A united front on natural law

Brilliant modern scholars have breathed new life into an ancient approach to morality. 
Martin Fitzgerald | Sep 19 2008 | comment  

Ana Marta Gonzalez (ed) | Contemporary Perspectives on Natural Law: Natural Law as a Limiting Concept | Ashgate | 2008 | 322 pages

Western moral philosophy is not doing too well at the moment. While moral philosophers get their moments of fame on ethics committees and may be asked to give opinions on various issues ranging from the environment to euthanasia every now and then, nobody pays much attention to them.

This is because the subtext of the morality or ethics bequeathed to us by the Enlightenment figures David Hume, John Stuart Mill, Jeremy Bentham and to a lesser extent, Immanuel Kant, has been reduced in democratic societies today to subjective hedonism. If an action increases my well-being, is not illegal and does not hurt anyone else, then it is moral. Even the condition of the illegality of certain actions, which is part of the above formula, is malleable. It can change over time depending on “community standards”. In many contexts “community standards” can be shorthand for who has the numbers in parliament.

It is a pity that the more rational side of the Enlightenment moral philosophers’ systems hasn’t filtered through to us, since I imagine that they would not recognize some of the sloppy reasoning and “you are not allowed to judge my actions by your criteria” attitudes which trace themselves back to their philosophies. To say nothing of the actions that are justified in their names.

This is not to say that some people aren’t worried about the decline in ethics and morality. There are regular outbreaks of public despair over the increasing incidence of drug and alcohol abuse, marital breakdown, sexual promiscuity, corporate greed and sometimes, when all else is overlooked, bad manners.

But these outbreaks of collective self-examination have virtually no effect because what trumps attempts to change these destructive actions and habits is our society’s insistence that this is all part of the ever-expanding circle of individual freedom. And freedom is the one value that remains unassailable by any arguments or laws. Our societies have become the providers of the maximum freedom for the greatest number.

There is some light on the hill however. Recently, the only professor of public ethics in Australia, Clive Hamilton, published a book called The Freedom Paradox which has the temerity to question the assumption that negative freedom, freedom from constraints, can possibly, on its own, create a worthwhile society.

The intoxication with negative freedom, the only type of freedom that most thoroughly modern people understand, persists. This is why there is a good deal of suspicion about the “systems” of ethics. And nowhere is this suspicion greater than with the system called natural law.

Natural law starts by assuming there is such a thing as human nature. This insistence on a human nature is a limiting concept. It claims that true freedom is only to be found in acceptance and respect of this human nature that we have inherited, not created.

A recent book on the topic of natural law, which is a compilation of papers from an international conference held in Spain in 2006, makes this point clear. If you accept natural law, you accept that human nature exists and that it is the same for all humans. This in turn implies that some actions that human beings can perform are not good for them. It further implies that freedom is not the goal of human existence but rather a faculty of choice which allows us to do good actions and thus to flourish as human beings.

Contemporary Perspectives on Natural Law: Natural Law as a Limiting Concept is a useful addition to contemporary debate, given that, despite its pariah status in some universities, natural law ethics is still one of the great traditions of ethical thinking and is given some time in most ethics courses, even if this amounts to a dismissive nod.

In addition, there has been something of a natural law revival, first in the beginning and middle of the 20th century (particularly after the Second World War) and now at the beginning of the 21st century with names like John Finnis, of both Oxford University and the University of Notre Dame in the USA, Robert P. George, of Princeton, and John Haldane, of St Andrews Scotland, to name some of its exponents from the Anglo-Celtic world. Alasdair MacIntyre, in his books After Virtue, Whose Justice? Which Rationality and Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry, has provided credible critiques of the Nietzschean genealogy of Western ethics, a genealogy which ends in, well…. nothing.

The book, edited by Ana Marta Gonzalez, a professor of philosophy at the University of Navarra in Spain, has lots of strengths and some weaknesses. One of its greatest strengths is its ambition.

