Friday, January 15, 2010

Problems with the normative essentialism of classical natural law theory 3: Homicidal in origins, history and implications

This is the third and concluding part of a consideration of the problems with classical natural law moral theory, derived from Ed Feser’s admirably clear presentation of classical natural law property rights theory. Part one is here, part two is here and here.

Classical natural law theory entered Christian thinking by two ways, which probably were ultimately the same way. The first was the use by St Paul in his Epistles of the concept para physin or ‘against nature’. This was a very un-Judaic concept: it came from Greek philosophy. The second entry path was from the adoption and adaptation by early Christian thinkers of the philosophy of Philo of Alexandria. But there are good circumstantial and textual reasons to think that St Paul was himself borrowing from Philo, his older contemporary.

St Paul and other early Christian thinkers almost certainly adopted and adapted Philo’s philosophy for exactly the same reason. They wanted to preach to the Gentiles. Putting the Christian message in an intellectual language that appealed to educated Gentiles—which Greek natural law philosophy did—had obvious utility. Philo had already done the work in marrying Greek natural law philosophy to the Judaic tradition of Scriptural revelation, so they built on his work.

A couple of points need to be stressed about this. First, Philo was in no sense a Christian. There is no trace of Gospel thinking in his philosophy. Second, Philo’s philosophy was just a touch homicidal. Particularly about matters sexual (something Jesus has very little to say about in the Gospels, apart from being against adultery and divorce). Philo was following, and seeking to provide broader philosophical justification for, the Old Law. He was not following the new Christian Covenant.

What had huge implications for the future was the way Philo justified and extended the Levitican homicidal anathematisation of same-sex activity. He declared that it was against nature. Same-sex activity was thus defined as being against the natural order and outside the proper realm of human nature.

Moreover, Philo applied this to Genesis 19 and the Sodom and Gomorrah story. Philo is the source of the (now traditional) interpretation of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah as being due to God’s horror not of rape, nor violent inhospitality, nor of selfish arrogance and idolatry (the sins the Prophets and the Gospels laid at the door of the cities of plain and which were at least of a collective nature) but of same-sex activity. Which meant that the most dramatic Biblical example of God’s Wrath (after Noah’s flood) became associated with policing the form of sexual activity. Being same-sex attracted was not only defined as being outside the realm of the properly human, it was defined as the people God wanted dead (and wanted it so much, He was prepared to destroy whole cities to purge the world of such “horror”).

Which is how we get to a theory whose notion of “human flourishing” leads to burning people alive for having sex or getting married. From the moment classical natural law theory entered Christian thought, it was very much about those whose flourishing counts and those who do not, of proper and improper versions of the human.

For it is well to remind ourselves that the notion of ‘sodomy’ is very much a natural law moral category and invokes the notion of God-the-virtuous-exterminator. But any such gradings into proper and improper versions of the human are inherently oppressive: whether it is of the “one true class”, “one true race”, “one true sexuality”, or whatever. There are all wars against human diversity, and such wars regularly lead to oppression and slaughter.

Subverting Christianity
What Philo’s classical natural law take on sexuality did was provide a mechanism by which one could use the first principle of Christianity to subvert the second. The two principles of Christianity were famously defined by Jesus in the Gospels as:
"Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?" Jesus replied: " 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments."
Now, adopting Philo’s philosophy, “loving God” meant “kill the queers”: which is to say, the “sodomites”, the people God wanted dead. And it did it with particular thoroughness, since not only were they guilty of treason against God as Author of nature for using sex “against its natural end” but they were also defined out of the properly human (through their failure to be oriented to “rightful ends”) and so were therefore not moral neighbours, so not covered by the second principle of Christianity.

