The vampire’s dilemma; practices of natural law reasoning

A reader writes

Natural law is a difficult concept for me to accept because I think the concept of Goodness embedded in natural law is tautological, in a way that has weird, intuitively erroneous implications.
0.  I start with the premise that God could have created this world or any other.  (If we say that this is the Best of All Possible Worlds, then I have no problem with natural law, but I think this is contrary to the Church’s teachings, and anyway Thomas himself rejects it.  On the other hand, on a Thomistic conception of Goodness, I fail to see how *any* possible world could fail to be “good” in the relevant sense; thus, God’s own Goodness cannot be invoked to limit the scope of God’s discretion in Creating.)
Suppose there are vampires in the world.  These creatures are metaphysically human in the sense of being rational animals.  They are identical to us in almost every respect, but their nutrition consists exclusively in the blood of live human beings.  When a vampire feeds on a human, the human dies.  The options I see here are: (A) it is Good for the vampire to feed on humans; (B) insofar as vampires are metaphysically human, they are bound by the same natural law proscribing murder, and thus must not feed at all; and (C) God could not have created this world (an answer which in turn implicates the concerns noted above in “0.”)  What do you think?
An excellent question, because it allows us to think more generally about the proper way to apply natural law principles.  How does one “do” natural law reasoning?  The presentation of many natural law arguments in the literature (especially of the “frustrated function” sort) skip many steps, so that even if their conclusions are true, they appear to share the same structure as clearly erroneous arguments.
Below, I will accept premiss 0.  It is not impossible for God to create a world where rational beings face horrible zero sum games.

The ultimate obligation-generating laws, the categorical imperatives, for any Christian philosophy are 1) love God, and 2) love one’s neighbor as oneself.  The role of natural law is to give these two great commandments a more specific content, to explain what it means to love God and one’s neighbor.  This is absolutely essential to Christianity, because without it the great commandments would be reduced to sentimentality and subject to limitless self-serving rationalizations.  On the other hand, I believe it is a mistake to derive these commandments from human teleology, because it would reduce them to a sort of enlightened selfishness.  Rather than giving us reasons to love, the teleological arguments tell us how to love.

To love one’s neighbor involves willing or at least respecting his good, so the role of natural law for commandment 2 is to explain what is objectively good for our neighbor.  It has been the contribution of the new natural lawyers to elucidate the role of objective human goods in natural law reasoning.  Some goods are properties or activities of the person whose goods they are (e.g. possession of knowledge and health).  Others are relations to other beings (e.g. being loved).  Goods are distinct from functions; we will return to the role of functions later.

God’s good in no way depends on us, so the natural law elucidation of commandment 1 is different and is in fact the most distinctive component of natural law ethics.  Just as the theory posits objective, natural goods of subjects, it posits objective, natural meanings of acts.  Aspects of the world thus acquire a quasi-sacramental character.  Objective meanings being symbols, they are capable of suprarational signification, of meaning more than the subject can articulate, and the subject can choose to embrace the meaning of his acts in their entirety.  Indeed, his only choices are to embrace or reject them; the givenness of objective meanings makes neutrality impossible.  Objective meanings come ultimately from God–in them He lends us His voice, as it were–and so the natural law component of our love for God is to respect the natural meanings of our acts.

The inference of natural meanings is, then, central to natural law reasoning.  The meaning of an act comes from its context, which in turn involves the relevant natural goods of the actor and others affected, the social context (from whence comes the normative power of tradition), and the natural functions of the employed faculties.

It is this latter component, natural function, that often seems to carry an enormous weight in natural law arguments, for example concerning contraception, lying, drug abuse, eating disorders, and usury.  In fact, these arguments rely at least as strongly on a recognition of natural goods and the imperatives to respect others’ good and the natural meanings of our acts.  The reason natural functions can’t do much work on their own is that they are, in themselves, pretty general.

