Natural Law, Essentialism and Nominalism

Natural Law, Essentialism and Nominalism June 26, 2019

I have said this many times before in different ways and as part of different posts, but I thought I would explicitly make this point on its own. Natural Law Theory and the essentialism upon which it depends, as part of a Thomistic/Catholic philosophy, depends on the negation of nominalism, and depends on the clarity of categories. Without these, the whole project falls apart. I wrote about this in my previous post:

Natural Law Theory (NLT) is an ethical theory derived from the thinking of people such as Thomas Aquinas that attempts to establish that humans, for example, have an ideal form or essence that dictates how they should act. The form of a particular species of bird is that it has feathers, a beak, two eyes, can fly, has a particular colouration and so on. The essence of a bird can be described by listing, one assumes, its properties. There is, in reality (so they would say), some objective notion of what these properties are.

For all of these thinkers, literally everything has this kind of essence, though those essences will differ between things. The idea that homosexual humans (I use this as an example, many other properties could also be used) are morally wrong is derived from the notion that they have an essence, a natural form, to which they should adhere, but do not. A good badger is a badger that most resembles the essence of a badger. A good human is a human who most resembles the nature or essence of a human. Homosexuals or some other group of supposedly morally bad people are morally bad because homosexuality is not a property of the human essence, or essential property.

To confuse matters, we could subcategorise humans in terms of male and female as well. In fact, one of the problems with essentialism and Thomistic philosophy is that you could subcategorise anything further and further to create more and more essences until you eventually have an individual instantiation of a thing. For example, you could subcategorise humans into males and females. But why not continue with other categories? Age, hair colour, size, geographical distribution, skin colour and so on but each of these categories could be sliced and diced even further. Who gets to define the categories? Of course, such advocates of NLT or Thomism would say that God gets to define this, but how do we know what those categories are? We can look around us at the natural world, but as I have at length set out before, categorising the natural world in light of evolution is utterly problematic.

There were some good comments on the piece. For instance:

Since almost everyone goes through a phase in childhood where they lie, should we categorize those who don’t go through that phase as unnatural or wrong?


They seem to allow variation in physical characteristics but not in mental characteristics.

I guess we should take some comfort in the fact that they’re only partially bigots. It’d be much worse if such Thomists also happened to see a dark skin color or epicanthal folds as “intrinsically disordered.”

Evolutionarily, of course, its the pale skinned humans (with a mix of neanderthal genes, no less) which adhere the least to what we might think of the essential, original (physical) form of homo sapiens. Something I take great joy in thinking about, when considering white supremacists. The folks arguing loudly about ‘mongrels’ turn out to be the mongrels. Oh, thank you nature for that delicious turn. :)

Nominalism, or conceptual nominalism, is the denial of such categories as abstract entities; such categorisations are invented by humans and exist only in our minds for pragmatic reasons. The simple fact of the matter is that we can invent and do invent any category we want. We categorise foetus through baby, infant, toddler, child, adolescent through to adult, pensioner and so on.

The simplified development of a human.

But it doesn’t mean that these stages have objective existence. I could invent any category I want but it doesn’t mean I magic that delineated category into existence. As I wrote in my book The Little Book of Unholy Questions (UK – presently on offer):

424. Many argue that there is no such thing as objective morality, because any idea is subjective, as I will set out. Abstract ideas (such as objective morality) do not and cannot exist objectively. It is anthropocentric to imagine they do. Imagine a more intelligent alien life-form comes to earth and sees a table. They have somehow not invented tables. This table is not a table to them. In other words, a table only has properties that make it a table within the intellectual confines of humanity. These consensus-agreed properties are human derived properties, even if there may be common properties between concrete items – i.e. tableness. Without humans existing on earth, for example, ‘tables’ would not exist. Thus the label of ‘table’ is a result of ‘subjectively human’ evolution. If you argue that objective ideas do exist, then it is also the case that the range of all possible entities must also exist objectively, even if they don’t exist materially. For example, a ‘forqwibllex’ is a fork with a bent handle and a button on the end (that has never been created and I have ‘made-up’). This did not exist before now, either objectively or subjectively. Now it does – have I created it objectively? This is what happens whenever humans make up a label for anything to which they assign function etc. Also, things that other animals use that don’t even have names, but to which they have assigned ‘mental labels’, for want of better words, must also exist objectively under this logic. For example, the backrubby bit of bark on which a family of sloths scratch their backs on a particular tree exists materially. They have no language, so it has no label (it can be argued that abstracts are a function of language). Yet even though it only has properties to a sloth, and not to any other animal, objectivists should claim it must exist objectively. Furthermore, there are items that have multiple abstract properties which create more headaches for the objectivist. A table, to me, might well be a territory marker to the school cat. Surely they same object cannot embody both objective existences: the table and the marker. Therefore, the question, God, is: do abstract ideas exist outside of the subjective mind of the thinking entity?

425. In what location do these abstracts exist?

426. What happens when we argue over the properties of an object / family of objects? I say a ‘hero’ has properties x, you disagree and say heroes have properties y. Who is right, and which abstract objectively exists?

The whole enterprise comes down to arguing that God must then design, create and thus define these categories. That is the only way to properly establish these categories in any objective fashion because we clearly can’t do it subjectively. This isn’t, then Natural Law Theory, but Divine Law Theory whereby things don’t arise naturally but under the guidance and resulting from the will and creative input of God.

As such, this all comes down to epistemology. How do we know a) what the categories are (human or homo sapiens, but not homo australopithecus, for example) and b) what the properties for each of those categories would be (homosexuality, lying as a kid, lying for the greater good – to stop a murder, etc.). And I am not sure that the only viable source of data on this, the Bible, is at all clear.

So, how does the Thomist navigate the epistemological minefield of essentialism? Do they, themselves, subjectively define the categories and properties to which we must adhere? It looks rather similar to the project of subjective morality!



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