A long record of (fitful) barbarism against the same-sex active followed. Fitful barbarism because, since neither individuals nor the wider society was specifically harmed by such activity (issues of rape, adultery, abuse of minors, etc apply equally to same- and opposite-sex activity and a Church with required celibacy among its religious could hardly complain of simple failure to have children), the prosecution of such laws was largely dependant on occasional bouts of crusading zeal. Though the existence of such laws, and the framings that created them, blighted many lives, generation after generation.
But this barbarism is inherent in being defined outside the properly human. In its obsession with form trumping human agency it went directly against part of Christ’s Gospel teachings. Christ held that human purpose (i.e. human agency) is more important than form when he preached that:
Again Jesus called the crowd to him and said, "Listen to me, everyone, and understand this. Nothing outside a man can make him 'unclean' by going into him. Rather, it is what comes out of a man that makes him 'unclean.' "
After he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about this parable. "Are you so dull?" he asked. "Don't you see that nothing that enters a man from the outside can make him 'unclean'? For it doesn't go into his heart but into his stomach, and then out of his body." (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods "clean.")
He went on: "What comes out of a man is what makes him 'unclean.' For from within, out of men's hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and make a man 'unclean.' "
Such obsession with form over human purposes had the consequences Christ alludes to when he preached that:
The Pharisees and some of the teachers of the law who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus and saw some of his disciples eating food with hands that were "unclean," that is, unwashed. (The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing, holding to the tradition of the elders. When they come from the marketplace they do not eat unless they wash. And they observe many other traditions, such as the washing of cups, pitchers and kettles.)
So the Pharisees and teachers of the law asked Jesus, "Why don't your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with 'unclean' hands?"
He replied, "Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written: 

" 'These people honor me with their lips, 

but their hearts are far from me.
They worship me in vain;
their teachings are but rules taught by men.'[
You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men."
And he said to them: "You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions! For Moses said, 'Honor your father and your mother,'and, 'Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death.' But you say that if a man says to his father or mother: 'Whatever help you might otherwise have received from me is Corban' (that is, a gift devoted to God), then you no longer let him do anything for his father or mother. Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like that."
But creating highly contingent taboos, or other strictures, which define the boundaries of “righteousness”—so that priests become “gatekeepers of righteousness”—gives priests a lot of power. Take away concern for “uncleanliness”, and you take away much of the power of priests: no wonder they wanted this annoying teacher conveniently crucified by the Romans. (Islam’s concern for moral purity and, what is “clean” and “unclean”, gives its law—and those charged with its interpretation and enforcement—huge intrusive power in people’s lives; a pattern Islam took from Judaism: that Jesus said “choose love” while Muhammad said “submit” encapsulates the differences in their messages.)

Jesus’s instance that nothing from without makes one “unclean”, only what comes from within you, is a defence of human agency as the ground of moral concern. By contrast, the anathematisation of homosexuality is a pure attack on human agency. Consider the speech of Pausanias in Plato’s Symposium:
In Ionia and other places, and generally in countries which are subject to the barbarians, the custom is held to be dishonourable; loves of youths share the evil repute in which philosophy and gymnastics are held because they are inimical to tyranny; for the interests of rulers require that their subjects should be poor in spirit and that there should be no strong bond of friendship or society among them, which love, above all other motives, is likely to inspire, as our Athenian tyrants-learned by experience; for the love of Aristogeiton and the constancy of Harmodius had strength which undid their power.
Claiming love between men as a bulwark of free politics was a rhetorical commonplace for centuries: but binding association for political action is a form of celebration of human agency.

The anathematisation of homosexuality protects no one and nothing but profoundly assaults the very nature of those who are attracted to their own sex. They are defined as outside the circle of the properly human, with anything they may say in their own defence dismissed in advance. Indeed, they cannot be allowed to have any standing in their own defence, because if you grant them that much agency, why not go the whole hog? So, they cannot speak on their own behalf, since that acknowledges the legitimacy of their agency. Hence “sodomy” being the “silent sin”, its practitioners being “struck dumb before the Throne of God”. This was not merely a matter of the weight of social ostracism, there was a much profounder point about human agency involved. Hence the importance of the shift philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah notes when he writes:
... over the last 30 years or so, instead of thinking about the private activity of gay sex, many Americans and Europeans started thinking about the public category of gay people.
Hence also that long campaign to stop positive portrayal of same-sex oriented in film and television, for that admitted them ordinary humanity.

The division in debates over human sexual diversity is between those who get that attacking same-sex activity is attacking the personhood of the same-sex attracted and those who think the activity is so wrong that their actual personhood needs to be attacked/constrained: indeed, is a manifestation of how “twisted” their personhood is. Once the same-sex attracted become “just folks”—and so entitled to their aspirations—the moral case against homosexuality collapses.

