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Why Natural Law Ethics is Rational

This article will lay out the rational foundations of natural law ethics as well as show how they lead to implications for the philosophical science of ethics.

Everyone thinks he is an expert in ethics – or, so it seems. Just ask anyone’s opinion about any hot topic, like abortion, the homosexual agenda, the proper response to climate change, or the death penalty, and you will elicit strong judgments as to what we are obliged to do or not do. Rarely does someone say, “Who am I to judge?”

Still, depending on one’s world view, very different responses to such issues tend to follow. Those who hold that the God of classical theism exists and that man has a spiritual and immortal soul tend to hold radically diverse views from atheists, who hold man is simply the end product of material evolution.

That is why arguments about the ethical inferences of such divergent views tend, at best, to result in a respectful agreement to disagree.

It goes without saying that, if the God of classical theism does not exist, or if there is no unchanging essential human nature or spiritual afterlife, then natural law ethics is mere fantasy. On the other hand, mankind’s universal sense of conscience and compulsion to do good and avoid evil, combined with recognition that some acts are so heinous that history itself offers universal condemnation, such as the Holocaust, make some purely evolutionary explanations appear superficial.

Nonetheless, having already published articles on Strange Notions that demonstrate the existence of God and the immortality of the human soul, I hope now to show how natural law ethics, as taught by St. Thomas Aquinas, can be successfully built upon such a body of truths.

Given its necessarily short treatment here, this piece is, at best, but a scanty outline of natural law’s rational basis and essential structure.

Eternal and Natural Law


St. Thomas Aquinas defines law in general as “… an ordinance of reason for the common good, promulgated by him who has care of the community.”1 Since he maintains that “… a law is something pertaining to reason,”2 the natural law always pertains to the “order of reason.” It is not based on supernatural revelation.

Since God has care of all creation, St. Thomas’s definition of eternal law is “… the plan of divine wisdom in as much as it is directive of all acts and motions.”3 God implements his eternally-known plan for creatures quite naturally, that is, through the natures of things themselves. For, what is more natural to a thing than to act in accordance with its own nature?

For physical things, God is the supreme designer of the natural physical law. Physical creatures follow God’s directive insofar as each thing must operate according to its own physical nature. Thus sodium must act as its nature directs, when it combines with chlorine to form salt. No one would suggest that a natural body could somehow choose to ignore its own nature and behave like something else. So, too, is the case with all living creatures less than human beings, since, lacking free wills, their behavior is determined completely by their natures – and their natures are the result of God’s eternal plan of creation.

Thus, the central insight of natural law is that it operates in and through a creature’s very nature, where the nature is the essence of the thing viewed from the perspective of what governs all its activities. Natural law is  promulgated in virtue of its being the very principle of operation in every creature. It need not be known by the creature, since natural law automatically dictates how the creature exists and operates. Still, while non-rational creatures do share natural law in a secondary sense, natural law is primarily understood as the rational creature’s participation in the eternal law.

Man's Last End: Union with God


When it comes to the rational creature, which is man, his possession of reason and free will distinguishes his participation in natural law from that of non-intelligent creatures. This does not mean that human beings’ non-free activities are so distinguished, but that the concept of specifically human acts is restricted to those over which we have deliberate control.

Thus, our bodies are subjected to the same physical law of gravity as all non-rational bodies, so that falling from a height would be considered the act of a human, but not a specifically human act. So, too, is the case with our physically-determined biological processes. But, a deliberate choice, say, to accept a bribe – since it is under rational and free control, would be viewed as a specifically human act.

For the science of ethics, human natural law pertains solely to such freely chosen actions.

Since there is no room here for a complete treatise on natural law, I will limit my remarks to those most pertinent to man’s ethical situation. In fact, it does not concern us whether non-human agents universally exhibit final causality, since what is evident is that humans exhibit direct and deliberate actions for ends they understand and freely choose.

We actively seek ends we find fitting to our natural desires, which is why we call them “good.”4 St. Thomas spends the first sixty-three chapters of Book III of the Summa Contra Gentiles showing that no finite good can completely satisfy the human appetite, since (1) we can always conceive a more perfect good, and (2) even the most perfect goods in this life will be lost at death. Man is never completely happy until and unless (1) there is no greater good to be attained, and (2) the good attained can never be taken away from him.

Since philosophical psychology demonstrates that man has a spiritual and immortal soul, St. Thomas reasons that man’s true end cannot be fulfilled in this life, but only in the afterlife. Moreover, since all good things come from the Creator, God must not only have goodness as the cause of goodness in creatures, but, in light of the divine simplicity, must be Goodness itself. Since man is never satisfied as long as a greater good can be had, man’s last end must be God himself, who alone is infinite goodness.

From this, it follows that all man’s free actions should be directed toward, or certainly not opposed to, attaining God as his last end in the unending afterlife. Since the omnibenevolent God has given man his rational nature and last end, God’s own fidelity assures man that proper use of that rational nature will enable us to attain our last end, which is eternal union with the Supreme Good, which is God himself.

The Basis for Moral Obligation


But, man’s essence is to be a rational animal. Man differs from, and is superior to, lower animals by possession of reason. The proper use of reason is the measure of man’s perfection and fittingness to attain his last end. That is, God did not give us reason so as to act irrationally, but rationally. Otherwise, we become operationally a contradiction in terms: an irrational rational animal.

This extends to the use of our various natural powers, since reason dictates that they be used rationally. But the various powers are clearly understood by reason as ordered to certain ends. For example, the power of nutrition is aimed at bodily health through proper eating and drinking. Yet, eating too much or eating poison can damage our health, rendering the nutritional end of the act vitiated. The act of eating then becomes an anti-nutritional nutritional act, which is self-contradictory, and therefore contrary to rational use of the nutritive faculty.

Such behavior is irrational, and thus, contrary to man’s rational nature. Such behavior therefore leads man away from his true end, which renders such acts something we ought not do. It is a thrust away from the true nature of man. Since nature dictates the true being of man, deviating freely from our nature in this fashion is a thrust away from the fulfillment of our being: it is a thrust toward non-being. Thus, it results in a self-destructive act that leads us away from our true end or good.

We overcome the alleged is/ought dichotomy by seeing that immoral acts are committed under the penalty of self-destruction, which is something we should not chose, something we ought not do.

Just as a lame horse suffers physical evil because it lacks the fullness of its natural perfections as a horse, so, too, a man who freely rejects his natural inclination toward moral goodness suffers moral evil for which he is personally responsible.

Such self-destructive acts contradict the creative intention of God in giving us existence and the opportunity to reach our blessed last end. It is a metaphorical “slap in the face to God himself.” Natural law tells us that we are not simply “self-responsible,” as some claim, but rather are “responsible,” not merely to ourselves, but to God as the Supreme Lawgiver and Creator of our human rational natures.

Since reason tells us our immoral acts are contrary to our rational nature, and thus, to God’s creative intention, we properly feel guilt, shame, and a realization that we have done something we ought not to do – something that violates the God-given gifts of our existence and rationality.

