Thursday, October 22, 2009

The improper reasoning of classical natural law theory

A range of traditions (using the term ‘tradition’ very broadly) have attempted to ground their morality in the natural order, in the [general] nature of things—including nature. [I am distinguishing such claims from attempts to ground morality specifically in human nature.] They vary greatly in how reputable they are. By far the most intellectually serious is the classical natural law tradition (using the term in the sense that Ed Feser does inThe Last Superstition). By far the least reputable is Nazi ideology. Modern environmentalism rests somewhere in the middle.

They may vary greatly in how morally and intellectually respectable they are, but they all suffer the same problem. The alleged moral grounding they find in the [wider] nature of things, in the natural order, is false. They simply infer from the natural order the values they bring to it in the first place. Nazis take from nature their pre-existing concerns for purity, violence and territory; environmentalists take from nature their pre-existing animus to capitalism and industrialisation; classical natural law theorists take from nature their pre-existing concerns about, amongst other things, sex.

In each case, the natural order provides no moral grounding outside of the values they bring to it, and this is an irredeemable failure. It cannot be other than so because of the nature of norms, of valuation.

To show how this is so, I will use the most intellectually respectable case—classical natural law theory.

To say something is moral to do and another thing is immoral is to say it is better than one thing occur than the other. That is, to say that there are preferred states of the world. Which means they have to be grounded in something that prefers, that evaluates, that has evaluative force. If the only source for such preferences, such evaluative force, is to be purposive, to have purposes that can be frustrated or not, then what simply is cannot be a source of what ought to be, as simply being applies equally to what is good, what is evil and what is neither. Hence Hume’s point that one cannot infer an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’. The claim of classical natural law theory is that what makes things moral or immoral is built into the structure of the universe. The claim is that morally determinant purposes are built into the structure of the universe. (So, classical natural law theory accepts that purpose is what generates evaluative force.)

Shifts in meaning
If what is actually going on in classical natural law theory is that evaluation is being imported into the characterisation of the universe, it is unlikely to be happening “out in the open”. It is far more likely that it is happening surreptitiously. A classic way for this to happen is to shift from one conception to another without it being apparent, even to the thinker.

This is surprisingly easy to do and flows from the nature of language and thought. There is no necessary connection between any sets of sounds or characters and particular meanings. It is all a matter of learned, and arbitrary, associations. Hence the meaning of scripts can be entirely lost even though their physical signs remain.

But it is worse than that, for there is no necessary connection between one use of a set of sounds or characters and another, even if the meaning seems to be the same. Malthus was famously criticised for confusing two different notions of ‘tendency’. This is sort of mistake is a common problem. Charles Darwin, for example, often talks as if the “struggle for existence” was “ceaseless” in ways which are unclear between things that can happen at any time and things that happen at all times. Clearly, that something can happen at any time is not the same as happening all the time and does not have the same implications. (In particular, the latter tends to be more hostile to the notion of cooperation in nature than the former: that some selection processes can be said to be always operating for particular individuals, or genetic lineages, while others operate at some times and not others, encourages the ambiguity.)
In The Last Superstition, Ed Feser usefully distinguishes between different conceptions of God. God the old-man-with-beard; God as eternal, immaterial being; God as pure being or existence; God as mystically experienced; God as experienced in the beatific vision (Pp87-88). Feser then proceeds to argue for a moral theory—classical natural law theory—that is based on just such a mistake as Malthus made of shifting between meanings without taking adequate note of it. A shift across conceptions of God which gives it unearned persuasive force (to believers) and a more fatal shift in conceptions of (final) causality.

Classical natural law theory is based on Aristotelian metaphysics and its four causes—the material cause (the underlying stuff something is made out of), the formal cause (the form, structure or pattern that it exhibits), the efficient cause (what brings a thing into being: technically, what actualises a potentiality in a thing) and the final cause (the end, goal or purpose of a thing). In Aristotelian metaphysics, final causes are and are universally. All causal sequences have them. Because they just are, they do not of themselves create or imply preferred states of the world. Precisely because they are universal, absolutely ubiquitous, they exhibit no preferences for they equally manifest in—in a sense support—all preferences, all actions. So evaluation can only be established if some final causes are more important than others in an evaluative sense.

Reference to God is not a solution, for the God of Aristotelian metaphysics—God the Unmoved Mover, the First Cause God—has the same causal relationship to each and every final cause. To good actions, bad actions, neutral actions: to the existence and actions of Buddha as the existence and actions of Hitler. The God of the Philosophers has a universal role and this universal role does not support particular causal roles, functions and purposes, but indifferently maintains all such.

The problem comes with running together the God of the Philosophers with Yahweh of the Old Testament and Allah of the Qu’ran: the God Who Permits and Forbids. Who expresses preferred states of the world. Who has purposes and so has preferred states of the world (those that fulfil or conform to those purposes).

