"There is always a philosophy for lack of courage."—Albert Camus

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Return to a Familiar Theme: The Natural Law

Friends, neighbors, TRC'ers, I have returned. Your faithful correspondent was back in Waco taking his doctoral preliminary exams.

I can report two things.

First, I have now equalled one Dick Cheney in terms of progress toward the Ph.D. He is ABD and so am I. (Cue the Bentsen-tribute where a ghostly voice reminds me that I'm no Dick Cheney.)

Second, the subject of the natural law came up in a talk with a friend. She is very passionate about the rights of illegal aliens, border issues, etc. I happened to know prior to the conversation that she considers herself a "nontheist." If I understand correctly, the word nontheist is being used by some to get away from the highly negative associations attached to the word atheist.

Anyway, I listened to her talk about the rights of various people and finally had to ask: "Where do those rights come from?"

She thought about it and said, "I think I'd go with the Constitution on that." (This would strike some as a bad response, but it isn't so wrong. Just because one doesn't have all the constitutional rights as with a youth, prisoner, or illegal alien, it doesn't mean one has no constitutional rights.)

I replied, "Those are just words on a piece of paper. They could easily say something else."

She then returned, "I can't see the answer being natural law."

Me: Why not? I have a friend from Nigeria and we agree on the essentials. Lying is wrong. Stealing is wrong. Murder is wrong. Unprovoked assault is wrong. Yet, we are on opposite sides of the globe. These notions seem to be built into the structure of reality.

She: But there have been people who sacrificed virgins!

Me: That doesn't do anything to undercut natural law.

She: Huh?

Me: The people who have sacrificed virgins have offered justifications for doing so. In fact, they offer an ultimate justification -- to satisfy a god. What would damage natural law thinking would be if they thought it wonderful to sacrifice virgins for no reason at all. They may be wrong about the justification, but they aren't wrong that one must have a good one before murdering innocent people.

And at that, we had to switch the subject because she did not wish to be converted to natural law any more than to Christianity.

56 comments:

Amy & Jordan said...

Hunter, part of why she broke off the conversation may be that she saw that once she admitted to the existence of a natural law, you could then ask, "What is the natural law grounded on?" For Aquinas, of course, the natural law is "the rational creature's participation of the eternal law" (ST II.91.2). And I don't know how you get an eternal law (and a natural law, therefore) without an eternal Lawgiver...and this eternal Lawgiver we call God. So her aversions to natural law and to Christianity are likely related, if not identical.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Very nice, HB. I have looked and looked in nontheistic thought and no one can answer where rights come from.

Moreover, kindness and specifically mercy are similarly without origin except in a beneficient natural law.

"It is part of the tradition of our community that the human stranger from whom all dignity has been stripped is to be taken in, to be reclothed with dignity. This Jewish and Christian element in our tradition is gratefully invoked by freeloading atheists like myself."---Richard Rorty, "Postmodern Bourgeois Liberalism."

A strict application of "justice" can never be unjust. Yet we ask more of ourselves. We forgive, we pardon, we parole. Why?

(And re sacrifice, I'm fond of pointing out that if Abraham actually kills Isaac, then there's a problem there. But it didn't go down that way.)

Kathy Hutchins said...

I have now equalled one Dick Cheney in terms of progress toward the Ph.D. He is ABD and so am I.

Hey, so am I! We should start a club.

When I started reading, though, I was afraid you were going to tell us you'd give someone in Waco a face full of birdshot.

Back to natural rights -- the only "nontheist" approach I can envisage is some sort of Randian attempt to harness it to the flourishing of the individual, flowing from our natures as men. I don't think you get very far with it, just as I think Rand's ethics are doomed in their conception, but I can't think of any other path to even try.

Tlaloc said...

"What would damage natural law thinking would be if they thought it wonderful to sacrifice virgins for no reason at all."

Those people exist, in our culture we call them sociopaths. Consider natural law damaged.



"They may be wrong about the justification, but they aren't wrong that one must have a good one before murdering innocent people."

You are playing with semantics here by not bothering to mention that the terms "innocent" and "human" were and are widely varied. Without a concrete underpining to these crucial terms your concrete natural law is so much putty.

For example consider feudal Japan in which the Heimin and Henin or Eta were killable by samurai for no reason whatsoever. They were simply regarded as non-human or at least less human.

Of course you can say that every culture respects the sanctity of human life if you allow the term human to mean "those lifes that are sacred from this culture's persepctive." But all you;ve established is a bit of circular reasoning and not immutable truth.

Hunter Baker said...

No, no, no. Bad, Tlaloc.

It is quite revealing that we consider the sociopath to be defective. They are lacking something. Call it a conscience. The very thing that we use to discern the natural law. What is damaged is the conscience, not the natural law.

On the issue of who is considered human. One might say some people delude themselves on that score and use it as an excuse for inhuman conduct. But when confronted by the reality, the treatment changes and relationships between humans fall under the natural law.

Tom Van Dyke said...

"Every being in the universe knows right from wrong."---Prot, Planet K-PAX

I hate quoting simplistic (albeit entertaining) movies, but I wonder if the bushido soldiers of the Empire of Japan knew in their heart of hearts that the Rape of Nanking was wrong, and the Bataan Death March, too.

I think they did. There's a natural law, and something in man's heart that resonates with it.

(Next Up: Quotes from Forrest Gump. Or not.)

Matt Huisman said...

But all you;ve established is a bit of circular reasoning and not immutable truth.

The one immutable truth associated with natural law is guilt. Guilt presses down on all of us, and it is not something that we can explain away as a societal or individual construct.

You may see our inability to come to precise agreement over what we 'owe' one another (in terms of respect, charity, justice, tolerance, etc.) as grounds for discrediting the natural law. However, I would suggest that these differences make perfect sense, and are primarily attributable to two things.

