Friday, February 10, 2012

All-Natural Goodness: Are there Natural Laws of Morality?

As anyone who reads this blog will have noticed, I've been obsessed lately with philosophical ideas about ethics.  In particular, I've been fascinated by this question: Why should we be ethical?  In other words, where do ethics come from?  What is it about the world we live in that dictates that we should do some things, and should not do others?  Before you cross to the other side of the street next time you see me, let me clarify what I mean. I certainly think we should be ethical.  I haven't suddenly decided there's no reason not knock over the next bank I see.  It's just that I've discovered that if you start thinking about the foundations of ethics, you run into some fascinating conundrums.

In my last post, I talked about problems with the assumption that what is ethical is simply whatever God commands.  What if God commanded you to take a rifle and shoot everyone over six feet tall?  Would that be good, because God said so?  If you say "No, God would never command that, because that is bad", then you have admitted that there must be a standard of good and bad independent of God.  This doesn't mean you can't still believe in God, and believe in God's commands, but it does mean you have to accept that, if what God commands is what is good, it must be good for some reason other than "Because I said so". 


If moral principles like goodness and justice don't come from God's will, where do they come from?  One of the most common answers is that they're an intrinsic part of nature or reality.  Socrates and Plato both believed that they were objective realities...higher realities, in fact, than the world we live in.  Plato developed the idea further than Socrates, arguing that when we recognize an instance of goodness, we are sensing a general, universal "Good"; an eternal form, of which particular instances are pale reflections.  The idea of such Platonic forms is an interesting one.  Personally, I think it's more plausible that these "forms" are creations of our minds, which can take several particular instances of a category, and then construct an image of a "perfect" or "general" version of that category.  If a child who has never seen an equilateral triangle sees many triangles with unequal sides, it's quite possible that she could imagine a "perfect" equilateral triangle.  

Perhaps the idea of Good and Justice are the same kinds of mental constructions.  But maybe they really are "out there" somewhere.  Some modern mathematicians actually are Platonists, who believe that when they find new mathematical proofs, they're actually discovering something that already had an independent reality.  Maybe they're right--maybe logic and number are intrinsic, fundamental features of the universe.  But it seems to me that it's far less parsimonious to suggest that Justice is an intrinsic feature of the universe.  I can imagine that laws of geometry or logic might be real and independent of our minds, but something as complex and apparently subjective as "Good" seems like a less likely candidate.  It requires more extensive assumptions about the nature of reality.

Both Plato and Socrates seemed to think that reason is what allows us to understand the eternal forms of Good and Justice.  They also thought that if we understand goodness and justice, we will automatically be good and just.  If that seems far fetched to you, join the club.  There's a pretty big gulf between knowing what's right and actually doing it.  I'm sitting here wearing a t-shirt that may very well have been made in some awful sweatshop.  I know I should have sprung for a more expensive "fair trade" t-shirt.  But I didn't.  Not from lack of knowledge, but from a not-especially-admirable lack of will.


Aristotle was a more down-to-earth thinker than his predecessors, and didn't believe in Platonic forms, or that simply knowing what is good will insure that someone actually is good.  Aristotle believed that all living things have a telos; a natural state or purpose to which they aspire.  "The Good" for Aristotle is for something to realize its purpose to the highest degree possible.  If an anteater is a creature whose essence is to eat ants, then what is good for an anteater is to excel at its ant-eating lifestyle.  Aristotle saw reason as the distinguishing feature of human beings (maybe he was a little starry-eyed), and he argued that what is good or virtuous for humans is to excel at reasoning.  However, he argued that people have use their reason to decide what habits are good, and then work at cultivating those habits.  In other words, he was an advocate of virtue ethics, the stance that ethics consists in cultivating virtues, or habits of goodness.  What's important for us, however, is that Aristotle didn't see "The Good" as a universal Platonic form.  He believed what was good for any particular thing depended on what sort of thing it was, and what its ultimate purpose was. 