It is an easy mistake, to go from God the Unmoved Mover, to God the Creator, to God the Preferrer and take it that the purposes, the preferences, of God are immanent in the Creation—in the case of classical natural law theory, immanent in final causes. Thus we have a world with an inherent natural moral order. This is not a divine command theory as such, in that such good is not good because God says so. But it does claim the good is inherent in the immanent purpose of what exists and gains persuasive weight (among believers) from a sense of what exists comes from God. Things are sanctified by their origin being from God. (Specifically, via their nature manifesting their original purpose.) It is a question of philosophical interest whether this in fact ends up being a divine command theory hidden by being based on immanent purpose, but I will not pursue this question here. (I am inclined to think it is not.) Though, historically, natural law theories have been deeply intertwined with divine command notions: this is particularly obvious in medieval theories of property.

ASIDE: this shift across conceptions of God helps explain, in part, why so many modern philosophers have such problems in properly understanding the Unmoved Mover/First Cause argument for God. (A frequent complaint of Ed Feser’s: see here.) Precisely because the powerful cultural notion of God-the-Creator is the active God in Genesis, creating the world in six days, it is hard to see that a quite different sense of causality, and role in causality, is being invoked in the Unmoved Mover/First Cause argument. Of course, that classical natural law theory persuasive force as a moral theory is, in part, due to the aforementioned shift across concepts of God is not helpful in making the matter clear.

LONGER ASIDE: that Allah as Sovereign Legislator is so basic to Islam probably helps explain why Al-Ghazali’s hostility to natural law philosophy won out in Islam over Ibn Rushd (Averroes)’s Aristotelianism. Islam, as a religion of social order, has so many specific laws and injunctions that it is simply too big a gap from the God of the Philosophers to Allah of the Qur’an and hadith. Islam has a strong inner logic based on its goal of universal submission to Allah as sovereign legislator: for example, renouncing one’s submission to Allah—that is, converting from Islam—is treason against Allah-as-sovereign legislator, hence death being the penalty for apostasy. But it is not an inner logic naturally amenable to Aristotelianism.

Conversely, Christianity, growing up in a very ordered Roman Empire, is a religion of moral order. With the rejection of the Holiness Code, Christianity-the-religion-of-moral-order was left with general moral precepts famously encapsulated as:
you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind (and) you must love your neighbour as yourself - on these two commandments depend the whole Law and the prophets also.
Such a moral vision could be fitted in with natural law thinking fairly easily. (An example of this being Pope Paul III’s bull Sublimus Dei.) That St Paul uses para physin (‘against nature’, a very non-Judaic concept) in his canonical Epistles provided further support to natural law thinking. Hence the aforementioned Aristotelianism of Averroes was far more influential in Latin Christendom than in Islam, Aristotelianism surviving Bishop Tempier’s 1270 and 1270 condemnations, condemnations based on criticisms that were very similar to those of al-Ghazali.

The notion of miracles implies a normal natural order that God has chosen to override (or allow to be overridden) in a particular case: the standard Christian interpretation. Alternatively, either such things cannot happen (the standard secular view— Clarke’s third law being a version of this) or everything is just whatever God decrees with any apparent regularities being merely God’s customary practice: the standard Muslim interpretation. This being the interpretation that fits in with the lack of miracles equivalent to those of Jesus in the Gospels by the Prophet and with God-as-sovereign legislator—with God’s will as the basis of all law, the difference being between those we can break (but should not) and those we cannot.

The one bit of Holiness Code which made it into mainstream Christianity was, of course, the Levitical condemnations of same-sex activity: such activity being deemed of a form against nature and thus hateful to God as Creator of nature. A survival which derived from the works of Philo of Alexandria who was highly influential with early Christian thinkers and (most likely) St Paul. The treatment of the story of Lut (i.e Lot) in the Qur’an also largely follows Philo’s reinterpretation of Genesis 19.

So, in natural law monotheism, two men having sex were committing treason against the Creator of the natural order, thereby meriting death. (One of the hadith, the sayings of the Prophet, held that “when a man mounts another man, the throne of God trembles” though part of what is going on may be about authority being masculine.) Rape, provided it was heterosexual, was a lesser offence and treated as such in Latin Christendom. (In cases of homosexual rape, the victim was sometimes also punished, so great was the evil of transgressing the “natural form” of sex taken to be. After all, if the wish of individuals to freely engage in such sex had absolutely no standing, why should the wish of someone not to engage in such sex trump the fact that they had?) END ASIDE

Sanctified beginnings
Classical natural law theory is—in its notion that the origin, the original purpose, of something has trumping moral authority—a philosophy natural to a scribal (that is, pre-printing) culture. To a scribal culture, the process of transmission is a process of copying by hand, so a process of the accretion of errors and of the loss of written works. To move away from the original source is a process of decay, a lessening. One reason it is hard for a modern to get his or her head around the classical natural law approach is that, for us, life is a process of discovery of new things. In particular, it is a process of discovering new functions for existing things. The classical natural law idea that the purest, most perfect, version of something is from its past, is its source—of the original use being the highest standard—does not fit at all with our experience. We are children of the printing press, the Scientific Revolution and of the most technologically dynamic civilisation in human history: moreover, ours is a civilisation of accelerating technological dynamism. For us, movement away from the origin is not inherently a process of decay: on the contrary is a process of the expansion of knowledge and capacities. Even in the evolutionary terms, it is movement towards greater complexity (particularly cognitive complexity): including movement to us.