The Vatican, in describing the same-sex attracted as being “ordered towards an intrinsic moral evil” and thus “objectively disordered” so as to ensure their aspirations are discounted, is simply applying an old and necessary logic. That then means the same-sex attracted are deemed to be ontologically lower than (for example) murderers—who are merely people who have killed someone, they are not “ordered towards an intrinsic moral evil” and thus “objectively disordered”—is simply following the logic of the thing. A logic increasing numbers of people are no longer willing to wear.

To call the misery inflicted on the same-sex attracted by such anathematisation as “a commitment to human flourishing” only works if neither the hurt and misery (let alone the violence) inflicted on the same-sex oriented, nor the joy involved in same-sex connection, count. That is to say, such people, their aspirations and experiences, are deemed to be outside the circle of what counts. But, in classical natural law theory, their very existence as same-sex oriented people generates no moral claim because they are defined outside the range of the properly human and their aspirations outside the range of proper human ends. The boundaries of human nature are drawn in ways that exclude actual humans.

To imply that this, in any way, represents concern for those so excluded is monstrous hypocrisy. The “love the sinner, hate the sin” approach is simply how a vile and corrosive contempt is made acceptable to otherwise decent people. (Try, for comparison, “love the sinner, hate the fact you are black” or “love the sinner, hate the fact that you are a Jew”.) A brutal devaluing of actual people, their experience and aspirations, the depths of their human agency, in the name of a narrow conception of human ends. One does not treat one’s moral neighbours with such contempt, with such profound disregard for fellow feeling.

The pathologising of their existence is, if anything, even more offensive. Especially as adhering to this monstrous attack on their agency and nature causes enormous misery and deforms lives. It is (despite the hugely overblown claims of “ex-gay therapy”) self-acceptance—that is, rejection of this deeply hostile framing—that is liberating. A reality that millions of same-sex attracted people can attest to: but, of course, according to classical natural law theory, none of that even counts.

The framing whose rejection is so liberating is one in which what is clearly a natural human variation, occurring in all human populations, becomes an unnatural variation, indeed an anti-nature variation. Who are outside, indeed against, God’s purposes. With all the contempt, brutality and subtle (and not so subtle) barbarities such a casting out involves.

This is, after all, not even remotely a mere theoretical point but brutal actuality, brutal history. The adoption of Philo’s “defining out of the properly human” normative essentialism was homicidal in its origins, homicidal in its history and (remains) homicidal in its implications. (Particularly given the Qur’an adopted the Philonic interpretation of the story of “Lut”, i.e. Lot and Sodom.) A normative essentialism that is not concerned with how people (actually) are, but how they are deemed to ought to be: a traditional version of the utopian barbarities that result from any war against people-as-they-are in the name of people-as-they-are-deemed-to-ought-to-be.

Given the reality of human nature as sexually diverse, societies and cultures have a range of options ranging from acceptance and incorporation of such diversity (i.e. defining people by their psyche) to denial and repression (i.e. defining people by their genitals). Human societies have evidenced every response in that range, with monotheist cultures all being down the denial-and-repression end. What Philo did was to develop a philosophical mechanism to justify an endless war against people-as-they-are in the name of people-as-they-are-deemed-to-ought-to-be. To say this has borne much evil fruit is an understatement. To say it wars against the second principle of Christianity is hardly less of one. But, then, Philo himself had no commitment whatsoever to that principle.

A repeatable mechanism
For here’s the thing. Once you have cast one group of people out of the circle of the properly human, out of the circle of one’s moral neighbours, the trick is extendable indefinitely. Having shown how Philo of Alexandria’s philosophy could be used so that the first principle of Christianity justified subverting the second—defining some group as so “offensive to God” they were no one’s moral neighbours—the trick could be, and was, used again and again. Especially as Philo included the notion that believers should continue to act against those who inspire God’s wrath.

The group it was used most infamously against was, of course, the Jews: Philo’s own people. For were they not the “Deicides”? The Killers of God-the-Son? The Chosen People who produced the Messiah and rejected Him? And so Christian Jew-hatred was away, with its brutal record of massacres, oppressions, expulsions and its constant attacks on the very humanity of Jews. With one of Philo’s most avid interpreters and adaptors, St John Chrysostom, patron saint of preachers, leading the charge (also here).

