Understanding Aquinas will take me several chapters. Placing him in a framework that incorporates Plato’s Form of the Good and Aristotle’s Four Causes will take more – although I will likely touch on these in each chapter.
Before beginning this journey into the unknown, I want to survey the landscape. For this, I will begin with a review of a short video: Natural Law Theory: Crash Course Philosophy. Frankly, you might do better to watch the video than read this post – or at least watch the video first.
Aquinas identified that morality was important for everyone, but not everyone was exposed to the Bible. How could everyone follow God’s moral rules without even knowing about God? Aquinas theorized that God pre-loaded us with the knowing of what is good.
It seems to me a pretty good theory. One can see this in the Golden Rule, where some version of this has been known in almost all cultures and all religions for almost as long as we have recorded history:
The idea dates at least to the early Confucian times (551–479 BC) according to Rushworth Kidder, who identifies that this concept appears prominently in Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism, Taoism, Zoroastrianism, and "the rest of the world's major religions". The concept of the Rule is codified in the Code of Hammurabi stele and tablets, 1754-1790 BC.
There are almost forty centuries of history in the Golden Rule, to be found outside of Christianity and even before Christ.
143 leaders encompassing the world's major faiths endorsed the Golden Rule as part of the 1993 "Declaration Toward a Global Ethic", including the Baha'i Faith, Brahmanism, Brahma Kumaris, Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Indigenous, Interfaith, Islam, Jainism, Judaism, Native American, Neo-Pagan, Sikhism, Taoism, Theosophist, Unitarian Universalist and Zoroastrian.
This diversified and global acceptance of the Golden Rule demonstrates that this idea is pre-loaded in man whether or not they know God.
According to Greg M. Epstein, " 'do unto others' ... is a concept that essentially no religion misses entirely", but belief in God is not necessary to endorse it.
One can also see this in Plato’s Form of the Good. If Plato’s is a valid construct, one would expect that humans would approximate this form – regardless of when or where they live or which religion they follow. This is not to suggest that all humans everywhere embrace and follow the good; merely to suggest that it is planted into their hearts – as Aristotle offered. We are imperfect approximations of the form, after all; that perfect form being Jesus.
To my knowledge, Jesus holds a unique place among those identified with founding a religion. I don’t believe any other meaningful religion has a founder who claims to be the Son of God and who is morally perfect. Whether you believe this to be true or not, in the west during the time of Aquinas He was viewed this way – and still is by many today.
My point? No other religious leader – no other person who walked the earth – can offer us an example of Plato’s Form of the Good. Absent Jesus, we are left guessing. All the while, even those who do not embrace Jesus are after this same Form of the Good – but with no manifest example.
What does this Form of the Good have to do with humans?
Genesis 1: 26 Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” 27 So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.
Was God speaking in the royal “us” and “our”? Maybe. Of course, we must recognize, from John 1:
1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was with God in the beginning. 3 Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. 4 In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind.
The word – Jesus, who later walked in the flesh – was with God in the beginning, and was God. The life in Him was the light of all mankind.
Jesus is the Form of the Good. Before Jesus, man only had Plato’s abstract, incomprehensible Form of God; after Jesus, we had Aristotle’s Form in man – a Form we could see, touch, witness; a Form that gave us the example of properly bearing God’s image. In Jesus, we witnessed Aristotle’s Final Cause: the end, goal, or purpose of a human.
Returning to the video: we all want stuff and that’s OK – God made us to want things, good things. Of course, when it comes to humans, Aquinas is not speaking of good material things – Lamborghinis and the like. It would take the Renaissance and ultimately the Enlightenment to convince man that all good things are material.
Sunlight is good for plants, meat is good for cats, plants are good for bunnies – these are “good” things. God instilled all of His creatures with the basic desire to seek these things that are good. God instilled in humans “The Basic Goods”:
1) Life, with an instinct to survive
2) Reproduction, supported by a pleasurable sex drive
3) To educate one’s offspring
4) To seek God, whether we are exposed to him or not
5) To live in Society, also offered by Aristotle
6) To avoid offense, allowing us to live in a society and avoid turning the group against us
7) To shun ignorance, thus promoting survival
These are the “goods” for humans. Each Basic Good offers both a prohibition and a positive injunction, for example:
a. Do not kill
b. Do promote life
a. Do not prevent reproduction
b. Do procreate
If one were to summarize these basic goods – along with the prohibitions and injunctions that can be derived from these – the word that comes to mind is love, therefore returning us to the Golden Rule and also sending us on a quest for the Form of the Good that most perfectly exemplified love. And that would, once again, be Jesus.
