The Laws of Nature And Of Nature’s God

One of the characteristic vices of the modern (postmodern?) world is ignorance. This may seem counterintuitive: aren’t we the smart ones? Didn’t we land someone on the moon, build the Internet, develop industrial agriculture? But intelligence in one area does not preclude ignorance in another, as anyone who has met a dumb-smart-person can testify.

And one area where the modern world is woefully ignorant is in the area of ethics. What I mean to say by this is: the modern world is living on the borrowed capital of its premodern predecessors. When it issues moral condemnations, it is presuming a metaphysical foundation that, in every other way (religion, philosophy, science, etc.) it has willfully discarded.

Let me attempt to provide an illustration. If there’s anything that modern activists don’t like, it’s violence. Well, what is violence, exactly? Let’s do a little detective work. One online dictionary defines it this way:

2. rough or injurious physical force, action, or treatment
3. an unjust or unwarranted exertion of force or power, as against rights or laws

Of course, this just requires further definition. Both entries here have a concept of “injury” or “injustice”; that is, violence, by definition, is not simply force, rather it is a particular kind of force.

But what are these things called “injury” or “injustice”? Let us consult our trusted dictionary again.

1. harm or damage that is done or sustained: to escape without injury.
2. a particular form or instance of harm: an injury to one’s shoulder
3. wrong or injustice done or suffered.

2. violation of the rights of others; unjust or unfair action or treatment.

Both include the concept of “right”, and injury also includes the idea of harm. What do these terms refer to?

1. in accordance with what is good, proper, or just

1. physical injury or mental damage; hurt: to do him bodily harm.
2. moral injury; evil; wrong.

So harm circles back to injury, which brings us to right. What about damage? All the definitions I can find include one of the terms above, which bring us back to the idea of right.

The idea of right, of course, includes something like the idea of “proper”. And here is where things get interesting. Because here is a representative example of what “proper” means:

1. adapted or appropriate to the purpose or circumstances; fit; suitable: the proper time to plant strawberries.
2. conforming to established standards of behavior or manners; correct or decorous: a very proper youngman.
3. fitting; right: It was only proper to bring a gift.
4. strictly belonging or applicable: the proper place for a stove.
5. belonging or pertaining exclusively or distinctly to a person, thing, or group.

We can eliminate 3, since it includes “right”, which is what we are trying to define with “proper”. Further, 4 and 5 include the concept of “belong”, which itself assumes the idea of “right”. Definition 2 can arguably be said to also just be another way of saying “right” (insofar as establish standards of correct behavior are usually regarded as standards of right and wrong).

Definition 1 includes the idea of a purpose: that is, things that are “proper” are things that conform to purposes. It also includes the idea of being fit to “circumstances”. But the example given shows us that this also includes purpose: for in what sense could something be the proper circumstance to plant strawberries, except in the sense that if someone wants to grow strawberries, then they need to plant at the appropriate time. If they want to not grow strawberries, then that circumstance is no longer the appropriate circumstance. The necessary condition of something being an appropriate circumstance for an intentional action (like planting for strawberries) is that it meets some purpose.

So we return to the idea of purpose. And lo and behold: this is exactly what Aristotle was talking about when he spoke of “final causes”, one of the two types of causes (along with formal) that the moderns abandoned when they embarked upon their quest to explain reality entirely in terms of matter (material cause) in motion (efficient cause). Final causes are just the actions and actualizations which things intrinsically tend towards by virtue of their form.

So, we cannot have any concept of violence without an idea of “right”, and the idea of “right” itself presupposes as “supposed to”, a “purpose”, a final cause. Violence, then, is action which contravenes the intrinsic tendencies of things, more specifically in normal nomenclature, living things.

But let’s ask the more interesting question. How do we know what particular actions violate the intrinsic tendencies of a thing, the “supposed to” of the substance? We know this by determining the nature (formal cause) of a thing, and then understanding how the act in question somehow impedes the thing from reaching its particular end, or from doing what it is “supposed to”. And how do we determine the nature of a thing? One way is by looking at the thing and the species of which it is a part, and noting what is normal.

