Friday, June 28, 2019

The Search for Liberty; Chapter Nine: Compare and Contrast

NB: All previous chapters can be found here.

It is appropriate, I think, to compare and contrast Aristotle and Aquinas and their respective development of Natural Law.  It is clear that Aquinas built on Aristotle.  Did he merely copy uncritically?  Did he differ?  Where and why?

Atkinson begins with a review of the two philosophers.  She then offers a summary examination of the two:

Like Aristotle, Aquinas believed that human beings live for a telos or end, which is eudaimonia.

Eudaimonia…is a Greek word commonly translated as happiness or welfare; however, "human flourishing or prosperity" and "blessedness" have been proposed as more accurate translations.

Etymologically, it is made up of two words: “good” and “spirit.”  It appears to be something much deeper than material happiness, or “if it feels good, do it.”  It is connected to the ideas of virtue and excellence, and a body that embodies this good spirit. 

A definition attributed to Plato: “The good composed of all goods; an ability which suffices for living well; perfection in respect of virtue; resources sufficient for a living creature.”  The “good” for a thing, including for humans, is determined by its essence, or Form.  The problem?  Everyone has their own definition of goodness, happiness, or blessedness. 

Thomas went further in explaining the term Eudaimonia – it has much more depth than “happiness”; Thomas used the word Beatitudo: supreme happiness, blessedness, a blessed condition, beatitude.  As previously examined, this is defined as the happiness that comes from seeing the good in others and doing the good for others. It is, in essence, other-regarding action.  In other words, nothing like what “happiness” means today.

Both philosophers identified man’s ability to reason as both unique and an important characteristic in order to attain the highest virtue.  For Aristotle, the ability to reason was at the pinnacle; for Thomas, theology was at the top – God placed a soul in man.  Both agreed that humans should strive for eudaimonia.  Aristotle believed man was capable of this on his own; Thomas did not.

Aquinas…believed that God was leading human beings to a rational, moral life, while Aristotle believed that being moral was naturally inherent in human beings.

Don DeMarco further examines this difference, in an essay entitled Aristotle and Aquinas: The Vital Difference:

The difference between the ethics of Aristotle and Aquinas has to do with how virtue comes about. … Perhaps Aristotle overestimated our capacity to be reasonable and under-estimated the importance of love. Whereas Aristotle links virtue to reason, Aquinas links it more properly to love.

Which brings me back to Plato’s Form of the Good and Jesus being the perfect embodiment of this Form.  The end or purpose for man is happiness, beatitudo. Jesus – even for those who do not believe Him to be the Son of God – was a good and wise man, a moral teacher; despite the West having killed God a couple of centuries ago, Jesus is still recognized in this supreme position.  What did Jesus offer as beatitudo: supreme happiness; a blessed condition?

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.’

Again, I am not writing anything about punishment or the justification of violence; I am not making a leap from Natural Law to the prison cell.  In other words, I haven’t yet come to the “libertarian” portion of this study.  I am just getting at Natural Law and the end, or purpose, of this being we know as “human.”  Without understanding this, there is no point to discuss natural law, the rights derived from this, and a political theory intended for liberty.

So, what of this love?  How does it fit into this narrative?  Man has always had a violent and destructive side; however rarely was this violence and destruction given justification by man’s philosophies – all major religions throughout history included some version of the Golden Rule. 

I am not suggesting that there are not those who claim religious justification for violence.  I am suggesting that many of the world’s major religions have at their core something else: The Golden Rule, or beatitudo. 

The Enlightenment fully freed man’s reason from God.  Post-Enlightenment “reason” has given us many man-made philosophies, all of which have been used as justification for violence and destruction – no Golden Rule.

Aristotle has not proven sufficient to achieve happiness: beatitudo.  Reason without God is reason with no foundation.  It is difficult to imagine liberty – or the individual – surviving or even being found without a foundation under reason.  Aquinas offers that foundation.

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

The Search for Liberty; Chapter Eight: The Catholic View

NB: All previous chapters can be found here.

It seems appropriate at this point to review Natural Law through a Catholic lens.  Now, I know one might suggest that this is what I have been doing via my extensive review of the work of Aquinas.  Well, yes and no.  I have worked through this given my own understanding of his thought; but it seems to me that there is value in testing out how well this review conforms to what might be called a much more well-informed analysis.

