Natural Law Ethics: A Platonist Searches for Answers

I’ve been doing some thinking on moral ontology and epistemology lately — what are moral values and duties, and how do we find out what those are? I’ve come to some new insights that I’d like to share with you. Before doing so, allow me to express a deep sense of humility here. I am attempting to clarify what seems true to me, and doing so within the Platonic worldview as I understand it. Nothing more, nothing less. I feel it necessary to say this because I don’t know of a “Platonic” moral theory, and there may be a reason for that. For all that, the heart wants what the heart wants, as they say.

For some time now, it has seemed to me that the moral ontology and epistemology which will seem correct to me will heavily rely on my broader metaphysical commitments to the polycentric manifold of henads — like everything else does. However, this intuition has seemed to conflict with the realization that religion and morality were separate for the Platonists, who were masters of this philosophical tradition. This apparent tension — between what seems true to me and what seemed true to my superiors — has left me in a state of cognitive dissonance that I resolved largely by ignoring it: it just hasn’t been clear what I should do here.

But it has recently occurred to me that there should not be this perceived tension. My intuition is that morality will derive from the henads because all things do; a conclusion I reach philosophically. It’s not that the henads should be absent from moral explanation, but that moral explanation does not involve the henads in their religious expressions.

This realization has encouraged me to return to my original search for answers.

I had left off with the Natural Law theory of morality. This theory has been championed by thinkers in more classical monotheist traditions — Christian, Jewish, and Muslim scholasticism — because they share in common a broad metaphysical view on which there are such things as ‘natures’.

Given that there is some fact of the matter about what it is to be a such-and-such (say, a horse, a cat, or a human being); that is, given that things have natures, there will be facts about what they are supposed to be like.

When it comes to human beings, the Natural Law theorists insist, this natural normativity — present in all things throughout Nature — becomes moral. That is, the facts about what we are supposed to be like, given the type of thing we are, concern the values and duties we associate with morality. For example, given that, say, it is our nature to be rational animals, it follows a fortiori that we are supposed to be rational. That is, we are not supposed to do irrational things: that’d be contrary to our natural normativity, contrary to what we are.

Something about this view gives off an uncanny scent of verisimilitude to me. After all, the background metaphysics of the Natural Law theorists came from the Platonists, and so I’m completely at home with things like natures, natural teleology and natural normativity.

But where my Platonic commitments conflict with Natural Law theory is in the idea of goodness. For the Platonist, Goodness is Metaphysical Uniqueness. For the Natural Law theorists, Goodness is Being. The difference may not be immediately apparent, but the two result in fundamentally different theories of morality — a difference I hope to expound upon at length eventually. For now, I want to sketch some of these differences, and then illustrate them with a prime example.

To begin, consider that the Platonist and the Natural Law theorist can both recognize natural normativity: there are facts about what things are supposed to be like, given the type of thing they in fact are. But is this normativity moral? That is, are things right or wrong, or good or bad because they are in line with or opposed to our nature? Or are they right or wrong etc. because of some other factor?

The Natural Law theorist sticks to natural normativity. Here we have naturally occurring values and duties; why be unsatisfied? To be morally good is just to be good at being human; it is to exemplify to a high extent the nature of humanity, to be an exemplar of our species.

Sameness is the ruling factor here: morality is not just objective — comprising actual facts about our nature — but also universally applicable: we are all subject to the same values and duties because we are all the same type of thing.

As the reader can gather, this moral ontology provides a very straightforward, intersubjective, verifiable moral epistemology: we can come to find out what our moral values and duties are by simply coming to know or better understanding what it is we are — and thus, what it is to be good at being what we are.

The Platonist can accept this entire story of natures, natural teleology, natural normativity and its attending epistemology, and still question whether any of it is moral. It could, for all she knows, amount to nothing more than a kingdom of practical reasons and ends, but not moral ones. This is because, for the Platonist, it’s not sameness that makes things good, but uniqueness. Thus, it would not be a respect in which we are the same that makes our values and duties moral, but a respect in which we are unique.

In other words, it would not be humanity that makes my natural normativity moral, but humanity as it is mine that does for me; humanity as I individuate it, or as it is individuated for me. What this means in concrete terms is something I’ve yet to satisfactorily articulate, though I hope to do just that eventually. But in more broad terms, the distinction between natural and moral normativity appears quite evident.

Consider vasectomies as a type of action that egregiously contravene our natural normativity:

Vasectomies directly prevent certain members of our species from being as they are supposed to, given what they are. It actually aims, explicitly, at disrupting one’s normative functionality; deliberately terminating the reproductive purpose of the male’s sexual organ.

Yet, despite the easily recognizable natural (vs moral) graveness of this procedure, when is the last time you saw protests against vasectomies? Where is the sharp moral disagreements over this procedure, productive of massive literature, heated discussions and public debate? How come less ‘naturally’ grave actions evoke more moral outrage? It is, to me at least, a crystalline example of a natural normativity issue that does not seem moral.

Examples of this sort corroborate the Platonic view I’ve been outlining; that there are natural norms, but that they aren’t necessarily moral.

I will continue to peer out into intellectual space, so to speak, for what seems true about all this and try to describe in progressively satisfying terms what it looks like I’m looking at. Until then, thank you for reading! And please feel free to share your thoughts!


One thought on “Natural Law Ethics: A Platonist Searches for Answers

  1. I’ll be interested in seeing where you go with this. For now I just reflect on the ‘Natural Law’ theory wondering how it would then be possible to be immoral? And if, in the individuated form of the theory, my morality can different to yours?

    Liked by 1 person

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