Posts Tagged ‘Aristotle’

Natural Law in an Age of Nihilism (pt. 2)

June 11, 2019

What Pompeo seems to be saying, therefore, is that the Republican government wants to redefine this notion of “human rights” in terms of a particular definition of “human nature.” Is this necessarily “misogynistic” or “homophobic”? I will mention the sophistic argument that if it is based on “human nature” and “natural law” then of course it can’t be, since by definition it can’t be an “irrational” hatred of women or fear of gay people if it is “natural.” This is circular and unlikely to quell any concerns by people who are not already convinced that the particular “nature” on which this “natural law” is based is the true one. The real question, after all, is whether this proposed alteration is likely to be harmful to the interests and desires of women, gays or anyone else. Aristotle’s philosophy stated that all non-Greeks (whether Asiatics, less civilized Europeans or whatever) were inherently “irrational” and thus natural slaves, most fulfilled living lives in slavery to the wiser Greeks. Likewise, he believed women were inherently less intelligent and less rational than men, and would only be truly happy living in households controlled by Greek men. In essence, he looked at his own Athenian culture and judged all others in comparison to it; those that gave greater rights to women or to non-Greeks were said by him to be disordered in some way, and those that were a completely different culture he deemed “barbarian,” a term that literally meant “non-Greek speakers,” fit only for domination. Clearly, a society based on that sort of “natural law” would be bad for women, since women would only fulfill their “nature” by running the household for men who were active in the political and economic life of the society, having and raising children, and managing their slaves. Whether it would be bad for gays is another question; the Greeks accepted and expected male-male sexuality, particularly between older men and teenage boys. But in the Catholic understanding, the fact that there are two genders suggests that sexuality is intended for reproduction, and any expression of sexuality that cannot possibly lead to pregnancy is unnatural and disordered: not only abortion, but homosexuality, contraception, and masturbation.

But the Thomistic view of natural law is not the only possible one. Utilitarians in the 19th Century had a very different view of human nature, one that emphasized pleasure as the motivation for all actions, and thus defined a “good” act as one that brought the most pleasure possible to the most people possible, or aimed to reduce suffering to the least amount to the fewest people possible. Based on this understanding of human nature, and of nature in general, they were politically active supporting laws against animal cruelty (since animals too can suffer), in support of workers and poor people (such as opposing debtors’ prisons), supporting the rights of women, and so on. Kantians by contrast argue that “human nature” is to be guided by pure practical reason, apart from concerns about sensation; therefore, what is moral is what is done out of a sense of duty towards the universal moral law. A prominent example of this sort of moral law reasoning is the philosopher Robert George, who in an interview argued against Peter Singer’s extreme utilitarianism by asserting that we must base our legal understanding of human rights on the principle of always treating others as ends in themselves, never as means towards another end (Kant’s second version of his Categorical Imperative). By this understanding, any law that seems to treat another person as less than infinity valuable would be immoral and unnatural, even if the person wished to be so treated. For example, from a Kantian perspective voluntary suicide to escape a painful terminal illness would be wrong since it would be treating the other in terms of sensation rather than as a rational being whose every moment of existence is valuable regardless of whether it is pleasant. So taking the legal definition of “natural law theory,” we can wind up at radically different legislation based on different moral theories. A full commitment to natural law as both a philosophical and legal principle would most likely argue that moral people reasoning together will be able to discern the moral principles inherent in human nature and base legislation on those principles. Whether this idea should cause alarm to any group would depend entirely on how they expect this administration, and the panel it has created, to define “human nature.”

To be continued…

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Natural Law in an Age of Nihilism (pt. 1)

June 11, 2019

“You’re saying it’s a falsehood. And they’re giving — Sean Spicer, our press secretary, gave alternative facts to that.”

—–Kellyanne Conway

 

 

 

Secretary of State Pompeo of the Trump administration recently announced its intention to offer “fresh thinking” on the nation’s commitment to human rights by launching a new panel to investigate how to base our conception of human rights on “natural law.”[i] This has raised concerns with many in the LGBTQ community in particular, who have interpreted it as a weakening of the commitment of the United States to gay and lesbian rights (and possibly others). Are these concerns justified? Just what does these terms mean, anyway? Is this, as its proponents contend, a desirable effort to put the concept of “human rights” on a solid foundation? In this paper, I shall attempt to explore the public claims on behalf of this attempt to redefine our national policy in terms of natural law, “natural law” has historically meant and what it more generally means, and what a claim to commitment to natural law means in an era of alternative facts.

