Saturday, January 19, 2019

Natural Rights and Morality

Can one have natural rights without a natural moral law?  The moderns certainly believe so; Feser begs to differ.

One will not find the idea of natural rights explicitly stated by Aristotle or Aquinas; however, later Scholastic thinkers developed this idea based on the earlier work.  Natural rights follow from Aristotelian formal and final causes:

If every man has, by virtue of having the same form or nature, the same ultimate natural end (God) and various subsidiary natural ends (those associated with natural capacities like reason, procreation, and so forth), then they have the same basic moral obligations under natural law.

While reading Feser, I continue to return to this idea of natural law – and, specifically, the reliance on natural law by many libertarians as a philosophical foundation.  Is it possible to take from natural law only the negative (do not interfere with my achieving my natural ends) without the positive (the moral obligations) derived from the same natural law?  Can one exist without the other?

The same natural law that blocks others from interfering with our natural ends also places obligations on us.  These are more than merely reciprocating regarding the prohibition of interfering with another (e.g. violating my natural right not the be murdered); natural law, as developed by Aristotle and Aquinas, places moral burdens on us – precluding us from actions that would otherwise not violate the non-aggression principle.

The child wants to enjoy the benefits of living under daddy’s roof but doesn’t want to live by daddy’s rules.  Is this workable?  Does such a relationship have any possibility of longevity?

Now, what becomes of natural rights if there are no formal or final causes, and thus no universal human nature nor any natural ends or purposes by reference to which rights get their point?

What do you aim at if there is no target?  This was the task of the moderns – Hobbes, Lock, Hume, Kant, etc. – as they believed they could aim without a target.  Feser examines these.

Hobbes understood this most clearly: without the target, everyone can do what he wants: murder, steal, and harm others as he wishes.  No one has a right to not be killed, stolen from, etc.  Morality would have to be invented by us in order to avoid the naturally resulting chaos.

Locke would have none of this; without final causes, he would rely on God’s ownership of us.  Therefore, we do not have any rights ourselves; God has all the rights and whatever rights we enjoy are derivative.  But without formal and final causes, there is still no target to aim at.

Take Locke’s theory of property: it leaves more questions than it provides answers.  Most basic: what counts as “mixing”?  How much mixing?  Why not build a small fence around your neighbor and thereafter claim all property outside of it?

One could appeal to divine revelation, but then this turns Locke’s theory into theology.  I have often answered “custom” or “tradition,” but without a target to aim at, custom and tradition can stray (and has strayed) far from any definition of “good” you can come up with.

To deny that there are any formal or final causes in the natural world is implicitly to deny that there is any objective standard of goodness in the world either.

The early moderns could toy with such ideas because they lived within a custom and tradition that was well-grounded in the “good” of Christian ethics.  Hence, the destructiveness of losing the target was not obvious.  But, it has been demonstrated that the target cannot sustain itself; we have seen the devolution over the last two centuries.

Where does this leave reason?  It is every man’s reason for itself: reason can tell us what to do to achieve our objectives, but what of the objectives?  Without ultimate values based on formal and final causes, what do we aim at?

Is the elimination of slavery good?  Why or why not?  The acceptance of divorce, homosexuality?  What if it is accepted to kill unwanted babies?  It already is accepted for the unborn child, why not the newborn?  Old and sick people; Jews, blacks, Muslims?  Nazis, communists, pro-choice activists?  Why…or why not?

Well, we just “know it.”  But consider how drastically different much of what we “know” today is from what we “knew” even a few decades ago – even a few years ago.  Were we wrong then?  Are we wrong today?  Is change the same as progress?  Can reason tell us when reason has no target to aim at?

Do we aim for the greatest happiness for the greatest number?  Good luck measuring or quantifying that one.  You can’t even say why anyone would care about the greatest happiness for the greatest number.  On what basis is this better than the good of the many outweigh the good of the one?  What is “good”?

Why exactly should we believe that reason tells us to follow [Kant’s] Categorical Imperative – as opposed to being the “slave of the passions” (in Hume’s sense) or following our rational self-interest (as Hobbes says)?

