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.

Why worship God?

All theists will agree that it is good to worship God.  But why, asks the atheist?  What and who is it good for?  Is it good for God?  Then He must be a very imperfect deity that His self-esteem needs such elaborate reinforcement.  “No, no!” we say.  “God is the plenitude of being (and, in the Trinity, the plenitude of love); He certainly has no need for our worship.”  Well then, if He is just as well off without it, why not just sleep in on Sunday?  One answer suggests itself, and has become quite popular:  “Worshiping God is good for us!  It’s what we were made to do, and what we find our completion in.”  And this is quite true.  On the other hand, it’s the secondary thing, not the primary thing.  No one who gives himself in adoration to God is thinking of a benefit to himself.  Not that wanting benefits from God is wrong–Christ Himself taught us to petition God.  Still, glorifying God is something different; one’s eyes are not on oneself.  It is what von Hildebrand called a “value response”.  We worship God because that is the proper response to His goodness.  It is good for us, but above all, it is good period, that is, it is just.  It is the correct and just relationship between creature and Creator.  Not every “good” has to mean “good for…”

Proph is one of the few people I’ve seen to get this exactly right.  Here he is critiquing an atheist internet video:

He declares there are “many problematic qualities” we’re asked to accept about this God that proves its falseness, but then provides perhaps the stupidest sample of what those “problematic qualities” are: “No being can be regarded as perfect,” he says, “if it needs to be worshipped.”

Agreed! Such would be a contradiction in terms. God, being perfect, has no imperfections in need of realization and therefore no “needs.” So we should not presume to worship God because we think He needs to be worshipped. We should worship Him because he deserves to be worshipped, and moreover, because it is good — that is, consistent with our natures as created beings who owe their creator a debt of gratitude and obedience — to worship Him. The argument as expressed by QS is stupid and he is right to call it such. But he is wrong to call it a “problem” for theism because no one, to my knowledge, has aksed anyone to accept that argument.

Of course, for rational creatures, there is a tight congruence between “good for us” and “good period” (i.e. just), since the telos of our rationality is to make appropriate judgments, above all value judgments about the highest things.

The foolish apologist

Here are the 10 pitfalls of the foolish apologist.  (H/T Mere Comments)

That was painful to read–I must be guilty of at least 8 of these.  I need to just shut up and go on a year-long penance.  Anyway, those of you who are interested in spreading the Christian faith (which should be all of you who are Christians) might find it helpful.  These are very easy pitfalls to fall into.  Believe me.

The two roads of Christian apologetics

Most Christians don’t have a reason for their faith that would be credible to a nonbeliever, and that’s perfectly fine.  I expect the most common reasons for being a Christian are 1) “My parents and ancestors were Christian; they’ve given me a good culture, and who am I to question their wisdom?”, 2) “I have a personal relationship with Jesus that’s very important to me; He’s been with me through thick and thin, and it would be churlish for me to spoil our relationship by entertaining doubts”.  The conservative in me respects reason 1, and the Christian in me respects reason 2, even though I see that a nonbeliever would find them unconvincing or circular.

Some people do undertake to give Christianity an intellectual defense–the apologists.  There are two main approaches here.  The first on is historical:  argue that the Gospels can be taken as historically reliable and that no other explanation but their being true explains the “data” of what we know about first-century Christianity.  This road to Christ is necessary, at least in a negative sense.  It is important that secular Biblical scholars’ claims about disproving the Gospels are themselves refuted; we would not be warrented in our belief if our Sacred Scriptures could be shown to be manifestly false and unreliable in their primary claims.  However, while this approach is important for preventing scandal, for keeping people from being pealed away from the Church by Dan Brown-style pseudohistory, I doubt that the historical method actually makes any converts.  The records from first-century Judea will never be so complete and unquestionable that anyone will be logically compelled to accept the evangelists’ accounts as facts.  It’s a useful thing to show how implausible the main anti-Christian explanations of our faith are (e.g. that the Apostles just “felt Jesus’s presence” in their hearts after His death, and they somehow mistook this for having had extended discussions with Him in His resurrected body), but the non-Christian is not obliged to supply a counter story with no unusual elements.  Unusual things do occasionally happen, and he can always say that his wacky “the Apostles stole Jesus’ body” or whatever story is less outlandish than the idea that God became man.  For that matter, he’s not obliged to provide an explanation at all.  I disbelieve all UFO sighting stories, but that doesn’t mean I have a ready-made explanation for every one you could throw at me.  I’m just confident that I could come up with one if I had nothing better to do with my time.