And down the ages, this horrid mechanism—so successfully pioneered by classical natural law thinking—was used again and again. Against “sodomites”. Against Jews. Against heretics and schismatics. It may have been a principle of Nazi ethics that:
Not everything with a human face is human
and that:
The Golden Rule applies only to your "racial comrades”
The Nazi Conscience (p.119)
but the notion that the properly human excluded actual humans was an idea that the classical natural law tradition brought into Christian thought right at the beginning.

When, in 1933, Achim Gercke, a Nazi interior ministry official, proclaimed that:
… only one ideal is humane, the promotion of the good and the elimination of what is bad. The will of Nature is God’s will. Just look around … Nature sides with the strong, the good and the fit and separates the chaff from the wheat. We fulfil her commandment. No more. No less.
The Nazi Conscience (p.166)
he was invoking a line of thought that goes back to Philo applying natural law thinking to turn Sodom and Gomorrah into God virtuously exterminating the morally quarantined, the morally “other”, the minority who are same-sex attracted—who, of course, were also victims of the Nazi killing machine.

So, yes, it really matters that classical natural law theorists such as Ed Feser define the properly human in a way that excludes actual humans. That human nature is defined in a singular way. That human ends are defined in a narrow and definitive way. That one adopts a normative, not a descriptive, essentialism. This is not a dry philosophical argument, it is one with huge consequences and implications,

Bigotry is moral
For it is crucial to realise that bigotry is always a moral claim: bigotry is a claim about the boundaries of the moral community. It is a claim about people’s status within the moral community. It never parades itself as bigotry, but as defending moral decency and the moral (and, usually, the social, and often the religious) order.

Jew-haters have always burned with their own sense of moral righteousness: the greater the hatred, the greater the righteousness. But that is true of all forms of bigotry, including queer-hatred.

For that is what is so subversive about the second principle of Christianity. It makes us all members of the moral community. Which is a real burden to priests, who, as “gatekeepers of righteousness”, police the boundaries of the moral community. Christ had quite a bit to say about that. There is something very apposite in the patron saint of preachers being such an avid spout of both queer-hatred and Jew-hatred.

And the same-sex oriented—a small minority of people, who grow up in other-sex oriented families and social milieus—are a very easy target. An excellent target to sell effortless virtue to the large majority who are not interested in sex with their own sex, so are required to give up nothing by the anathematising of same-sex activity. But effortless virtue is another persistent feature of bigotry: indeed, central to its appeal. Bigotry is both a moral claim and a moral indulgence. Hence the contemporary appeal of anti-gay rhetoric for televangelists and other hucksters of faith: the same appeal as anti-Jewish preaching had in previous centuries (and still does in the Islamic world).

The other-sex oriented majority give up nothing in the anathematisation of the same-sex activity. Nothing, except a great violence against fellow feeling; except genuine and full recognition of the humanity of the same-sex attracted: the recognition that the second principle of Christianity so strongly enjoins for all.

It really matters, to define some group as being outside the realm of the properly human. For years Christian (and particularly) Catholic apologists tried to excuse the Church from the horrors of the massacres of Jews on the grounds that Church doctrine said that was murder. After the Shoah and Vatican II, the Church realised that one cannot, century after century, make some group of humans profoundly morally problematic and then walk away from the (predictable and demonstrable) practical consequences of that.

Quite so. That is also a principle that is extendable.

The anathematisation of the same-sex oriented is, in no sense, philosophically compelled. Human nature exists, and it exists as sexually diverse. There is nothing that compels us to take a singular view of human nature, a narrow view of human ends, to define the properly human in a way that excludes actual humans, to slide from instances being closer or further from some category-standard to establishing that human ends trump human agency. Such is done in classical natural law thinking by sliding across different usages of concepts: from one sense of “good” to another, from one sense of “intentionality” to another, from human nature-as-is to human-nature-as-deemed-to-be, from nature-as-capacity to nature-as-compelling; from allowing the conclusion to set its own premises by setting its own boundaries of natural ends, and of the properly human.

Since the implications are so demonstrably noxious, and they are in no sense philosophically compelled, they should be abandoned. We should stop using the first principle of Christianity as a lever to subvert the second. We should stop using exclusory definitions of the human to subvert moral universalism. Ideas have consequences.