For any non-philosophers who may stumble across this, let’s start with the basics: what is “natural law”? In philosophy, it refers to the idea that morality should be deduced from facts of nature, and specifically human nature. In its most common form, Catholic moral teaching, it has its roots in Aristotle’s ethical thought. Aristotle argued that a human is a rational social animal. That is, the human soul, or Form, or essence has a vegetative part, which is to say it is alive like any plant or animal. Humans are also sensitive, like any other animal; they feel and sense their surroundings, and react to it to gain food or whatever else they desire, and to escape what is harmful. They are social; a single human cannot gain everything he or she wants alone, but needs to live in a community with others. And what makes humans unique is that they are rational; they can guide their actions by reason, and can enjoy simply thinking and understanding philosophy, history, science and other general areas of knowledge. Therefore, a fulfilled human life is one that includes not only the essential bodily needs and some comforts, but also includes a life guided by reason and in community with other likewise rational people. As St. Thomas Aquinas took over Aristotle’s philosophy and sought to reconcile it with Christian theology, he argued that this understanding of human nature revealed a natural law, alongside the divine law revealed by God through Moses and the other prophets, and finally through Jesus. While revealed law is of course only knowable to those to whom it has been revealed, natural law is understood through immanent knowledge, through understanding nature, which is something any rational and observant person can do. Part of the point of distinguishing “natural law” from “divine law” is to say that natural law is accessible to, and thus also binding on all human beings.

Legally, the idea of “natural law” is that legal regulations should not be based on some more or less arbitrary social convention or social contract, but on philosophically and (at least generally understood as) universally knowable moral principles. Laws should not discourage actions that are morally fulfilling for humans to pursue, and should discourage those that are unnatural or harmful in some way. If we want to say, for example, that people should be punished for driving faster than 45 miles on this particular road, it is not enough that a majority of people think it’s a good idea; we need to show that driving faster than that is somehow good for people (such as preserving life) and that it does not unduly restrict their natural freedom (as banning all cars might, since people have a right to own and use property within reason, including cars). Thus this sort of thinking is radically opposed to Hobbesian social contract thought, which says that all laws are ultimately “good” simply because the government says they are good and the rest of society obeys them because living according to the social contract is better than living as an outlaw or solitary exile.

To be continued…

[i] Nahal Toosi, “State Department to Launch New Human Rights Panel Stressing ‘Natural Law;” Politico 5/30/2019 (https://www.politico.com/story/2019/05/30/human-rights-state-department-1348014)

Article on Humility

March 15, 2019

Article on Humility

 

St. Augustine said that pride was the first sin; in his book Whose Justice?  Which Rationality? Alasdair MacIntyre identifies this identification of pride as the deadly sin and humility as the cardinal virtue as distinguishing characteristics of the Augustinian moral tradition.

Much later, Kierkegaard made humility a central concept in his epistemology and ethics also.

Later still, Diogenes Allen identified humility as the cardinal virtue, and again linked its epistemic and ethical aspects.

Sadly, we don’t live in an era where humility is treated with respect.  Instead, as Harry Frankfurt points out, we live in an era of bullshit, where arrogance is admired and the greatest, most respected leaders and pundits are the ones who neither lie nor speak truth, but who simply make noise, without regard or often even knowledge of whether what they say is true or false, simply to get noticed and have influence:  the very apotheosis of arrogance.

In his article, “Vices of the Mind,” Quassim Cassam offers his reaction to the book Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq.  In this work author Thomas E. Ricks discusses the planning (and lack thereof) of the invasion of Iraq by the George W. Bush administration.  Repeatedly the political leaders were advised by career military officers with experience and expertise that hundreds of thousands of troops would be necessary to establish order once the Ba’athist regime was overthrown; but not only was this advice ignored, the generals who dared speak truth to power were belittled and undermined by Rumsfeld and Wolfowiz in particular. Having had successful political careers, they were self-assured to the point of arrogance; and lacking the relevant military knowledge, they were incapable of raising any questions themselves.  Ricks concludes that Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and Wolfowiz were “‘arrogant’, ‘impervious to evidence’, and ‘unable to deal with mistakes’.”

