What do natural lawyers chase instead of ambulances?

What do natural lawyers chase instead of ambulances? August 25, 2012
Look what I found by googling “Newton vs Leibniz”!
(totally becomes relevant farther down the post)

Buried in the (correct) thread for discussing meta-questions about that gargantuan thread on natural law, Joshua Zelinsky of Religion, Sets, and Politics raised a meta-question about whether he should find natural law plausible enough to raise to the level where he cares about investigating the hypothesis.  He wrote:

The following is not a critique of natural law but rather a meta-level heuristic concern about it. It seems pretty clear that once one buys into a general Catholic (or a high church Anglican) sort of approach that natural law makes sense. However, other religions with extremely similar baselines have adopted similar premises but don’t have “natural law” systems. This isn’t strictly speaking true- for example in Judaism the Maimonidean tradition does have some similar ideas, and in certain aspects of Islamic philosophy one gets not too dissimilar ideas. But, if the idea really does rest on very basic notions of teleology that are common enough that they are shared by all the major Abrahamic religions, one has to wonder why similar arguments have evolved among them. Why for example does the Ba’hai philosophy have no similar notion? (Note that while the term “natural law” is used also in the Enlightenment philosophers to talk about rights they are a) heavily influenced by their European upbringing and b) generally using the term in a very different manner other than essential agreement that some form of natural law exists).

This ties in with a general heuristic that seems worthwhile. Does a given idea arise independently in multiple cultures? For example, Aristotelian logic looks a lot like Indian logic (although Indian logic arose much later so there is an argument that the Indians may have been influenced by Western logic). Thus, this suggests that Aristotle’s basic ideas about logic are potentially culturally independent. Obviously, such arguments have their limits- multiple cultures came up with a geocentric model of the solar system but hat’s because the naive evidence really does look that way. Moreover, as humanity has advanced, communication between cultures is easier. In an effectively global culture, it is much harder for ideas to arise separately. But despite this, it should be a slight alarm bell that natural law, which by its nature claims to arise at a near universal level in fact only comes out of a single set of theological traditions.

We’re not using the strict rules of the last thread, because I think this points to a more general epistemological question: how suspicious should you be of a culturally-isolated idea?  Both Leibniz and Newton discovered the calculus, because “what’s true is what’s there to be interacted with.”  If we’d shot either of them, the math would have still turned up.

So, was Aristotle or Aquinas indispensable?  Should truths that require singular insight be taken with a much bigger grain of salt?  I’m still mulling this over, and I’m pretty sure I’m going to be returning to it next week at length when I review Gregory Wolfe’s Beauty Will Save the World, so I’d like to hear your thoughts now.

On the factual matter: Does natural law crop up in other traditions?

On the epistemological: What do you make of your answer to the above?


MEANWHILE: Yvain, the one who launched that giant thread, has a bunch of follow-up questions chez lui.  He’s been reading The Last Superstition, so now he’s asking things like:

Exactly how many forms do things have? I have the form “human”, but do I also have the forms “male”, “white person”, “doctor”, “person sitting in a motel in Alabama”, “person whose first name contains a prime number of letters”, and “thing made of mass”? If not, what’s the distinction? If so, how does one figure out which forms are more important than others?

On the very remote chance that there’s anyone here who is familiar both with Aristotelian forms and with the idea of cluster-structures in thingspace, does the latter totally remove the need for the former, do they address different questions, or what?

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  • I would like to write a thoughtful reply, but since I have only about 2 minutes, let me anticipate some of the discussion points:
    1. Confucius! Zhuang Zu! Lao Tzu!
    2. Someone (several people?) is(/are) going to talk about The Abolition of Man.
    3. Someone more interesting will talk about Alasdair MacIntyre.
    4. Hopefully a Thomist will talk about the need for an idea to be proposed to the intellect and the ways cultural prejudices and trends in thought lead to specific preferences about what categories are developed or explored.
    5. Why haven’t more cultures come up with zero?

    • Taosquirrel

      Hah, my immediate reaction upon reading the original post was “Confucius! Mencius! Lao Tzu!”

    • Irenist

      If this is your quick anticipation of discussion points, I suspect I’d be in awe of your thoughtful reply. (Are you the Elliot who did so very well on the Natural Law thread, btw?) You’ve anticipated with startling insight the kneejerk responses of this particular Catholic comboxer. I am chastened by my predictability, but delighted to be in the (internet-mediated) presence of a cleverer mind.

    • Ray

      On point 5. The concept of zero seems pretty cross cultural, as far as useful mathematical ideas go. It was invented and adopted independently at leas twice (in India and Mexico) and the fact that the Greeks argued against it, indicates they had thought of it first. Newtonian mechanics, on the other hand was only invented once.

      The problem with natural law theory is not that it was invented only once, but the fact that its acceptance has become a cultural marker. This didn’t happen with Newtonian mechanics, calculus, etc. because the cross-cultural value of these things really is self evident.

    • deiseach

      Can anyone point me to a culture where, for example, it is considered perfectly okay for A to sneak next door and stick a knife into B? Even where there are warrior societies, or where vendettas/blood feuds are carried on, or where deceit, trickery and backstabbing are valued as means to attain ends, or if we even take the Spartans encouraging their youths to murder Helots on the ‘tall poppy’ principle, I still don’t know anywhere that says “No, murder is perfectly fine (even if performed outside of the conventions/rules/traditions/limitations we impose culturally on how, when and who it is acceptable to kill)”. There may be such a culture, so if anyone knows what it is, please tell me.

      The point being that “natural law” phraselogy may not be expressed in terms that line up with how it is understood, but the underlying principle is that “there is a law written on the heart of man” so that even those parts of the world that never heard of the Abrahamic God still adhere to certain common values. As to Judaism, isn’t the idea that the Noachic Laws are binding even on the Gentiles much the same thing?

      • Alan

        There is a big leap from certain behavior that are necessary to maintain even small social units (such as theft and murder) must be punished by any society for it to survive long enough to be known about to asserting that “there is a law written on the heart of man” that would include shared morality around say sex.

        • deiseach

          Why is sex privileged over murder? Why can we get away with saying “Oh, sure, everyone agrees murder is wrong” but not adultery?

          Or are we going to say “Rape is a category of crime, not a real offence. It is a remnant of patriarchial property claims on women as chattel, not a universal and in all times wrong deed.”

          • Alan

            Because if you look across societies across time you get near universal agreement that murder is wrong but not that adultery or rape is.

            The discussion here is about evidence that natural law is independently discovered as you would expect if it really is the obvious conclusion of reason. Using the evidence that murder has been independently found to be wrong repeatedly doesn’t get you there when you extend it to other moral categories most who are using natural law want to include.

          • Joseph H. M. Ortiz

            But don’t just about all cultures hold that sexual intercourse must be contained within SOME limits? See on this the Harvard anthropologist Clyde Kluckhohn’s “Ethical Relativity: Sic et Non” in The Journal of Philosophy, vol. 52 (Nov. 10, 1955, esp. pp. 671-672).

          • Alan

            I don’t know, but contained within SOME limits is way to broad a concept to surmise that there are specific sexual prohibition that are independently deducible from nature. Even incest has been not just permitted but expected in various societies over time (even Greek law allowed half-siblings to marry) and that is one that has good non-moral reasons to prohibit. If you are to extend that to adultery (particularly in terms of a married man with an unmarried women – you find somewhat more consistency in the view regarding married women but that is because of property rights, not sexual morality), rape, etc. you will find many examples of cultures that thought it acceptable.

            I can’t find that full article online for free – I will try to track it down.

      • keddaw

        I do seem to recall a story about a big wooden horse…

      • Ted Seeber

        “Can anyone point me to a culture where, for example, it is considered perfectly okay for A to sneak next door and stick a knife into B? ”

        Chechnyan comes to mind. Also the Gurkhas from Nepal. Although- both have systems of honor, but in general the weak are to be slaughtered.

        Both cultures were assimilated in the 19th and 20th centuries by stronger neighbors- who then turned around and used them for cannon fodder style troops (usually surprisingly successfully, some of the stories that came from the use of Gurkhas in the Falklands War are gruesome, but show that a machine gun nest is not always a good defense against a bunch of crazy people with knives).

