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Against 20th-Century Prejudices

Toward a Reformulation of Natural Law

By Anthony Battaglia

Publisher: Seabury

Pages: 150

Price: $14.95

Review Author: David J. Schlafer

David J. Schlafer is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Trinity College in Illinois.

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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