Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Reinventing on the Fly

Discussions of Natural Law on the web can seem hair-raisingly complicated, despite the rather strong and persuasive presentation in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (SEP) (link): it argues that St. Thomas Aquinas presents the central case, these days, and that other theories may be judged by reference to him—some deviating, others approximating his theory. The pertinent words come from the article’s first paragraph. To give this a succinct summary, here is the lead paragraph on the subject from the Catholic Encyclopedia (link):

In English this term [Natural Law] is frequently employed as equivalent to the laws of nature, meaning the order which governs the activities of the material universe. Among the Roman jurists natural law designated those instincts and emotions common to man and the lower animals, such as the instinct of self-preservation and love of offspring. In its strictly ethical application—the sense in which this article treats it—the natural law is the rule of conduct which is prescribed to us by the Creator in the constitution of the nature with which He has endowed us.

I rather like this, particularly the grounding of this law in human nature—which in turn is grounded in God’s dispensation. The ability to discern the requirements of Natural Law are assigned to human powers of reasoning and, of course, observation.

The chief feature of this law, therefore, is that it is grounded in a reality above that of Nature, as that word is commonly used. Therefore, it seems to me, acceptance of this theory—namely the existence of a moral order that is innately present in the human soul, although, of course, in an undeveloped form until reason is trained to discern and to apply it—is incompatible with positivistic or naturalistic theories which deny any reality beyond that which is physically discernible. In those ranges concepts like pragmatism (it’s good if it works) and consequentialism (it’s good if the consequences are) rule. Now as for the judgement of what constitutes the good, that becomes a matter of subjective or consensual perception. One might add to this, of course, that principles, as such—thus founding, basic, absolute ideas—also require the same kind of ultimately divine grounding.

My looking at this difficult subject was caused by mentioning Natural Law the other day in the context of war, specifically the looming attacks on Syria. The aim of this policy is obviously to achieve some good. The problem with it is that while the object is good—stopping chemical warfare—the circumstances surrounding this act are much too complex and in conflict with other lawful objectives. SEP cites Aquinas’ argument for comprehensiveness. Any act, to be conformant to Natural Law, must have the right object or purpose; but it must also have a meaningful end; and it must discern and consider all of the circumstances involved.  The means used to achieve the end, one might add, must be appropriate. And the actor must have standing in the matter—which involves the laws of war.

Any international policy in which the broad contexts are ignored to achieve some limited end may be pragmatically desirable but are unjustified under Natural Law. The narrow good to be achieved may be totally swamped by the bad that is the secondary consequence of that action. It amazed me this morning to hear John Boehner justifying the Syrian attack by saying that it will send a message to our enemies, probably meaning Iran. When there is no guiding center to our thought, reinventing motives on the fly becomes the chief art of politics.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for illuminating these two aspects or definitions of the term "Natural Law". Often hard to know which is used by a speaker or writer unless we know him or her better, not just casually knowing or meeting that person for the first time. "Sending messages", no matter their righteous tone or hoped-for outcomes, cannot be viewed as serious or principled either by the intended addressee or most others.


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