  • On the factual matter: What we usually think of as natural law theory is due to Cicero and Aquinas, and, historically, flourishing periods of natural law theory in the West have been due to revival of interest in one of those two (current interest is chiefly in Aquinas, but, for instance, the flourishing of natural law thought in the Scottish Enlightenment was arguably due more to the importance of Cicero to Scottish education than to anything else). This means, however, that we have to be very careful in distinguishing among

    (a) the principles of natural law as an approach (which takes moral conclusions to be derivable from rationally discoverable obligations based on facts of human action)
    (b) the specific vocabulary in which the approach is framed (and which in the West is due almost entirely to Cicero and Aquinas)
    (c) particular conclusions drawn from particular arguments

    It’s unsurprising that (b) and (c) would differ widely; when Newton and Leibniz developed their versions of calculus they didn’t come up with the same notation (b) and Newtonians and Leibnizians weren’t always in agreement either with each other or with their later successors about particular conclusions that could be drawn or not drawn (c) — e.g., they regularly made particular inferential moves in particular cases that would later be considered not properly rigorous, or even wrong. Even in the West you can find important (b) and (c) divergences. So we’re really just talking about whether there are any other traditions in which people have argued that there are obligations or duties grounded on human nature and discoverable by reason. It’s argued quite often that Hinduism and Buddhism have natural law traditions — they talk about dharma or dhamma instead of laws, but dharma is often seen as a principle of order in nature, discovered and not merely invented (and thus in a straightforward way natural), capable of being recognized by reflective thinking, such that failure to live according to it is foolish (and therefore defectively rational) and makes one’s life in some sense defectively human. It’s not a command, but one of the things that’s always difficult to get across to people when talking about natural law theory in the West is that Aquinas’s account of law doesn’t require that we think of laws as commands, at least if you aren’t just stipulating that the two words are synonyms. So there’s an example. Not every discussion of dharma or dhamma in Hinduism or Buddhism would count, just as not every discussion of law in the West would count, but it’s not uncommon to find people treating certain strands of, say, Theravedan Buddhism as natural law traditions, in a broad sense (and it’s unrealistic, given differences in vocabularies (b) and interests (c), to go for more precise than a broad sense). And as Elliott notes, there have been people who have argued that both Confucianism and Taoism get at least pretty close to something like a natural law approach, and you can find scholars of both who argue that it’s more than just pretty close, despite some significant differences ((b) and (c) again).

    On the epistemological: I think we need to be much more specific; it’s not difficult to find scientific and mathematical concepts that are culturally isolated, in the sense that they are only found in a given culture or in cultures directly influenced by that culture. Surely the real question for whether an idea is merely a cultural artifact is not whether many cultures invent or discover it independently, which is obviously affected by any number of historical accidents, but whether it can cross cultural boundaries at all so as to be justified independently? If it can, and the cultures in question are very different, then it shows at least that the idea is probably based on something accessible regardless of your culture, and therefore not a mere cultural artifact.

    • Ray

      I like your a,b, c categorization of divergences in natural law theory a lot. That said, I’ve got to say I find type c divergences much more disturbing. Certainly, I don’t think calculus has or ever has had anywhere near the degree of type c divergence that natural law has, and to the extent that these divergences haven’t been flat out resolved, it’s generally taken to mean that there are two different concepts masquerading as one (e.g. Lebesgue and Riemann integration.) Natural law theory, on the other hand, has had much longer to resolve the relevant conflicts, and there seems to have been very little progress (Is there gender equality in natural law? If so does that demand women be admitted to the Catholic Priesthood? Be allowed to marry women as men do? etc.) Worse, practices formerly approved by natural law theorists or similar (Slavery, Sati, Death for Heresy) were ended by political power, not rigorous proof of wrongness in the natural law framework.

      I just don’t see any evidence that the various natural law theories are equivalent to one another in the same way that the calculuses of Leibniz and Newton were equivalent.

      • I don’t think it’s necessary for them to be equivalent to one another in the same way that the calculuses of Leibniz and Newton were equivalent; rather, the point is that any argument of this sort would certainly at least have to be handle the kinds of differences shown by the calculuses of Leibniz and Newton. There are two very important disanalogies right offhand, though, that are clearly relevant here, and that would lead one to expect some rather significant differences: (1) Newton and Leibniz actually shared the same culture — they both knew the method of exhaustion, they both knew Barrow’s characteristic triangles, they both knew the Galilean and Cartesian physics and the problems raised by them, they had even read some of each other’s works; that’s a massively closer cultural association than the sort of thing in question here. Many of the ideas of the full calculus are actually culturally isolated in the sense used in the post: everyone who accepts them is directly or indirectly in the line of influence of Newton and Leibniz, and thosed two shared the same general European culture, down to reading many of the same books and knowing many of the same people. Natural law approaches to moral life fare better by this metric, so if cultural isolation is a problem, it would end up being more a problem for calculus than natural law. If it’s not a problem for calculus, however, that shows that it’s not just cultural isolation that’s the (alleged) problem. But, in any case, natural law theory, developing much more widely, has to deal with a wider range of potential impediments. (2) Natural law theorists themselves have for centuries pointed out that one significant difference between ethics and something like mathematics is that mathematics is a purely general field that abstracts from particular real-world differences, while ethics, no matter how much it uses general principles, can never completely abandon particular differences, because ethics is a field in which particular circumstances can change everything (whether something is good or bad, right or wrong, can change considerably depending on what you know, what precisely you were responding to, etc.). Natural law theory says that moral principles, like mathematical principles, are rational; mathematical principles are theoretical, however, and concern necessary truths, while moral principles are practical, and need to be applied to complex contingent situations with all their endless detail.

        And this last is quite relevant to your questions. Gender equality has been a part of natural law at least since Augustine, who has at least a rudimentary form of it and explicitly argues that men and women are fundamentally the same. But you aren’t talking about general principles; you are talking about particular practices. And even when general principles are settled, it can be an open question whether they apply to a particular practice, and why or why not, and if so, how. And we see this point obviously every day: Suppose it to be a general principle that freedom is a good thing and also we should avoid as much as reasonably possible things that kill people. Does that mean we should all be free to have nuclear weapons? Hunting rifles? Automobiles? Cigarettes? Butcher knives? Each particular issue has to be addressed in its own right, because each particular issue has circumstances that can make some difference. Does gender equality mean that all sexual differentiation is unjust so that, for instance, it’s morally wrong for men and women to wear different kinds of clothes? Most people would say no, and obviously this is because vague references to gender equality don’t tell you how to deal with particular circumstances; this has to be reasoned out and often approximated. The most intensely disputed topic in the history of natural law theory in the West was usury. Everyone agreed that usury was wrong (the first major philosopher to argue otherwise was Bentham, who was very anti-natural-law-theory), and there was a very broad and general agreement why. Everyone agreed on what usury was, to at least a degree of approximation. People very often agreed that these or those kinds of financial contract were usurious. But every single time a significantly new kind of financial contract was invented it had to be argued out whether it was usurious and why, and in doing so they uncovered points on which they hadn’t precise enough before, and so had to argue out the best way to be precise about it. And because there are lots and lots of possible financial contracts, and because rigorous reasoning about particular situations is very difficult, there were some very long centuries of disputes about the finer details as definitions and criteria were refined, objections and counterobjections answered, and ambiguities cleared up. But that’s not a problem for the general approach; that’s a matter of the difficulty of the subject approached.

        I’m not convinced, though, that it is in fact accurate to say that the history of error shows natural law theory to be much worse off here: at least, it’s not at clear that you are keeping the same standard in talking about both. The errors that advanced mathematicians through the ages have made with regard to the calculus make up an extraordinarily long list; we don’t study the history of errors in calculus, just the solutions that were devised to avoid them. If you are actually counting people who argued for the wrong conclusion, though, you’re going to find lots of examples, because calculus was hard to develop, and any intellectual approach that is hard to develop is going to involve confusions, missteps, and failures in abundance, as well as successes. I wouldn’t be hugely surprised if natural law theory had more missteps than calculus, because there are so many ways ethical reasoning can get derailed, but I’d have to see the supposed evidence before I’d commit to it very strongly. Any highly rational field is going to have a lot of errors, because the problems addressed by any highly rational field are going to require a lot of precision, and the relevant precision won’t always be immediately available. That errors have occurred, or even that lots of errors have occurred, doesn’t actually tell us much.

