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You Are Not A Machine
Bringing natural law and the classical worldview back in the 21st century
While working on Logocracy with its many references to natural law, I realized this was a topic I needed to learn more about. I was vaguely familiar with it from my readings on Stoicism, but that was about all. So after some browser window shopping I settled on John Lawrence Hill’s After the Natural Law (2016) as an introduction.It provides not only a concise history and summary of the natural law, from the Stoics to Aquinas, but also a general history of philosophy from the Greeks to the present, demonstrating how and why the natural law was rejected and materialism took its place, shattering the classical worldview and the very foundations of our deepest convictions, even those held today.
Regular readers will know I’m not a materialist. I think the rejection of teleology was an epic blunder and our modern philosophical worldview is schizophrenic. As Hill puts it:
We make freedom of choice the central animating idea of our modern liberal political system even though most philosophers no longer believe that we make free choices. We use the concepts of natural rights as Locke did when we no longer believe in transcendent moral standards of any kind. We have virtually sanctified the ideal of individuality and self-realization at the moment when the metaphysical presuppositions of the self and the soul are thought by many to be beyond reclamation. We have banished God even as we cling to the tectonic structure of the theological vision of the world. (p. 268)
This is the world of our (post)modern convictions: biological machines so deluded that they think they can possibly “know” the truth—that their own thoughts are meaningless, that their illusory “selves” cannot in fact be said even to exist in any meaningful sense, when all their thoughts are determined for them. Yet these same machines then attempt to convince others—who cannot choose otherwise—that they are wrong to think they have even an iota of true freedom or a shred of actual purpose.
In reality (postmodern reality, that is), all this is a sad illusion, for the atheist-materialists are as hopelessly determined as the theists. Their thoughts are not their own, their reasoning itself is a metaphysical impossibility, and their books are either fortuitous accidents or fated to have taken their final forms since the beginning of time. They certainly didn’t choose to write them. In a world without any objective standards, their arguments are no better than any others. And if such standards somehow did exist, there would be no reason to place any value on them.
At least the classical worldview accounted for our experience, which should be the foundation of philosophy. Modern philosophy, with few exceptions, is the philosophy of machines, not humanity.
Teleology as Nature
Simply put, for Aquinas, the natural law is our participation in God’s eternal law, which is the physical and moral order of reality:
It is the way in which we share in God’s divine providence. We participate in God’s providence in two ways—rationally and by natural inclination (by our appetites and desires). In a sense, we know what is right “through the light of reason” and by our natural inclinations. We reason our way to the Good, but there is something deeper—a capacity God has laid at the foundation of the human soul. We are hardwired to develop the capacity to distinguish good acts from evil acts: it is literally written on our hearts, as St. Paul put it. (Hill, p. 69)
If I try to put it in the most simple terms possible, it might go something like this. Reality has a structure. Any structure is specific: it is this structure, and not all those other potential structures. As such, by virtue of its particular structure, some things are possible and others aren’t. Hydrogen and oxygen make water, not gatorade.
The structure of reality is also stratified, levels upon levels, each one built upon the ones below and allowing and anticipating the ones above. Before there is any water, hydrogen and oxygen have the potential to create water. In all those simple elements there is the potential for new and complex structures, like biomolecules, biological life, and humanity itself. Biology wouldn’t work without chemistry, which wouldn’t work without physics.
Call them morphic fields, quantum potentiae, formal and final causes, telons—whatever the word, every structure is the actualization of a potential, and every structure anticipates future potentials, which themselves may manifest as structures. There is thus a directionality, or evolutionary character, to reality. As this process unfolds throughout the expanse of time and space, the intrinsic patterns and forms emerge, and we know them as physics, chemistry, biology, human individuality and society—each more complex than the one preceding it. (One way of thinking of this is as nested levels of information.)
In physical, material terms, all parts of the whole more or less conform with this “law.” They are constrained by the limits of their own structure and the structure of wider reality. Hydrogen must interact with oxygen in specific ways to transform into water. Animals must breathe; they must hunt and forage for food and water. And humans must cooperate with each other on various levels, otherwise they risk individual or collective extinction—roast chickens do not simply fly into our mouths.
Within this structure, each part has a certain degree of freedom of action. However, most options are bad ones, as a rule, and we must find the ones that are in harmony with nature in order to survive. Within my field of vision there is a lot of matter: trees, plants, rocks, metals, plastics, glass. Unfortunately, none of it would serve me as nutrition. If my search for sustenance were a matter of mere trial and error, I’d be dead. Instead, I have a natural sense for what will sate my hunger, aided by cultural transmission of what to look for, what to avoid, and how to prepare it to eat. In other words, some choices will be in harmony with nature, but many will not.