The notion that the original state of man and woman was superior—i.e. before The Fall—fits in with natural law thinking’s reverence for origins, for original purpose: it very much does not fit in with evolutionary understanding. It entirely fits in with his classical natural law perspective that Feser, in The Last Superstition, characterises the last 500 years of Western history primarily in terms of decline.

We are also the children of the global age: of the centuries-long discovery of new cultures, species, manifestations of nature. Faced with such diversity, it becomes harder to maintain that we live in a world with an inherent moral order, since things which were claimed to be immanent in that natural order, thereby supporting particular conceptions thereof (such as conceptions of love, marriage, gender outlooks and patterns), show great diversity across human societies and across species. Nor has this process of discovery been one of metaphysical privileging some causal processes over others in the way classical natural law theory holds: on the contrary, it is based quite fundamentally in treating seriously the deep continuity underlying the diversity of nature to find its underlying structures.

ASIDE: Ed Feser regularly complains about philosophers, and others, not understanding classical natural law moral theory. Given how absolutely basic morality is to human existence, that highly educated and intelligent people have difficulty understanding a theory of morality is a strong mark against it being the correct theory. But I think we can see why—from the aforementioned factors—folk might have trouble, and why classical natural law theory is more plausible to thinkers strongly committed to God-as-Creator and Scriptures-as-Revelation: two sources of authority coming from the past, from origins, from original purpose.

Proper natures
The attempt to make a universal feature of all causal sequences (having a final cause) generate preferred casual sequences begins by identifying immanent purpose and nature as if one has a necessary connection to the other. The position is that something’s originating final cause—its immanent purpose—expresses its proper nature. Once you have proper natures, you have preferred states of the world: actions that accord with things’ proper natures are moral (at least in some general sense and if “proper nature” has sufficient moral status). Those that act against something’s proper nature are not (even though, as causal sequences, they also have final causes).

So, the classical natural law approach is to distinguish between the final cause that brought something into existence and further uses of that thing that are deemed to be morally required to accord with that originating purpose. Thereby metaphysically and morally privileging one type of final cause over another.

This, of course, immediately bars all meat eating since that utterly frustrates the final cause that brought the animal into existence. Or any plant eating that gets in the way of the plant thriving. My point here is not that one cannot create moral arguments for meat eating or plant eating. They just will not be arguments grounded in the facts of final causes. The claim that the purpose that brought something into existence has moral privilege is an evaluation, a moral claim: it is not a fact. As is deciding some such originating causes matter morally and not others.

I have previously cited the case of the pig leg. Its final cause is to move a pig around. If we kill, cook and eat the pig leg we have frustrated the final cause that brought the pig leg into existence in a most thorough way. Clearly therefore, it is not acting according to final cause that makes one final cause preferable (morally or otherwise) to another, but whatever criteria we are using to choose between final causes. Which has to be the case, since final causes just are, and are universally. We are bringing our moral criteria to the analysis, we are not deriving it from the facts of final causes. Not even the ones that bring things into existence.

Identifying nature
Take it back a step. How do we know what the final cause of something is? Particularly, for example, something as highly diverse as, say, marriage. Why should we expect any social institution to have a single function, a single purpose, a single final cause? Why, for that matter, should something as complex as sex have a single final cause? Do we really think that a couple in their 50s or older getting married are manifesting exactly the same purposes as a couple in their 20s getting married? (If we do, clearly procreation is not one of them.)

Classical natural law theory says the final cause, the immanent purpose, of sex that determines its nature is procreation. How do we know that? The original argument, by “The Athenian” in Plato’s The Laws claimed it was because all sex acts in nature are procreative:
If we were to follow in nature's steps and enact that law which held good before the days of Laïus, declaring that it is right to refrain from indulging in the same kind of intercourse with men and boys as with women, and adducing as evidence thereof the nature of wild beasts, and pointing out how male does not touch male for this purpose, since it is unnatural …
That seems straightforward. We know that sex has a single final cause, and thus a determinant nature, because all sex acts in nature are procreative, at least in form. The immanent purpose is coterminous with its manifested nature. This certainly fits in with the universality of final causes—or, at least, it does for non-human cases—if nature is as is claimed.

Of course, a sex act that is not procreative has its own, specific, final cause (since, according to Aristotelian metaphysics, all causal sequences do). But we have already established that originating final causes are given authority over others. Besides, there is a much more basic problem. The Athenian’s claim is just not true:
Animals of the same sex build nests and homes together, and many homosexual pairs raise young without members of the opposite sex. Other animals regularly have partners of both sexes, and some even live in communal groups where sexual activity is common among all members, male and female. Many creatures are “transgendered,” crossing or combining characteristics of both males and females in their appearance and behaviour. Amid this incredible variety of different patterns, one thing is certain: the animal kingdom is definitely not just heterosexual. (Biological Exuberance P.xx)
So, now if we say the final cause, the immanent purpose of sex is procreation we are separating purpose from the nature-of-the-thing-in-the-world. We are saying some sex acts count, and others do not, in expressing the nature of sex, the morally central nature of sex. Yet, why infer from this diversity that sex has a single final cause? Why would we not infer that sex is complex in its nature? With more than one function?

