On natural law: desires and goods

This is the second of a four-part series on natural law ethics.  The first part can be found here.


Man is an animal, and like all animals is subject to cravings and urges whose satisfaction brings pleasure and whose frustration brings discomfort.  It is the mark of a nonrational urge that its aim is a subjective state of satisfaction rather than an objective state of affairs.  An irrational animal eats to satisfy hunger, and it congregates with its fellows for the comfort of being part of the herd.  An outside observer can identify objective functions served by these urges, how they keep the animal alive and contribute to the excellence proper to its species.  The animal itself, if it is irrational, cannot achieve the mental separation from its own immanent compulsions to take this outside view.  For small decisions–like the decision to have a snack or watch a television show–humans too are often content to gratify their urges.  For important things, though, we demand motives of another sort.

Man is not just an animal, but also a person.  To be a person means that one is not locked in immanence; one can take an outside view even when one’s own impulses are in play.  In addition to being driven by urges, we can be motivated by reasons.  For rational actions, the ultimate end is not subjective satisfation, but some objective state of affairs regarded as good.  Let us call these ends–objective states of affairs regarded as valuable in themselves–as “goods”.  Because we act to preserve goods, rather than just satisfy urges, we are more than just very clever animals.  We hear the claims of objective value; this is our special dignity as persons.

Usually, cravings and goods are not antagonistic motives.  Goods serve not to frustrate cravings, but to enoble them by showing how any given craving is ordered to an objective good.  Our satisfaction of this desire is “rationalized”, not in the common sense of that word as “given a spurious excuse” but in its literal sense.  The desire is elevated to rational life; it becomes meaningful as the bodily apprehension of a real good.  Mind and body are harmonized.  Our natural capabilities as humans also acquire meaning–when we identify what good a capability is ordered toward serving, we say that we have found that capability’s function.

Some examples may help.  We all know the desire to believe things that comfort us–that we are safe, valued, loved.  However, there is also a great good in knowing the truth and comporting oneself to it, even if the truth happens to be distressing.  Our sensory organs and our intellect are intrinsically ordered toward truth–it’s their function.  Notice here that intrinsic function can be something different from adaptive value.  No doubt it was the ability to evade predators and capture prey, or something like that, that selected for these abilities.  Nevertheless, their function is to truth.  No one doubts that truth–at least about important things–is good in itself, and acquiring this good is simply what the senses and intellect do.  To know the truth would be for them to be doing their basic activity fully and without hindrance. In the bodily order, there are physical pleasures;  they are related to but distinct from the good of health.  In the interpersonal order, we crave the feeling of being loved; this is related to but distinct from the good of really being loved and the good of true intimacy.  In the social order, there is the comfort of the crowd; this is distinct from but usually related to the good of moral community.

For each good, there is a similacrum whereby one can choose to separate the good from its accompanying pleasures and seek only the latter.  To do so is to degrade oneself, to descend into the subpersonal level of immanence, to forsake truth.  All forms of self-deception are degrading in this way.  So, to a lesser extent, is gluttony, attending to the body as a nexus of pleasures rather than goods.  Most pitiable of all are counterfeit interpersonal pleasures.  Prostitution is a base substitute for the marital bond, stripping the conjugal embrace of it’s personal dimension by paying a woman to pretend to be one’s wife.  I once saw a news documentary on a service in Japan whereby lonely old men could hire a group of actors to pretend to be their family for a day.  I thought it was the saddest thing I’d ever seen.  What a great failure it is of that society that there seem to be so many people living without the genuine good of family love.

The list of natural goods doesn’t itself provide us with the first principles of practical reasoning.  These are given by the two great commandments:  to love God with all one’s heart, mind and soul, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself.  What natural goods do is to tell us what it means to love one’s neighbor and what it means to love oneself.  We love them by promoting what is good for them.  Of all the natural functions identified by natural lawyers, the most noble are those identified as serving the good of other people.  These functions identify humanity as being “designed” for love.  Hence the special attention natural law gives to man’s reproductive capacities.  Most of our bodily features are ordered to our own good, but masculinity and femininity are ordered to serving another.  Every difference between men and women points to a way that each is called to promote the good of child or spouse.  It is obviously not for their own good, individualistically conceived, that women have breasts, but for their childrens’.  (We natural law advocates really like tits.  They’re such obvious examples of this kind of thing.)

