Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Natural Law

I took a couple of ethics classes in college, but natural law was only given a cursory review, so I only had a limited understanding of the concept. I’ve always wanted to know more about it, so while doing my walking this week, I decided to listen to a lecture series on natural law taught by Father Joseph Koterski, S.J., a Jesuit priest and associate professor of philosophy at Fordham University.

Natural law starts with the presumption that there is a higher law than the written, legislative laws of a particular state and the customs and mores of a society. Father Koterski gives us three examples to help us understand. The play Antigone by Sophocles (441 BCE) tells the story of a woman who gives her brother a proper burial after the ruler of Thebes decrees that he is not to be honored with a burial. Antigone claims this simply isn’t right, and Creon, the ruler, is being unjust despite the fact that he is the authentic leader and lawgiver of the city. The Nazis were tried for crimes against humanity at Nuremburg because none of the laws of the Allied nations applied since the Nazis operated outside of their jurisdiction, and the Nazis were careful to create a legal framework for their aims inside of Germany. Martin Luther King said segregation violated a higher law.

Natural law theory starts with Aristotle. Aristotle believed that things have a basic nature that exists in nascent form from the very beginning, and this nature is driving toward a particular goal or telos. The essence of an oak tree exists in the acorn, and it is the telos of an acorn to become an oak tree. Beings have an instinctive, intrinsic understanding of this telos, but it takes discipline to achieve this goal smartly and efficiently.

Natural law also draws on the Stoics who believed in living in harmony with nature and stressed balance.

Natural law didn’t take off within Christianity until Thomas Aquinas advocated the idea in the 13th century. Before then, church leaders were skeptical of the ability of humans to figure out right and wrong on their own because of the concept of original sin, especially as espoused by Augustine in the 4th century. Augustine believed that human nature was fundamentally flawed and fallen due to Adam’s original sin. To be moral in the early church was to be obedient to revealed law. Aquinas focused on another part of the Adam and Eve story, the part about how human beings were made in the image of God. He concluded that our powers of reason were unique and God-like, and our reason was restored to a large degree through grace after accepting Jesus through faith. Aquinas didn’t dismiss Augustine’s views, but he wasn’t so pessimistic about the abilities of the faithful.

From there you get Christians insisting that they know the nature of things and their telos by way of their God-like reasoning, and anyone who doesn’t agree is unfaithful, sinful and confused about reality.

It’s assumed that the nature of human beings is to propagate the species by marrying and rising children in stable homes. Any attempt to thwart reproduction is supposedly a violation of this telos. Every embryo is a human in acorn form, and to thwart it or view it in any other way is a violation of its telos. Every human being must be allowed to live out their natural life, and no one can participate in euthanasia with or without the patient’s consent because that’s a violation of our telos, our goal, of our natural law. Men and women are given specific roles to play in the process of continuing our species. It’s all black and white. No grey. To act outside of these roles is to violate natural law. If you disagree, then your God-like reasoning process is messed up do to your obvious faithlessness and sinfulness.

All of this reminded me of the time Rick Santorum insisted that marriage equality is wrong because people of the same sex getting married simply isn’t marriage. He pointed to a glass of water and said it was a glass of water no matter if you insisted it was something else. In his mind, he knew the truth because he had been taught he was looking at the world with God-like reason and those who disagreed with him were messed up in some way.

LGBT people know what it’s like to live outside of the laws and customs of their society. They know what it’s like to rely on and believe in truth that supersedes common beliefs, but that’s because we know what it’s like to be LGBT, and we know from first hand experience that the laws and customs against us are based on false assumptions and assertions.

Many believe in God, but it’s not a forgone conclusion that God is real. And even if you do have faith, I think it’s extremely arrogant to assume your powers of reason are God-like. Humans make stupid mistakes with great regularity, and they often have a hard time figuring out the most basic concepts. Is that really God-like reasoning in play? If so, God help us. And even if something has an intrinsic nature, how arrogant to assume you know that nature so clearly.

I think if you want to understand human nature better, you might pay more attention to biology and psychology. (Well, to be fair, Father Koterski did refer to an expert on psychology to justify his natural law assumptions about sexuality and gender. He spoke of Freud. Never mind that Freud formulated his ideas without the benefit of scholarly research and that his views are now widely thought of as outdated and false.) I think human experience and science indicates sex and gender are not black and white, and sexuality isn’t merely a matter of reproduction. And I don’t think it takes a genus to figure out that if we really are interested in the survival of our species, it’s probably not a good idea to overpopulate the earth.

I don’t pretend to know with absolute assurance what is right and wrong, and I don’t work from a systematic understanding of ethics. I’m flying by the seat of my pants. I am glad to have a better understanding of natural law, but I don’t think much of it or those who use it in an attempt to give legitimacy to their claims about morality.

Pier-Gabriel | Gerontophilia (2013)

Pier-Gabriel Lajoie plays Lake in Gerontophilia. Lake is a young man who finds himself attracted to older men…much, much older men as the title of the film implies. It’s streaming on Netflix, and I finally got around to watching it. It gave me hope. Maybe a sweet cutie pie will one day look at me and think I’m the hottest thing ever, and if I have to wait until I’m 80 before that happens, then I’ll just have to be patient. LOL

Joking aside, I found this film endearing. If they had a bit more money and a stronger script, this could have been the gay version of Harold and Maude. But even as it is, I think it’s pretty good. It’s a joyful story about following your heart no matter what others think.


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