From Gut Feelings to Natural Law

From Gut Feelings to Natural Law: Perspectives on Conscience and the Role of Reason

Conscience, at least in its modern usage, has become somewhat of an empty term. This confusion about the epistemological ground for morality is often rooted in the public’s ignorance about the nature of morality itself. While most people believe in some sense of right and wrong, they may not understand why these values are constructed this way. In many ways, this reality is a product of our modern education system. In a New York Times column, philosopher Justin McBrayer observed the various practices of public schools across the United States. He lamented “that the overwhelming majority of college freshmen in their classrooms view moral claims as mere opinions that are not true or are true only relative to a culture.”[i] McBrayer traces this attitude to the way that public schools distinguish between fact and opinion within their curriculum. The curriculum describes facts as provable statements and opinions as unprovable statements, implicitly assuming that opinions exist merely as constructions within the mind and have no bearing on reality. When asked to categorize statements as fact or opinion, students were encouraged to categorize historical, scientific, or mathematical statements as “fact.” On the other hand, when asked to categorize moral statements, students were encouraged to categorize them as “opinion.” The justification for this practice is surprisingly simple. Since many people struggle to definitively prove moral statements such as “stealing is wrong,” it therefore follows that moral statements must be relegated into the realm of opinion.

This confusion about the existence of moral values lends itself to confusion about how one can know moral values. For example, although most believe that stealing is wrong, to substantively justify that moral claim without begging the question is often beyond the capability of most individuals. Most likely, the average person upon further questioning may justify their moral claims by a mere “gut feeling.” But this epistemological method is inherently subjective and vague. If people define moral beliefs as mere opinion, and lack a basis for understanding how their moral beliefs are grounded, they will mistakenly equivocate conscience with a gut feeling.

Having such an important question of moral epistemology consigned to such a subjective status neglects the intellectual tradition that believed otherwise. A proper understanding of conscience requires an appeal to natural law theory, an ethical framework grounded in Aristotelian metaphysics. Unlike modern conceptions of conscience, natural law views conscience as a powerful tool capable of discerning objective moral statements. In addition, understanding conscience within the Christian framework rectifies many of the problems that emerge when a natural law understanding of conscience is applied to observations that seemingly disprove its universality.

Still, there is no doubt that many influential academics have held the view that moral epistemology is meaningless. Several philosophers have raised arguments against the discoverability of moral values. J.L. Mackie, in his 1977 work Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong, raised the argument from queerness as an indictment of the ability to know any moral truths. He thought that moral facts were unique: unlike other facts, they have intrinsically prescriptive properties – properties that motivated people to act according to those facts. Thus he defined objective moral values as “entities or qualities or relations of a very strange sort, utterly different from anything else in the universe.”[ii] He then cast doubt upon the ability to understand these utterly strange entities by positing that “if we were aware of them, it would have to be by some special faculty of moral perception or intuition, utterly different from our ordinary ways of knowing everything else.”[iii] Because Mackie believed that intuition was unreliable, he advocated for a view called error theory, which argues that all moral statements are false. By extension, he casted doubt upon the ability to access truth-apt moral facts.

Jean-Paul Sartre, in his 1946 book Existentialism is a Humanism, focused on the unreliability of intuition when questioning the human ability to understand any higher order moral law. He criticized the “gut feeling” that many feel when making moral judgments by asking, “if I hear voices, who can prove that they proceed from heaven and not from hell, or from my own subconsciousness or some pathological condition?”[iv] The argument highlights the inherent unreliability of a “gut feeling” and casts doubt upon the human capacity to discern where that gut feeling comes from. Since there is no way for humans to determine the source, let alone the reliability of their gut feeling, then there is no way to conclusively determine what is morally right or wrong.

As it turns out, the problems Mackie and Sartre wrote about were the product of a much larger dilemma in ethics. In his book After Virtue, Alasdair MacIntyre notes the growing popularity of emotivism, a philosophical theory that denies the idea that moral statements are more than expressions of opinion. MacIntyre traces emotivism as the natural successor of Enlightenment philosophy, who largely based their conceptions of morality away from factual premises. He writes:

This change of character, resulting from the disappearance of any connection between the precepts of morality and the facts of human nature already appears in the writings of the eighteenth-century moral philosophers themselves. For although each of the writers we have been concerned with attempted in his positive arguments to base morality on human nature, each in his negative arguments moved toward a more and more unrestricted version of the claim that no valid argument can move from entirely factual premises to any moral or evaluative conclusion-to a principle, that is, which once it is accepted, constitutes an epitaph to their entire project.[v]

Since Enlightenment theorists did not ground their ethical theories back to factual premises concerning human persons, it followed that their reasoning incited conclusions leaning towards emotivism. As Sartre pointed out, such conceptions provided no essential connection to the human person that lent a compelling reason to follow a moral rule. Furthermore, since philosophy in this sense was conceived as detached from features of persons, there was little room for persons to do anything except express their opinions.