Without formal realization of the obligation imposed by natural law, all men naturally understand the obligation to do good and avoid evil. They also see to some degree the need to do things that are fitting to their nature. This natural internal compulsion manifests the existence of the natural law in an imperfect way.

Full recognition of natural law is had only by those who also realize that this internal compulsion arises because God exists to impose our nature and its natural ends upon us.

In general, human acts can be understood as morally evil if they entail either a misuse of some natural faculty or the violation of the rights of ourselves or of others. A proper understanding of our powers entails understanding their intrinsic finalities. Thus speech is the means by which truth in my mind is conveyed to another. Lying contravenes that purpose, making communication anti-communicative, and thus, irrational, which, in turn, violates the rationality of our nature.

The violation of others’ rights is also seen as irrational, since rights flow from obligations which arise from human nature. For instance, since man must live to fully express God’s intention in creating him, to kill him is to violate his right to fulfill his obligation to live so as to reach his last end in God. Equally, suicide violates the right and obligation to maintain our own God-given lives. Without detailing the morality of every act, this is the sort of reasoning which the study of natural law entails.

Clearly, full exposition of all aspects of natural law and its application would require an entire course in ethics, which is impossible in this short paper. Hopefully, some of the above explanations will serve to render clearer the coherency of natural law ethics and its application to current ethical controversies.

Notes:

  1. Summa Theologiae, I-II, q. 90, a. 4, c.
  2. Summa Theologiae, I-II, q. 91, a. 2, ad 3.
  3. Summa Theologiae, I–II, q. 93, a. 1, c.
  4. Contra Gentes, III, c. 3, n. 3.
Dr. Dennis Bonnette

Written by

Dr. Dennis Bonnette retired as a Full Professor of Philosophy in 2003 from Niagara University in Lewiston, New York. He taught philosophy there for thirty-six years and served as Chairman of the Philosophy Department from 1992 to 2002. He lives in Youngstown, New York, with his wife, Lois. They have seven adult children and twenty-five grandchildren. He received his doctorate in philosophy from the University of Notre Dame in 1970. Dr. Bonnette taught philosophy at the college level for 40 years, and is now teaching free courses at the Aquinas School of Philosophy in Lewiston, New York. He is the author of two books, Aquinas' Proofs for God's Existence (The Hague: Martinus-Nijhoff, 1972) and Origin of the Human Species (Ave Maria, FL: Sapientia Press, third edition, 2014), and many scholarly articles.

Note: Our goal is to cultivate serious and respectful dialogue. While it's OK to disagree—even encouraged!—any snarky, offensive, or off-topic comments will be deleted. Before commenting please read the Commenting Rules and Tips. If you're having trouble commenting, read the Commenting Instructions.

  • I'm not sure I see an articulation of the "good", is it

    >ends we find fitting to our natural desires,

    Or God, as suggested by:

    >God must not only have goodness as the cause of goodness in creatures, but, in light of the divine simplicity, must be Goodness itself

    What does this mean?

    >attaining God as his last end

    I thought wanting to be God was the original sin?

    >Yet, eating too much or eating poison can damage our health, rendering the nutritional end of the act vitiated.

    So is human health the good end? I thought attaining God was.

    >Lying contravenes that purpose, making communication anti-communicative, and thus, irrational, which, in turn, violates the rationality of our nature.

    Lying is neither "anti-communicative" nor irrational. It is very rational and communicates fine, it just communicates a falsehood. If a hostage taker asks if the door to watch the hostages and not call the police while he sleeps it would be very rational for me to clearly communicate a lie that I will not call the police. It's also the moral thing to do.

    >For instance, since man must live to fully express God’s intention in creating him, to kill him is to violate his right to fulfill his obligation to live so as to reach his last end in God.

    Then why did God tell Samuel to tell Saul:

    > "I have noted what Amalek did to Israel in opposing them on the way when they came up out of Egypt. Now go and strike Amalek and devote to destruction all that they have. Do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.’”

    • Dennis Bonnette

      "Clearly, full exposition of all aspects of natural law and its application would require an entire course in ethics, which is impossible in this short paper."

      This is not a real reply to your comment, but just a reminder that I am well aware that the OP leaves more unanswered questions than it answers. This is deliberate, since there is no room for a full course in ethics here. I may reply to your specifics when I have time, but the purpose of this piece is mainly to give something of an outline of natural law and stimulate discussion of its details.

      You probably won't be surprised if I tell you I have seen all your objections in one form or another before.

    • Ye Olde Statistician

      >attaining God as his last end

      I thought wanting to be God was the original sin?

      The distinction between attaining something and being something is left as an exercise for the reader.

      #
      So is human health the good end? I thought attaining God...

      The distinction between "a" good and "the" Good as such is left as an exercise for the reader. While some goods are subordinate to other goods, as marksmanship is subordinate to victory in the warlike arts, there must be some supreme good in virtue of which other goods take their value and which is good in and of itself. (Otherwise, infinite regress, etc.)

      #
      Lying is neither "anti-communicative" nor irrational. It is very
      rational and communicates fine, it just communicates a falsehood.

      The proper object of the intellect is the True, just as the proper object of the will is the Good.

      Repetition "vulcanizes" the brain by "burning in" preferred neural patterns. The neural patterns associated with rational thought originate in the neocortex, while those associated with the appetites or passions originate in the more primitive structures of the hindbrain, and if these latter become vulcanized by repetition, they disrupt the neural patterns originating in the forebrain. To put it more classically, to repeatedly indulge the appetites (through lack of prudence, temperance, or courage) interferes with thinking rationally.
      cf.: Cohen, Jonathan D. "The Vulcanization of the Human Brain: A Neural Perspective on Interactions Between Cognition and Emotion," (Journal of Economic Perspectives, v. 19, No. 4, Fall 2005, pp. 3–24)https://webapps.pni.princeton.edu/ncc/PDFs/Neural%20Economics/Cohen%20(JEP%2005).pdf

      "Irrational" here means "self-contradictory." When you know a locution is false, but speak it anyway, it's a contradiction. If it becomes habituated ("vulcanized"), it impairs one's ability to think. But the contra-indication on lying does not preclude deception. There are always misdirection, double meaning, partial truths, silence, and the like. http://edwardfeser.blogspot.com/2010/11/murderer-at-door.html

      • >there must be some supreme good in virtue of which other goods take their value and which is good in and of itself.

        I agree. There are instrumental goals like being good at marksmanship. But a moral system is defined by its terminal goals, the goals it has as the guiding focus of all actions human conduct can be morally assessed against. I don't think Catholics can articulate one.

        >When you know a locution is false, but speak it anyway, it's a contradiction.

        No, it's just a lie.

        >If it becomes habituated ("vulcanized"), it impairs one's ability to think.

        No, you might come to believe the lie but your cognition wouldn't be impaired.

        • Ye Olde Statistician

          >When you know a locution is false, but speak it anyway, it's a contradiction.

          No, it's just [sic] a lie.

          "It's just a lie" is the same thing, since a lie just is a contradiction between what you know and what you say,

          >If it becomes habituated ("vulcanized"), it impairs one's ability to think.

          No, you might come to believe the lie but your cognition wouldn't be impaired.