Well, privileging the final cause of procreation certainly gives us a criteria to judge sex acts. It does not, however, give us any basis to decide what the final cause of sex is, or whether it has a single final cause at all, for it is no longer grounded in the actual nature of sex as it manifests in the world. (Remembering that all those sex acts that are not procreative have final causes as well and that the fact of the originating function does not work as a basis for moral judgement, as we saw with pig legs and meat eating.)

This is a fundamental problem. The nature of a thing applies to all of it. If the designated purpose of that thing does not include various manifestations of it, clearly the purpose does not incorporate its nature, but only part of its nature as-manifested-in-the-world. If one arrogates the right to decide which manifestations of something does or does not manifest its nature, one is selecting one’s own premises to suit the desired conclusion. The authority is in the selection criteria, not in how the thing actually is. One’s authority is not how a thing is, but how a thing is deemed to ought to be, how it is deemed properly to be: but that is a deeming not derived from how it is but only how some of it is. The evaluation is thereby placed therein, it is not derived from the full manifestation in nature.

If we look at sex as it actually manifests in nature, we can see that sex has a range of uses derived from it also being cathartic and pleasurable. This is part of the nature of sex. So why does one part of its nature (procreation) morally trump others? Again, this is not a factual matter, but an evaluative one. It is going to be a claim that the presumed original function of sex is to be preferred, is morally determinative. No amount of reference to the facts of final causes will get us there without the addition of an evaluative premise. Especially given that theory is selective about what parts of sex in nature manifest its natural form. Some final causes not only have to be metaphysically privileged, this privileging has to morally matter.

A moveable feast
But the problem is worse still. For even though saying sex is properly procreative seems to give us a criteria for judging sex acts, it does so only in a very general sense.

The great medieval theologian St Thomas Aquinas wrote in his Summa Theologica:
the use of venereal acts can be without sin, provided they be performed in due manner and order, in keeping with the end of human procreation.
Hence, Aquinas, tells us,
there is the ‘vice against nature,’ which attaches to every venereal act from which generation cannot follow.
Aquinas was following the “Alexandrian rule” of sexual conduct formulated Clement of Alexandria in the second century. To indulge in intercourse without intent to produce children was, according to Clement, to “outrage nature”. In the words of Pope Paul VI’s 1968 Papal Encyclical Humanae Vitae:
each and every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life.
Which means only sex acts where any ejaculation is into an unimpeded vagina are morally acceptable: any act that fails this requirement being held to be an evil misuse of the sexual organs against their natural sexual function.

But Clement, Aquinas and Pope Paul are offering three quite different standards. Clement that sexual acts must only be directed to reproduction (i.e., to be deliberately aimed at reproduction), Aquinas that they must be able to result in reproduction (so the act has to be actually able to procreate, whether or not it does in any particular case) and Pope Paul that they must not deliberately frustrate reproduction (regardless of whether procreation is possible). It is hard to see which of these standards is compelled by the fact of sex having a reproductive function. For, in reality, none of them are.

It is easy enough to see why the not deliberately frustrate standard has been adopted by the Catholic Church. Given that a sterile husband or post-menopausal wife cannot have successfully reproductive sex—and given that married couples enjoy having sex even if they are not trying to specifically have a baby—to limit permitted sex to purely procreative sex is clearly “too big an ask”: the standard of Aquinas, let alone Clement, is too much. So—as long as any intended ejaculation is into an unimpeded vagina—it is deemed “procreative” in the sense of “keeping to the proper purpose of sex” even if procreation is being evaded by careful timing or is impossible due to the sterility of one or both parties.

This acknowledges the connective and cathartic roles of sex but binds them within the reproductive form. Doing so even though fulfilling the reproductive function of sex is the rarest outcome of sex among humans, and many other cognitively complex species. It is, after all, a perfectly reasonable question to wonder why every single act of something must fulfil/be open to/not deliberately frustrate its original function. Particularly given the not deliberately frustrate standard allows acts which cannot be procreative and hence cannot fulfil the original function. Even more given that the procreative function can be happily fulfilled on other occasions even if it is not on any particular occasion. (Not the case with a pig leg turned into ham, for example.) None of these standards are established by the facts of final causes, not even by any notion of proper nature. Why, after all, should the “proper nature” be followed at all? And how much?

So our criteria for judging sex acts is, allegedly, grounded in the nature of things, but the criteria has shifted over time. Moreover, it has shifted clearly due to pressure from the purposes of people, not due to the facts of final causes. The natural law notion of proper purpose flowing from form and function would be more impressive if form and purpose (and implications derived there from) had not proved to be such a moveable feast—and not only for sex.

