Archive for the ‘natural law’ Tag

Anthropological Musings on the Painfully Hot Ghost Chili

Last Wednesday, the Hub and I ventured over to Inman Square’s East Coast Grill for their legendary Hell Night. For four days out of the year, the talented chefs at East Coast prepare a menu to tantalize and terrify the taste buds. Habenero-infused vodka, Chile Chimichurri steaks, oysters drenched in hot sauce, and a dozen other spicy options ranging from one to nine chili peppers grace the menu. The star of the night, however, is the pasta from hell. This pasta, made from the world’s hottest ghost chilies, has been featured on the craze foodie hit Man vs. Food, where even the daring Adam Richman could only take about two bites. This pasta is hot. And I ordered it.

You are required to sign a waver before you dig in, which is all part of the fun. But after the first bite, the most excruciating pain sets in, the kind of pain that sends tears down your cheek as you dig your high heel into your calf to distract your dendrites from the horror taking place in your mouth. Now, don’t get me wrong. I live for spicy food. I eat sriracha on everything. I nibble on raw jalapenos while I cook spicy Mexican food. I have successfully taken an adolescent dare to drink an entire bottle of Tabasco. And by the time reached the half-way mark on my pasta from hell, I was doubled over in pain and had to stop. But I took it home, and the next night suffered through the rest (armed, of course, with a full bottle of antacids for the heart burn that came later that night).

When I recovered, I started wondering why in the world I freely and intentionally chose to do something so painful, not just once, but two nights in a row. Everydaythomist that I am, I toyed with the question of whether my actions constituted daring, one of the vices against fortitude that inclines the appetite toward danger in ways contrary to reason.

Turns out, scientists are doing research on this very question. A few months ago, the NYTimes featured an article on the pleasure and pain of chili peppers based on the research from Dr. Paul Rozin at the University of Pennsylvania:

[Rozin]has evidence for what he calls benign masochism. For example, he tested chili eaters by gradually increasing the pain, or, as the pros call it, the pungency, of the food, right up to the point at which the subjects said they just could not go further. When asked after the test what level of heat they liked the best, they chose the highest level they could stand, “just below the level of unbearable pain.” As Delbert McClinton sings (about a different line of research), “It felt so good to hurt so bad.”

Rozin disagrees with theories that argue for an evolutionary advantage to eating hot peppers, say, for example, by arguing that they lower blood pressure or provide some other such advantage in health. In fact, Rozin thinks there actually is not an evolutionary advantage at all to such acts:

No one knows for sure why humans would find pleasure in pain, but Dr. Rozin suggests that there’s a thrill, similar to the fun of riding a roller coaster. “Humans and only humans get to enjoy events that are innately negative, that produce emotions or feelings that we are programmed to avoid when we come to realize that they are actually not threats,” he said. “Mind over body. My body thinks I’m in trouble, but I know I’m not.” And it says, hand me another jalapeño.

One of the key observations here is that no other mammal likes hot peppers. And from this observation, Rozin and others draw an interesting conclusion: the human taste for painfully hot peppers says something important about what it means to be human:

[A]s Paul Bloom, a Yale psychologist, puts it, “Philosophers have often looked for the defining feature of humans — language, rationality, culture and so on. I’d stick with this: Man is the only animal that likes Tabasco sauce.”

That’s from Dr. Bloom’s new book, “How Pleasure Works: The New Science of Why We Like What We Like,” in which he addresses the general nature of human pleasure, and some very specific, complicated pleasures. Some, like eating painfully spicy food, are accidental, at least in their specificity. A complicated mind is adaptive, but love of chilies is an accident.

And that is what I celebrate behind my respirator as my son and I dice habaneros, accidental pleasures. A taste for chilies has no deep meaning, no evolutionary value. It’s just a taste for chilies. I might add, though, that since it takes such a complicated brain and weird self-awareness to enjoy something that is inherently not enjoyable, only the animal with the biggest brain and the most intricate mind can do it.

Take heart, chili heads. It’s not dumb to eat the fire, it’s a sign of high intelligence.

I find this a fascinating and largely compelling contribution to philosophical anthropology. Whereas for most animals, pleasure is a function of biology, humans have a lot more flexibility. They can, in many ways, choose what it is that brings them pleasure, even things that go against biology or evolutionary advantage. That is, human beings are masters of their actions largely because they are masters of their pleasure.

This means that for human beings in particular, morality cannot simply be a matter of examining nature and drawing normative conclusions. Human beings are greater than the sum of their biological parts, and the objects from which they draw pleasure cannot be reduced to merely a biochemical neural reaction.

When it comes to chili peppers and roller coasters, the human ability to find pleasure in biologically unpleasant things may not have much moral consequence, but in other areas the question may be more serious. For example, a friend sent me an Atlantic article on porn addiction which also examines the recent prevalence of anal sex. I hesitate to even quote the article on my blog due to how explicit it was, but I do think the following revelation from the author is significant:

Never was this made plainer to me than during a one-night stand with a man I had actually known for quite a while. A polite, educated fellow with a beautiful Lower East Side apartment invited me to a perfunctory dinner right after his long-term girlfriend had left him. We quickly progressed to his bed, and things did not go well. He couldn’t stay aroused. Over the course of the tryst, I trotted out every parlor trick and sexual persona I knew. I was coquettish then submissive, vocal then silent, aggressive then downright commandeering; in a moment of exasperation, he asked if we could have anal sex. I asked why, seeing as how any straight man who has had experience with anal sex knows that it’s a big production and usually has a lot of false starts and abrupt stops. He answered, almost without thought, “Because that’s the only thing that will make you uncomfortable.” This was, perhaps, the greatest moment of sexual honesty I’ve ever experienced—and without hesitation, I complied. This encounter proves an unpleasant fact that does not fit the feminist script on sexuality: pleasure and displeasure wrap around each other like two snakes.