For Cassam, what this points to is the dangerousness of intellectual vices.  These four men in particular combined power with pride. Their career success proved to them that they knew more than the experts, and didn’t need to listen to anyone else.  They were simply so smart in their own eyes that they didn’t feel any need to check their own assumptions.  When the generals who were experts proved right, their political bosses couldn’t process the clear evidence and change course quickly enough.  The vices of these individuals led to the unnecessary deaths of hundreds of thousands of people and the misery of millions, creating two failed nation-states and a terrorist caliphate that makes us long for the days when Ba’athism and al Qaeda were the worst we had to worry about.

This article is a powerful example of why philosophy matters.  The supposedly dusty and obscure writings of Aristotle on vice and epistemology, and the esoteric research of psychologists like Dunning and Kruger, explain one of the greatest foreign policy blunders of our nation and the one that took the promising end of the 20th Century and turned it into the clusterfuck of Republican administrations in the 21st:  an international economic collapse we are still recovering from, increasing environmental disasters that continue to surprise everyone except those who paid attention to “An Inconvenient Truth,” humanitarian nightmares in Yemen, Syria, Myanmar and elsewhere, international terrorism by white nationalists, all while the government of the most powerful nation on the planet fixates on whether late-night comedy and Twitter parody sites should be censored.  The common thread is that in all these cases, expertise and ethics are rejected, while unfounded confidence and will-to-power are allowed to run unchecked, causing chaos and decay while demanding veneration.  Intellectual humility is treated as uncertainty and weakness, because we have long since ceased teaching our children and future leaders to recognize virtue and vice.  We need to learn to embrace the intellectual virtues that will allow us collectively to recognize and value truth, for without it we cannot hope to find successful solutions to the many dangers we face.

Notes on “Modern Liberalism and Pride: An Augustinian Perspective.”

January 24, 2016

Krom, Michael P. “Modern Liberalism and Pride: An Augustinian Perspective.Journal of Religious Ethics, 35.3:458-77.

 

This essay examines the argument by Paul Weithman in “Toward an Augustinian Liberalism” that modern liberal political theory, with its beginnings in Thomas Hobbes, should see itself as a development of Augustinian political thought. For Hobbes, pride is the source of social chaos, in that individuals compete for superiority and domination. The only peace is found when every citizen admits that he is equal to every other, and that all owe obedience to the sovereign/State that protects them all and enforces peace. Augustine, too, regards pride as the original sin, and humility is the cardinal virtue; therefore, we should be able to construct an Augustinian liberalism that can balance the need for humility with the need for legitimate exercise of control by society. Krom analyzes Aristotle’s “magnanimous man” as the epitome of virtue in contrast to Augustine’s notion of humility. The magnanimous one has justified pride, being neither vain nor self-effacing; he knows he is morally superior and superior in other ways, and in fact only acts in ways that will support and increase the honor he is due. Likewise, he is ashamed to accept favors or ask for help, since his superiority implies independence and the ability to sustain himself. However, Aristotle also acknowledges that the magnanimous person, if he is to be truly happy, most have some degree of good fortune; in fact, there are many things that he cannot control. This is part of why he shuns accepting help: to do so is to admit that he cannot control all, and is in fact weak in some way.

Augustine says that this pride, which Aristotle calls a virtue, is in fact a vice. The “magnanimous” person is not in fact independent; he is a creature of God as is every other person and thing, with whatever gifts and needs that God has given. By seeking to be independent, the pagan rebels against God and is also self-deceived.

The Hobbesian understanding of “pride” is the tendency of each individual to strive for superiority against every other. Augustine sees this not as the original pride, but as an outgrowth; first the creature declares independence from the Creator, and then begins to assert control over the rest of humanity. Thus, the pride that liberalism is concerned about is not the same sort of pride as that which most bothers Augustine. We can see this further when we look at Aquinas’ attempts to rehabilitate magnanimity and reintroduce it into Augustinian ethics. St. Thomas does this by insisting that the properly magnanimous person recognizes that his (or her) gifts all come from God, and thus is proud of those gifts only as a way to give glory to the giver. To hide his or her gifts would be to hide God’s gracious power, and thus to deny neighbors the opportunity to appreciate those gifts and praise God. The magnanimous person thus can take proper pride in the gifts, but must also be humble enough not to take credit as the author of his or her own virtue.