Medieval natural law theorists argued that since the purpose of money was exchange, it was against nature to profit from money that was not exchanged but returned and it was against nature for an artificial thing to beget more of itself: hence, on either ground, the charging of interest was immoral because it was against the nature of things. In each case, there is overly narrow misconstruing of function (in the former) and form (in the latter). It is perfectly reasonable to charge for the use of money, particularly given one is giving up the use of it oneself and there are risks involved. While money—as a generic trade item—facilitates exchange, thereby facilitating gains from trade, so facilitating expansion in value. Its “artificiality” is entirely moot.

The history of Catholic debates over usury demonstrates the malleability of natural law reasoning. Scripture damns usury (Nehemiah 5:7-12, Psalm 15:4-5, Ezekiel 18:16-18 & Ezekiel 22:11-13). Operating in the way Catholic natural law theory does—start with the conclusion (usury is wrong) and then work back to the construing of form and purpose which gets the desired result—money, as round bits of metal, was deemed inherently sterile. So clearly it was improper to pretend it was generative. Which is what charging interest clearly did, so charging interest was usury and wrong. Alternatively, the only function was exchange, so interest violated money’s nature as a medium of exchange and so is wrong. The crucial criteria are construed quite differently: what they have in common is providing the correct (pre-determined) conclusion.

Alas, a blanket ban on interest got in the way of the interests of the Papacy (and of merchants), so things were adjusted over time. Time, risk, use and labour were all admitted to be relevant when Pope Leo X ruled on the matter in the bull Inter multiplices (1515). So the purposes of people as users of money are clearly what drove the shift in moral evaluation.

Besides, it was a foolish way to conceive of money. The purpose, the intended function, of coin is indeed to facilitate exchange (and payment of taxes). It is deliberately given a form that makes it as unchanging as possible. (Coins are ridged, for example, to discourage clipping.) The more unchanging the form, the better coins serve productive purposes. Interest does not flow from some perverse pretend generative property from round bits of metal or from “misuse” of their role as media of exchange but the wider context in which those round bits of metal (or notes of paper or plastic, or electronic entries) are used. To focus on their physical form, or their immediate use, in such a way is absurdly reductionist. The inference from form, and even use, turned out to be fallacious. What matters is the human purposes of the creation and uses of money (as the Church effectively acknowledged in the 1515 Bull). In just the same way that banning our psyche from determining our sexual nature beyond the deemed constraints of physical form (as heterosexuality is deemed The One True Sexuality regardless of the diversity among people as they actually are) is absurdly reductionist. Both emphasise physical form over substance (that is, nature in the full sense). Nature as it is turns out to be too varied and complex for classical natural law theory: too much of a mysterious jungle, not enough of a neatly pruned garden. Though adherents are happy to hack away at the jungle of human diversity to “reveal” the “true” ordered garden underneath since, after all, according to Philo’s natural law interpretation of Genesis 19 and to the medieval “best seller” The Golden Legend compiled by a beatified Archbishop of Genoa, God Himself was.

The problem of selective and fallacious inference is pervasive. When in the ninth century, St Gerald of Aurillac came across a woman working in the fields because her husband was sick, and the work needed to be done, he gave her money to engage a day labourer because, in the words in the chronicle:
women should not do the work of men, for God has a horror of what is against nature.
It is the nature of cultural assumptions that they feel “natural” to people in that culture—indeed, philosopher Richard Norman has defined ‘natural’ as ‘accepted background constraints’. Feeling natural due to one’s culture (or even social milieu, or sexuality) is a very long way from being signs of the nature of things in a more general sense. But such cultural, milieu or personal assumptions will tend to loom particularly large if proper function is not found by what happens in nature, still less by what people (or animals) do or how they are. But since the entire logic rests on being selective about what manifestations count, this is an inbuilt feature.

St Paul held that long hair is the glory of a woman but an unnatural shame in a man (1 Corinthians 11:13-15). For St Paul, if men let their hair grow, that is unnatural; but cutting it, that is natural (so Delilah was doing Samson a moral favour)—part of the function of hair being, apparently, to help differentiate men from women. (Something that was very important to St Paul. I have no particular problem with St Paul-the-follower-of-Christ: St Paul-the-follower-of-Philo-of-Alexandria is entirely another matter.)

If hair has an original function, then shaving one’s head clearly frustrates it. Why is that not a sinful frustration of the original purpose of a feature of the human body? The reason is that hair does not matter to us in morally significant ways (despite St. Paul’s fulminations). Sex, on the other hand, does. But this ranking does not come from the facts of final causes but the moral evaluation put on particular ones due to human purposes. As Ed Feser writes in The Last Supersitition:
Natural law theory does not entail that every frustration of nature’s purposes is a serious moral failing. Where certain natural functions concern only some minor aspects of human life, a frustration of nature’s purposes might be at worse a minor lapse in a virtue like prudence. But where they concern the maintenance of the species itself, and the material and spiritual well-being of children, women and men – as they do where sex is concerned – acting contrary to them cannot fail to be of serious moral significance. (p.149)
Which is an argument grounded in human purposes passed off as an argument grounded in final causes.

