Bidding Farewell to the Law of Human Nature

The day before his papacy began, Joseph Ratzinger delivered a homily in which he made the oft-quoted observation: “We are building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one’s own ego and desires.”  I disagree.  At least, I disagree if we’re speaking of serious contemporary moral thought.  With the claim that modern mass society is marked by egoism and intemperance, I’ve no quarrel, but I’d call this moral laziness or the absence of moral consideration, not a dictatorship of relativism.

From what I can tell, moral relativism is very rare if we’re talking about a comprehensive moral philosophy.  Sure, morally relativistic arguments abound–Dick Cheney’s “9/11 changed everything” comes to mind–but those making these arguments are not typically people who think anything goes because there are no standards beyond a particular time and place to which one can appeal.  Cheney may be a moral monster, but I wouldn’t call him a relativist. Such ethicists exist, no doubt, but they’re not the movers and shakers of contemporary culture.  If our culture has dictators, they ain’t they.

What we have been seeing, much to the horror of moral realists, is the willful abandonment of old, time-tested moral theories such as the derivationist variation of natural law ethics.  Good luck selling the idea that one can derive moral knowledge from a metaphysical study of human nature.  Not only does “Hume’s law” make a mess of things, metaphysical knowledge is in disrepute.  It is no longer persuasive to say, for example, that the biological purpose of human sexuality establishes a moral norm by which one can condemn homosexuality or contraception.  Few philosophers today tie the biological purpose of human sexuality to any metaphysical/moral truth about human nature.  Arguments in support of norms for human sexuality have to come from elsewhere.

So what we have today in the world of moral and ethical thought is not a dictatorship of relativism, but, from a bird’s eye view,  moral ambiguity and pluralism.

We’re living in dangerous and difficult times, no doubt.  I struggle with remaining hopeful for moral progress when a presidential candidate says how wonderful it is that the U.S. government may be assassinating foreign scientists or when the sitting president shows no serious moral qualms about having a secret panel compose, keep, and act upon a kill or capture list.  And these are not even near the most abominable atrocities that received some measure of justification in the past century.  I struggle, but at day’s end I find myself with hope.  Humanity has made moral progress in important ways.  We’ve slowly come to recognize the claims of justice from people who were once oppressed.  And we have developed ingenious ethical languages–theories of virtue, of rights, of obligations, and of moral value, to name a few–that have helped us chart the whirling seas of right and wrong.

Pluralism poses difficult challenges, especially for societies striving for homogeneity, but it affords us welcome opportunities as well: global dialogue, open dissent from prevailing orthodoxies, and the chance to put faulty once-dominant moral theories behind us.  Some of them, derivationism for example, deserve to be shown the door.  Others need to stay.  After all, moral progress doesn’t mean we forsake all tradition.

Today, we seem to have everything on the table and a large trash bin nearby.  That’s…disconcerting.  Rethinking ethics is dangerous business, but it’s also necessary for real moral progress.  Sometimes what’s holding us back are attachments to bad theories and fallacious arguments.

Kyle Cupp

Kyle Cupp is a freelance writer who blogs about culture, philosophy, politics, postmodernism, and religion. He is a contributor to the group Catholic blog Vox Nova. Kyle lives with his wife, son, and daughter in North Texas. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

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10 Responses

  1. Rodak says:

    “Pluralism poses difficult challenges, especially for societies striving for homogeneity,…”

    I would argue that “striving for homogeneity” is, in itself, a great wrong. It is judgmental and coercive, even if the coercion is labeled as something sounding more benign, such as “socialization” or “acculturation” or “assimilation.” Fundamentally, the homogeneity that can be striven for on a societal level amounts to a kind of “ethnic eugenics.” And, in the end, the more you are like me, the more likely you are to bore me half to death.

    • Kyle Cupp says:

      Societies seem to tend toward homogeneity, though, don’t they? Would you say all striving for homogeneity is a great wrong? Is it always wrong, for example, for a society to structure itself around a singular language?

  2. Rodak says:

    I would say it is wrong to the extent that it is not voluntary. There are nations all over the world where multiple languages are perfectly acceptable in various locations within a larger political entity. In America what tends to happen is that rather than becoming multilingual newly arriving ethnic groups lose their native tongues, often in one generation. This is not enriching and it is promoted by “nativism,” which is not a loving mind-set.
    I would say that societies do NOT tend toward homogeneity, unless it is by means of coercion. Minority groups will tend to learn the majority language to the extent that it is necessary to do so in order to earn a living. But this should be a choice freely made, not a legislated mandate or a citizenship requirement.

  3. Brandon says:

    I like the label ‘derivationist variation of natural law ethics’; is it your own? I’m likely to steal it at some point.

    I think Hume’s Law is pretty clearly on its way out — it was never very well motivated, just very convenient for certain popular positions — but that’s a slow process, andI agree that strictly deontological forms of natural law theory are unlikely to benefit from this and are probably on their way out, too.

    • Kyle Cupp says:

      The words themselves, no, but as for the string, a Google search says, yes. Steal away!

      • Alien Shore says:

        What, precisely, is “the derivationist variation of natural law ethics”?

        • Kyle Cupp says:

          From the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, to which I linked in the post:

          Some have understood Aquinas as affirming a theory of our knowledge of the fundamental precepts of the natural law that we can label ‘derivationism.’ The idea here is that we can derive from a metaphysical study of human nature and its potentialities and actualizations the conclusion that certain things are good for human beings, and thus that the primary precepts of the natural law bid us to pursue these things (cf. Lisska 1996). One can imagine a Hobbesian version of this view as well. One might say that by a careful study of the human being’s desire-forming mechanisms, one can see that there are certain things that would be necessarily desired by biologically sound human beings, and thus that the human good includes these items. (Hobbes in fact produces such arguments at EL, I, 7.) While a natural law theorist might downplay the importance of derivationist knowledge of the natural law, it is hard to see how a consistent natural law theorist could entirely reject the possibility of such knowledge, given the view that we can provide a substantial account of how the human good is grounded in nature: for to show that the human good is grounded in nature is to show that human nature explains why certain things are goods, and it is hard to see how one could affirm that claim while entirely rejecting the possibility of derivationist knowledge of the human good (see Murphy 2001, pp. 16-17). Some have thought, echoing criticisms of natural law theory by those entirely hostile to it, that derivationist theories of practical knowledge fall prey to ‘Hume’s Law,’ that it is impossible to derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is,’ that is, any normative truth from any set of nonnormative truths. The most that this can show, though, is that the natural law theorist needs an account of those bridge truths that enable us to move between claims about human nature and claims about human goods.

  4. Mark A says:

    Loyalty to petrified opinion never broke a chain or freed a human soul.

    – Mark Twain

    Easy answers breed lazy minds.