There is a debate in the philosophy of biology literature about whether functions as inferred from natural selection are ambiguous.  In a common example, the question is raised whether the tongues of frogs have the function of catching bugs or of catching objects moving through the airs (many of whom happen to be edible objects, namely bugs).  As I understand it, the worry is that appeal to natural selection cannot single out the first function, but I would say that the second one is actually correct.  Natural law is usually framed within an essentialist metaphysics (most often some variant of Aristotelianism).  What Aristotelian essences don’t know is arguably more important than what they do know.  They don’t know other essences.  Recall the scholastic dispute about man’s natural desire for beatitude.  An ongoing concern was that it must not be possible to infer the divine essence from human nature.  Therefore, the desire for God must be a desire for Him according to a specification which does not reveal His essence (e.g. desire to know the cause of the world as It is in Itself).  The function of the frog’s extending tongue is to catch objects, and the context of the frog’s need for nutrition makes the normal purpose of this function clear, but “bugs” is not per se part of the frog’s essential information.

Similarly, even if vampires evolved feeding on nothing but human blood, the function of their fangs still could not refer to humans per se–it would be to extract blood.  From the vampire’s nature, one could possibly infer what types of blood (say, a chemical description) are nutritious for it, but that only humans have such blood could only be an accidental fact.  A natural selection account would be different–it might take the fact that the vampires evolved to feed specifically on humans to be determinative–but a natural law account makes no appeal to history–it would be the same if the vampires had just been created ex nihilo a moment ago–or to contingent environmental facts.  (This might seem to contradict the role I said that tradition plays in establishing normative meanings, but tradition is a present social context.)  Thus, I do not think that the vampire’s moral situation would be different from a regular human placed in a dire situation in which he could only survive by cannibalism.

What of the dilemma of the vampire or the cannibal?  Clearly to kill a man is a serious negation of his natural good.  Can such a thing ever be justified?  Setting aside questions of self-defense, I doubt that it can be justifiable to kill another to save oneself.  What if the death of one man could save all vampires?  Veritatis Spendor clearly teaches that some acts can never be justified, regardless of the consequences of their abstention.  This contrasts with acts that are justifiable or not based only on their consequences.  It is possible that there is a third class of acts for which natural signification gives reason not to do them even at the cost of bad consequences, but that this reason might be overridden if the consequences are sufficiently dire.  Perhaps Amoris laetitia can be seen as groping toward a recognition of such cases.  As I use the term, natural law theory need not per se decide such metaethical questions.

Readers should worry that in promoting a narrow (or should I call it “broad”?) reading of the natural function of vampire teeth, I may have broken other natural law arguments.  On a narrow reading, could we not say that the function of speech is communication indifferently of falsehood or truth, that the function of the penis is to expel urine or semen indifferently to their target, and so on?  Indeed we could, which is why it’s important that much more is going on in the natural law arguments against contraception and the rest.

It is true that lying violates/frustrates the natural function of communication, but a full ethical theory must also explain why such diversion is a serious moral matter.  One could point to the negative consequences necessarily associated to such an act–in the natural law formalism, one would point to the common good of social trust and the individual’s good of a habit of honesty, both of which are thus corroded.  These are significant parts of the reason, but they don’t capture fully the sense of taboo, of breaking covenant with the world, that one feels when telling a lie.  Rather than dismissing such feelings as irrational, the natural law perspective explains and validates them, usually by reference to commandment 1.

Identifying function is only the beginning of the analysis, because it reveals depths of meaning to communication, debt, and coitus that determine the significance of lying, usury, and contraception.  In the case of lying, there are also cases in which the commandment to love God comes into play in another way, since Christians of all philosophical schools recognize a duty to choose martyrdom over apostasy.  Here the matter of witnessing to the truth is not primarily a matter of honesty, but one of loyalty.

