124 George, Finnis, & Natural Law

                 Princeton University, noted a century ago for employing stalwarts of the Faith like Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield and JamesG. Machen, has (notoriously) recently appointed Peter Singer as DeCamp Professor of Bioethics, granting him a position whereby he can propound his utilitarian views.  Such include protecting endangered animal and plant species as well as tolerating infanticide, at least during the first month of life.  Singer’s appointment elicited considerable furor, especially from disabled folks who understand his philosophy’s general drift toward eliminating the unfit who prove burdensome to society.  But the prestigious Princeton faculty said nothing to protest his views.  He is, after all, considered by some the most influential philosopher in the world, and to add his luster Princeton’s allure  apparently satisfies the professors.

                Yet there’s a less well known Princeton professor who steadfastly opposes Singer and his utilitarian ideology:  Robert P. George, McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence, one of America’s finest philosophers.  He was recently appointed by President Bush to the bioethics committee considering the implications of stem cell research.  A committed Roman Catholic, George upholds her traditional Natural Law ethics.  His most recent publication–a collection of essays–is entitled The Clash of Orthodoxies:  Law, Religion, and Morality in Crisis (Wilmington:  ISI Books, 2001).  He seeks therein “to show that Christians and other believers are right to defend their positions on key moral issues as rationally superior to the alternatives proposed by secular liberals and those within the religious denominations who have abandoned traditional moral principles in favor of secularist morality” (p. xiv).  Conflicting orthodoxies clash, George says, in three main areas:  sexual behavior; pro-life issues; and the role of religion in the public square, themes that recurrently interlace the book’s 15 essays.

                The clashing orthodoxies deeply differ in their definition of human nature.  In accord with Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas, the great architects of natural law teaching, George especially emphasizes man’s unique capacity to reason.  Homo sapiens rightly defines us.  Much that’s wrong with the world, he thinks, results from a widespread acceptance of Thomas Hobbes’ and David Hume’s definition of human nature as an admixture of passing passions.  “Reason is and ought only to be,” said Hume, “the slave of the passions, and may never pretend to any office other than to serve and obey them” (A Treatise of Human Nature, Book 2, pt. 3, iii; quoted on p. 15).  Reason, he declared, simply rationalizes what we feel.  “Truth,” accordingly, describes subjective impressions, not objective realities, and changes from time to time and from person to person.  Rooted in Hume’s emotivist “orthodoxy,” implementing its implications, multitudes of moderns fail to think rationally.  Consequently they slip into epistemological skepticism and ethical nihilism.  And they deny or suppress the only Truth which enables them to live well. 

                But Truth, to Natural Law advocates such as Professor George, rightly affirms what is Real and aligns the mind with an objective reality.  There’s a Higher Law to which all human laws must correspond.   “Civil rights,” insofar as they have standing, sink roots in Something deeper than purely personal preferences.  America’s Declaration of Independence, revealingly, asserts that all men are created equal and enjoy “certain inalienable rights” that are derived from the Creator.  This means that truly all men, everywhere, share a given essence.  So too St. Thomas Aquinas declared that man, by nature, “has a share of the Eternal Reason, whereby it has a natural inclination to its proper act and end:  and this participation of the eternal law in the rational creature is called the natural law” (Summa Theologiae, Ia IIae Q. 91, art.2;  p. 162).  Imbibing Aquinas through “the judicious Hooker,” John Locke said, in Two Treatises of Government, “the State of Nature has a law of Nature to govern it, which obliges every one:  And Reason, which is that Law, teaches all Mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his Life, Health, Liberty, or Possessions” (p. 162).

                As the Declaration of Independence insists, the primary natural right we all claim is the right to life.  The Natural Law ever upholds the sanctity of life–the right to life–throughout the entirety of one’s life.  “If we lay aside all the rhetorical grandstanding and obviously fallacious arguments,” George says, “questions of abortion, infanticide, suicide, and euthanasia turn on the question of whether bodily life is intrinsically good, as Judaism and Christianity teach, or merely instrumentally good, as orthodox secularists believe” (p. 8).  Indeed here’s the great question:  Is something in us good–or are we simply things that are good for something?  Pro-lifers hold that everyone is intrinsically valuable.  Pro-choicers think people are valuable only so long as they prove valuable to others.  George examines various pro-choice arguments, shows how they have shifted over time, and finds them both factually and logically flawed.  This is because abortion rights advocates forever fail–and cannot but fail–in their efforts to prove the difference between a genetically “human being” (clearly discernable from the moment of conception but disposable as a non-person) and a rights-endowed person (absolutely entitled to life). 