Reason to what end?

The bottom line is that by abandoning formal and final causes, modern philosophy necessarily denied itself any objective basis for morality.

Including, it seems, the morality of the non-aggression principle.


Would you be more inclined rigorously to abide by policy X if you were truly convinced that God or nature unconditionally commands it, or if cooked up because it is “mutually advantageous” (even if you don’t see much advantage to  following it yourself just now)?

To ask this question is to answer it.


Feser has apparently walked a path through libertarianism and then moved on.  Someday it might be important to me to understand why, but not today.  That he has walked such a path does not discount for me the points he raises in this book.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Mind Your Punctuation

Was that semi-colon some kind of flirty wink or just bad punctuation?

While this post will cover material from Feser’s book, you will find in it a break from the metaphysical.  The context is Aristotle’s science – well, science based on our narrow definition of today. 

Aristotle, like his contemporaries and many of his successors viewed that the earth stood at the center of the solar system.  Some have used what is now known as a faulty view as “proof” that Aristotle’s metaphysics are all wrong.  Feser offers that Aristotelian metaphysics don’t rely on his science at all.

As always, Aquinas affords us a clear example.  Far from insisting dogmatically that the Ptolemaic astronomy accepted in his day must be correct, he acknowledged that “the suppositions that these astronomers have invented need not necessarily be true; for perhaps the phenomenon of the stars are explicable on some other plan not yet discovered by man.”

Ptolemy was a second-century philosopher (in the broadest sense) who developed a geocentric view of the solar system; his view was accepted as valid for the better part of 1500 years – to include, therefore, the life of Aquinas.

In 1543, Copernicus published his work, challenging this long-standing view.  He concluded that the sun, not the earth, was at the center of the solar system.  Despite this publication, the geocentric view held sway for the time.  Was it due to religion hindering science?  No, not really:

The geocentric system was still held for many years afterwards, as at the time the Copernican system did not offer better predictions than the geocentric system, and it posed problems for both natural philosophy and scripture. The Copernican system was no more accurate than Ptolemy's system, because it still used circular orbits.

The Copernican system offered no better predictions; it was not considered an improvement in the science (narrowly defined).  This brings us to Galileo; Feser goes on to briefly discuss this controversy.  He describes the knowledge that most people have of this incident as a caricature, taken as “evidence of Scholastic intransigence.”

Quite the opposite: Cardinal Bellarmine offered at the time that if there were real proof of Copernicus’s view, the Church would have to acknowledge that the common interpretation of certain biblical passages was mistaken. 

Galileo’s difficulty was not that he advocated Copernicus – he had done so for years with the knowledge and approval of the Church and the warm encouragement of the Pope; his difficulty came because he insisted on treating this view as proven, when it had not been proven.

Indeed, some of Galileo’s own arguments, it is now known, were seriously flawed. [While his conclusions are now known to be correct], the fact remains that it was Galileo, and not the Church, who dogmatically went beyond the evidence then available….

Feser offers that Galileo’s popular image as a martyr for science holds no more validity than the story of George Washington and the cherry tree.

OK, OK…Feser is just doing his apologia.  Maybe.

The Inquisition's Semicolon: Punctuation, Translation, and Science in the 1616 Condemnation of the Copernican System (PDF):

This paper presents high-resolution images of the original document of the 24 February 1616 condemnation of the Copernican system, as being “foolish and absurd in philosophy”, by a team of consultants for the Roman Inquisition.  Secondary sources have disagreed as to the punctuation of the document. 

In this Inquisition, Galileo was exonerated (it was only when he persisted that his further troubles began):

Galileo later defended his views in Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems (1632), which appeared to attack Pope Urban VIII and thus alienated him and the Jesuits, who had both supported Galileo up until this point. He was tried by the Inquisition, found "vehemently suspect of heresy", and forced to recant. He spent the rest of his life under house arrest.

