Dispatches from the Creation Wars

Jon Rowe on Catholics and Natural Law

Fascinating post by Jon Rowe about Catholics and natural law, based on a conference he attended recently. He points out the odd fact that Catholic thinkers tend to be more in line with the natural law philosophy of the founders because they have embraced philosophy and reason far more than their Protestant counterparts. That’s not terribly surprising, given the Catholic tradition embodied by Aquinas that one could infer the truth of Christianity from reason alone. However, those same Catholic thinkers can then advocate, for instance, harsh anti-sodomy laws, which are inconsistent with the notion of inalienable rights. Perhaps the key to this inconsistency is that Catholics have always accepted natural law, but not natural rights? I’d be interested to hear Jon’s thoughts on that.

Comments

  1. #1 raj
    October 25, 2004

    Mr. Rowe has too much time on his hands.

    A succinct critique of the “natural law” silliness: What is the myth of “Natural Law”? http://www.geocities.com/CapitolHill/1931/secF7.html

  2. #2 Ruidh
    October 25, 2004

    Roman Catholic moral theology is stuck in the 18th Century because they can;t bring themselves to engage Kant’s critiques. These are all modernist tendencies which Pius X decried at length while he declared himself inerrant and irreformable. the 19th C. was the height of RC neo-Scholasticism. Aquinas was da bomb!

    Conservative RC’s have monarchist tendancies and they tend to favor strong, centralized governments. THeir “Natural Law” naturally tends to support the positions they are predisposed to take. It is circular logis of the worst sort besides horribly missing the point.

  3. #3 Jon Rowe
    October 25, 2004

    Re: sodomy laws you’ve hit the $1,000,000 question — and the point of dispute between traditionalist natural lawyers and libertarian natural lawyers.

    Harry Jaffa et al. would argue that you only have an inalienable natural right to do what is consistent with the natural law. Therefore, if sodomy violates the natural law, there can be no natural right to do it. The Catholics would say ditto, but would also add contraception to the equation (I’m not sure if Jaffa would).

    Libertarians might respond that sodomy doesn’t violate the natural law. Or, that, even if sodomy (or anything) does violate the natural law, government may not, of right, legislate the natural law in its entirely. By natural right, governments may only act under certain limited circumstances — and enforcing the natural law in the privacy of one’s bedroom, be it “sodomy” or contraception, or fornication, or not doing it in the missionary position (something that some natural law thinkers have argued violates the natural law) is something that government may not, of right, do.

  4. #4 Ed Brayton
    October 25, 2004

    Jon-

    Do you think one can make a case for natural rights without natural law? I see the connection as tenuous, if not in outright conflict in some cases. Part of the problem with natural law is the question of what one bases that on. It is especially open to sociobiology-type answers that I don’t like one bit.

  5. #5 Jon Rowe
    October 25, 2004

    I’m not sure. I think a case HAS been made for only concerning ourselves with Natural Rights — not natural law ethics — when it comes to determining what government may, of right, do. In fact, Randy Barnett makes this case on pp. 82-84 of “Restoring the Lost Constitution.”

    I believe in both. And I obviously don’t believe that homosexuality violates the natural law. But let me give an example of what I do think the natural law demands and how that contrasts with natural rights.

    The Golden Rule, I think, is part of the natural law. Yet, there are many instances where we wouldn’t want the Golden Rule to be part of the civil law. For instance, when I see someone in need, I tend to be sympathetic to them (and at the same time, extremely cautious of danger, if it happens to be a stranger) and probably will help someone in a bind (like when a stranger asks you for a “jump start” for a stalled car), hoping that if it were me on the other end, someone would behave in the same manner.

    But government does not, nor should it, require us to be “good Samaratins” (contra the final episode of Seinfeld), even though, the natural law might demand otherwise. Indeed, I’d argue humans, of right, may callously refuse to offer help when they are otherwise perfectly able to, even if it breaks the natural law.

  6. #6 raj
    October 26, 2004

    >The Golden Rule, I think, is part of the natural law.

    This is a joke, right? Your evidence for this proposition is–what?

