Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Natural Law in Aquinas (ST I-II); Part 1

I have promised something here in defense of natural law, in hope that it can be used as a basis for arguing in favor of, say, blessing same sex unions. Since natural law theory has been used in the past--indeed, seems typically to have been used in the past--to defend conservative moral positions in the Christian community, one might well wonder whether my hope is simply misplaced. What can I say? The proof is in the pudding; if I can produce a defensible version of natural law theory that does the work I hope it can do while resisting the use conservatives might wish to make of it, I think my work will be done.

We might approach the topic of natural law in Aquinas with what he calls the eternal law; taking a Christian starting point for granted, there is nothing to obstruct starting with God. The eternal law is “the plan of governance of the world existing in God as the ruler of the universe” (Q91 a1 resp)—basically the decree from eternity that God has ordained in his providential care for his creation. Given God’s providence, his reason will rule over creation, but a law just is “a dictate of practical reason by a ruler who governs a perfect community.” (ibid) Thus, there exists, Aquinas claims, a law governing creation—an eternal law, as God’s plan is conceived timelessly, from eternity.

A neat little argument, but coming “from above” it might seem just a bit too neat, even a bit presumptuous. Supposing God creates, who am I—who are you—to say that God must have a law, decreed from eternity, that constitutes his providential design? Can we be sure there is no other way? I think Aquinas would say that given God’s activity as creator, God will have some intention about what to create, and that this intention—what God intends to create—will constitute the decree of eternal law.

One could still resist the argument, of course, by rejecting Aquinas’ perfect being theology: denying, in effect, that God is an eternal creator. Indeed, I suspect such a rejection would gather much favor among contemporary Christians across the political spectrum. One intent on defending natural law theory may find it necessary, as a practical matter, to find some other starting point while eliminating, if at all possible, controversial talk of an eternal law.

I will save the development of such a defense for another occasion; for now, I am more interested in the uneasiness one might have with Aquinas’ argument from worries about evil. Given the manifold atrocities, say, of just the last century, of Hiroshima, of the Holocaust, of numerous other genocides, of the advent of totalitarian regimes and the rise of the threat of Mutually Assured Destruction, one might ask whether there is any evidence supporting divine providence, supporting the existence of an eternal law. Aquinas’ approach here, proceeding from above, might be seen as intensifying doubt about the reality of the eternal law; he seems to miss the problem. But consider what Aquinas says:

…the end of God’s governance is God himself, and his law is indistinguishable from himself. And so the eternal law is not ordained to another end. (Q91 a1 ad3)

Part of what this means, I think, is that the eternal law is not decreed to attain some other end, like maximal moral goodness, or maximal aesthetic beauty, or, say, maximal justice. There is no standard independent of God, like the Platonic Form of the Good, against which his decree is measured. That is, creation as a whole has no moral quality on account of its meeting a standard independent of God, because, I think Aquinas would say, there is no such standard. More: its having such a quality is not possible, since such an independent standard is not possible. Thus, it is not as if a world like ours brimming with atrocity lacks some moral quality that it should have had, or even could have had. Logically speaking, creation—and even God’s providential care—is consistent with a great deal of evil in the world.

Granted, there is not much comfort in such a logical nicety; one may well wonder why God’s providential design tolerates, and even in some sense calls for, the contingent acts of atrocious evil which in fact obtain—quite apart from any question about the moral quality of creation as a whole. In my opinion, the worry over evil is a pressing one, and until something can be said to shed light on it, my treatment of eternal law may well have the feel of fiction to it.