According to this way of looking at reality, it is no happy accident that the periodic table of elements could produce our fleshy bodies and our capacity to comprehend ourselves and the reality around us—to read reality and navigate it more or less successfully. Rather, the elements are as they are precisely so that such possibilities could be realized. All of this is is an expression of the “eternal law.”
The natural law is our participation in this reality. It is our human nature, which includes not just what we are, but why we are—our cosmic significance in a much wider world. And just as there are better and worse choices for nutrition, there are better and worse expressions of humanity, those which are in harmony with our nature and purpose, and those which are not (and everything in between).
Our reasoning has the potential to be correct, because of our shared structure with ultimate reality.As Hill puts it on page 63, “the activity of the mind mirrors the ontological structure of reality”. Our natural inclinations participate in this eternal order because the “law” is universally distributed into all of its parts. Each part is embedded within the whole, and the whole is within each part. Our human nature is an expression of ultimate reality, and we participate in its ultimate purposes—its teleology. What is right and good is simply what conforms to that ultimate purpose, in whatever context and on whatever level of reality. (Determining this for oneself is not so simple, however, which is a subject for my next post on this topic.)
A Moral Bedrock
If Aquinas was correct—and the natural law is intrinsic to humanity on a fundamental level—then this can at least provide some common ground with a materialistic evolutionary approach. Studying man as he is will reveal truths about the natural law, even if one ignores or denies its metaphysical reality.
For example, take Jonathan Haidt’s work on moral foundations. As a fairly mainstream scientist, you won’t find any metaphysics in his work. It’s all your standard “because evolution made us this way” type of thinking. But the foundations’ cross-cultural universality suggests that they make up a part of our fundamental human nature. As Lobaczewski wrote:
The conviction that moral values exist and that some actions violate moral rules is so common and ancient a phenomenon that it seems not only to be the product of centuries of experience, culture, religion, and socialization, but also to have some foundation at the level of man’s phylogenetic instinctive endowment (although it is certainly not totally adequate for moral truth). (PP, p. 138)
Here is how Haidt and his colleagues summarize the foundations:
Care/harm: This foundation is related to our long evolution as mammals with attachment systems and an ability to feel (and dislike) the pain of others. It underlies virtues of kindness, gentleness, and nurturance.
Fairness/cheating: This foundation is related to the evolutionary process of reciprocal altruism. It generates ideas of justice, rights, and autonomy. [Note: In our original conception, Fairness included concerns about equality, which are more strongly endorsed by political liberals. However, as we reformulated the theory in 2011 based on new data, we emphasize proportionality, which is endorsed by everyone, but is more strongly endorsed by conservatives]
Loyalty/betrayal: This foundation is related to our long history as tribal creatures able to form shifting coalitions. It underlies virtues of patriotism and self-sacrifice for the group. It is active anytime people feel that it’s “one for all, and all for one.”
Authority/subversion: This foundation was shaped by our long primate history of hierarchical social interactions. It underlies virtues of leadership and followership, including deference to legitimate authority and respect for traditions.
Sanctity/degradation: This foundation was shaped by the psychology of disgust and contamination. It underlies religious notions of striving to live in an elevated, less carnal, more noble way. It underlies the widespread idea that the body is a temple which can be desecrated by immoral activities and contaminants (an idea not unique to religious traditions).
Liberty/oppression: This foundation is about the feelings of reactance and resentment people feel toward those who dominate them and restrict their liberty. Its intuitions are often in tension with those of the authority foundation. The hatred of bullies and dominators motivates people to come together, in solidarity, to oppose or take down the oppressor. We report some preliminary work on this potential foundation in this paper, on the psychology of libertarianism and liberty.
(Just a brief note that from a teleological position, these foundations were not merely shaped by the evolutionary histories Haidt references; those evolutionary histories may have occurred in order to actualize the foundations. Both sides are equally important: the historical past and the teleological future, each giving shape to the other in constant feedback.)
If a given culture were to systematically violate all of the moral foundations, it would be violating its own nature, not only on the level of Darwinian survival, but also on the level of humanity’s greater purpose.