Nevertheless, there is a way to accept some truth in the argument from queerness while still denying its skeptical conclusion. The emotivist’s reasoning falls prey to the same issue Enlightenment philosophy did, since it mistakenly separates is claims from ought claims. The solution, according to MacIntyre, is a re-adoption of the traditional Aristotelian ethical framework known as natural law.

The first principle of natural law is that an object can be described and identified by observing its essential features. By observing these necessary features within the context of the whole, one can determine the form of the object – what the thing is. This practice of deriving a general identity from individual properties is not only intuitive, but also something that humans do subconsciously through the use of categories and norms. Natural law further posits that what is considered good is inextricably connected to some necessary feature of the object it describes. Philosopher Edward Feser illustrated the principles of natural law by differentiating between natural goodness and moral goodness. Using the example of a triangle, he wrote that we would call a triangle “good” if it were a “closed planar figure with three straight sides,” and a “bad” or defective triangle if it was drawn messily on a crumpled piece of paper.[vi] The properties for a triangle perfectly drawn can also be said to describe a well-formed triangle, and a triangle with an open end and squiggly lines would be considered a bad-formed triangle in light of its malformation. The form of living things, while harder to derive, is nevertheless grounded in universal principles. The form that living things encapsulate are necessarily tied to ends that must be realized in order for the living thing to flourish.vii For instance, such activities consist of health and wellness, development, reproduction, and fitness. For example, a tree could be called a good tree if it had healthy, strong roots, while a bad tree would be one that is struck by illness.

While humans have these basal ends in common with other living beings, they also have the capacity to reason and deliberate. Not only does this mean that humans have higher order ends that exist in virtue of the ability to reason, but it also implies that as rational creatures, humans also have the ability to volitionally act towards these ends.[viii] It is in light of this choice that the transformation between natural goodness and moral goodness begins to arise. Although a fish may only be acting according to natural instinct, humans have the ability to choose amongst different desires and act upon their choices. This form of reasoning enriches the meaning of what it means to flourish as a species and modifies the kinds of ends persons can aim to pursue. But it also means that as a free-willed species, we are morally culpable for our actions if our choices do not line up with our ends. In this sense, natural law provides an objective way to decide morality that avoids the argument from queerness, since it is based on properties inherent to an object that anyone would be able to recognize. This means that moral facts are not “queer” at all, since “the facts in question are, as it were, inherently laden with ‘value’ from the start.”[ix] Our motivations to pursue such goodness do not come from subjective value judgments but rather from internal inclinations that exist within our nature.

This ability to deliberate between desires and pursue goodness, when correctly developed, is our moral law or conscience. The natural law view has the particular benefit of avoiding Sartre’s claim that God’s will could only be known through some supernatural voice. Feser rejects this view of God and morality as a caricature. Instead, according to the natural law view, “[w]hat is good for us is good because of our nature and not because of some arbitrary divine command, and God only ever wills for us to do what is consistent with our nature. But that doesn’t make the standard according to which he wills something existing independently of him, because what determines that standard are the ideas existing in the divine mind.”[x] If God’s standards of goodness are built into creation, and if creation is a reflection of God’s perfect nature, then God can only desire that which is consistent with our nature. This is a far cry from the modern view of arbitrary divine command, which unnecessarily separates morality from the world by externalizing morality in the form of God’s “voice.” The move to natural law does not seek to eradicate all forms of Enlightenment reasoning altogether; rather, it is intended as a repair. Natural law points reason to the telos (ultimate aim) of humanity, such that that telos itself provides the motivation to achieve a given end.

If it is true that morality is a rational application of truths about the natural world, and that conscience is the use of reason to act out these truths, then the question remains as to why humanity as a whole seems to ignore their conscience when making moral decisions. The claim that humans are rational creatures may seem odd to the average person, who takes it for granted that not all humans act rationally.

