Monday 30 June 2014

Natural Law and the Instrumentum Laboris on the Family

                        Don't sit under the apple tree with anyone else but your wife

I can't claim to have read the preparatory document for the Synod on the family (online here) in great detail yet, but one bit attracted my immediate attention (para 30):

The language traditionally used in explaining the term “natural law” should be improved so that the values of the Gospel can be communicated to people today in a more intelligible manner. In particular, the vast majority of responses and an even greater part of the observations request that more emphasis be placed on the role of the Word of God as a privileged instrument in the conception of married life and the family, and recommend greater reference to the Bible, its language and narratives. In this regard, respondents propose bringing the issue to public discussion and developing the idea of biblical inspiration and the “order in creation,” which could permit a re-reading of the concept of the natural law in a more meaningful manner in today’s world (cf. the idea of the law written in the human heart in Rm 1:19-21; 2:14-15). Moreover, this proposal insists on using language which is accessible to all, such as the language of symbols utilized during the liturgy. The recommendation was also made to engage young people directly in these matters. 

In short, more reliance on Scripture and liturgy as the basis for morality.

Frankly, this is nuts, or, in more polite language, a 'partial' truth. For signed up Catholics, there is nothing wrong in suggesting that we deepen our appreciation of scripture and liturgy and their interconnections with our life. If (as in Latin America) your main 'competition' is an Evangelical church which rests on scripture alone, there may well be a need to fight back mainly in scriptural terms. But in the UK, where most people can't tell the difference between Elton John and Jesus, let alone have any but the vaguest recollection of the Bible, it doesn't really sound like a plausible strategy at all. It's particularly bad for the semi-detached Catholic. I have frequently encountered 'Catholics' who retain some sense of being in the Church (albeit often not much) and who will quote a Bible passage on tolerance out of context, and hope that the Church will soon  catch up with the tolerance and love of the Bible by allowing their niece/son/guy off Eastenders to shack up with their other niece/drug dealer/younger glamour model. If you then start to say that the Bible has to be interpreted through the Church and anyway isn't the sole source of authority on these issues, you just get blank looks or an assurance that's not what Sister So-and-So taught in Primary 5.

In sum, in the UK, increased reference to the Bible either misses the secularized entirely, or reinforces the view that true Christianity is about being a liberal Protestant and undermines a true understanding of Catholicism.

That said, there is a problem with the concept and reality of Natural Law. When I started this blog about two and a half years ago, I remember being very unsure about whether describing the approach as 'Natural Law' was helpful. I've swallowed my doubts on this over the years -mainly on the ground that it is the most familiar way of denoting -simply pointing to- the body of teaching, and to try to substitute more helpful (or simply more various) descriptions would simply confuse matters further. But both the Instrumentum and a recent exchange on Twitter have encouraged my initial worries here to revive.

The Twitter exchange was with someone who describes himself as a 'Conservative Party member and radical sexual anarchist'. (No, not Dave.) In it, he made the common suggestion that Catholic morality is based on 'bits' and their function:
I've heard this before and it is part of the problem with the 'Natural Law' brand: frankly, if you think Natural Law is about simply staring at willies and deriving Catholic sexual teaching from what they can and can't do, it's not surprising you think it's rubbish.

I want to try and unpick some points at least but it will take a few blogposts to do this even in a slightly superficial way. Perhaps before we begin, it's worth making a couple of preparatory points.