This view also massively discounts the brutality and misery inflicted from anathematising homosexuality. Feser holds we are take into account the importance of sex for people but not the patent consequences for people of anathematising homosexuality. But this is just another manifestation of the selective deciding of what counts and what does not. Of the desired conclusion getting to choose its own premises.

Moreover, this conception of sex is not only highly selective about sex as it manifests in nature, it is quite divorced from sex as it actually manifests among people. In particular, it is highly dismissive about the cognitive complexity of sex within the human condition. For we are cognitively complex beings who have lots of purposes of our own, a cognitive complexity that is certainly manifested in how eros actually operates among humans. This conception of sex is, in a deep sense, a very in-human view of sex, obsessively focusing on narrow biological function as trumping the rich complexity of eros as it actually is. The greater is imprisoned in the lesser, with all the deformities that result there from.

Feser’s argument, and that of classical natural law moral theory generally, is ultimately grounded in running causal role into causal purpose: the crucial shift in meaning from which all the above problems flow. To repeat what I noted in the previous post on this, there is a difference between role
the role of this billiard ball in this causal sequence was to knock that other billiard ball into the side pocket as a result of being hit by a cue
billiard balls have the function of being part of a game of billiards
and purpose
his purpose in hitting this billiard ball with his cue was to knock that other billiard ball into the side pocket.
An asteroid striking the moon has a key role in the causal sequence that created a crater. A kidney has the function of processing and distilling liquid waste in the body. A kidney transplant has the purpose of replacing a failed kidney. One is an individual event, one is something embedded in a functioning (indeed, highly coherent) structure and one is a matter of conscious intent. Each higher level entails the ones below it: the reverse is not true. They may, in some sense, all be manifestations of intentionality in the sense of being directed to something: they are very far from being manifestations of the same sort of intentionality. Hence rocks do not have morality or moral dilemmas while humans do. For we are purposive in a way that rocks, for example, or bacteria, are not and bacteria are purposive in a way rocks are not.

The purpose in the kidney transplant comes from the mind of the participants, as does the purpose of the billiard player. Such purposiveness is not innate to the structure of things but arises out of human purposiveness. To pretend that originating final causes—which simply have causal roles—have causal purpose is how the evaluative element is smuggled in. How form gets to (selectively) trump human purposes. It is the key unremarked shift in meaning, even more than the shift across notions of God, though it gains extra plausibility to believers by being tied to the shift across conceptions of God since an active Creator is naturally seen as having specifically intended, and thus preferred, outcomes. To have causal roles that have intended functions: which is to say, are purposes.

Religious context
Sex matters in very particular ways to monotheist religions—especially when they are competing with polytheist and animist religions, which tend to have highly sexualised, and sexually active, conceptions of the divine and so develop notions of sex as connecting us to the divine. (Competition with polytheism and animism is precisely the situation worship of Yahweh faced in the Old Testament, that Philo was confronted with in Alexandria and virulently reacted against, that those preaching the Gospels within the Roman Empire faced and African Christianity faces today.) The worship of the One God, on the other hand, very much does not have a sexualised, a sexually active, conception of the divine. On the contrary, such sexualised conceptions of the divine are taken to be one of the basic features of idolatry. This antipathy to sexualised conceptions of the divine, and conceptions of sex as connecting us to the divine, is very clear in the Bible. As is monotheism’s strong religious antipathy to nudity: to any display of those separating-from-the-divine genitals. (The naturalness of nudity gives it no cred for the God-fearing.) The only way sex connects us to the divine in monotheism is via procreation, since it invokes God-the-Creator. Natural law thinking, with its concern for the originating purpose, fits this very nicely.

In fact, that is where the marriage between natural law thinking and Scriptural Revelation is first made, in the work of Philo of Alexandria. It is to Philo, who was very influential on Church Fathers (and, very likely, St Paul) that we owe the re-interpretation of the story of Sodom and Gomorrah as being about God’s horror of “unnatural” sex—that is, sex that goes against its originating purpose and thus proper nature.

But this religious convenience does not mean that the approach is philosophically sound. Just as we have already seen that final cause/original function is not determinative in its logical implications (should the standard be fulfil/be open to/not deliberately frustrate the original function?) nor metaphysically determinant (since it provides no basis to distinguish between final causes), neither is it ethically determinant (why does every instance have to fulfil/be open to/not deliberately frustrate the original function? why do other functions not count? why do some consequences count and not others?) nor epistemically determinant (we simply might not know what the original function is). St Paul was not in a position to know the cause of human hair, St Gerald the breadth of human work patterns across cultures nor medieval theorists to connect money as the generic trade item to gains from trade (or even its existence in forms other than coins) while the Athenian is clearly not aware of the sexual complexity of nature, and so on. The epistemically mysterious cannot be a basis of moral obligation. Hence natural law theory turns out to be at the mercy of the preconceptions and ignorance of the natural law theorist.

But if classical natural law is bankrupt as a determinant moral theory, its very lack of such determinacy makes it a splendid vehicle for giving the culturally contingent and the doctrinally convenient the (false) patina of moral necessity. This malleability does, of course, also make it very well suited to melding with a tradition of Scriptural revelation. As we have seen for both sex and usury.

