Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Natural Law and the problem of contradictory moral norms

Given a Natural Law ethic, we could imagine a type of creature whose nature is such that even under normal circumstances, it is subject to incompatible moral obligations. We see such conflicts between creatures: the flourishing of the wolf is the languishing of the sheep. But we could imagine a being which has central instances of moral flourishing that also constitute central instances of moral languishing. Perhaps the being’s nature requires both mercy of it and a strict unrelenting justice. Or perhaps it requires both impartial justice and a favoring of kin.

Given that it is much easier to come up with conflicting systems of rules than with harmonious ones, we might well expect that the natures of moral creatures would have such conflicts of characteristic virtues. Thus, given Natural Law ethics, the absence of such general moral contradictions in us is something to be explained.

Given theistic Natural Law ethics, we can give two explanations. First, we could say that divine goodness is less likely to cause such natures to be instantiated. Second, all natures are ways of participating in God. Perhaps there just are no essentially contradictory ways of participating in God, and so such natures are impossible. (Note that this is compatible with the existence of exceptional circumstances where there are contradictory moral norms.)

Along similar lines, note that the Natural Lawyer has to face the same abhorrent action objection that the Divine Command Theorist does. It seems that the Natural Lawyer has to endorse conditionals like:

  • If our nature were to command torture of the innocent, then such torture would be morally required.

But a theistic Natural Lawyer could say (parallel to what typical Divine Command Theorists do) that it is impossible for our nature to command such a thing, either because it would be contrary to God’s goodness to instantiate such a nature or because such a nature is impossible.

I am collecting ways in which Natural Law, and Aristotelian metaphysics in general, requires theism…


Walter Van den Acker said...


A theistic Natural Lawyer could say that it would be contrary to God's goodness to instantiate such a nature because it is impossible for such a nature to be a good nature.
But in that case, "if our nature were to command torture of the innocent, then such torture would be morally required" is necessarily false, regardless whether God exists or not.
So, this doesn't belong in your collection.

As to the first part of your post I agree that the absence of general moral contradictions would require some explanation. But I am not sure they are absent. I see lots of conflicts between mercy and justice, between impartial justice and favouring of kin, etc.

Alexander R Pruss said...

The conditional might still be a true _per impossibile_ conditional.

Walter Van den Acker said...

Yes, but the 'per impossible' is not dependent on the existence of God.

Red said...

Dr. Pruss, Do you hold to some non-vacuous truth theory of counter-possibles?

Alexander R Pruss said...

Red: Or at least that some are only vacuouosly true and some non-vacuously.

monica said...

Terima kasih tentang artikel nya , semoga bermanfaat, kunjungi my blog agen bandarq