Really, the only reason that people become Christian is because they find the Christian message compelling before they consider whether it is verifiable.  They come to think that the world makes more sense–the parts “click” together better, that it’s more beautiful and vivid if Christianity is true than not.  Once one sees its power as a central truth and organizing principle, then it becomes reasonable to accept it even if the evidence is inconclusive.

Therefore, the other apologetic road is to argue ahistorically that something like the Incarnation/Atonement makes sense of or beautifies the world in a particularly compelling way.  The usual strategy is to start from generic theism (for which we have compelling metaphysical arguments) and to point to some kind of incongruity in it.  Not an outright contradiction, of course; Christianity is theism plus other truth claims, and if a set of claims are flatly contradictory, adding more claims can’t save the situation.  Rather, one points to two parts of the theistic system that are both true but that one can’t hold in one’s mind at the same time; although one can’t prove that they contradict each other, one can’t imagine how the two would fit together.  Then show that Christianity resolves the conflict.  In contemplating the crucifixion of the Man-God, we see the two contrary principles fitted together perfectly without conflict or dilution.

All the really famous apologetic works are of this second sort.  There is Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo, which presented the Atonement as the resolution of God’s justice and His mercy.  There is Pascal’s Pensees, which presented the Fall and Redemption as the resolution of man’s greatness and wretchedness, and of God’s simultaneous presence and absence.  There are Chesterton’s apologetic works, especially The Everlasting Man, in which the Incarnation is shown to reconcile metaphysics with mythology.  (Actually, The Everlasting Man also engages in the first sort of apologetics; it’s the full package.)  The idea of Christianity as the true myth and the truth of mythology was, as we all know, important to many English Christians of that time, including Tolkein and Lewis.  Richard Swinburne has also done some apologetic work along these lines, but I haven’t read it.

I think the greatest attacks on Christianity have been attacks on this idea of Christianity making sense of the world and vivifying it.  Attack the evidence for Christianity, and people will retreat into faith.  The internal rationale and poetry of the faith is enough to sustain a person.  To destroy faith, make it seem like something ad hoc and extra:  the universe makes perfect sense on its own, but then for no reason, we posit the spaghetti monster.

Were I to write an apologetic (and I’ve already promised that I will, not that I think anyone would care if I reneged), I would want to follow this second strategy, not just because its results are more memorable when well done, but because it’s more honest; it more accurately states the reasons I am a Christian.  It’s not that the historical case is unimportant.  My sense is that the basic Gospel record is consistent with the facts, but the latter don’t force us to accept the former.  I freely admit that this may also be the case with the narratives of other religions.  Most of the historical records of the time record miracles, omens, and the like.  In the absence of compelling proof either way, one is forced to go with whichever alternative one finds most intrinsically compelling.  Unless somebody invents a time machine, I expect this is how the situation will always be.  I find Christianity more intrinsically compelling than, say, Hellenistic polytheism.  One seems to make the universe more explicable, the other less so.

Who do you think the greatest Christian apologists were, and what line of reasoning did they use?

Damnable errors

There’s a widespread belief among Catholics that all non-Catholics automatically go to heaven by virtue of invincible ignorance, with exceptions perhaps for the spectacularly wicked.  I certainly hope this is true, but the assumptions that go into the belief seem to me flawed.  When pressed, the well-wishing Catholic will admit that there is such a thing as culpable ignorance:  ignorance based on a will to self-deception or the result of culpable negligence.  That’s not what I’m talking about though.  When further pressed, he will admit that it would be quite sinful for a person to know Catholicism to be the true faith but refuse to convert (whether because of pride, laziness, fear of status loss, or slavery to sin), but I would agree with him that such cases are probably quite rare.  If “no salvation outside the Church” just refers to people who know Catholicism is true but refuse baptism, it doesn’t have much application.  Such cases aren’t what I’m talking about either.  What I’m saying is that there are beliefs that it is wicked to hold even if they are arrived at honestly.

