25 September 2012

Patching up a bad argument for natural law

One popular argument for natural law (esp. with reference to sexual ethics) involves a non sequitur from an intuited natural function in some organ or activity to a judgment that excludes everything other than the "natural function". Saliva has a natural digestive function.  Therefore spitting is a sinful waste of digestive potential! Women have hips, therefore it is immoral for a man to carry babies! And so on.  This deduction from inscribed functions in things is both unhelpful (because it's obviously invalid) and damaging (because it's similar to a valid line of reasoning).  Opponents see this sort of reasoning as the essence of natural law theory and reject the whole notion of natural law with the particular argument which seems to represent it.  So let's fix this problem.  How do we make a good argument?  We don't want to say that, for example, there's a "right" use for a hammer, or that the use of a mouth for something other than eating and speaking is immoral, because this way of thinking is about as easy to topple as a tower of cards.

Instead, we should think about what's expedient for accomplishing what one wants, and make it our goal to find a way of dealing with the universal fact of embodied human nature and our consequent appetites. Notice that, though teleology is important and natural teleology is a real thing, we don't need to argue from (or immediately for) the natural teleologies of organs or behaviors.  Instead of starting with an organ or a behavior or talk about natural ends, we should start by talking about what makes a person good.

In order to say that some person is genuinely better off than another, we need a common measure, and the existence of a common measure implies a common extreme: some (at least theoretically possible) state of humanity which is best. So admitting that some people are really better off than others commits us to some universal idea of human perfection to which, although it might be realized differently in different people according to dispositions and individual characteristics, everyone can be compared. Now, we can start out slow and say we don't know exactly what that universal idea consists of, (e.g. is it perfect self-determination? consistency between thought and action? self-sacrifice? subjective satisfaction? something else? maybe the direct apprehension of the divine essence?) but even without a definitive knowledge of the norm, we can describe it reasonably by excluding certain negative possibilities. For example, being a crack addict is not a desirable outcome, and it's undesirable for definite reasons which we can enumerate. Likewise injustice is undesirable (or can compellingly be argued to be so), as are cowardice and excessive self-absorption. We can go through and list a bunch of these and then start to think: What sort of common features do these things have that make them bad? What's missing in the activity of a crack addict or a coward or a money-obsessed capitalist? How does someone make sure *not* to end up like that?

So, by exclusion, we can begin to build a picture of a better kind of person, a person who does more freely, more readily, and more happily whatever they choose to do, and because of that they do it better and without the taint of vice. And, working out from this we can realize that one core attribute of anyone who stays free from addiction, compulsion, etc., is that they are free to determine their actions in accord with thought and intellectual desire. So we ask, "how does a person manage to keep their physical appetites under control, so they can sacrifice what they physically crave in order to get what they really want?" In other words, how can reason govern the appetites? Well, reasonable government governs in accord with the nature of the governed. I.e., we want to do justice to our physical desires while making sure that they don't end up dominating us.

So what I would like to emphasize, again, is that the argument here shouldn't really be about the "telos" of an organ or an activity. It's not really about the "telos of sex". Though I do believe that the governing mean for the sexual appetite we could find by pursuing this line of thought to its end is in fact the telos of sex, I don't think that it's necessary to show that that mean actually is the point of sex. Why? There are a couple of reasons.  First of all, there's little natural certainty in judgments about natural ends of things.  Your certainty that the purpose of sex is procreation is probably grounded mainly in the teachings of the catholic and apostolic church.  This means that they're not likely to be easily conveyed to someone who doesn't share your trust in the magisterium.  It's much easier to argue to the rational mean of sex (or many other behaviors) than to the natural end of it.  There's another reason as well.  And this is that any activity can serve a multiplicity of different legitimate ends. We do things for friendship or health or pleasure or profit, etc. and for other reasons as well. So instead of focusing on some normative natural end which must be pursued, it's better to ask how the use of different faculties or the exercise of different abilities is conducive to virtue.  Namely, how you must act and think and will in order to keep your appetites within the governance of reason.   Not primarily because violating that mean is doing an injustice to (for example) the reproductive possibilites of your organs (is spitting immoral because it wastes digestive fluid? Of course not.) but because a life without that rational mean will not tend toward the universal possibility for human perfection: i.e., happiness.