        I’m somewhat baffled at your suggestion that it is “worse” that practices are ended by practically effective means of ending practices rather than by rational proofs; why would one think otherwise? I wonder, actually, if I understand your argument at this point. Martin Luther King, Jr. didn’t eliminate segregation by arguing that it was against natural law in A Letter from a Birmingham Jail, although he did so argue; eliminating segregation required massive practical changes in society, made by lots and lots of people, which of course would require the application of various kinds of political power. In most of the cases you mentioned (I don’t know enough about the history of sati to say what Hindus and Buddhists speaking of dharma argued about it), natural law theorists had a long history of arguing that natural law required severe limitations on the practices in question — much more severe than were usually found in society, in fact — there was just the question of whether those severe limitations eliminated it entirely or left open the possibility in unusual cases. With slavery, for instance, Aquinas allows that a very limited kind of involuntary servitude might be consistent with natural law, but only if it were a proportionate punishment for a crime; later natural law theorists came to the conclusion that, in fact, the restrictions that would have to obtain were massively greater than Aquinas had thought, and this is very clearly the position that won out historically among natural law theorists. But in no conceivable situation can slavery be eliminated by argument alone, however rigorous one’s proof. Las Casas and other natural law theorists among the Spanish Scholastics argued that Spanish treatment of Indians was in violation of natural law, and this had widespread support among them; there was disagreement as to some of the details of just how much much that required the Spanish to reform and change their practices, however; but even where they agreed, there was no possible way they could make it vanish simply by proving that it was wrong. People like Las Casas had to raise a ruckus, and it was still an uphill battle against prejudice, political interest, and stubborn people who refused to allow that they could be held to rational and objective moral standards whether they wanted to be or not, whether it was convenient or not. Natural law theory doesn’t give a magic answer to how to improve society; but it never claimed to do so (although part of the reason why King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, or Maritain’s Communication with regard to the Draft World Declaration of Human Rights, are modern natural law classics is that they do work on building general natural law answers to the question of the best way to go about changing a society for the better; but they’re also quite clear that there are no ways to do it magically by simply reasoning one’s way to it).

        • Ray

          “I don’t think it’s necessary for them to be equivalent to one another in the same way that the calculuses of Leibniz and Newton were equivalent;”

          If multiple non-equivalent systems of ethics are worthy of the name “natural law,” isn’t that an endorsement of moral relativism. Not that I have a problem with moral relativism (at least in the descriptive sense), but I thought moral relativism was the problem that natural law morality was supposed to solve.

          As for the rest. I’ll not dispute your understanding of history, but I would point out that the only person I can think of who, by way of natural law arguments, reached ethical conclusions in opposition to his own way of life and inherited cultural values was Thomas Jefferson, on the issue of slavery (Interestingly enough said natural law arguments famously did not convince him of the plausibility of Christian Miracle claims, unlike Leah.) Aquinas on slavery certainly doesn’t count, since slavery was not a major part of the medieval economy, nor does Martin Luther King on segregation (While I admire King for his courage and his commitment to non-violence, and I support his cause like almost everyone else from my inherited culture, I don’t think a black man needs much convincing to be opposed to discrimination against blacks.)

          • If multiple non-equivalent systems of ethics are worthy of the name “natural law,” isn’t that an endorsement of moral relativism. Not that I have a problem with moral relativism (at least in the descriptive sense), but I thought moral relativism was the problem that natural law morality was supposed to solve.

            No, why would it? People have proposed multiple physics. For that matter, our two best physical theories right now, quantum mechanics and general relativity, don’t always play nicely together. But that does not mean that we should be relativists about the truth of physics. And while an account of moral reasoning is a very different thing from physics, it shows that you are conflating (a), (b), and (c) again; it takes a great deal more than just reasonable disagreement to get relativism of any kind. And it actually follows from several of the standard theses of natural law that there will be divergences; Aquinas, for instance, explicitly insists not only that there will be divergences but that to some extent divergences are unavoidable in no less than three of the six articles of ST 2-1.94, where he looks primarily at natural law. Further, a lot of the divergence can be explained by differences in interest; people don’t develop lines of reasoning for things they don’t think about, and what issues are really big issues in a culture will vary a bit from culture to culture.

            However, moral relativism is not the problem natural law theory is meant to solve; natural law theory is meant to solve the problem of how moral reasoning works. And moral relativism is not really a problem to be solved, anyway; there are just excellent reasons to consider it wrong.

            I am not really sure I follow the thread of your last paragraph; why is persuasion — which is simply a matter of rhetoric, even in one’s own case — the standard of the quality of an account of moral reasoning? Persuasion is not by any means the primary standard of any kind of reasoning. Such a standard would simply hold rational inquiry hostage to the stupidest or stubbornest people, the people who will not be persuaded, regardless. And whywould you think that the only thing that Martin Luther King, Jr. could possibly have gotten from natural law theory was to convince himself that discrimination was wrong? It seems rather strange to dismiss an account of moral reasoning by saying that people who reason using it agree with it, or see excellent reason to regard it as right. Nor do I see why we should dismiss King’s argument because he was black. King himself is quite clear about why he speaks in terms of natural law theory, and it’s not because he had to learn it in order to figure out that discrimination was bad, but because segregation as practiced inthe United States was not merely bad for blacks, it was irrational, inhuman, and immoral, by its very nature, and natural law theory had the vocabulary and the principles to say that — because he was not merely ‘opposed to discrimination against blacks’, he was provably right to be so and anyone who wasn’t was provably in the wrong, and natural law theory had the principles to show it — because reducing opposition to segregation to segregation’s simply not conforming to the preferences of blacks, as if black opposition to discrimination against themselves were simply a matter of having had the misfortune to be on the receiving end of it and not also a recognition of its being wrong in itself, is to trivialize just how serious the issue was (and I think King’s very clear about that). Now, of course, one can argue that, in fact, he was wrong about these points, but to dismiss him as simply an obvious case of irrelevance because he was on the receiving end of what he was opposing is something that makes no sense whatsoever. Either his reasoning was good or it was not. I guess I just don’t understand where you’re coming from; your idea of what an account of good moral reasoning would do is radically different from mine.

          • To put the matter in another way, using examples from my own case. My particular ethical position on usury, i.e., what it is and that it is bad and why, is derived entirely from looking at the natural law arguments on the subject; it’s a very different view after looking at the arguments than before. My particular ethical position on love for one’s parents, i.e., what it is and that it is good and why, is not derived from natural law theory at all, although I agree with some major natural law arguments on the subject, and find some of the arguments to be illuminatingly useful for saying things I could not have said about it before. So here we have a case where the position is derived from natural law and another case where it is not. But why in the world should anyone care in either case? Would the quality of the arguments have been different if I had started with the same position on usury at which I ended? No. Would the general principles of the theory have been different if I had started with that position on usury? No. Would the quality of arguments have been different if I had ultimately continued with my original views? No, and I would have still have had to deal with them and find answers to them. And the same questions can be asked on the other side. That’s the way an account of reasoning works. Yes, people can use any account of reasoning to rationalize — but once they do, their arguments are public, accountable to standard general principles, and can be examined and evaluated according to those standards. There’s no reason why anyone would care whether I were persuaded by a natural law argument to take the position I did, or came to agree with a natural law argument because it seemed to present well the reasons why I already had the position I did: the difference between the two might say something about my character, but not about the general approach.

            And this is, it should be said quite general: it simply doesn’t matter whether Kantianism or Mill’s Art of Life — which I think are still two of the best rivals to natural law theory as accounts of moral rationality — persuade people to do the right thing. People can be perverse, prejudiced, and stupid; what we ask of an account of rationality is not that it makes people perfect nor that it be impossible to misuse but that it show the way in which sound reasoning is possible and provide the resources for engaging in it.

          • Ray

            “People have proposed multiple physics. For that matter, our two best physical theories right now, quantum mechanics and general relativity, don’t always play nicely together. ”

            The attitude of physicists on this point is to regard the predictions of the standard model and general relativity as correct, ONLY when the relevant length and energy scales are such that the two systems DO play nicely together. No reasonable physicist puts any stock in standard model predictions regarding what happens above the Planck temperature, nor does he trust classical general relativity to give predictions accurate to within the Planck length. As it happens, these limitations are irrelevant to any scenario physicists can actually test in practice, but if we did the same with natural law morality, we couldn’t take seriously any result from natural law theory that was not universally, or nearly universally accepted within all major traditions. We’d have to hold off judgement on segregation until we could figure out whether to trust Martin Luther King’s arguments in his Birmingham Letter or Hindu arguments that mixing of the Castes is Adharma (Granted, said arguments aren’t as popular as they used to be, but it’s unclear whether this is due to reasoned argument or international strongarm tactics.)