So, for example, we normally know that human beings have two arms and two legs, and they have various biological systems that sustain these things in life (e.g., circulatory systems, immune systems, the processes which sustain the skeletal system, etc.). We know based on these regularities that these systems have these purposes.

But what if we said we couldn’t determine the nature (formal cause), and thereby the purpose (final cause), of a particular thing based on observation of what is normal for its species? What if the exceptions meant that the rule was not what was supposed to be, but rather was just a meaningless statistically more common accident?

Let’s play this game of “let’s suppose”. We know on occasion that people are born without certain limbs. This would imply, then, that it wasn’t part of human nature to have those limbs. This would further imply that removing those limbs from someone who has them would not be preventing something from being which is supposed to be there, since having those limbs is not a part of the natural structure of being human at all. We know there are people whose various bodily systems degrade and cease to work: blood stops flowing to a limb, immune systems break down, bones turn to mush. This means that these systems are not supposed to function in the normal way, and therefore that there is nothing improper or wrong in stopping them from functioning that way. We also know there are people who enjoy receiving, and giving, pain. They’re called masochists and sadists. This would imply that giving pain to others was also not a violation of nature, and that we are not supposed to act in a way to avoid giving pain. We even know there are some pitiable individuals who don’t even care if people ignore their wishes, and defy their will; we also know there are other people who have no compunction at violating the will of others. This would mean that defying the will of others would not be a violation of nature.

This all means one thing. There is no coherent way to point to something and say “that is violence” without necessarily invoking the idea of final causality, and natural law. Insofar as concepts like “injustice” includes or is a synonym of “violence”, they are also meaningless and non-existent apart from the existence of final causes. Even “death-dealing”, sadly, will go the way of the Dodo. For even “dead” presupposes the idea of a kind of “supposed to”: we describe things as dead when they no longer function as a unified organism, when their parts no longer perform the functions they are supposed to perform, but instead are entirely passive recipients of dissolving and degrading forces we call “corruption” or “deterioration” or some other similar term. There is thus no sense to even the idea of “death” without final causes and natural law.

If we want to abandon the idea of natural law, and of the determining of it based on observations of species and not the accidental qualities of exceptional individuals, but we still want to have order, we have only one other option. Crassly defined, voluntarism is the alternative. Voluntarism makes the arbitrary will the ultimate source of order, not intrinsic intelligible forms. In ethics, this means someone’s will is going to arbitrarily decide what is right or wrong. This could be God’s will (revealed to us in mystical experiences or communal conversations by the Spirit, perhaps), or the will of a human being. Either way, however, the only source of “right” will simply be a command backed up by force, since it cannot appeal to the intrinsic order of things it has denied even exists. And this means that “violence” and “injustice” and “death-dealing” will come to mean nothing except “actions which contradict this command of this person”. And perhaps it is just me, but it would seem ironic if the champions of justice and the vigilant opponents of death-dealing injustice, in the end, were basically supporting an arbitrary cosmic (or human) tyranny, where commands have no connection to what is intrinsically good for us, but simply demand our obedience for no reason other than that they are the whims of the guy with the biggest guns.

Now, if all this reasoning does not persuade you, let me leave you with one particularly powerful example. Paul McHugh notes the case of a “surgeon in England who is prepared to amputate the legs of patients who claim to find sexual excitement in gazing at and exhibiting stumps of amputated legs.” If you react with moral disgust at this, then I would say, take heart, you are normal. But, on the other hand, good luck giving a reason as to why you are disgusted at this without appealing to Aristotelian final causes, to “supposed tos”, to some idea that the legs are not given to us by nature so we can have them sawed off so that we can have more pleasurable masturbatory orgasms. If you do not react with disgust, and say “Well, the only reason you would be disgusted at this is because you are irrationally prejudiced against people oriented toward amputated-limb-o-sexuality and who practice that lifestyle choice”, then all I have to say to you is: I am sorry for you. I am sorry your conscience has become so seared and degraded you cannot see what is wrong with this, and I pray God will heal your soul.