    If the Golden Rule (I almost abbreviated that as “GR”, which is often used as the abbreviation for General Relativity) is really a “natural law,” it could not be violated. Yet, as you acknowledge, it is violated. If it were not violated, there would be no need for this supposed “natural law” to be written into, well, human law.

    I’m sorry, but the fact is that people who propose to pontificate over “natural law”–which, to those of us who are actually paying attention, is nothing more than religious clap-trap

    >The Golden Rule, I think, is part of the natural law.

    Oh, wow. The so-called “golden rule.” An expression of altrusism, athough hardly universal altrusism.

    I’m sorry, Jon, you really do have to do better than this clap-trap.

    BTW, you might want to look at my response to your idiotic post on ex-gay watch.

    I’m sure that you mean well. But you–and Mr Brayton–really do need to grow up.

  7. #7 Ed Brayton
    October 26, 2004

    If the Golden Rule (I almost abbreviated that as “GR”, which is often used as the abbreviation for General Relativity) is really a “natural law,” it could not be violated. Yet, as you acknowledge, it is violated. If it were not violated, there would be no need for this supposed “natural law” to be written into, well, human law.

    raj, do you really think that the term “natural law” in this context means the same thing as “natural law” in, say, physics? Obviously that isn’t what anyone actually means by the phrase in this context, so why pretend that it is and use a definition they clearly didn’t intend in order to argue against it?

    BTW, you might want to look at my response to your idiotic post on ex-gay watch.

    I’m sure that you mean well. But you–and Mr Brayton–really do need to grow up.

    raj, I strongly suggest that you cut down on the insults. I’m not inclined to tolerate them long.

  8. #8 raj
    October 26, 2004

    >raj, do you really think that the term “natural law” in this context means the same thing as “natural law” in, say, physics?

    Oh, Ed, give me a break. Why would the proverbial “they” use terms like “natural law” if it wasn’t for the purpose of seducing the rubes into believing that their bloviations had something to do with reality? Natural law is natural law.

    I stand by my point regarding Rowe’s comment. He stated, succinctly

    >The Golden Rule, I think, is part of the natural law.

    One might seriously question, is it? Really? One might suppose that it might be a useful paradigm within a clan. Or within a tribe. But within a larger group? I suppose possibly. But what evidence is there for that? The continual wars among tribes, clans, and nations over the last few millenia suggest that the altruism inherent in the expression of the golden rule was either a crock, or was mis-interpreted. Your choice as to which.

    Actually, Ed, yes, I do believe that “natural law” in this context means the same thing as “natural law” in physics. Otherwise, the “natural law” in the other context is a fraud. Rowe has posited a “natural law”:

    >The Golden Rule, I think, is part of the natural law.

    Um, OK. Jon Rowe. I’ll ask you bluntly. In what way is this “golden rule” a “part of the natural law”? And, of what “natural law” is that a part? And, more importantly, what evidence do you have that this natural law that you mention has anything to do with reality? Other than the fact that Mr. Rowe might wish the “Goldener Regel” to be part of the natural law, query what suggests that it is? The mere fact that he might wish the so-gennante “Goldener Regel” to be part of the natural law doesn’t mean a whole lot. “Natural laws,” such as those relating to gravitation and electromagnetism, seem to we well founded in some sort of reality. It is well known that particles of opposite electric charge attract one another. All of them do. A charged particle of also attracts a neutral paticle. It is also well known that particles of various masses also attract one another. The particular descriptions of the attractions and/or repulsions (as in the case of particles of the same charge) are open for discussion (nb: I’m referring to Maxwell’s equations, in the case of charge particles, and Einstein’s equation in the case of gravity), but their behavior is fairly clear irrespective of the details of the descriptions. On the other hand, this “Goldener Regel” of Mr. Rowe’s seems to be, well, kind of founded–just barely–but the extent to which it has anything to do with reality is open for debate (there are, for example, no “Goldener Regel” equations, and, as Mr. Rowe seems to acknowlege, the “golden rule” is not universally held to). There is no question that the Goldener Regel finds voice in more than a few societies and in most of the known religions. On the other hand, the fact is that the Goldener Regel seems to have been contravened for most of human history. I need only cite the numerous wars that have been fought over the past few millenia. Including the wars against heresies fought by the catholic church. Although who remembers the Cathars nowadays? So, Mr. Rowe’s “golden rule” seems to be not a part of “natural law.”