Now, it is true, of course, that a person is not culpable for an honestly-formed mistake.  Still, there are some beliefs that are incompatible with true virtue, even if honestly held.  They deform a man not only intellectually, but morally.  Invincible ignorance means implicit assent to the faith, but some beliefs constitute an implicit rejection.  For example, if a person who is ignorant of the Faith accepts existentialism or Marxism, that person is rejecting the very idea of God.  They explicitly reject any kind of transcendent order, believing both that it doesn’t exist and that this is a good thing.  They’re enemies of God even if they’ve never heard of Him.  It is impossible for such people to be in a state of grace; therefore it is impossible for one who dies with such beliefs to go to heaven.  Nor could they even have perfect natural virtue, since some of the virtues (like reverence and piety) they reject in principle.  I actually have more hope for uneducated atheists who just think of God as a cosmic tyrant; they at least might not know what they’re talking about.

It is rather perverse that the idea of the noble pagan has taken such hold of the Catholic imagination just as the real thing was disappearing.  As Christianity spread through the Roman Empire or as counter-reformation missionaries traveled the continents, it would have been much more natural to wonder what God’s purpose was for many apparently admirable pagan men who lived and died without hearing of Christ.  Today, though, paganism (which primarily means pre-Christian religion) is much rarer.  Most non-Christians in the Western world have heard of Christianity and explicitly rejected it.  Educated men of other civilizations also know about Christianity and reject it.  It’s just absurd to imagine that these are all anonymous Christians who so misunderstood the Faith that their rejection of it  bears no spiritual significance.

Again, it might be troubling if most of the people who reject Christianity did so out of loyalty to another admirable tradition, like Confucianism, neo-Platonism, or ancestral paganism.  Once there were many such to trouble the Christian imagination, but now Islam is the only highly-visible example.  What we see is a great consolidation.  In the West, it has never been intellectually easier to be a Christian than today; plausible alternatives like Platonism and Stoicism have fallen by the wayside (or rather continue to exist only within Christianity) and the only remaining “live” alternative to the Church is the moral insanity of liberalism.  Unlike the righteous pagans of yesterday, the anti-Christian forces of today reject the Church precisely for sinful reasons–to enable pride and the libido dominandi (either for individuals or for collectives) or to enable concubiscence.  Hopes that the anti-Christian forces have some hidden communion with God and would explicitly embrace Christianity if only they really, really understood it seem far less reasonable than when Unam Sanctam was written.

As a pagan-sympathetic Catholic polemicist, I feel very comfortable with this development.  The Church is becoming the repository of mankind’s spiritual sanity; She carries within Her all the admirable traditions of the West–and increasingly those of the East as well–and the reactionary finds that he can defend them all at the same time.  It’s no longer necessary to denigrate Cicero to uphold Saint Paul; our enemy would obliterate both their traditions.  Most Aristotelians today are Catholics.  I would not be surprised if, in another couple of generations, most genuine Confucians were also Catholic.  Outside the Church, every nonliberal tradition (again, perhaps excepting Islam) is devoured.  Life is getting simpler.

The Challenge for the Christian apologist

Bruce Charlton:

In sum – modern Christianity lacks both pull and push – it lacks the pull which comes from people being grounded in Paganism and Judaism; and it lacks the push of being a complex and complete explanation of the human condition, relations, meanings and purposes.  If apologists both know and also attempt to supply all of this, to supply the depth and completeness of Christianity, they find they cannot do so all at once. If they try to be exact and comprehensive, the apologist comes-up against the modern inability to follow a long and complex line of argument; yet if he tries to present Christianity all at once then what can be communicated is inevitably a gross simplification: incomplete and shallow.