Not all meanings run as deep.  Chewing gum and sodomy are analogous deformations of natural functions but are not morally comparable.  One must invoke the reverence due to the act of creation, of it’s being a realm that belongs distinctively to God.  (A better analogy for contraception in the normal sense–e.g. pills, condoms–would be bulimia, which most of us indeed sense to be perverse and taboo.  An interesting feature of natural law that it is often easier to argue against a small deformation of a natural act than a large one.  It is easier to see that sex with a condom is a frustrated marital act than to apply such arguments to uses of the sexual faculty which don’t even resemble marital coitus.)

I’m afraid that I’ve digressed several times from the reader’s question.  I wanted to give a general sense of how I see natural law reasoning working.  Classical natural law advocates would probably say that I have made it all unnecessarily complicated, saying one must first identify goods and functions, then use these to infer meanings, then apply two external imperatives.  However, if natural law is to be defended at a philosophical level, every input and its role must be made explicit.

16 Responses

  1. I know you begin by saying, for the sake of argument, you accept Premise 0, while neither endorsing nor condemning it. I have some issues with Premise 0, which–at least, to me–sheds some light on natural law reasoning.

    0. I start with the premise that God could have created this world or any other. (If we say that this is the Best of All Possible Worlds, then I have no problem with natural law, but I think this is contrary to the Church’s teachings, and anyway Thomas himself rejects it. On the other hand, on a Thomistic conception of Goodness, I fail to see how *any* possible world could fail to be “good” in the relevant sense; thus, God’s own Goodness cannot be invoked to limit the scope of God’s discretion in Creating.)

    Premise 0 is what allows the presumption of Vampires, but I think this is a false premise. God created this world, but nowhere is this claimed to be “best of all possible worlds” or even is it presumed that there is such a thing as “possible worlds”. This idea that God could create something other than he did leads down some slippery pathways. “What if God created homosexuals” for example, or “What if God could have created beings that sexually reproduce via the anus” for another example. In the former case, he didn’t; in the latter case, that is as real an example as vampires (that is, not real).

    God cannot make a being which relies for it’s existence on some mortal sin the same way God follows the law of non-contradiction, i.e. God can’t make a three sided square or a flat sphere. Those are rationally incoherent ideas and so contemplating “what if God made them” is not a fruitful line of reasoning. If we restrict our scope only to the premise that “God created this world“, we may start to uncover some insight about this world.

    The crux of the Vampire’s dilemma, is “Why did God allow us to be fallen creatures.” The Vampire’s dilemma can be re-interpreted as an allegory for Homosexuality, even. If Homosexuality is a sin, why did God make homosexuals? If Murder is a sin, why did God make vampires?

    The answer, in my mind, is that we have free will. Natural Law means that our human natures were designed by God for a specific purpose and function, and habitual violation of that function damages us physically and spiritually, and original sin means that all humans will be tempted to some sins to varying degrees of severity. The human struggle is to strive against our fallen nature and unite our will to God’s will.

    Natural Law doesn’t explain these dilemmas, in my opinion, so much as provide a rubric for evaluating them. Did God make homosexuals? Well, did God make man and man naturally compatible or did he make man and woman thus? It is clear man and man are not naturally compatible, and so man and man is contrary to nature, and so is contrary to God. The nature and function of man leads us to the truth, if we presume that God is perfect and did nothing by accident, as we should.

  2. That was very good, Bonald, thank you. I’ll need to chew on it before I reply, but I did want to address Scoot’s response.

    Hi Scoot,

    Essentially, you answer “(C) God could not have created [a] world” with vampires, on the grounds that “God cannot make a being which relies for it’s existence on some mortal sin the same way God follows the law of non-contradiction.”

    As Bonald points out, though, there are some beings who find themselves in circumstances–the cannibal’s dilemma–in which their continued existence does, in fact, depend on the commission of a mortal sin. If God does no injustice in creating and sustaining in existence the person who finds himself in the cannibal’s dilemma, then he would do no injustice in creating or sustaining in existence the vampire.

    Moreover, the point of the thought experiment is that if natural law reasoning holds that we can derive moral duties from the facts of nature, then it follows that different moral duties might follow if the facts of nature were different. So it begs the question to assume that what is a mortal sin in the context of one natural world, would be a mortal sin if the natural world were otherwise. To do so would be to appeal to a paradigm of goodness over and above the one upon which natural law reasoning relies.

