walter russell mead peter berger lilia shevtsova adam garfinkle andrew a. michta
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Published on: July 30, 2014
Natural Law
A Vatican Work Sheet

It is believed by many that the only alternative to natural law is moral relativism. This a misleading idea. One may acknowledge the empirical fact that all moral judgments are relative in that they are determined by location in time and place. Nevertheless, this does not mean that moral judgments cannot themselves attain a certainty which surpasses science itself.

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  • Boritz

    “…modern physics cannot be invalidated by pointing out that it arose in modern capitalist Europe and that its fascination with mathematics may derive indirectly from the numerical skills required by success in the capitalist economy.”

    Not true. &nbspSomething akin to Charles Beard’s take-down of the constitution can be applied to modern physics any time it is deemed necessary. &nbsp This hasn’t happened because physics, unlike the constitution, has not come into direct and sustained conflict with the Left agenda. &nbsp If it should, then it can be readily attacked in this manner. &nbsp How many fingers do you see Winston?

  • Anthony

    Morality (normative ethics). “Nevertheless, this does not mean that moral judgments cannot themselves attain a certainty which surpasses science itself.” Different activities have different standards, but this may not mean that one is inferior to another – perhaps in this instance just different (Berger’s juxtaposition of science and morals – proof, knowledge, and certainty).

    Natural Law – use of reason (universally) to examine human nature while seeking a moral understanding for behavior (among Roman jurist; those instincts and emotions common to man/rule of conduct which is prescribed by the creator – ethical applications). I was once informed that moral words are all tied down, in varying degrees, to notion of intention. In other words, what are the rules of procedure or the principles of relevance (Berger in essay denotes natural law) we actually use to assess the merits of a moral view? Are they apodictic and can all hold them?

  • Breif2

    “Look at this – see what I see!”

    Hmm.

  • http://abiasedperspective.wordpress.com Luke Phillips

    A mentor of mine, Father James Heft, the director of the Institute for Advanced Catholic Study, put it this way- there IS absolute moral truth, and it IS there regardless of any social constructions an interpretations, and it IS based in the soul and dignity of the human person. But as the human mind is imperfect and shaped by the realities it inhabits, we can SENSE this with conscience, but we cannot KNOW it the way God can. It’s a soft postmodernism- a doubt in the ability of Man to comprehend the truth, yet a conviction that there indeed IS a truth, and we can PERCEIVE it however imperfectly.

    I’m glad you brought this to the fore, Mr. Berger- the tension between moral absolutism and moral relativism is one which all must tread lightly upon. Most campus radicals, I think, tend to believe they are moral relativists while in practice being moral absolutists; but that’s another topic.

    As for contraception, I wish my church would focus on the act and its spiritual consequences rather than the mechanics- the Church should be teaching that contraceptive us in hookup sex is the problem because it encourages uncommitted promiscuity. “Closedness to life” is a small fish to go after- there’d be much more support among slightly less conservative Catholics, I think, were the push instead being made specifically against the wholesale cheapening of human sexuality and the sheer hedonism that happens to have condom use as one of its main facets. Hate neither the sinner nor the sinner’s tool, but the sin.

  • Gary Novak

    Why does Berger make the point that theories of moral judgment are not limited to
    the alternatives of moral relativism or natural law? He says that what he is
    proposing in his post is “a kind of natural law—in the sense of discovering some
    truths about the human condition which, though hidden, must always have been
    there.” If he is taking a natural law position, why does he need more
    alternatives? It’s because morality is like nature only in being ontologically
    independent of human construction. Morality and physics have always been there,
    but, epistemologically, we get at them differently. Quantum mechanics is never
    just a matter of “seeing” quantum indeterminacy: “Poor little quanta—I know the
    feeling– I’m often undecided myself!” The adequacy of scientific concepts is
    determined by their capacity to predict future observations. If they can do
    that, they need not be “understandable” in the sense of Weberian “verstehen.”

    Berger hints at the attempts of evolutionary biology to explain morality. But in using
    “inclusive fitness” to reduce altruism to “selfish genes,” biology is not so much
    explaining morality as explaining it away. It is turning moral judgment into a
    dependent variable, obscuring its nature as perceptual immediacy beyond which
    there is no appeal. Science can be, must be, articulated in a never-ending
    series of refinements of second-order concepts. Morality must be “seen”– or
    become subject to “syllogism daggers.”

    So natural law only expresses an aspect of morality—its objective reality. To
    grasp it apodictically we must approach it through moral intuition, not through
    what used to be called the “moral sciences” (analogous to the physical
    sciences). But to say that moral intuition is capable of apodicticity is not to
    say that it does not require “cultivation”—which is usually found in the tool
    box of the moral relativists. The idea that we have to learn what we already
    know is as old as Plato’s doctrine of anamnesis (remembrance). The slave boy
    already knew the theorems of geometry—Socrates only had to draw out his
    knowledge through careful questioning. We, too, know moral truths. But living in
    a culture of homeless minds, it can be hard to know what we know.

    • Wayne Lusvardi

      As the character Ulrich in Robert Musil’s novel The Man Without Qualities, put it:

      “…For him morality was neither conformism nor philosophic wisdom, but living the infinite fullness of possibilities. He believed in morality’s capacity for intensification, in stages of moral experience, and not merely, as most people do, in stage of moral understanding, as if it were something cut-and-dried for which people were just not pure enough. He believed in morality without believing in any specific moral system. Morality is generally understood to be a sort of police regulations for keeping life in order, and since life does not obey even these, they come to look as if they were really impossible to live up to and accordingly, in this sorry way, not really an ideal either. But morality must not be reduced to this level. Morality is imagination. This was what he wanted to make Agathe see. And his second point was: Imagination is not arbitrary. Once the imagination is left to caprice, there is a price to pay.”
      (II,116-117)

      • Gary Novak

        In his essay on “The Problem of Multiple Realities: Alfred Schutz and Robert Musil” (1970), Berger notes that Musil’s novel begins with “the exact weather report for central Europe for a lovely day in August 1913.” But despite its historical specificity, his novel, as Musil himself notes “is not a ‘great Austrian novel,’ nor a ‘historical report,’ nor a ‘description of society.’ Rather, this particular society is presented to us with the intention of bringing out certain key features of ANY society, that is, with the intention of delineating the essential structure of everyday reality” (Phenomenology and Sociology, Penguin, 1978, p. 346).

        Non-phenomenological sociologists typically dismiss the idea of “essential structures” of society as a threat to social constructionism. How can there be essential structures of a universal lifeworld (including apodictically perceivable moral structures– perhaps hidden, but always there) without undermining the bread-and-butter sociological principle of cultural relativism? As Berger would say, this is not the place and I’m not the one to straighten all of this out. But surely we’re better off acknowledging that something more than bare-bones natural law or bare-bones cultural relativism is necessary if we are to face up to modernity. Husserl, Schutz, Musil, and Berger have all contributed to that effort.

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