Part of this objection is based on a misunderstanding of natural law’s implications. First, aiming towards a certain end does not constitute fulfillment of that end. Consider a mouse that runs across the room to grab a piece of food, only to be scared away by a cat before attaining it. The obtaining of food would be considered a goal of the mouse, since it is constitutive of self-preservation, but clearly this goal is not guaranteed. The important takeaway is that the empirical failure to achieve an end is not a reason for why the end is not worth achieving. The mouse should aim to obtain food even if it does not always succeed.

Second, reason does not equal omniscience. While the premises of natural law are straightforward, its applications to particular situations are more complicated. This is where conscience comes in as the heuristic to decide in unfamiliar or difficult situations. Nevertheless, there are many ways that humans could get their decisions wrong. If people lack information, they may misapply or misunderstand some principle of reason, as what often happens when inexperienced students tackle a difficult math problem. In the same way, moral difficulties can arise due to problems with ignorance, not with reason itself.

There are still people that fail to realize their natural ends because they outright refuse to do so, instead of being unable to do so. St. Thomas Aquinas acknowledged this problem, and so proposed that people can fall prey to external incentives outside of moral law. Why people would even consider these external incentives is something that Aquinas presents in this passage in the Summa Theologica:

Consequently we must say that the natural law, as to general principles, is the same for all, both as to rectitude and as to knowledge. But as to certain matters of detail, which are conclusions, as it were, of those general principles, it is the same for all in the majority of cases, both as to rectitude and as to knowledge; and yet in some few cases it may fail, both as to rectitude, by reason of certain obstacles (just as natures subject to generation and corruption fail in some few cases on account of some obstacle), and as to knowledge, since in some the reason is perverted by passion, or evil habit, or an evil disposition of nature; thus formerly, theft, although it is expressly contrary to the natural law, was not considered wrong among the Germans, as Julius Caesar relates (De Bello Gall. vi).[xi]

Understanding the difficulty of adhering to natural law is only possible when natural law is integrated within the Christian framework. Christianity provides a means to understand the problem of imperfect conscience because its doctrine holds to the idea of original sin – the idea that mankind from the start has been compromised by sin and is prevented from acting perfectly morally. At the same time, Christianity also points to a solution to that problem. The teachings of Christ relieve us from the burden of having to derive all morality from reason ourselves, such that we are able to go out and live a moral life. Most importantly, Christianity properly identifies the ultimate good that constitutes a virtuous life, mainly an intimate and dynamic relationship with God. Therefore, Christianity not only aids us in our applications of conscience but also builds upon that foundation. While rationality helps us understand how to live a moral life, our human limitations prevent us from using reason to reach the ideal. Christianity aims us to become more like Christ, and by doing so we are able to find ways to overcome original sin and live a fulfilled and virtuous life.

C.S. Lewis, in his short essay “Man or Rabbit?” answers whether it is possible to live a good life without believing in Christianity. He presents two arguments against this possibility; first that it is unfeasible, and second that it misses the point.[xii] While Christianity and secular philosophy may reach the same conclusions on some moral issues, such as duties of beneficence, Christianity posits a different account of the universe that enriches the secular account, reorienting goodness beyond worldly matters. Good acts are a means of getting closer to God, and such purpose is what truly matters in the end. While conscience is a cornerstone of religious faith, it is incomplete when nurtured only from the standpoint of practical reasoning. Only when conscience is pointed towards God can it achieve its full meaning.

i. Justin McBrayer, “Why Our Children Don’t Think There Are Moral Facts,” New York Times, 2 March 2015, <http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes. com/2015/03/02/why-our-children-dont-think-there-are-moral-facts/?_r=0>.
ii. J.L. Mackie, Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong (London: Penguin Books, 1991), 24.
iii. Mackie, 24.
iv. Jean-Paul Sartre, “Existentialism is a Humanism,” Meridian Publishing Company, 1989, <https://www. sartre.htm>.
v. Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory (Notre Dame: Notre Dame, 1981), 56.
vi. Edward Feser, Aquinas: A Beginner’s Guide (England: Oneworld, 2011), 176.
vii. Feser, 177.
viii. Feser, 185.
ix. Feser, 178.
x. Feser, 183.
xi. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica 1-2. 94. 4. < htm#article4>.
xii. C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics (United Kingdom: Eerdmans, 1970), 112.

Christopher Kymn ’18 is from Los Angeles, CA. He is a prospective major in Computer Science.


Mariel Kim - The Columbia Crown & Cross

Image credit: Mariel Kim – The Columbia Crown & Cross Fall 2014.

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