Keep in mind: this was a second Inquisition, more than fifteen years after the Inquisition being examined in the subject paper.  The 1616 Inquisition, in which Galileo was exonerated, asked consultants for an examination of the Copernican system.  The Inquisition delivered no formal condemnation, but the Vatican book censors went to work.  Did they strike the name Copernicus from every book, document, or manuscript?  Not exactly:

…[they censored] books that presented the Copernican system as being more than a hypothesis.

Yes, I know it isn’t total free speech, but it was a decision that conformed with the known science of the time.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Natural Law and Liberty

The “nature” of a thing, from an Aristotelian point of view, is, as we’ve seen, the form or essence it instantiates.

Feser will demonstrate the objective foundations for natural law, grounded in Aristotle’s metaphysics as developed by Aquinas and the Scholastics; the foundation is Aristotle’s four causes, culminating in the final cause.  If taken as understood by Feser, this will burden libertarians who lean on natural law as foundational to the development of libertarian theory.

Feser returns to his triangle: its essence, nature, or form will have three perfectly straight sides.  That the triangle we draw contains defects does not change this reality – the essence, nature, or form of a triangle.

The point is that these are defects, failures to conform to the nature or essence of triangularity…

Feser applies this to human organs – take an eyeball.  It has a final cause, to enable us to see.  That our eyeballs might have some defect does not change their essence or nature; that we wear glasses to correct this defect is at the same time not against nature – we are enabling our eyeballs to perform their final cause, according to their nature.  In other words, defects – even if natural in one sense – are not natural in the relevant sense of the essence of the thing. 

When applied to humans, we can think of many such defects – consider the possibilities and realities regarding defects of organs, limbs, etc.  Many, but not all, of these we would not consider as moral issues.  Eyes requiring glasses do not lead us to confession – or prison.

Feser now turns to such moral issues: “…there can be no satisfying explanation of almost anything that doesn’t make reference to final causes.”  Aristotle takes a thing’s form, essence or nature to determine the good for it – a “good” triangle” is one that conforms most closely to the perfect form of triangularity. 

What of the squirrel that eats crackers covered in toothpaste?  Even if one were to find a genetic defect in the squirrel – a defect that drove it to desire crackers and toothpaste – would we say that the squirrel was conforming to its nature?

Human beings also have a nature, or essence – and the “good” for humans is determined by this nature or essence, by its form:

Unlike other animals, though, human beings have intellect and will, and this is where moral goodness enters the picture.  Human beings can know what is good for them and choose whether to pursue that good.

Our intellect and will also have final causes, to allow us to understand the truth about things – including to understand what is good for us given our nature or essence – and to act accordingly; through our intellect and will, we are to pursue truth and avoid error. 

Just as we would know that a toothpaste-eating squirrel is not acting according to its nature….

…so too a good human being is one who successfully carries out the characteristic activities of human life as determined by final causes or natural ends of the various faculties that are ours by virtue of our nature or essence.

So how does this apply to moral questions?

To choose in line with the final causes or purposes that are ours by nature is morally good; to choose against them is morally bad.

To “choose” requires reason, but not reason as the moderns see it – reason as it has been developed since the Enlightenment.  Thanks to David Hume, “reason” has struggled with how to derive an “ought” from an “is,” or how to uphold morality in light of the fact / value distinction.  Nonsense, says Feser; there are no such issues if one builds on Aristotle.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Constructing a Libertarian “Children’s Bill of Rights”

At least the beginnings of one.  A difficult task – what rights does the child have under the non-aggression principle?  Of course, a child has many of the same rights as the adult – not to be murdered, not to have his stuff stolen, etc.  The difficulty comes in the relationship between parent and child.  Michael Rozeff offers a starting point on this topic:

In the Ethics of Liberty, Murray Rothbard argued that parents have no legal obligation to feed their children that can be derived from the theory of rights of self-ownership.

This inference is, I believe, faulty.

Rothbard suggests that having to feed the child is a positive obligation, and libertarian theory holds no room for such an obligation.  I, of course, disagree with Rothbard on this issue of feeding a child, and I also disagree regarding positive obligations…well, not exactly, but bear with me.

