Tuesday, January 25, 2005
Monday, January 24, 2005
Friday, January 14, 2005
Aristotle on Justice and Politics
This lecture takes a look at Aristotle’s general ethical theory and the ideas that will influence later natural law thinkers. Koterski admits that Aristotle isn’t really a natural law theorist. Aristotle doesn’t articulate his views on ethics in terms of law, but in terms of virtue.
Koterski discusses Aristotle doctrine of the mean and four central virtues: Prudence, Courage, Temperance, and Justice. He focuses on the contrast Aristotle draws between our nature and our second-nature—that is, between natural dispositions and virtue. We are born with natural dispositions to act and to be certain ways. Virtue requires that we take those natural dispositions and develop them with the goal of being excellent at what we do.
In this way, for Aristotle, virtue is natural in that it is the development and ultimate fulfillment of our nature. Ultimately, these virtues are explainable by reference to our natural function. According to Aristotle, this is rationality. It is what makes us what we are; and so, to be most truly what we are, we need to perform our function excellently. This means that all our actions and activities have to be informed by the principle of reason. This understanding of our function directs us towards the outlines of ethics and politics.
This leads Koterski into a discussion of Aristotle’s view on justice. Justice is, for Aristotle and most of the classical thinkers, what is due, what is fair. The virtue of justice is, then, the virtue of behaving in ways that appropriately gives and takes what is fair. Aristotle argues that we have a natural sense of what is due and what is fair and that this natural justice needs to inform and stand behind the positive law created by communities.
In this sense, Aristotle is coming close to a natural law theory. He even talks of the common law of nature that can be known by all and that needs to be the basis for judging positive law. Next up, the Stoics.
Thursday, January 13, 2005
Aristotle’s Clarification of “Nature”
Ahh! The teacher of teachers. The great Aristotle. In this lecture, Koterski turns to Aristotle and his ideas that have influenced natural law. The focus in this lecture is first on Aristotle’s four causes, his theory of change, and our reasoning abilities.
Aristotle’s four causes are the material, the formal, the efficient (or agent), and the final cause. Each of these causes is a necessary part, on Aristotle’s view, of explaining how things come to be and how they act. This is relevant for natural law theory because Aristotle argues that the final cause—the ultimate purpose/goal/end of an entity is within the entity itself. Each being has a final cause to which all its actions and activities are ultimately directed. But this end is not imposed from with out or made up, it is a natural part of the entity.
This theory of the four causes also helps to make sense of change. Aristotle doesn’t want to deny Heraclitus’ idea that the world is dynamic and constantly changing, but he also recognizes that Parmenides was on to something in thinking that something has to stay the same for there to be identity. On Aristotle’s view, change is a real phenomenon, but it is something that happens to a particular thing that doesn’t change. When an animal grows, it changes—but the “it” essentially stays the same. Change is process where something stays the same and something is different. The final end remains the same for a particular being, but it has to change to move and develop towards that end.
Lastly, Koterski gets into Aristotle’s ideas on language and reasoning. Language, on Aristotle’s view, is the manifestation of rationality. It is the way in which one can come to grasp abstractions, make judgments, and form chains of reasoning. This, too, is helpful for natural law theory because it points to a natural feature of humans—our ability to speak. This ability shows even further our deeply rational nature.
Also, Aristotle’s work shows that one can reason from observation and experience to discover the real nature of things. It shows that we gain knowledge through observation and reflection but are not trapped at this level and can move into a deeper and more thorough understanding of the world and our own nature.
Greek Ideas of Nature and Justice
As I love ancient Greek philosophy and the pre-Socratics, I enjoyed this lecture. Koterski goes back to these thinkers looking for the sources of the ideas and principles that would come to form natural law. I don’t think he is claiming that the pre-Socratics or Plato are actually natural law thinkers, but he wants to look into their thinking for the precursors and beginnings of the ideas.
He starts where Western philosophy always starts: with Thales and the Milesian physicists—those fascinating thinkers with unpronounceable names who first struck out to try and explain the world in terms of physical or natural elements instead of myth and gods. This is a natural place for natural law to look for its roots because these thinkers, by looking to nature to explain nature open the door to explaining morality and society by way of nature as well.
I do get the sense that Koterski is reading natural law, at least a little bit, into these thinkers. At the same time, the roots and precursors are there and so it is worth starting here when looking at the history of natural law.
Tuesday, January 11, 2005
This lecture largely focuses on the nature of personhood and its relation to natural law theory. Koterski explains that the concept of person is essential in all varieties of natural law theory. Natural law depends on there being a natural kind, in particular, a natural kind of humans. Because of rationality, humans are different, different in kind, than other animals—thus the well-known definition of man as the rational animal. We share with animals an animal nature: we have physical bodies that require nutrition, can grow and decline, can reproduce, and are able to take action. Importantly, like all animals, we have a pattern of development towards a mature individual. But humans also have rationality, which animals lack, and so require a different category.