            In short, your analogy to physics does not absolve your from resolving type c divergences, for two reasons:
            1) Natural law theorists claim a greater degree of universality for their theories than the physicists do. Physicists will freely admit that the standard model and classical GR are mere approximations, but I’ve never heard a natural law theorist argue e.g. that all men are created approximately equal.
            2) At the same time Natural law theorists deliver far less universal agreement between theories in practice than do physicists. I can’t help but suspect we’d still be arguing over the morality of slavery had the Confederacy won the American Civil War. What war did the Geocentrists lose that made them so scarce on the ground? In any event, there are plenty of areas where natural law theorists still disagree amongst themselves (same sex marriage, condoms, divorce law…)

            I can sympathize with wanting to give a grander exaltation to those who freed the slaves than “they were much appreciated by the former slaves, their descendents, and everyone who feels sympathy for those who were once slaves,” but you’ll not find it in nature. Nature doesn’t care about morality — she allowed the Union victory, but only after millenia of endemic slavery. She also allowed the Mongols victory in their rampage that left tens of millions dead, cities destroyed and drenched in blood etc. Does that mean their cause was just as well?

          • Ray

            As a side not, feel free to continue the argument, but I selfishly suspect that I would find your evolution of thought on usury much more interesting than continued rebuttals. Rebuttal or no, please elaborate on that point.

          • Again, as I said before, the point is not that ethics is exactly like physics; rather, the point is that the sorts of arguments you are making require extroardinarily controversial claims about a wide variety of fields, even ones as different from ethics as physics. The arguments you have been making really require that we be relativists about absolutely everything; they don’t actually pick out a distinctive feature of natural law theory in particular or even ethics in general. (It would be extremely surprising if the way of handling the sort of problem you suggest were the same even within different fields of science, much less across the physics/ethics dilemma; it’s simply a mistake to assume that because fields have analogous problem — in this case disagreement — that it is possible or even reasonable to solve them in the same way.)

            I find it interesting that you say, “Nature doesn’t care about morality “. So you don’t think human beings are part of Nature? I’d have to see the reasoning for that; there’s good reason to think that human beings are entirely natural, and therefore it follows immediately that nature does, in fact, care about morality, because it is not at all difficult to find natural things to which morality is very important; you can go out in the street in meet them. Any account of the relation between nature and morality taht does not take this into account is self-defeating, and any account that makes a very sharp distinction between the natural and the moral will be fail to take it into account; the only metaphysics on which such distinctions can be made are those that take human beings to be radically different from anything else, including their own bodies. In any case natural law theory in the West is not about nature as such, but nature as ordered by reason. What nature contributes is not obligations — this requires practical reason — but ends, like preservation of life, propagation of species and society, and rational pursuit of truth. This is actually one of the repeated difficulties with talking about natural law theory; people regularly assume they know what the ‘natural’ part means, but its meaning in this context is technical, not colloquial.

          • That should be ‘physics/ethics divide’ not ‘physics/ethics dilemma’, of course.

          • Ray

            I do not mean to imply that humans are outside of nature. However, I don’t see how the fact, that humans, each being part of nature, care about morality, implies that the whole of nature may be meaningfully said to care about morality. Humans care about morality in often very contradictory ways and I don’t see how you can combine such contradictory judgements to give a universal judgement of nature on the subject of morality. If natural law is founded upon the fact that individual humans care about it, it seems that such a law would be incoherent when applied to any controversial situation.

            As for the issue of relativism. I’d have to see the charge in more detail before I would be willing to deny it — there are a number of versions of relativism that I find quite innocuous — but at present, I feel that I have made quite a serious charge against the natural law theory of morality, which I think the burden is upon you to defend: I think that those who expound ethics claiming to be derived from natural law, are not deriving their conclusion from a single unified set of premises, but a host of mutually contradictory, and often ill defined sets of premises. Thus, if you wish to claim that natural law theorists are working with a single universal system of ethics and not with many codes of behavior sharing only the name “natural law” and a handful of uncontroversial ethical implications — e.g. the idea that murder is almost always wrong, the burden is on you to demonstrate it. I can’t list every possibility for how you could answer this challenge, but I can give examples where such challenges have been met in mathematics and the physical sciences.

            1)You can show straight up mathematical equivalence. In the strictest sense, this is machine verifiable, removing nearly all possibility of human bias. But I’d settle for running the proof by a few mathematicians who are initially (i.e. up until the point when they see your proof) skeptical of the natural law project. Mathematicians have a long history of actually being convinced by rigorous logic, even if it’s contrary to their personal and cultural biases — examples: The irrationality of square roots of prime numbers, the inconsistency of naive set theory, Godel’s incompleteness theorems, the consistency of non-Euclidean geometry etc.

            2)Absent a rigorous mathematical proof, you can try to show that you’re talking about the same thing empirically, by demonstrating the ability of the natural law community to independently reach the same conclusion when given novel ethical queries. Needless to say, natural law theory has not cleared this hurdle. You guys can’t even agree on a number of common ethical questions for which you’ve had centuries to get the story straight amongst yourselves. Examples of inductively proven equivalences in physics include ages reached by various different sorts of radiometric dating, the cosmological distance ladder, climate proxies, force defined by Newton’s second law as compared to force as defined by Hooke’s law etc.

            Now maybe there’s a third way to convince the skeptic that natural law theorists are all talking about the same natural law of morality, but I haven’t seen it, and you’d think that if such an argument existed, there wouldn’t be so many smart moral relativists and moral error theorists in the world.

          • the whole of nature may be meaningfully said to care about morality

            But this is not a requirement of the approach. Indeed, I’m not even sure why it’s supposed to be relevant: in the sense that the whole of nature doesn’t care about morality, it doesn’t care about survival, or health, or anything at all. But in that case we’re talking about something that has absolutely no relevance whatsoever to practical reason, and as I keep pointing out, natural law theory is an account of practical reason.

            I think that those who expound ethics claiming to be derived from natural law, are not deriving their conclusion from a single unified set of premises, but a host of mutually contradictory, and often ill defined sets of premises.

            Yet you’ve said nothing to show this to be plausible that does not assume something that is not required by the natural law approach. It may well be that there’s some sort of problem here that needs to be addressed, but I can’t defend against objections you can’t make clear. Take for instance your sentence, which in context borders on nonsensical, in the sense that (as with your “nature doesn’t care” argument, as with your “whole of nature” argument) I have no clue where you’re getting any of this:

            Thus, if you wish to claim that natural law theorists are working with a single universal system of ethics and not with many codes of behavior sharing only the name “natural law” and a handful of uncontroversial ethical implications — e.g. the idea that murder is almost always wrong, the burden is on you to demonstrate it.

            But I don’t wish to claim it, and nothing I’ve said in this entire thread implies it. And in fact it’s ridiculously easy to see this: systems of ethics are large-scale networks arising at (c)-level. I have already told you that the most influential form of natural law theory, the Thomistic, implies that at this level there will necessarily be divergences as a matter of fact, and therefore no universality in the sense you mean. I have already explicitly pointed out to you that natural law theory as an approach is not monolithic, that in fact there are divergent “codes of behavior” consistent with the approach. I have already pointed out to you that natural law theory at the broader levels (a) and (b) is a theory of practical rationality. The overall structure is similar to a theory of theoretical rationality: just as there are certain basic logical principles of reasoning, like the principle of noncontradiction, so there are certain basic practical principles of reasoning; any practical reasoning is rational to the extent that it conforms to these first principles of practical reasoning, in much the same way that theoretical reasoning to be rational has to conform to the first principles of theoretical reasoning. But just as it would be absurd to assume that the principle of noncontradiction commits you to one particular theory in physics, or that even if it did that this theory would be easily deduced, so these general principles of practical reasoning do not commit one to a particular “code of behavior”. (Nor would it be at all reasonable to expect them to do so. Obviously “codes of behavior” are going to get part of their content from the fact that they are built up under particular circumstances.) However, these general practical principles will rule out regions of possible practical reasoning as irrational, just as general logical principles will rule out regions of possible theoretical reasoning as irrational. Unlike general logical principles, however, these general practical principles must include agent-relative information (they have to be practical), and in our case the agents are human, and so the general practical principles for human life will involve some very high-level general facts about human nature — that we can think rationally and irrationally, for instance, that we are social, that we need to eat, that we reproduce sexually, etc. Since we’re talking general principles, specifics won’t come in. And notice that we aren’t at this point, which is all at (a)-level, at “behavior” at all, except in the indirect way that human behavior presupposes deliberate reasoning. In a sense we aren’t even at ethics, but simply at what Mill calls the ‘art of life’ level, namely, we’re talking about ethics only in the sense that moral reasoning is a form of practical reasoning, which is what we’ve gotten to so far. But if our moral reasoning is subject to these standards of practical reasoning, then there are rational and irrational moral arguments, and likewise more rational and less rational moral arguments. If we focus on these, we have a natural law framework for inquiry into ethical issues. All at level (a), still.