First, they highlight the (natural?) resistance each of us has to this law - for it very often not obviously in our own self-interest. Second, it is a reflection of the moral progress made by each society. With every societal advance (technical and moral) there always seems to be another, higher, standard to shoot for - and the fact is that we're not all progressing at the same pace.

Natural law can be nit-picked at the implementation level. But those who would deny it have a huge problem in trying to explain away guilt.

Tlaloc said...

"It is quite revealing that we consider the sociopath to be defective. They are lacking something. Call it a conscience. The very thing that we use to discern the natural law. What is damaged is the conscience, not the natural law."

Well of course we see them as defective. Based on our view of the universe they are missing something. Based on theirs we have a vestigial and useless extra appendage (the conscience). However tht in no way changes the fact that their very existence undermines the concept of natural law. A natural law afterall would have to be universal. If it is not present in 100% of sentient creatures it is not a natural law by definition. It is instead a subjective law. Maybe a common one, but subjective nonetheless.



"On the issue of who is considered human. One might say some people delude themselves on that score and use it as an excuse for inhuman conduct. But when confronted by the reality, the treatment changes and relationships between humans fall under the natural law."

And the reality is defined how exactly? You claim your view is reality but you can in no way prove this and their claim to reality is just as strong. All you've done here is reinforce the fact that your subjective views are just that: yours and subjective.

Can you prove to me that eta are human beings?

Tlaloc said...

"I think they did. There's a natural law, and something in man's heart that resonates with it."

Can you prove this contention? If not you have to acknowledge that it lies firmly in the realm of "faith" rather than "truth." Those realms may overlap but they also may not and they are certainly not identical.

Tlaloc said...

"The one immutable truth associated with natural law is guilt. Guilt presses down on all of us, and it is not something that we can explain away as a societal or individual construct."

Well not exactly. The afforementioned sociopath feels no guilt afterall.



"Natural law can be nit-picked at the implementation level. But those who would deny it have a huge problem in trying to explain away guilt. "

Guilt is a personal internal thing that absolutely varies from individual to individual. It is not identical in terms of what provokes it or how strongly it is provoked from one person to the next. And as above it is not present in all individuals.

So how exactly does it's existence promote the idea of a universal law?

Amy & Jordan said...

I think part of the confusion at least is the equivocal use of "guilt" in these comments. J. Budziszewski makes the important distinction between guilty feelings and guilty knowledge: "We sometimes imagine that to lack guilty feelings is to lack a conscience, but deep conscience is knowledge, not feelings, and guilty knowledge darkly asserts itself regardless o the state of the feelings" (What We Can’t Not Know: A Guide (Dallas: Spence Publishing, 2003, 81).

Matt Huisman said...

A natural law afterall would have to be universal. If it is not present in 100% of sentient creatures it is not a natural law by definition.

That is a truly remarkable standard. You’re saying that even though 99.9999% of society has this thing called a conscience, a few sociopaths disprove its universality?

This is not a matter of perspective. What outside observer would ever identify something that appears with that kind of frequency in a population as a vestigial appendage?

Guilt is a personal internal thing that absolutely varies from individual to individual.

And yet it is there for every individual. Why is that?

As for the variance from individual to individual, don’t we find this to be the case with virtually every other aspect of our biology? I’ll bet that you and I look nothing alike, and yet the similarities between us will be quite remarkable.

So how exactly does it's existence promote the idea of a universal law?

The existence of guilt (or a conscience) tells us that there is a standard for how we ought to behave. We don’t randomly feel guilty for no reason – we feel guilty when we know we have not done what we should.

Tlaloc said...

"That is a truly remarkable standard. You’re saying that even though 99.9999% of society has this thing called a conscience, a few sociopaths disprove its universality?"

If god only existed in 99.9999% of the universe would it still be god?



"This is not a matter of perspective. What outside observer would ever identify something that appears with that kind of frequency in a population as a vestigial appendage?"

Funny you mention that since virtually everyone has an appendix which is by definition a vestigial bit of flesh. Commonalities do not automatically mean that a thing is universal. It may instead simply point to the fact that the thing arises amongst a single species that already has a great deal in common.



"And yet it is there for every individual. Why is that?"

We already established that it is not in fact there for *every* individual.



"As for the variance from individual to individual, don’t we find this to be the case with virtually every other aspect of our biology?"

Yes but that doesn't matter since neither of us claims the human form is a natural law. All you've established here is that like everything else about us morality varies. That is entirely contrary to the concept of natural laws which suggests morality is external to us and immutable.



"The existence of guilt (or a conscience) tells us that there is a standard for how we ought to behave. We don’t randomly feel guilty for no reason – we feel guilty when we know we have not done what we should."

I agree but you'd have to furthermore prove that that standard is also universal in order for the example to support a natural law ideal. Without that you end up right where I am: believing each individual morality is entirely valid for the individual who holds it. Moral relativism.

example-
you claim there is a national speed limit. To support this you claim that drivers in every state obey a speed limit. Great but you haven't established that they all obey the same speed limit. And if they do not then the idea of a national speed limit is clearly false.

Now do you want to try and argue that every individual feels guilty for the same things? Even leaving the sociopaths out of it that's a proposition that would be nigh impossible to establish.

James Elliott said...

Sigh. What is it with Hunter and dead horses. Why must he beat them so?

"Love of ice cream is an absolute truth. Almost everyone loves it; who wouldn't? It's sweet, it's creamy, it's delicious! Clearly, those few who don't love ice cream must have something wrong with them; they are outside the norm of what I, and everyone I know, has experienced."

The "pathologization problem," as I put it, is one that has never been soundly answered except with an a priori acceptance of absolutism in morality. Dismissing contrary examples as pathological is an empty and dishonest tact.

Matt Huisman said...

If god only existed in 99.9999% of the universe would it still be god?

