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.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Natural Law's Modern Cousin Germain: Respect for Basic Values

THE SEVENTH REQUIREMENT OF PRACTICAL reasonableness, according to the Finnisian presentation of the natural law in Natural Law and Natural Rights, relates to practical reasonableness's relationship to the basic goods (including itself since practical reasonableness is itself one of the basic human goods). The principle may be cast in negatively or positively:
  • One should not choose to do any act "which of itself does nothing but damage or impede a realization or participation of any one or more of the basic forms of human good."
  • One should always choose to do any act "as a means of promoting or protecting, directly or indirectly, one or more of the basic goods, in one or more of their aspects."
Framed in both negative and positive language, this principle leads us into the realm of moral absolutes and distinguishes any ontological ethic from a teleological ethic,* an ethic based upon being and good versus one based upon consequences and utility. This seventh requirement of practical reasonableness is of great importance: it is, in fact, the basis for moral absolutes and the basis for fundamental human rights. This is "the principle on which alone rests . . . the strict inviolability of human rights." NLNR, 121. This is the principle that stands guard, as it were, over the entire moral enterprise, forbidding that self-interest, feelings, emotions, and impulse, or some sort of ends-justifies-the-means irrationality govern a moral choice in lieu of reason. Dismantle or ignore this requirement and you have brought down the entire moral enterprise into a bundle of unworkable relativism and the eventual tyranny that will flow from it. "There is no human right that will not be overridden if feelings (whether generous and unselfish, or mean and self-centered) [or consequences, real, imagined, or speculative] are allowed to govern choice, or if cost-benefit considerations are taken outside their appropriate technical sphere and allowed to govern one's direct engagement . . . with basic goods."** NLNR, 121-22.

It also brings us to the need to discuss the principle of unintended consequences or the principle of double effect.***

La Brea Tar Pits

The requirements of practical reasonableness demand that no chosen act directly damage or impede a basic human good. Any justification for damaging or impeding a basic human good (other than just irrational whim or urge, which cannot be a reason) can only arguendo be justified by an act's consequences, specifically that the good consequences outweigh the act against the basic human good. This, of course, throws us into the morass of consequentialism, which is as difficult to get out of as the La Brea tar pits were for those unfortunate mastodons that found themselves trapped in its black sticky morass. Consequentialist "reasoning" allows such moral enormities to be excused such as the killing of an innocent human (which attacks the basic value of life) so long as the supposed consequences yield a greater good. There is virtually nothing than cannot be justified using consequences, whether it be concentration camps, the death of fetuses and infants and the aged, and the bombing of civilian populations with the atom bomb and with napalm. Consequentialism naturally results in viewing man as an instrument, a tool, a means instead of an end. "[A] man who thinks that his rational responsibility is to be always doing and pursuing good is satisfied by a commitment to act always for the best consequences is a man who treats every aspect of human personality (and, indeed, therefore, treats himself) as a utensil." NLNR, 121. Moreover, it also places upon humans the unreasonable responsibility for consequences they do not even intend, thereby ushering them into a moral neurosis. As an exclusive determinant of right and wrong, the focus on consequences is wrong. The doctrine that the end justifies the means is unreasonable. Evil may not be done so that good may come. The "naïvely arbitrary limitation of focus to the purported calculus" of consequentialism must be rejected as unreasonable, and indeed ultimately inhumane, and dangerously so. NLNR, 119.

Accordingly, acts may only be chosen that--directly or indirectly--(affirmatively) advance, promote, or participate in, or (negatively) protect the basic human values (life, knowledge, play, aesthetic experience, friendship, religion, practical reasonableness). The problem of choice, however, brings us to the principle of double effect, a principle which is manifestly different from consequentialism:

The basic values, and the practical principles expressing them, are the only guides we have. Each is objectively basis, primary, incommensurable with the others in point of objective importance. If one is to act intelligently at all one must choose to realize and participate in some basic value or values rather than others, and this inevitable concentration of effort will indirectly impoverish, inhibit, or interfere with the realization of those other values. . . . These unsought but unavoidable side-effects accompany every human choice, and their consequences are incalculable. But is is always reasonable to leave some of them, and often reasonable to leave all of them, out of account.

