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  • Writer's pictureProfiles in Catholicism


by Dr. Donald G. Boland

Reviewed by Francis Etheredge

Donald Boland’s study is as specific as he says in the title and, therefore, either one engages with his work according to the title and those with whom he argues, as it were, about natural law or the reader responds from a point of general interest and, perhaps, some knowledge of the ground that Boland traverses. In my case, then, I am one of those who have responded to what he has written because of gravitating to the same view, namely, that neglecting metaphysics has undermined our capacity to understand both human nature and the ethical norms which rationally flow "from" and "through" our natural inclinations. Thus, in our time, we are seeing the disintegration of the grasp of human nature as a whole and end up with division after division of what, naturally, belongs together: families and their members; natural life and death; male and female in marriage; marriage and spousal love; spousal love and conception.

Boland’s thesis, then, is that we cannot understand what constitutes true and just laws if we do not understand what natural law is: that natural law expresses that there is a God given rationally knowable content to human nature's inclinations, which are of benefit to us all, the first ethical principle of which is: “do good and avoid evil”. There are two ways to misconstrue natural law if what is thought to be natural law is not understood to express the inherent inclinations of human nature and the first principle of practical action, "do good avoid evil". Then he discusses a third problem, which I shall call “justificationism”.

The first weakness of an “unrooted” natural law is the “disconnect” between human nature and an exponent of natural law, who is somewhat struggling to reconcile legal positivism, an understanding of law which is, as it were, self-referential and simply obtains its authority because it is published by a legislature. In other words, the attempt to remedy the deficiency of “legal positivism”, without re-establishing a relationship to a rational grasp of human nature, is equivalent to propping up a building, the foundations of which are not properly in place. Thus properly promulgated laws could express a relationship to true law but it may well be as a kind of vestige of the past rather than a living relationship in the present; and, therefore, whatever good is found in these laws is, rather, on an unstable foundation and are simply vulnerable to being overturned. Moreover, without having recourse to a sound metaphysics, it may be that a person ends up in the contradictory position of justifying what are not in fact just laws.

The second weakness he discusses, albeit with the help of another author, is that an inadequate recognition of the rational foundations of natural law in human nature leads to a too ready adoption of what is uniquely derived from Christian Revelation, namely, the mystery of the Blessed Trinity: that there are three persons in One God. In other words, while the principle of “relationship” could be a rational understanding of how the Revelation of the mystery of God as trinitarian could assist us in recognizing that natural law entails more than has hitherto been properly identified, a too readily theological grasp of natural law may obscure, as it were, its accessibility to rational inquiry and, therefore, the possibility of natural law being a "common good" among the peoples of the earth.

The third problem, then, of “justificationism” is that it is an ethical theory which amounts to a kind of “permissionism”. In other words, without a reflection on what is good, either generally or in specific instances, this type of ethical theory endorses whatever a person wants to do; and, for obvious reasons, whatever a person wants to do is not bound by any norm other than giving a reason for doing it - which rapidly leads to the decriminalization of almost every evil. What is ironic, too, is that even what seems to be the limit of this gratuitous theory, namely, of declaring that the rich need to help the poor, is simply vulnerable to its own argument: that if the rich can justify their exclusive possession of the earth’s resources or rewards then, according to this theory, they are justified in ignoring the needs of others.

In the course of this book there are numerous points of interest, particularly the argument that the rational recognition of moral norms entails the command “do this: shun that” and is therefore “free” of the problem of passing from a statement of fact to a moral obligation. In other words, moral norms proceed as “commands” from the first principle of “do good and avoid evil”. At the same time, however, there are innumerable excellent and often extensive quotations from St. Thomas Aquinas, Pope Benedict XVI and others on natural law as rationally arising out of our human nature.

Finally, if I think this work has a limitation, it is in rather being too closely allied to the view that human being is a kind of animal and rational unity when, in modern times, we can see that personalism has encompassed the whole of human personhood to the extent that it is necessary to see that even the inclinations that we “so call” share with animals, like reproduction, are so transcendentally different in view of the whole nature of human personhood being orientated to relationship, that we need to reflect more fully on the “difference” that being human makes to all our human activities, but especially and particularly to the dignity of spousal union and procreation (see the forthcoming, Human Nature: Moral Norm, for more on this).

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