            Level (b) in the West comes in with the recognition — its origin is not really known, but it is Cicero who puts it into a form that becomes widely popular — that this same framework can function as one for examining the rationality of obligations — law in the most general sense — and not merely for things that fall under weaker senses of practical rationality and irrationality. Note that this is not universal, not in the sense that any other natural law theorists say anything that rules it out, but that this is a line of inquiry that really only arises in precisely this form in the West. The Confucians for instance, are not really interest in law or obligation as such; they are interested — for lack of a better English word — in authority, or authoritativeness, and this is where their line of inquiry goes. There are analogies and similarities here and there — for instance, just as the natural law theorists in the West argue that positive law and convention must be consistent with natural law to obligate, so too the Confucians can often be seen to be arguing that legal and social authoritativeness depend on moral authoritativeness. But they are different lines of inquiry, and one could not possibly expect them to yield one “code of behavior”; they are improving the moral rationality of different kinds of features of rather different kinds of societies, so of course the two codifications are at best going to share (a)-level basics and certain broad analogies.

            Even if we stay within one of these lines of inquiry, that of the West, it’s clear that there will be no one “code of behavior”. As I’ve already pointed out, Aquinas’s famous question on natural law has six articles, and half of them are devoted to pointing out ways in which, despite the universal framework, people will not come to the same conclusions. Some of these have nothing to do with the framework itself (social prejudice, for instance, will affect people’s practical reasoning as much and even more than it affects theoretical reasoning); others have to do with the fact that practical reasoning has to be practical (e.g., circumstances can change quickly and vary widely, so you can’t reason as if everything were the same everywhere for all time); others are direct implications of what the framework implies about obligation ( for instance, that moral questions will vary wildly in terms of difficulty, and that while some will be resolvable by simple deduction, the overwhelming majority require considering immense numbers of details, so most of our actual (c)-level arguments will have to be (1) approximate; (2) probabilistic; (3) based on hypotheses and tentative information; (4) selective, abstracting from many of the details, with the concomitant risk of leaving something important out; (5) mixed in with rules of thumb that seem in our experience to work well; (6) some mixture of these and probably other things.) Practical reasoning is certainly not simpler than theoretical reasoning. And, as I said before, you’re not going to codify anything you never bother to think about. If you never think about lending and borrowing, there’s no chance of you ever coming to any conclusions about when you are entitled to charge interest on a loan and when you aren’t; so if people never bother to think about the morality of something, or if they do so in a merely cursory and slapdash way, there’s no guarantee that there will be any progress on that point, just as nobody corrects the logic of a line of thought if they never treat it as important enough to evaluate.

            So, no, it’s actually inconsistent with natural law theory that there would ever be one “code of behavior”. It does say that codes of behavior or accountable to more general rational principles, and that you can distinguish between rational and irrational codes of behavior, and argue reasonably about whether given codes of behavior are more or less rational. You can also argue that certain kinds of purported obligations, permissions, or prohibitions, are directly or indirectly inconsistent. And, just as with logic, it can commit you to certain conclusions if certain things are true about the world. But this purported universal ‘code of behavior’ is nonexistent, and you can find natural law theorists explicitly saying why. If we speak really loosely, we could perhaps talk about it as a ‘system of ethics’, in the same way that full-scale Kantianism, or Mill’s Art of Life, might be considered a ‘system of ethics’; but this is a much more massive and ambitious project than a piddling little code of behavior, and anyone who tells you otherwise doesn’t understand natural law theory. There are particular solutions to particular problems that are widely accepted by natural law theorists, just as there are widely accepted solutions in many other fields; the precise quality of these will vary, just as they do in every other rational field; and many of them are based not merely on (a) and (b) but also on certain claims about the world, or, more usually, human nature itself that are much more specific than the very high-level points that (a) and (b) deal with. Each of these has to be argued out, rejected or accepted, on its own, by looking at the actual case in question.

            On moral relativism and moral error theorists, there aren’t actually very many of the latter in the world at all, smart or not, and it’s absolutely unclear how many consistent moral relativists there are, given that most people who are not moral relativists think moral relativism is intrinsically inconsistent or practically unworkable, and it’s only rationally and practically consistent moral relativists that would be relevant to your argument. But in any case, these things matter no more here than they would elsewhere: if there are lots of external world skeptics with clever arguments, it does not follow that it is the most reasonable position. People may indeed disagree about whether it is — one hopes that the external world skeptics hold it because they think it the more reasonable position, for instance — but this has to be argued out in its own terms. However, to do anything like this here (1) you’d have to be more specific about the particular arguments you have in mind and (2) both you doing that and me responding in any adequate way is probably not going to get very far in a comment box, given that entire books can be and have been written on such subjects.

  • Joseph H. M. Ortiz

    No one disputes that any notion of “natural law” found in Aristotle was mainly “teleological”, based on ordering of means to end. However, the perhaps most famous natural-law philosopher of the 2oth Century, Jacques Maritain, argues (as in Ch. 2, section 6 of his book Moral Philosophy), against Aristotle, that not *teleology* but moral *value*, is what natural moral law is based on first:
    “All of us, just by being, all of us know from the beginning, at first glance, that it is a fine thing to tell the truth without fear, or to risk one’s life to save a man in danger of death or to care for lepers, and that it is bad to betray a friend or to let oneself be bought by a suborner. And at that moment we do not ask ourselves whether the act is or is not a means of attaining what we regard as the true end of human life: our judgment is purely and simply a judgment of value; …. This kind of immediate judgment … poses a problem for the philosopher — it is a fundamental datum whose existence he ought to recognize, not conceal.”
    Maritain’s section 6 concludes: “And it is … because in the first place [a human action] has in itself a positive moral VALUE, that it is in consequence of such a nature as to lead us toward our final END.”

    • Joseph H. M. Ortiz

      Correction: the section at point is 7, not 6.

  • Joseph H. M. Ortiz

    Ms. Libresco asks, “Does natural law crop up in other traditions?” Well, “As Mr. John C. H. Wu has noted, …: ‘Confucianism had attained to a vision of the natural law which comes even nearer to that of the Christian’ than what is said on this subject by the Greek and Latin philosophers. ‘Let one quotation from the Confucian classic The Golden Mean suffice: “What is ordained by Heaven is called essential nature. Conformity to essential nature is called the natural law. The refinement of the natural law is called culture”‘” (Jacques Maritain, Moral Philosophy, first chapter, first section).

    • David

      That’s an odd translation of the Zhong Yong. I think people here are right that there is a case for Confucianism also having a sense of natural law, but the quote you provided can only legitimately be translated in the way that you give if one has already decided to equate 道 (dao/tao as in Daoism, and commonly translated as something more like “the way” or “the path” even simply left in Chinese as “the Tao”) and “natural law.”
      The original line is 天命之謂性,率性之謂道,修道之謂教。Translated extremely literally, you get something like “that which heaven ordains is called nature (as in, the nature of something, not the great outdoors), that which accords with nature is called the way, that which cultivates the way is called teaching.” Or to take Legge’s classic translation: “What Heaven has conferred is called The Nature; an accordance with this nature is called The Path of duty; the regulation of this path is called Instruction.” Or for a more recent translation: “What Heaven confers is called “nature.” Accordance with this nature is called the Way. Cultivating the Way is called “education.””

