Kind Words on Natural Law and Objective Morality

A friend sent me John Finnis’s thoughts on Pope Benedict XVI’s address to the German Parliament (here) For the rest of the interview with Finnis, go here.

. . . I would say that true human freedom (as St Thomas says on the first page of his great treatment of morality) is the freedom of an image of God – one who has freedom of choice and exercises it in line with goods that are truly fulfilling – fulfilling for individuals and for the friendships and wider societies in which they find so much of their fulfilment. As Augustine says, just before the passage the Pope quoted – and here the saint is transmitting the philosophical tradition established by Plato and carried forward by Aristotle – the life of an individual who gives in to cupiditas is a life of enslavement to anxiety, insecurity, unslakeable lusts, and so forth. No true freedom that way. Nor by any “existentialist” “self-determination” by which one might seek to recreate oneself as a quasi-Nietzschean master, free from the constraints of human equality and justice.  Perhaps also related to the Pope’s thought in these sentences is this: any manipulation of human nature, for example, by non-therapeutic genetic modification, makes the products of that manipulation the slaves of the manipulators, even if the latter were benevolently motivated.

Reading this I can’t help wonder how substantively close this is to the argument made by Christos Yannaras in  The Freedom of Morality. Yannaras in the forward to this works writes:

In the book’s title, The Freedom of Morality, the Greek word translated as “morality” is ithos, a term signifying “ethics,” but also meaning “ethos,” distinctive character, the “thusness” or the “Ah!’ of a person or thing. When using ithos, the author has in view both these senses. Morality, “theics” is nothing more or less than the expression of the person’s proper “ethos.” It is not to obey external rules but to become as person that which one truly is. By the same token, sin is not the transgression of some impersonal law, but “missing the mark,” the failure to become oneself.

While I agree with Yanaras that “sin is not the transgression of some impersonal law, but “missing the mark,” I think he and other Orthodox thinkers are simply wrong when they dismiss out of hand an objective morality in general and natural law theory in particular.  Both, as Finnis I think argues in the interview quoted about, are simply another way of saying that sin is “the failure to become oneself.” Or, as Finnis has it, “true human freedom … is the freedom of an image of God – one who has freedom of choice and exercises it in line with goods that are truly fulfilling – fulfilling for individuals and for the friendships and wider societies in which they find so much of their fulfilment.”

Objective moral analysis must always be balanced with a subjective evaluation of the person and his responsibility (or lack thereof) as a moral actor. Neither pole of moral theology—the objective and the subjective—is sufficient without the other.  But neither pole is itself apart from the other. A failure to either brings about an intolerable moral evil; moralism is a failure to do the latter, relativism a failure to do the former.

There is a therapeutic value to natural law, objective moral norms and objective moral analysis. They frustrate my ego, the illusion that I am morally better than I actually am (or at least better than you). Yes, I can misuse the natural law or the objective character of morality to abuse or oppress others. Doing away with the objective dimension of Christian morality or rejecting at least some form of natural law because of this however is akin to suggesting people never marry because it makes adultery possible, or that we shouldn’t own anything because of greed. Egoism, lust, greed or any the other myriad of forms that sin takes, is a constant whatever my moral theory.  More importantly, material goods, conjugal life, and yes, even natural law, are all gifts from God and as such all have their own role to play in our salvation.

Finally, and by way of illustration of how easily we can pervert even the most common of human experiences to serve our own ego, let me suggest the following thoughtful video:

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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