Fired for the Natural Law, Part I: Against the Laws of Nature

by James Matthew Wilson on July 16, 2010 · 3 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Culture, High & Low

Death of Socrates

Mecosta, MI. The precincts of higher education have become so well known for their enormities and absurdities in the pursuit of political correctness that one may almost breeze past the latest episode at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.  There, Kenneth Howell, an adjunct associate professor at the University, has been fired in response to an anonymous student’s complaint that his course sought to “indoctrinate” students and that his presentation of Catholic teaching on the disordered nature of homosexual acts constituted “hate speech.”  The student writes,

Teaching a student about the tenets of a religion is one thing. Declaring that homosexual acts violate the natural laws of man is another. The courses at this institution should be geared to contribute to the public discourse and promote independent thought; not limit one’s worldview and ostracize people of a certain sexual orientation.

Howell’s email, which discusses homosexual intercourse as a case study for purposes of comparing a “utilitarian” theory of morality with natural law theory, makes a relatively clear claim.  His account of “utilitarian” moral theory contends that, for the utilitarian, no action is intrinsically moral or immoral, and that, therefore, an extrinsic criterion—that of outcome—must be used to determine the morality of an action.  Howell rightly explains that in the utilitarian vision of the modern West, the only explicit criterion enlisted for such judgments is “consent” or “informed consent,” but that we apply this criterion inconsistently at best; we do not, for instance, consider consent decisive in an adult’s sexual activity with a child or with an animal.  He continues,

But the more significant problem has to do with the fact that the consent criterion is not related in any way to the NATURE of the act itself. This is where Natural Moral Law (NML) objects. NML says that Morality must be a response to REALITY. In other words, sexual acts are only appropriate for people who are complementary, not the same. How do we know this? By looking at REALITY. Men and women are complementary in their anatomy, physiology, and psychology. Men and women are not interchangeable. So, a moral sexual act has to be between persons that are fitted for that act. Consent is important but there is more than consent needed.

Howell’s description of natural law theory seems accurate if not wholly adequate.  He uncontroversially observes the evident complementarity of men and women, both in terms of the harmonious functioning of their bodies in the sexual, procreative act, and in terms of the harmonious functions of their intellectual and emotional attributes.  By “harmony” I do not mean to imply that the relations of the sexes are always or even usually without conflict, but merely to emphasize that the relation of husband and wife is reducible to that of complement, of a mutual completion that results in something greater than the sum of its parts, and yet that this unity is itself “irreducibly complex.”  Man and woman do not become identical, they do not lose their distinctive masculine and feminine traits in the union of marriage, because it is precisely their difference—their non-identity—that suits them for one another.  Thus “harmony” indicates a unity-in-diversity not a mere oneness or redundancy.

But Howell’s observations are certainly not without the appearance of the “utilitarian” according to his own definition.  If a “moral sexual act has to be between persons that are fitted for that act,” one may judge the act according to at least two criteria: the a priori fittingness, as expressed in the actual condition of the male and the female prior to their union, and the a posteriori fittingness, that is, the union of male and female in the sexual act or in marriage as a whole achieving some end, performing some function, beyond itself.  Howell initiates this multiplication of criteria in his email to students, when he writes,

One example applicable to homosexual acts illustrates the problem. To the best of my knowledge, in a sexual relationship between two men, one of them tends to act as the “woman” while the other acts as the “man.” In this scenario, homosexual men have been known to engage in certain types of actions for which their bodies are not fitted. I don’t want to be too graphic so I won’t go into details but a physician has told me that these acts are deleterious to the health of one or possibly both of the men. Yet, if the morality of the act is judged only by mutual consent, then there are clearly homosexual acts which are injurious to their health but which are consented to. Why are they injurious? Because they violate the meaning, structure, and (sometimes) health of the human body.

These two observations would appear initially a matter of a priori judgment, and they are, but they are not that only.  Homosexual relationships tend to repeat as parody the always and already existent structures of the natural union of male and female in marriage, as if the attempted defiance of some inviolable law brought with it some rebuke.  So also with the deleterious health effects of male homosexual sex, which are well documented if politely left unspoken.  The outcome or consequences of this activity would, therefore, seem to indicate, again, a rebuke—a consequence to the violation of an established law.  But if we are talking about outcome, does this not, at first glance, seem to put us back in the system of utilitarianism as Howell discusses it?  And if this is an inconsistency, does it not undermine the compulsion of the natural law argument?