          Take it up with the neuroscientists, paper referenced supra. This is why lying is self-harming, In some cases, such as the one you cite, it may be minorly so ("venial"). But deception is not lying, and there are any number of alternatives.

          But a moral system is defined by its terminal goals, the goals it has as the guiding focus of all actions human conduct can be morally assessed against. I don't think Catholics can articulate one.

          Funny, they've been doing so for 2000 years. So have the Orthodox and others. You may disagree, but you can't say they haven't articulated it. Being, Truth, Beauty, Good are ultimately the same thing; so if you identify one, you've got the others.

          • I disagree that a lie is the same thing as a contradiction, but that's just semantics.

            I also disagree that lying is harmful. But I think this draws out the issue with lies. They aren't immoral on their own they are immoral if they are harmful, you just say they are always harmful? Is harm to humans then the issue with morality, or us there some more important value?

            Deception is not lying? I'm not sure we are talking about the same thing.

            >You may disagree, but you can't say they haven't articulated it.

            Yes I can and I do. I see atheists do it all the time, the terminal goal for myself and many others I've encountered is human well being.

            Luke Brewer has indicated it's survival. In Genesis it seems to be obedience of God.

            Dr Bonnette gas written this whole piece, but I don't see it articulated.

          • Ye Olde Statistician

            They aren't immoral on their own they are immoral if they are harmful

            No, that's consequentialism. They immoral because they are a deficiency in the good of truth. That theyu also impair our neural patterns is a result of lying, but it is not a reason why lyimg is wrong.

            Deception is not lying? I'm not sure we are talking about the same thing.

            We are talking about lying: i.e., speaking contrary to what is in your own mind. You can deceive by speaking the truth, leaving something out, misdirection, etc., etc. It's not the speaker's fault if the auditor makes the wrong inference.

            I disagree that a lie is the same thing as a contradiction

            Contra-diction = speaking contrary. A lie is speaking contrary to what is in your mind.

            ...you can't say they haven't articulated it.

            Yes I can and I do.

            The original claim was that Catholics have not articulated what you call "terminal goals," a/k/a "final causes," not that a particular Catholic has not on a particular occasion; but Catholics as a collective in general. I simply pointed out that this is factually incorrect.

            the terminal goal for myself and many others I've encountered is human well being.

            Kick the can some more. What exactly is "well-being"? See for example: https://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/02/22/are-there-secular-reasons/

          • David Nickol

            That theyu also impair our neural patterns is a result of lying, but it is not a reason why lyimg is wrong.

            It has been known for hundreds of years that neural patterns remain unimpaired if you surreptitiously cross your fingers behind your back when you lie.

          • Ye Olde Statistician

            We have not even known about neural patterns for "hundreds of years."

          • >They immoral because they are a deficiency in the good of truth.

            Got it. That's different to "survival" which I've heard as another Catholic terminal goal.

            >Kick the can some more. What exactly is "well-being"?

            Not kicking the can. This is not always an easy standard to apply. But it is in most cases. Good health, freedom to choose with respect to major life decisions. The point is not that it's easy to apply.

          • Ye Olde Statistician

            There are a variety of goods, ordered toward some ultimate Good. Survival is a good, but it can be subordinated to some other good, as for example people who have sacrificed themselves for another.

            [Aside: When did Late Moderns start saying 'different to' rather than 'different from.']

            The comment about 'well-being' as a proposed final cause did not refer to the difficulty of 'applying' it, but to whether it can even be considered 'final' ['terminal' in your lingo]. You will have noticed that 'well-being' includes the word 'well,' which means that well-ness begs the question. 'Well' with respect to what standard? Traditional philosophy pegs this to human nature, not to enjoyments or intuitions.

          • >There are a variety of goods, ordered toward some ultimate Good.

            Is this variety of goods, good in and of themselves, or only to the extent they assist in obtaining the ultimate good?

            >The comment about 'well-being' as a proposed final cause did not refer to the difficulty of 'applying' it, but to whether it can even be considered 'final' ['terminal' in your lingo].

            It can.

            > 'Well' with respect to what standard?

            It is the standard by which actions are judged moral or not. Human well being is good not because it furthers something else, it's what I mean by moral: something that on balance maximizes human well being is good.

            Again, I'm not seeing anything similar from Catholics. What is this the ultimate good, is it human well-being?

          • Ye Olde Statistician

            Is this variety of goods, good in and of themselves

            Of course not. If they were good in themselves, we could not sacrifice them in under any circumstances. But people do sacrifice their well-being for the sake of other goods. The privations and dangers that put one's own well-being at risk, say to study gorillas in the mist or to test a cure for yellow fever come to mind.

            It can. [i.e., well-being can be considered a final cause]

            The contradiction is in the very term you use. What makes "being" well being?

            [Well-being] is the standard by which actions are judged moral or not.

            I wondered what made it the standard. Simply repeating your beliefs does not scratch the itch of my curiosity.

            [human well being] is what I mean by moral: something that on balance maximizes human well being is good

            'Well' is the adverbial form of 'good', so to say 'well-being' is the standard of the good is to say that good being is the standard of the good. It finesses the nature of the good with a circular definition.

            What about someone who believes he can maximize human well-being by segregating the races, or by euthanizing deplorables? Might there be some idea of 'well' lying behind 'well-being'?

          • Ok, what I was looking for was a statement of what the ultimate good is not these instrumental goods.

            I don't want to get sidetracked on utilitarianism. Are you pointing out your opinion of vagueness and contradiction in my moral approach because yours has them too?

          • Ye Olde Statistician

            Are you pointing out your opinion of vagueness and contradiction in my moral approach because yours has them too?

            No, because the flaws are actually there. You cannot logically hold up well-being as an ultimate good without taking care of the adverb "well" and without accounting for why people will sacrifice their own well-being for other goods if those other goods are inferior to well-being. These are not opinions.

            what I was looking for was a statement of what the ultimate good is...

            It cannot be something material and finite. Since these can be superseded, they cannot be ultimate. So you must search among the immaterial and eternal. I wonder what that could be.

          • >It cannot be something material and finite. Since these can be superseded, they cannot be ultimate. So you must search among the immaterial and eternal. I wonder what that could be.

            So it's just what God wants? Or is it the set of natural numbers?

          • Ye Olde Statistician

            It's what human nature requires for its perfection. I gave you some examples.

          • [Aside: When did Late Moderns start saying 'different to' rather than 'different from.']

            The late 18th century apparently:

            https://grammarist.com/usage/different/

            Different to, meanwhile, is nearly as common as different from in recent U.K. newswriting and is easily found in U.K. writing of all kinds not just from this century but from as long ago as the 18th century.

          • Ye Olde Statistician

            So, it's a Britishism?

          • It is British slang, yes.

      • David Nickol

        But the contra-indication on lying does not preclude deception. There are always misdirection, double meaning, partial truths, silence, and the like.

        It seems to me rather perverse that some Catholic thought provides ways to get all of the "benefits" of lying without telling a lie as defined very technically. Catholic moral theology seems to offer almost limitless loopholes for "lying" without lying, whereas in Catholic sexual morality, there are no loopholes at all. (By the way, I hope we can stick to the morality of deception and lying and not get bogged down in discussing natural law and sexual morality.)