      The resemblance to natural law is clear, but it is not self-evident that “dao” and “natural law” can be equated. As an interesting note to this, the Chinese version of the Bible that I’ve looked at translates λόγος (logos, as in the opening of John) as “dao.” I’m not an expert on this by any means, but my understanding is that “logos” as used in John is something quite different from “natural law.” This doesn’t really prove anything, but I think it suggests the expansiveness of the concept of “dao” in Chinese religion and philosophy, and that we should avoid thinking of it as simply a Chinese analogue to natural law.

      • Zac

        Good translation!
        I prefer dao=’way’, and Wu’s insertion of ‘natural law’ is clumsy, but I can see what he’s getting at. To act in accordance with your nature is to follow natural law (the laws of your nature). To someone familiar with natural law it’s obvious that natural law belongs in that schema somewhere, though it would be better to change the term.

        It would be interesting to see how Wu treats ‘dao’ in other places in the Confucian context. I’ve read arguments that the ‘dao’ of Confucius is more literally ‘the way/path’ than the transcendent, ineffable dao of the Daoists. Natural law would be better translated in that context as 法.

        • David

          I definitely agree that there are similarities between the “dao” of classical Confucian thought and natural law. That said, I wonder how much of the attempt to equate the two ideas comes out of a Catholic intellectual tradition that interpreted Confucianism in light of Christianity, rather than on its own terms. In particular, I’m referring to the 16th and 17th century Jesuits in China (Matteo Ricci perhaps the most famous of them) who attempted to argue to the Church hierarchy that Confucianism was compatible with Christianity and thus that converts should be allowed to continue to practices like sacrifices to their ancestors. I’m not aware of natural law playing a particularly important role in these arguments, but Wu’s translation seems to have a similar motivation (perhaps tied to him being a Chinese Catholic); to show the fundamental compatibility of Christianity and China’s own philosophical tradition. I think this sort of motivation is something that most scholars of China today would be very wary of, and with good reason.

          Anyway, while Chinese philosophy certainly has the notion of a sort of natural order that people are bound to follow, with both 法 and 道 having some of that meaning, I think there are still crucial differences. First, I think the Western notion of natural law is much more clearly universal than the analogous Chinese ideas. Confucian thinkers have frequently been divided about whether those outside of China are really part of the same system as those within it (is 天下 really the whole world or is it equivalent to 中國). There were certainly attempts to claim that “barbarians” could be civilized – brought within the framework of “natural law”, if you will – but at least as prominent (and probably even more common) were arguments that 夷狄 tribes were intrinsically different and not within the same moral order as Chinese. The clear universality of natural law seems very fundamental to the Western conception of it; I think the lack of clarity of the Chinese conception is a very fundamental difference.
          Another relevant distinction, though less fundamental, is that natural law in the Catholic tradition, at least as explained by Aquinas is seen as distinct from divine law. This sort of division doesn’t exist in the Chinese context, which does not have a separate tradition of revealed law. I think where this plays out is that Chinese philosophy has historically been much more tied to textual analysis than European philosophy. Confucian philosophical arguments almost always end up referring back to the works of early Confucians, especially the sage himself, relying on an examination of the texts that had set forth natural law in order to explicate it. This holds true for kaozheng just as much as Cheng-Zhu neo-Confucianism (in fact, the kaozheng challenge to Cheng-Zhu orthodoxy was in part based on disputing the authenticity of existing versions of early Confucian texts) and thus can, I think, fairly be called a central basis of Confucian “natural law” philosophy. Christian philosophers (and Western philosophers more generally), in contrast, have relied far less on textual analysis of the Bible (revealed law), attempting instead to approach natural law through pure reason. This distinction does not hold absolutely, of course, but I think it is relevant to a comparison of the two traditions.

          • Zac

            It’s a fair point regarding the Christian attitude to Confucianism. The influence of a Christian worldview is evident in some of the translations also. Wilhelm’s Yi Jing commentary is suspiciously amenable to a Christian perspective, as one might expect from a Lutheran missionary/theologian.

            I’m sympathetic to their approach of reading Confucius in light of their own knowledge. I don’t know how one could possibly read him strictly in his own terms. From a ‘realist’ perspective it is fine to assume that his words bear upon the same reality we strive to understand. I think that’s why the Christian interpreters of Chinese thought were quite happy to ‘fill in the gaps’ or interpret everything according to their own knowledge. For example, the Rites controversy shows that the Church would bring it’s own very definite understanding of worship and veneration to bear on the Chinese practices. So, in terms of the ‘barbarians’ issue you mention, the Christian interpreters of Chinese thought seem quite happy to simply point out the error in that line of thought, rather than to hold it up as an example of important distinction between Chinese and Christian philosophy.

  • Zac

    I’ll second (third?) the Confucian ‘nature’ and less obviously the Daoist context (or pretty much all of classical Chinese thought) depends on the idea of a specific human nature conferred by Heaven, and virtue and action that accords with this nature (or more directly, with heaven or the way itself).
    As for Buddhist and Hindu thought, Karma and Dharma are worth investigating…but if you break Natural Law down to its most basic framework, it’s so obvious and common-sense that what makes it stand out in Western thought is more the theoretical focus on it, than the basic concept itself.

  • Natural law is also discussed here, but probably not as quite a sophisticated level as some would want. Maybe try the guys at Just Thomism for a ‘splanation? Or Feser?

    So far as why only the West: Well, because of the rediscovery of Aristotle, combined with the support of the Church, combined with the synthetic-analytical genius of Thomas.

    Rationale: Taken wholly from the reasons for the analogous topic of “why modern science in the West?” discussed in this panel on the Rise of Modern Science, as well as in these books kindly recommended by The OFloinn in a different thread.

    David Lindberg, ed. Science in the Middle Ages (articles on all the sciences).
    David Lindberg: The Beginnings of Western Science.
    Edward Grant: Science & Religion 400 BC-1550 AD.
    Edward Grant: God and Reason in the Middle Ages.
    Edward Grant: The Foundations of Science in the Middle Ages.
    Toby Huff: The Rise of Early Modern Science.

    Basically it boils down to: the university system, a strong relationship between theology and philosophy, the encouragement of the Church, and hairsplitting Scholastic rigor, so far as I can tell.

    I welcome correction.

    • deiseach

      Ah, you’re quoting Mr. Wright! I was about to do the same myself – here is his first post, and it may be helpful for coming at the topic from a different angle, viz. one of the lawyer, not the theologian:

      “Natural Law is a term of art used by philosophers and theologians to refer to that objective moral standards by which Positive Law, that is, laws men posit, manmade law, is to be judged as good or bad, fair or unfair.

      In jurisprudence this same distinction is called by other names: an offense that is malum in se or wicked in and of itself is contradistinguished from an offense that is malum prohibitum or wicked only because it is prohibited.

      Murder is malum in se: if the killing of a human being with malice aforethought takes place on the high sea or in some unclaimed wilderness where no human law has sway, a court of law can still justly punish the crime. Its criminality is innate to the act.

      Driving on the unlawful side of the highway is malum prohibitum: which side of the road is forbidden is different in England versus New England. No court of law could justly punish the act if a man drove on a private road on his own land, or if a scientist landed a wheeled vehicle on Mars and trundled it down some turnpike built by long vanished Barsoomians. An act that is malum prohibitum is wrong only when and where prohibited by Positive Law.

      If no Natural Law existed, all discussions of the goodness or fairness of Positive Law would be silenced.

      A man might say he preferred one statute or court ruling to another, but this would be a mere psychological report of his arbitrary and subjective tastes, like saying he preferred pie to cake.

      No rational debate would take place in parliaments nor in the consciences of kings, contemplating amendments to law, because no standards could exist by which the Positive Law could be judged, or policies proposed to repeal or expand or amend Positive Law.

      (Perhaps one could adjudicate lesser or derivative laws by appeal to standards in older or foundational laws, as when local laws are compared to constitutional law, but even this process would be arbitrary in the absence of Natural Law. For what standards would govern the act of comparison? Are laws supposed to be rational, follow precedent, uphold covenants, encourage thrift and virtue? All such questions are meaningless in the absence of Natural Law.)”