    Which brings me to my final,objection: to deny that God could have created a different world than this one is to deny that this world is contingent. This creates much bigger problems than it solves.

  3. “As Bonald points out, though, there are some beings who find themselves in circumstances–the cannibal’s dilemma–in which their continued existence does, in fact, depend on the commission of a mortal sin. If God does no injustice in creating and sustaining in existence the person who finds himself in the cannibal’s dilemma, then he would do no injustice in creating or sustaining in existence the vampire.”

    I have to disagree with this part. The key word is circumstance. A person might, in a particular circumstance, have the choice of death or cannibalism just as a person might, in a particular circumstance, have the choice of death or apostasy. The cannibal in this situation is still capable of eating normal food; he’s simply unable to do so because none is available. That’s a different matter from, say, a race that is only capable of surviving by killing other rational beings.

    And while the discussion is valid, I just have to point out that this particular example doesn’t work if you take the traditional view of vampires as being basically a form of demonic possession.

  4. Thank you for this well reasoned counterpoints. Let me try to rebut what I can, it’s certainly not outside the realm of reason that I’ve misunderstood some key point.

    Essentially, you answer “(C) God could not have created [a] world” with vampires, on the grounds that “God cannot make a being which relies for it’s existence on some mortal sin the same way God follows the law of non-contradiction.”

    As Bonald points out, though, there are some beings who find themselves in circumstances–the cannibal’s dilemma–in which their continued existence does, in fact, depend on the commission of a mortal sin

    It is important to note that my original argument is that God cannot create a being whose existence relies on a mortal sin, i.e. eating, sleeping, and murder, and if it doesn’t murder it will not live. This is the kind of being a vampire is described to be. You are correct that there are circumstances where continued existence in specific circumstances may be predicated on mortal sin, but those are typically under duress and thus would reduce culpability. I cannot think of a reasonable, every day situation that would justify a mortal sin on a regular basis.

    If God does no injustice in creating and sustaining in existence the person who finds himself in the cannibal’s dilemma, then he would do no injustice in creating or sustaining in existence the vampire.

    I’m afraid I don’t follow your meaning here. I take you to mean (if I may restate your words) that “If God can create someone whose continued existence is predicated on the commission of mortal sin, then it is likewise not beyond God to create a creature like a vampire whose existence requires the commission of mortal sin.” If I follow correctly, I am not sure that logic stands.

    Let me put it this way: A vampire must commit mortal sin, or die. Humans are not existentially required to commit mortal sin, it is entirely voluntary (except in cases of duress). Because mortal sin is, among other criterion, something that is contrary to nature, it is rationally incoherent to conceive of a God-created being whose nature is to violate nature. Accident of circumstance is not congruent to essence of being.

    Moreover, the point of the thought experiment is that if natural law reasoning holds that we can derive moral duties from the facts of nature, then it follows that different moral duties might follow if the facts of nature were different.

    And this is kind of my whole point: Reality would be different if reality is different. This makes for appealing fiction or interesting philosophical discussion but is of no practical consequence. I do not believe it tells us anything new about God to suppose what it would be like if God did something different; honestly in my view it tells us more about us. What if God created a universe where everyone had Guns for hands? If you want to talk about natural law, I think it’s best to ground the conversation in nature, and then you might glean something about nature. If the conversation about natural law begins with vampires, that’s fine, such a conversation can happen, but you won’t learn anything about natural law because you aren’t talking about nature.

    Which brings me to my final,objection: to deny that God could have created a different world than this one is to deny that this world is contingent. This creates much bigger problems than it solves.

    I do deny that this world is contingent. God created this world intentionally, I don’t see any incoherence here, and indeed it’s the predicate for all my preceding arguments. God created this world on purpose, and a strange and wonderful world it is. St. Anselm I believe described things as existing in our understanding, in reality, or in both. Vampires are things that exist in our minds. Undiscovered planets exist in reality, but not in our understanding. We can speculate about the nature of things that exist in reality, but de gustibus non disputandum est, I cannot dispute the natural laws followed by your conception of a thing that doesn’t exist.