        I thought it was interesting that Feser said the following:

        The claim is only that it would be wrong to lie. And even if you did lie to him, the claim is not that you would have done something seriously wrong. You would be guilty of at most a venial sin, given the circumstances. So, things are hardly as dire as critics of the view might think.

        On the one hand, I understand the rationale of dividing sins into venial and mortal. But the implication here is that it's okay to commit a venial sin. But Newman famously said:

        The Catholic Church holds it better for the sun and moon to drop from heaven, for the earth to fail, and for all the many millions on it to die of starvation in extremest agony, as far as temporal affliction goes, than that one soul, I will not say, should be lost, but should commit one single venial sin, should tell one willful untruth, or should steal one poor farthing without excuse.

        • Ficino

          Newman set about to write his renowned Apologia Pro Vita Sua in response to Charles Kingsley's having written, "So, again, of the virtue of truth. Truth, for its own sake, had never been a virtue with the Roman clergy. Father Newman informs us that it need not, and on the whole ought not to be; that cunning is the weapon which Heaven has given to the saints wherewith to withstand the brute male force of the wicked world which marries and is given in marriage."

        • Dennis Bonnette

          I have taught students the ethics surrounding true speech for decades and always end by urging them to always tell the truth, even in minor matters.

          It is easy to deceive oneself about the virtue of truthfulness. The fact that people often lie like rugs in no way disproves the ethics of lying.

          I find it very helpful to explain the nature of communication by referring to Ludwig Wittgenstein's theory of Sprachspielen or language games.

          We are obliged to tell the truth, but in the context of normal human communication. When someone says, "How are you today?," we normally say "Fine," even if we aren't. We both know the point of the question usually is not to ask if we have a toothache and got out of bed on the wrong side. It is merely a conventional greeting. Period.

          So, too, the notion of mental reservations is not one of real deception, but merely conventional "handling" of certain contexts. If someone says, when your tire is flat, "Do you need some help?," we often say, "No," not meaning there isn't a problem, but we simply do now wish to be helped.

          The classic example of the Nazi's asking if a Jew is being hidden in a home is much the same. One is not required to say "Yes" to a monster at the door. One can say "No," understood in that context as meaning, "Not to you, you murderer." But, were you to make up a clear lie that no one could detect by saying,"The Jews you seek left yesterday and are in Weimer now," the intent to communicate total misinformation would be present.

          We are not obliged to tell everyone everything that is in our minds at all times. And often charity and justice forbids that we do so. When someone says, "How do I look today?," it would be neither expected nor charitable to say, "Like the old hag you are!"

          None of this allows us to intentionally and undetectably totally deceive others through the use of the very means of communication God has given us to tell what is truly in our minds to another.

          A little honest reflection on the real meaning of communication will tell anyone that there is an ethical aspect here that needs to be respected, despite any legitimate contexts that do not fall under the rule. Since not lying is a universal principle, there are no exceptions to its strict violation.

        • Ye Olde Statistician

          Catholic moral theology seems to offer almost limitless loopholes for "lying" without lying

          Because it goes with logic and reason, not with impulse, sentiment, and intuition.

          Newman was stating that a lesser evil is still an evil and using the figure of hyperbole to make his point. A lie, even a "little white lie" is never good and entertained too frequently can habituate the lying, to the cognitive damage of the subject.

          • David Nickol

            Newman was stating that a lesser evil is still an evil and using the figure of hyperbole to make his point.

            Is it ever permissible to commit a venial sin? I have never understood Newman to using hyperbole here. I understand how to be saying that any sin at all is to be avoided no matter how great the cost.

          • David Nickol

            Because it goes with logic and reason, not with impulse, sentiment, and intuition.

            I would like to point out that, as I understand Catholic moral theology, there is actually disagreement as to what constitutes a lie. I think we have discussed on SN the fact that the definition of a lie was changed in the second edition of the Catechism from

            To lie is to speak or act against the truth in order to lead into error someone who has the right to know the truth.

            to

            To lie is to speak or act against the truth in order to lead someone into error.

            That is a very significant difference.

          • Ye Olde Statistician

            The old Baltimore Catechism (1891) had this to say

            Q. 1307. What is a lie?

            A. A lie is a sin committed by knowingly saying what is untrue with the intention of deceiving. To swear to a lie makes the sin greater, and such swearing is called perjury. Pretense, hypocrisy, false praise, boasting, etc., are similar to lies.

            Q. 1308. How can we know the degree of sinfulness in a lie?

            A. We can know the degree of sinfulness in a lie by the amount of harm it does and from the intention we had in telling it.

            Q. 1309. Will a good reason for telling a lie excuse it?

            A. No reason, however good, will excuse the telling of a lie, because a lie is always bad in itself. It is never allowed, even for a good intention to do a thing that is bad in itself.

            Q. 1310. What is forbidden by the eighth Commandment?

            A. The eighth Commandment forbids all rash judgments, backbiting, slanders, and lies.

          • David Nickol

            Because it goes with logic and reason, not with impulse, sentiment, and intuition.

            Chesterton famously said, "The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason."

        • It seems to me rather perverse that some Catholic thought provides ways to get all of the "benefits" of lying without telling a lie as defined very technically. Catholic moral theology seems to offer almost limitless loopholes for "lying" without lying, whereas in Catholic sexual morality, there are no loopholes at all.

          Suppose there is a habitual liar who has grown to accept his/her own lies as truth. Now suppose we tell that liar a truth in the normal way. Will [s]he understand it properly, or will it actually be distorted to falsehood once it works its way through all the mental machinery required to accept the person's own lies as truths? Or we could ask whether lex talionis, sometimes needed to show a person that the bad thing they are doing hurts when it is done to them, indicates that sometimes lying to a liar can be didactic.

          The above isn't to say that Catholicism cannot possibly take things too far; I know too little about it to say that. But the philosophy which suggests that we should never tell lies† seems to deny the possibility of … ingesting lies and making them part of our being. Such philosophy does not admit that the problem can go that deeply. Augustine's understanding of sin (the origin he claims is less important) does permit the problem to go that deeply. And so, this understanding of sin would appear to be more powerful than many secular theories for understanding individual and social pathology. [Anglican] Alistair McFadyen applies this to real-world situations in Bound to Sin: Abuse, Holocaust and the Christian Doctrine of Sin.

          † Or never tell them except when the Gestapo is at your door, asking for Jews. What's key is the narrow class of possibilities generally advanced as exceptions to "Don't lie."

    • I thought wanting to be God was the original sin?

      Adam was already becoming like God, using language to shape reality via naming the creatures. (Names back then were rather a bigger deal than now—think Rumpelstiltskin and then intensify.) The serpent implied that God was keeping A&E down, that to truly become like God, A&E had to distrust God. That is, the serpent described God as an untrustworthy being whom A&E could supplant by becoming untrusting. Can you, even as an atheist, see why this choice might not be a very good thing?