1) The judgment that 'x is wrong' is often more certain than why it is wrong. In most cultures (certainly pre-modern ones) the sense of what is right and what is wrong in everyday matters is usually quite clear at least in its broad lines. The problem, for example, in sexual matters, is less what is to be done than in fighting the personal defects that encourage one to do it:

And on this account nothing but a good moral training can qualify a man to study what is noble and just—in a word, to study questions of Politics. For the undemonstrated fact is here the starting-point, and if this undemonstrated fact be sufficiently evident to a man, he will not require a “reason why.” Now the man who has had a good moral training either has already arrived at starting-points or principles of action, or will easily accept them when pointed out. But he who neither has them nor will accept them may hear what Hesiod says—

“The best is he who of himself doth know;
Good too is he who listens to the wise;
But he who neither knows himself nor heeds
The words of others, is a useless man.” [Aristotle: Nicomachean Ethics]

Now I make this point, less to avoid having to defend the Church's teaching rationally, than at least to alert the reader to some of the difficulties in moral philosophy. We may be very certain (as we ought to be) that this or that action is wrong, but struggle to articulate why. But the inability (certainly in short order to articulate why) is not a sure sign of the wrongness of the action: it may merely be that it is so obviously wrong that little thought has been given up till now about why it should be wrong; it may be that there is a complex network of reasons behind the judgment that defy easy articulation; it may just be that it is simply a very difficult area to explore.

2) The above perplexities as to reasoning for morality -a common experience to all human beings- is in part resolved for Catholics by revelation. As the Catechism [s.1960] puts it:

The precepts of natural law are not perceived by everyone clearly and immediately. In the present situation sinful man needs grace and revelation so moral and religious truths may be known "by everyone with facility, with firm certainty and with no admixture of error." The natural law provides revealed law and grace with a foundation prepared by God and in accordance with the work of the Spirit.

The eternal law -ie the complete understanding of how we should live our lives- can be made known to us by the teaching authority of the Church: revelation. Starting from those revealed truths, we can then work backwards to understand the rational structure of what we initially take on authority (much as a student can work backwards from the answer at the back of the textbook to understanding how to solve the question).

So from a Catholic perspective, part of the explanation for the greater prominence of the that than the why noted in 1) is the existence of an alternative, authoritative route to the that : divine revelation and authority. Moreover, the why may only be comprehensible with the prior help of revelation.

3) But apart from the way that revealed law may ease the understanding of natural law, eudaimonistic ethics (I'll come back to this in a later post: for the moment, just interpret this as 'the Catholic understanding of reasoned ethics') rests on the person rather the action. There are two relevant aspects to this. First, the primary question of ethics is less; 'What should I do?' and more, 'What sort of person should I be?'

...what is the highest of all realizable goods? As to its name, I suppose nearly all men are agreed; for the masses and the men of culture alike declare that it is , eudaimonia [roughly, happiness, but more exactly, flourishing]  and hold that to “live well” or to “do well” is the same as to be “happy.” [Aristotle: Nicomachean Ethics]

Secondly, the final arbiter of what is right is not an articulated reason, but the perception of the practically wise agent:

And on this account we ought to pay the same respect to the undemonstrated assertions and opinions of men of age and experience and prudence as to their demonstrations. For experience has given them a faculty of vision which enables them to see correctly. [Aristotle: NE]

Virtue, then, is a habit or trained faculty of choice, the characteristic of which lies in moderation or observance of the mean relatively to the persons concerned, as determined by reason, i.e. by the reason by which the practically wise agent [phronimos] would determine it. [Aristotle: NE]

OK. Where does that leave us?

So far, we have the commonsense (or at least familiar) thought that good people who've thought a lot and had experience of human life will know what to do. We also have the thought that becoming a good person is the real heart of ethics. Finally, we have the thought that ethics is very difficult to do as a philosophical exercise involving the articulation of the reasoning behind judgments, and that experienced wise people (and from the Catholic point of view, aided by revelation) are going to be the ones who will usually get it the judgments right even if they can't always explain why.

Careful readers will notice the absence of 'bits' and their functions up to this point....

To be continued...


  1. I thought I should comment as I (partly) provoked this. And it is good to have this discussion, as I have been hugely dissatisfied with all the natural law scholars on the topic of sex.

    I have to say, from the start, that from my reading anyway (people like Feser, and Budziszewski in "The meaning of sex") Natural Law scholars have focussed on the sexual organs in order to determine the function of sex, and that is certainly the focus that occurs in certain popular accounts of Natural Law (Robert Reilly's recent book, for instance).