  • But despite this, it should be a slight alarm bell that natural law, which by its nature claims to arise at a near universal level in fact only comes out of a single set of theological traditions.

    This is a fair statement. One line of argument — and this is only hearsay from online — says that evidence for that natural law being true comes not from the system being all over the place but by the conclusions being intuitied so broadly, all over the place.

    Love him or hate him, Mr. Mark Shea, who is quoted here out of context, has a point:

    … when you consult an actual pagan rooted in an actual historic pagan tradition like, say, the Dalai Lama on things like sexual mores, he sounds disappointingly more like Pope Benedict than like some sexually liberated votress of a goddess from a Joss Whedon fantasy universe dressed like a Frank Frazetta heroine.

    … even if you disagree with the classification of Dalai Lama as pagan, &c. Point is that Mr. Lama comes from a non-Christian tradition which still roundly condemns most of today’s favorite sins. (Even if Mr. Lama caves to the “Well, it’s wrong for Buddhists, but harmless for you,” his tradition says otherwise.)

  • Pattsce

    1. As to the first issue, I’ve never been incredibly impressed or convinced by “you only think what you think because you were raised in X culture” arguments for a number of reasons. Mainly, it comes off as a little too…like an attempt to avoid addressing the actual argument. If you can relegate everything to some sort of cultural relativism, it makes philosophy very easy to do.

    But addressing the actual question. One, I think it’s kind of an impossible argument to make a lot of the time. First, the argument is based on its own sort of metaphysics. Namely, that when humans are in X culture, they do Y. Or, that humans are metaphysically something. In other words, the epistemological argument itself is based on metaphysical principles. And those metaphysical principles can be criticized under the same theory. That is, one could argue that the person making the argument only has those particular metaphysical principles because he or she happens to be raised in a culture with them. And on back for infinity.

    Two, I’m not really convinced that Catholicism (that is, being a Catholic) has really anything to do with accepting natural law. That is, while Catholicism concerns itself a great deal with natural law, it’s a completely separate philosophical issue. For example, I converted to Catholicism because I was convinced by Non-Catholic thinkers like Plato or Aristotle. Their thoughts coincidentally coincided with Catholic thought, which led me down a Catholic path. It wasn’t the other way around. Further, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle were not Catholic thinkers, yet you can find clear lines of Natural Law thinking with those thinkers. And this follows the entire criticism being brought here. That is, how could Aquinas have come up with his conclusions had he not been in a post-Socrates-Plato-Aristotle culture? It simply doesn’t make sense to me to say that Catholicism was someone uniquely separate from its cultural context. And if it weren’t separate (which it wasn’t), then natural law ideas clearly Preceded Catholicism. Catholicism was not read into (nor is it required to be convinced by) natural law arguments, but it is instead the other way around.

    Third, though this one might be a little simple, I think some groups may have just gotten it wrong, and I don’t think not being Catholic really had anything to do with that. For example, you can be right about natural law and the logical conclusions of a particular metaphysics and have no interest at all in Catholicism. Someone like Philippa Foot did this. Similarly, the arguments that Do line up with proper thinking about the metaphysics are correct. In that Catholicism matches up with those conclusions, it is true. In that it doesn’t, it is false. Likewise, in that Buddhism lines up with those conclusions, it is true. In that it doesn’t, it is false. I also imagine a lot of these principles and conclusions (at least in part) Do appear in cultures that reach far beyond Catholic cultures. I hardly have any sort of exhaustive list handy (and I’m sure you could write an interesting dissertation on the subject), but just because the exact conclusions aren’t reached really has little to do with whether the principles are the same.

    2. What is being addressed with the ” I have the form “human”, but do I also have the forms “male”, “white person”, “doctor”, “person sitting in a motel in Alabama”, “person whose first name contains a prime number of letters”, and “thing made of mass”?” question is just substantial form. Things have substantial forms and things have accidental forms. A substantial form is the trait the makes a thing what it is. And it usually falls under a sort of hierarchical list. Aristotle would say that a human is a “rational animal,” that that’s its substantial form. Having hair, being white, being a doctor have nothing to do with having the essence of a human, being a rational animal. None of those things are required to make a thing a rational animal. In the same way that being red, being soft, being clear have nothing to do with having the essence of a ball. The substantial, essential parts of a ball are roundness, etc. I think a lot of these ideas are tied to a thing’s intrinsic teleology, especially its flourishing as a thing. For example, I have the form of a mammal with hands. But those hands (the form of the hands) are only relevant in reference to my flourishing as the thing I am. I have birthmarks as well. But those things have nothing to do with my flourishing as the thing I am.

    You mentioned The Last Superstition. Feser talks about most of these things in that book (and in Aquinas). He also discusses them at length on his blog: This article http://edwardfeser.blogspot.com/2012/07/atheistic-teleology.html is somewhat on point.

    • Pattsce

      This from Feser might be helpful as well: “The key distinction is between things having substantial forms and those having only accidental forms. Marks of the former are having causal powers irreducible to those of the parts, having ends toward which they point inherently rather than only as a result of external imposition, and in general a kind of unity that the latter do not have.”

    • “Bulverism” does come to mind.

  • For those interested in teleology and its applications, I’d recommend Ted Chiang’s Nebula and Sturgeon award-winning novella, “Story of Your Life.” Chiang is the only one I know who can use teleology, Fermat’s principle of least time and the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis as the centerpiece of a story that’s also emotionally deep enough to you cry. Well, me anyway. You can read it here.

    • leahlibresco

      I ran into recommendations for this twice in five minutes on two different sites!

  • ‘Exactly how many forms do things have? I have the form “human”, but do I also have the forms “male”, “white person”, “doctor”, “person sitting in a motel in Alabama”, “person whose first name contains a prime number of letters”, and “thing made of mass”? If not, what’s the distinction? If so, how does one figure out which forms are more important than others?’

    I am going to be entirely idiosyncratic: this quoted material is just the tip of the iceberg. What bothers me a lot about something like natural law–or, at least, using natural law to talk about reproductive issues or other issues that stem from anatomical rather than cognitive traits–is that it is unclear what form a human body would ‘naturally’ take. The most basic is whether this body is male or female, but in fact there are a lot of other ways a body could be gendered, though these only occur rarely. “Only occur rarely” does not excuse one from considering those bodies, however. And there are lots of other ways that we can imagine a body that does not, put simply, look like my body: absence of tissue or organs where we might anticipate there to be tissue or organs; presence of tissue or organs where we might anticipate there not to be that tissue or organs; tissue or organs shared with another body (conjoined twins); differences in height, weight, limb length, head size and shape, and so forth. This is not “accidental” in the sense that it has no bearing on that human’s flourishing, because it very clearly will impact that person’s capacities as regards physical activity, but also possibly relationships of dependence (ie. relying on caregivers, negotiating with a conjoined sibling, expecting certain social contracts regarding blindness or deafness). If physical activity does not sufficiently bear on moral matters, I am still quite sure that relationships of dependence do.
    But I do not know enough about natural law: does each person have their own natural law, dependent on their own body? Or is each person held accountable to a natural law based on some ideal body (and what on earth would that look like?) determined by demographic factors like gender, even if their own body is incapable of accomplishing that law’s expectations? I ask this question honestly, because it would determine, for me, whether natural law is worth raising to the point of investigation.

    I would add, too, that even though I have only been talking about anatomy in a certain sense, we also have to acknowledge that brains are anatomical and that reason is a product of a brain that functions with a certain set of ways. There are people whose brains do not function like my brain does (pretending that my brain functions according to a particular mode or cluster–please forgive me if I’m screwing up that stats language here). What is their relationship to natural law? (Much more broadly, I’m asking what reason is and whether there could be more than one kind and who or what counts as a rational animal. I have never encountered anser that meet even a minimal degree of satisfaction, but I’m more than willing to admit ignorance about the matter. Anyone know if these questions have been addressed in a substantial, non-tautological way?)

    (By the way, all of the above also for evolution-derived morality. My objections to either usually apply to the other.)