      • David Nickol

        Names back then

        Back when? When the Story of Adam and Eve was written, or when Adam allegedly gave names to the animals?

        The serpent implied that God was keeping A&E down . . . .

        Wasn't the serpent correct? We have the following:

        Then the LORD God said: See! The man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil! Now, what if he also reaches out his hand to take fruit from the tree of life, and eats of it and lives forever?

        • Back when? When the Story of Adam and Eve was written, or when Adam allegedly gave names to the animals?

          When the story was first told (probably orally).

          Wasn't the serpent correct? We have the following:

          Then the LORD God said: See! The man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil! Now, what if he also reaches out his hand to take fruit from the tree of life, and eats of it and lives forever?

          Given that YHWH was immortal, the likeness is very partial. Indeed, the likeness seems restricted to knowing how to distrust and knowing the consequences of distrusting. The serpent is akin to an older boy who is tells a younger boy or girl he's going to "show them the world". A true introduction can then happens, but it is true in the same partial sense that what the serpent said was true. There are much better ways to introduce a young boy or girl to the world—ways which involve much less pain and suffering.

        • >Can you, even as an atheist, see why this choice might not be a very good thing?

          Sure.

          So the original sin was believing the serpent's lies? Not that they wanted to truly be like god, which is fine?

          • Ye Olde Statistician

            "Original" -- think "origin"-al, not 'first.' The Buddha taught that human suffering came from "wanting", Aquinas called it :concupiscence.'

          • But what is it for Catholics, a desire? An act?

          • Ye Olde Statistician

            In Catholic doctrine? For the first man, an act. For all those who inherited the form of the rational animal, it is a tendency toward concupiscence born of Pride.

  • Kevin Aldrich

    I read recently that in classic natural law ethics, "ought" is derived from "is." In this case, "is" refers to human nature. On the other hand, "ought" means we should act in agreement with our nature. We can know both the "is" and the "ought" by looking into our human nature using the light of reason.

    I find that both a true and beautiful thought.

    • "On the other hand, "ought" means we should act in agreement with our nature."

      The is/ought dichotomy argues that "ought" statements cannot be derived solely from "is" statements. When Hume argued for it he observed that philosophers that attempted demonstrate an "ought" from and "is" would typically start out with "is" arguments but then imperceptibly switch to making purely "ought" arguments. This statement of yours is a good example of this happening.

      "Ought" and "should" are synonyms. If "ought" means that we "should" do something, we've defined it in terms of itself and engaged in circular reasoning. I've yet to see an example of "ought" deriving from an "is" that didn't imply some other, more prior "ought."

      • Kevin Aldrich

        "Ought" and "should" are synonymous. There is no imperceptible switching going on. Inherent in "is" is the "ought" or "should."

        For exmple, a horse "is" by nature a herbovore. He "ought" or "should" eat plants. Because he is a herbovore, he needs to eat plants. "Ought" derives from "is" in his case.

        • David Nickol

          For exmple, a horse "is" by nature a herbovore. He "ought" or "should" eat plants. Because he is a herbovore, he needs to eat plants. "Ought" derives from "is" in his case.

          This strikes me as very weak. If should and ought imply moral choice, they don't apply to the choices of horses, which are not moral. Also, herbivores are herbivores because they eat plants. It strikes me as almost meaningless to say a horse ought to eat plants because it is a herbivore. Also, those who feed horses (and cows) often include meat and fish in the horse feed. If horses eat such foods, they are not acting against their nature in any meaningful way.

        • This does not follow. "Need" is always contingent. A horse must eat plants or he will die sure, but why must he live?

      • Nova Conceptum

        Ought comes from is.
        "Ought" and "should" are indeed synonyms. They are emotions, sensibilities, personal and individual feelings, brain functions, processes of material.

        Material "is" in the sense that material is existent, material existence is what is.

        Ought comes from is because our sense of ought come from processes of material.

        • Yes, in the sense that my material brain functions are responsible for my subjective value judgements you can reason from an objective 'is' (my brain functions) to a subjective 'ought'. However, this is not what people usually mean by deriving an 'ought' from an 'is' .

          Yes, you can convert the subjective statement, "Apples are tasty," to the equivalent objective statement "I find apples tasty," but this does not mean that apples are now objectively tasty.

          • Nova Conceptum

            The supposed is/ought problem is often used as an argument for the existence of immaterial, or the necessity of god as a moral source.

            Such arguments come in various forms, but in general they seek to show that ought cannot come from the purely material, therefore the immaterial and god must necessarily be the case.

            By recognizing that ought is simply an individual emotion, which is brain function, which is the process of material it can be seen that any supposed is/ought problem lends no weight whatsoever, much less prove the necessity of immaterial or god.

          • I don't think I disagree with anything you've said except I'm pretty sure moral judgements are largely social in nature. We develop our morals in part based on the the morals of the society that surrounds us an people share and expect other people to share morals in common.

  • The thesis of this article seems to be that if we grant certain tenets of Catholic belief, then we can construct a moral system based on those tenets, called 'natural law.' Fair enough. But this to me, misses the main point of natural law arguments which is that it allows one to argue for certain moral conclusions held by Catholics (or other Christians) without simultaneously requiring the listener accept the tenets of Catholicism. If you have to grant certain Catholic beliefs to make natural law arguments work, it would seem to me to miss the point of making natural law arguments to begin with.

    I suppose they might work against liberal Christians but that seems to be a shrinking demographic compared to more aggressive and overt secularists. If natural law depends on a designer granting purpose to its design to serve as a foundation for morality, then it's a concept that most atheists can readily ignore.

    • Rob Abney

      What tenets of Catholic belief are you seeing as the basis for natural law?

      • From the article (emphasis mine):

        Nonetheless, having already published articles on Strange Notions that demonstrate the existence of God and the immortality of the human soul, I hope now to show how natural law ethics, as taught by St. Thomas Aquinas, can be successfully built upon such a body of truths.

        The existence of God and the immortality of the soul are both Catholic beliefs but not beliefs of many secularists.

        • Rob Abney

          You're correct that those are Catholic beliefs, although not only believed by Catholics. There is a need to believe in God to also believe that all men are created equal and have the unalienable rights to life and freedom, etc...

          • There is a need to believe in God to also believe that all men are
            created equal and have the unalienable rights to life and freedom, etc

            Taken at face value, this statement is clearly false--there are quite a few atheists who believe these things--but what I think you are getting at is that in order to believe in a objective moral principle you need a universal source of judgement, ie a god of some sort. That is, without God, who's to say that the right to life isn't just an opinion?

            I have two things to say to that: The first is I think that it ignores the way humans actually practice morality in real life. People almost never derive their moral system from first principles using reason and those that do always seem to (in my estimation anyway) derive systems that justify what they already believed anyway. In practice, morality is not derived from reason but from a 'moral sense,' and we don't need reason to justify the moral sense. If enough people believe that murder is wrong, then there is a consensus in society that murder is wrong. This is how people practice moral belief in the real world. (I'm currently reading a book called "The Righteous Mind" by Jonathan Haidt which goes into some of the evolutionary history behind this among other things if you are interested.)

