Natural Law Errors: Empiricizing Natural Law

Aquinas argues that the most important truths somehow escape the finity of articulation.

In my previous post, I laid out the general purpose of this series: to explore the ways in which natural law today can be misrepresented, confused, and abusive. The series does this through identifying errors in the ways we use natural law today. The previous post discussed how natural law is misrepresented when it becomes overly objectivized.

Second, and related to the objectivizing of natural law, natural law today is often treated in such a way as to be an empiricist exercise. Indeed, we often cling to objectivized versions of natural law because of our desire for justification within the frameworks of contemporary empiricism. As stated before, contemporary popular versions of natural law often begin, not in dialogue or vision, but in “objective” nomina assigned from above and explained by repeated formulas and references to supposedly competing anthropologies. Rather than starting with what you and I both see and exploring what this might mean, it begins with an explanation of the words you must believe. If you do not believe, you are assigned a nomen with which you may not identify yourself: modernist, secular, atheist, heretic.

This seems to be an empiricist mode of inquiry insofar as it seeks only that which is objective, repeatable, and quantifiably demonstrable: impersonal terms and syllogisms. These terms and syllogisms become the sole basis of real meaning, the only acceptable “facts” of the natural lawyer as empiricist. Of course, approaching the world in this way is much more efficient than sitting down and learning with another a language to use. Simply holding onto and handing around predetermined nomina is easier than entering into personal relation, because those nomina do not have needs and desires. Insofar as you are the sole speaker, they do not talk back. You do not have to sacrifice anything other than time and breath to use them, and you can easily disseminate them over and over again. Like apologetics and scientism, this method of natural law flourishes because in the present age we revel in what can be spoken clearly and concisely and accepted or rejected at first glance. It’s why natural law apologists can have Twitter accounts.

Aquinas argues that the most important truths somehow escape the finity of articulation. Words themselves cannot be mistaken for the truths of reality. Rather, words act as imitations and as signs. This is even the case for moral realities and might explain why the moral statements of the Gospel narratives are often met with confusion and questions about what comes next.

Imitations and Signs

In classical versions of natural law, words can first be considered as imitations. On the path to virtue, Aristotle recommends beginning by simply imitating the actions of other virtuous persons, in a sort of fake-it-till-you-make-it fashion. If one simply imitates a virtuous person one knows, one can get on the path to actually becoming a virtuous person. But the mere imitation does not make one virtuous or ensure development towards virtue. In the same way, simply saying or reading the things that virtuous persons have written or said about virtue does not mean that one actually understands virtuousness, even if words can plant the seeds of virtue and virtuous understanding within a person. (We should remember, though, that like all seeds, these can flourish or die depending on how they are cared for.) Indeed, too much focus on these words can be dangerous, as one might come to believe that the linguistic formulae are the meaning of virtue and thus mistake mimicry for actual virtuousness or virtuous understanding. Statements regarding virtue are usually nothing more than the imitation game recommended by Aristotle if one wishes to become virtuous. 

Second, we can consider words as signs. We can’t know how to speak of God unless we go out and see what is good in his creation, in one another. Thus, Aquinas writes, “We cannot know the essence of God in this life, as He really is in Himself; but we know Him accordingly as He is represented in the perfections of creatures; and thus the names/nouns/words (nomina) inflicted (imposita) by us signify Him in that manner only” (ST I, q. 13, a.3). We don’t begin with the words. We begin with looking at God’s creatures, at one another.

This can help explain the need for human models when persons create artistic representations of God. When an artist uses a human person as a model when creating a painting of God the Father, the artist neither destroys nor idolizes that person. Rather, she draws out the beauty of the person as a sign of God and, in turn, creates a work of art that itself becomes a sign of God.

We can only speak of God insofar as we have come to see the perfections of one another. We begin with loving one another, and only then can we begin to speak of He who is and what this might mean for ourselves. And even then, the words are things “inflicted” or “imposed” by us as mere signs of the realities which are beyond them. 

Names and Relativity

The objectivization and empiricization of natural law treats words in the opposite way from Aquinas in his discussion of the divine names. Aquinas says, “Everything is named by us following our acquaintance (cognoscimus) with it.” Rather than words providing our understanding, it is relationship which provides words. Words (voces) and names (nomina) are not essences, but rather signs, playing a role similar to that of icons in liturgical contexts. And they are as limited as our relationships. Aquinas writes, “For the idea signified by the name is the conception in the intellect of the thing signified by the name. But our intellect, since it knows God from creatures, in order to understand God, forms conceptions proportional to the perfections flowing from God to creatures.” That is, we begin with the reality before us, and insofar as we come to know it, we can give it a name as a sign. This sign can never fully capture or exhaust the reality, but should continually lead us to it. Insofar as they are signs, words are not merely clear, concise, objective, measurable, and repeatable scientific variables. They are, rather, invitations. 

This treatment of words as imitations and signs pushes against treating natural law as mere facts and formulae for the contemporary empiricist. Natural law can’t be treated in simply a universal, objective, and quantifiable way (here understanding “quantifiable” as that which can be broken down, cut into parts–whether grammatical, logical, or otherwise–and rearranged and reassembled like LEGO blocks). Aquinas does take note of “universal” or “first” principles accessed by speculative reason. He gives the definition of a triangle as an example. He further distinguishes between “first principles” and “secondary principles” in natural law, but oddly enough he doesn’t give us a comprehensive list of such principles. He gives only one other first principle in this section: “good is to be done and pursued, and evil is to be avoided.” When it comes down to the specific decision-making of particular human lives, the truth takes on a more relative character.

Aquinas argues that “with respect to the particular conclusions of practical reason, neither the truth (veritas) nor uprightness (rectitudo) are the same for all” (ST I-II, q. 94, a. 4). It is precisely this relative character of the particulars of natural law that makes the formation in prudence and of the conscience so important. I cannot rely on the advice of others for all the decisions of my life. And to the extent that I leave decision-making to someone who does not live my life, I increase the likelihood that I will live it wrongly. If I wish to live virtuously, I cannot simply repeat the life of another virtuous person, because our circumstances will always differ. Thus Aquinas writes, “For to the extent that more and more particular conditions are added, there are more ways in which the rule (modis) can fail and thus be incorrect.” The perfection of my context will always be personal and resistant to the formulae of others, even if I can learn from those formulae.

We can know neither the natural law nor God himself through simple reading. Many believe that we do not have to come to know God through the world around us because Aquinas has already done all the work for us. We can simply skim Aquinas’ respondeo in the Summa Theologica. We need not pay attention to creation or to those around us, observe what is good and reaching towards perfection in them, and come to see God through our creaturely vision. Rather, we are tempted to believe that we can simply assent to the conclusions that have been drawn at the end of the visions of Aquinas, and this will be enough. To be like Aquinas, we are tempted to believe, we need not venture like Aquinas; we need not journey the road he has taken. We need only cram his various destinations into our heads. Likewise, we want to believe that we need not go to Rome to know it; we need not walk its streets. We need only spend time on others’ Instagram accounts, memorizing the photographed highlights of their trips. Like so many internet trolls, we are tempted to believe we can know what is through books or a computer screen.

This is not Aquinas’ vision of natural law.

In tomorrow’s post, I will what these ideas have to do with the question of virtue signaling.

More posts in this series:

Chris Damian is a writer, speaker, attorney, and business professional living in the Twin Cities. He received his B.A. in Philosophy from the University of Notre Dame and his J.D. and M.A. in Catholic Studies from the University of St. Thomas. He is the author of “I Desired You: Intellectual Journals on Faith and (Homo)sexuality” (volumes I and II). He is also the co-founder of YArespond, a group of Catholic young adults seeking informed and holistic responses to the clergy abuse crisis. In his free time, he enjoys hosting dinner parties and creative writing workshops. 

6 comments on “Natural Law Errors: Empiricizing Natural Law

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