Friday, October 05, 2007

Thomas Aquinas, Albert the Great, and Chimpanzee Natural Law

Quoting Ulpian, Thomas Aquinas declared that "natural right is that which nature has taught all animals." Developing this thought, his account of natural moral law as rooted in natural inclinations draws ideas from Aristotle's biology and from Albert the Great's elaboration of Aristotle's biology. Although there is no idea of Darwinian evolution in this biology, the reasoning about natural moral law as rooted in biological inclinations is similar to Darwin's explanation of the natural moral sense.

Against this Thomistic/Darwinian naturalism, much of modern moral philosophy has adopted a Kantian dualism that views morality as belonging to a transcendental realm of freedom beyond nature. Heidegger manifested this Kantian tradition in dismissing natural law as "biologism." Contemporary Heideggerian existentialists like Peter Lawler continue this tradition by insisting that the transcendental freedom of human beings make them all "aliens" in the universe. Hans Jonas identified this tradition of thought as essentially Gnostic, and he saw that Darwinian science refuted Gnostic dualism.

Under the influence of Aristotle's biology, Thomas concluded that, although only human beings act from "free" judgment, other animals act from "estimative" judgment about what will satisfy their desires. Thus all animals have a natural capacity for practical judgment that shows a certain "participation in prudence and reason" and a certain "likeness of moral good" (ST, I, q. 83, a. 1; q. 96, a. 1; I-II, q. 11, a. 2; q. 24, a. 4; q. 40, a. 3). The influence of this biological psychology on the Thomistic understanding of natural law is evident in the account of marriage in the Supplement to the Summa Theologica (q. 41, a. 1; q. 54, a. 3; q. 65, a. 1-3; q. 67, a. 1).

Thomas explains that something can be natural to human beings in different ways (ST, II-II, q. 46, a. 5; q. 51, a. 1; q. 63, a. 1). The natural dispositions can be considered either as generic (shared with other animals), or as specific (shared with other human beings), or as temperamental (the unique traits of human individuals). This trichotomy of the natural dispositions comes from Aristotle's theory of biological inheritance (Generation of Animals, 767b24-69b31).

So although human politics is uniquely human, we might still learn something about the natural roots of politics by looking at chimpanzee politics. This would be in the tradition of Thomas and Albert (Thomas's teacher at the University of Paris). Albert wrote a massive survey of the whole field of zoology, building upon Aristotle's biology. Albert's work in biological science was part of his larger project to vindicate the scientific study of natural causal laws through reason, observation, and experimentation. The end result of this was to establish science as a source of knowledge independent of theology. Albert stressed the uniqueness of human beings as the only animals endowed with the powers of intellect and speech. Yet he also observed that other animals "are not entirely without the power of thought," which shows that nature "progresses gradually through many intermediates." Some nonhuman animals do have "experiential knowledge" that manifests "a sort of prudence" and a "capacity for instruction," which thus shows that these animals have at least "a shadow of reason." Many animals have some "estimative power" by which, while deciding how they should act to satisfy their desires, they judge the intentions of other animals. The most intelligent of the nonhuman animals are simians--monkeys and apes--and pygmies, which belong to a species that is intermediate between simians and humans. The simians and pygmies, Albert says, show a "human likeness beyond all other animals," and "seem to have something like reason." (All my references are to the translation of Albert's zoological work published by Johns Hopkins University Press in 1999.)

Albert also observed that as political animals, human beings are like other social animals such as ants, bees, wasps, and cranes. Human society is unique, however, insofar as it can be based on formal laws or customary rules formualted deliberately by reason. Similarly, ethics in the strict sense is uniquely human to the extent tht it requires some rational deliberation in formulating a plan of how to live. Albert notes, however, that some other animals do exhibit "some natural inclination to a likeness of virtue," because their natural instincts and cognitive capacities incline them to act according to a "plan of life." On each of these points, Albert reiterates a biological teaching of Aristotle that is later adopted by Thomas.

Despite this, many of the most influential scholarly commentators on Thomas give little attention to the biological foundation of Thomas's understanding of natural law. John Finnis, for example, has led a recent revival of interest in Thomistic natural law, yet he largely ignores the importance of biological reasoning in Thomas's account. Finnis's natural law is actually "natural law without nature," because he accepts the Kantian dualism of natural law and moral freedom. In contrast to those like Finnis, I agree with Alasdair MacIntyre that the Aristotelian and Thomistic tradition of ethical naturalism is rooted in a biological understanding of human nature that has been confirmed by modern Darwinian biology. MacIntyre makes this point in his Dependent Rational Animals (1999).


Anonymous said...

My oh my, what an interesting post. I hadn't realized that Thomas followed Aristotle so closely on this.

Let me expand on one of your points. You said, "Against this Thomistic/Darwinian naturalism, much of modern moral philosophy has adopted a Kantian dualism that views morality as belonging to a transcendental realm of freedom beyond nature."

As you imply, there is a dispute here concerning metaphysics. Kant was following out of Descartes' dualism, and Platonism is somewhat similar in that it also makes mind transcendent. Aristotle, on the other hand, at least for the most part doesn't divide things out that way.

In contemporary philosophy, a whole series of anti-foundationalist philosophers have rejected dualism and gone back to something much more like Aristotle's position. Some important figures here are Wittgenstein, Merleau-Ponty, Bernard Williams and the Pragmatists. Heidegger also rejects dualism, and I think his rejection of biologically-based natural right is inconsistent with his overall philosophy. This means contemporary anti-foundationalist philosophy should be receptive to Darwinian natural right, though I am not myself aware if any of the main antifoundationalist philosophers has actually taken this position. Let me add that Nietzsche and his various followers such as the postmodernists and Rorty, while they claim to be anti-foundationalist, are actually covertly quite foundationalist and that this is a key reason for their relativism and nihilism.

The Straussians, alas, seem to follow Plato much more than Aristotle. This can be seen in their stress on the Socratic method as the single supreme route to truth, a position that makes sense only if you assume something like Plato's version of the forms.
I think that is a key reason most of them reject Darwinian natural right.

--Les Brunswick

Anonymous said...

I agree with Les.

Heidegger appears to demand the reader to let "being" reveal itself in our life. And that includes our naturalistic, biological tendencies. Heidegger is the anti-Kant/Nietzsche, who desire man to overcome nature and its boundaries.