                Further supporting the Natural Law tradition, Professor George insists that careful thought–reason alone–leads one to uphold the integrity of heterosexual marriage.  Rightly defined, “Marriage is a two-in-one-flesh communion of persons that is consummated and actualized by acts that are reproductive in type, whether or not they are reproductive in effect . . . .  The bodily union of spouses in marital acts is the biological matrix of their marriage as a multi-level relationship; that is, a relationship that unites persons at the bodily, emotional, dispositional, and spiritual levels of their being” (p. 77).  This excludes “same sex marriage.”  Gay and lesbian activists, seeking to legitimatize their relationships, champion laws to that effect.  Laws, however, teach ethics as well as protect personal “rights.”  Laws that “teach that marriage is a mere convention which is malleable in such a way that individuals, couples, or indeed, groups, can choose to make it whatever suits their desires, interests, subjective goals, etc.” (ibid), inevitably encourage blatantly unnatural beliefs and behavior.

                Finally, Natural Law thinkers cannot embrace today’s firmly entrenched political liberalism. “Contemporary liberal political theory abets the culture of death.  My point,” George says, “in so bluntly saying so is not to be polemical or even provocative; rather, it is to be soberly descriptive.  Self-described liberal political theorists in the United States and elsewhere have, over the past two decades or so, quite explicitly set for themselves the task of justifying and defending the regime of abortion, euthanasia, and, increasingly, infanticide that constitutes the culture of death in the contemporary developed world” (p. 39).  This liberalism is best illustrated in the thought of John Rawls, the highly influential Harvard philosopher, who insists that religious values be excluded from public life.  Any questions capable of religious answers, Rawls declares, must be excluded from democratic discussion.  In a pluralistic society, he holds, decisions must be made behind a “veil of ignorance,” following purely pragmatic, instrumental criteria.  Following a careful, detailed critique of Rawls’ version of democratic liberalism, Professor George insists it “cannot withstand intellectual scrutiny” (p. 55). 

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                Professor George has also published In Defense of Natural Law (New York:  Oxford University Press, c. 1999), a collection scholarly essays, most of which earlier appeared on legal or philosophical journals.  Some of the essays pit himself and his allies (John Finnis and Germain Grisez) against other Catholic Natural Law advocates (such as Ralph MacInerny), illustrating a spirited debate raging over the proper interpretation of Thomas Aquinas.  Consequently, for folks less than consumed by the intricacies of this discussion, portions of this collection lose value. 

                Nevertheless, many of the themes that appear in The Clash of Orthodoxies found earlier expression in these essays.  George’s spirited defense of the sanctity of life, of heterosexual marriage, of the importance of religion, provide the reader with well-documented reasons to advocate such positions.  Illustrative of George’s prescience is his refutation of the relativism often espoused by modern liberals.  “Consider,” he says, “the following chain of reasoning:

    (i)    All Moral views are relative.

   (ii)   Thus, no one has the right to impose his view of morality on anyone else.

   (iii)   Therefore, laws forbidding allegedly immoral activities on the ground of their immorality are wrong.

The glaring defect in the logic of this argument,” he continues, “has been pointed out by virtually every serious writer on the subject . . . .  Propositions (ii) and (iii) express moral judgments.  These judgments are either relative or non-relative.  If they are relative, as (i) says that all moral judgments are, then there is no reason for someone who happens not to share them to revise his view in favor of the liberal position.  If they are non-relative, then proposition (i) is false and cannot provide a valid premise for propositions (ii) and (iii)” (pp. 302-303).  Case closed!

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                A decade earlier George edited Natural Law Theory:  Contemporary Essays (New York:  Oxford University Press, c. 1992).  Both supporters and critics of the Natural Law hold forth in these pages, providing an illuminating debate over its basic tenets.  Increasingly, philosophers have found the dominant ethical theories–utilitarianism, existentialism, Kantianism, contractualism–inadequate.  Thinkers like Alistair MacIntyre, for example, have refurbished the “virtue ethics” of Aristotle and Aquinas with clarity and conviction.  Understandably, as a major plank in the “perennial philosophy” which has ebbed and flowed for 2500 years, the Natural Law tradition has attracted renewed attention.  And it has been paralleled, Michael S. Moore, a professor of law at the University of Pennsylvania, says, by an “increased acceptance of moral realism within philosophy” (“Law as a Functional Kind,” p. 188).  As a reviewer in the journal First Things noted, this book is a “superb collection of original essays on natural law theory . . . for anyone who might still believe that natural law theory is merely a relic of bygone days, discussion of which is kept alive by aging seminary professors and benighted religious traditions, Professor George’s book provides an indispensable antidote” back cover). 

