Christianity … is first and foremost a rational explanation of the universe. It is hopeless to offer Christianity as a vaguely idealistic aspiration of a simple and consoling kind; it is, on the contrary, a hard, complex, and exacting doctrine, steeped in a drastic and uncompromising realism. … Teachers and preachers never make it sufficiently clear, I think, that dogmas are not a set of arbitrary regulations invented a priori by a committee of theologians enjoying a bout of all-in dialectical wrestling. Most of them were hammered out under pressure of urgent practical necessity to provide an answer to heresy. And heresy is, as I have tried to show, largely the expression of opinion of the untutored average man, trying to grapple with the problems of the universe at the point where they begin to interfere with his daily life and thought.
—Dorothy Sayers, Creed or Chaos?
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The anonymous Scottish Catholic blogger Lazarus Redivivus recently tweeted something or other linking to a paper from a couple of years ago, written by one Dr Edward Feser, critiquing ‘New Natural Law Theory’ in defense of its more fully Scholastic predecessor. Natural Law Theory is the sort of thing that it’s just about impossible not to get by the eyeful when you read Catholics writing about homosexuality, so I’m not totally unfamiliar, but this was a distinction I hadn’t come across before so I surrendered to my curiosity.
I started having problems with it immediately, which was delicious. People don’t usually realize how spacious Catholicism really is. Seeing it from the outside, they perceive the dogmas merely as boundaries—and they are in one sense, but they are much more like LEGOs: the defined structure is what lets you do all the fun stuff.
Dr Feser writes:
Among the features that crucially distinguish the ‘old’ natural law theory from the ‘new’ is the former’s grounding of ethics in specifically Aristotelian-Thomistic metaphysical foundations. … It presuppose an essentialism according to which natural substances possess essences that are objectively real (rather than inventions of the human mind or mere artifacts of language) … and a teleologism according to which the activities and processes characteristic of a natural substance are ‘directed toward’ certain ends or outcomes, and inherently so, by virtue of the nature of the thing itself … Some objections to the ‘old’ natural law theory rest on a failure to understand its Aristotelian-Thomistic metaphysical background … One such objection (famously raised by ‘New Natural Lawyers’ as well as by secularist critics) is … that the ‘old’ natural law theory commits a ‘naturalistic fallacy’ by failing to take notice of the ‘fact/value distinction.’ For from the Aristotelian-Thomistic point of view, there simply is no ‘fact/value distinction’ in the first place. More precisely, there is no such thing as a purely ‘factual’ description of reality utterly divorced from ‘value,’ for ‘value’ is built into the structure of the ‘facts’ from the start.1
Now, I’m as Thomistic as the next chap when it comes to metaphysics. But this doesn’t mean that the fact-value distinction has no merit: indeed, Feser immediately provides examples of what is meant by the fact-value distinction, such as that of the triangle, which (in principle) has three perfectly straight sides and three angles inevitably adding up to 180°, but of which any drawn example will be in some measure imperfect. In other words, observed facts alone—without the intervention of the intuitive mind, which perceives the meaning contained in the facts but not constituted by the facts—don’t reveal the Euclidean form of triangularity. What may be known about triangles is clearly seen, being understood by those which are made; but no man hath seen a Euclidean triangle at any time.
The Adoration of the Name of God, Francisco de Goya, 1772
To Thomists this may seem like mere nitpicking—how else were you supposed to perceive significance except with a mind?—but the distinction is immensely important. The popular conception of natural law is based on exactly this misunderstanding, that ‘natural law’ means ‘everything that happens is supposed to,’ which is inconsistent not only with Thomism but with any meaningful belief in a loving God.
And conversely, I think Thomists are far too ready to take their point of view as obvious and rationally irrefutable2: terms like ‘common sense,’ ‘self-evident,’ and ‘objective’ seem to abound in their writings; and when we find ourselves using words of that kind, we should always scrutinize whatever it is we’ve applied them to, for as often as not they’re a sign that we don’t want to mount a defense for that part of our argument—for which there are many possible explanations, some less flattering than others. In order to dismiss the fact-value distinction on the ground that values are inherent in facts (never mind the Fall!), some Thomists seem prepared to claim that there can’t be any real doubt about what values inhere in the facts. That every living thing in fact dies, for instance, does not at all diminish the Thomist’s enthusiasm for the assertion that living things naturally seek to preserve their lives; nor, to do them justice, does their admiration for self-preservation at all inhibit their admiration for martyrdom.
The practical problem of this kind of overconfidence comes out as Dr Feser’s argument proceeds.