Anyone arguing a nonliberal belief system faces this dilemma (although, as Bruce points out, Christians face particularly steep opposition because the population is not neutrally ignorant, but has been actively inoculated against this faith).  I’ve had to deal with it in each of my essays.  Not many people want to read more than a page-worth of material, and assuming too much background knowledge also limits one’s audience.  On the other hand, if you’re not clear, if you leave out key steps in your argument, or if you fail to address the major possible objections, the result will be worse than useless for any reader who catches these omissions.  They’ll come away less open to my position than they were before.  I expect all the Orthosphere writers who have undertaken general “statement of principles” pieces have dealt with this issue.  Anyway, my blogging New Year’s resolution is to put up some defenses of Christianity in particular (as opposed to theism in general) this year.

Bruce suggests that for people to grasp Christianity, they must approach it like children.  This is ironic, because one of the things I worry most about is passing the faith on to my daughter.  In this case, I have all the time I could want, but only before she becomes intellectually mature.  Such is one of the clever ways modernity undermines the faith.  Parents only get to teach their children religion during childhood, and they must present it accordingly.  When they grow up, the children go to college and get their “adult knowledge” from atheist professors.  Looking back on the faith they were taught, they remember the child-oriented presentation and naturally conclude that Christianity is childish.  I’m still trying to figure out a way around this trap.

A new age

How odd that we’d just been noting the death of one Cold Warrior (the commie Christopher Hitchens), when now I’ve just read about the death of two much more important Cold War figures:  Vaclav Havel and Kim Jong-Il.  Havel was, of course, a great hero of the anti-Communist resistance, while Kim was one of the last of the old-style communist dictators.  Both of them seem oddly out of place today.  The ultimate issue is the same now as it was forty years ago, but the forms are changed, and many of the old labels are no longer useful.  (How odd it sounds to me when I hear someone accused of being a “socialist”.)

Havel’s classical liberalism seems like something from another age; it doesn’t address the questions that vex us, now that the choices we face are no longer “communism” vs. “democracy”.  We certainly must honor him for fighting the great evil of communism, and for fighting it on the correct grounds:  not that it was inefficient, but that it was morally corrupting.  Still, I could imagine his anti-totalitarian writings inspiring either side of today’s great debate, since each side accuses the other of forcing the public to profess obvious falsehoods.

And how quaint is North Korean brutality!  It’s as if they’re the only ones to get the memo that that isn’t how the Left operates anymore.  Now that the society-altering visions of today’s Leftists are less ambitious than were those of Lenin and Mao, but they’ve learned how to work toward them without yielding a huge crop of martyrs.  People and organizations who openly oppose the Left will get broken, but they won’t be martyrs.  Can you imagine a professor losing his job for writing against a cherished Leftist belief?  Perish the thought!  Of course, sometimes people must be let go for creating hostile work environments, environments where gay and transgendered students feel insufficiently “affirmed”.  Can you imagine a Leftist government confiscating Church property because it disapproves of Catholic doctrines?  That’s so 1920s!  Now we look for some crime, like adolescent sexual abuse, that Catholic clergy engage in at the roughly same rate as the rest of the population, gather together every accusation–viable or not–over the entire globe over the course of 60 years (which inevitably creates a large absolute number sure to impress the mathematically illiterate), and use your pet media to create a moral panic.  Then bend statute of limitation laws only against the Church and award order-of-magnitude larger settlements than other organizations face for comparable offenses, and pretty soon you can eradicate the communal patrimony of an entire religious group (made largely of working-class ethnic whites and hispanics) while making sure that they get no sympathy in the process.  No, anyone who objects to this ongoing cultural genocide will be accused of not caring about “the chiiiillllddddrrren!!!!”  (Me:  “But how does it help children to obsess every few years over the same set of accusations from the 1970s?  Today, priests in most parishes aren’t even allowed to be alone with children anymore.  And why don’t we spare some attention for the much vaster problem of child sexual abuse in other institutions?”  Them:  “Don’t change the subject!  If you really loved your children, you wouldn’t ask those questions!”)  Don’t you see how stupid the communists were?  They allowed people to go to jail explicitly for their beliefs.  When the Left attack me, they’ll tell the world either that I don’t respect my students or that I don’t love my kids.  Today’s Kims have learned how to avoid making Havels.