If anal sex is unpleasant, why do it? Human intentionality, that is, human choice, can transform unpleasant actions and unpleasant objects into pleasure. In Dependent Rational Animals, Alistair McIntyre made the somewhat surprising claim that ethics could not be separated from biology. Ghost chilies and anal sex remind us that morality also cannot be reduced to biology. Human intentionality transcends what we are biologically conditioned to do.

Natural law scholars, especially those rooted in the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition, debate whether natural law should be grounded in a “metaphysical biology” which assumes that the normative “ought” can be drawn from the biological “is.” The more we learn about biology, the more important biology becomes in our moral reflections, and this, I think, is a good thing. Biology reminds us that we are creatures, not just spirits. It reminds us how much we share with our non-human animal cousins. But, while biology can tell us what it means to be “animal” (which humans are), it cannot tell us what it means to be human. In Aristotelian parlance, our human species is derived from our genus (animal) and differentia (rational). And that differentia does a lot to separate us from our non-human animal cousins. It does not totally separate us, but it separates us enough to give us pause as we realize that our animal nature cannot explain the many perplexing questions regarding why we do what we do. Now, if you will excuse me, I need another antacid.

Using Bill Simmons’ Book of Basketball to Understand Alasdair MacIntyre

At the most basic level, what is Alasdair MacIntyre arguing in the foundational essay of Intractable Disputes About the Natural Law? He says in the conclusion of his opening essay that he is not arguing that “Thomists have resources that should enable them to refute their opponents in way that are or should be compelling to any rational individual, whatever her or his standpoint” (51). But he goes on to say

I do indeed believe that Thomistic Aristotelionism provides us all a well-founded and rationally justified moral philosophy, but I also believe that in the forums of rational public debate, by the best standards available for such debate, it will often be unable to defeat its critics and opponent.

In short, MacIntyre thinks that his Thomistic rendition of the natural law can be rationally defended even if it isn’t persuasive to people who disagree.

To illuminate this concept, we might turn to the great sage Bill Simmons. In The Book of Basketball’s “Most Valuable Chapter,” Simmons outlines a theory for picking the MVP that includes four criteria. The fourth, Simmons explains thusly:

If you’re explaining your MVP pick to someone who has a favorite player in the race—a player that you didn’t pick—will he at least say something like, ‘Yeah, I don’t like it, but I can see how you arrived at that choice’?

Simmons goes on to explain that he added this fourth criterion after his ’08 MVP column in which he picked Garnett for the MVP according his original three criteria (KG transformed the Celtics defensively in a way no other player in the league could do, added new leadership and revived a floundering franchise, and spawned a 42-win turnaround), but was still criticized for favoring the hometeam over more objectively-qualified picks, i.e. CP3. Simmons concludes that in retrospect, Chris Paul was a more rational choice for MVP because he could be defended to a prejudiced party: “any Lakers fan would disagree with Paul over Kobe, but at the very least they would have understood the logic. They wouldn’t have agreed with it, but they would have understood it” (227).

And this, I take it, is what MacIntyre is saying the Aristotelian-Thomist natural law tradition provides us. It gives us rationally-defensible moral arguments that may not convince those in deep disagreement, like utilitarians, but at least they will be able to understand the logic. Don’t you love how basketball helps us understand philosophy better?

The Annual Meeting of the Society of Christian Ethics

This past weekend I was in San Jose, CA for the annual meeting of the Society of Christian Ethics (SCE). As with any conference, you have to be discriminating about which of the concurrent sessions you attend, and this year’s meeting had some great ones.

Bill Mattison, editor of New Wine, New Wineskins and author of the introductory textbook Introducing Moral Theology: True Happiness and the Virtues presented a paper that is part of a forthcoming book entitled “The Beatitudes and Christian Ethics: A Virtue Perspective.” The paper argued that the beatitudes be understood in the context of classical (meaning largely Greco-Roman) notions of happiness (eudaimonia) and virtue. Mattison argued that the relationship between the two parts of each beatitude in Matthew’s gospel can be understood as a relationship between “qualifying conditions” and a fulfillment or intensification of the qualifying condition as reward. As such, the beatitudes are not meant to be understood as a simple reversal of the unpleasant situation Christians find themselves on earth, but rather that the virtuous activities Jesus calls his disciples to offers a foretaste of what they will enjoy fully in eternity. In other words, both the qualifying condition and reward are activities which are intrinsically related.

For example, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, because theirs is the Kingdom of God,” according to Mattison is not just a simple reversal of the condition which those who are poor in spirit find themselves in. Rather, being poor in spirit is an activity, namely, the activity of not clinging to material possessions, an activity which finds its fulfillment in the Kingdom of God. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied” identifies an activity, namely desiring justice, which continues and is fulfilled in the Kingdom of God.

