Angilbert (fl. ca. 840/50), On the Battle Which was Fought at Fontenoy

The Law of Christians is broken,
Blood by the hands of hell profusely shed like rain,
And the throat of Cerberus bellows songs of joy.

Angelbertus, Versus de Bella que fuit acta Fontaneto

Fracta est lex christianorum
Sanguinis proluvio, unde manus inferorum,
gaudet gula Cerberi.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

By Nature Equal: Human Equality and the Natural Law, Coons and Brennan's Chelidonic or Angelic Ethic

THERE IS NO THEORY OF NATURAL LAW that is relativistic. All varietals of the natural law have espoused the claim that there is a moral order that is outside human convention or independent of human will and which obligates every man without exception. Coons and Brennan agree that the natural law theories seem to satisfy a number of the criteria they have set forth as essential for the convention of human equality. In addressing whether natural law theories can support the convention of human equality, Coons and Brennan divide up the various natural law theories into four categories: (1) the "Common Sense" theories (those loosely based upon Aristotle, and espoused by, for example Henry Veatch or Mortimer Adler), (2) the "Classic" theories (choosing the Spanish Jesuit Francisco Suarez's version as an exemplar of this group), (3) the more contemporary "Integration" theories (e.g., the theories of Germain Grisez, John Finnis, and Robert P. George), and (4) the "Authenticity" theories (principally based on the insights of the Canadian Jesuit theologian Bernard Lonergan).

At the outset, they state their conclusion: the "Common Sense" theories and the "Classic" theories do not support the convention of human equality that they espouse. "In short," in their view, "these two traditional versions of natural law are forms of moral gnosticism . . . ." (p. 124). Thus, they appear to accuse the two traditional forms of the natural law as moral heresies.

Since these two theories require more than mere striving, but require both correct moral judgments and corresponding human action in time, it virtually assures inequality among humans, at least in the manner human equality is advanced by Coons and Brennan, impinging therefore on Coons and Brennan's dear theory. They would rather toss out tradition, and perhaps even truth (that we, in this life, both know and act in time), than part with their convention of human equality. Here Coons and Brennan appear to act like Tolkien's Gollum, focusing unreasonably on their "precious" ring of Kantian equality.

Tolkien's Smeagol or Gollum and his "Precious"

Indeed, they admit that they are in the business to "disparage" the "Common Sense" theory of natural law, presumably for the reason that it does not fit well with their thesis or with the convention regarding human equality they promote. (Their bias is already revealed when they describe the "Common Sense" theory as the "stuff of cocktail parties and Senate hearings," and held by the "uneducated," (p. 124, 125) as if only those drunk on wine or drunk on power, or those steeped in ignorance could entertain such a theory.) Human nature, as understood by the "Common Sense" and "Classic" theories, will not support the convention of human equality, they say, no less than Hobbesian individualism. What this suggests, of course, is that the "Common Sense" and "Classic" theories of the natural law are as equally erroneous as Hobbes's theories. (This is vicious: when Kant is more supportive of your theory of human equality than Cicero or Suarez, or any one in between, it may be time to change your theory of human equality. But Coons and Brennan, like Gollum, see only one thing--a convention--as reality.)

The "Common Sense" theory is Aristotelian in the sense that it is teleological in its view of nature. (Another Coon and Brennan slight to the "Common Sense" theory is to brand these theories as reliant upon the biology and physics of Aristotle, something which is untrue, and which serves to taint these theories as "unscientific" or dated. We have addressed the issue of an end or telos in previous postings. See, e.g., Natural Law: Ectasis and Telos.) The "Common Sense" theory relies on the practical reason and is realistic, at least in part, in its epistemology and teleological in its ontology. (See The Four Requirements of a Natural Law Theory.) The "Common Sense"(and "Classic") theories also presuppose that nature has a purpose, and man's practical reason has the capacity to understand that purpose. With respect to his own purposeful nature, man is under a moral obligation to listen to it, and to live in accordance with it. In a way man's nature (his is) determines what he should do (his ought). As Jacques Maritain put it in his Moral Philosophy:
In Aristotle's dynamic conception all essence is the assignment of an end, a telos--which beings endowed with reason pursue freely, not be necessity. Become in your action what you are in your essence--here is the primordial rule of ethics.
Jacques Maritain, Moral Philosophy (London: Bles, 1964), 58 (quoted in Coons and Brennan, 296 n. 17.) In assessing the rule among various competing natures, the "Common Sense" theory also looks at relations. Coons and Brennan quote Vernon Bourke:
Prior to ethical rules expressive of types of right actions are those objective and real relations between persons, between things, and between various interpersonal dealings. These relations are understandable "ratios" (in a wider sense than in arithmetic) which provide an objective basis for reasoning to moral judgments. Some of these practical judgments are general in form, for example, that children should respect their parents, or that parents should take care of their children. In other words, there is a right ration between parent and child, not simply because I think so, but because of a universal relationship.
(p. 126-27) "The order of nature is a vast complexus of such intelligible relations." (Bourke, History of Ethics, 90.) This way of thinking is what is behind John Paul II's famous utterance: "Family, become what you are!" (Familiaris Consortio, No. 17).

