The Natural Law Scam, take 2

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Last week’s post on Cardinal George’s appeal to Natural Law to oppose proposed legislation to legalize same-sex marriage in Illinois provoked a lively and useful discussion among readers. In particular, University of San Diego philosophy professor Harriet Baber helped clarify the essentially religious character of George’s appeal:

Politically the RC bishops are on the horns of a dilemma. Suppose they say Natural Law ethics is a specifically religious theory to which Catholics in particular are committed. Then they can’t appeal to it in defense of public policy: that would be like fundamentalists citing Genesis to promote the teaching of “creationism” in public schools. But if they claim that it isn’t specifically religious then they have to give some reason why we should accept this theory and, in particular, the interpretation according to which gay marriage would violate natural law. But to make the case that policy should be based on Natural Law ethics they would need to show that it was the generally accepted theory, backed by the preponderance of expert opinion. And it isn’t by a long shot.

There are lots of ethicists. Most don’t buy any version of Natural Law theory, and of those that are into something like it–”Virtue Ethics” or some Aristotelian thing–I can’t think of anyone who buys the “unnaturalness” argument against gay marriage besides conservative Roman Catholics or other religious conservatives. This version of Natural Law is only on the table at all because of special pleading by religious conservatives–who claim that it’s not specifically religious.

George and other bishops–Providence’s Thomas Tobin, for example–want to avoid making a specifically religious claim for Natural Law even as they refuse to subject their position to open philosophical discussion. They are simply asserting their magisterial point of view so as to justify their opposition to same-sex marriage in the American public square.

They have every right to do so, of course. But the rest of us should recognize their appeal to Natural Law for the dogmatic claim it is.

  • W. Jones

    Mark, you seem to assume in your argument that one’s faith cannot support one appelaing to rational arguments (in this case Natural Law, but it could be the axioms of geometry or whatever) in that you label such attempts as ‘dogmatic’ by their nature. This seems to presume that one’s faith is of necessity not open to rational endeavor. I believe the Church’s claim is that Christianity (as a “religion of the logos,” to borrow from Benedict XVI) demands a commitment to rationality. One of the rational discourses the Church often turns to is the Natural Law tradition (though this is certainly not the only philosophical or scientific discourse to which it appeals). However, one’s faith might as well point one toward Platonism, decision theory, quantum physics, or any other rational discourse. In doing so, I don’t believe one would necessarily be dogmatizing. Certainly one’s faith may shape WHICH rational discourses one is more likely to appeal to, but so are one’s other commitments (economic, political, ethical, etc…). If there were only one truly rational discourse out there, then one could fairly claim that deviating from it was necessarily dogmatic. However, to simply favor one or several discouses over others seems largely unavoidable (for instance, to do physics one would need to appeal to multiple, as yet, incommensurable discourses, but that would not make one dogmatic or irrational, it is in fact what one would need to do to approach different aspects of physics rationally).
    One could also point out that the ‘natural’ in Natural Law also specifically means that it is accessible through natural reason (as opposed to revelation), so, presumably, when one appeals to it one is implicitly claiming it is ‘secular’ not religious (a ‘natural’ law depending upon revelation would be a contradiction in terms).

  • As a sometime medieval historian I would never claim that one’s faith cannot support one’s appealing to rational arguments–fides quaerens intellectum and all that. But when Catholic bishops appeal to Natural Law to justify their opposition to same-sex marriage, they are not seeking understanding, they are dogmatizing.

  • Thomas G

    The church is encouraging society to act and think in accordance with reason rooted in sound understanding of anthropology. That ethicists or “anyone” you know does not accept natural law in their opinions is not a rational argument but a weak appeal to authority. How ironic is that?

  • Daniel Lafave

    Thomas G:

    I understand what scientific anthropology is, but Natural Law claims aren’t science and they aren’t knowledge. Natural Lawyers try to smuggle everything in with the “accordance to reason” part. What the Catholic Church supports just happens to “accord with reason”. What the Church opposes just happens to not “accord with reason”. When someone points out that other people think that same-sex relationship accord with reason just fine, we are told that they must not be reasoning correctly. Why? Then we get a bunch of florid, nonsensical prose about the how the penile-vaginal union is the one, true way to oneness, etc…. I mean, you really need to read some of this stuff for sheer comedic value. The entire thing is a sham, a fraud, and it always has been. It’s a way of trying to universalize and secularize what are dogmatic wishes of one particular church.

  • W. Jones

    Daniel: Your assertion that the Church’s claims “just happen” to accord with reason is a bit unfair. For one (to the Church’s credit or not) very little of Church teaching “just happens”. If one were to assert that the Church’s tradition of moral teaching is overly intellectual or too dependent on secular reason, there could be a point there. That the Chruch “just happens” to teach anything, misses the nature of the Catholic teaching tradition. Secondly, the implied assertion that the Church is just placing the label “natural” or “rational” on whatever it has (presumably through other means) adopted as doctrine misses the role of the natural law tradition in Church history. The roots of the natural law tradition stem primarily from Aristotle. Yes, you would need to accept certain basic aspects of Aristotelian philosophy to accept that the conclusion of the natural law tradition are valid, but Aristotle would not be considered a particularly religious thinker and certainly not a covert Catholic (having lived in the 4th century BCE). The point being that there is a natural law tradition that pre-dates Catholicism, so to claim that it is somehow invented by Catholicism to cloak religous ideas as secular is out of bounds.

  • Daniel Lafave

    W. Jones:

    With fairness to Aristotle, he did live 2350 years ago at the dawn of science, so he can be excused for getting some things wrong. One thing he did get wrong is thinking that we could observe teleology in the world. When we developed modern science, we realized that teleology isn’t part of the natural world. There are mechanisms that are as-if they are for a purpose, but they simply evolved by means of natural processes, and having evolved such that something is as-if for a purpose won’t support the normative claims or the Natural Lawyer. But even Aristotle’s general mistakes won’t get you to the specific mistakes of the Natural Lawyers. You need to add those comically nonsensical arguments about penile-vaginal union being the source of oneness if you want to get to the specific conclusion that same-sex relationships are “unnatural”. Strangely, no one finds those argument convincing except for people already inclined to believe that same-sex relationships are unnatural. The direction of fit isn’t going from teleology to conclusions about naturalness anyway. The Church has already decided what it finds unnatural, and the nonsensical arguments about penile-vaginal union are concocted to fit them. That’s why it’s not just bad science and not knowledge, but actually a scam and a fraud. That’s why you will never find a Catholic Natural Lawyer say “After further research, we’ve revised our judgments on teleology and so we’ve discovered that contraceptives are OK” It’s window dressing to disguise the Church’s teachings as both universal and based on secular reasons when they are neither.

  • Rhettsheir

    As a man married to another man, it’s hard for me to try to give the church its due, especially since the pontificate of J-P II. But I think what they’re trying to claim is that you can come up with a compelling argument against S/S marriage without resorting to divine revelation. Aquinas was the acknowledged master of this line of reasoning, and he did his best on the question of S/S relations.
    To the best of my recollection, he said such relationship were wrong because:
    1. They couldn’t produce children. (But he allowed that infertile married couples could have sex w/o sinning , so there was a weakness to that argument.)
    2. S/S coupling did not occur among animals. We know this is simply false. (The ferociously learned John Boswell claimed that Aquinas knew it to be false as well, but I am content to assert that he was merely mistaken.)
    3. In S/S coupling among males (Aquinas never mentioned lesbians), one of the parties was acting in the role of the female, and this was an offense to his God-given dignity as a male. Well, chalk one up for the Angelic Doctor, he got to the gist of the argument.

    So, what the rational law folks really want to say is that gay males threaten their special status as superior males. If they want to argue for the continuance of the patriarchy, they should do that. But leave my marriage, and our faculty of reason, out of it.

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