Firstly, it is ambitious because there are no shortage of objections to natural law theory which must be answered if it is to remain credible. The book does not pretend to answer these fully, but it does not evade them either. Parts 3 and 4 of the book are entitled “Controversial Issues About Natural Law” and “Natural Law and Science”. One chapter in Part 3 contains a well structured critique of the ethics of Kant and Hume. Another chapter is a refutation that natural law theory is based on the naturalistic fallacy – that all that happens in nature somehow produces the “oughts” which belong to ethics. Another is a revindication of the universality of humanity, if not human nature, as the basis for ethics. This chapter emphasises the place that good reciprocity plays in human flourishing, a point obscured at times by the myopic Enlightenment fascination with the individual.

Part 4 attempts to tackle one of the biggest obstacles to an understanding and acceptance of natural law in the world today: the differing concept of nature held by science and by natural law ethics.

In many aspects, the wonder of the modern world was created by the Enlightenment insistence that the progress of the human race would occur using science and the scientific method.

Most of what is great in a visible and practical way about the modern world is owed not to accepting nature as given but in conquering the limits set by it. Natural law needs to recognise this -- and some of its exponents do. As Richard Hassing puts it in his contribution to the present volume, “nature is less Aristotelian and more malleable than Aristotle and Aquinas thought”. A just recognition like this does not mean that nature is infinitely conquerable by science in ways which are good. Environmental degradation and weapons of mass destruction are evidence of that.

Furthermore, if, as “pure” science insists, nature is no more than a matter of degrees of organization of matter, a major rethinking of ethics is called for along the lines espoused by Richard Dawkins and Peter Singer. Nevertheless in a battle in which the lines are drawn between materialism and natural law, human intuition and human behaviour are aligned more with natural law than with materialism.

The last two chapters discuss teleology. Teleology, the idea that there is an intrinsic end in nature, is offensive to modern ears. It implies some limit to freedom on the one hand and a threat to the randomness and pure chance involved in evolution on the other. German philosopher Robert Spaemann is excellent when he points out the contradictions in evolutionary theory with respect to ends. In effect, even though convinced evolutionists rankle at the very thought of teleology, they continually assume that the processes they describe are directed towards ends:

“Modern science has tried to prosper entirely apart from teleology. But in the field of biology this has proved impossible. A certain ill-feeling appeared, which Haldane expressed in a much quoted observation: ‘Teleology is alike a mistress to a biologist: he cannot live without her but he is unwilling to be seen with her in public’.”

Contemporary Perspectives on Natural Law is ambitious in a second way. It is one thing to organize a philosophy conference in Spain and publish the papers. Another is to invite Anglo-Celtic scholars along so that the conference is not limited to European navel gazing. And a further bold step is to translate the non-English papers and publish them all in English.

This is a brave move because natural law on the Continent is different. Leibniz, Kant, Grotius, Puffendorf and Hegel get more air time than sensible, practical, British Enlightenment figures. Just bringing representatives of the two traditions together is a signal contribution. And perhaps it is not drawing too long a bow to claim that the very enterprise of the publication of this book is a testament to the universal claims of natural law theory.

Unfortunately, the problems attendant on translation are present in Contemporary Perspectives. Translation is difficult because words have nuances built up over centuries. If this is the case with ordinary prose, the difficulties are an order of magnitude greater in philosophy. It is a tribute to Professor Gonzalez that this has not deterred her from her task.

Nonetheless, some errors should never have been allowed to slip through. For example, the subtitle of the volume is Natural Law as a Limiting Concept. For some inexplicable reason this gets translated in the first chapter, written by Professor Gonzalez with a view to setting the stage for the rest of the volume, as “a limit concept”. It was correct in the subtitle and should have been left that way. The translation of Carmelo Vigna’s work in Chapter 13 contains some real clangers. It is a pity that this ambitious project has a few avoidable errors which will distract philosophical nit-pickers from its breadth of vision and ambition.

Martin Fitzgerald is Head of Philosophy at Redfield College in Sydney.


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