Mattison had to stretch at times to show how the qualifying condition is a continuation, rather than a reversal, in the reward state, but once you work out the kinks, the point, I think, is a sound one: Jesus does not offer an otherworldly ethic in Matthew’s beatitudes. Rather, he calls his disciples to be the people that they will most fully be in the Kingdom of God. Discipleship offers us a foretaste of what in heaven we will possess completely. And so, in this sense, Jesus really is calling his disciples to be “happy” in the beatitudes.

One of the largest criticisms Mattison’s paper received in the discussion was that he relies too heavily on Greco-Roman, and mostly Aristotelian, ideas of happiness in his interpretation of the beatitudes. Mattison has good reason to do so, and he can cite a litany of early church theologians who interpreted the beatitudes in such a way. But Mattison also has a good precedent for his understanding of happiness in the Wisdom literature, especially Proverbs, Sirach, and the Wisdom of Solomon, all of which was written about three hundred years before the time of Christ, in a Hellenistic culture. Mattison’s argument would gain more of a hearing among more biblically-oriented theologians and ethicists (i.e. Protestants) if he took the effort to show the solid Hebrew scriptural foundation for his interpretation.

There was a great panel on “The Neurosciences and Theological Anthropology” featuring the Hastings Center Sidney Callahan, Marilyn Martone from St. John’s, and Maryann Martone from UCSD. This interdisciplinary discussion incorporated biomedicine, psychology, and theology regarding issues like the adaptive unconscious, the role of interpersonal relationships in brain development, and the moral status of the severely mentally handicapped.

Marilyn Martone gave a very moving personal reflection on caring for her daughter, who, following a car accident, was in a falsely-diagnosed irreversible vegetative state. Martone’s daughter, Michelle, now lives at home, and though she has made significant, though unpredicted progress, she is still dependent on round-the-clock care from her parents. Martone reflected on how she used to place lemon-flavored glucose sticks on her daughter’s tongue and rub her hands with aromatherapy lotion, despite the fact that doctors told her that Michelle was unaware of these efforts. “I didn’t know if she knew what I was doing,” noted Martone tearfully, “but I treated her like she did.” Martone’s lesson is this: Science and medicine cannot give us the full scope of what it means to be human. Much of humanity is an acceptance of the other in love and in faith. We do not know if the unborn, if those in a persistent vegetative state, or if the severely handicapped are fully human, but, as Martone argues, we should treat them as if they are.

Martone’s presentation was a healthy antidote to our empirically-minded society which is increasingly turning to science to answer the question about what it means to be human. Works like Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene, Hauser’s The Moral Mind, and Haidt’s The Happiness Project are assuming an increasingly more significant status in our societal discussions on the deepest questions of human behavior, values, and meaning. Martone reminds us that these materialist pursuits are an asset in our study, but cannot take the place of philosophical and theological reflection, and above all, personal experience in human relationships.

Another panel featuring Stanley Hauerwas, Cathleen Kaveny, and Michael Sherwin, discussed the 2009 document released by the Vatican’s International Theological Commission entitled “In Search of a Universal Ethics: A New Look at Natural Law.” Among the panelists, there was widespread consensus that the Vatican has moved past a wholehearted of the “new natural law,” pace Finnis, Grisez, and George, but as for what continuing significance the natural law will have in providing the basis for a universal foundational morality in a pluralistic society, the conclusions were less certain. Hauerwas, in his typical Hauerwasian fashion, insisted that natural law should not provide the basis for a universal ethic, but rather articulates what Christians already know to be the case. On MacIntyre’s point (see the new collection of essays just released from Notre Dame) that the ten commandments can be derived with only a minimal amount of practical reflection, Hauerwas was adamant: “Do you think, with only a minimal amount of reflection apart from a theological ethic, we can conclude that ‘Honor the Sabbath and keep it holy’ refers to Jesus’ resurrection?”

By far the best two sessions I attended, however, were on untraditional topics in Catholic ethics. Dan Scheid, a former colleague of mine, gave a marvelous paper putting the eco-ethics of Jim Nash in dialogue with the Catholic moral tradition. Unfortunately, Dan was part of a panel of friends and colleagues of the late Jim Nash who wanted to do more anecdote-sharing than scholarly reflection, but Dan’s paper was bright spot in an otherwise dull and internecine session.

Dan used as a jumping-off point Nash’s idea that human beings are “altruistic, creative predators” to articulate four significant points of divergence between Nash’s eco-ethics and the Catholic moral tradition. First, creation has an intrinsic goodness which should demand of Christians to extend the love of neighbor to the love of creation. However, nature is a realm of violence with which human beings can never be in complete harmony with. The biophysical reality of the created world is such that creatures kill other creatures, but humans in their privileged position in creation (this is Dan’s second point) can do so creatively and responsibly, minimizing the harm we cause by subjecting our predatory powers to the power of reason. This is a good Thomist argument.

Third, the well-being of the poor, what might be called the preferential option, deserves a privileged place in any Catholic eco-ethic, and consequently demands of us an ethic of frugality, Dan’s fourth point. Dan recommends inculcating a sense of sacrifice in every death (an idea with wide support in the Hebrew scriptures—think about it . . . when do the Hebrews eat meat apart from the ritual sacrifice time), a forgoing of human self-exceptionalism in order to extend moral concern to all creation, and a sense of subversiveness in a society in which over-consumption is the norm.