Bad analogy. The sociopaths are the exception that proves the rule. They don’t disprove natural law – they prove that mankind is frail. People are born with all sorts of ‘defects’, and the conscience suffers just like every other aspect of our being. In some cases, we’re born with no conscience – your beloved sociopath – just as some are born without arms. In the vast majority of cases, we’re born with a reasonably healthy conscience – which can be seen as a universal law receptacle/receiver – one that is not perfect, but has the potential for development or destruction.

I agree but you'd have to furthermore prove that that standard is also universal in order for the example to support a natural law ideal.

You raise a very important point, but I think it is a bit premature here. You don’t need to be able to prove or define every aspect of the natural law in order to know that something along those lines is there (and bears a strong resemblance from one culture to the next). Our inability to escape guilt is a strong enough indicator that there is such a standard – a good – out there independent from our physical reality. In order for there to be such a standard, there must be a standard giver – for the standard is obviously the work of design.

Now when we get to your point about proving the universality of this standard, it seems to me that what you really want to do is check to see if this natural law is in sync with any other forms of revelation we may have received about its source – the standard giver. This is where we start to question whether the truth claims made by the religious (and I’ll include the materialists here) align with what we understand about our world, including our conscience.

Now we're a long ways off from accepting one religion here or another. But as far as I can see, the atheistic explanations for guilt are extremely lacking.

Tlaloc said...

"Bad analogy. The sociopaths are the exception that proves the rule. They don’t disprove natural law – they prove that mankind is frail. People are born with all sorts of ‘defects’, and the conscience suffers just like every other aspect of our being."

No Matt. For natural law to be true that means it is external to men. No defect of man then can explain it's lack of existence within us. It has to be present in all of us. For natural law to be true sociopaths would have to have a conscience that they then ignore, but that is not the case. They quite simply do not have a conscience at all.

There is no way to square that with natural law which requires every human being to have an identical conscience.



"In some cases, we’re born with no conscience – your beloved sociopath – just as some are born without arms."

Are the presence of arms a natural law? No? Then how is it that you can euqte the two situations?
Again what you;ve done is support the idea that morality is an entirely internal matter, just like genes. Every human being on earth has a great similarity in genetic structure to every other human being. But this is not a function of natural law. It is a simple function of biology. It is not eternal, nor immutable. It may seem that way because of our limited perceptions but there is no capital T Truth in it.



"You raise a very important point, but I think it is a bit premature here. You don’t need to be able to prove or define every aspect of the natural law in order to know that something along those lines is there (and bears a strong resemblance from one culture to the next)."

I agree but you would have to be able to explain the counter-evidence, which it would seem you cannot.
Here is the hypothesis: there exists an external natural law upon which human morality is based.

An experiment to test this theory might look for an example of a human being who did not have a morality in concordance with everyone else's. Fortunately such an experiment is simplistic to run since there are umteen billion different cultrures on earth and no two have the same moral code. In fact at this moment there are 7 billion people on the planet and no two share an identical moral code. Similar certainly. But not identical. Without that there can be no natural law.



"Our inability to escape guilt is a strong enough indicator that there is such a standard – a good – out there independent from our physical reality."

Except that the reasons for feeling guilt are extremely varied and can be contradictory. One person may feel guilty that they did not rob the rich to feed the poor while the next feels guilty for the reverse. There is no agreement of morla laws, so how can there be an "independent good"?



"Now when we get to your point about proving the universality of this standard, it seems to me that what you really want to do is check to see if this natural law is in sync with any other forms of revelation we may have received about its source – the standard giver."

No I'm just trying to shopw you that this standard you claim clearly does not exist. It is a product of wishful thinking.

If god exists he did not program us to be moral.

Hunter Baker said...

Ice cream reminds me of the never met challenge issued earlier:

Can you discern a difference in these two statements?

1. Vanilla ice cream is better than chocolate.
2. Torturing an innocent child is wrong.

Do they both merely express a preference? Or is there something more to this natural law thing?

Tlaloc said...

"Do they both merely express a preference?"

They are both subjective. As the Spartans who treated their children in ways that we would certainly consider torture. Did they do it despite thinking it was wrong? No. They did it because they thought it good.

Were they right? Well for them, sure. For us? Not so much.

Hunter Baker said...

I think you are getting a leg up by insincerely substituting training for torture. I mean torture as in "not for the benefit of the person being tortured."

But let's try again a little more extreme and see if you stand pat:

1. Vanilla ice cream is better than chocolate.
2. Torturing children for fun is wrong.

Are we really just looking at two statements of preference? I don't think so, Rucy.

Matt Huisman said...

Every human being on earth has a great similarity in genetic structure to every other human being. But this is not a function of natural law. It is a simple function of biology. It is not eternal, nor immutable.

Which is why we can say that all men are designed to have arms. The fact that some don’t does not mean that this is not true, and those who don’t have arms are still called men. What basis do you have for saying that natural law must be understood in its entirety, by 100% of mankind, in order for it to be true?

You agree that it would have to exist independent of man, does it not follow then that each of us – with a unique individual makeup - would respond to it differently? We are not talking about something that presses down on us so hard that it controls our actions. We’re not determinists here – we have the ability to override, enhance, desensitize, etc. our conscience. But the fact that some level of guilt exists at all, completely distinct from what is in our interest, is really quite remarkable – and deserves an explanation.

Except that the reasons for feeling guilt are extremely varied and can be contradictory. One person may feel guilty that they did not rob the rich to feed the poor while the next feels guilty for the reverse.

Not really, both felt that they ‘ought’ to help the poor. Why should they feel that way? The fact that they struggled with how to go about doing so is an explicit acknowledgement that each man felt the pull of the moral law again.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Exactly, Mr. Huisman. The what is universal, the how is particular, each based on the individual's ability to see.

James Elliott said...