This would again oppose the liberalism that flows from Hobbes, and sees all claims to superiority as dangerous. To liberalism, each person can claim no superiority at all, whether from God or his or her own nature; each is perfectly equal. The magnanimous person is claiming a superiority, and even at least implicitly asserting that the rest of us should honor his or her virtue; in the Hobbesian scheme this threatens the peace since social peace is based on the notion that all must bow equally to the will of the Sovereign. Krom concludes by arguing that while this shows that liberalism is not especially consistent with Augustinianism, the Augustinian tradition can coexist with any political structure that will accept the independence of the City of God. This is in contrast to Augustinians such as Reinhold Niebuhr   and Paul Ramsey, who argue that democratic liberalism is the best or perhaps only political structure that takes account of human sin and thus the only one that admits the Augustinian demand for humility.

MY PROJECT: I am looking at pride and humility in Kierkegaard and Augustine, to help explore Kierkegaard’s relationship to the Augustinian tradition, to see what this reveals or clarifies in Kierkegaard’s thought, and whether this offers any resources for us today.

Kierkegaard’s discussion of envy as a social force could relate to this analysis of pride in liberalism. The “age of reflection” denies all distinction except sheer numbers (Two Ages). What Krom presents as simply a description or fact of liberalism, Kierkegaard presents as a sickness; what Krom presents as a striving for equality, Kierkegaard calls “envy.” Although Kierkegaard was not a student of Aquinas, he did know his Aristotle; and while I am not aware of precise words to this effect, it is clear that he would have been drawn to this description of the “magnanimous” one who combines a realistic appraisal of his (or her) own gifts with the humility before God who is the giver of all, and also the one who judges all as equally sinful and equally loved. He repeatedly says, for example, that the simple man and the simple wise man get equally far, but the simple man knows, and the simple wise man knows that he knows or knows that he does not know (I think this is from the Postscript; these are notes so I’m working from memory). But in the Present Age, the simple wise man who admitted to being wise, even if he allowed that his wisdom did not amount to anything essential, would be set upon by the forces of envy. By contrast, a thousand arrogant fools would represent authority from numbers, while the one humble wise man is despised because he is not in the majority and therefore is wrong (and if he is distinguishing himself by admitting his is wise, he is seen as attacking the herd and set upon).   For this reason, the magnanimous person cannot openly admit or display his gifts; he must behave as the “secret agent” and teach only indirectly.

My primary interest, however, is not political, but epistemic, psychological and soteriological. How does pride distort our perception of reality? How does this lead to anxiety and the bondage of the will? How does faith restore us to something resembling our original state, so that we can again approach reality in humility and freedom?

Krom cites Hobbes as saying that it is pride that leads us to each strive to control others. Kierkegaard, in his upbuilding discourse discussing Adam, describes how before eating the fruit of knowledge Adam perceived God immediately—God was not separate or hidden, but completely present and immanent all around. In disobeying, Adam establishes himself as separate, and begins to understand how dangerous and unpredictable the world can be; so Adam seeks to control the world. Thus for Hobbes, we might say, pride leads to a desire to control others; but for Kierkegaard, pride goes further, and is the reason for the desire to control the world, including others. For Hobbes, the danger of this is that all the other people are trying to control each other, so you too could be killed or enslaved. For Kierkegaard, the danger is more immediate; you can’t control, and the more you try the more you realize the impossibility and thus the more anxiety. In the end, this attempt to assert freedom before God becomes completely unfree, as everything one does is dictated by one’s anxiety, and everything becomes self-defense. Kierkegaard further develops this notion pseudonymously in Concept of Anxiety, published the day after this discourse. There, the fear of the world becomes anxiety about possibility in general, since every possibility is the possibility to go wrong; and the more the individual tries to fight his or her way out of anxiety, the deeper he or she becomes ensnared. The only way out is outlined pseudonymously in the Fragments.