The more specific point: I find it perfectly consistent with libertarian theory to hold specific performance clauses in contracts as valid and enforceable.  There are many libertarians who do not: in their view, the only valid and enforceable contract is a contract for an exchange of property.  I have written on this before – a post based on Walter Block’s views on this matter, where Walter also agrees as to the enforceability of a specific performance contract.

Rozeff concurs, albeit not using the phrase specific performance.  When dealing with a way out of this issue of positive obligations vs. starving a child, he offers:

The way out is through the idea of self-limiting one’s rights by willingly choosing positions of responsibility, such that abdicating that responsibility causes aggression.

One can commit to perform an act – in fact be obligated to perform an act – based on one’s voluntary prior action.  Call it voluntarily taking on responsibility – after which one is obliged to fulfill the responsibility.  Of course, under the NAP, one is free to take on responsibility; if another depends on your fulfilling this duty – even to the point of life or death – well, they have the right to hold you to this duty.

The parents limited their own rights when they made the child and brought it into this world.

When does this obligation end?  It is easy to say that it ends when the child reaches adulthood.  But when is that?  Rozeff offers an answer (although in a slightly different context):

The obligation may be understood by custom, common sense or by formal legal code.

There can be no one uniform answer – each child is different, as is every parent.  But society has developed a general understanding of this matter, and the understanding has been free to evolve over time – or at least would be absent any laws.

Now…does the parent also have an obligation to feed the mind of the child?  To train the child in ways that will make him acceptable to society?  Or is keeping the child in a cage – fed, for sure, but in a cage nonetheless – sufficient to have fulfilled one’s obligation?

Look, it wasn’t the child’s choice to come into this world.  Whoever brought him to the world inherently carries a responsibility – one voluntarily accepted: to prepare the child to live properly in it.


One can apply this same thinking to abortion, although some would argue that there was no child with which to make a deal when John and Jane were doing their thing.  I have, of course, dealt with this also – a reward contract, which is also a type of specific performance contract, is a perfectly valid tool within the libertarian toolkit. 

The individual who claims the reward need not have been known to the individual offering the reward; he need not even have been alive…or conceived at the time the reward was offered.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

A Giant Among Pygmies

…[Thomas Aquinas] once came upon “a holy nun who used to be levitated in ecstasy.”  His reaction was to comment on how large her feet were.  “This made her come out of her ecstasy in indignation at his rudeness, whereupon he gently advised her to seek greater humility.”

Feser moves from Aristotle to Aquinas.  Much of this chapter is devoted to Feser’s examination of Aquinas’ proof of God’s existence, using and developing Aristotle’s metaphysical logic.  Further, Feser examines the feeble responses of today’s New Atheists – the group who claim that morality can be found without God, and in fact can only be found without God.

Why is this important to me at this blog?  It isn’t to prove the existence of God.  It leads right back to the idea of the necessity of a foundation – and a specific foundation – if we are to move toward liberty.  To greatly summarize: Christian ethics are a required foundation for liberty as we have come to know it in the west; without this foundation, we have no chance for liberty. 

New Atheists claim that these ethics can be had without God – and without God, our liberty will increase.  Many libertarians also believe the same – in fact, some will say that religion must be crushed for liberty to thrive.  Of course, I believe they are wrong, therefore – despite having the evidence of the last century or two on my side – it seems worthwhile to explore the reason as to why.

Feser begins by pointing out the paucity – if not complete absence – of New Atheist arguments contra Aquinas.  He really is funny when he does this – his ability to abuse with words is fabulous. 

One wonders how [Aquinas] would have reacted to the mental and moral midgets now being marketed as “New Atheists” who peddle stale “refutations” of theism that were themselves refuted long before Aquinas came on the scene.