The natural law theorist operates on a basic, a priori assumption. He assumes that, because matter operates on certain “rules” – the positive and negative charges of protons and electrons, the speed of light, measurable half-lives of radioactive substances, mathematical equations such as the area of a circle or the slope of a triangle – that man, who is after all made up of matter, must operate on similar principles – or, in the case of morals, “truths.” He makes no distinction between biology and consciousness. This is a fundamental failure of natural theory.

Morals are the result of a complex interaction of human biology with human consciousness. Human behavior has instinctual, genetic, and learned components, which we can observe in the gestural, social, and communicative behaviors. We can observe these same behaviors in the lives of animal relatives such as the communal chimpanzee. But are these ingrained behaviors or morals?

Morals stem as much from human consciousness as from their genetic and behavioral components; consciousness’s components are both phenomenological and structural. We have the unique ability to project: Not only can we extrapolate multiple probabilities for consequences of our actions; we can also place ourselves as the theoretical recipient of those actions. This is not as simple as the animal’s stimulus-response behaviorism (though anyone who has seen someone suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder knows that behaviorism plays a role in human behavior).

Linguistics is a fundamental component of human consciousness, providing the structure with which we frame our experiences and construct our personality. Language is, by its nature, subjective, even as it conforms to internal structures that may have biological components. It creates representations, symbols, interpretations, and projections. When we say that matter operates around laws we are projecting a human interpretation - a false framework – onto something fundamentally not human, as it lacks consciousness.

Consciousness is the crux here. The interplay it makes with human behavior and biology makes mankind quintessentially other from mere matter. While man’s body and physiological responses must adhere to the “rules” of matter, his morals are aspects of thought, of consciousness, which is by its nature not subject to the rules of matter. Morals are subjective, projective. They can vary in surface structure, subject matter, consequences, and focus. They vary from culture to culture, from person to person, despite similarities.

Those similarities, and the human phenomenon of the emotion guilt, have been posited as proof of natural law. The Scottish philosopher and empiricist David Hume neatly disposed of both in the 18th century. The key here is our consciousness’s ability to project. We can imagine someone doing the same thing to us and how we would feel. Guilt is projection of how we would hypothetically feel; similarities in morals are acts that have negative results on others that we do not wish to happen to ourselves.

Morals are metaphysical in nature. Metaphysics are beyond the realm of the knowable. They are outside of the empirical, the scientifically knowable. They are therefore outside the rules of nature. Some call the questions of metaphysics – morality and immorality, free will, causation, etc. – the principle questions of philosophy. But metaphysics defies logic, empiricism, or reason. To paraphrase Hume, it ends in little more than sophistry and illusion. Still, the questions persist and are intriguing – even important – if ultimately incapable of resolution.

To answer those questions, metaphysics looks to foundations, to simple answers, principles, and origin. As Derrida states, this is a quest for “logos.” This Greek word can be translated as, variably, “logic, reason, the word, or god.” This is the search for the origin – a human trait to search out causation in all things. This is why many natural theorists (like Aquinas) insist that such rules must come from something that sets them in motion, which creates them. Metaphysics, by its nature, attempts to ascribe truth and simplicity to a complex world. Metaphysics, Derrida contended, pervades Western thought.

But, as Derrida points out, metaphysics requires binary construction, a pairing of two like subjects, one derived from the other, in primal opposition but also similar. One member of the pair is always “true,” or superior to the other. Thus we have “good and evil,” “God and man,” “cause and effect,” “mind and body.” The first term, the “superior” one must be true, pure, and simple – it is of the logos. The subordinate term is false, corrupting, derivative; it is against the logos. Metaphysicians, such as natural theorists, proceed from an assumption of a simple truth – a human construction, a preference for simplicity over complexity, for good over evil, for God over man. It is telling that the Greeks place reason, logic, and words (language) on the same plane as God.

This is why something like moral relativism, humanism, or secularism is so threatening to natural theory. It privileges the subordinate term over the preferred member of the binary pair in metaphysics: Corporeal life over the afterlife, man over God, complex over simple. These re-imaginings shake the core of metaphysics and therefore natural theory, because natural law relies upon the assumption – again, a human judgment – of the presence of the binary pairing and it’s inherent value to begin with! For example, there is an inherent assumption of the “truth” of the “word of God.” Indeed, it is assumed that “the word” is there to begin with.

Such assumptions are a creation of human consciousness – projections and linguistic constructions. If they are creations of consciousness, how can they follow rules? How is there a “logical” or “natural” progression from observed behavior to projected interpretation of another’s internal state? An assumption of another’s guilt, moral compass, or pathology is a construction, a projection of one’s own conscious moral and cultural matrix on another; it has no foundation other than what the observer gives it.

And that's about all I have to say about that.

Hunter Baker said...

James, first off, kudos for taking the time to write an essay. But brickbats for getting it wrong right from the start. The natural law has been around for a lot longer than the scientific view you claim is the inspiration for the natural law.

The basic question is really very simple. Why exactly is it that 99.7% of humanity thinks lying is wrong? How do you explain that everyone expects their test to be graded fairly and correctly? Why isn't the bizarro world the norm instead of the one we have? Something needs a lot of explainin' and the natural law thesis is a pretty good effort to explain. Still the best, in my opinion.

Matt Huisman said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Matt Huisman said...

We have the unique ability to project: Not only can we extrapolate multiple probabilities for consequences of our actions; we can also place ourselves as the theoretical recipient of those actions.

The mechanics here are interesting, but I’m not sure how they explain why I should care about the theoretical implications of my actions on others. It can’t really be sympathy, why would I care? It can’t be some contractualist arrangement designed to promote happiness and safety, why would I feel guilty if I fudged a little? It still seems as if each of us has a real need to justify (or receive absolution for) our behavior. Isn’t that odd?

Some may respond by saying the only thing we are guilty of is guilt. Guilt is merely a behavior that must be unlearned. Hunter picks up on the problem with that logic – can you imagine such a place? The power of projection that you speak of – without any connection to a natural law or guilt – would be beyond bizarre. It would be absolutely unlivable.