One might object that this perception of natural goods is really just a projection of the human mind, rather than a real feature of nature.  This objection fails to recognize that the human mind is itself a part of human nature, so that if our intellects are apt to assign a particular meaning to certain biological facts, this is itself a fact of human nature.  The accusation of projection is only meaningful when the subject and object are different.  It makes sense to say that “humans find worms disgusting” is a fact about human nature rather than worm nature and should be considered irrelevant to the study of worms.  That human reason discerns gender differences as being ordered to family and reproduction is not extraneous in this way.

A more serious objection is that our understanding of human goods and functions might just be cultural artifacts. After all, we do see nontrivial differences in mores and ethical beliefs between cultures.  The response to this objection must be more subtle, because it does point to an important aspect of social life.  Our recognition of human nature is mediated by our culture.  It’s not simply that some parts of morality (the natural law part) are given directly by nature while some other unrelated parts (“mere” custom) are set by the culture.  If it were that simple, natural lawyers wouldn’t have to care about the culture.   Nor can we settle for the cultural relativism of many anthropologists, according to which there are certain universal tasks that any collection of humans must perform to survive multiple generations (this being the “natural” part) but that how these tasks are fulfilled (e.g. children raised by parents or by the tribe as a whole) are cultural/historical fabrications about which nothing else can be said, at least on the level of universal human nature.  An advocate of natural law reads a thick account of human flourishing from the data of human nature, and not every arrangement that enables social survival will also be found to promote integral personal excellence.

I wish to avoid the error, common among natural law ethicists, of trying to prove too much at an overly abstract level.  There’s no need to claim that my culture has a complete list of human goods or that it has a fully adequate understanding of any of them.  In fact, I will be arguing later (in the final part of this series) we usually don’t understand the natural meanings of our acts in their full depth, and that this is an important part of the natural law understanding of the human condition.  Nor is it true that humanity has never posited false goods.  Liberalism itself could be said to be positing a new fundamental human good, one unrecognized as such by all past civilizations, namely personal autonomy–a sort of super-good that overrides all others.  Since I reject this elevation of autonomy, I cannot argue in general that anything ever believed to be a human good must really be one.

How does one tell true goods from false ones.  I believe that children are a true good and autonomy a false good, but how can I be sure of this?  There are several clear indicators.  First, there is the consensus of all mankind; every people except our own has always regarded descendants as a blessing, and everyone but the perverse West has regarded individualism as a social disease.  Second, there is consistency with the great commandments.  True human goods give us ways of loving God, self, and neighbor, and while it is always possible to pursue a genuine good illicitly, i.e. in a way incompatible with these loves, no genuine good involves rejecting the commandment by its very nature.  Having children with one’s spouse is an expression of and opportunity for love of neighbor.  Autonomy, on the other hand, involves by its very nature a rejection of God’s rightful sovereignty.  Third, there is the consistency between goods.  Since human nature is presumed to be intelligible, no true good should intrinsically contradict another one, although, again, accidents of circumstance may force us to choose between them.  So, for example, a man must in practice often sacrifice many true goods for his children, but having children doesn’t intrinsically preclude any other good.  Autonomy, on the other hand, intrinsically requires an at least partial rejection of the good of knowing the truth and the good of living in community.  Both truth and community limit one’s ability to posit one’s own conception of the Good in complete independence of an objective order of being and of other people.  Fourth, there is objectivity; as we have said, the point of natural goods is that they emancipate us from our own point of view.  The claim of autonomous man to dictate all value from his own will makes it impossible for him to escape from himself, just as an emperor who conquered the whole world would have no way to visit a foreign country.  Finally, there is the consideration of function:  a true good involves the perfect activity of some natural human function.  Begetting and raising children is the execution of many natural functions (functions that would otherwise have no natural meaning at all).  Here the defender of autonomy might seem to have a leg to stand on.  Surely the autonomous positing of meaning is the highest execution of our faculty of choice?  In fact it is not.  Conversion and martyrdom are the highest examples of free choice, and these are authentic but not autonomous.  In them, a person freely affirms what is recognized as an objective supreme Good. All other rational choices do this same thing, if to a lesser degree.  Positing a meaning of life as a naked act of will would be something much different–a perverse form of choice detached from the larger context of human goods.  (In fact, most such attempts to define the good for oneself just involve delivering oneself over to subrational impulses.  It could hardly be any other way.  Man cannot really posit goods; he can only recognize them.  If he discards these preexisting goods and looks inside himself for another principle of action, he will find nothing but his pre-rational cravings.)

From the above, one can see that there are rational criteria for distinguishing true from false natural goods.  One can easily convince oneself that the traditionally recognized ones show all the marks of being genuine.

One Response

  1. […] Bonald: On Natural Law: Desires and Goods […]

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