What do these New Atheists do with Aquinas?  Dawkins – a biologist, not a student of philosophy – “is the only “New Atheist” to offer anything even remotely like an attempt to answer [Aquinas], feeble as it is.”  Sam Harris – who at least has an undergraduate degree in philosophy – finds room to mention Feser in his book End of Faith, yet says nothing of Aquinas and very little about the classical arguments for God’s existence.

Daniel Dennett – “a long-established “big name” academic philosopher” – in his 448-page book devoted to “breaking the spell” of religion, devotes three pages to addressing the classical philosophical arguments for God’s existence.  Even Dennett’s peers found his work lacking “philosophical depth”; Michael Ruse offered by email to Dennett: “I thought your new book is really bad and not worthy of you…”

Why Aquinas?  He has written perhaps eight million words examining God.  Feser describes him as a towering intellect with a single-minded devotion to God. When his brothers held him captive to prevent his joining the Dominicans, Aquinas memorized the entire Bible and the four books of the Sentences of Peter Lombard.

The Four Books of Sentences (Libri Quattuor Sententiarum) is a book of theology written by Peter Lombard in the 12th century. It is a systematic compilation of theology, written around 1150; it derives its name from the sententiae or authoritative statements on biblical passages that it gathered together.

A commentary on the Sentences was required of every master of theology, and was part of the examination system. At the end of lectures on Lombard's work, a student could apply for bachelor status within the theology faculty.

Puny thinker Aquinas was not.

The classical argument for God’s existence is attacked by these New Atheists as if a scientific hypothesis; instead, Aquinas is making an argument based on the reasoning evidenced in geometry or mathematics: for example, the Pythagorean Theorem can be reasoned through once one understands triangularity, etc.

Geometry doesn’t work that way.  It doesn’t involve the formulation and testing of hypotheses, after the fashion of empirical science.  This hardly makes it less rational than empirical science; it just shows that the sort of argumentation used in empirical science is not the only kind of rational argumentation that there is.

I will not attempt to present Aquinas’s arguments here; I will offer that these are built on the metaphysical arguments made by Aristotle: we observe things that exist, these undergo change, and exhibit final causes; therefore “there necessarily must be a God who maintains them in existence at every instance.”

Metaphysical arguments cannot be dismissed as “not scientific”; in fact, scientific arguments are built on metaphysical assumptions: there is a physical world existing independent of our minds, there are objective laws of logic and mathematics that apply to this objective world.  To dismiss metaphysical arguments is to dismiss science.

As E.A. Burtt offers: “But inasmuch as the positivist mind has failed to school itself in careful metaphysical thinking, its ventures at such points will be apt to appear pitiful, inadequate, or even fantastic.”

In my previous post on Feser’s work, RMB asked: “Wonder how Aristotle defended the existence of the 4 causes. Or was it simply that he asserted and defended the distinction of actuality and potentiality?”  To which I replied, basically…I have no idea.  But, maybe, some hints of it can be found here – in this understanding of metaphysics: premises that are obviously known from our sensory experience.


As mentioned, I will not present Feser’s review of Aquinas’s arguments for the existence of God – albeit I have marked up this section in my copy of this book perhaps more extensively than any other pages I have read anywhere.  I will just offer:

I realize, of course, that many will reply that there is still a fatal flaw in Aquinas’s argument insofar as final causes don’t exist. …But they are wrong to say it.  The reality of formal and final causes is rationally unavoidable, as we will see by the end of this book.

All I can say: if final causes don’t exist, I have no idea the point of life; if final causes don’t exist, we can all quit this libertarianism nonsense.


I am going out on a limb here, but I believe that it is through Kant that this idea of turning metaphysics into a science gained traction.  Reason must be limited to what we “know”: the physical objects of our experience.  

Turning metaphysics into a science makes it something man can manipulate.  And dominate.  Like making a triangle something other than a triangle; this could be “reasonable,” depending on who was doing the reasoning.

Aristotle finds cause in the essence of things; Kant finds cause in the physical thing – there is no essence.  Like there is no such thing as a triangle unless there is a physical triangle.  Per Kant, it would be unreasonable to assume otherwise.