James Elliott said...

"But brickbats for getting it wrong right from the start. The natural law has been around for a lot longer than the scientific view you claim is the inspiration for the natural law."

Semantics - thus proving the postmodernists you revile, but that's another discussion. I placed an ancient point of view in modern terms, and you would disqualify it on those grounds? Dishonest at the least; balderdash most certainly. The observation of cause and effect, of looking for physical answers to mental difficulties is as old as man.

James Elliott said...

"It can’t be some contractualist arrangement designed to promote happiness and safety, why would I feel guilty if I fudged a little?"

Sure it can. People fudge a little all the time and don't feel guilty. Most feel guilty about the big stuff. As Hume put it, it's a basic extrapolation: What if everyone acted this way? Then everything would fall apart. It's an implicit social contract. We have a genetically encoded survival need for social grouping. When one violates the norms of hte group, one is exiled, diminishing survival chances. The chimp who steals everyone's lunch gets booted from the troop. It's not rocket science, and it's not a writ handed down on high from heaven. It's just a good idea. It's complex, but far simpler than "God/Nature diddit."

James Elliott said...

Some might object to the use of modern, scientific language in the above comparison. One could just as easily insert Aristotle’s “Prime Mover,” Pythagoras’ mathematics, or the Greek atomists. The search for answers to physical questions was and still is crucial to Western philosophical inquiry.

St. Thomas Aquinas is probably the best-known exponent of natural law and theology. His view, almost Gnostic, was one of scientific inquiry; the universe appeared to move in accordance to laws, which must be ordained by God. By understanding these laws better, we could better comprehend the will of God. His predecessor, St. Anselm, also followed this line of ontological thought. They both run afoul of cleric Peter Abelard’s nominalism: words signify thoughts, not presences in the real world. Language, such as the statement that “God is the greatest of all” or “laws govern all things,” leads people to believe things are real when they exist only in their minds.

Man is what I like to call “a simplicity seeker.” He might also be described as a “categorical being,” searching for truths that are easy to comprehend and sort. Immanuel Kant supposed that man is both an empiricist and a rationalist, that man is constitutionally predisposed to see causation. Current psychological research proves Kant right. Show individuals a randomly generated pattern of dots and they will instinctually perceive a leader or moving force behind the dots’ random gyrations. Kant, preceding Derrida by two centuries, pointed out the inherent contradictions in metaphysical “truths.” He pointed out how the human mind automatically categorizes and interprets information from the world. We do this in order to best make sense of it, making it conform to an internal architecture of perception in order to avoid being overwhelmed or paralyzed with questions.

Kant argued that there must be some sort of universal law, because human perception – the categories and architecture we use to make sense of the world – would disappear in an illogical vacuum without it; faith, therefore, was possible through reason. But, as Hegel and Foucault point out, the “architecture” is in a constant state of flux; we change it with experience, with learning, and with evolved concepts. There can be no truths because of the subjectivity of language and the changing nature of the dialogue of discovery (“dialectics” to Hegel, “discourse” to Foucault). This led Hegel to conceive of some silly “End of History” idea, but that doesn’t diminish the value of his dialectical model.

Nietzche would later seize on a similar theme, pointing out that “truths” are dependent on social and cultural systems. Foucault, Derrida, and Wittgenstein owe much to Nietzche. Kierkegaard points out that faith, by its very nature, is a belief in something impossible to prove; it is by definition irrational. Natural law is an attempt to give physicality to moral and ethical thought; thought cannot be of anything other than the ephemeral – it has no presence, no “there.”

The American pragmatists, like C.S. Pierce, do away with natural law. There are no “natural truths” that can be established about reality. Human ideas and systems will always be tested in the crucible of their results and effects. Pierce’s “contrite fallibilism” and Viennese philosopher Karl Popper’s “Falsification” mirror our knowledge of the world: it is always provisional.

This is what I call “The Good Idea Test.” Sometimes, just like a scientific hypothesis, a moral, philosophical, social, or cultural construct is simply so successful, so in harmony with humanity’s needs, limitations, and potential, that it has yet to be supplanted. The end result – that an idea is simply too good to set aside – is elegantly simple, but the process used to get there is complex. Man, the simplicity seeker, searches out a simpler process, one that fits his linguistically and culturally constructed worldview: the idea is simply part of a “law,” an ordained set or rules put in motion by some sort of central origin. Unfortunately, this requires the kind of binary dialectic that we’ve already seen is merely a human construct.

Tom Van Dyke said...

My compliments, Mr. Elliott. This may be an historic moment, where one of our friends from the left has raised the level of discourse, above, well, I will speak here only of my own contributions.

If you're to bring some troops to fortify your position, Kant, et al., are wise choices.

I apologize for returning again to my main man Thomas, but mostly because I believe he was on to something.

It's important to note that Thomas was aware there was a humanity before there was a Bible: the latter is merely an illustration or explication of the eternal law. Keep in mind Thomas is quite the Aristotelian, and Ari had no access to the Bible.

The first thing that Thomas and Aristotle share is the idea that man is born a "blank slate": the conscience must be educated. The duties of conscience demand that man must educate it, as well. Thomas rejects completely "Gnosticism," that we mysteriously "know" the truth. He, like Aristotle, submits merely that it's in man's nature to seek the truth, and it is his reason that will confirm it once found. That the natural law is true is a tautology, I suppose, but there really is no avoiding that tautology if natural law is truth.

To attempt to remain on a germane plane, as this book (and I confess have not read it myself) argues:

In 1958, Elizabeth Anscombe published a provocative article asking first of all, if contemporary philosophy has not forgotten a principal concept, namely the development of an adequate philosophical psychology.

This, I believe, is the level on which Messers. Baker & Huisman (and my poor self) have been attempting to engage you on, a First Things thing.

The author continues that Anscombe sees perhaps a neglect on the part of the moderns of "the central concepts of moral theory central to the Aristotelian tradition---...virtue, practical reason, acquired dispositions, etc..."