We can find an answer in the affirmative quite readily in the culture of our day.  Just a year ago, I came across a short essay that said arguments from nature or natural law tell us little or nothing.  After all, the laws of nature testify to the savagery of lions against lesser beasts, the “heartless” procreation of parasitoid wasps, the implacability of gravity and the laws of physics, of the unforgiving nature of the great chain of being as it develops and proliferates through generations.  Charles Darwin looked upon the violence of animal life and the savagery of the human inhabitants of Tierra del Fuego and shuddered to think he and other civilized men could be derived from, relatives of, such creatures.  We were once as grotesque and offensively stinking as the natives, thought Darwin; we share their human nature, but this does not establish that we ought to live as they.  Rather, it suggests that the condition of “nature,” insofar as the inhabitants of South America could be described in that term, provides us little or no evidence as to how we ought to live.  If anything, it tells us we should run in the other direction.

In contrast, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, never having met a Tierra del Fuegoan, thought the untutored savage must be free and noble, thus unleashing upon the West a pining for a return back to our always elusive, inevitably prior state of nature.  If civilization tends to corrupt, then nature appears an Arcady; but most persons would think along the lines of Darwin.  If “nature” and the “laws of nature” mean simply that which has existed, or used to exist before the intervention of human intellect and arts, then we may tend to doubt the sound wisdom of any admonition to follow nature.

And so we do doubt.  While human beings increasingly rut like dogs in our “culture of atomic eros,” they do not gnaw upon their own feces after the fashion of mongrels.  While most contemporary westerners privately think in terms of “natural selection” and the “survival of the fittest” when confronted with anything or anyone they deem inferior, they publically espouse tolerance, “non-judgmental-ness,” inoculations of self-esteem, and proclamations of the universal “specialness” of mankind.  The laws of nature, as descriptions of a prior or static condition, we evidently find wanting even if we find them in some sense true.  And so, somewhere in the myriad responses to Howell’s case, an understandably muddled reader wrote that “there are as many natural laws as there are philosophers,” meaning of course that there is no such thing as “nature,” that nature is not intelligible and so we may not read a “law” or other kind of statement within it that is proportioned to our intellects.

Howell’s message to his students seeks to distinguish natural law theory from utilitarian moral theory, and does so justly.  But once again I question the adequacy of his

distinction and wonder whether, without further explanation, all of us would not wind up in the position just described: to wit, at the conclusion that the “laws of nature” are real but too cruel to bear (we hear Eliot, “Mankind cannot bear too much reality”) or that such laws are non-natural, that they are, in truth, projections from the realm of subjective intellect or spirit onto the inert materials of nature.  In both cases, we push nature away and assert either a disingenuous or a relativistic freedom for human moral judgment.

Let us step back from the squalid particularities of this case.  We may ask why the moral acceptability of homosexual sex acts appear as such an intractable and heated dispute in our time?  Given the small portion of human beings who claim to be homosexuals, why has it become the locus of the most intense moral debate of our age?  The answer—or rather, the beginning of an answer—lies in its playing out in an obscure and sometimes farcical manner the fundamental question at the heart of western modernity and, indeed, of the West from its very origins: the question, that is, of the “nature of nature.”  What do we talk about when we talk about “nature”?

Louis Dupré’s invaluable Passage to Modernity: An Essay in the Hermeneutics of Nature and Culture (1993) provides the most thorough account available of the answers given—and the consequences of the answers given—to this question.  Early in the work, he defines “nature” according to Aristotle and shows that all subsequent uses of that word follow Aristotle, but only partially.  In a very various series of fallings-off from the Philosopher, subsequent accounts of “nature” would preserve some aspect of his definition, but never the robust whole, and so would reduce the content or diminish our understanding of what is natural.  His is a long passage, but worth citing at length:

Aristotle supported the normative conception of nature by a well-defined teleology.  A thing’s essence is “what it was for it to be” (to ti en einai) . . . It determines nature as a process that is intrinsically goal-directed.  The purposes that men set for themselves in establishing customs and laws, products of human “art,” must conform to the end immanent in human nature.  “When a thing is produced by nature, the earlier stages in every case lead up to the formal development in the same way as in the operation of art and vice versa . . . We may therefore say that the earlier stages are for the sake of the later and, generally speaking, art partly completes nature, partly it imitates nature” (Physics II, 8, 199a8).  Nature remains the guiding principle of development, even of free beings.  Their teleological orientation ought to determine both private conduct and social conventions.