Dan’s paper helps us reflect on how virtue ethics might gain a more universal scope, how we might, for example, conceive of temperance as an environmental virtue, or justice (giving to others their due) may be extended to non-rational creatures. I think his paper foreshadows the future direction of virtue ethics, and his commendable effort to put the 13th century virtue ethics of Aquinas in dialogue with the twentieth-century Protestant ethics of Nash indicates the widespread agreement that Christians can reach on even the most controversial matters like a sustainable eco-ethic.

Finally, and in great continuity with Dan’s paper, David Clough gave a paper entitled “The Future of the Animal in Christian Ethics: Beyond a Politically Motivated Silence.” Clough spent the first part of his paper systematically and quite convincingly arguing against a theological basis within the Christian tradition used to support the exploitation of animals (think Genesis 9). Clough argues that this theological argument for the supremacy of humans at the expense of all the rest of creation has its origin in Stoicism, with its emphasis on the preeminence of the rational powers in the order of creation, not in Judaism. Clough reads Genesis 9 not as a de-emphasis of the importance of non-rational humans, but rather as an emphasis on God’s graciousness towards human beings in light of the fallen state of the natural order. Clough draws on the relevant passages from the Hebrew prophetic literature in addition to Romans 8 and the opening of Ephesians and Colossians to argue that Scripture provides a sound basis for the belief that God’s redemption will extend to all of creation, not merely those with a rational soul.

Although a Barthian, Clough redeems Aquinas from those who would use him to support the exploitation of non-rational animals through such practices as animal research, intensive farming, and inhumane slaughtering. In Thomas’ cosmology, there exists a three-fold hierarchy, whereby first, all created things exist as an end in themselves (and are loved by God accordingly); second, lesser creatures are subject to greater creatures in that plants which have only a vegetative soul are subordinate to animals who have a sensitive soul, and non-rational animals are subject to rational animals; and third, all creation is subordinate to God and exists not just in and for itself, and for the sake of the greater in the hierarchy, but predominantly for the glory of God.

As such, Clough argues that we need to reclaim this first point in the Thomistic hierarchy and, in contemplating the moral treatment of non-rational animals, determine how it is that God created them to exist in and for themselves. This helps us to avoid the naïve tendency to idealize the wild and argue for the release of all domesticated creatures to the untamed woods from whence they came. But it also helps us to critically evaluate how we may unjustly subject the ends of non-human creatures to our own desires, thus thwarting the intrinsic teleology to the natural order. Intensively-raised animals are perhaps the most compelling example, in that such animals are raised and slaughtered in conditions of extreme suffering only to satisfy the enormous demand of the developing world for cheap meat. However, Clough does not shy away from the “fringe” cases. For example, we may assume that our pet German Shepherd is happy in his predator-free urban apartment where we feed him the finest organic dog chow and let him frolic on an extended leash twice a day on the sidewalk below, but Clough pushes us to examine how that dog’s telos is being fulfilled in our relationship with it. More often than not, we are willing to justify the unnatural status of the animals with which we relate merely to fulfill our own pleasure.

Clough’s talk was perhaps the most thought-provoking of all the talks I heard because it was on a subject that Christian ethicists are not really paying all that much attention to. “Look around at a conference like this,” noted Clough, “and see how many ethicists are choosing to eat vegetarian.” Indeed, the status of non-human animals will need to receive more systematic treatment in upcoming years as Christian ethics moves towards more environmental and social justice concerns. Unfortunately, both Dan and Clough’s talk were the two poorest-attended sessions which I attended. Which means, I take it, that the “new wine” still has some progress to make.

The Pope’s Very Political Encyclical

Pope Benedict promulgated his third encyclical last week entitled “Caritas in Veritate” (Charity in Truth). It’s a lengthy encyclical but if you choose, you can read the full text here. Or you can just peruse this or this very useful summary.

The encyclical fits into the genre of “Catholic Social Teaching,” and in it, Benedict reemphasizes some prominent themes from that tradition: the protection of life, the protection of workers, the importance of the economy serving human beings and not the other way around, and the principle of subsidiarity for the organization of society.

There are lots of blog posts examining the encyclical, which I am not going to do here. My interest concerns rather a point made by Ross Douthat in the NYTimes op-ed column entitled “The Audacity of the Pope.” He writes:

Inevitably, liberal Catholics spent the past week touting its relevance to the Democratic Party’s policy positions. (A representative blast e-mail: “Pope’s Encyclical on Global Economy Supports the Principles of the Employee Free Choice Act.”) Just as inevitably, conservative Catholics hastened to explain that the encyclical “is not a political document” — to quote a statement co-authored by the House minority leader, John Boehner — and shouldn’t be read as “an endorsement of any political or economic agenda.”

Then, after acknowledging that the pope is neither a Republican or a Democrat, Douthat writes that “Benedict’s encyclical is nothing if not political. Caritas in Veritate promotes a vision of economic solidarity rooted in moral conservatism. It links the dignity of labor to the sanctity of marriage. It praises the redistribution of wealth while emphasizing the importance of decentralized governance. It connects the despoiling of the environment to the mass destruction of human embryos.”

What bothers me about the rest of the column is that Douthat tries to make the encyclical somehow “fit into” American conceptions of politics, recognizing that putting the pope’s recommendations into practice is challenging for Democrats and Republicans alike. “For liberals and conservatives alike, ‘Caritas in Veritate’ is an invitation to think anew about their alliances and litmus tests.”