While I know many will disagree with the many references toward God (what do you expect from a Catholic source?), I suggest that in those instances, just check to see how consistent the point is with Aristotle.

According to St. Thomas, the natural law is "nothing else than the rational creature's participation in the eternal law" (I-II.91.2). The eternal law is God's wisdom, inasmuch as it is the directive norm of all movement and action. When God willed to give existence to creatures, He willed to ordain and direct them to an end.

Man is destined toward this end, and receives from God a direction toward this end.  The law, accordingly, is placed in man – in his nature.  Of course, given intelligence and free will, man – unlike all other beings – has a say in his conduct.

Those actions which conform with its tendencies, lead to our destined end, and are thereby constituted right and morally good; those at variance with our nature are wrong and immoral.

The word “good” is worth better understanding.  In the Greek, there were many different words that we translate to “good.”  We have retained the different meanings but all in one word, but can understand these only in context.

For example, a tool or instrument is good if it is an efficient means toward obtaining a desired end; alternatively, something is good if approaches the perfection proper to its nature.  In one way or another, the word can be seen to mean “desirable.”  I consider it in the context offered by Plato – the Form of the Good, that is the ideal, the perfect.

Returning to natural law:

Radically, the natural law consists of one supreme and universal principle, from which are derived all our natural moral obligations or duties.

The authors identify many erroneous opinions regarding the fundamental rule of life: Bentham and utility; Fichte, who taught to love self above all others; Epicurus, to follow nature; the Stoics, to live according to reason.  Catholic moralists find something else – something from which some germ of which exists in these others, but that is necessary to properly understand all others:

"Love God as the end and everything on account of Him"; "Live conformably to human nature considered in all its essential respects"; "Observe the rational order established and sanctioned by God"; "Manifest in your life the image of God impressed on your rational nature."

As mentioned, if this is too heavy with “God,” for you, just consider as the context Aristotelian metaphysics and the implications for human behavior.  At least in action, you will end up in pretty much the same place.

Thomas offers a deeply philosophical exposition, based on a simple premise:

…the supreme principle of moral action must have the good as its central idea, [Thomas] holds that the supreme principle, from which all the other principles and precepts are derived, is that good is to be done, and evil avoided (I-II, Q, xciv, a. 2).

From this premise, all can be deduced.  The result is a natural law that is both universal and immutable.  It is also knowable by all men:

Founded in our nature and revealed to us by our reason, the moral law is known to us in the measure that reason brings a knowledge of it home to our understanding.

However, unaided by supernatural revelation, man’s knowledge of the law will be imperfect – in some cases terribly so:

In proof we need but recall that the noblest ethical teaching of pagans, such as the systems of Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics, was disfigured by its approbation of shockingly immoral actions and practices.

Which brings us full circle to the connection of natural law to the “pagans,” the earlier Greek philosophers and others – God placed this law in the hearts of all men, and men have been searching for Him who placed the law in their hearts.


Logically, chronologically, and ontologically antecedent to all human society for which it provides the indispensable basis, the natural or moral law is neither—as Hobbes, in anticipation of the modern positivistic school, taught—a product of social agreement or convention, nor a mere congeries of the actions, customs, and ways of man, as claimed by the ethicists who, refusing to acknowledge the First Cause as a Personality with whom one entertains personal relations, deprive the law of its obligatory basis. It is a true law, for through it the Divine Mind imposes on the subject minds of His rational creatures their obligations and prescribes their duties.

Monday, June 24, 2019

The Search for Liberty; Chapter Seven: Four Laws

Understanding Thomas Aquinas and Natural Law is not simple task, and even by the time I get through this effort I will have only scratched the surface.  Until now I have utilized two sources – a video overview and an extensive encyclopedia article.  I introduce here a third:

Aquinas’s Natural Law Theory, chapter 4 of the book Ethics for A-Level: For AQA Philosophy and OCR Religious Studies, by Mark Dimmock and Andrew Fisher

I do not intend to integrate into previous chapters what I find of importance in this one; I will, instead, only review concepts that I have not yet examined in any meaningful sense or clarify concepts which I may have previously misunderstood.  As I have a couple of other sources for Thomas and Natural Law after this one, I will continue in this same method.