            The other thing I would say is that even if you have a god to define moral beliefs, you still have a version of the is/ought problem to contend with. Let's say that God created humanity with a clear telos in mind: we have a nature and a purpose and it is in our self interest to fulfill that purpose and conform to that nature. There is still an implied 'ought' at play: that we 'ought' to do what is in our self interest. Thus even if you grant the existence of God you haven't really created a truly universal or objective moral system. There is still a subjective element at play.

          • Mark

            Children behave differently on the playground when they think there isn't a moral authority around to supervise illicit behaviors and provide consequences. Just because some children never grow up and rationalize first principles doesn't mean that those that do shouldn't enforce rational playground rules. People that don't use first principles will come up with moral ideas like "Human rights are for every human being except non-person human beings." "Jews are the progeny of the Chirst killers.", etc. Those are consensus beliefs that are contrary to first principles.

            Lastly, for God believers, yes there is an implied ought to do what is their self interest. But only because God believers (eternal) self-interest is to do what is in God interest. I see no eternal self-interest in secular morality. If you do grant the existence of God you create system that has an objective superiority to secular systems because God believers should do what they ought to do because they deal with both an eternal and a secular authority. Doesn't mean they will, but it is a substantial difference in consequentialism.

          • Children behave differently on the playground when they think there isn't a moral authority around to supervise illicit behaviors and provide consequences. Just because some children never grow up and rationalize first principles doesn't mean that those that do shouldn't enforce rational playground rules. People that don't use first principles will come up with moral ideas like "Human rights are for every human being except non-person human beings." "Jews are the progeny of the Chirst killers.", etc. Those are consensus beliefs that are contrary to first principles.

            Hmm.... I don't think this follows. The argument here seems to be that if you don't devise your moral system from first principles you run the risk of devising some evil moral system. There are several problems with this.

            This first is that I don't think it's true that arguing from first principles will save you from 'evil' conclusions. You can clearly devise a moral system from first principles that justifies antisemitism or antijudaism for example. Aquinas himself even argued for special taxes against Jews and requiring them to wear special clothing to distinguish them from Christians. This is of course very different from claiming that they are the "progeny of Christ killers" but it still would strike most people today as morally repugnant.

            More importantly however, is that your reasoning implicitly assumes the opposite of what you claim. By attempting to dissuade me from a style of moral decision making because of the conclusions it might lead to, you've appealed to a common moral ground. Now, this common moral ground can't be shared first principles because you have no reason to suppose that we share any and instead must be a shared moral sense owing to an assumption that we both have enough shared cultural context to find Nazism repugnant.

            Even more to the point, arguing that a certain form of moral reasoning shouldn't be used because of the conclusions to which it might lead begs the question. It's clear that even you are relying not on first principles but on your own subjective moral sense to decide which ethical system you choose.

            If you need to prove this to yourself ask you self this question: "If it could be proven that according to natural law that the Jews are subhuman and to be persecuted, would I accept this conclusion or would I attempt to argue against it." (Don't tell me the answer to this question; it is for you to ask yourself.) If the answer to the question is yes, then that is your moral sense attempting to override your reason.

            One thing that is helpful to understand here is that just because moral belief is intrinsically subjective, that doesn't mean that it is therefore arbitrary. Human beings tend to share most of their moral intuitions and you can see common patterns to the sorts of moral systems humans tend to endorse.

          • Mark

            First off Andrew, Thanks for the reply. And since I haven't seen you on this board before; welcome or welcome back.

            I love if/then questions; however, placing fallacies, contradictions, or paradoxes into the "if" to make the "then" seem to make a point doesn't accomplish anything. The "If" needs to be a rational premise; at lease to the person you're trying to show a "then" to.

            I really wasn't trying to make the point that without first principles there is risk of creating an evil moral system, just trying to point out that society can develop moral evils that are socially acceptable. I see divorce as an example of this in today's society. People put their personal sexual desires in front of their children's well-being and it is brushed off as "we weren't designed to be monogamous."

            Also, just because somebody doesn't believe in first principles, they very much can come to the same conclusion that a theist would, for example, Don't kill Jews and they could come up with the opposite conclusion. I'd agree that whatever the conclusion, most moral decisions are directly or indirectly socially concluded. What matters though, I'd posit, is that there is a moral authority which reasons first principles. I'd also posit that western civilization is so deeply entrenched in Christian/Catholic theology I'm incredibly skeptical that anyone can be immune to moral decision making without smuggling it in; unless it is contrary to it. Even in such cases, the freedom and autonomy to reason to that conscious belief is historically rooted in it.

            Lastly in reference to other religions, only Catholics make the claim that God became a visible man with human looks, but divine and eternal powers. He gathered men to teach them "all that he commanded" verbally and gave those men the authority to form a visible society (the CC) with the divine authority of the keys of the kingdom and perpetuate His moral teachings to "every corners of the earth" and "the gates of hell will not prevail over Her". That makes Her moral claims markedly different from other religions, including that of Protestantism whose moral authority is an incomplete set of books they borrowed from the Catholic library.

          • Lastly, for God believers, yes there is an implied ought to do what is
            their self interest. But only because God believers (eternal)
            self-interest is to do what is in God interest. I see no eternal
            self-interest in secular morality. If you do grant the existence of God
            you create system that has an objective superiority to secular systems
            because God believers should do what they ought to do because they deal
            with both an eternal and a secular authority. Doesn't mean they will,
            but it is a substantial difference in consequentialism.

            If I understand you, this is an argument that religious belief is useful because it results in people more motivated to behave in a moral manner. I don't disagree. I think that this is a big reason as to why religious belief exists in the first place. However, this doesn't have any bearing on the 'truth' of the conclusions of any given moral system. You can see that Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, Jains, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians all have this same advantage but advocate different systems of ethics.

          • Rob Abney

            morality is not derived from reason but from a 'moral sense' and we don't need reason to justify the moral sense.

            I agree with this "moral sense" but I don't agree that we shouldn't justify it with proper reasoning. But we all, nearly universally, have the moral sense that we want to preserve our own life, and also nearly universally we all have the moral sense that we want to preserve the life of those close to us especially offspring. I don't think that you can demonstrate that this sense is evolved or decided based on a consensus.
            I do like listening to Haidt but he is a psychologist so I don't think he delves into the deeper first principles.

            There is still an implied 'ought' at play: that we 'ought' to do what is in our self interest.

            What is the subjective element in naturally choosing our own self interest, especially our interest in preserving our own life?

          • I agree with this "moral sense" but I don't agree that we shouldn't justify it with proper reasoning.

            I don't think I said we shouldn't use reasoning to examine and justify our moral beliefs, but I think that we have different ideas as to what that would entail.

            I don't think that you can demonstrate that this sense is evolved or decided based on a consensus.

            I suppose this depends on what your standards for 'demonstrate' are. I think that it's hard to argue that the desire to preserve one's own life and the life of one's offspring is pretty clearly evolved unless one wants to argue against evolution entirely. Again, the book I suggested goes into a lot of detail about the evolutionary history if you want to look into that.

            What is the subjective element in naturally choosing our own self interest, especially our interest in preserving our own life?