    >raj, do you really think that the term “natural law” in this context means the same thing as “natural law” in, say, physics? Obviously that isn’t what anyone actually means by the phrase in this context, so why pretend that it is and use a definition they clearly didn’t intend in order to argue against it?

    You might want to consider the fact that perhaps the people who bloviate about “natural law” should be disabused from using scientific jargon such as “natural law” to con the rubes into believing that their silliness has something to do with reality. That was the point of the web page I cited earlier.

    You don’t like my bluntness? Sorry.

    >Ed Brayton at October 26, 2004 10:57 AM

    raj, I strongly suggest that you cut down on the insults. I’m not inclined to tolerate them long.

    It’s your blog. You pay the money for it. You decide who gets to be verbreitet from here. Kind of like Sinclair Broadcasting ;-)

  9. #9 Ed Brayton
    October 26, 2004

    Actually, Ed, yes, I do believe that “natural law” in this context means the same thing as “natural law” in physics. Otherwise, the “natural law” in the other context is a fraud. Rowe has posited a “natural law”

    Then you are beating up a straw man. No one who accepts natural law uses the phrase to mean the same thing as someone in physics does. You may not like that, but it’s the truth. Hence, to claim that it isn’t like a natural law in physics which can’t be violated doesn’t really say anything about whether their arguments are true or not, since you are claiming they don’t meet a standard they never claimed to meet in the first place.

    If you want to know the meaning of a phrase, you have to look at both context and historical usage. Since the context is political philosophy and not physics or chemistry, obviously it means something different than, say, the laws of classical mechanics. Historically, “natural law” is used to mean the general rules believed to bind society derived solely from reason, as opposed to “divine law” (derived from claimed revelations from a divine being) and “human law” (derived from short term expediency or reigning ideology). Now, one could certainly argue that natural law is, in fact, a part of human law that is merely claiming to be more universal in nature. But to argue that since it doesn’t mean the same thing as “natural law” in a completely different context is to make an irrelevant argument.

    You might want to consider the fact that perhaps the people who bloviate about “natural law” should be disabused from using scientific jargon such as “natural law” to con the rubes into believing that their silliness has something to do with reality.

    You might want to consider that there is an assumption behind your statement that is false. That assumption is that only those things that deal with material forces are a part of “reality”. Yet what are thoughts and ideas? They have no physical substance. They are not subject to the laws of physics. They are artifacts OF physical processes, of course, but if your only argument here is that the phrase “natural law” doesn’t deal with physical laws so it therefore “has no basis in reality”, then all ideas are not “based in reality”. In other words, you really aren’t making an argument against the concept of natural law, but against the concept of concepts. And if you’re not going to engage what those who advocate natural law as a philosophical or legal concept actually mean when they use it, and are going to insist on using an inapplicable standard from an entirely different field, you simply are not engaging the position at all, even if you think you are. The question “in what sense is the golden rule a part of natural law” is a nonsense question if you are using “natural law” differently than he is. So why not engage what he actually means (and what political philosophers who have used the phrase for centuries meant) rather than what you think it should mean by virtue of the meaning of that phrase in a different context?

  10. #10 raj
    October 26, 2004

    A few not so quick points.

    (i) If the term “natural law” isn’t supposed to mean what it obviously implies, then those who use the term are masters at “bait and switch.” More on that later.

    (ii) Regarding the idea that thoughts and ideas have no physical substance, I’ll admit that I’m not a biologist (my scientific education was, indeed, in physics), but I’d almost be willing to bet that, if an MRI scan was conducted of someone’s brain while he or she was having a “thought or idea,” the scan would show some sort of activity. The mere fact that he or she couldn’t levitate him or herself while he or she is having a thought or idea isn’t enough to suggest that the thought or idea had no physical substance. And that’s ignoring the physical substance that might result if he or she were to transcribe the thought or idea. A transcription of the thought or idea would clearly be a physical manifestation. True?

