The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism, by Edward Feser
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.
Modern philosophers struggle because they have trashed the reality of final causes; reason serves a meaningful purpose only within a context that recognizes final causes: “…if we deny that anything has a final cause or that there are forms, essences, or natures in the Aristotelian sense,” reason falls apart. Hume and the moderns deny just this.
Denying final causes means that there is no such thing as what is good for humans. Without final causes, on what basis would “good” be determined? Any basis that the moderns would choose; hence any argument is just as good as the next.
If there are no final causes, then reason does not have as its purpose the attainment of truth or knowledge of the good. What we are left with are at best whatever desires we actually happen to have, for whatever reason – heredity, environment, luck – but these will be subjective preferences rather than reflective of objective goodness or badness.
In this case, all reason can tell us is how to achieve whatever our desire; reason is useless in finding ought. Hence, there is no argument against the Peter Singers of the world who can see nothing wrong with bestiality or necrophilia. To be against such things is just prejudice.
Philosophers such as these are the descendants of David Hume, who offered that reason is the slave of the passions: what my passion desires, reason must deliver.
Once understood on a foundation of final causes, reason can be used effectively to understand many moral questions of the day: capital punishment, war and peace, property rights, social justice, abortion, family structure, sexual mores, etc.
As the New Atheists are overly obsessed with the issues of sexual morality, Feser spends time dealing with this specific issue. I will not go through Feser’s arguments here: suffice it to say: the final cause for sex is procreation; the final cause of pregnancy is to give birth; the final cause of the father is to provide for the family; the final cause of the parents is to raise healthy children.
Keep in mind, what Feser has discussed thus far is natural law; he offers the path from here to natural rights. The two are not the same and should not be confused.
…every human being has a natural right to life, which can be lost only in the way other rights (such as the right to liberty) can be lost, viz. by committing a serious crime.
Aristotle did not have a theory of individual rights; but the Scholastics built on Aristotle to develop just such a view. Nature has set for us certain ends and natural law enjoins on us the pursuit of those ends. As we live in a society with others who also pursue their ends, we can all pursue our ends only if not subject to interference by another – from this we can identify our natural rights.
Hence the existence of the natural law entails that we have certain rights against interference with that pursuit.
Our individual rights include – and only include – rights that are ours based on the natural law; this natural law is built on Aristotle’s final causes. My natural rights are only derived from the natural law that binds all men.
For example, I do have the right not to be murdered, as this disrupts my final cause. I think it also follows that I have no “rights” that are NOT derived from the natural law that binds all men; here you may insert just about every made-up “right” of the last century or two.
I mentioned at the beginning that Feser’s treatment will burden libertarians who base their views on natural law. From natural law, one can clearly derive the non-aggression principle; however natural law provides much more – it provides guidance on moral issues.
Many libertarians will say that libertarianism is agnostic on moral issues. So I am clear: I am not considering punishment for non-violent moral transgressions; yet, I am not sure what to make of leaning on natural law for non-aggression but not for morals. Is one sustainable without the other?
We can speak of certain transgressions deserving of punishment and other transgressions that do not deserve punishment. But I wonder if a libertarianism built on the natural law must have something to say about both types of transgressions.
Nowhere in his presentation has Feser leaned on morality from scripture or traditional religious teaching; Feser has not leaned on revelation.
Traditional morality does not rest on arbitrary divine commands backed by the threat of punishment but rather on the systematic analysis of human nature entailed by classical philosophy.
I think for a political philosophy to be whole, it must take into account the totality of human nature.