Koterski more explicitly raises the issue of what might be called the marginal cases. Are non-paradigmatic humans (infants, senile, etc.) fundamentally different than the paradigmatic humans (what Koterski calls the normal case)? Koterski argues that natural law theory considers both to be, from a moral point of view, the same. And it is here that a new concept is needed: personhood.
Person is moral category that will demarcate who deserves protection due to its intrinsic dignity and rights. All humans, on Koterski’s view, are persons in virtue of their humanness. But, he argues, person is a wider category than human. For the religiously minded, God and angels are also considered persons. For the non-religious, one might consider forms of extraterrestrial life that meet certain standards to be persons (it seems quite plausible for there to be a rational Martian which would be a person but not a human).
Koterski argues that we should define human personhood structural—based on our biological structures—and not functionally. The functional definition would seem to leave out the marginal humans because they are incapable of performing the functions that typify humanity. This, he argues, would be arbitrary and subjective because (1) these functions can change and in some ways culturally and individually dependent and (2) because we have no clear way to demarcate the point where the human functionality comes into being. But moreover, even if we could, Koterski argues, nothing fundamental or essential has changed about the individual. The DNA and fundamental organizational principle of the being hasn’t changed, it is just being expressed more and more as the individual grows.
I should note here that I don’t think this is persuasive. Yes, the DNA is the same and the individual is a form of human life. But, there is something importantly different—the particular expression of the DNA and subsequent development has created new structures and with them new facilities and abilities that were not there prior. While I am not saying we must adapt a functional definition, Koterski and other natural law theorists are too quick, I think, to argue that there is no fundamental difference here.
Koterski develops the concept of person by tracing its historical roots back to Boethius—the 6th century Roman philosopher. Boethius defined person as “an individual substance of rational nature.” Adapting the term person from the theatrical notion of persona—the role or character played, Boethius wanted a term to convey accountability and responsibility based on the rationality of the agent.
Koterski closes out the lecture with a discussion of the social dimensions of human nature. Human nature, he notes, requires various kinds of social relationships and interactions. The forms of these interactions and relationships are dependent on a number of different factors including: history, culture, political regimes, and individual choices, but reflection on human nature indicates that some kind of social relations are essential for our proper development and flourishing.
Monday, January 10, 2005
This lecture starts with a lengthy discussion of definitions and the different ways of formulating definitions. He mainly focuses on definition as genus and species identification. He also discusses definitions that are focused on the part to whole relationship, on a thing’s structure, or on a thing’s function or use.
The rest of the lecture is divided between looking at Aquinas’ definition of law and then exploring the concept of nature. Aquinas defines law as “as an ordering of reason, promulgated by the person in charge of a community, for the common good.” Koterski explains each aspect of this definition: that law is an ordering of reason as opposed to an ordering based on will or power and that law has to be publicly disclosed and so on. Four different types of law, as articulated by Aquinas, are then explained: Eternal Law, Divine Law, Natural Law, and Human/Positive Law.
In his discussion of the definition of nature, Koterski follows Aristotle in claiming that we can discover an entity’s nature by observation and reflection. A things nature is the “internal principle of something’s development and typical activities.” It is the way something characteristically develops and acts.
In an interesting discussion of what is meant by natural, Koterski notes that the natural isn’t just average or the normal. It is what constitutes the full mature healthy individual member of that species. He discusses the “privilege of the normal case” as the case we use to describe the typical and characteristics traits and behaviors and to contrast this species with another. He also importantly argues that the normal case is not used for species demarcation, that is, for determining species membership. The normal case is used for comparing the natures of species, but it is not the sorting principle. In this way, he hopes to avoid the pitfalls of claiming that fetuses, senial, comatose, etc., are not humans because they are incapable of being rational.
Koterski closes the lecture with a brief discussion of human nature. Following Aristotle, he defines human as the rational animal. We belong to the larger group of animate objects, but what makes us specifically different is our broad power of rationality. He also discusses personality in addition to rationality, something I hope and expect he will explain more in subsequent lectures since what he meant by this was not clear. He didn’t mean personality in terms of “she has a nice personality.” I think he intends this to mean that humans have other important qualities and facilities besides rationality—and that these qualities are part of our personhood.
Saturday, January 08, 2005
This was an overview lecture which explained a little more about the breakdown and organization of the course. Koterski explained that his intention will be to look at natural law theory from both a philosophical and historical perspective. The philosophical approach was dealt with some in the first lecture, and here he explains that the historical approach isn’t just to understand the sequence of events in the history of natural law. It is to understand some of the philosophical questions better, in particular, the issue of relativism. Is morality merely a cultural phenomenon? Koterski holds out the promise that by looking at the history of the various insights of natural law and how it developed might help shed some light on this question.
Koterski then quickly explains the essentials of the four major traditions of ethics. He covers Aristotle’s Virtue Ethics, Kant’s Deontology, Mill’s Utilitarianism, and Religious divine command. He covers these in a very simply and basic way, and briefly discusses how they compare and contrast with natural law ethics. My one criticism here is that explains Kant theory as a systematized theory of the golden rule—and that is not an accurate explanation of the categorical imperative.
