Brilliant modern scholars have breathed new life into an ancient approach to morality.
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
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
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,
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
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
“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.