  5. One of my main points was to question if it makes sense to say that vampire teeth are essentially ordered to killing humans, irrespective of what world God chooses to create. Can the function be that object-specific?

    I really don’t have a position on whether there is some reason we could know a priori that God would not create such a world. Our ignorance about His providence is great.

  6. Thanks for the feedback, all.

    THROAT-CLEARING

    In case it wasn’t already apparent, I’ll disclose that I was the reader who sent this query to Bonald. It was one of a few (very similar) thought experiments meant to present my best objections to Natural Law. I am a Catholic; I want to accept Natural Law (and I *do* accept it as a matter downstream of my submission to the Church), and so I wanted to be talked out of my skepticism. So the point is not to learn about Natural Law, so much as it is to learn why Natural Law actually imposes absolute moral duties instead of being part of a calculus that is subordinate to some other ethical scheme (e.g., Divine Command ethics). At any rate, I need to think more about Bonald’s response, but thanks to him, I think I am less skeptical now.

    RESPONSE TO SCOOT & HOOSIER JACOBITE

    Unfortunately for me, continuing the combox discussion is going to require me to stop being lazy and start showing my work.

    The two issues that seem to be causing trouble are (1) the notion of a “possible world” and its role in the thought-experiment, and (2) whether a possible world could include vampires. I’ll address each in turn.

    1. POSSIBLE WORLDS

    I assume Ott’s account of God’s freedom with respect to creation: “The Divine freedom is positively to be defined as libertas contradictionis, that is, the freedom to act or not to act (for example, to create the world), and as libertas specificationis, that is, freedom to choose between various good or indifferent actions (for example, to create this or that worId).” (Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, p. 47.)

    So, at least on this account, God could have created a world other than ours. In this context, all that “could have created a[nother] world” means is that God was not prevented by virtue of any internal or external necessity from creating another world. (In other words, whether God *might have* created another world is a separate issue entirely.)

    In my estimation, this very weak sense of “possible world”–a world whose creation is not inconsistent with God’s Goodness, Justice, etc.–is all that is needed for the thought experiment to get off the ground.

    [At this point, I address Scoot, who says, “I do deny that this world is contingent.” Whatever is not contingent is necessary. If the world is necessary, then at minimum we’ve undermined one of the classical proofs for the existence of God, and replaced the Christian understanding of God and Creation with an pantheistic one. Hopefully, our difference on this point is merely terminological, and you mean “contingent” in a less technical or more qualified sense.]

    2. VAMPIRES

    God could have created a world in which there were vampires. Put differently, God was not prevented by virtue of any external or internal necessity from creating a world with vampires.

    (And yes, as Hoosier Jacobite noted, we’re working with a non-traditional, idiosyncratic idea of vampires. For our purposes, vampires are simply natural, rational animals whose nutrition consists solely of fresh human blood.)

    [Here, Scoot objects: “Because mortal sin is, among other criterion, something that is contrary to nature, it is rationally incoherent to conceive of a God-created being whose nature is to violate nature.”

    I think there’s some equivocation here on what is meant by nature. On one hand, the vampire’s nature is simply “rational animal.” Metaphysically, he’s human. (Cf. this post by Ed Feser, in which Feser muses that “if it turned out that apes really did have genuine intellectual powers, what would follow instead is that they too had immaterial souls — and indeed, that they were arguably therefore “human” in the metaphysical sense even if not in the genetic sense, for they would in that case be rational animals.”)

    So in this context, your objection (and Hoosier Jacobite’s) is really that “it is rationally incoherent to conceive of a God-created being whose [genetic] nature”–the vampire’s biological requirement for human blood–“is to violate [metaphysical] nature”–the natural law against murder.