    Now, of course I understand the principle of 'union' in the procreative sex (if I hear one more analogy to the digestive system I may, ironically, throw up). However, we are not talking about the matter of union, so much as what sex is for. For this we must look to the natural world and our closest ancestors. The conclusions regarding sex that Aristotle and Aquinas derived were all very well when looking at pigs and sheep, but fall short when looking at primates and humans. Aristotle, of course, being an idiot on matters empirical anyway (eg legs on flies). Looking at the natural world, of course we see that sexual organs arose and were used for reproduction! However, in the course of evolution in higher primates, sex has been exaptated for other functions, including dominance and group cohesion. There is no empirical sense in which these are not proper uses of sex, so for the Catholic church to declare that sex must be procreative in order to be "right ordered" is both empirically and scientifically false. In much the same way, eating and drinking in higher mammals, like humans, is not just a matter of sustenance, so demanding that eating be sustaining is irrational. Anyone who has ever gone wine tasting or eaten sweets can tell you that eating and drinking are matters of pleasure in humans!

  2. Thanks for engaging on this, Tom.

    I hope I'll deal with (most) of these points in the coming posts. But to pre-empt matters a little, you need to distinguish between (at least): a) the idea of natural law (as distinct from supernaturally revealed law); b) that understanding of natural law which is based on on Aristotelian/Thomistic principles; c) any particular argument offered within that Aristotelian/Thomistic tradition.

    Not all Catholic writers who rely on Natural Law as a concept are Aristotelians/Thomists. There is certainly no obligation on Catholics to accept Thomistic metaphysics as correct. As I've tried to suggest in this post, there is a context within which these arguments are set -primarily a background of everyday practical reasoning- without which any specific argument won't make sense. Now, I happen to think that Aristotle gets most of that everyday background correct (and that happens to fit in well with a privileging of Thomistic analysis that you do find in the Church) but, again, the details of Aristotle's analysis are not obligatory on the faithful.

    Now the real question is (as with most questions about the world) 'what is x?' -in this case, 'what is sex?' You've brought up the notion of the function of sex -which is certainly in keeping with a Thomistic 'teleological' analysis. (But note that, in itself, the focus on the question of 'what is sex for' is quite a significant concession to a specifically Thomistic approach in itself: in your position, I don't think I'd concede that much!) But let's stick with the Thomistic view which is that, by dint of formal and final causes, the question of 'what is x' is intimately linked to 'what x is for/oriented towards'. How one analyzes that question of finality is neither a) simply an 'empirical' matter; or b) exhausted by the evolutionary history. So if you are going to accept the Thomistic analysis of the nature of a substance being captured by its formal/final causes, you can't then adopt a non-Thomist perspective in assessing what that form/final cause is.

    To take Feser (and I assume we're talking about pp141ff of The Last Superstition), any morality based on the procreative function of sex is specifically done within his overarching theme: we need to go back to Aristotelian/Thomistic metaphysics. Indeed, he specifically says: 'Suppose, then, that things really do have final causes, including our various biological capacities.' Within that perspective (not empirical -unless you mean by that 'something to do with experience' without being tied down to empiricist philosophies of perception; not determined by the efficient causality of evolution) THEN his argument makes sense. (But it's that perspective you need to tackle.)

    1. /continued

      To go a bit Wittgensteinian for a moment, claims about the natural use of body parts have to be taken in context. There's a language game and it's embedded in a form of life. To rip out claims about the proper use of the body from that context is to misunderstand the nature of the claim. To slap claims about the function of genitalia into a background where function is determined (eg) by empiricist understandings of substance and evolutionary understandings of finality is put them in a language game they were never meant to fit into.