Like the other, non-rational animals, we have various ends inherent in our nature, and these determine what is good for us. In particular, Aquinas tells us, ‘all those things to which man has a natural inclination, are naturally apprehended by reason as being good’ … By ‘inclination’ he does not necessarily mean something consciously desired, and by ‘natural’ he doesn’t mean something merely psychologically deep-seated … What he has in mind is rather the natural teleology of our capacities, their inherent ‘directedness’ toward certain ends. … Of course, there is often a close correlation between what nature intends and what we desire. Nature wants us to eat so that we’ll stay alive, and sure enough we tend to want to eat. Given that we are social animals, nature intends for us to avoid harming others, and for the most part we do want to avoid this. And so forth. At the same time, there are people (such as anorexics and bulimics) who form very strong desires not to eat what they need to eat in order to survive and thrive; and at the other extreme there are people whose desire for food is excessive. Some people are not only occasionally prone to harm others, but are positively misanthropic or sociopathic. … Hence, though in general and for the most part our desires match up with nature’s purposes, this is not true in every single case. … ‘Natural’ for the Aristotelian-Thomistic philosopher … has instead to do with the final causes inherent in a thing by virtue of its essence, and which it possesses whether or not it ever realizes them or consciously wants to realize them.3
To which the less Aristotelian-Thomistic reader might pardonably reply, ‘If no particular instance of nature can be trusted to show what nature intends, how the hell am I supposed to know those intentions?’
The Roanoke Lost Colonists founded Roanoke, the Franklin Expedition reached the Pacific in 2009 when the
Northwest Passage opened, and Jimmy Hoffa currently heads the Teamsters Union—he just started going by 'James.'
That, I think, is the weakness in the Thomist’s armor. Having already said (reasonably enough) that the activities and processes characteristic of a natural substance are ‘directed toward’ certain ends … inherently … by virtue of the nature of the thing itself, I for one have yet to come across a Thomist offering a satisfyingly objective method for determining which characteristic qualities and behaviors should count as natural and which should count as aberrant. Sinning is extremely characteristic of humanity.
Is natural law known by the simple majority of what we do with our impulses? I’m pretty wary of that, especially when it comes to sex4: I wouldn’t like be the surety for either the intentions or the results of most human orgasms, even if that were discoverable. Nor are certain of Dr Feser’s key assertions about sex in the animal kingdom wholly accurate: e.g., ‘That sex considered from a purely biological point of view exists for the sake of procreation is uncontroversial,’ when in fact the discovery of homosexual behavior among monkeys, swans, sheep, giraffes, lions, penguins, bison, and literally hundreds of other species, certainly allows (though it does not compel) us to posit that sex has a social function even at the animal level, not only a procreative one. The problem here isn’t that there are a bunch of counterexamples, and so Thomist metaphysics must be wrong: the point is, granted Thomist metaphysics, what method do we use to discern the inherent natures in the midst of this sea of inconsistent (or at the least, contrasting) examples of characteristic behavior?
I don’t think that the Thomist position is irrecoverable. As I said above, I’m a Thomist myself.5 But I do think it’s less watertight than some of its advocates assert. In my next few posts, I plan to engage further with Dr Feser’s essay and, hopefully, find some ways of reconstructing the Thomist synthesis.
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1Neo-Scholastic Essays, pp. 379-380. (I’m working from a PDF that contains only this essay, but the page numbers of the original are dutifully noted therein.)
2Which is not, I think, a charge that can easily be levelled at St Thomas himself; but in zeal, nearly every pupil is above his teacher and every servant above his master. Msgr. Ronald Knox, Catholic chaplain of Oxford from 1926 to 1939, is a good counterexample to that bad habit, particularly in his explanation of invincible ignorance; G. K. Chesterton is another, not only in his friendship with men like Orwell and Shaw, but in his very writings on the Angelic Doctor. He was perfectly confident in his Thomism, but he shows that he appreciates the difficulties it involved, and the fact that a rational person might somehow not be a Thomist:
‘[St Thomas’] argument for Revelation is not in the least an argument against Reason. On the contrary, he seems inclined to admit that truth could be reached by a rational process, if only it were rational enough; and also long enough. Indeed, something in his character … led him rather to exaggerate the extent to which all men would ultimately listen to reason. … Only his common sense also told him that the argument never ends. I might convince a man that matter as the origin of Mind is quite meaningless, if he and I were very fond of each other and fought each other every night for forty years. But long before he was convinced on his deathbed, a thousand other materialists would have been born, and nobody can explain everything to everybody.’ (St Thomas Aquinas: The Dumb Ox, pp. 14-15.)
3Neo-Scholastic Essays, pp. 383-384.
4I mention sex because Dr Feser’s essay is primarily a defense of the ‘old’ Scholastic approach to, and defense of, Catholic sexual mores, in contrast to the New Natural Law school descending from Germain Grisez.
5An eclectic one, anyway. I’ve got a heaping helping of Scotism, too, largely thanks to the romantic and esoteric theology of Charles Williams.