    But in order for that objection to land, there has to be some principled distinction between the following two situations:

    (1) The situation of a rational animal who finds himself in the cannibal’s dilemma by virtue of certain historically contingent circumstances.

    (2) The situation of a rational animal who finds himself in the vampire’s dilemma by virtue of certain *other* historically contingent circumstances (in this case, random mutation, the ancestral environment and its various selection pressures, who mated with whom generations ago, and so on).

    If God does no injustice to the rational animal in (1), it’s hard to see how he does injustice to the rational animal in (2).

    Thus, no internal or external necessity prevented God from creating a world with vampires.

  7. Yes, Bonald, I accept your distinction between the natural selection account of teleology, on one hand, and the natural law account, on the other. I think it works, but I’m trying to reason through the consequences of it. More later.

  8. I do think that you have a more expansive view of natural law than the Thomists, though. I’m not sure that a garden-variety Feserite could really make the moves you make with respect to the “meaning” of acts, etc. Do you disagree?

    For the record, one of the reasons I asked you this question is because your writing on natural law does have such a panoramic feel to it. One gets the sense that the natural world is enchanted, mystical, and so on. And I think that’s what’s needed for the whole thing to work.

  9. Rex, I transition now from cynic to student. I think there is a misunderstanding of terms here, and the fault is clearly mine.

    At this point, I address Scoot, who says, “I do deny that this world is contingent.” Whatever is not contingent is necessary. If the world is necessary, then at minimum we’ve undermined one of the classical proofs for the existence of God, and replaced the Christian understanding of God and Creation with an pantheistic one. Hopefully, our difference on this point is merely terminological, and you mean “contingent” in a less technical or more qualified sense.

    I confess to not knowing what you meant by contingent in this context, on looking it up I saw “subject to chance” and intuited that you meant something of the argument of scientism, that humanity and creation is a probabilistic event inherent to nature. If by contingent you mean contingent upon God’s will that we be created, then yes, of course I agree. My rebuttal is incoherent otherwise. I am a novice to metaphysics and am frequently surprised when terms have metaphysical definitions which don’t line up with my mundane understanding.

    So: Creation is, yes, contingent upon God’s divine Will. God was not constrained by a requirement to create us.

    Re-examining my original comment, you said:

    Which brings me to my final,objection: to deny that God could have created a different world than this one is to deny that this world is contingent. This creates much bigger problems than it solves.

    At which point I have to defer to Bonald, who counters any point I could make here:

    I really don’t have a position on whether there is some reason we could know a priori that God would not create such a world. Our ignorance about His providence is great.

    The crux of my whole argument is that while there’s nothing preventing God creating vampires, or gun-for-hands, or other such, he didn’t. So this whole thing is hypothetical, and I am really struggling to understand the broader point. You address this, saying:

    So the point is not to learn about Natural Law, so much as it is to learn why Natural Law actually imposes absolute moral duties instead of being part of a calculus that is subordinate to some other ethical scheme (e.g., Divine Command ethics)

    Insofar as it sounds like Bonald has eased (if only somewhat) your skepticism, and my line of questioning appears to deviate from Bonalds own point in the OP, I appear to have missed the point entirely–for which I sincerely apologize.

    I look forward to reading your further thoughts in response to Bonald!

  10. It’s always seemed problematic to me to *define* human beings as rational animals. Given that it would be possible, in principle, for rational animals to exist that were drastically different from us in morally significant ways (e.g. a species in which sex and reproduction were not connected), that definition would make it hard to explain why there could be absolute moral rules not directly relating to our rationality (it would be absurd, for example, to impose our sexual mores on the aforementioned species; it would also be problematic to assert that certain actions could be intrinsically evil for some human beings but not for others of the same species). The only way I can see to resolve this dilemma is to say that the correct definition of a human being is “rational animal plus XYZ”, and that the existence of only one species of rational animal is a contingent fact (God could have created others).

    With that in mind, it’s not immediately clear that the law of charity would apply between separate species of rational animals. If it did, the principle that essences don’t know each other would be violated. And if that principle were violated, then “consume human blood” could be part of the nature of vampires.