Douthat is right that people want to take the encyclical as political when they agree with it, but when they don’t, the pope is just weighing in with his opinion. For the vast majority of people looking at the political implications of the encyclical, politics is a matter of debate, division, and voting. Politics is like a debate competition with winners and losers. Basically, politics is about what you do; morality is about what you believe. The pope can believe whatever he wants, but this has nothing to do with politics. Morality is a private issue; politics is public.

I think this understanding of politics stems from the idea that somehow morality is something separate from politics. I’m reminded of Al Gore’s speech at the Academy Awards where he said that climate change was “not a political issue, it’s a moral issue.” Gore’s comment makes it seem like politics is about power, or about making people do something. Morality on the other hand is about right and wrong.

Aristotle and Aquinas give us a very different understanding of politics. Politics is not about coercion and power, or even primarily about making laws and enforcing them. Politics for Aristotle and Aquinas is simply a branch of ethics. For Aristotle, “politics” is simply part two of his ethics. And Aquinas never even wrote a treatise on politics, though he did write about politics in his ethics found in the Secunda Pars of the Summa Theologica. In honor of Benedict’s very political encyclical, now is a good time to review what Aristotle and Aquinas take “political” to mean.

For Aristotle and Aquinas, human beings are political creatures, naturally inclined to live in society. Political society (civitas) emerges from the needs human nature and is in itself a purely natural and desirable. This is a stark contrast with a thinker like Thomas Hobbes who thought that political society was an artificial imposition established to curb the violence of human nature. For Hobbes, if human beings were virtuous, they would not need a political society; for Aquinas, political society is necessary for the full perfection of human existence. The political society is the social setting in which human beings find their fulfillment and flourishing.

The primary task of the political society, therefore, is to create good and virtuous citizens. Drawing on Aristotle, Aquinas says that a political society comes into being as a necessary component of human life, but it exists for the sake of living well (Commentary on the Politics, Book 1, Lesson 1).

So we see that ethics and politics has a similar end or purpose–the formation of good people. And in both ethics and politics, this process is a gradual process of development and progress over time. While political society might be completely natural, a good political society is not. In the same way that human beings must acquire moral virtue through education and habituation, even though they are naturally inclined to moral virtue in Aquinas’ system, so too must a political society be developed and fostered.

One of the ways this happens is through the natural law. The natural law, most basically, is the rational creature’s participation in the eternal law. The eternal law is the Divine Governance that is behind creation. For most of creation, the eternal law is pretty determinative. It is by God’s eternal law that the seasons change, the planets move, fire rises upward, and stones fall downward. It is by the eternal law that plants grow, and lions chase gazelles, and whales swim instead of fly. But rational creatures (i.e. humans), as Aquinas writes, are “subject to Divine Providence in the most excellent way, in so far as it partakes of a share of providence, by being provident both for itself, and for others” (ST I-II, Q. 91, art. 2).

Human beings are not determined to specific actions like other parts of creation. Humans do have natural inclinations that come from the eternal law, but human beings have freedom and choice regarding how those inclinations will be directed. Thus, the natural law is about directing natural human inclinations towards the ultimate human good, which is flourishing. These natural inclinations include those inclinations that we share with all created things, namely, to keep ourselves in existence. They also include the inclinations that we share with other animals, namely to reproduce and educate offspring. And those natural inclinations include those distinctively human inclinations to form societies and seek out knowledge of God.

So the formation and regulation of society is a subject of study both for ethics and for politics. Laws are the natural outgrowth of the rational creature discerning how to live in order to flourish. Laws are not primarily about coercion (although they can and do have coercive effects). Laws are the product and outgrowth of the natural law. They are the embodiment of a community’s morality.

Politics, therefore, like ethics, is about discerning right from wrong in order to best live a good and flourishing life. So the pope’s encyclical, in so far as it is about morals, is political. But that does not mean that is primarily concerned with legislation. Determining how such moral values offered in the encyclical are to be enacted in legislation will vary from community to community. Aquinas explains how the process of creating laws is like craftsman who uses the “general form of a house” to build a particular house. Laws, in the same ways, are built on moral values (derived from natural law) but their specific form will vary depending on the needs of a given community.

Thus, different societies will have different ways of enforcing the precepts of natural law like prohibitions against murder or theft or laws regulating the best way to raise a family, protect the environment, or educate citizens. And different societies are going to have different ways of enacting the moral values espoused in Caritas et Veritate. The pope’s encyclical talks about the foundations for this process–the sort of moral values that all people of good will should espouse and all societies should take seriously in working to promote the common good. This is very much a political endeavor, or as the pope writes in his encyclical, it is the fruit of the “political path of charity.” (7)

No matter what you might think of the pope’s ideas, you cannot write off the encyclical as moral, but not political. But it isn’t political because the pope is taking sides or affirming the platform of any given party, or playing a political game. It is not political because the pope is coercing individuals or nations to act in any given way. It is political because the pope is talking about ethics, about the moral values that we act on that either contribute to or detract from the good life. It is political because the pope is inquiring after what human beings need in our changing world to flourish. As we debate the merits of the encyclical, let us not debate about whether it is political or not, and let us definitely not assume that simply because the pope wrote something political, he is out of line. Rather, let us allow the political process the pope started to continue as we examine the encyclical and reflect on what our society needs for its people to live good lives.

