Noel Reynolds, Natural Law, and the Personalized Good

November 25, 2003 | 3 comments
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One of my favorite former professors, Noel Reynolds, dropped by and left some very interesting comments on natural law. He begins by faulting the Thomistic natural law tradition for beginning its analysis with Aristotelianism rather than the scriptures, noting that in the scriptures it is either God’s command or our covenant with him that provides moral direction, not nature. Noel goes on to ask:

    And yet, the plan of salvation does presume the necessity of some disposition within us to seek after good or evil. And our salvation depends on the choice we will make. Or is that already a hellenized way of putting it? For other scriptures pose this alternative as choosing to obey the Father or the devil.

    So is God pursuing the Good, or is he laboring to build a universe committed to doing what he believes is good? Whatever might lie behind it, the latter seems to be the view provided by him to mortals.

I tend to be suspicious about abstractions like the Good, particularity when we posit them as what “really” lies behind God’s actions. The basic solution of the Christian tradition to this problem has been to identify God with the Good, but this has had a tendency to lead to the sorts of metaphysical definitions of God that Mormons (and others) have historically found problematic. (Note Noel’s hesitancy about hellenization). However, I wonder if it might still be possible to solve the problem by identifying God with the Good but at the same time holding the personhood of God constant. In other words, can we redefine the Good in personal terms. I take it that this is what the Restoration does. The notion of covenant refered to by Noel is not really a contract. (For starters, the concept of contract didn’t exist in the ancient context in which much of our scripture was given.) Rather, a covenant is a kind of adoption. In other words, it is not an instantiation of some abstract goal or purpose. Instead, it marks off a particular kind of personal relationship, a relationship that defines certain duties and entitlements. Similarly, our doctrine of sealing suggests that salvation (ie the realization of the Good) consists of the welding together in love and friendship of the entire human family. I think that it was this personalized notion of the Good that motivate Joseph Smith to say that friendship was the key to Mormonism. I also think that this is what the scriptures (especially the Book of Mormon) are getting at when they talk about being “enticed” by both God and the Devil. It is not merely a matter of choosing the correct abstraction — good or evil. It is about our affections and who it is that we ultimately want to be friends with.

If I am right about this, then it suggests that Russell is right and that we cannot look to nature or naturalness as a way of deciding the question of gay marriage but must look instead to it impact of the particular kind of friendship to which God invites us.

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3 Responses to Noel Reynolds, Natural Law, and the Personalized Good

  1. Jeremiah John on December 1, 2003 at 6:58 pm

    I’ve needed to write a post on this subject for some time. I guess I’ll do it now, even if it is piece-by-piece and less than perfectly organized. I think that Reynolds ignores some of the social and intellectual _reasons_ for attempting a philosophical natural law, many of which apply to the LDS faith. And I think that you, Nate, mischaracterize the natural law position by equating it with an “abstraction like the Good”. I will say more about this, but I think that one can make a good case that there is something called the Good, which encompasses all true goods. But there are versions of natural law, e.g. Finnis’s, which do not require a single Summum Bonum and admit a variety of human goods.

    Of course, within a community where duties and social roles, religious practices and underlying truth seem to be well-understood and intelligible to most, it may seem very satisfying to say we do this or that because God told us so or a prophet of God has ordered it. We don’t need to invoke the Good, talk about the nature of man, or even say much about good and evil. This is the context in which the scriptures were written and largely the contrext of the LDS church today. I see nothing wrong with this kind of moral economy. But once moral theology arises, for whatever reason, we have already moved outside this economy, at least for the purposes of reflection. We have undertaken the task of making that moral economy intelligible not to LDS reason and LDS man, but reason per se and man per se.

    Ever since the church first began to address itself to the general public–not individually as missionaries but generally as a moral, prophetic voice–this possibility has been a live one. Most recently, in the Proclamation on the Family, and the gay marriage debate, the Church has taken *doctrinal* stands not on what God happens to want right now, but on the nature of human beings, not only in this world but in their pre-mortal existence and in the eternities.

    Now, these position do not committ the LDS church to a Thomistic or any other Christian natural law tradition. But they indeed do three important things:

    1) They bring us to the starting point of Christian natural law, which is reflection on the moral economy of God and the Church from the perspective of rational man in general, not man as disciple.

    2) They committ us to something like a natural law position, since they assert that man and woman have an eternal, unchanging nature, and that this natural essence has normative implcations.

    3) They force us to move beyond the pseudo-theology of divine commands. Saying that the LDS do whatever God reveals may work in religious practice, but it is not theologial! The Church has already made attempts to apply LDS doctrine to questions of American civil law by asserting normative truths about human nature. In order to make these stands intelligible, moral theologians must do more than simply “go back to the scriptures”, because what is at stake is not primarly a question of textual interpretation, but rather the ontological foundations of human morality. These are questions for which Aristotle comes in very handy.

    That’s all for now; my battery is running out.

  2. Nathan Oman on December 1, 2003 at 10:53 pm

    Spoken like a true Notre Dame graduate student!

    I suppose that at one level we are equivocating about what we mean by natural law. I tend to have in mind something like the Thomistic conception when I use the term. I freely admitt that there are lots of other conceptions, and frankly I have yet to work out what I think about the work of Finnis and other current natural law theorists. This laziness is but one of my many intellectual sins.

