Against 20th-Century Prejudices
Toward a Reformulation of Natural Law
By Anthony Battaglia
Review Author: David J. Schlafer
That moral judgments could be objectively grounded seemed obvious to Thomas Aquinas; that they cannot be so grounded often seems just as obvious from a vantage point seven centuries subsequent to his. His theological and philosophical commitments gave St. Thomas reason for confidence, both in the moral order of the universe, and in the ability of human reason to glimpse its outline. But his orientation appears worlds removed from a culture that knows too much to think it could ever know that much (if, indeed, there is anything to be “known” about morality at all).
Thus, the natural law tradition, viable for Thomas, does not strike most contemporary ethical theorists as an acceptable framework for understanding moral judgments. Supposedly, it is not sufficiently sensitive to empirical data; it is intolerant of inevitable cultural diversity and historical change (setting up the folkways of its proponents as transcultural universals); it makes metaphysical assumptions which are unacceptable to the “modern mind” — in a word, it is an anachronism of absolutism in an age of moral relativity.
Anthony Battaglia suggests that the apparent gulf between St. Thomas’s world and that of contemporary secularism is not altogether impassable. He argues that Thomas is far more sensitive to cultural diversity, moral complexity, and the limitations inherent in human knowing than he is usually interpreted as being. Thomas’s natural law account has frequently been associated with certain medieval provincialisms. These, Battaglia believes, can be purged without essential damage to the theory itself — which, in turn, can plausibly be expressed in contemporary conceptual terminology. Data from the social sciences can then be seen as supportive of the natural law thesis, rather than as irrelevant to or in conflict with it. Thus reformulated, the theory, in addition to providing a coherent and illuminating account of moral judgment, might well exercise an inhibiting influence against the unwitting replacement of 13th-century prejudices with 20th-century ones.
Commentators have tended to interpret Aquinas’s treatment of natural law in the context of his Commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard, an early work rather overconfident of the ability of human reason to discern right action. The thrust of de Veritate and of the Summa Theologiae, however, is much more humble and realistic, according to Battaglia. With respect to both truth and happiness, human beings apprehend only indirectly, partially, and by analogy. God is the source of both; we are but perceivers who grasp neither them nor Him definitively.
Battaglia thus sees Aquinas’s view as strikingly similar to Thomas Kuhn’s treatment of scientific principles in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. These are discerned in the context of an overarching scientific paradigm, a comprehensive image of what is the case. Such paradigms are subject to shift under the mounting pressure of disharmonious data that emerge and accumulate through developing human experience. This view of knowledge, both moral and scientific, renders any particular principle always subject to reformulation. Yet such changes presuppose, rather than deny or undermine, commitment to an objective order whose being and structure we experience, though “through a glass darkly.”
Battaglia argues persuasively that the Thomistic notion of knowledge as essentially analogical for human beings is completely compatible with the notion, current in linguistic philosophy, that all languages are, in principle, reformulable. It was precisely Thomas’s reticence to say that we know God, the world, or ourselves “as they really are” which gave him the freedom and impetus to reformulate theology for his age along an Aristotelian, rather than an Augustinian, approximation.
Battaglia notes how social scientists are given to appealing from observations about human behavior to value-laden statements concerning the seemingly inevitable nature of “the human condition.” The pattern of their arguments, he says, is highly reminiscent of moves made in the classical arguments for the existence of God. Neither medievals nor moderns can certify their metaphysical claims to be utterly indubitable, but neither argument must thereby necessarily be found wanting.
It is possible, Battaglia suggests, to start with Ernest Becker’s assertion that persons are motivated fundamentally by the need for self-esteem; but then to urge further that self-esteem can neither be self-conferred nor satisfactorily sustained simply by mutual backslapping. While self-esteem is not free from cultural shaping, it involves the additional element of an individual’s need to make sense out of his life in relation to an objective other. While both St. Thomas and the “saints” of social science agree that the ultimate Good (or good) is ultimately unfathomable, they, along with all the rest of us, could not even intentionally act (or repent of action) unless all of us were to some extent “in touch with” an objective moral reality which provides general prescriptions for lives that are worthwhile and make sense.
It seems to me that Battaglia establishes satisfactorily what he sets out to subscribe — that a natural law theory “is a framework for understanding morality rather than a method for making moral judgments.” He does well to show that the case for moral objectivity is not inseparably chained to the fortunes or foibles of foundationalist epistemology, formalist metaphysics, mysticism, absolutism, insensitivity, or intolerance.
The thesis itself, however, seems somewhat labored. While well worth affirming, its scope, I think, could be well managed in the space of an article. The author fears that he will be read as a relativist in reformulated Thomist clothing. I did not get that impression, but what I did wish for (and what would, I believe, have merited a book) was some elaboration of how his theory could at least facilitate our wrestling with problems of concrete moral decision. A framework is not a method, but neither is it irrelevant thereto. It is all very well to say that moral reason is trustworthily in touch with reality, but it is hardly unfair to raise the question: “How?”
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