      I'm sure not all Catholic authors (particularly popular ones) put that as well as it should be put. Moreover, even those working within a broadly Aristotelian tradition will disagree about details, perhaps even important ones. But the idea that you can just take one small aspect of an approach/set of approaches, and then dismiss it without examining the background against which that aspect makes sense is wrongheaded. The main problems here are in a) the commonsense analysis of practical reason which makes the perception of the practically wise person the key to virtue; and b) the Thomistic analysis of the nature of a person as a substance with a form/final cause. Those are the bits you should be concentrating your fire on rather than the consequences of those views.

    2. I look forward to reading your explanation of this matter.

      I was only adopting the language of Aquinas to try and argue on his terms, teleologically. I don't really see how disagreeing with his determination of what the 'final cause' of sex is, because of empirical observations, is adopting a non-Thomistic perception. I could equally have argued on the basis of assuming creation by a god; my observations of sex would be the same.

  3. Well, I was thinking along these lines. In broad terms, on a Thomist analysis, ideas in the mind are identical with the rational structures of reality: the process of abstraction by the agent intellect doesn't so much construct a rational picture of the world, so much as extract it. So the essence/nature/mental idea of a human being are identical.On an empiricist understanding, however, in general terms, ideas in the mind are constructions from sense data: if we have an idea of a substance (and (eg) Hume would argue we simply have a word without an idea) then it is a representation of reality rather than (part) of that reality itself.

    So, putting aside the details, ideas for a Thomist can achieve an identity with reality: we can think directly about reality. For an empiricist, certainly once we move from sensible qualities, there is a representational gap between our ideas and reality. I'm not sure when you say 'empirical' whether you accept the model of Thomistic perception, whether (say) you are adopting an empiricist model along the lines of Hume, or whether you just mean it in some vague, non-committed sense of 'having something to do with experience' (in which case we're simply postponing the evil day of having to go one way or t'other!).

    So the point is this. Your analysis of purpose appears to be empiricist: you make observations; you construct an hypothesis; you check how well it fits your observations. (That's the best you can do.) For a Thomist, ceteris paribus, you observe the object (human being) and extract the rational pattern from it that is the real structure of the object. Among other differences, eg, your 'insight' is essentially mediated by language. The grasping of the rational structure of the object in Thomist terms is not necessarily articulable into language.

    As I've said, a Thomist analysis of natural law isn't the only one and certainly isn't necessarily correct. But if you are going to deal with the conclusions of a self-confessedly Thomist analysis such as Feser's, you can't assume an empiricist theory of epistemology when he is explicitly rejecting this in coming to his conclusions. You need to tackle the underlying system directly (here, its epistemology). Specifically, tracking the history of evolution wouldn't give you the form/final cause of the human substance in Thomist terms.

  4. You are correct, my analysis of purpose is empiricist. So, I would argue that Thomistic reasoning regarding physical nature is irrational. I do not think things have 'purposes' beyond how they are actually used in the natural world. But then, I am also a Cartesian dualist, so even if it were shown that the body had x purpose, I would deny that that should limit my actions. Much in the same way that I would deny that finding the purpose of a tree to be x wouldn't prevent me from cutting it down and fashioning it to fit my will. Lol, we are so far apart in our way of understanding the world that debate is almost impossible. I've taken the time to read some of Feser's blog posts. I do not think the enormity of the task to explore this matter fully is within my time constraints. As Feser notes, the gulf between the mechanistic worldview, of which I am an adherrant, and your world view, is staggeringly large.

  5. Fair enough! But that's (one) of my points: it's too easy to say that (as you did) that teleological reasoning about sex has been refuted when you take a few aspects out of context and then subject them to a philosophical approach that believes the underlying approach that generated those aspects is false. The battlefield should be the underlying approach -not the aspects derived from that approach.

    Completely sympathetic to the 'time constraints'! But, nevertheless, if the issues are going to be sorted, that's what's needed (even if as a matter of academic teamwork rather than individual effort). I'm certainly not claiming to do more than touch on some of the key issues, even if I think I'm going to go on for a quite a while on this...