    • I’m not sure I fully follow the objection, although it sounds interesting, but natural law for human beings is based on reason, not bodies. Or, rather, to put it more exactly, our full bodily life only provides the material (emotions, natural desires, physiological functions) that practical reason has to organize and set in order. This does end being of some importance for your question, although it certainly wouldn’t be a complete answer: whether someone’s reasoning is logical (for instance) is not determined by looking at their brain, and likewise, what’s logical in general can be answered without considering particular brain states. So the notion that reason is just a product of a brain — if it’s taken as a complete account, and therefore a complete explanation of everything that’s relevant to human reasoning — ends up in very weird territory. And natural law theory, roughly speaking, takes natural law reasoning to be the practical counterpart of logical reasoning.

      If you haven’t read it, you might find Thomas Nagel’s The Last Word interesting reading on this point. Nagel is not a natural law theorist, but he does address the problems with thinking that because brains have something to do with reason then reason is just a matter of the brain. The arguments vary in technicality, but it’s mostly readable even for people who don’t have an extended background on this subject, and the book is quite short.

  • On the factual question: Though very few people, including myself, are well-versed in the entire history of world thought, I did double-major in philosophy and religious studies in college and have read widely since. The tentative conclusion I’ve reached is that, while the term ‘natural law’ (and its Greek and Latin equivalents) is distinctively Western, the concept is not. The concept is that of universally valid set of moral norms by which actual or proposed positive laws can be reliably judged. But it is not only that; Kantianism and rule-utilitarianism, after all, can say the same for themselves. What’s distinctive about the concept of natural law is that the “universally applicable” set of moral norms are grounded in an understanding of human nature, such that by understanding human nature well enough, one can know what sorts of action per se promote the human flourishing of the agent (constitutively or instrumentally) and which per se inhibit it. As previous commenters have suggested, roughly that idea has precursors in China and India. But over the last millennium, only Western thinkers, or those Easterners influenced by them, have devoted systematic thought to natural law.

    Two other facts about natural-law theory cause some people to raise epistemological difficulties for it. One is the culturally-conditioned variance of concrete judgments made in its name. E.g., both Aristotle and John C. Calhoun believed that, in the natural order of things, some humans are fit only to be slaves. So it’s often thought that self-interest and prejudice so warp natural-law thinking as to make it vulnerable to a relativist critiques. I do not agree. Given our evolutionary heritage, it just does take people a long time to figure out certain things. And sometimes people forget things. The Pill, e.g., has caused people to forget that deliberately separating sex from procreation only leads to trouble. Paul VI was absolutely prescient in his predictions of what the contraceptive mentality would lead to. It’s all around us as we speak.

    Which brings me to the other difficulty. Since the Catholic Church is virtually the sole remaining advocate of robust natural-law thinking in our culture, many assume that natural-law morality is a distinctively Catholic idea and thus should be banned from the public square on pain of theocracy. But the blog host and the commenters here seem to know better.

  • Ted Seeber

    Ok, I searched for it, and nobody brought it up yet, so here goes. The Vatican II encyclical, Nostra Aetate, in section two, attempts to explain natural law to those who are not natural lawyers, in a way that is a bit more universally acceptable(I hope this combox accepts blockquote tags):

    2. From ancient times down to the present, there is found among various peoples a certain perception of that hidden power which hovers over the course of things and over the events of human history; at times some indeed have come to the recognition of a Supreme Being, or even of a Father. This perception and recognition penetrates their lives with a profound religious sense.

    Religions, however, that are bound up with an advanced culture have struggled to answer the same questions by means of more refined concepts and a more developed language. Thus in Hinduism, men contemplate the divine mystery and express it through an inexhaustible abundance of myths and through searching philosophical inquiry. They seek freedom from the anguish of our human condition either through ascetical practices or profound meditation or a flight to God with love and trust. Again, Buddhism, in its various forms, realizes the radical insufficiency of this changeable world; it teaches a way by which men, in a devout and confident spirit, may be able either to acquire the state of perfect liberation, or attain, by their own efforts or through higher help, supreme illumination. Likewise, other religions found everywhere try to counter the restlessness of the human heart, each in its own manner, by proposing “ways,” comprising teachings, rules of life, and sacred rites. The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions. She regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men. Indeed, she proclaims, and ever must proclaim Christ “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6), in whom men may find the fullness of religious life, in whom God has reconciled all things to Himself.(4)

    The Church, therefore, exhorts her sons, that through dialogue and collaboration with the followers of other religions, carried out with prudence and love and in witness to the Christian faith and life, they recognize, preserve and promote the good things, spiritual and moral, as well as the socio-cultural values found among these men.

    It’s due to this that I think we could have killed both Leibniz and Newton and *still*, eventually, had calculus develop. It’s why Aquinas is nice for the argument, but the indispensable portion is Christ alone- whom they DID kill to try to keep his ideas from overturning the 1st century status quo. But you can’t kill an idea. Ever.

  • Ryan

    Other areas definitely have things that look kindof like universal natural law(see the Dao mentioned by others, for example), the problem here is how different the conclusions of what “natural” entails are quite different…
    As to what I make of this, well, any statement in a realm that is not empirically testable ought to be taken with a pretty big grain of salt anyway. Not because there isn’t truth there, but because it is difficult to prove what the truth is, so we need to be more careful. I don’t think that other traditions claiming there is a natural law or way changes that one bit. We must be careful. it is too easy for me to say something is obviously natural and someone else say, “no it isn’t”, and we can both have all kinds of elaborate arguments for why this is the case…
    That being said, I have a factual beef with part of the quotation from Joshua Zelinsky…
    He wrote:
    ” Aristotelian logic looks a lot like Indian logic (although Indian logic arose much later so there is an argument that the Indians may have been influenced by Western logic). ”
    This is factually untrue. The earliest known school of Indian logic was anviksiki, founded by Medhatithi Gautama around the 6th century BC, whch places the beginnings of Indian logic around the time of Pythagoras, whose logical systems also predate Aristotle. Now if there is a specific school he was referring to, that is different, but Indian logic in general- not so much. Definitely there before Aristotle.
    Sorry for the tangent…

    • Ted Seeber

      Natural Law claims are testable, or at least were through the last century. Cultures that conformed more to natural law, were able to cooperate and thus were more fitted to survival, both on the battlefield and in trade. I believe we’re just now seeing the end game of that as we build towards a more globalized culture.

      • Alan

        Huh? So countries opposed to contraception have shown themselves more fitted to survival?

      • Ryan

        That statement is entirely too similar to arguments used by Europeans and US folks to justify treatment of natives for me to be comfortable with it.

  • I haven’t read all of the above comments, so at the risk of repetition I have to point out some wrong assumptions on the part of Zelinsky.
    First of all, natural law is not just a Catholic thing – its a Stoic thing. In other words secular in origin. Catholics just picked it up because it was cool, and fits Christianity quite well. Though Orthodox and Protestants are not into NL at all.
    Second, if multiple independent origins is important for epistemological validity then the scientific method doesn’t really qualify either, seeing as it was pretty much a “Western” (broadly construed, including everything running from Aristotle through Islam and to the Medieval university) thing. And yet many consider science to be the paragon of epistemological validity.
    Third, appealing to multiple independent origins is, actually, an appeal to nature, I think. After all, why would the same thing emerge multiple times? Convergent evolution is one explanation and that is an appeal to the nature of the cosmos. Another reason for multiple origins could be a universal human psychology which tends to dredge up the same ideas – which is an appeal to human nature.
    Anyone appealing to nature is assuming a normative nature – or natural law system. Does Zelinsky like human rights discourse? Well, they came straight from natural rights and natural law. If he doesn’t, that’s fine, but human rights is an interesting discourse because, well, many world cultures now rely on it for criticizing other cultures. Rather than multiple origins, widespread adoption might be a better criteria for becoming interested in something, because widespread adoption indicates widespread usefulness. Just like the scientific method is kinda useful.
    Natural law just tries to codify rational behavior given human nature, just like science tries to codify expected behavior of nature via experiment. One is descriptive the other prescriptive. One can disagree with the conclusions of NL, but that does not mean the method is invalid, its just being (possibly) misapplied.
    So lastly, as I have written here a few times before, I’m just going to lay out four ways to judge a metaphysical theory: internal coherence, correspondence to facts known by other means, comprehensiveness, and consequences. Is NL coherent? (and it is only a component of a system, so as a part it must be evaluated as such) Does it correspond to facts known by other means? Is it a comprehensive system? What are the consequences of adopting it? (and this one is only useful if the previous three are ties, otherwise it is cheating) Judge NL by that, not a pseudo-NL criteria like multiple origins.