The next section of the lecture focuses on how natural law can meet the ideals that were laid out in lecture one: objectivity, universality, and intelligibility. Objectivity, he argues, will come from the basing of ethics on our natures as human beings. By asking what kind of beings we are and what our typically activities are, we can find an objective basis for ethical principles. The universality of natural law will come from a similar source in that if all humans share a common nature, the moral principles will be universal across this common nature. Lastly, intelligibility can be found because, it is claimed, one with an open and reasonable mind should be able to discover and understand human nature.
Next are the objections to natural law (and indeed morality itself): relativism, subjectivism, and skepticism. He doesn’t try to answer these concerns here, promising that these will be answer as he argues for natural law.
Lastly, Koterski discusses moral knowledge and natural kinds. Moral knowledge he will argue, is possible, contra the skeptic. He argues that there are certain claims of moral knowledge that it is just implausible to claim we don’t know or that are reasonable to deny. Using murder as an example, he claims it is undeniable that the killing of innocent life is wrong. The rub, of course, is what one considers to be innocent.
A natural kind is a “group that can be objectivity distinguished from another group on the basis of some property.” To be a difference in kind, the trait or property “is present in some degree in every member of the group and is totally lacking in other instances.” Differences in degree are differences along some dimension that all members of the group share. He uses water and salt as an example. Water and salt are different in kind—they are two different natural kinds. They each have a natural structure that gives rise to certain properties that all members of one group have and the other totally lacks. But liquid water, ice, and water vapor are different in degree—they possess related properties based on an essentially similar structure.
He closes the lecture with the question of whether humans are a natural kind. He thinks we are and will argue that the property that makes us different, the one we have that no other creature has, is rationality in the form of intellect and will. He doesn’t think that the possibility that we might find non-human rational creatures shows there is no natural kind—he just thinks he will expand the group of rational creatures are that deserving of respect.
Friday, January 07, 2005
Thursday, January 06, 2005
In other words, stealing.
Civil disobedience can be a powerful tool used to undermine and then repeal unjust laws. But these loons are going into stores and restaurants and not paying for the goods and services because they think the prices are too high. But, thankfully, they make sure to leave a generous tip to the waiter. After all, he's part of the Proletariat I guess.
The ridiculous thing about this is that thinkers take this crap seriously, as if there were a real issue here. The blog entry at TransAtlantic Monthly has several paragraphs considering the legal ramifications, likely court responses, and whether this stealing is okay if the folks redistribute to those in need.
I should note that the blog entry is from a Serbian and all the episodes of proletariat stealing that are mentioned take place in Italy. Those wacky Europeans still think communism is going to make a comeback I guess. Though, I could see this happening in San Francisco.
Wednesday, January 05, 2005
The first lecture of Natural Law and Human Nature was good. Koterski starts this series off in an unusual, but effective, way. He presents three cases to show the history and importance of the natural law tradition. The first case is Sophocles’s Antigone. I am not going to recount the story, but essentially Antigone defies her king’s direct order not to bury her brother properly. In her defense, she cites a higher law above the king. She appeals to Zeus and to justice as overriding Crion's order.
Next, Koterski discusses the
Lastly, Koterski discusses civil rights and Martin Luther King. MLK (and other civil rights activists before and after him) appealed explicitly to the natural law tradition in his defense of civil disobedience.
Given the range of time, culture, custom, and beliefs of these three stories, Koterski is trying to show us that natural law has a long and storied tradition that goes beyond any particular culture or even religious belief.
Koterski ends the first lecture with an appeal to philosophy. He tells us that this lecture series will subject the concepts of law, nature, and human nature to serious philosophical scrutiny. He tells us further that he is guided in his analysis by three philosophical ideas: objectivity, universality, and intelligibility. Objectivity in that he will try and appeal to evidence and argument in ways that are compelling and not mere subjective opinion. Universality in that he is aiming at a justification that applies to every kind of human being. Intelligibility in that these concepts should be ones that readily understandable.
As a way of preparation, I took out from the library The Teaching Company's "Natural Law and Human Nature" by Father Joseph Koterski. No doubt there will be some religious overtones to Koterski's lectures, but I listened to his Ethics of Aristotle course and that was very solid.
My over ambitious goal is to blog summaries of the lectures after I listen to them. Hopefully,
I won't stop at Lecture One.
No surprises so far. It's a straightforward, pleasurable read. I am not sure its very convincing to someone already convinced of animal rights. Surprisingly, the book, so far, doesn't spend all that much time (part of the first chapter) on showing the faulty reasoning of the other side. And going by the table of contents, it won't. It is actually much more positive. Machan goes through the reasoning behind human rights and thereby shows why such reasoning can't be reasonably applied to animals. The book might have been more persuasive (again I am not finished yet) had it spent more time going through the problems with the argument on the other side.
But as I am in total agreement with Machan on this issue (see my piece on animal rights), the book is a pleasure to read.