Monday, May 26, 2003

Natural Order and Human Goods

This ties in to my previous entry covering Kimball on Descartes. While lurking on a discussion thread that had shifted towards Catholic apologetics, some confusion arose over the phrase “against the natural order.” The atheist had no clue what natural order meant, while the apologist couldn‘t explain the phrase, taking the meaning to be self-evident. “Natural” is terribly vague. It can be contrasted with the supernatural, the artificial, and the cultural. It can be interpreted in the monotheistic sense, as the reflection of the will of a benevolent Deity; in the Darwinian sense, as a struggle for existence; and in the nihilistic sense, as a blank slate upon which man may work his will.

So here’s my shot at a clear definition: the “natural order” is the proper hierarchy of human goods.

Papa Wojtyla says something similar: “The normative truth of "Humanae vitae" is strictly tied to those values which are expressed in the objective moral order according to their proper hierarchy.”

Frederick Copleston documents a homologous line of thought in the Anglican bishop Joseph Butler (1692-1752):

…It may be objected, of course, that happiness is something subjective, and that each individual is the best judge of what constitutes his happiness. But Butler can meet this objection, provided he can show that ‘happiness‘ has some definite and objective meaning which is independent of different persons‘ various ideas of happiness. And this he tries to do by giving a definite objective content to the concept of nature, that is to say, human nature. In the first place he mentions two possible meanings of the word ‘nature‘ in order to exclude them. ‘By nature is often meant no more than some principle in man, without regard either to the kind or degree of it.’ But when we say that nature is the rule of morality, it is obvious that we are not using the word ‘nature‘ in this sense, namely, to indicate any appetite or passion or affection without regard to its character or intensity. Secondly, ‘nature is frequently spoken of as consisting in those passions which are strongest and most influence the actions.’ But this meaning of nature must also be excluded. Otherwise we should have to say that a man in whose conduct sensual passion, for instance, was the dominating factor was a virtuous man, acting according to nature. We must look, therefore, for a third sense of the term. According to Butler, the ‘principles,’ as he calls them, of man form a hierarchy, in which one principle is superior and possesses authority. ‘There is a superior principle of reflection or conscience in every man, which distinguishes between the internal principles of his heart, as well as his external actions: which passes judgment upon himself and them; pronounces determinately some actions to be in themselves just, right, good; others to be in themselves evil, wrong, unjust…’ In so far as conscience rules, therefore, a man acts according to his nature, while in so far as some other principle other than conscience dictates his actions, these actions can be called disproportionate to his nature. And to act in accordance with nature is to attain happiness.”(History of Philosophy, Vol. V p. 187

So conscience, by which I understand Butler to mean moral reason, is king of the human goods, and the neglect of moral reason is contrary to the natural order.

But I wonder: is such an approach to natural order a distinctly modern one, or is it something the ancients could have accepted as well?

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