    Rex’s point might be better addressed by considering vampires in isolation, i.e. what would be the moral obligations of a species whose nature was such that its members could only survive by killing each other?

  11. AR makes a good point about the essence of human beings. There are many aspects of ourselves not directly implied by rational animality that we don’t regard as accidental.

    It reminds me of a book Mortimer Adler wrote on the question of whether there are many species (cats, dogs,…) or just a few (plant, animal, man…). His conclusion is less interesting than his consternation at the fact that he couldn’t find anything in the scholastic literature that seriously addressed the question.

    I would presume that humans would still have moral obligations to other rational beings. If one insists that all morality can be read off of human nature, it could still be that obligations to rational beings as such could be found there without referring to any particular other rational beings that might exist. If, instead, one bases moral obligations on the love of one’s neighbor, then it would be the other being’s natural that would be determinative–that grants him the status of a “neighbor” (perhaps from his capacity to know God or to enter into social relations with us) and his objective good.

  12. I don’t see why the knowledge of the frog matters to knowing the function of the frog’s tongue. Rocks have teleology too. Much of the post at least partially hinges on this point.

    Neither do I agree with the comment suggesting men are not well defined as rational animals. Sex unconnected with reproduction is a clear oxymoron. A better example would be more convincing.

  13. If bugs did not exist, wouldn’t the frog’s tongue be incoherent? Doesn’t that tell us that its function really is to eat bugs?

  14. I would presume that humans would still have moral obligations to other rational beings. If one insists that all morality can be read off of human nature, it could still be that obligations to rational beings as such could be found there without referring to any particular other rational beings that might exist. If, instead, one bases moral obligations on the love of one’s neighbor, then it would be the other being’s natural that would be determinative–that grants him the status of a “neighbor” (perhaps from his capacity to know God or to enter into social relations with us) and his objective good.

    The issue would be absolute moral obligations. It’s all well and good to say e.g. that we should treat irrational animals well, but that obligation is not absolute and we are ultimately justified in treating them in a utilitarian manner.

    It seems problematic to suggest that the nature of another species could directly impose absolute obligations on us. Perhaps the prohibition on direct scandal (deliberately inciting another to sin) could forbid any attempt to get members of the other species to do things which were sinful for them, but I don’t see how our own actions (things we do to them without their involvement) could ever be absolutely regulated by an alien nature.

    Neither do I agree with the comment suggesting men are not well defined as rational animals. Sex unconnected with reproduction is a clear oxymoron. A better example would be more convincing.

    It’s not an oxymoron because it’s not directly contradictory. One could imagine a species with sexual organs mechanically the same as ours, but which exchanged reproductive fluids in another way.

    Another obvious example would be a species in which the continuing involvement of a father was not necessary or useful for the upbringing of children. The prohibition on fornication would be incoherent in such a species.

    If bugs did not exist, wouldn’t the frog’s tongue be incoherent? Doesn’t that tell us that its function really is to eat bugs?

    If we killed all bugs and replaced them with tiny flying robots with the same nutritive value, would the nature of frogs thereby be changed?

  15. Rex,

    You’re probably right that my version of natural law is not the classical one. I’d say it’s still within the tradition, though. The idea of goods of human flourishing is emphasized by the new natural lawyers, who are orthodox and point to a few quotations of St. Thomas in their favor. Natural meanings of acts are called the “language of the body” in JPII’s theology of the body; it’s the most notable point in hundreds of pages of meandering biblical exegesis. And there has long been a minority of Catholic philosophers who object the apparently egocentric formulation of teleological ethics, Duns Scotus and Dietrich von Hildebrand being two of the most explicit and prominent of this camp.

  16. […] Natural law:  Suppose there were vampires so constituted that they could only feed on human blood.  Would it be acceptable for them to prey on us?  To answer this question, I outline general principles of natural law reasoning.  (Natural law arguments often skip important steps) […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: