Monday, May 23, 2005

Reactions to Natural Law Post:

I'm glad my last post on Feser and the Natural Law generated such interest. Ed Brayton linked to it and very good comments were made on both my and Brayton's posts. Feser left a comment on Brayton's post and some of our commenters have left comments on the original thread at Right Reason. In addition Feser just posted a second very detailed continuation on this theme.

In particular, read what Dr. David Mazel had to say. I don't agree with Mazel's point of view in its entirety, but he's real good nonetheless. Here is what he said on my blog:

Actually, Feser's articulation of the natural law theory is NOT coherent. It's arrogant theistic crap that falls apart even if one accepts its premises. Its apparent coherence is largely rhetorical, not logical. Consider the analogy with the screwdriver: it supports Feder's argument only if in fact a thing's "purpose" is always and necessarily singular. A screwdriver may be designed to serve a single end, but that hardly means all tools are so designed. The internal combustion engine is used mainly to power automobiles, but it was hardly intended only to do so; it is also pretty useful for powering lawnmowers, generators, and backhoes. And if I use an engine to power a backhoe I cannot for that time also use it to power a forklift.

Feder's claim that nonprocreative sex is "contrary to" the intended use of the sexual organs--in the sense that secondary uses preclude some primary use--is obviously and empirically false. It's perfectly possible for someone to have lots of nonprocreative sex AND to have as many children as the next couple. It only takes an occasional act of procreative sex to do the trick. And consider the case of a husband and wife who continue to have sex after the wife is pregnant--clearly no additional pregnancy can result from such sex. Does the Church consider such sex sinful? If it does, then why did God make us so that we continue to get horny in such circumstances? Feser might argue, somewhat more sensibly, that it's wrong to have sex without EVER having children, or without having LOTS of children--but that is not the same as making the more puritanical argument against non-procreative sex per se. It is an argument against failing to produce children, which is not the same as an argument against non-procreative sex.

It's easy to find examples where we use an organ for purposes contrary to its "intended" use--in the sense that such uses preclude a primary use--yet without incurring any moral fault. When children close their eyes during a game of hide and seek, they cannot see--they contravene the "intended" use of their eyes--yet they are hardly being sinful in doing so. Instead, they are momentarily contravening the use of those organs in order to have a little fun. If that's not wrong--and I would assume Feser is not ready to declare the game of hide and seek to be sinful--then why is it so wrong when a couple plays a grown-up game that involves temporarily using its sex organs for pleasure rather than procreation? (I can play the analogy game too.)

Also, how narrowly do we define "purpose"? If we follow the biblical story of Onan (one of the most persistently and egregiously misread stories in all of scripture), we might conclude that his "sin," for which he supposedly paid with his life, was not coitus interruptus per se (and certainly not masturbation), but more narrowly his failure to produce an heir for his dead brother. If he had produced such an heir and only afterward engaged in coitus interruptus, would it have been a sin? Who knows? Where the scripture itself is silent, as in this case, ideology is sure to chime in....

Of course, the legal and social contexts within which the Onan story once made sense no longer obtain. Could it not be that something's "intended purpose" changes with changes in the context of its use? If you buy the counterargument that religion is committed to "timeless, unchanging values," I've got a bridge to sell you. Remember that the Church once used the same "natural law" crap to argue against charging interest for loans.

As for Max Goss, it is indeed possible that the sex organs were intended to have more than one use. He is still unnecessarily puritanical, however, for he refuses to acknowledge the possibility that his God might have intended for humans to experience pleasure more generally as a good in its own right. Was that in fact God's intention? Again, who can but God himself? It's really difficult in some cases to ascertain just what something's intended use might be--unless, of course, you're as comfortable as our more arrogant theists are at reading the Mind of God.

And here is one of his comments from Brayton's blog:

In his comment above, Feser writes that "The point of the of the post was to clear up some common misunderstandings of what traditional natural law theory says." Yet in his original post at Right Reason he said that his aim was ALSO to show that his version of natural law "is at least a coherent theory."

Yet it is clearly NOT a coherent theory, at least in the sense that accepting Feser's stated premises leads inevitably to his stated conclusions. One can very easily accept his premises yet come to conclusions that are just as plausible yet diametrically opposed.

Let us accept Feser's premises about form, teleology, etc. Let us also accept that something can have more than one intended purpose--somethin Feser admits when he says the penis is designed for both procreation and urination. (I should point out here that despite this admission Feser's language suggests that he doesn't really believe it. He consistently uses singular pronouns and articles in reference to purpose, as if things typically have a SINGLE purpose--an utterly unwarranted assumption, and one that deeply colors his beliefs.)

Let us assume in particular the idea that real world objects, whether squirrels or human beings, are more or less imperfect instantiations of platonic Forms. Let us assume further that, for human beings at least, morality consists primarily of acting in ways that further, or at least do not frustrate, the ends implicit in these Forms.

But wait. Is there really just a single "human" Form? Or are there in fact two human ideals, one male and one female? A fair reading of a broad swath of conservative thinking would suggest the latter: there is Man, and there is Woman, and a man's moral duty is to strive to realize the formal essence of Man, and a woman's moral duty is to strive to realize the formal essence of Woman. (Of course, I don't believe this crap myself--I'm just trying to work with Feser's natural law premises.)

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.

I don't necessarily expect to see Feser marching in a gay pride parade, but it would certainly be immoral for him to actively frustrate gay and lesbian efforts to realize their full potential as gays and lesbians--say, by opposing gay marriage. Feser might not like this conclusion, but hey--it's not my fault his theory is so incoherent.

At this point Feser might interject that the homosexual is not a Form of its own but rather a defective version of Man. He's free to do that, but if he does so he is not using natural law to prove the defectiveness of the homosexual; rather he is building that defectiveness into his theory as one of its unstated premises. The inferiority of the homosexual would not then be based on reason, and certainly not "right" reason; it would be plain bias.

My purpose thus far has been to show that one can start from Feser's premises and reach conclusions just as plausible as, yet diametrically opposed to, his own. In that sense he is wrong to claim that his theory is consistent.

There is also, of course, the question of the truth of natural law's premises. Feser illustrates one of those premises with the example of a squirrel. There is such a thing, we are told, as an ideal Squirrel, and the squirrelness of every actual squirrel is something it has "by virtue of participating in its form." Is this idea consistent with evolutionary fact? It's hard to see how it could be. Plato and Aquinas both adhered to the idea of Forms as timeless essences, which is pretty hard to square with the evolutionary fact that "squirrelness" is not eternal but historically contingent, in fact accidental. Are there a multiplicity of Forms out there that were instantiated by the squirrel's evolutionary forebears, but are now "empty," as it were? Are there a multiplicity of other Forms biding their time out there in the ether, waiting on the vanishingly slim chance that they might find themselves instantiated by one of the squirrel's evolutionary descendants, whatever it might be? I doubt that even Aristotle could reconcile natural law with the fact of evolution. Given his empirical turn of mind, it is far more likely he'd change his mind and line up with Darwin.

In summary, natural law is founded on false premises and is internally incoherent to boot. Other than that it's not a bad theory.

In addition, Mazel left other comments on Brayton's post and on Feser's original post in Right Reason.


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Roscoe said...

Anything can have a singular purpose, you just need to define all these other purposes in terms of a more general purpose. Essentially, a things purpose is to be the thing that it is, that's really the singular purpose. An internal combustion engine's purpose is to power stuff. In a sense, using it as a doorstop may be considered sinful.

The non-procreative sexual act itself is contrary to the intended use of the reproductive organs. The concept per se is not what is sinful, it is the act itself. So, yes, any sexual act that is not open to the possibility of procreation is sinful. It's not the children themselves that are the issue here, rather it is the unifying nature of sex. Moreover, no one ever said that something with a purpose must fulfill the purpose each time, only that it not act contrary to the purpose. And God gave us free will, by the way, so even though he gave us the desire we have the choice to think rationally and deem certain desires, such as horniness, as something that should be controlled (horniness cannot justify non-consensual sex even though it is a God given desire).

As for the eye thing, it's not entirely clear that a closed eye is not fulfilling its purpose. Clearly it still sees the back or your eyelid, there is just no light. In fact, one may say that the kid is acting all too in accordance with his eyelid's purpose of covering the eye.

In general, I disagree with Feser's split of a man and woman form, I think humans only have one form, that is humans. men have their own forms and women have their own. It does not imply a split in the human form.

In the end, your arguments are unsatisfactory to refute a theory of natural law. Moreover, you have shown no evidence for me to believe that it is absurd for a squirrel to have an endless form. The fact that animals before squirrels were different from squirrels does not imply that squirrelness wasn't around before squirrels came to being, after all, squirrelness is just a concept.