Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Artifice of Natural Law

I was going to comment on this NYT piece when I read it a few days ago, but I've been finishing up some work, and now Sully's beaten me to the punch. It's a profile of Robert George, the Princeton professor and natural law theorist. George's advocacy of natural law makes him something of an anachronism among philosophers (at least at secular institutions) and something of an icon among conservatives. I first became familiar with his work a couple of years ago when I began to delve more deeply into the intersections of political theory and theology, and he's doubtlessly one of this generation's most important scholars of religion and politics.

His approach to the subject also happens to be phenomenally misguided - and, it increasingly seems, openly ideological.

Let me explain a little bit, since this article gives (it seems to me) an unhelpfully shallow explanation of some of the major issues at play. Early on, the article begins to list some of George's biggest fans:
He has parlayed a 13th-century Catholic philosophy into real political influence. Glenn Beck, the Fox News talker and a big George fan, likes to introduce him as “one of the biggest brains in America,” or, on one broadcast, “Superman of the Earth.” Karl Rove told me he considers George a rising star on the right and a leading voice in persuading President George W. Bush to restrict embryonic stem-cell research.
Ok, so what is this "13th-century Catholic philosophy" that has Major Intellectual Figures such as Glenn Beck, Karl Rove, and George W. Bush so enthralled? It's natural law - so we might call George, as Sullivan does, a "natural lawyer." The proponents of natural law include a long list of major Catholic philosophers - including Thomas Aquinas and Francisco de Vitoria. Let's assume that Glenn Beck has never read Francisco de Vitoria. What does he find so appealing about this philosophy?

At its core, natural law is basically the idea that the natural world, since it was created and ordered by God, exemplifies God’s wisdom and intent. The artificial order, then, should be modeled after the natural order, in order to reflect the plan and genius of God. I recently noted, in a paper on this subject, that "the considerable persuasive and explanatory power of this theory lies in its appeal to deeply-held convictions and its power to develop theories that seem intuitive." Sullivan's post echoes this point:
But my deeper point is actually an agreement of sorts: there does seem something intuitively right about seeing our "nature" as some sort of guide to the way we should live our lives. But this is the beginning of an argument, not an end to it. What do we mean by nature? How do emotion and reason interact? How precise and universal can we be in adducing morals from something as diverse and varied as the fruits of natural selection? How can we be sure we aren't smuggling in all sorts of pre-existing views of what nature is and what morality is when we declare something "unnatural"?
This does a neat job of summarizing the immediate problems that arise from removing natural law from abstract speculation and actually using it to guide politics. Sullivan's main beef with George and the natural lawyers is their approach to homosexuality, and indeed, it's a revealing look at the way a supposedly intuitive, rational approach to politics quickly becomes arbitrary, gnostic, and theocratic.

The official Catholic position on homosexual sex is that it's "unnatural" - referring, quite literally, to the notion that sex is by nature procreative and physically unitive of male and female, and since homosexual sex doesn't fit that definition, it's inherently incompatible with what is "natural" - and therefore ordered by God, since God created the natural order. This is, to put it lightly, a fraught position, as numerous writers have demonstrated. It's not necessary to revisit their points here (but if you're interested in more reading on the topic, see Jon Corvino, Jeffrey Siker, and others). Suffice it to say that, as is plainly evident from this line of argument, it's impossible to have natural law without a certain requisite amount of theology.

That's why this claim, recently made by Justin Rigali, a conservative cardinal closely associated with George (and in a speech that the article suggests George wrote) is so frustrating and misleading:

These principles did not belong to the Christian faith alone, the cardinal declared; they rested on a foundation of universal reason. “They are principles that can be known and honored by men and women of good will even apart from divine revelation,” Rigali said. “They are principles of right reason and natural law.”
This is completely wrong and intellectually dishonest. Those principles do belong to divine revelation. Natural law is by definition impossible without divine reason, so either Rigali doesn't understand natural law or he's just being a liar. I'd actually be hard-pressed to say which. People tend to defer to scholars with George's pristine credentials (including degrees from Oxford and Harvard), and it's tempting to argue that one's own views are accessible to anyone employing right reason.

But think about the fundamental arguments behind natural law: we know what to do because of what we see in creation. Yet why should creation have any meaning? Why should nature hold any authority? I addressed this question a few months ago:
The Christian idea of a world created ex nihilo is not a world that precludes contingency, but it is a world where the contingent embodies (in some way) a divine idea or image, if not divine intent. It is a world in which, as Louis Dupré writes, "nature retains an intrinsically normative character," a "further stage in the process of revelation." For Christian thinkers of centuries past, nature was filled with meaning, if not intentional structure. Again, as Dupré puts it, "the epistemic apriori imposed no categorical structure upon the real, but a perspective for reading what was directly, but never simply or exhaustively, given."
Natural law is essentially one step beyond this position - there is a categorical structure given in nature, because nature reflects the intent of God. It is therefore impossible to conceive of natural law without believing that a) God exists and b) God created the universe. The idea that this is possible, as Rigali says, without religion, on a foundation of universal reason, "even apart from divine revelation," is ludicrous.

The political implications, of course, are too tempting for any social conservative to ignore, so they insist on this insulting farce. All while ignoring the fundamentally theological presuppositions and consequences of their argument. After all, can
anyone convincingly explain how a system of government and laws based on clerical interpretations of God's intent can avoid being - at the very least - a soft theocracy? And a gnostic one at that? Someone has to interpret what is natural and what is not; what counts and what doesn't; what reveals God's intent and what is simply an anomaly. This will require people with some religious training. Right reason, separate from religion, indeed.

But nonetheless, the battle lines have been drawn, and the political consequences are clear. Christians of various stripes have come together to push this idea - hey, all it takes is a common enemy in the dreaded gays for conservative Christians to discover ecumenism. And they have every right to push these ideas in the political square.

Just don't try to argue that they're not fundamentally religious arguments. It's insulting.

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