And so, at least an initial exploration of natural law can be achieved via a pre-theological inquiry.

Elizabeth Anscombe seems an astounding thinker with whom I must become more acquainted. The Wiki reports that she kicked CS Lewis' ass so thoroughly in a debate that he retired from serious argument thereafter.

My kind of gal.

It is unfortunate that those of us who come to the Big Questions via philosophy (that's me as well as you, James) have pretty much never heard the names of folks like Anscombe and Francis Schaeffer. They are consigned to the religionist ghetto, despite willingly engaging philosophy on its home ground.

As for your posse, I'd be happy to turn to them as occasion arises. They are estimible fellows. I do think that the inarticulateness of art rebuts Chomsky on language as consciousness; altho modern art leans heavily on context, not all art does. Chomsky might be one of those who are often right without being essentially correct. I have found that to be true of most modern empiricists.

But also note that "natural law," like any law, must have consequences when it's broken. Otherwise it's simply ritual and superstition. Arguments for specific interpretations of natural law must argue consequences, as in, "if you know what's good for you, you'll...and here's why."

That a natural law exists and that any individual (or group) knows what it is are two very different claims.

Matt Huisman said...

As Hume put it, it's a basic extrapolation: What if everyone acted this way? Then everything would fall apart. It's an implicit social contract.

I can follow the logic here, and in a sense it is not that far off from the development of our understanding of the natural law. Though you refer to it as a construct, the Good Idea Test (and I really love that name) dovetails nicely with Tom’s mention of consequences (both good and bad) that flow from the natural law. But I still can’t shake the notion that contractualism does not do enough to explain the depth of my guilt. Am I really this bothered by the thought of violating the social contract?

Consider the case of a mother who still harbors guilt decades after her abortion. (I pick on abortion here only because it is a simpler story to tell.) There are no social contract issue left – society has not lost its way as a result and there is no threat of exile (especially if no one knows). Why can’t this she just move on?

I keep mentioning that we have a real need for justification. It is here where I think that we get one of our strongest clues that our conscience is tapping into something real. The religious have a process of repentance for addressing guilt, involving elements of confession, atonement, and reconciliation leading to justification. But far removed from the old notions of a conscience weakened by neglect, J. Budziszewksi (you give me Kant; I give you JBud) argues that a suppressed conscience merely results in a redirection of this powerful force to satisfy those same elements mentioned above, but in a perverted way.

You don’t need to strain too hard to imagine the mother in the scenario above ‘atoning’ – likely over and over – for that item from the past. Or maybe she confronts this guilt by ‘confessing’ – in the form of advocacy for the very thing her moral standing has been challenged on. Maybe she finds reconciliation in the queer intimacy found between mothers sharing their abortion stories.

There seems no issue too small or too large for our conscience to develop a rationalization for. In each of these cases, we find that far from ‘getting beyond’ the past, this force within us actually propels further along down the road we started on. It is this need for justification - and the lengths that we will go to in order to get it - that contractualism, IMHO, just can’t do justice to.

The Classic Liberal Anonymous said...

Matt: "It can’t be some contractualist arrangement designed to promote happiness and safety, why would I feel guilty if I fudged a little?"

James: Sure it can. People fudge a little all the time and don't feel guilty.

CLA: Yes, but the know they are fudging don't they. I think the whole idea of guilt has sidetracked this discusison.

Tlaloc said...

"But let's try again a little more extreme and see if you stand pat:
1. Vanilla ice cream is better than chocolate.
2. Torturing children for fun is wrong.
Are we really just looking at two statements of preference?"

I think the word preference is misleading but both statements are subjective, certainly.

Tlaloc said...

"What basis do you have for saying that natural law must be understood in its entirety, by 100% of mankind, in order for it to be true?"

How else can you say it is a natural law? If it is present only in a few how then can you possibly say it is not simply a product of their environment, or their particular psychology, or even their particular biology?

The only hope you have of demonstrating a true natural law would be to show it is universal. Without that how would you ever prove it to be a higher truth?



"You agree that it would have to exist independent of man, does it not follow then that each of us – with a unique individual makeup - would respond to it differently?"

Respond, sure. But it would have to be felt by all of us. How we react to that feeling would vary to be sure, but the stimulus itself would have to be identical.



"Not really, both felt that they ‘ought’ to help the poor. Why should they feel that way?"

But they didn't. One felt heloping the poor was a priority, the other felt that property rights were a priority. They had completely contradictory moral values.

Amy & Jordan said...

Tlaloc said: I think the word preference is misleading but both statements are subjective, certainly.

If by subjective you simply mean that the judgments are made by an acting subject, then of course you are right. But since this is a tautology, you likely mean that they are merely subjective, in that they have no objective reference, i.e. an objectve (external) standard by which to judge.

If this is true, then you seem to be a moral anti-realist, and it is no surprise then that you reject an idea of a natural law, which is a reflection or participation in this objective standard of moral judgment.

Let me ask you this: is it wrong for me to believe in a natural law if it does not in reality exist?

The Classic Liberal Anonymous said...

Matt: "Not really, both felt that they ‘ought’ to help the poor. Why should they feel that way?"

Tlaloc: But they didn't. One felt heloping the poor was a priority, the other felt that property rights were a priority. They had completely contradictory moral values.


Tlaloc ... is the entire concept of "ought" lost on you? Your entire argument is based on ones actions and their actions alone.

Further, you have predefined what the correct action is in regards to the example given.

Do you not understand that it is possible to help the poor in more ways than simple mindedly robbing the rich (your example)?

Tlaloc said...

"If by subjective you simply mean that the judgments are made by an acting subject, then of course you are right. But since this is a tautology, you likely mean that they are merely subjective, in that they have no objective reference, i.e. an objectve (external) standard by which to judge."

If there were an outside objective reference then the judgements would not be subjective. They would merely be right or wrong. Something cannot be both subjective and objective and hence when I say subjective I mean "only subjective."



"Let me ask you this: is it wrong for me to believe in a natural law if it does not in reality exist?"

Do you mean wrong as a moral judgment or wrong as a factual evaluation?
In the first case I can't say it is wrong for you to believe in something that does not exist unless of course you feel it is wrong to be willfully ignorant of reality.
In the second case yes you can certainly say it is factually wrong to believe in natural law.

Tlaloc said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Tlaloc said...

"Tlaloc ... is the entire concept of "ought" lost on you? Your entire argument is based on ones actions and their actions alone."

Considering you just quoted me talking about how two people FELT how is it you say my argument is based solely on actions?



"Do you not understand that it is possible to help the poor in more ways than simple mindedly robbing the rich (your example)?"

I certainly understand that people can define "help" in all sorts of ways. And we can banter about hidden unities of kindness and cruelty if that's your game.

All that is sort of beside the point though. In the face of starving poor people you have a moral decision to make. Do you steal for them or not? I'm perfectly fine with accepting that people may have different moral codes which allow this question to be answered in myriad ways (yes in these kinds of situations, no in others). Natural law of course precludes that. There is one and only one answer to every moral question according to natural law. A single, uniform, universal code of conduct that governs every detail and nuance of life. No wiggle room, no grey areas, no lawyering.

Now for that to be the case, at least in any meaningful way everyone has to have that natural law embedded deep within them.

But they don't. And we know they don't. And that means we know... KNOW... that natural law is a bunch of hooey.

Matt Huisman said...

The only hope you have of demonstrating a true natural law would be to show it is universal. Without that how would you ever prove it to be a higher truth?

2 + 2 = 4 is universal, even though there are some who are unable to acknowledge it. Yet mathematics marches on. The idea that a few sociopaths disprove natural law just doesn’t fly.

I do think your point that we all* must feel it is valid, which is why I keep pointing to our need for justification. There is just no need for us to have come up with this need without there being something else out there pressing down on us.

But they didn't. One felt heloping the poor was a priority, the other felt that property rights were a priority. They had completely contradictory moral values.

I don’t know that I’m the one to clarify all of the deductions to be made from the core of the natural law – the things we can’t not know – and I’ll grant you your scenario in which only two choices were possible (steal or starve).

That we are not always able to handle the occasional Sophie’s choice that life throws at us does not detract from our ability to ‘see’ more obvious truths elsewhere. We typically view these difficult moments as an exercise in moral development, the process of working out the particulars among transcendent truths. But I suspect that they are intended to accomplish even more than that, as the mystery highlights our limitations (our ability to project only goes far, right James?) – and reminds us of our need for humility and reverence.

Tlaloc said...

"That 2 + 2 = 4 is universal, and there are some who are unable to comprehend it."

Comprehension is beside the point. The thing is empirically provable.



"The idea that a few sociopaths disprove natural law just doesn’t fly.
I do think your point that we all* must feel it is valid, which is why I keep pointing to our need for justification."

You just contradicted yourself. Sociopaths are the most obvious proof that we do not all feel it. If we must all feel it for it to be, then clearly it is not real.



"There is just no need for us to have come up with this need without there being something else out there pressing down on us."

That's easy, we have societal pressures on us. We justify because we do not always act in accordance with what our culture has defined as good.



"That we are not always able to handle the occasional Sophie’s choice that life throws at us does not detract from our ability to ‘see’ more obvious truths elsewhere."

What obvious truths are these? There is no single moral that human kind has not repudiated en masse at one point or another in some place and culture.

The Classic Liberal Anonymous said...

In the face of starving poor people you have a moral decision to make. Do you steal for them or not?

Again ... you are detemining the existence of natural law based on someones action. The action in this case is either stealing or not stealing.

Please help me out here if I am not understanding your point.

Matt Huisman said...

Comprehension is beside the point. The thing is empirically provable.

Not to someone who doesn’t have the mental ability to comprehend it. The same applies to one’s conscience. The fact that the sociopath’s conscience is damaged says nothing about the universality of the natural law.

See earlier posts for the rest.

Tlaloc said...

"Again ... you are detemining the existence of natural law based on someones action. The action in this case is either stealing or not stealing."

Alright fair enough. But easily solved if we assume that the person's action is in accordance with their moral evaluationof the situation. Of course people often act at odds with their moral views but for the sake of this hypothetical we can neglect such considerations.

Tlaloc said...

"Not to someone who doesn’t have the mental ability to comprehend it."

An interesting idea, Matt. However math is not a natural law. It is essentially a special language for describing reality.

I think what I'm pushing at here is that if math truly were a natural law then everyone would inherently and instinctively know that 2+2=4. They might forget in a moment of stress, or they might lie about it but deep down they would all know it.

The Classic Liberal Anonymous said...

Alright fair enough. But easily solved if we assume that the person's action is in accordance with their moral evaluation of the situation. Of course people often act at odds with their moral views but for the sake of this hypothetical we can neglect such considerations.

Huh?

Your assumption is just plain silly.

Further, if you neglect anything that does not follow your way of thinking, OF COURSE you'll be right.

Either I am missing something (and that happens often), or your argument here is absurd.

Matt Huisman said...

An interesting idea, Matt. However math is not a natural law. It is essentially a special language for describing reality.

I think what I'm pushing at here is that if math truly were a natural law then everyone would inherently and instinctively know that 2+2=4. They might forget in a moment of stress, or they might lie about it but deep down they would all know it.


