"There are only two ways of telling the complete truth—anonymously and posthumously."Thomas Sowell

Thursday, February 04, 2016

Faith, reason and natural law

Often when speaking about natural law, it is common to assume that a belief in the law of nature as a moral force (as opposed to natural physical laws like gravity) goes hand in hand with religious belief.  It is certainly true that religious faith, at least in the West, has served as the foundation for many natural law thinkers -- like Thomas Aquinas, Richard Hooker, and Hugo Grotius -- natural law itself is not grounded on revelation, but rather on reason reflecting on the natural order. The principles of natural law don't violate the moral norms found, for example, in the Bible, but they aren't dependent on the Bible or other religious texts for its authority. Rather, natural law proceeds from a rational reflection on nature and the purpose of human life.

At the risk of Tom chastising me for Catholicizing the blog, I would like to offer as proof of this some of the insights of one of the most profound natural law theorists of the 19th and early 20th centuries, Pope Leo XIII, on private property. His approach is based on an appeal to reason reflecting on natural human relationships both with things and with other people. Leo's approach is a classic example of natural law reasoning:
The fact that God gave the whole human race the earth to use and enjoy cannot indeed in any manner serve as an objection against private possessions. For God is said to have given the earth to mankind in common, not because He intended indiscriminate ownership of it by all, but because He assigned no part to anyone in ownership, leaving the limits of private possessions to be fixed by the industry of men and the institutions of peoples. Yet, however the earth may be apportioned among private owners, it does not cease to serve the common interest of all, inasmuch as no living being is sustained except by what the fields bring forth. Those who lack resources supply labor, so that it can be truly affirmed that the entire scheme of securing a livelihood consists in the labor which a person expends either on his own land or in some working occupation, the compensation for which is drawn ultimately from no other source than from the varied products of the earth and is exchanged for them. For this reason it also follows that private possessions are clearly in accord with nature. The earth indeed produces in great abundance the things to preserve and, especially, to perfect life, but of itself it could not produce them without human cultivation and care. Moreover, since man expends his mental energy and his bodily strength in procuring the goods of nature, by this very act he appropriates that part of physical nature to himself which he has cultivated. On it he leaves impressed, as it were, a kind of image of his person, so that it must be altogether just that he should possess that part as his very own and that no one in any way should be permitted to violate his right.
Pope Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum (1891). The only theological principle that Leo grounds his analysis upon is the role of God as creator. Once that is established, the rest of Leo's argument flows along rational principles based on the the natural of property, labor and the needs of the human person to work and activity. Leo's approach here is one that people of faith would be wise to emulate when venturing in public debate. Not to deny their faith or its importance in their lives, but to appeal to common reason reflecting on nature to make their point, not out of a crass desire to practice political rhetoric, but out of a desire to accurately present not God's revelation alone, but the law of nature.


Tom Van Dyke said...

At the risk of Tom chastising me for Catholicizing the blog

Not atall. Even a deist would freely admit that 250 years before the Protestant Reformation, Aquinas "baptized" Aristotle. ;-)


The rediscovery of Aristotle's philosophical works renewed the force of reason within the Christian faith. Although Aquinas (1225–1274) is said to have "baptized" Aristotle, the influence clearly ran the other way, giving rise to the glories of the High Middle Ages. One of the chief expositors of the natural law theory, Aquinas also authored some of the most widely-cited rational arguments in proof of the existence of God.

God's Existence Can Be Known by Reason

The "Five Ways" of proving God's existence are the most famous in all philosophical literature, yet they are merely sketches, rather than developed proofs. (Note: "Objections" express the opposite of Aquinas' views.)

Eternal, Natural, Human, and Divine Law

Eternal Law is the Divine Reason. We participate in this law by way of reason, which gives us the ability to distinguish between good and evil. Based on this understanding, we enact the written laws of government.

The Central Teachings of the Natural Law

The most general precepts of the natural law are self-evident and so cannot be forgotten, namely, that we should preserve our existence, propagate our species, and live peaceably in society under the light of reason.

Human Laws Must Reflect the Law of Nature

Human law, if it is to be just by nature, must seek the common good of all. Human law should encourage the practice of virtue among the people. Just laws bind us in conscience, but unjust laws are not laws at all.

Tim Kowal said...

After godly men discovered a lingua franca in sola ratio, Enlightenment men said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.” And so Babel haunts mankind.

From Feser's Locke:

"Locke has many of the same aims as his Scholastic predecessors; for example, he wants on the one hand to demonstrate the existence of God and the possibility of personal immortality, and on the other to develop a theory of natural law and natural rights, and like many of the Scholastics he takes the former, theological task to be a necessary prolegomenon to the carrying out of the latter, moral-theoretic task. But he also wants to fulfill these aims in a radically different way, a way that decisively rejects the Scholastic conceptions of causation, substance, potency, essence, substantial forms, and natural ends and purposes, and also the Scholastic tendency to see rational inquiry as properly governed by an authoritative intellectual tradition."

"For the ancients, liberty was associated with citizenship and the ability to participate in public decision-making, but there was no connotation of the autonomous pursuit of one’s own personal private ends, as there is on the modern understanding of liberty. It is this latter, modern notion of liberty which Locke is concerned to defend."

"In After Virtue, MacIntyre famously argued that modern moral philosophy in general has fallen into incoherence, because it has tried to preserve some elements of the classical or premodern moral tradition deriving from Plato, Aristotle, and their medieval successors, while abandoning other elements without which the first ones lose their point. I would suggest that something like McIntyre's analysis of moral theory applies no less to Locke's metaphysical and political theory, and to the traditions of thought that derived from it. Locke wants to have his natural law cake and eat it too, but this is impossible. Those who seek to appropriate Locke's legacy today must decide which part of that they value most, for they cannot coherently have it all..... One must be either a radical or a reactionary. It is no longer possible (if it ever was) to be a Lockean."