This series of posts explores dangers associated with natural law rhetoric today. The first post explored objectivized versions of natural law. The second post explored empiricist underpinnings for today’s natural law advocacy. The third post applied some of these ideas to the question of “virtue signaling.” The fourth post considered Nietzschean uses of natural law. This post will explore dehumanizing versions of natural law.
Natural law today can often lose sight of the human person. Natural law becomes inhumane to the extent that it cares little how you feel when you are encountering it. This occurs when its advocates fail to concern themselves with the personal, affective, and contextual needs, desires, and understandings of the Other and seek, rather, depersonalized mass-produced compliance. In this pursuit of compliance, white knuckling comes to be seen as a virtue, as does ignoring affectivity which appears to be at odds with virtuous action.
Natural law in this way becomes like a businessman who comes upon a homeless woman on the street struggling with alcoholism, who takes away her bottle and says she is better because she is not drinking, while paying no attention to the ways in which her alcoholism may not be simply a cause of her troubles but perhaps also a symptom of them. These forms of natural law have no room for acts of sin as symptoms; these sins are always the ailment.
Similarly, the self-hating gay man can be a model of virtue in this version of natural law, provided he does not have gay sex or identify as gay. Gay persons know many natural lawyers who, in the name of loving us, move us to hate ourselves. As long as we don’t have gay sex, all is supposedly well.
Dialectic and Homosexuality
Aside from this, other natural lawyers have utilized fear-mongering and shaming for decades, taking hold of the AIDS epidemic or “conversion therapy” as a triumph for their cause, at times barely hiding their jubilation behind these, and making use of irreputable studies and misleading statistical analysis to back their claims. We must not forget the claims made by Harry Jaffa and many other influential proponents of natural law in the twentieth century who called the AIDS epidemic a “terrible retribution” of “God and nature” for the acceptance of “sodomy and lesbianism.” First Things has printed that “Jaffa’s arguments on homosexuality are essentially the natural law arguments of the Catholic Church.” (Though one should note that Jaffa was not opposed to contraception, painting objections to it as merely “how the Catholic Church has interpreted the natural law.”)
One of Jaffa’s most inflammatory arguments comes in his 1990 book “Homosexuality and the Natural Law” (published by the Claremont Institute). In a fictional dialogue between Ted Bundy and one of his victims, Jaffa goes so far as to have his Ted Bundy justify rape and murder with the cultural acceptance of sodomy. Jaffa’s Bundy claims that, if sodomy is accepted by society, there are no grounds to object to murder and rape.
The claim is powerful and politically effective. The claims of natural lawyers which have taken on the strongest hold of public consciousness on the question of homosexuality have been those painting gay persons as sick, promiscuous, untrustworthy, dirty, psychologically malformed, and bad role models and parents, driving us to the margins in an effort to bolster claims of “intrinsic disorder” (oddly, treating this term as a contemporary pathological category rather than as a classical teleological category). It matters little to none how gay persons—including gay persons who wish to affirm natural law—relate to these tactics as human persons with feelings, provided these tactics work to solidify the objective claims of natural law in the public consciousness.
Some might argue for the dispassionate contextualization of Jaffa’s incendiary remarks within the abstract arguments which they support. But the dialectical failure of those remarks is revealed by the historical fact that they motivated defenses from those who already agreed with Jaffa and fury from those who disagreed (including homosexuals, like me, whom he analogized to Ted Bundy). Ignoring the affective power and importance of various sorts of arguments makes human communication essentially mechanistic. In contrast to this, in truly human communication, it matters not only how words are spoken, but also how they are received. To ignore the centrality of reception loses sight of the ways in which communication works in the context of human persons and treats the listener with indifference. In any event, Jaffa did not choose a dispassionate depersonalized argument to make his claim. He gave it the voice of a renowned rapist and killer. I am thus left with the choice of either fury or rolling my eyes.
Indifference Towards Feelings
Indifference towards the feelings of the person, and the eye focused only on notional assent and checklists of behaviors, is destructive in its abandonment of an integrated vision of the human person. It cares only about those aspects of the human person that can be accounted for and conquered in measurable ways, often binary: whether or not one gives notional assent, whether or not one acts according to the checklist, whether one nods at the proper syllogisms, etc. It forgets that the word written is a promise made to the reader. And thus the promise of the natural lawyer frequently ends in betrayal.
For similar reasons, it is important to remember that neither Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics nor Aquinas’ Summa Theologica were intended for everyone. For Aristotle, the highest life of virtue and true friendship outlined in the Ethics were only possible for males of a certain wealth. He says this himself, and the true student of Aristotle would do well to take him at his word. This presupposition reveals significant limitations for his ethical account. The Summa was intended for theology students in seminary, those inclined to already agree with its claims and who have had a certain amount of previous philosophical and theological exposure. These were not meant to be required readings for all of humanity, but were rather texts for specific audiences with specific backgrounds. The texts were written for a relationship with a certain kind of reader. If our readers are different, our texts should be written in a different way.
Of course, we could go back to Jaffa’s text and argue that the purpose of “Homosexuality and the Natural Law” is not to move those who disagree with him to reconsider their opinions. Perhaps he aims, instead, to bolster the settled convictions of those who already agree with him. Perhaps he wishes to show his fellow opponents of “sodomy and lesbianism” that those engaging in sexual activity outside of marriage ought to be treated with the same moral revulsion as rapists and murderers. But to the extent that shared and bolstered revulsion is Jaffa’s aim, his book is (perhaps ironically) a masturbatory exercise. We might contrast this with the dispassionate account given by Aquinas to his readers and oriented towards charity as the highest virtue.
In tomorrow’s post, I will explore emotivism in natural law advocacy today.
More posts in this series:
- Do gay penguins matter? (and objectivizing natural law)
- Empiricizing natural law
- Virtue is virtue, regardless of the signaling
- Nietzschean natural law
- Dehumanizing natural law (and questions of affectivity)
- Emotivist natural law
- Natural law in Catholicism
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.