    Back to the first issue, I’ll tell you a little story. A few years ago–1999 or so–the Independent Gay Forum http://www.indegayforum actually had a moderately lively message board. This was in the days before blogs, and in the days before they for some reason gave Steve Miller a soapbox there. Regardless, a fellow–who identified himself as Justin Raimondo–a self-described gay man–appeared on the message board, and mentioned that he had a draft of an article that he had written for the (yes) American Enterprise Institute, and wanted our comments. I had previously encountered Raimondo when I was posting on (yes) FreeRepublic.com. Irrespective of that, the discussion sequenced to “gay marriage.” Raimondo–who claimed to be a “right” (Murry Rothbard) libertarian (in contrast to, as I learned, a “left libertarian” Libertarian party libertarian–who knew there were these differentiations among self-described libertarians?)–opined that there should be no same sex marriage because it was not in their nature to marry and so gay marriage would violate the natural law. It wasn’t in their nature. Hence a violation of natural law. What became clear as the discussion continued was that Mr. Raimondo enjoyed the fact that homo-sex was something of a demi-monde and decried the fact that some of us preferred equal rights. He actually wanted to use the “natural law” and “natural rights” concepts to limit rights, not to expand them. Quite frankly, that idea seems to be fairly widespread among self-described libertarians.

    A bit of deconstruction:

    (a) If you want to know the meaning of a phrase, you have to look at both context and historical usage.

    Well, not necessarily. You really do need to look at how those who might be hearing the phrase are likely to interpret it. So, let me ask you. Just how would one expect the great unwashed to interpret “natural law”? In the manner that you have described it? Not likely.

    (b) Historically, “natural law” is used to mean the general rules believed to bind society derived solely from reason…

    Solely from reason? I suppose that one might be able to rationalize altruism, for example, within a clan or tribe solely from reason, but it would take a bit of mental gymnastics to do so. On the other hand, evolution can explain the selection of altruism within a clan or tribe, without the necessity of the mental gymnastics that might be required for “reason.”

    (c) The question “in what sense is the golden rule a part of natural law” is a nonsense question if you are using “natural law” differently than he is.

    Sorry, Mr. Brayton, one assumes that Mr. Rowe is able to speak for himself. If he wishes to define “natural law” in an ascientific manner, I’m sure that he is perfectly capable of describing what he is referring to. From what I have been able to discern, Mr. Rowe is a lawyer, and, as we know from other lawyers, they are quite capable of spinning their tall tales. I’m now referring, of course, to Phillip Johnson.

    Actually, referring to Johnson, I wonder. You reject creationism (as do I). But you seem quite willing to accept something along the lines of natural law/natural rights. One might seriously ask why that is so. There is no evidence for creationism. Nor is there any evidence–as far as I have been able to discern–for natural law/natural rights.

  11. #11 Ed Brayton
    October 26, 2004

    (i) If the term “natural law” isn’t supposed to mean what it obviously implies, then those who use the term are masters at “bait and switch.” More on that later.

    Not true. The phrase has been used in political philosophy for at least 3 centuries, and it has a well-known meaning. The fact that is also has a different meaning in another context does not mean that one is the default and you should pretend that whenever it’s used it MUST mean that. It’s just silly, made moreso by the fact that by doing so you intentionally do not engage what the person you’re responding to actually MEANS by it. Anyone who is at all familiar with political philosophy knows what is meant by it.

    Back to the first issue, I’ll tell you a little story. A few years ago–1999 or so–the Independent Gay Forum http://www.indegayforum actually had a moderately lively message board. This was in the days before blogs, and in the days before they for some reason gave Steve Miller a soapbox there. Regardless, a fellow–who identified himself as Justin Raimondo–a self-described gay man–appeared on the message board, and mentioned that he had a draft of an article that he had written for the (yes) American Enterprise Institute, and wanted our comments. I had previously encountered Raimondo when I was posting on (yes) FreeRepublic.com. Irrespective of that, the discussion sequenced to “gay marriage.” Raimondo–who claimed to be a “right” (Murry Rothbard) libertarian (in contrast to, as I learned, a “left libertarian” Libertarian party libertarian–who knew there were these differentiations among self-described libertarians?)–opined that there should be no same sex marriage because it was not in their nature to marry and so gay marriage would violate the natural law. It wasn’t in their nature. Hence a violation of natural law. What became clear as the discussion continued was that Mr. Raimondo enjoyed the fact that homo-sex was something of a demi-monde and decried the fact that some of us preferred equal rights. He actually wanted to use the “natural law” and “natural rights” concepts to limit rights, not to expand them. Quite frankly, that idea seems to be fairly widespread among self-described libertarians.

