18.5.09

Natural Law

Let's get ethical!

I did a course this year on the history of political ideas. As always, within this giant topic, we follow the particular expertise of the tutor we get assigned. In this case, this meant focusing around the enlightenment period. I was a smarmy bastard and only wrote essays on the thinkers I liked - Machiavelli, Hobbes, Rousseau and Marx. What frustrated me about a lot of the theories we went through was their recourse to natural law justifications.

This is the thing. Natural law in the 18th century became a kind of secular, scientific way of approaching ethics (which is what most political theory boils down to). The philosophe starts out by divining the basic laws by which human beings function, and from there working towards constructing a set of concrete principles that fit these universal, natural laws. Usually, the first principle is that human beings always seek to preserve themselves. Others include the urge to procreate, live in a community and worship God. The end result is a rational, objective ethical code.

But how weird! We don't just have one natural law theory. We have several, which claim that they are the ones that are truly objective. The natural law method arrives at different conclusions because it reads humanity in different ways. This is the essential problem. Human nature isn't fixed. Applying laws to it is impossible, because humanity will always surprise you. Even things like the urge towards self-preservation don't apply all the time. A person can choose to commit suicide for very rational and pragmatic reasons (see the beginning of the Star Trek movie).

What I like about natural law is the emphasis on a person's purpose. It seeks to uncover what humanity is meant to be like, and provides rules that help unlock a person's full potential. The problem is that it then takes a humanity-wide view, arguing that all people work in the same way, have essentially the same purpose, and should stick to the same ethical code. This is probably influenced by a theistic metaphysical outlook, where God created the world and human reason according to his universal, objective laws.

If we take God and objectivity out of natural law, wadda we got left? I think we arrive at existentialism, or at least my simplistic idea of what existentialism is. This is only based on my reading of Satre's Nausea and Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, so forgive me if I'm getting the theory all wrong. As far as I understand, existentialism attempts to detail the consequences of atheism. It tries to build a way out of the meaninglessness and despair of a life without God. We do this by meditating on our nature and situation in the world, and constructing our own purpose for our short lives. This is an individual process. We should attempt to divorce ourselves from the structures that impose foreign values on our lives - family, religion, country. We look at ourselves with clear eyes, and from there set our own goals and values.

In this way, we preserve our own freedom of thought, and everyone else's. Traditional natural law is oppressive. It dictates one human nature which everyone needs to strive towards. With existentialism, we take the rational natural law process and apply it only to ourselves. In a liberal secular society, this, for me, is the only ethical approach that make sense.

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