NLNR, 119-20. Examples prove the necessary point. If I elect to become a doctor (so as to save lives), I exclude the opportunity, at least for a time, to become a professor of music history (and so advance aesthetic appreciation). Selecting one human value necessarily impedes the promotion of the other. If I, as a doctor confronting some catastrophe, have to select between patient X and patient Y, and triage suggests that patient X would be better served, operating on patient X necessarily means patient Y will be unattended and likely die while attending patient X.

Triage during WW I

However, this indirect and unintended damage to a basic value is something drastically different from the consequentialist ethic of the ends justifies the means:
[T]o indirectly damage any basic good (by choosing an act that directly and immediately promotes either that basic good in some other aspect or participation, or some other basic good or goods) is obviously quite different, rationally and thus morally, from directly and immediately damaging a basic good in some aspect or participation by choosing an acct which in and of itself simply (or, we should now add, primarily) damages that good in some aspect or participation but which indirectly via the mediation of expected consequences, is to promote either that good in some other aspect or participation, or some other basic good(s).
NLNR, 120. The problem with doing something that directly acts against a basic human good or directly impedes it is that it measures what is unmeasurable. It seeks to weigh the harm caused a basic human good with the promotion of another basic human good. But the basic human goods cannot be adequately weighed one against the other. They are incommensurable.

To chose and act which in itself simply (or primarily) damages a basic good is thereby to engage oneself willy-nilly (but directly) in an act of opposition to an incommensurable value (and aspect of human personality) which one treats as if it were an object of measurable worth that could be outweighed by commensurable objects of greater (or cumulatively greater) worth.

NLNR, 120. True, such end-justifies-the-means decisions against a human value are frequently urged by feelings, perhaps even feelings of generosity, sympathy, or even altruism (though they may be equally supported by less benign sentiments). But morality cannot be predicated on feelings. "We must choose rationally . . . . [and] [r]eason requires that every basic value be at least respected in each and every action." NLNR, 120. (As Finnis observes, often the application of reason helps shift the wrongful clues provided by misguided albeit generally benevolent feelings; reason "can often promote a shift in our perspective and consequently a realignment of initial feelings." So someone who "feels" that euthanasia is merciful will, if he applies reason, realize that this feeling is misguided, and so will understand that his feelings of sympathy at the suffering of one of his fellows should elicit from him the desire to reduce the sufferings through morally legitimate means. The one-time misguided feelings of a Dr. Bernard Nathanson† for example may be guided into appropriate channels and in fact then feel the opposite of what they originally felt.)

*The natural law (in its classical, not necessarily in its Finnisian construct) has, as part of its metaphysical foundations, a concept of nature that is teleological. Nature, in particular the nature of man, has an end toward which it tends. The ontology behind natural law, therefore, is teleological in this manner of speaking. However, the teleological ontology of the natural law should be distinguished from the teleological ethic which measures good and bad not from the teleological ontology (the teleology of human nature), but from the teleology of the human act. A teleological ethic based exclusively upon the consequences of the human act is, as we have seen, unreasonable and, in fact, a cover for evil under the guise of reasonable good. A short summary of the Finnisian critique of consequentialism may be found in the prior post Natural Law's Modern Cousin Germain: Consequences Matter. A more in depth criticism of consequentialism based upon the word of Professor David Oderberg may be accessed under the titles Contra Consequentialismum.
**For the "technical" use of consequences, utility, or efficiency withing the greater requirements of practical reasoning, see Natural Law's Modern Cousin Germain: Consequences Matter.
***The principle of double effect has been extensively treated in the prior posts. See, e.g., The Principle of Double Effect: Introduction, The Principle of Double Effect: The Conditions of Bringing About Evil, and Contra Consequentialismum: Answering Critics of PDE.
Dr. Bernard Nathanson was an advocate of abortion who later changed his perception. His feelings with respect to abortion were markedly affected by realization that an abortion was an assault upon the fundamental human value of life.

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