Is something right because God commands it, or does God command it because it is right?  Thomas addresses this question:

For [Thomas], God’s commands are there to help us to come to see what, as a matter of fact, is right and wrong rather than determine what is right and wrong.

But then if it is not God’s commands that make something right or wrong, what does?  His answer is Natural Law Theory.

Aquinas’s Natural Law Theory contains four different types of law: Eternal Law, Natural Law, Human Law and Divine Law.

Eternal Law means God’s rational purpose and plan for all things.  As it is part of God’s mind, it always existed and will always exist – He did not have to write it or command it; it just is.  For Aquinas, just as with Aristotle, everything has a purpose, goal, or true end – a telos.  To the extents something fulfills the plan for it, it is good.

One can see this easily for an acorn, which has as its end an oak tree; or an eye, which has as its end sight.  It grows more difficult when it comes to humans – and more controversial when it comes to some actions that humans are capable of taking.

What is the good for humans?  For Thomas, the answer is reason, and to the extent humans act according to reason they are partaking in the Natural Law.  We will recall that Jesus is referred to as reason, when in John 1:1 He is referred to as “the Word”; in Greek, logos, which translates to “reason” or “plan.”  Thomas sees reason, it seems, only through God, with Jesus as the physical manifestation of God.  Reason without God as its anchor is meaningless.

After Eternal Law comes Natural Law.  Natural Law does not come to us in a set of written rules; it generates rules that any rational agent can come to recognize.  Thomas identifies four such rules, or precepts, that are primary:

·         Protect and preserve human life.
·         Reproduce and educate one’s offspring.
·         Know and worship God.
·         Live in a society.

These precepts are primary because they are true for all people in all instances and are consistent with Natural Law.

Next is Human Law, which gives rise to Secondary Precepts:

Secondary precepts are not generated by our reason but rather they are imposed by governments, groups, clubs, societies etc.

Such precepts are morally acceptable if they are not inconsistent with the Natural Law.  These secondary precepts – unlike primary precepts – need not be the same for all people everywhere, for example on which side of the street one must drive.

Finally, Divine Law:

The Divine Law, which is discovered through revelation, should be thought of as the Divine equivalent of the Human Law (those discovered through rational reflection and created by people).

An example is given of the Ten Commandments – specifically regarding adultery.  It is wrong because God says it is wrong – He has deemed this so through His rational reflection.  Or through the command to forgive others – again, revealed to us through God’s rational reflection.

On this I am a bit confused, as I can come to these conclusions even through the Primary Precepts: for example, it will be difficult to educate one’s children while dealing with the consequences of adultery; it will be difficult to live in society without the ability to forgive.

In any case…Thomas recognized that life often presented cases that were not so black and white, and for this he introduced the “Doctrine of Double Effect.”

One example: while one is obliged to preserve and protect life, there are circumstances where one is justified to take life – in self-defense.  Any such act that on the surface violates Natural Law must be measured against the following principles:

·         The first principle is that the act must be a good one.
·         The second principle is that the act must come about before the consequences.
·         The third is that the intention must be good.
·         The fourth, it must be for serious reasons.

One can measure the act of self-defense against these principles in order to determine the good of the act.

The authors point to potential flaws in Thomas’s Natural law Theory: if God doesn’t exist, the whole system comes crashing down.  However, the authors offer charity toward Thomas here as they have a more fundamental potential objection for both Thomas and Aristotle:

Namely, [Thomas and Aristotle] think that everything has a goal (telos).

We can easily recognize the goal, end or purpose for an acorn or an eye, but a human?  There are those who suggest not:

There are certainly some philosophers — such as the existentialists, for example Simone de Beauvoir (1908–1986) — who think that there is no such thing as human nature and no such thing as a human function or goal.

It is a difficult concept to understand or accept: all things in the known universe have an end or purpose except for the most complicated thing known – humans.  This most complicated and sophisticated being is also the only being that has no purpose.  What a cruel joke to play on these sophisticated beings – if true, certain to lead to a life of meaninglessness and despair. 

In other words, the answer to the question “why are we here” is “for absolutely no reason whatsoever; you have no reason to exist.”  Difficult for me to buy. 

Which does raise the question: who, or what, installed this purpose in humans?  Which kind of gets back to the objection regarding God’s non-existence.