After Aristotle, the idea that there are laws of morality in nature (or human nature) that transcend laws of particular governments, and can be discovered by reason, came to be known as "natural law".  I've been reading about natural law off and on all week, and it's a complicated subject, because there have been many versions of natural law thinking.  Here's my understanding (take it with a grain of salt).  Aristotle is often said to be the founder of natural law theory, though it seems to me that Plato and Socrates were advocates of "higher laws", and could also be said to believe in natural law.  In any case, various forms of natural law theory have been promoted by a long line of thinkers.  The Roman Stoics believed in cosmic lawfulness, and were among the first to maintain that humans were created equal (an idea that would have seemed laughable to the Greek philosophers).  The Roman statesman Cicero promoted the idea that unjust laws are out of tune with higher, natural law, and thus shouldn't be accepted as laws at all.  

St. Paul seems to have believed that all people, even non-Christians, have a sense of universal law.  St. Augustine also believed in natural law, but he believed that the world had fallen from its state of perfect natural law after the fall of Adam and Eve.  For Augustine, humankind, and the world we live in, are now characterized more by sin and evil than by goodness and justice.  St. Thomas Aquinas was much less pessimistic about human nature, and about nature itself.  In his Aquinas' day, Aristotle's writings had recently been rediscovered in Europe.  Amazed by Aristotle's insights, Aquinas tried to harmonize the old heathen's philosophy with Christianity.  Aquinas saw natural law as a subset of God's eternal law.  He believed that the highest good was to know God, but he also believed, like Aristotle, that everything in nature has a purpose, and that whatever furthers that purpose is good.  He believed that certain virtues could be discovered by reasoning about natural law, while others could only be known through faith.  Like many others before and after him, Aquinas equated what he saw as natural for humans with what is moral.  For example, he condemned homosexuality on the grounds that the natural purpose of sex and marriage is procreation.  Since homosexuals could not procreate, their behavior was seen as unnatural, and therefore, wrong.  More on this line of thinking later.


After the Renaissance, when people became more individualistic and less focused on religion, natural law theories took on a different tone, which focused more on the natural rights of individuals.  Hobbes, who famously believed that human life in the state of nature was "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short", nevertheless believed in natural law.  For Hobbes, however, natural law was a very different thing than for Aristotle or Aquinas. Hobbes thought natural law corresponded to the laws rational people would naturally come to accept as the right way to live, in order to transcend the state of nature (the time when people were irrational and unconstrained in their violence).  To this end, he was the first to suggest the idea of a social contract which people could enter into to insure their basic rights and safety.  Hobbes thought that rational people would see the necessity for a sovereign, or king, who could enforce the laws that keep people from being too nasty to each other.  Hobbes was rejecting the traditional idea of the divine right of kings (a revolutionary idea, whether he meant it to be or not) and suggesting that a king's power is justified by the need for a social contract, and a sovereign strong enough to maintain order.  

Hugo Grotius, a Dutch contemporary of Hobbes, made influential arguments based on natural law regarding just war theory and the law of the seas.  Although he was a very religious man, Grotius argued that natural law would exist even if "we should assume the impossible, that there is no God or that he does not care for human affairs".  This was also quite radical, of course, because it claimed that God wasn't essential to natural and moral law.  John Locke took Hobbes' idea of a social contract, and turned it around, claiming that a king or government's power is only legitimate if it protects the rights of its citizens to "life, liberty, and property".  If it fails, the people have a right to revolt and create a new government. 

Of course, colonial Americans did just that.  In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson summed up the natural law philosophy of his day, closely echoing Locke.  Because this is one of the most influential documents in history, it's worth quoting at length:
When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
Here we see, in the founding document of what is now the world's most powerful country, all the threads of the natural law theory of the time.  These ideas, as far as I'm concerned, represented a huge leap forward in justice and liberty.  Even though some groups, such as women and slaves, were not immediately credited with that equality, or extended those rights, they have gained them over time, partly because of the power of the ideas of natural rights and natural law.  It was a tremendous accomplishment.


The Declaration of Independence was written well over 200 years ago, so it's no surprise that science and philosophy have moved beyond the ideas it expresses.  As brilliant as Jefferson and some of the other founders of the United States were, they were people of their time.  They would have had no reason to question the Aristotelian idea that there is a natural purpose to everything in nature.  They also had no reason to question the idea that human reason is a sure route to transcendent truth, and that there is such a thing as a "self-evident" idea.  Many, following Locke, would have believed that the human mind is a "blank slate".  Almost all of them believed in a God that had created the natural order of things, though some, like Jefferson, were Deists who believed God set the universe in motion and then mostly left it alone.  