            The answer to this question seems almost self-evident to me which makes me think that you are using the term differently. I'm using definition 3.a Something is subjective if it is a property of the observer rather than the observed.

            If one is to say "It is better to be than not to be" absent a judging mind, what is making that judgement? Since this is intrinsically a judgement, whether a moral judgement or one of simple preference, it is intrinsically subjective.

            Bear in mind that self-interest is already a subjective concept.

          • Rob Abney

            I would agree that self-interest is only subjective if it didn't apply so universally.
            What about the interest in preserving the life of your offspring, how can you consider that a self-interested subjective concept?

          • In the way that I am using the words, subjectivity and universality are orthogonal concepts. Something can be perfectly universal and still subjective. Suppose for example that every human being really liked apples and that there was no one who didn't like apples. This would not make the taste of apples objectively good, only universally so. For something to be true objectively, it would have to be true regardless of whether there was an observer to observe it. That apples contain certain chemicals which present a certain taste is a statement about apples per say and is objectively true. That that taste is a good pleasant one is statement about the relationship between those chemicals and people's sense of taste. If there where no people, such a statement would not be meaningful.

  • I am wondering about the use of "natural" here.

    Needless to say the word has many uses, but in the context of Theists and Atheists discussing their views, I would think a use of "natural" would usually be reserved for things related to naturalism.

    Clearly this is not how it's being used and "natural law" doesn't mean the law(s)that exist irrespective of any deity existing. And I can understand why that might be.

    But I wonder if be the might be an acurate summation of the position? That which is moral is that which aligns with the nature and purposes of God. That which is immoral works against or separates one from God.

    The way we can know the content of this morality is by reflecting on our own natures and the purposes God intends for us and other things? Not to mention scripture as a guide, in some circumstances. But the standard is ultimately the moral behaviour being that which fulfils the theistic purposes.

    I say this because I find the theists I engage with unwilling or unable to succinctly articulate what the moral standard is and I wonder if that has to do with some apprehension in just saying 'the moral us what God wants to happen'?

    • Ye Olde Statistician

      "Natural" law is that which completes and perfects human nature. I think the OP said as much. This may help: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y1X8CBST6mc

      There are no "laws that exist irrespective of any deity existing" since the existence of such regularities are also contingent. They do not exist is some woo-woo Platonic realm of pure forms, but must be actualized. And this ultimately requires a Prime Actualizer.

      • >"Natural" law is that which completes and perfects human nature.

        This is extremely vague, wouldn't you agree? I can't watch videos on the bus.

        >There are no "laws that exist irrespective of any deity existing" since the existence of such regularities are also contingent.

        And this is my point, this is a view that believes there is only theistic law. The use of natural here seems to be a rhetorical move to make it seem less theistic.

        >And this ultimately requires a Prime Actualizer.

        As do the non-prime actualizers. Everything literally does. So why is this being called "natural" when it's really just theistic.

        • Ye Olde Statistician

          >"Natural" law is that which completes and perfects human nature.

          This is extremely vague, wouldn't you agree?

          No more vague than "positive law." But we all recognize that there are stop lights, tax laws,

          >There are no "laws that exist irrespective of any deity existing" since the existence of such regularities are also contingent.

          And this is my point, this is a view that believes there is only theistic law.

          I do not know what "theistic law" is, save as an invented term thrown in to disparage the notion of natural law. THink. If there were no matter, there would be no gravitation. Since the "law of gravity" is simply a description of the motion of matter under the influence of other matter, its existence is contingent on the existence of matter. See Einstein's general relativity tensors for details, and note that the G tensor is a dependent variable. It is contingent upon the I tensors. I don't see how theism enters into that, except the the limit. But your assumption that the laws of the universe would be what they are irrespective of 'deity' is not well-founded.

          The use of natural here seems to be a rhetorical move to make it seem less theistic.

          Actually, its use is meant to emphasize the distinction from "eternal law," which is God. It is law that stems from the nature of a thing. For example, the natural law as for a stone requires that it plummet toward the center of gravity, that its motion be uniformly difform, etc. because that is the nature of a stone. Similarly, as regards the nature of a petunia or a gray squirrel. They, too, obey the natural law as applies to their kind. A grey squirrel must avoid certain predators, eat certain foods, find certain mates, build certain nests... Gray squirreling is no job for amateurs. All things pursue the good insofar as it is good for their natures: a lion that does not successfully stalk and kill a gazelle is a defective ("evil") lion. A gazelle that does not successfully flee and escape the lion is a defective ("evil") gazelle. Discipline is enforced by what we might call "natural selection." In both cases, note that the thing's well-being is impaired. But note too that for stones, petunias, and gazelles adherence to the laws [regularities] of their natures is automatic, ruled by impersonal external forces [in the case of the stone and somewhat in the case of the petunia] and/or by instinct [in the case of the gazelle]. They cannot choose not to comply.

          Human nature is to be a rational animal, so the good is defined generically as 'mens sana in corpore sano,' a healthy mind in a healthy body. A human who tries to live on a diet of grass is violating this natural law, since by nature humans cannot digest cellulose. A moral dimension enters in because humans have by nature free will. While gray squirrels build the same kind of nests always, humans can and have built many different kinds of nests. But we still use the term 'bad' for transgressions even here. IF a man tries to live on grass, we say that it is bad for him. If he eats too much red meat, it is bad for him. However, it is more properly applied to the moral dimension, as when Timur Lenk buit a pyramid of his enemies' skulls at Samarkand.

  • michael

    If the "rational appetite" means we are all necessary ordered towards choosing "The universal good", how is mortal sin possible? I ask because of this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VvpqO4-dNSY&t=323s

    • Rob Abney

      We often choose badly.

    • Ye Olde Statistician

      The video explains rather well. When Timur Lenk built a pyramid of his enemies' skulls at Samarkand, it undoubtedly seemed a good idea at the time, at least to Timur, if not to the Samarkandians. The good was that it reduced the number of his enemies and put the fear of Timur into the other cities of the Silk Road. It increased Timur's well-being. But this was a limited, or finite good, a means not an end.

      The role of habit (incl. genetics) in the choice of the goods was covered by Thomas long ago. For an overview, see Brennan's Thomistic Psychology.

  • BTS

    In general, human acts can be understood as morally evil if they entail either a misuse of some natural faculty or the violation of the rights of ourselves or of others.

    Who then is the arbiter of whether or not one is misusing or properly using a natural faculty? What happens when reasonable folks with good intentions and informed consciences find themselves at polar opposites on a particular moral issue?

    And, what does it say about humans' ability to discern natural law clearly when a consensus view on an aspect of human nature radically changes over a short period of time? A great example I came across recently is our understanding of the need of children to be shown affection. In the late 1900's doctors and psychologists warned against showing children affection because it would spoil them. Parents were warned in medical literature to kiss children only once a day, and were told to shake hands with children in the morning. Lap-sitting was discouraged, etc. Today we realize this cold, austere style is not healthy parenting.

    Did the nature of children change? Or did we realize we were wrong. We made a mistake interpreting an aspect of human nature? And if we were wrong about one thing, might we not be wrong about others...?

