The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism, by Edward Feser
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.