Dupré here unfolds the polysemantic but harmonious understanding of “nature” for Aristotle.  What one is “by nature” is indicated by one’s essence, in the sense of the “form” that unites with matter and causes a particular being to exist.  But one’s essence does not merely describe the whatness (quidity) at that moment brought into being; it also includes the whatness that explains what a particular kind of being is supposed to do, is supposed to become, if it is to be fully what it is by nature.  Form and matter unite in a watch, whether it is a broken or working watch; but the watch that keeps time is more perfectly a watch than the broken one.  Hence, we throw the absolutely busted watch in the trash, and rename it “junk” to show that its nature has been frustrated though unchanged.  This ineluctable attention to teleology, to the final cause, Dupré unpacks in the next paragraph:

The more virtuous (that is, “excellent”) we grow, the more we allow ourselves to be guided by nature and the more aptly we discern the course of action appropriate in each particular instance  Ultimately what ought to be coincides with what a person or any organic being is according to its true, fully developed nature . . . Thus to call humans by nature political means not that a biological urge drives them to associate with their fellows, but that they reach perfection only in a self-chosen community.  Nature thereby functions more as a final cause that lures its subjects in a particular direction than as an efficient one that irresistibly drives them.

What I called a priori above, Dupré correctly discusses as the “efficient cause” driving a particular being according to his essence.  Our age resists the claim, though it can hardly help but acknowledge that what we are by our always and already actualized nature—that is, what comes into existence the moment the form or essence of “man” unites with matter and creates an individual human being—in many ways determines us.  Dupré understates the compelling case here.  Once composed as human being, the conceived creature can no longer become an oak tree or a hippopotamus.  A dog can never become a goat or even a reliable poker player, so determined and thus limited is he by his essence as dog.  But this speaks only of the essence in terms of the final cause of a particular form’s union with particular matter to constitute a particular being: the efficient causality back of a thing’s existence.

Nature does not leave off there and so allow a realm of absolute artifice and freedom to commence.  To the contrary, the primary acceptation of nature for Aristotle is that of finality or final cause.  To discover the nature of something entails not so much cataloguing all the irreducible features of every member of a species as it does describing what an excellent, exemplary instance of such a nature looks like when it has attained its perfection, its fullness of being.  We may call men “forkèd animals” with heads capable of looking at the sun, mouths suited to speaking and laughing, and almost always found in families and larger social groups.  But any of these attributes may be removed and yet we might still have a man.  Or is the legless veteran no longer a man?  The hermit?  Is the unborn child not human merely because he has not yet laughed or sinned?  Clearly, problems result when we address the nature of things only in terms of the a priori essence, the always and already existent produced by the efficient cause.  In truth, we casually (that is, unthinkingly) and really tend to understand things according to what they are when they become what they ought to become; we speak of our best and true selves as that which comes into being when we fully and perfectly actualize what we are meant to be.  A pup in the bitch’s womb is a dog not because it has already served as man’s best friend, but because it will do so if it is allowed to fulfill its nature.  If its nature is frustrated in the event, that does not make it any less a dog in essence, only less fully actualized an instance of that essence.  Thus, an acquaintance of mine who had moved to South Bend, Indiana was told by his mother, “Well, you can live that way, but that’s no way to live.”

To be concluded Monday . . .

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Empedocles July 16, 2010 at 8:18 am

Utilitarianism is in part a way to try to fit morality into a world that has been stripped of teleology. Since Newton did away with the Aristotelian physics, final causes have been hunted out of philosophy and science. However, there has been a revival of teleology in recent decades, lead by Millikan’s landmark Language, Thought, and Other Biological Categories. I recommend everyone here read “The Modern Philosophical Resurrection of Teleology” by Mark Perlman to get up to date on the various positions on the issue. It is available here: http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_hb1364/is_1_87/ai_n29112178/

avatar David July 16, 2010 at 12:31 pm

Looking forward to part2.

avatar YK March 21, 2012 at 7:59 pm

Empedocles,

How can I contact you via email?

Thanks.

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: