How sufficient are Natural Law arguments?

24 Dec

I’ve expressed many of the problems now raised by Thomas Cothran in reply to Ed Feser.  From a recent article in Anamnesis:

Natural law theory promises to be a valuable resource in the present culture war, and it should be extended beyond matters of sexual ethics (where it has gained some prominence in the same sex marriage debate) to broader economic and social domains. I would even go so far as to say that the discourse of natural law promises an alternative to the secular order.

Why an alternative to the secular order? Because the notion of human nature we inherit has been indelibly shaped by the incarnation of God. We in the West are the beneficiaries of the Christian concept of what it means to be human. We may not explicitly hold to Christian doctrine, but the traditions within which we think have been deeply shaped by Christianity. Even an atheist can recognize that the notion that just to be human is something worthy of dignity, that we find ourselves in love, that there is in all human beings a precious interiority that must be respected. One need not believe Christian doctrine to recognize that these notions originate in the Judeo-Christian tradition—and that, once this support is removed, the notion of human dignity is imperiled.

One caution. Natural law theory is sometimes presented as secular (by which I mean simply non-religious). As a legal strategy, this makes sense. The critical problem arises when natural law is presented as not depending, in any form, on religious grounds. One problem with this is the fact that our moral concepts—especially our concept of the person—are entangled with the Judeo-Christian tradition. To attain an independent idea of human nature, we would need to do much more merely to subtract the Judeo-Christian accretions, because that tradition has not merely added discrete facts to what we know about the human, it has transformed our concept of human nature. Reversing these transformations is very close to what Nietzsche had in mind when he spoke of overcoming Christianity. This is the “danger” of a natural law that it could be presented as a form of secular (i.e., non-religious) reason.

This, at least, was the argument of my recent essay, “Nietzsche and Neo-Scholasticism: The Danger and Promise of Natural Law.” Edward Feser’s heated response, [i] however, presents the essay as a polemic against natural law theory. He sums up my argument this way: “The natural law theorist qua natural law theorist does not appeal to divine revelation, ‘therefore’ (Cothran reasons) he must be committed to ‘a form of secular reason’—as if these were the only two options.” Feser’s readers may be quite surprised to learn that “Nietzsche and Neo-Scholasticism” advocates natural theory, and even touts natural law as an alternative to secularism.

Instead, he accuses me of conflating natural law theory with Nietzscheanism; of characterizing natural law as a secular theory; of being “in bed with modern naturalists;” and, most oddly, of targeting him “in particular.”

The errors in Feser’s reply are legion. 

Read the rest here

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