.

For the determination of what is the LCD never be "neutral," it cannot escape being value-driven. Feser is quite correct that to pretend otherwise is dishonest, and illogical.