    I took this example from Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow by Yuval Noah Harari. Can't remember the page...somewhere between pages 50-100.

    • Dennis Bonnette

      The objective measure of which human acts are morally good or evil is human nature adequately considered. It is critical to understand that the phrase, "adequately considered," covers the entire science of philosophical psychology and its relation to man's true end as it is entailed in natural theology.

      This is an objective standard.

      But while all men know the most general natural law principle of to do good and avoid evil, knowledge of the moral status of particular acts, such as adultery, abortion, divorce, plagiarism, paying taxes, and so forth, is subject to the caprice of extensive human ignorance.

      This is why, while there is an objective science of ethics, of which some have far better understanding than others, there is need for divine revelation to guide human beings in such important matters, for example, something like the Ten Commandments or the Catholic Magisterium.

      We must NOT confuse divine revelation, which is God's business, with the natural philosophical science of ethics, which is a necessary project of human individual and societal application.

      I do not confuse these two distinct orders of human knowledge. As a philosopher, my primary and direct concern is the natural philosophical practical science of ethics.

      • BTS

        Hi Dennis,
        You wrote:

        But while all men know the most general natural law principle of to do good and avoid evil, knowledge of the moral status of particular acts, such as adultery, abortion, divorce, plagiarism, paying taxes, and so forth, is subject to the caprice of extensive human ignorance.

        1) Most people I would agree have a general intuition about moral decision making but I think we may disagree about its origins.

        2) In any case, that's not the question I asked you to answer, though. I don't want to know what ignorant capricious people think. I am asking what is to be done when reasonable folks with good intentions and informed consciences find themselves at polar opposites on a particular moral issue?

        3) In my parenting example, did scientists/doctors in the late 1900s misinterpret human nature and make the wrong call about withholding affection from children? Please answer yes or no. I don't mind if you add qualifiers, but please start with a simple yes or no.

        This is why, while there is an objective science of ethics, of which some have far better understanding than others, there is need for divine revelation to guide human beings in such important matters, for example, something like the Ten Commandments or the Catholic Magisterium.

        4) Do you think God stopped revealing himself to us after the biblical period? Where is the revelation today? Is it just encapsulated by the magisterium? Has god taught humanity everything about natural law or is there more to come? (I don't mean "more to come in the after life." I mean "more to come in the history of humanity in THIS world." And I also don't mean personal revelation but rather revelation writ large.

        • Dennis Bonnette

          Let me respond point by point:

          Number Two: You say people with "informed consciences." Clearly if they reach contradictory conclusions, at least one side is not properly informed.

          They must follow their consciences. Conscience is not infallible. it can be dead wrong. That is why it must be properly informed. This is a matter of discovering the objectively true good moral course of action.

          Number Three: It certainly sounds like the experts made the wrong call about parenting children.

          Let's be clear about how this works. The general principle that parents must do the right thing for their children is true. They must do what love dictates for their children.

          What IS the right thing to do in a given circumstance is a matter of prudential judgment. Some people have little prudence. Clearly, making this judgment entailed using the available science and medicine of the times. We today would say it was dead wrong. That can always happen when making a prudential judgment

          But do not make the mistake of confusing prudential judgments with situation ethics. One must apply universally true principles to concrete circumstances. In this instance, one must do what is right for the children, but knowing what is right is subject to error and appears to have been ill-informed at the time.

          Do NOT let that make you think that something like abortion might fit the circumstances at times -- for abortion entails an intrinsically evil act which can never be justified by the circumstances. That is why prudential judgments must first conform to universal ethical principles.

          Number Four: You are asking me to speculate as a theologian. I am not a theologian. I am a philosopher. Put your question to a theologian.

          Edit: " Has god taught humanity everything about natural law or is there more to come?"

          This is a proper philosophical question I should answer.

          Since the natural law is intrinsic to the nature of creatures, it has already been promulgated fully. The understanding by man of the implications of his own nature may bear further development, but in principle the presence of human nature was complete in the appearance of man, and thus, no further natural data is needed. Further challenges may arise through scientific and medical discoveries that may lead to new questions, as in bioethics, but the basic principles for their solution are already present in the essential permanence of human nature.

  • Jeremy Klein

    Dr. Bonnette,

    Just a brief question here. Natural law ethics seem quite accurate to me, but I've heard some skeptics argue that, according to natural law ethics, using a standard barrier-method condom is no different from chewing natural rubber; both ignore the natural end of the respective body parts they interact with for some other pleasure. Clearly, however, these acts are not equally morally grave- and hence, so say the skeptics, natural law falls apart. Shaving could also be another instance the skeptic could bring up, seeing as it seemingly violates the natural end of hair, which is to grow.

    What is the distinction between these cases?

    EDIT: I have a second question that I'm going to tack on: how would you respond to this often-mentioned problem with hylomorphism? "If human bodies are not bodies when they are not ensouled, and if the souls of bodies are, as Aristotle claims, their forms, then human bodies are not amenable to a hylomorphic treatment. The application of a general hylomorphic framework to the case of the soul and body does not even seem possible. Matter, according to hylomorphism, is contingently enformed; so, bodies, treated by Aristotle as matter, should also be contingently enformed. If, however, bodies are only homonymously bodies when they have lost their souls, then bodies are necessarily enformed: bodies are necessarily actually alive. So, human bodies are both contingently and necessarily enformed. That seems an unhappy and rather immediate consequence. In fact, Aristotle seems to have contradicted himself."

    I definitely believe in a sort of Thomistic hylomorphism, but I'm not sure of how the specifics work here! Here's the link, if you need more context. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/aristotle-psychology/suppl1.html

  • Don't do what you don't want to be done to you.
    This is a universal law of Ethos-Morality, violated by every life form on this planet. Creatures violate this law mostly in case to survive, the only creature who has different motivations for this violation, is the human being.
    The reason is simple, he uses his ultimate power the intelligence, not only to satisfy his personal needs, but also his greedy senses and feelings.

  • Phil Tanny

    Dr B writes...

    Since the omnibenevolent God has given man his rational
    nature and last end, God’s own fidelity assures man that proper use of that
    rational nature will enable us to attain our last end, which is eternal union
    with the Supreme Good, which is God himself.

    We don't need to attain eternal union with God, because there is no other place we have ever been or ever could be. This may be expressed in the Catholic doctrine that God is ever present in all times and places. This is what omnibenevolent really means.

    What we may wish to attain, to the limited degree it is possible for us in our very short little lives, is some relief from the illusion that we are separate from God.

    This illusion of division is generated by the nature of thought, that which we are made of psychologically. This is an important insight because identifying the source of the illusion provides some limited ability to manage that source, and thus the illusion, and thus the pain which flows from the illusion.

    The genius at the heart of Catholicism is the advice to love. Love is an act of surrender of the primary product of division generated by thought, the "me".

    In the East they often approach the problem from a different angle by various methods of reducing the overall volume of thought, that which is the source of the illusion. Same problem, same solution, just in a somewhat different form.

    All the great religions address this fundamental issue of the illusion of division. All that separates them are a seemingly infinitely complex web of cultural differences layered on top.