The main difference between the cases of usury and sex is that commerce was an interest, both for the Church and to the Church, which the same-sex attracted have never matched. On the contrary, as an easily isolated, vulnerable, minority of scattered individuals, they have been (and in many places remain) very easy targets—particularly for priests and clerics acting as “gatekeepers of righteousness”, selling effortless virtue to a large majority based on contempt for a small, vulnerable minority.

Since morality under the classical natural law criteria is to conform with the original function of things, the non-procreative manifestation of eros of same-sex attraction is cast into the moral outer darkness, as manifestation of rebellion against the natural order, and therefore God as the Creator of that order. And what does one do to such “rebels” against God? To such manifestations of the dreadful jungle of human diversity? Evidence all contempt, and whatever barbarities, one can get away with. Trying to prune humanity back into the ordered garden it should rightfully be. One certainly does not permit such traitors to the natural order, to how people are “supposed” to be, to have equal protection of the laws. Ed Feser characterising their will as “corrupted”, as evidencing an unnatural and thus illegitimate desire (The Last Superstitition p.224) that puts them into “their wishes to be inoperative” category, the people whose wants do not count (except to be condemned). The first discounting from which all other discountings follow since it establishes their metaphysical, and thus moral, inferiority.

The process of metaphysically privileging certain phenomena over others ends up metaphysically privileging particular people over others. The Golden Legend held them not fit to share the world with Jesus—so God exterminated them so the Incarnation could take place—while other Catholic sources held them not fit to even speak before the Throne of God, part of sodomy as the peccatum mutum, the silent sin. The terms ‘sodomy’ and ‘sodomite’ that Feser is so fond of—using them frequently in The Last Superstition—are based on, and invoke, the notion of God-the-Virtuous-Exterminator. A view of Genesis 19, of Sodom and Gomorrah, that comes from Philo, a natural law theorist. For the notion of proper nature also implies improper nature. Hence the Vatican describing the same-sex attracted as as being “ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil” and thus “objectively disordered” (which puts the same-sex attracted ontologically lower than murderers, who are merely people who commit a heinous crime: they are not inherently metaphysically flawed [beyond the human norm]). So the notion of proper manifestations of the human implies improper manifestations of the human. Thus dividing humanity into proper and improper forms of people, with all that entails.

Moral universalism gives rise to two pathologies. One is universalising the parochial: treating something specific to particular times and places, or which is otherwise a partial manifestation, as if it is some universal feature or principle. As we have seen, this is endemic to classical natural law thinking. Indeed, an inbuilt feature.

The second pathology is that, if some group is to be exempted from the moral protections that are otherwise held to be inherent for all, that operate universally, one has to tell a particularly hostile and derogatory story about that group so as to demote them from the fully and properly human. To denigrate them in a particularly intense way that casts them out of the realm of the properly human. This is why, for example, slavery in monotheist societies involved denigrating entire categories of people in a way slavery in societies with less morally unified conceptions did not. (In the US, that slaves had to be exempted from both Christian universalism and the universalism of the Founding— from the people who were created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights—led to particularly intense denigration of blacks to justify slavery and later their political and social exclusion.) Such resort to the rhetoric of abomination—what a threatening moral affront the group is—and the language of moral degradation—how far the excluded fall short of being “real” people, what tainted characteristics they labour under—is clearly also a feature of classical natural law theory in regard to the same-sex attracted, oriented and active.

Conversely, of course, the more one denies such framing—that some group’s nature or actions represents abomination, that they are so “degraded”—the greater the salience of the monstrous unfairness involved in their exclusion from full members of the moral (and political) community.

Human purposes
Classical natural law thinking, far from revealing purposes immanent in nature, is driven by (and reflects) the purposes of its reasoners. It claims to be based on an immanent natural order but it is not based on how things are, but on a selective rendition of how things are, where the process of selection is driven by its desired conclusions, by the values its adherents put into the natural order.

Classical natural law theory with its notion of a natural moral order derived from immanent purpose was developed within the “venerable model” of a world created instantaneously, whole, to fit together in a particular way: a world where the ruins of Petra are “half as old as time”. A world with metaphysical privileging. A world with, therefore, an inherent natural moral order.

But the world, the universe is not like that, and we cannot build moral theories on the basis that it is. The world is tremendously ancient, the universe more ancient still, and is a realm of flux and dynamism where one thing becomes another. Where original functions are expanded, or even superseded by new ones: where fins become legs and feet then hands and arms. Where nature evolves: and things in nature evolve, so do not have static essential natures. Where reality is unified and coterminous. Where things are not sanctified by their sources nor morally constrained by their origins. There is no inherent moral natural order, there are just humans attempting to construct and maintain moral orders. Not as a happenstance thing, but as a necessary thing if we are to live together.

Morality is grounded in human purposes, because those purposes are basic to why morality is needed. To why it exists and can exist. Purposiveness is the only basis on which it can exist. For only purposes, which only sentient beings can have, give preferred states of the world: only their existence can generate ‘oughts’.

