Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

"Elementary Experience" and Natural Law

At the urging of my pals Mary Ann Glendon and Joseph Weiler, I accepted an invitation to speak (in a tag-team partnership with Mary Ann) at the 30th annual "Meeting for Friendship of Peoples" hosted by Communion & Liberation in Rimini, Italy.  The meeting, which I had often heard about but never before attended, is quite remarkable.  Over the course of a week, several hundred thousand people crowd into an Italian beach town to hear academic and religious lectures, attend concerts and other performances, and socialize.  Mary Ann and I were assigned the topic "Elementary Experience and Natural Law."  I'm revising my reflections on the subject to present as a lecture at the University of St. Thomas Law School in a few weeks, but in case MoJ readers are interested, here are the opening paragraphs of my presentation.

One’s knowledge of natural law, like all knowledge, begins with experience (one might even say “elementary experience”) but it does not end or even tarry there.  Knowing is an activity—an intellectual activity, to be sure, but an activity nonetheless.  We all have the experience of knowing.  But to know is not merely to experience.  Knowing is a complex and dynamic activity.  The role of experience in the activity of knowing is to supply data on which the inquiring intellect works in the cause of achieving understanding.  Insights are insights into data.  They are, as Bernard Lonergan brilliantly demonstrated by inviting readers to observe and reflect on their own ordinary intellectual operations, the fruit of a dynamic and integrated process of experiencing, understanding, and judging.

So what are the data supplied by experience that are at the foundation of practical judgments, that is to say, insights that constitute knowledge of natural law?  They are the objects of intelligibly choice worthy possibilities—possibilities that, inasmuch as they provide reasons for acting of a certain sort (that is, more-than-merely-instrumental reasons), we grasp as opportunities.

In our experience of true friendship, for example, we grasp by what is ordinarily an effortless exercise of what Aristotle called “practical reason” the intelligible point of having and being a friend.  We understand that friendship is desirable not merely for instrumental reasons—indeed a purely instrumental friendship would be no friendship at all—but above all for its own sake.  Because we grasp the intelligible point of having and being a friend, and we understand that the fundamental point of friendship is friendship itself, and certainly not goals extrinsic to friendship to which the activity of friendship is merely a means, we reasonably judge that friendship is intrinsically valuable.  We know that friendship is a constitutive and irreducible aspect of human well-being and fulfillment, and that precisely as such friendship provides a reason for action of the sort that requires for its intelligibility as a reason no further or deeper reason or sub-rational motivating factor to which it is a means.

The same is true if we shift our focus to our experience of the activity of knowing itself.   In our experience of wonder and curiosity, of raising questions and devising strategies for obtaining correct answers, of executing those strategies by carrying out lines of inquiry, of achieving insights, we grasp (by what is again for most people in most circumstances an effortless exercise of practical reason) the intelligible point of searching for truth and finding it.  We understand that knowledge, though it may have tremendous instrumental value, is intrinsically valuable as well.  To be attentive, informed, thoughtful, clear headed, careful, critical, and judicious in one’s thinking and judging, is to be inherently enriched in a key dimension of human life.  We reasonably judge the activity of knowing, then, to be an intrinsic (or “basic”) human good—a constitutive and irreducible aspect of our flourishing as human beings.  Like friendship and a number of other types of activity, knowledge provides a reason for choice and action that requires for its intelligibility as a reason no further or deeper reason or sub-rational source of motivation to which it is a means.

Knowledge of natural law, then, is not innate.  It does not swing free of experience or of the data provided by experience.  Even when it is easily achieved, practical knowledge (i.e., knowledge of natural law) is an achievement.  It is an event—a temporal event.  It is something that happens—or perhaps it would be better to say it something that is done—at a point in time by virtue of human acting.   It is the fruit of insights which, like all insights, are insights into data, data which are supplied by experience.  The insight—the knowledge—that friendship or knowledge itself is intrinsically humanly fulfilling is ultimately rooted in our elementary experiences of the activities of friendship and knowing,   Apart from those experiences, there would be no data on which practical reason could work to yield understanding of the intelligible point (and, thus, of the value) of friendship or knowledge and the judgment that these activities are intrinsic fulfillments of the human person and, as such, objects of the primary principles of practical reason and basic precepts of natural law.

Of course, not all practical knowledge is moral knowledge, though all moral knowledge is practical knowledge—it is (or centrally includes) knowledge of principles for the direction and guidance of action.  Yet knowledge of the most fundamental practical principles directing action towards the basic human goods and away from their privations, though not strictly speaking knowledge of moral norms, is foundational to the generation and identification of such norms.  That is because moral norms are principles that guide our actions in line with the primary practical principles integrally conceived.  Norms of morality are entailments of the integral directiveness or prescriptivity of the various aspects of human well-being and fulfillment that together constitute the ideal of integral human flourishing.  So, if the first principle of practical reason is, as Aquinas say, “the good (bonum) is to be done and pursued, and the bad (malum) is to be avoided,” then the first principle of morality is that “one ought always to choose and otherwise will in a way that is compatible with a will towards integral human fulfillment.”  And just as the first principle of practical reason is specified, as Aquinas makes clear, by identifying the various irreducible aspects of human well-being and fulfillment (namely, friendship, knowledge, aesthetic appreciation, skillful performance, religion, and so forth), so too the first principle of morality is specified by identifying the norms of conduct that are entailed by an open-hearted love of the human good (that is, the good of human persons) taken as a whole.


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