Neighbor Love, Natural Law, and Universal Moral Norms

Last Thursday, Barack Obama spoke at the Annual Prayer Breakfast about his faith and what he sees as the role of religion in public life. Judging from the fact that President Obama referred to unbelievers as “humanists,” it is pretty clear what Obama thinks religion is there to do: help us love one another.

“Whatever our differences, there is one law that binds all great religions together. Jesus told us to ‘love thy neighbor as thyself.’ The Torah commands, ‘That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow.’

” In Islam, there is a hadith that reads ‘None of you truly believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself.’ And the same is true for Buddhists and Hindus; for followers of Confucius and for humanists.

“It is, of course, the Golden Rule -– the call to love one another; to understand one another; to treat with dignity and respect those with whom we share a brief moment on this Earth.”

The interesting thing about this claim our president is making is that it rests on anthropological and metaphysical principles that we all do not actually agree on. Conservative Christians, for example, lost no time in pointing out the hypocrisy of President Obama’s insistence that there is no God who condones taking the life of an innocent human being when he has one of the most consistent pro-choice records of any politician around today. This is because Barack Obama does not think that the fetus is a full human being with full moral rights; Conservative Christians do.

Turns out, in the history of humanity, we have never been all that clear about what it means to be human or what counts as a full human being. Metaphysically, the question is “what is the essence of humanity?” Some people think we can resolve this question through practical reasoning and consensus. Jacques Maritain, for example, thought that natural law reasoning could provide the philosophical foundations for an anthropology that would support the drafting of the 1948 UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Maritain thought we could get all nations together and agree on such rights even if we did not agree on their metaphysical presuppositions. But as post-1948 history has illustrated, we might like the rights when they apply to ourselves, but it still isn’t all that clear who counts as human and gets to benefit from them. Our progressive-minded president draws a line in the womb somewhere. Peter Singer draws the line at infants. Aristotle drew the line at barbarians, women, and natural slaves.

A lot of people, many of them Catholic but not all, think that natural law can provide a fixed understanding of human nature. The idea is basically that human beings can rationally derive what it means to be a human, and what is normative for human nature, based on rational discernment about what is “natural.” Some have described this as an unwritten law on the human heart, and it is normally not thought of a religious way of thinking about humanity and morality. The Founding Fathers in the United States were deists, and were very influenced by natural law reasoning from the Enlightenment that led them to the American Proposition that “all men are created equal.” Because of its characteristic “unreligious” nature, natural law reasoning has been dismissed by many Protestants like Karl Barth who claim that God’s will, not human reason, is up to the task of figuring out what human beings are and what they are supposed to do.

Natural law, as defined by Aquinas (though Aquinas’ definition in no way exhausts all the different ways natural law has been conceived from the time of the pre-Socratics to the present) is the rational creature’s participation in the Eternal Law (I-II, Q. 91, art. 2). The natural law is a capacity to distinguish between good and evil that rational creatures are endowed with. This capacity is expressed through moral precepts like the Golden Rule. The natural law can yield more specific precepts and includes a fundamental capacity for moral judgment, but there is considerably less certainty on the level of particular norms. Basically, the Golden Rule might be absolute and universal, but how to apply it is not. Rather than thinking of the natural law as a series of universal norms, it is better to think of it a rational principle of discernment–a built-in mechanism human beings have to discern between good and evil.

What the natural law does not give us, despite what some people think, is a fixed understanding of human nature. Natural law does not allow us to grasp absolute, fundamental, and universal aspects of human nature. Rational discernment gives us an idea of what is fundamental to human nature, but our ability both to know these elements and to express them is limited, not only by our inability as finite creatures to grasp the absolute and the universal, but also due to sin which clouds our intellect and veils the truth. Moreover, human nature is not something that exists in a fixed way prior to becoming embedded in a culture, but is rather a political or social thing. God may know the essence of human nature, and what should be normative for human beings to do in any given situation, but human beings do not have access to such knowledge. As Reinhold Niebuhr said, the one absolute is that human beings do not know the absolute.

What we get from natural law reasoning are a lot of different norms and a lot of different ideas about human nature. Aristotle, Aquinas, Peter Singer, and Barack Obama are all using the natural law to make judgments about what is good and what is evil, and I am betting that none of my readers agree with all of them. Although modern natural law theorists have attempted to provide a universal moral code based purely on practical reasoning, I think this is an impossibility. Natural law reasoning, rather, is always embedded in a particular belief system and a particular metaphysical conception of the good. You cannot separate the work of practical reasoning from the political, social, and religious environs in which such reasoning occurs, nor can you present a definition of human that is detached from such an environs. At least, not an absolute or universal definition.

So what are we to do in this global environment where we are desperate, as President Obama illustrates, to find commonalities, or the universal among all the particularities? Does natural law provide us with any way of generating universal norms or a universal definition of what it means to be human? Jean Porter has argued convincingly that people like Thomas Aquinas thought of natural law as a Scriptural concept, that his understanding of human nature was guided by scriptural and theological principles of interpretation. Consequently, Aquinas’ idea of human nature was not grounded in the conclusions of pure practical reasoning, but rather in the image of God in the person of Jesus Christ. For thinkers like Aquinas, natural law reasoning occurred at the locus where reason and revelation occurred, and this allowed him to construct an elaborate, virtue-based ethic delineating not only what was possible but also what was desirable for human nature under the aid of grace. What is normative for the human being under such specifically Christian natural law reasoning is not just the Decalogue and the two-fold command to love God and love your neighbor as yourself, but also the call to perfection in the Sermon on the Mount, the fruits of the Spirit in Galatians, and that ever-tricky love of enemy.