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                Edinburgh University Professor Neil MacCormick says that John Finnis’s Natural Law and Natural Rights is “a book which for British scholars has brought back to life the classical Thomistic/Aristotelian theory of natural law” (“Natural Law and the Separation of Law and Morals,” in Robert T. George, ed., Natural Law Theory, p. 105).   Finnis, for more than 30 years, teaching and writing at Oxford University, has influenced an ever-widening circle of legal scholars and ethicists.  To MacCormick, Natural Law and Natural Rights proved to be “an intellectual landmark; one of those few books which bring about a permanent change in one’ understanding; a shift on one’s personal paradigm” (p. 106).  Finnis is, without question to anyone reading him, one of the most erudite and effective advocates of the classical natural law tradition.

                Finnis published Natural Law and Natural Rights (New York:  Oxford University Press) in 1980, and it remains a definitive exposition of his position.  It is, above all else, a careful presentation of his understanding of Thomas Aquinas.  Importantly, Aquinas taught that “the basic forms of good grasped by practical understanding are what is good for human beings with the nature they have” (p. 34).  Given the fact that man is a rational creature, Aquinas said,  “‘whatever is contrary to the order of reason is contrary to the nature of human beings as such; and what is reasonable is in accordance with human nature as such.  The good of the human being is being in accord with reason, and human evil is being outside the order of reasonableness‘” (Summa Theologiae, I-II, q. 71, a. 2c; quoted pp. 35-36).  Thus vice and virtue differ insofar as they contradict or conform to reasonableness.  But we struggle to implement our convictions in daily activities.  So to Finnis, “the real problem of morality, and of the point or meaning of human existence, is not in discerning the basic aspects of human well-being, but in integrating those various aspects into the intelligent and reasonable commitments, projects, and actions that go to make up one or other of the many admirable forms of human life” (p. 31). 

                We cannot not know, by nature, what’s ultimately good, though we can easily suppress or deny it.  As St. Paul said, all men have “the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness” (Ro. 2:15).  Accordingly, Finnis holds that we naturally acknowledge basic principles, seven “universal values:” (1) life; (2) knowledge; (3) play; (4) aesthetic experience; (5) sociability (friendship); (6) practical reasonableness; and (7) religion.  Everywhere, at all times, people recognize life’s value and endeavor to preserve it. 

                Life’s valuable, absolutely!  Our instinct for self-preservation bears witness to our intuitive certainty that life’s precious.  So too does that fact that premeditated murder, the deliberate taking of an innocent person’s life, is universally condemned.  Equally important, folks who value life also value procreation and prescribe codes regulating sexual behavior.  Rape, incest, blatant promiscuity are universally condemned, for they violate the reverence for life all men share.  Knowledge is also valuable.  People everywhere desire to know the truth.  They value honesty and decry lies.  Keeping one’s word has always been expected as something due the one who hears it.  Men and women always try to educate their young–whether in practical matters such as hunting and cooking or in esoteric rituals celebrating the myths and traditions of their tribe or nation. 

                People everywhere design and enjoy games, testifying to the fact that human life involves more than satisfying elemental needs.  Indeed, Johan Huizinga, a fine historian, defined man as homo ludens to emphasize how incessantly he engages in purely playful behaviors.  Ball games, races, card games, wagers, word games and riddles seem intrinsic to the human experience.   Equally important is artistic work–whether painting on the walls of caves or intricately carving knife handles or decorating water vases.  And from antiquity to the present we humans treasure friendships and encourage social bonds.  Solitary “brutes” there may be, but men forever prefer to live together with others of their kind.  Families, villages, hunting expeditions, sewing bees, all reveal our essentially social nature.  Folks also want to know how to live well and make wise decisions.  And they have pervasive concerns for ultimate realities, basic to religious expression.  The bodies of departed loved ones are treated with respect, demanding religious ceremonies.  Marriages, sicknesses, family meals and beautiful sunsets all provoke deeply religious responses. 