Of course, such manner of thinking raises the typical objection against these theories, the Humean or Moorean naturalistic fallacy. "How does knowing what a thing is show what anyone ought to do?" Coons and Brennan query, obviously having ceded to the generally-prevailing Humean skepticism (p. 125-26) among the Western intelligentsia and scientists. (See Universal Ethic-Theoretical Foundations 3-Nature, Man, God and Ectasis and Telos: David Hume and "Feelings, Nothing More Than Feelings . . . ".)

In trying to distill the right action based upon information gleaned from nature and from the complexus of relations within it, man is limited by both his innate abilities and his cultural or educational, and perhaps even genetically informed prejudices. He is also limited by fortune, by the accidental coalition of so many variables which either impede him or facilitate him in his moral life. This implies that men differ, either by talent or by circumstance (or even by God's Grace), in regard to their ability to comprehend the natural moral law. This is bane to Coons and Brennan's conventional human equality. More than that, man is limited by time in the acquisition and incorporation of this law. Become what you are implies becoming which is a process. But Coons and Brennan do not want process, they want instantaneousness. For Coons and Brennan, in the natural order, one does not become good, one must be good (even if one is bad), or there is no human equality.
To be begin, there are no children to be found among the moral heroes of Common Sense and Aristotle. In an ethics formed around finality, perfection is apt to be understood as what is attached "at the end of a long term, after long exercise, at a ripe age when the hair is beginning to turn silver."
(p. 128) (quoting Maritain) "This picture of moral gradualism, of a perfection realizable by survivors, is just what equality forbids." (p. 128)

Barn Swallow by Audubon

Coons and Brennan are aghast at the notion that man must act out his moral choice in time. They view this as tragic, and they disdain tragedy. The Aristotelian commonplace is bothersome to them: "One swallow does not make a summer . . and . . . a short time . . . does not make a man blessed and happy." γὰρ χελιδὼν ἔαρ οὐ ποιεῖ, οὐδὲ μία ἡμέρα: οὕτω δὲ οὐδὲ μακάριον καὶ εὐδαίμονα μία ἡμέρα οὐδ᾽ ὀλίγος χρόνος. (Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1098a16) This reality they cannot entertain. They demand an instantaneous ethic, an eternal ethic, an angelic ethic, a chelidonic or chelidomorphic ethic [swallow-like; from Greek, χελιδὼν, chelidon, meaning a swallow. If Coons and Brennan are going to coin the neologism "obtend," then I will coin the neologism "chelidonic" to describe their ethic]. But this is no human ethic at all, it is one which, paradoxically, is outside time and so not natural to mankind, at least not while in via, on pilgrimage. Yet Coons and Brennan insist:
Equality requires plenary moral power for every rational being, including those who are new at the game. It somehow must swallow even the hard case of the child who dies (or who loses rationality) having experienced only the "faint flicker of choice" and only the promising beginnings of natural excellence.
We must swallow the case of the swallow, so that even a brief life has all the equality to it that a long life does. This is Coons and Brennan's chelidonic natural ethic, a natural ethic that is required for them to maintain their "precious," their convention of human equality. It is an ethic of instantaneousness, of a series of short swallow-like choices, where virtue is an unheard of thing, and likens man's moral choice as that of an angel outside of time.

Thus, Coons and Brennan want to take us out of tragedy and time, into beatitude and eternity, at least beatitude and eternity as they see it. But it seems that in doing so we have already traveled out of the natural into supernatural. We may hope in the God whose quality is always to have mercy, who informs us that the last shall be first, and the first shall be last, who forgave a penitent thief at the threshold of death and promised him paradise, who watches the swallows with every bit as much solicitude as he does the hawk, who assures us that no human life, even the briefest, is wasted if it obtends even implicite to God, though by all appearance it is so. When we do so, when we hope in such a God and such a realm, we no longer walk on the road of reason, we walk on the road of faith. And by then, we are outside the natural law. We have ventured into the land of the Gospel. Indeed, we have gone beyond even that to the point that we are outside of time and in the Eschaton, outside the realm of natural law and into the realm of Eternal Law. There will be a time for that. There will be a time when the natural law will say:
That is I, oh, that is I!
By me what sprung, by me shall die:
Back to God’s stretched hand I fly,
To perch there for eternity.
(See "Laus Legis" and Reflections on Thompson's "Laus Legis")

But the time is not now. Now we walk in a valley of tears, in hac lacrimarum valle, where under God's Providence we suffer unequal burdens. And in their zeal, Coons and Brennan have forgotten that. Their equality has become prescriptive or normative, no longer descriptive, without them even knowing it.

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