The consequence of this idea of natural law is that Barack Obama cannot just say that everybody across the globe knows to “love their neighbors as their selves.” I’m sure the Hutus bought into that as they were slaughtering the Tutsis. Good thing the Tutsis weren’t neighbors. The British probably bought into as well as they were legislating apartheid in South Africa to keep the non-neighbor Africans in their place. The German National Socialists, many of them good Lutherans in their free time, undoubtedly thought love of neighbor was important, but Jews and Communists and homosexuals were fair game. And Barack Obama can cite the universality of the command in front on the National Prayer Breakfast with a clear conscience, even though he thinks that partial birth abortion is okay, and has done all he can to make sure it stays legal in this country.

For Christians, who counts as the neighbor cannot be separated from what revelation through Scripture tells us. For the hard-core biologist, the neighbor will be defined differently, probably based on some scientific standard for who counts and who does not. For the philosophical humanist, we will get another definition. Barack Obama is right to point out the universal nature of the Golden Rule, but the Golden Rule tells us practically nothing. As the Gospel of Luke, chapter 10 indicates, the juicy part of that question is “who is my neighbor.”

Part Three of the Christian Response to Abortion: Christology

We have already addressed how God is the sovereign Lord of life and death. We have also addressed how human beings are fearfully and wonderfully made, and that the human condition is characterized by the same frail, mysterious vulnerability of the pre-born in the womb. In light of both of these realizations, we have seen that the proper Christian response should be one of awe and humility. Reflecting on both God and our own human condition should always turn our eyes upward.

What gives us the power to turn our eyes upward to the merciful heavenly Father is Jesus Christ, who reveals to us the Father, and reveals to us the salvation from this human condition that the Father has provided for us, and who pours out his Spirit on us so that we have strength for the journey. John Calvin writes,

Since we have fallen from life into death, the whole knowledge of God the Creator that we have discussed would be useless unless faith also followed, setting forth for us God our Father in Christ. The natural order was that the frame of the universe should be the school in which we were to learn piety, and from it pass over to eternal life and perfect felicity. . . [But after man’s rebellion] even if God wills to manifest his fatherly favor to us in many ways, we cannot by contemplating the universe infer that he is Father. . . As all our senses have become perverted, we wickedly defraud God of his Glory. We must, for this reason come to Paul’s statement: ‘Since in the wisdom of God the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of preaching to save those who believe’” (II, vi.1).

What Calvin is saying here is if we were to only reflect on God and the human condition, we would either despair that we are separated from God, or try and become God’s ourselves. Only the “foolishness” of Jesus, the God-man, reveals to us what it truly means to be both God and human.

This is why we turn to Christ, to attempt to construct a Christological understanding of abortion to complement the numerous arguments that already exist. It is because we cannot know God’s will apart from Christ. Moreover, we cannot fully know what it means to be human apart from Christ. Science and philosophy may lead us to some understanding, and reflecting on the magnificent achievements of mankind in history may lead us to some awareness of our creation in the image of divinity, but apart from Jesus Christ, we cannot know who we humans truly are and what we have been called to be. As Paul says, we are not to be “conformed to this world, but transformed by the renewing of our minds, to discern what is the will of God–what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

Scripture makes it clear that the life of Jesus Christ begins in the womb: The angel Gabriel tells Mary, “Behold, you shall conceive in you womb and bear a son.” When Mary goes to visit Elizabeth, the infant [John] leaps in her womb, and Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit, crying out to Mary, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” The sovereign God, who the Psalmist declares to have knit him together in his mother’s womb, saw it fit to take human flesh, not initially in the form of a man, but first, in the dark and formless void of the womb.

The mistake that we make as Christians is that we try and compare Christ’s humanity with whatever definition of humanity we have created through human means. A Christological argument does not say, “life begins at conception, therefore Jesus’ life as a human must have begun at conception.” A Christological argument starts rather with Christ himself. The life of Christ shows us that God does not conform Himself to our human definitions and our human expectations in that Jesus was conceived in the womb of a virgin. The virginity of Mary is important, not because sex is bad, but because it reveals to us that human beings do not know through science or philosophy or any other human discipline how God works. Science cannot make sense of the incarnation, and likewise, science cannot ever fully reveal to us the meaning of our humanity. Calvin, again, puts it nicely:

As philosophers have fixed limits of the right and the honorable, hence they derive individual duties and the whole company of virtues, so Scripture is not without its own order in this matter, but holds to a most beautiful dispensation, and one much more certain than all the philosophical ones. The only difference is that [the philosophers] as they were ambitious men, diligently strove to attain an exquisite clarity of order to show the nimbleness of their wit. But the Spirit of God, because he taught without affectation, did not adhere so exactly or continuously to a methodical plan; yet when he lays one down anywhere he hints enough that it is not to be neglected by us (III, vi, 1).

In the womb of a virgin, where God saw fit to take flesh, we see the life of Christ begin. We do not know the exact point that matter and form came together to form the person of Jesus. Conception is a mystery. But what we do see is the response we are called to have when we reflect on this mystery. Mary says, “here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’”

I see great potential for Christian unity on the issue of abortion. However, I do not think this unity will be founded on natural law arguments or scientific explanations or talk about human rights. Those arguments have a place, but that place is to reveal to the world what Christians already know in Christ. That God is sovereign Lord, and “nothing will be impossible with God;” that human beings are His creation, made in His image and likeness. And that Jesus Christ shows us what that image and likeness is. And like Mary, with each mysterious new life, we as Christians are called to say, “The Lord has looked with favor on his lowly servant” because we know that “God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength” (1 Cor. 1:25).

