Overview:

Natural Law Theory is something that modern theistic thinkers use to underwrite problematic laws and ethics. This book looks to challenge it.

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Laws like Roe vs. Wade that many secular people hold dear are under threat. Much of how they are threatened is down to the partisan nature of American politics, but it is also underwritten by thinkers who provide an ethical framework from which certain political factions can structure their legal assault.

Edward Feser is an American Catholic philosopher who pulls on philosophy from Aristotle to Thomas Aquinas to deconstruct such laws from a philosophical vantage, and is very much a threat, if indirectly, to laws like Roe vs. Wade.

Author Gunther Laird has recently written a book critiquing Natural Law Theory and Aristotelian-Thomistic philosophy as espoused by such modern religious thinkers as Edward Feser. It’s a great book because it takes these positions to task internally. That is to say, the author grants the philosophies (where I wouldn’t, being a conceptual nominalist) and then criticizes them, showing their internal incoherence. Before getting into the finer details involved here, let’s explain some of those terms. As Laird has said elsewhere:

Edward Feser is one of the most popular and prolific defenders of the Catholic religion writing today. Those same readers will, of course, be aware that I contest his efforts directly in the new book I have recently published, The Unnecessary Science: A Critical Analysis of Natural Law Theory. While Feser has written mostly on metaphysics, he has addressed matters of morality as well, and as you can expect, my book attacks his worldview on those grounds as well. Of particular interest to contemporary readers, given the current fracas over Roe vs. Wade, are Feser’s arguments that abortion is immoral. These arguments—the sort that other Catholics such as Amy Barrett prefer–might seem quite different from most other pro-life claims because they are actually based on pre-Christian philosophy, specifically the Greek thinker Aristotle’s theories revolving around essentialism, actuality and potentiality. This entry is an excerpt from chapter 3 of my book that refutes Feser’s pro-life position based on his own Aristotelian reasoning.

Natural Law Theory (NLT) is an ethical theory derived from the thinking of people such as Thomas Aquinas that attempts to establish that humans, for example, have an ideal form or essence that dictates how they should act. The form of a particular species of bird is that it has feathers, a beak, two eyes, can fly, has a particular coloration, and so on. The essence of a bird can be described by listing, one assumes, its properties. There is, in reality (so they would say), some objective notion of what these properties are.

For all of these thinkers, literally everything has this kind of essence, though those essences will differ between things. The idea that homosexual humans (I use this as an example, many other properties could also be used) are morally wrong is derived from the notion that they have an essence, a natural form, to which they should adhere, but do not. A good badger is a badger that most resembles the essence of a badger. A good human is a human who most resembles the nature or essence of a human. Homosexuals or some other group of supposedly morally bad people are morally bad because homosexuality is not a property of the human essence or essential property.

To confuse matters, we could subcategorize humans in terms of male and female as well. In fact, one of the problems with essentialism and Thomistic philosophy is that you could subcategorize anything further and further to create more and more essences until you eventually have an individual instantiation of a thing. For example, you could subcategorize humans into males and females. But why not continue with other categories? Age, hair color, size, geographical distribution, skin color, and so on but each of these categories could be sliced and diced even further. Who gets to define the categories? Of course, such advocates of NLT or Thomism would say that God gets to define this, but how do we know what those categories are? We can look around us at the natural world, but as I have at length set out before, categorizing the natural world in light of evolution is utterly problematic.

What is Aritotelian Thomism? Morden NLT adherent Edward Feser describes it as follows, from his piece “The Thomistic Tradition (part 1)” (see also part 2):

This approach emphasizes the Aristotelian foundations of Aquinas’s philosophy, and in particular the idea that the construction of a sound metaphysics must be preceded by a sound understanding of natural science, as interpreted in light of an Aristotelian philosophy of nature. Accordingly, it is keen to show that modern physical science can and should be given such an interpretation.

In his book The Unnecessary Science: A Critical Analysis of Natural Law Theory [UK], Gunther Laird sets out to debunk the claims of Feser and his philosophical sources of Thomas Aquinas and Aristotle.

The book is a meticulous critique of natural law theory, as proposed by these philosophers, with Laird pointing out myriad issues with the theory as pertaining to ethics (sexual and otherwise), essences, religion, philosophy of change, and the existence of God, among many other subjects. For anyone wondering what is wrong with both modern and ancient conceptions of natural law theory, this book is an essential read. For those comfortable in their belief in natural law theory, this book is equally as essential to understanding the strongest arguments of the theory’s foes. Laird’s book is the perfect foil to the writing of Feser, Aquinas, and other natural-law adherents past and present.

“…an intellectual banquet of concepts, principles, arguments, and skeptical objections concerning religion and morality that draws upon the ideas of two of the greatest philosophers of western thought: Aristotle and Aquinas—as clarified and defended by the modern Catholic philosopher Ed Feser. Laird provides an antidote to Feser’s conservative Catholic views…”

– Bradley Bowen, The Secular Outpost

Due to certain circumstances, Laird is writing under a pseudonym. It would be great to see him more often in virtual spaces like YouTube. However, anonymity restricts him from too much exposure. So it has been great to see him appear recently on a couple of shows—first, with the great Joe Schmid, along with Dr. Scott Berman:

He’s also appeared with Canadian Catholic, an internet Christian (whom I have myself recently debated):

For those of you who are interested in this level of philosophy, grab a copy of the book, and take a look at other pieces by Laird, including Guest Post: Elvis, Jesus and the Natural Law Tradition, Debunking Natural Law Theory – The Unnecessary Science: A Useful Summary, and Actuality, Abortion and the SCOTUS.

And stay tuned for a potential interview with him on my own YouTube channel in the coming weeks.

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Jonathan MS Pearce

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...