But don’t we find that people actually do know it – or at least the reality of it? Fingers and toes get us all the way to twenty, and while we do need to learn the special language – it is something that rings true deep down once it is learned. Mr. Van Dyke laid it out rather nicely earlier:

The first thing that Thomas and Aristotle share is the idea that man is born a "blank slate": the conscience must be educated. The duties of conscience demand that man must educate it, as well. Thomas rejects completely "Gnosticism," that we mysteriously "know" the truth. He, like Aristotle, submits merely that it's in man's nature to seek the truth, and it is his reason that will confirm it once found. That the natural law is true is a tautology, I suppose, but there really is no avoiding that tautology if natural law is truth.

And here we find what one would expect when combining the notions of a knowable universal truth and free will. The man born with an inate desire to seek truth and meaning is not given the answers, and yet the ‘realities’ of the universe – things like math and the natural law – are familiar to him.

Amy & Jordan said...

Tlaloc,

All I meant by my question was whether you acknowledge some standard of moral judgment that applies to everyone. Does your first response ("I can't say it is wrong for you to believe in something that does not exist unless of course you feel it is wrong to be willfully ignorant of reality") indicate that it is morally impermissible to violate one's own conscience?

As I and others have noted, the conversation is getting sidetracked in the debate about sociopaths and guilty feelings. It might clarify things, as I said earlier, to think about conscience as fundamentally knowledge rather than the resulting feelings. There can be any number of intervening barriers to the appropriate feelings of guilt.

A major part of the Christian tradition has identified natural law with "right reason," which may help us get past the "guilty feelings" emphasis. I posted more on natural law, reason, and logic here, if anyone is interested.

Tlaloc said...

"Your assumption is just plain silly."

Why is that? We are setting up a hypothetical situation. In doing so we can use any scenario we might deisre. Furthermore hypothesizing a situation in which two people choose to do what they think is right is hardly outlandish.



"Further, if you neglect anything that does not follow your way of thinking, OF COURSE you'll be right."

It's not a matter of neglecting it, it is amatter of it not being relevant. Look the issue is if two people can have contradictory moral codes. They can. In order to prove that we need only have one example of it occuring. Just one. Spending time examining cases where moral codes do not conflict (the stuff you claim aI am leaving out) is irrelevant because you can never use it to prove that the opposite does not happen.

Tlaloc said...

"But don’t we find that people actually do know it – or at least the reality of it?"

Didn't you just argue that a person of diminshed capacity might not understand that 2+2=4? Why then are you now claiming the opposite?



"That the natural law is true is a tautology, I suppose, but there really is no avoiding that tautology if natural law is truth."

Tautologies are indication of faulty reasoning. If you cannot base a conclusion on anything more than the subsequent products of the conclusion you are in trouble.



"The man born with an inate desire to seek truth and meaning is not given the answers, and yet the ‘realities’ of the universe – things like math and the natural law – are familiar to him."

If you aren't given the answers then you can never show that there are answers much less that you have found them. Natural law then becomes something of absolutely no use because it does nothing: it supports no contentions, disproves no hypothesis. It cannot even be said to exist because it is inherently unknowable. It is the thing that denies itself.

Tlaloc said...

"Does your first response ("I can't say it is wrong for you to believe in something that does not exist unless of course you feel it is wrong to be willfully ignorant of reality") indicate that it is morally impermissible to violate one's own conscience?"

Yes because as I see it the conscience is the only source of morality. Any moral violation then is a violation of your conscience, and vice versa.
The two are an identity.

This is moral relativism, which in this case means the belief in absolute morals but only as apply to the individual who beleives in them. A denial of any universal moral code.

Amy & Jordan said...

"A denial of any universal moral code."

Other than the one you just articulated, you mean, which appears to be: "the conscience is the only source of morality. Any moral violation then is a violation of your conscience, and vice versa.
The two are an identity."

It is thus absolutely wrong for anyone to violate his or her conscience. This prohibition universally applies to everyone.

Tlaloc said...

Let me try to explain.

lets say we have the following proposition:
People should follow their personal moral codes

is that in itself a moral judgement? Possibly but again possibly not. It really depends on what exactly you mean, and why you mean it.

If you mean it as an independent moral truth then you are saying that in all circumstances and all cases the thing is true. For instance even if we were talking about a lifeless planet the moral itself is true, though it may be irrelevent.

I am NOT saying that.

What I am saying is that the thing is true in detail, not in general. Not immutably. People should follow their conscience, because their conscience determines what they should do. In whatever cases that a person had no conscience, or had a conscience that somehow did not guide them then the proposition above would be false. Note: I am not saying it wouldn't apply, I am saying it is WRONG.

Is that any clearer?

Tom Van Dyke said...

My compliments to all those participating in this discussion: a credit, I think, to TRC's founding principles. HB kicking it off, and I'm always warmed to see our colleague from the Acton Institute Power Blog"roll up his sleeves around here. (Of course, the wise fisher of men HB uses Power Bait.)

And Mr. Huisman, we seem to have a great deal of trouble disagreeing on things. We simply must start.

You may be too young to know the lyric, but perhaps Jordan isn't, but it's like tryin' to tell a stranger 'bout-a rock 'n' roll. Good night and good luck.

Matt Huisman said...

I guess we'll just have to agree to disagree.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Hehe. Hunter's got that 100th sheep thing going. Then there's the "wipe the dust off your feet" thing. And the Buddha said when the student is ready, the teacher will come. (Mebbe it's not you.) And John Lennon said there's no one you can save that can't be saved. Orson Welles said you can't sell a wine before its time.

Hell, I dunno. Rock on.

Matt Huisman said...

Hey man, I just wanna rock – whether it be Square One or Square Two – ya know? And I agree (doh) that tryin’ to tell a stranger ‘bout-a rock ‘n’ roll is tough, but everyone deserves more than a few listens to ‘Did you ever have to make up your mind’.

Besides, music is just as much about the affect on the band member as it is about the audience. That this affect-ion sometimes spills over to the crowd (and then back to the band) just makes it all the more worth while.

So wadda ya say? Anyone up for a little contractualism? I gather that’s the reasonable way to think these days. Who's with me?

What? Where’d everyone go?