Some Notes on Free Will

Aquinas uses the Latin liberum arbitrium,  meaning “free judgment” when he talks about free will in the Prima Pars (the first part of the Summa Theologica), henceforth referenced by the Roman numeral I).  The idea of “judgment” is important for his parsing out what he means by free will.

He says in I, Q. 83, art. I that some things act without judgments, like a stone moving downward when dropped.  Other things move with judgment but without knowledge like animals who judge a something like a steak to be good, but judge according to instinct, not reason.  Humans, however, act from judgment with knowledge, meaning that humans reason that something should be sought or avoided, not on instinct, but according to reason.

One advantage of acting according to judgment with knowledge is that human beings can be inclined to various “good” things like studying for comps or blogging, but not to any particular good.  Now, that does not mean that the will is not moved of necessity.  In Q. 82, art. 2, Aquinas says that the will must of necessity tend towards the good.  This means that the will has to will anything that it wills because it sees it as a good.  The reason that free will is still possible in light of this is that the will is not bound to any particular good.  Blogging and studying for comprehensive exams are both goods, and my will can choose either one of them because it judges one to be a particular good worthy of pursuit over the other (which is why I am blogging at midnight rather than studying or sleeping, other, perhaps better goods).

The idea of free will got a little distorted in the 14th c. in what is known as the Nominalist movement.  Figures like Duns Scotus and William Occam read that the will was bound by necessity to the good (that it must will the good) and assumed that this undermined human freedom.  Occam posited instead the freedom of indifference for the will, meaning that the will was not bound by anything.  It could choose evil if it wanted to, or it could choose good.  For Occam and others during this time, this was the only conception of freedom that made sense.

For Aquinas, freedom is not the capacity to choose between contraries.  The will is created to be inclined towards the good and so it simply cannot choose evil.  To understand this, let’s think of the stone falling to the ground.  The stone has to fall towards the ground.  This is simply the way God created the universe and the natural laws according to which the universe operate says that a stone dropped on earth will fall to the ground.  In a similar way, the will has to move towards the good.  The difference is that, whereas there is only one place for the stone to go, namely down, there are many places the will can go.  There are many different goods it can choose.  But just because God created it to tend towards the good does not mean that it isn’t free:

Free-will is the cause of its own movement because by his free-will, man moves himself to act.  But it does not of necessity belong to liberty that what is free should be the first cause of itself. . .God, therefore, is the first cause, Who moves causes both natural and voluntary.  And just as by moving natural causes He does not prevent their acts being natural, so by moving voluntary causes He does not deprive their actions of being voluntary: but rather is He the cause of this very thing in them; for He operates in each thing according to its own nature (I, Q. 83, art. 1).

What I think is so interesting about Aquinas’ treatment of free will is the extent to which he emphasizes how the exercise of the free will depends on the help of God.  In the reply to 83.1, Obj. 2, he says that free-will is not sufficient, “unless it be moved and helped by God.”  In the reply to Obj. 4 of the same article, he says “man’s way is said no be his in the execution of his choice, wherein he may be impeded, whether he will or not.  The choice itself, however, is in us, but presupposes the help of God.”  In the next article, he says that “free will is the subject of grace, by the help of which it chooses what is good.”

The reformer Martin Luther is famous for saying that there is no such thing as free will.  What he means is that  human beings are incapable of doing good unless helped by grace.  To illustrate this point in a work called The Bondage of the Will, he borrows an image from Augustine of the will being ridden (enslaved) by Satan, unless it be justified, whereby it is then ridden or “enslaved” to God.

The tendency in moral theology has been to place Aquinas and Luther on opposite sides of the spectrum, with Aquinas emphasizing the good that human beings are capable of, and Luther emphasizing the complete and utter dependence on grace.  I am not so sure this is fair to Aquinas.  In I, Q. 83, art.2, ad. 3, Aquinas says “man is said to have lost free will by falling into sin, not as to natural liberty, which is freedom from coercion, but as regards freedom from fault and unhappiness.”

It seems to me that Luther and Aquinas are closer than they are thought to be.  Luther thinks that with grace, and only with grace, can the will do what it is supposed to do.  He uses the metaphor of enslavement to God to illustrate the point.  Aquinas agrees that only with grace can the will do what it is supposed to do (not just in its fallen state but in its natural state as well).  Rather than enslavement, however, Aquinas talks about necessity to clarify the sense in which the will is free.  In Q. 82, art. 2, he says that the will can freely choose among various goods that are not necessary for happiness, “but there are some things that have a necessary connection with happiness, by means of which things man adheres to God, in Whom alone true happiness consists.  Nevertheless, until through the certitude of the Divine Vision the necessity of such connection be shown, the will does not adhere to God of necessity, nor to those things which are of God.  But the will of the man who sees God in His essence of necessity adheres to God, just as now we desire of necessity to be happy” (emphasis mine).  What Aquinas is saying here is really very similar to Luther–the will needs grace to do what it is supposed to do as a will, and to do what a will is supposed to do is the only meaning of “freedom” that makes any sense.


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