    Now this is much closer to being a real criticism of the concept of natural law. And I don’t necessarily disagree with it. My own ideas on the concept are pretty fluid; I like many of the conclusions drawn from it, but I think it’s much too prone to erroneous conclusions like the one above. So is it really an objective standard to appeal to in disputes? I don’t know. Perhaps there is some reasonably objective way to differentiate between acceptable and unacceptable conclusions based, at least ostensibly, on the same standard. I admit to being uncomfortable with the close proximity that natural law can sometimes have with ideas that smack of sociobiology, even social Darwinism, which I reject. But at least now you’re getting at a real discussion about natural law rather than claiming they can’t use the phrase unless it means an invariant physical limitation.

    Actually, referring to Johnson, I wonder. You reject creationism (as do I). But you seem quite willing to accept something along the lines of natural law/natural rights. One might seriously ask why that is so. There is no evidence for creationism. Nor is there any evidence–as far as I have been able to discern–for natural law/natural rights.

    But this is like saying there is no evidence for liberty, or no evidence for beauty – natural law is a concept, not a measurable artifact or an empirical question. Whether it is as objective a concept as its proponents claim is, in my view, an open question. Perhaps Rowe or Sandefur could weigh in here with some thoughts, as they surely are better versed in the history and substance of it than I am.

  12. #12 Jon Rowe
    October 26, 2004

    Let me quote from an article by Christopher Hitchens about the 10 Commandments. He is making an “anti-10-Commandments say something special about the Judeo Christian tradition, or believing in the Judeo-Christian God” argument. As such, you should be sympathetic to his line of reasoning. But I think he also gives evidence of the natural law — certain universal norms that are time, unchangeable, and grounded in objective reality:

    http://slate.msn.com/id/2087621/

    “There has never yet been any society, Confucian or Buddhist or Islamic, where the legal codes did not frown upon murder and theft. These offenses were certainly crimes in the Pharaonic Egypt from which the children of Israel had, if the story is to be believed, just escaped. So the middle-ranking commandments, of which the chief one has long been confusingly rendered ‘thou shalt not kill,’ leave us none the wiser as to whether the almighty considers warfare to be murder, or taxation and confiscation to be theft. Tautology hovers over the whole enterprise.

    In much the same way, few if any courts in any recorded society have approved the idea of perjury, so the idea that witnesses should tell the truth can scarcely have required a divine spark in order to take root.”

    Indeed, if taxation were theft, then it would be wrong; it would violate the natural law. Certain forms of taxation — arguably most of what we pay in our taxes — are wrong for precisely that reason.

    Just about all societies prohibit the purposeful slaughter of innocents. If a particular war is not just, then it would violate such a natural law norm.

    Perhaps you are right; perhaps the natural law doesn’t exist. Perhaps natural rights don’t exist either. Then what are the implications?

    If there is no norm against slaughtering innocents, then we may of right, because might makes right, freely slaughter innocents.

    So then, if natural rights are a fiction, then would they not be a useful fiction?

  13. #13 Jon Rowe
    October 26, 2004

    This should have read, “certain universal norms that are timeless, unchangeable, and grounded in objective reality.”

    And I wholeheartedly agree with this:

    “Whether it is as objective a concept as its proponents claim is, in my view, an open question.”

    Even if natural rights aren’t “techically” objectively provable, such that we can say (as Jaffa does) that the principles of natural right are as true as the principles of Euclidean geometry, we need some place to rest our political systems on. And I’d say (along with Leo Strauss) that natural rights are a pretty SOLID place to rest our system on. (But I would disagree with Strauss as to whether it was a “low” place, which he thought it was).

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