Principles of Catholic Morality VIII: Scotus on the natural law

That we are to love God above all else is necessarily true.  God Himself may not order us otherwise.  The same goes for the duty to worship Him and Him alone.  What about the other commandments, though?  Is it necessarily true that we should not lie, steel, and murder?  The majority position among Catholic theologians has always been that all the Ten Commandments belong to the natural law.  There’s a difficulty with that position, though, and it’s something that seems to have worried Duns Scotus a great deal.  We read in Sacred Scripture that God Himself has at times ordered His people to violate these laws.  He has, in particular, ordered them to murder innocents.  Aquinas explains that God the universal good trumps all particular goods.  But if we accept that, then it would seem that respecting those particular goods (e.g. the lives of our neighbors) isn’t necessarily binding after all.

Another position might be that loving God is the only requirement of natural law in any sense.  We might explain the other precepts of the Ten Commandments (the second tablet) as divine positive law.  There is nothing inherently bad about murder and adultery; these things might just as easily have been universally enjoined, except that God’s arbitrary command has decreed them bad instead of good.  If this were the case, then we would have no way of knowing the basic rulse of morality except for divine revelation.  This may be close to Occkam’s view, but it wasn’t Scotus’.  He believed that we can know the second tablet laws by natural reasoning, and in the same way that Thomas Aquinas said we could know them:  by reflecting on human nature.  Absent revelation, we could know that following these laws is what leads to the perfection of human nature.  What’s more, we could know that these laws are in “exceeding harmony” with the supreme commandment to love God.  What we can’t know is that we are positively enjoined to obey these laws, as opposed to it just being good for us (and others).

God can command murder, but there is an asymmetry between His commanding and forbidding it.  We need an explicit particular revelation to know the former, but the latter can otherwise be presumed.  How is this?  What does it mean to say that obeying the second tablet is in agreement with, or is harmonious with, loving God, but is not a logical corollary of loving God?  Fr. Copleston explains it by saying that, for Scotus, the content of natural law is determined by human nature and its telos, but its character as moral obligation is added by divine decree.  I would like to further illuminate this idea of harmony.  First, we can understand it by analogy with the natural symbols provided by our nature.  For example, the embrace and the kiss express affection naturally, and not by mere cultural convention.  Similarly, honesty, chastity, and works of mercy naturally express love of God.  However, if someone doesn’t want to be hugged or kissed, it would no longer express affection to try to force it on them.  Thus, God’s expressed wishes can change the default meaning of these acts.  Another analogy, which Thomists will appreciate, is the relationship between primary and secondary causality.  When one puts a pot of water over a fire, we say that God is the primary cause and fire the secondary cause of the water heating.  God causes the fire to cause the water to heat.  Fire is a real cause, in that the heating effect is a real communication of an aspect of the fire’s being, but God is the ultimate cause.  God certainly could, by His direct action, cause the water to cool when it’s put over the fire.  What He couldn’t do is cause the fire to cool the water.  Secondary causality only works according to the natures of the creatures in question.  Similarly, God can use human nature to issue orders about what is and is not to be done.  He can “speak” through human nature that lying and stealing are wrong.  On the other hand, He can, by direct revelation, order one of us to lie or steal, but he can’t “say” this just through the intelligibility of our nature.  There is only one law to be said naturally, but God is free to say this law only naturally, to say it naturally and also through revelation, or through direct revelation to issue contrary instructions.

No doubt Scotus gives divine positive law a larger role in his ethics than did Aquinas.  Still, I hope my readers will agree that his ethics does validate our intuition that there is a law inscribed in our being.  What’s more, he deals with our sense of moral obligation more forthrightly than does Aquinas.  Scotus was presented with a serious issue, that of God commanding violations of His usual laws, which we cannot dismiss without rejecting the authority of Scripture.  Scotus’ solution is, I claim, intellectually quite defensible.  I wouldn’t call it perfect.  It seems to me that the fact that divine command can override the claims of finite goods doesn’t rule out the possibility that, in the absence of a clear divine command, these finite goods might, as the highest goods “in play”, might impose absolute obligations on us.  Scotus himself doesn’t rule this out (as far as I can tell), and it seems very congruent with our moral intuitions.

2 Responses

  1. There’s a difficulty with that position, though, and it’s something that seems to have worried Duns Scotus a great deal. We read in Sacred Scripture that God Himself has at times ordered His people to violate these laws. He has, in particular, ordered them to murder innocents.

    I think that to really address this issue of God commanding the slaughter of innocents we first need to address the issue of how we’re supposed to read Scripture. But, we’ve already had that argument.

    We might explain the other precepts of the Ten Commandments (the second tablet) as divine positive law. There is nothing inherently bad about murder and adultery; these things might just as easily have been universally enjoined, except that God’s arbitrary command has decreed them bad instead of good.

    I can kind of understand this position with regard to certain commandments. I suppose God, if He had so desired, could have endowed us with such a nature that a permanent family life would detract from our duties toward Him, meaning that we owed no duties to our parents and we would simply couple with random women without forming any real attachment. That wouldn’t comport with the greatness of God whose Trinitarian life is a communion of persons in love, but maybe it’s possible.

    But, even in this case that I’m imagining, God would still create a nature and give us laws to follow and not change them willy-nilly.

  2. Hi Stephen,

    Thanks for commenting. As you know, I generally favor Scotus’ interpretation of the Bible that God at least can issue dispensations from the second tablet of the commandments. I’m not 100% convinced of it though, so I’d like to revisit that argument someday. Like you, my mind rebels against the idea that God could have made creatures with no natural law.

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