Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Natural Law

What is typically described as natural law has had a long history in  philosophical thought. It gained particular prominence during the Age of Reason and Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries and was linked with development of democracy, individual rights, and political freedom. It is a notion that was advocated  by the religiously-minded Thomas Aquinas several centuries earlier as by other, more secular philosophers and nation builders later, like John Locke and Thomas Jefferson.  It had a  tremendous impact upon the revolutions and upheavals  during the period and this can be seen in its influence on British politics and law, French Bill Of Rights, and the United States Constitution.  The natural law  holds, in one form or another,  that all men have an inherent right to be free and pursue life and liberty.

The key point to note here is that, the natural law is understood as something fundamentally distinct from any particular human-created jurisprudence. Its origins are meant to lie in human nature itself, and it is believed to be true regardless of the period of human history or the location of the people to whom it is applicable.  In other words, it is considered on the same footing as laws of physics.  The doctrine claims that, being a part of nature, human beings behave and act according to a certain set of laws.  Just as copper has certain properties owing to its nature, so do human beings. This, we must believe, is self-evident and no further explanation is required to justify it. It is often held that natural law prescibes actions that maximize happiness as Sir William Blackstone explains," .. demonstrating that this or that action tends to man's real happiness, and therefore very justly concluding that the performance of it is a part of the law of nature ".No mention is ever made of the fact that one man's happiness could potentially cause harm to another. Furthermore, the advocates of this theory posit that the rights that follow from them are just as inviolable (according to the decree of nature).  Quite clearly,  all this is a steaming pile of nonsense.

First off, the comparison of human beings to copper is egregious: we are fundamentally different from inanimate objects for the simple reason that properties of copper are well-defined and constant. Human beings, on the other hand, are very complex products of nature, who behave radically different from each other under similar circumstances and appear to demonstrate choice in actions. Comparing us to copper or lead is baseless. More importantly, given how complex we are, there is absolutely no physical law that applies to our actions even at an qualitative, approximate and coarse-grained level. That is a scientific fact and not merely my opinion.  Thus everything all these philosophers have said under the guise of naturalness is not based on any scientific methodology but involves either some form of divine prescription(the religious ones) or vague speculations(for those who have no such excuses). 

However to see the utter foolishness of this idea, such established scientific truths are an overkill. The most basic question that comes to mind when faced with such a sweeping declaration is how to account for those innumerable cases where these are not true.  How do we explain the oppression of people, murder of innocents and discrimination against certain groups if nature encoded every individual to just pursue life and liberty. Why would colonies have to fight a revolutionary war and declare independence from a supposedly oppressive empire? What empirical evidence do we have that nature has granted anything resembling such rights? The fact that some privileged folks had the time and leisure to babble such nonsense?  What does nature care if you are poor and your life is nasty, short and brutish? Or, you were dead a few minutes after birth owing to several medical complications? Does nature prevent you from being condemned to enslavement for eternity, not having experienced even a whiff of free "life" so grandly stated in the U.S Declaration Of Independence? Aren't these the realities of the world inhabited by those who made such grandiose proclamations. Perhaps, a certain clause that beneficiaries of nature were meant to be  rich white men was implied (after all, who else matters?).

Its intellectual absurdity becomes even more apparent when you consider the fact that proponents of the concept of natural laws further insist  that we must defend these rights? What is the need for defending something if  natural state of affairs conforms to the desirable situation (by definition of natural law)?  Why does the question of defending such liberties arise when human nature never would transgress it?  It is incredible that such cognitive dissonance that is immediately apparent has never registered in the proponents of this Utopian doctrine.  Why set up a government, a system of politics with laws and regulations, and bodies to enforce them, and punish the violators when human nature is naturally good and favors liberty and freedom.

Perhaps I am being overly critical. Maybe a more limited interpretation of the natural law can be regarded as being closer to the truth.  What if the natural law is to be understood as human tendencies, rather than rights, to want to be free and enjoy life and pursue happiness?  Initially, this re-characterization sounds a lot more reasonable. Until of course, you realize there are other less benign human tendencies as well.  In all cases of tyranny, exploitation and massacres  the inclinations of man -greed, egocentric-ism, callousness,vengefulness, domination and power - emerges to destroy such hypothesis.  Evidence does not support the likely defence that we should ignore the latter as mere aberration to the deep inherent goodness of man.  If anything,the record of human history is mixed: indications of good behavior often being side to side with examples of cruelty, destruction and horror being as much a human story as love and kindness are.  Considering these facts, natural law looks like a really uneven fit with the data.

And yet, the law itself - and the rights derived from it  - is anything but nonsensical. In fact, they are some of the most basic foundations on which much of the progress of civilizations has occurred over centuries.  And they do sound like good principles to start building a society and government upon. Except they are not natural, not even close. Acknowledging this would fundamentally alter the very significance of them. Framing it in its original language gave it a veneer of universalism. That was sufficient justification to not question its supreme status in the theory of ethics.  After all, if these laws are not natural, then what is ethics based upon?   The religious have a simple, direct answer to this question but it is wholly unsatisfactory to those who do not share their faith.  Most secular people don't ever  get this far to question the basis of their ethical framework. Most  likely, the response will be some platitudes and appeals to nature, abusing whatever little they know of evolutionary psychology and anthropology along the way.

 I should stress that I see this as an extremely crucial dilemma as this represents my starting point for the argument for expanding our circle of consideration to include sentient animals. The way I understand this is to first admit that, yes, from the strict point of view of nature, these "natural laws" are as arbitrary as any other.  Nonetheless,I contend that these laws seem the most reasonable and fair for everyone concerned. A fair compromise is implicitly involved in the trade-off between enjoying certain liberties while being prohibited from encroaching on those of others.   The same record of human history will show that all societies and cultures have always placed significant importance on being fair (even if that applies to a very narrow group) and human bonding and a concern for the welfare of others(again, narrowly applied to a subgroup) is also a common trait.  The philosophy of ethics, under which the "natural" laws are stated, argue that these considerations should be  expanded to all human beings.  And indeed, the sphere of consideration has shown enormous progress is different societies, starting from kith and kin, to tribe,moving to the village, the state and kingdom and sometimes even cutting across ethnic, cultural and geographic boundaries. At the same time, these liberties cannot be taken for granted, something that is again obvious glancing at the darker portion of human history and examples where even members of your family can turn against you.  Hence, there has to be an external mechanism to protect these liberties and the means to enjoy a good life. 

It is in this context that one has to understand animal rights. Lots of people demonstrate an inherent aversion to wanton cruelty to animals. And yet they suffer from cognitive dissonance and continue to be full participants in the industry that is responsible for unfathomable amounts of the same. The reasonable thing to do here is to recognize the interests of animals and duly accord them proportional rights. At the very least, they cannot be used as products for our benefits.

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