Matthew 22: 36 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” 37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
John 15: 12 My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. 13 Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.
These summarize the Basic Goods. From this and also Aquinas’s further detail, we can thereafter derive the Natural Law. One need not object at the moment that much of this version of natural law is not consistent with the non-aggression principle – while many libertarians base their libertarianism on natural law, few mean this kind of natural law; I know this.
I just don’t believe that liberty will be found via a neutered version of natural law. I am not after purifying the non-aggression principle: I am after finding liberty.
One also need not object that such positive injunctions are not consistent with or inherent in the non-aggression principle. I know this as well and I also have not said that these are consistent with or inherent in the non-aggression principle. For now, we are merely working through the first baby steps of understanding the Natural Law of Aquinas. The treatment of these in a society dedicated to liberty is a subject for a later chapter.
Returning to the video:
We don’t need the Bible, or religion class, or church in order to understand the natural law. Instead, our instinct shows us the basic goods, and reason allows is to derive the natural law from them.
Right acts are acts that are in accordance with the natural law. These have been placed on our heart, and are known to all men. One might ask, “if these are already placed in our hearts, why do we need organized religion?” Nothing survives without institutions that survive us.
If God creates us to seek the good and we have the ability to recognize it, then why do we violate this all the time?
Sometimes, we seek what we think is good, but we’re wrong, because we are just ignorant. [At other times, and following Aristotle,] we see what we should do, but emotion overpowers our reason, and we fail to do the things we know we should.
As mentioned, I will take a few chapters to understand Aquinas; there will likely be plenty of repetition, but hopefully each attempt will provide more depth.
Aquinas offers that God placed moral rules in man’s heart – knowledge of the Bible is not necessary for this; we have some evidence of this in the Golden Rule, versions of which are offered in all major religions and have been known for thousands of years. We also have Plato’s Form of the Good – the perfect form for which man to conform. His Form of the Good is God, and our example is Jesus.
Aquinas identifies the Basic Goods – the good stuff that God wants man to have; one can consider these consistent with Aristotle’s ends, or purpose, of man. These goods come with both a prohibition and a positive obligation – call these positive and negative obligations. From this, one can deduce Aristotelian-Thomistic Natural Law; one can summarize this Natural Law in one word: love. And again here we find Jesus.
Natural law tells us that morality is grounded in God – He gave us the moral order. More specifically, God ground natural law in humans – it is in the form. It also gives us a reason to be moral – as following the natural law makes our lives and our lives with each other work better. What does this have to do with liberty? We are still a few chapters from this, I am afraid, but for now I return to Alexandr Solzhenitsyn:
A society which is based on the letter of the law and never reaches any higher is taking very scarce advantage of the high level of human possibilities.
And, after all, can you offer a better definition of liberty than reaching our “highest levels of human possibilities”? No, I am not adding anything to the non-aggression principle or libertarianism; I am searching for liberty.
A criticism comes from Hume and the “is-ought” problem: “it’s fallacious to assume that just because something is a certain way, that it means that it ought to be that way.”
The speaker in the video offers a couple of examples to illustrate Hume’s point: For example, the survival instinct: it seems it both is and ought to be this way – I certainly do and should want to survive. But is this always valid? What if my survival is to come at another’s expense? Or reproduction – what of those who can’t reproduce or don’t want to reproduce or choose lifestyles that get in the way of reproduction?
These seem to me two different objections: as to the first, there is potentially a direct conflict with the prohibition of “do not kill.” To reproduction – of course, if one is physically unable to reproduce, there can be no objection – nor does this invalidate natural law theory. Humans are imperfect images of the Form of the Good.
As to those who choose not to reproduce, well anyone is free to choose to violate any of the natural laws – but why would this invalidate the natural law? And although I am a few chapters from developing the integration of the non-aggression principle into this study, I will offer now – as I know the objections are forming: no, I do not find in this a violation deserving of physical punishment.