In the century after the Declaration, other ideas came along that challenged some of its assumptions.  Jeremy Bentham, the founder of Utilitarianism, suggested that the ethics of an action should be judged based on its consequences--specifically, whether or not it increases the amount of happiness in the world--instead of whether it is dictated by natural law.  Bentham was scornful of the idea of natural rights, calling it "nonsense on stilts".

Even more importantly, Darwin realized that the amazing diversity of life had nothing to do with an intrinsic order in which every living thing had its purpose and its role to play.  He saw that nature is not eternal and unchanging, and that living things, including humans, could have evolved through the blind process of evolution by natural selection.  In Darwin's view of nature, species do not exist to serve some Aristotelian purpose.  A species exists because it evolved to fit into its ecological niche.  While a species may come to play a role in nature, because it inter-adapts with other species that may come to rely on it, this is accidental.  Even if cows can't live without grass, grass didn't evolve to feed cows.

In the 1800's, then, it came to seem less likely that natural order was due to a divine architect who had written natural law and natural rights into the blueprints, to be discovered by the pure power of human reason.  Humans could now be seen as another on of the animals, albeit a very brainy one.  The human mind could be seen as a product of the blind process of evolution.  This means there is no guarantee that reason is a window into eternal truth, or even that we are especially reasonable creatures.  Smart, yes, but not necessarily wired to recognize eternal truths.  Besides, science--which was based on observation instead of pure reason--was chalking up one triumph after another.  This started to make traditional philosophy look plodding and outmoded. 

And then there were people like Jeremy Bentham, who raised a very good question: does it really make sense to say that morality is based on some transcendental natural law?  Aristotle and Aquinas' view of the natural purpose of humans and other animals--one major source of natural law thinking--had been dealt a serious blow.  Some were even questioning whether God was necessary at all.  If humans and other creatures were not put on Earth for a certain purpose, what sense did it make to talk about ethical laws having a reality unto themselves?  Are moral laws somehow written across the sky?  Or should we just follow Bentham, and say that ethics are simply a way of maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain? 


Here's how I see it, for what it's worth.  The modern scientific view suggests that the universe, and life on earth, has evolved in ways that can be explained entirely in terms of blind physical laws. While I'm not going to take the leap of faith required to state flatly that there is no God, or that there is no conceivable purpose to the universe, it seems to me quite plausible that there is no intrinsic purpose.  I've read about science and nature for years, and never seen something that seems like a clear-cut purpose to me.  If nature wasn't created with a purpose in mind, and to the extent that its order can be explained by physical laws instead of divine design, it doesn't make sense to assume that there are natural laws of morality written into the universe.  Goodness, truth, and justice are great things, but not because they are fundamental to nature in the way that light and matter are.

The only version of natural law that makes sense to me is similar to that of Hobbes, who saw natural law as reflecting the conclusions rational people will naturally come to when deciding how to organize their that it's tolerable to live in it.  This view doesn't see natural law as something fundamental in nature, but as something that arises out of nature, when people with the ability to reason come along.  Some people would say this doesn't seem much like a natural law.  Maybe not, but it doesn't really concern me whether or not ethical laws are fundamental to reality.  If ethical laws are something we invent because it makes sense to do so, well, good for us. Or, perhaps what is really a fundamental natural law is not the presence of positive natural law, but the absence of something:  the absence of any good reason to think my interests are any more valuable than yours are, and that I shouldn't treat you ethically.  

Actually, I think science and nature, as well as pure reason, can tell us a lot about ethics, even if there really isn't a natural law of morality.  We are a part of nature, and if we don't understand it, we're likely to make mistakes with ethical consequences.  Also, our ethical sense is based on emotional impulses, such as empathy, fairness, guilt, and even disgust, that are a product of our evolution as social animals.  So, we need to understand the intersection between nature and ethics.  However, we have to be very careful when looking to nature to decide what is right and good.  There is a lot of good in nature, but not everything in nature is necessarily good.  Skeptical?  Stay tuned...