We are purposive beings. We act in the world according to choices driven by our purposes. These acts, choices and purposes interact: they require cooperation and restraint. Hence rules of morality, courtesy, law, social structures, economic structures, institutions: all the vast array of human norms. We, our purposes, are the grounding and source of all values and norms, including morality and moral order. Morality is not some utterly separate, metaphysically privileged, set of norms but arises from the same bases as all other types of norms.

Indeed, the tendency for (selected) human purposes to keep coming back into natural law thinking is a backhanded tribute to the actual origins of human norms.

There are things that undermine and frustrate moral order: but adults having consensual sex, or adults building lives together, which are not betrayals of our obligations to others (such as adultery or incest), do not. The anathematisation of them, however, does in the same way all bigotry does: under the pretence of upholding “moral decency” it strips moral protections from some designated group. (A stripping that is “moral” because of the fault of said designated group.)

Let’s suppose
What happens if homosexuality is accepted as just a manifestation of the variety of the human?
Then men will have sex with men, women will have sex with women, and they will attempt to build lives together.

What happens if we preach—and practise as public policy—that homosexuality is wrong and evil?
Then men will have sex with men somewhat less often, women will have sex with women somewhat less often, and they will, with greater difficulty and less often, attempt to build lives together.

And they will be killed for doing so. Imprisoned for doing so. Punished in all sorts of ways for doing so. Subject to a myriad of petty and not so petty cruelties. Parents and children will be alienated from each other. Boys and girls coming into their sexuality will be tortured by misery and self-loathing, will feel profoundly isolated, hiding themselves from themselves and others, creating the:
[t]wo old self-fulfilling prophecy deadlocks between Christianity and its gay children, the rebellious "you reject me therefore I'll reject you" and the self-hating "you reject me therefore I'll reject myself" …
While some men and women will pretend, to themselves, to others, to be of a different nature than they are with all the fakery and deceit that involves:
Traditional societies in most parts of the world have asked these people to suppress this reality as unthinkably wicked. To add injury to insult, they have also asked these people, at maturity, to feign a heterosexual relationship, after misrepresenting themselves to a member of the opposite sex by saying that they are interested in such a relationship. Wherever such relationships are encouraged, women who want to marry a man have no guarantee of getting a genuinely interested male partner; they may get a concealed gay man instead. Men who want to marry a woman may be similarly tricked into taking a partner who secretly finds them sexually repellent. Religions that principally strive to uphold love and justice have been the main enforcers of this system of arbitrary fraud, which has gay and heterosexual victims in equal numbers.
How obsessed with what other people do for sex do you have to be to think the second situation is, in any way, preferable to the first? And how indifferent, how blind, how contemptuous of the sufferings of others do you have to be?

And how twisted does your conception of God’s purpose have to be to think that He prefers the second? (Even leaving aside that separation of Church and state means “God says so” or “God wants” is no basis for public policy.)

All attempts to ground morality in the natural order, in how nature [beyond the human] is, must end in belittling humans because they must mean that human purposes are trumped by non-human considerations [beyond the merely factual. Human agency is not belittled by factual constraints: it is belittled when the natural order is cited as the source of trumping purposes]. This effect is obvious in Nazism and, indeed, in various forms of environmentalism. It is no less true of classical natural law thinking regarding sex.

The answer “all this does not matter, homosexuality is just wrong, so we have to make other people’s lives miserable to frustrate their nature” has to have powerful reasoning behind it. For arguments against homosexuality are not like arguments against, say, Judaism (a belief system). Given how basic to us our sexual orientations are, they are much more like arguments against Jews, for they are arguments against people’s lives, their natures, their being. And ideas have consequences.

But classical natural theory does not have strong reasoning behind it. What it has is effortless virtue, contempt for others and the habit of not taking inconveniently different experiences and aspirations seriously, and doing so as an inherent feature. While the exposing of intellectual error is always worthy, it is particularly important to strip bigotry of its intellectual supports away: to leave it naked, exposed for what it is.

The anathematisation of homosexuality is not merely wrong, it is evil and demonstrably so. For its requirement that the same-sex attracted be metaphysically discounted has vile consequences. It is only when we accept that what is done to people-as-people matters, has moral force, and is not selected out from positive moral consideration, that its evil can be seen. But that is always true of bigotry: as much for, say, Jew-hatred, as gay-hatred. We can see the evil of bigotry if we do not choose to be at war with the diversity of the human: for to be so at war is entirely a choice.

ADDENDA The words in [ ] have been added to clarify the argument.


  1. Very nicely done, Lorenzo. Would also like to see your thoughts on the legitimacy of natural law as espoused by Locke, and as alluded to in the Declaration of Independence.

  2. Thank you.

    I am not expert in the Lockian view of natural law. As I understand it, it is not Aristotelian in its metaphysical basis. Rather, I gather it is based on a conception of human nature as a reality in which morality must be grounded. (Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments would therefore be an evolution of it.) I suspect it is not therefore subject to quite the same critique as that I have outlined above.