Imagine a reality without any kindness, gentleness, or nurturance, one founded on doing the most harm to those around you: your children, your family, your tribe, humanity at large. Imagine a world where everyone cheated, all the time, where there was no justice and your sense as an autonomous being was constantly violated, where every form of success was undeserved and the least talented got all the rewards. Imagine not being able to trust anyone, where a culture of betrayal was universal; where true leadership was constantly subverted and no traditions could take hold in culture; where everything disgusting was elevated and we treated our bodies like cesspits. Imagine a world of bullies oppressing the human race forever.
This miserable world actually exists. It is the negation of human nature, the essence of psychopathy, and it emerges to various degrees within individuals and throughout human history—though never in its totality. If it were to do so, humanity would simply die off, being so far removed from reality, so out of harmony, that it could not sustain itself. The fact that we’ve survived this far is a testament to that basic humanity, and our innate expression of it in practice (our “natural inclinations,” aided by reason).
But moral foundations alone are not enough, individually or collectively. They only provide the psychobiological substrate for the virtues (human excellence) and vices (human degradation). As Haidt writes, “Each culture then constructs virtues, narratives, and institutions on top of these foundations, thereby creating the unique moralities we see around the world, and conflicting within nations too.”
Here’s how Hill summarizes the cardinal virtues:
Prudence is the capacity to judge rightly the appropriateness of an action under the circumstances; fortitude, or courage, is the ability to maintain one’s commitments in difficult circumstances; temperance is self-control and moderation in acting; and justice is giving each person his due. (p. 48)
Nurturing care is not always the right choice. Neither is blind loyalty or slavish submission to authority. Liberty can easily slide into degeneracy, and fairness is not always obvious. In short, the moral foundations are at best a heuristic. They can point in the right direction, but they are unconscious impulses and aren’t by any means perfect on their own. Excellence requires prudence to know how to act in each situation, courage to deal with setbacks and injustice, temperance to avoid sliding into vice, and justice in our dealings with others.
As for the vices, it’s perfectly possible to be a slothful, lustful, wrathful, gluttonous, avaricious, envious, vainglorious moralist. Just look on Twitter.
Unlike Kant’s view that good acts are a necessarily joyless duty that conflicts with nature (as does reason), the natural law says that reason and the Good are coextensive with nature. To act virtuously is joyous (just as the Stoic and Christian sages testified). That’s not to say it is easy, only that truly authentic human virtue is not a wholly miserable struggle. Rather, it “is constitutive of (and not merely instrumental to) our well-being” (Hill, p. 110). It is to the soul what good food is to the body. It should feel right.
Our systems of law also develop out of our moral nature. With the death of the natural law came theories like modern legal positivism, a kind of secular divine command theory according to which law is merely an “order of the sovereign backed by threats” and nothing more (Hill, quoting H. L. A. Hart, p. 239); and legal realism, according to which there are no objective legal rules, only the “momentary preference of the judge” (p. 240). As such, law is completely arbitrary or completely subjective, not reflective of anything real. There is no law better than other any other law—just transitory subjective preferences.
While these views are the logical endpoint of the modern philosophical rejection of teleology, the idea of law as a subjective, relative, ex nihilo creation is absurd. Law cannot simply be the diktat of the sovereign, nor can it be simply a reflection of the legislator or judge’s mood of the moment (though it can be both those things in part). On the one hand, even such laws will probably be an expression of human nature to some degree—that of the human sovereign or judge. And on the other, when such laws do deviate from human nature (e.g. by violating moral foundations, discouraging excellence, or encouraging degeneracy), they can do so to such a degree that they should not be considered law in the first place. Aquinas was right: an unjust law is no law at all.
Imagine a law that forbids mothers from holding their children, or subjects from procuring food, or from speaking. Or, exhorting them to squeal like pigs or refrain from all forms of singing. Or to murder every hundredth person they encounter. Obviously there are limits to human law. Sure, a sovereign can enact such laws if he’s deranged enough, and attempt to enforce them, but there is something self-evidently unnatural and even obscene about them—like the psychopathic world described above. Rather, there is some invisible standard to which human laws tend to conform—and should conform. For the natural law theorists, that something is human nature as an expression of the divine order.
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I’ll also be checking out Heinrich A. Rommen’s classic The Natural Law: A Study in Legal and Social History and Philosophy, first published in 1936.
Aquinas’s other two types of law were revelatory and human. Revelatory is law communicated from above by revelation, as an aid to our imperfect understanding. Human law is our attempt to articulate the natural law. “An unjust law is no law at all.”
I.e. God, or, in Chris Langan’s CTMU terms, G.O.D.—the global operator-descriptor, the ultimate source of all process and identity.