                Any honest study of human history, Finnis holds, proves man’s need for such basic goods.  Consequently, we can assert, with equal confidence, certain absolute “rights,” rooted in these goods.  We have a right to life–no one should take it from us.  We have a right to know the truth, so we have a “right not to be positively lied to in any situation (e.g. teaching, preaching, research publication, news broadcasting) in which factual communication (as distinct from fiction, jest, or poetry) is reasonably expected” (p. 225). 

                Desiring such “rights,” aware of ultimate “goods,” Finnis holds, we should naturally lift our minds to God, the Ultimate Good.  Indeed, the great architects of the Natural Law tradition have found theism compatible with their views.  “It must never be overlooked that, for nearly two millennia, the theories of natural law have been expounded by men who, with few exceptions, believed that the uncaused cause has in fact revealed itself  . . . to be indeed supremely personal, and to be a lawgiver whose law for man should be obeyed out of gratitude, hope, fear, and/or love” (p. 392).  Deeply underlying the thought of Plato and Aristotle, “is their faith in the power and objectivity or reason, intelligence, nous” (p. 392).  And man’s nous directly participates in the divine nous

                Both Plato and Aristotle, Finnis says, claimed “a certain experiential access to the divine” (p. 394).  Thinking rightly enables us to know (to a degree) God’s Mind.  Wondering, the beginning of philosophical inquiry, is man’s response to a “divine attraction.”  Finding answers, discerning truths, involves sharing in some ways the thoughts of God.  Aristotle, famously, began his Metaphysics with the assertion that “‘by nature [physei] all men desire to know’.  From there he proceeds not only to the affirmation (i) that the most desirable object of knowledge is ‘the highest good in the whole of nature [physei], a good which he identifies as God, but to the further affirmations (ii) that understanding [or thought] ‘in the highest sense’ is concerned with God; (iii) that the supreme object of understanding or truth is God and that ‘intelligence [or thought] [nous] understands [or thinks] itself through participation [metalepsis] in the object of understanding [or thought]; for it becomes an object of understanding by being touched and understood, so that intelligence [nous] and the object of understanding are the same’; and (iv) that the best and most pleasant state, which is enjoyed only intermittently by us as always by God, is the contemplation (theoria) of that actuality which understanding has, as a divine (theion) possession, when it thus participates in its supreme object” (p. 395). 

                Similarly, we find Plato writing, in Laws:  “God, as the old saying says, holds in his hand the beginning, end and middle of all that is, and straight he travels to the accomplishment of his purpose, as is (his) nature [kata physin]; and always by his side is Right [dike:  justice] ready to punish those who disobey the divine law [theiou nomou].  Anyone who wants to flourish [eudaimonesein] follows closely in the train of Right, with humility . . .  What line of conduct, then, is dear [phile] to God and a floowing of him?  . . . Well, it is God who is for us the measure [metron] of all things; much more truly so that, as they [sophists, notably Protagoras] say, man.  so to be loved by such a being, a man must strive as far as he can to become like that being; and following out this principle, the person who is temperate-and-ordered is dear to God, being like him” (Laws IV; p. 396). 

                St. Thomas Aquinas most clearly expressed this with “his definition of natural law as participatio legis aeternae in rationali creatura:  the participation of the Eternal Law in rational creatures” (p. 398).  The ultimate good for man, beatitudo, “human flourishing,” comes through knowing God.  Participatio–participating in the very being of God–finally fulfills man’s deepest longings.  Aquinas held that “‘it is from God that the human mind shares in [participat] intellectual light:  as Psalm 4 verse 7 puts it “The light of thy countenance, O Lord, is signed upon us.”‘  The same scriptural quotation caps his account of natural law as a participatio of Eternal Law” (p. 400).           Natural Law, therefore, reveals God’s Truth to those whose minds are open to the Light.  As the extensive quotations indicate, Professor Finnis writes on a highly theoretical, thoroughly scholarly, level.  One never speed reads Finnis!  Yet, when patiently studied, his works never fail to inform and challenge.  The Natural Law, as fundamental for ethics and law, certainly makes sense.  No wonder many of the greatest thinkers in the past championed it.  Finnis’ Natural Law and Natural Rights is without question one of the finest works published during the past three decades.