    If by natural law we simply mean the three things that you outline — reflection on the moral life from the stand point of reason, drawing normative claims from human nature, and reflection on the ontological foundations of moral claims — then by all means I am in favor of natural law. However, I point out that under this definition of natural law, Jeremy Bentham was a natural law theorist. Your move reminds me of Richard Posner’s argument that in reality Aristotle was just doing law and economics. Well, I suppose so if you define the term broadly enough…

    As for Aristotle, I have no doubt but that he is tremendously useful in thinking about these issues. I actually think that the reflexsive suspicion of Greek philosophy bred by the Hellenism-is-responsible-for-the-great-apostacy theory has retarded Mormon thought on these issues. For what it is worth, I think that this understanding of the apostacy is on the wane, so maybe we can expect a Mormonized Aristotle yet. (After all, isn’t the baptism of Aristotle one of the required rituals of Western religion? Ibn Sina, Maimonides, Aquinas, etc.)

    I really don’t think that I am trying to reduce the question to one of textual interpretation. In fact, I have even blogged elsewhere attacking the notion that scriptural interpretation is a good way of doing ethics. You can read it here:

    http://elders.blogspot.com/2003_06_22_elders_archive.html#105669495737138818

    I just don’t think that Aristotle’s theology, that is his concept of God, is especially useful. It seems that we must start out with a metaphysics of persons — intelligences — and reason forward from there. Aristotle may be vitally useful in this project, however I am skeptical that it leads us to Thomasism.

    As for the Summum Bonum, I am willing to be persuaded. I am just suspicious…

  3. Jeremiah John on December 2, 2003 at 6:09 pm

    We are getting somewhere with this exchange, I think! Indeed, I agree that in the general terms in which I have framed natural law Bentham is a natural law theorist, primarily because he derives his practical philosophy from the human good spelled out in terms of human nature. MacIntyre has actually called Hume and later utilitarians the revitalizers of the Aristotelian tradition, since they have an ethics of the good rather than the right. Kant and Fichte and perhaps even and Hegel are on the other side of the equation for MacIntyre, being deontological. But Hegel’s Philosophy of Right was subtitled “Natural Law and Political Science in Outline”.

    It’s all natural law theory of a certain stripe (which used to mean something like: ethical reasoning about man as man, rather than the traditions of a particular culture or community, i.e. normative philosophy generally’). So what isn’t natural law?

    Much of philosophy post Nietzsche–emotivism, the “Darwinian” left and right wings, a lot of pragmatism, and even some central figures like Heidegger and Wittgenstein. It’s not that they’re all nihilists or ethical anarchists. It’s just that they seem think that philosophical reflection about *what should be* is at root misguided.

    More importantly–few if any of the people I’ve just mentioned were *Christian* natural law theorists. However one may quibble with the way Thomas sets up his natural law, one needs to come to terms with the basic structure of his thought. Unlike philosophers in general, Thomas asserts again and again that there are things which are in principle beyond human reason, and not subject to the regularities discovered by the human sciences. For example: Faith, hope and charity are theological virtues. You can’t develop them through natural capacities, and you probably can’t construct a “theory of charity”. And yet, Thomas *also* asserts that not every true good is beyond human reason–that part of the mind of God which is expressed in the created order is as available to a pagan as it is to a Christian. Both philosophy and faith are preserved in Thomas’s system, neither one being reduced to the other, but both being understood within one divine order.

    There are many reasons why Christians (specifically Mormons) may want to avoid this kind of theology:

    1) It’s hard. Synthesizing one of the greatest and most comprehensive philosophical systems ever with Christian faith is no picnic. There have been few if any true believers who could have accomplished such a task. Hume, Kant and Hegel were probably up to the task but they did not entertain the idea of religion which extends beyond ‘the limits of reason alone’.

    2) It could prove to be wrong on scientific or philosophical grounds, and this embarrassment could hurt the faith. If your official Church philosophy assumes that the Sun revolves around the earth, then you have some explaining to do as soon as about 1500 or so rolls around.

    3) Natural law could provide grounds for criticizing the actions of the Church or its members. This is very applicable to us. A no less serious person than Russell has recently implied that natural law doesn’t work because we were polygamists! My view is a bit different. In any kind of sincere moral inquiry, either our received prejudices or the truth is going to fall into jeopardy. If we have the required humility and acknowldgement of our limitations, then I have no problem accepting moral principles which entail that the church may have been in some kind of error at various points in history.

    4) It seems to disrupt the simple purity in the moral consciousness of the believer in his relationship with the Lord through His Word. This is a common Mormon sentiment, and I think it was also Luther’s basic thought. I share that sentiment also, but I recognize that we find ourselves in a world where the believer’s simple and pure moral consciousness is already disrupted in some ways. Political life is one of these regions of disruption. Luther’s simplistic answer to the problem of politics was simply that Christians should not act like Christ if they are in political office, but rather like destroying angels sent by God to scourge wrongdoers. Thomas saw the problem in this kind of compartmentalization, and as a result his political theology is much more intelligent, humane, and uniquely Christian.