Noah Millman has a very, very good skeptical mediation on the natural law, and why, in his view, natural law arguments fail. I can’t begin to do it justice by excerpting it here, but what it boils down to is even if you claim that observation tells you what human nature is, and which acts fulfill that telos, you still have to have some sort of sorting principle to determine what human nature is, and whether or not an act is consonant with it. The gist of Noah’s post:
It seems to me that this is the reason that natural law arguments fail in practice. It’s not that we can’t accept that we have natures, or that those natures might be constraining in one fashion or another – outside of certain politically touchy topics, we entertain the idea that our natures constrain us, and how we can pursue (and achieve) happiness, all the time. It’s that the advocates of a natural law approach cannot explain adequately how they know what they claim to know about our natures, and expose that purported knowledge to scientific criticism of the kind that we would recognize if the question were, say, “do dogs feel pain?” And the suspicion grows, over time, that this question isn’t opened not because it cannot be opened but because it must not be opened, because it is really the conclusions that are “known” absolutely, and not the premises.
Comes Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry to remind us that this is not so much a problem for Christians as it is for secular people, who may not be aware of it. Excerpts:
The idea of universal human rights was the greatest moral revolution in history since the Sermon on the Mount, and it has given us phenomenal, unimaginable moral progress, from reductions in crueltyto modern governance to unimaginable prosperity. Universal human rights are pretty important.
But of course, as any freshman philosophy student can tell, the problem comes when you try to ground those universal human rights. Where do they come from? Who confers them? Why should they be respected?
There’s basically only two ways to do so, one theistic and one non-theistic. Universal human rights are perfectly grounded if they come from God, as the Declaration of Independence asserts and as I believe in my heart of hearts. But not everybody likes that, and it sort of defeats the purpose of creating this secular moral system to begin with.
The only other way that I’m aware of to ground the idea of universal human rights is in, wait for it, the natural law. Without appealing to God, the only way to ground the idea of universal human rights is if there is such a thing as human nature, which is shared by human beings, because they are human beings, and which includes the endowment of rights. This is the classic formulation of secular Enlightenment morality.
If you don’t have the concept of natural law, and you don’t believe in God, then there’s no such thing as inalienable human rights, or at least they stand on no more solid a ground than a theory of rights derived from divine command. PEG draws a sharp conclusion:
As a Catholic, the decline of the natural law leaves me almost indifferent. As a fan of and believer in secular Enlightenment morality, it leaves me very, very, very concerned.
PEG’s short essay, I think, exposes in a clear, concise way why secular liberalism is only apparently rational, and how it depends on faith in a conception of human nature that can’t be grounded in empirical observation, but is more or less parasitical on the rejected Christian understanding. The English political philosopher and skeptic John Gray’s work is illuminating on this point. For one thing, Gray considers the Enlightenment and the myths that emerged from it to be more or less a secular restatement of (for Gray, mistaken) utopian Christian morality.
(Hey readers, I’ll be away this morning in a recording studio putting some final touches on the audiobook version of The Little Way Of Ruthie Leming. I’ll approve comments as I can, but please be patient.)