Feser and Bessette: The general philosophical approach

In Feser and Bessette’s philosophical case for the moral legitimacy of the death penalty, the first thing to notice is their general approach to moral reasoning.  They claim to represent traditional natural law theory, which they put forward as the approach taken by St. Thomas Aquinas and advocated by Pope St. John Paul II (page 21), and they devote a few pages to explaining what this approach is.

The approach set out, however, does not appear to me to be what Aquinas and JPII had in mind.  Let me explain with a couple of examples from F&B’s principles:

  1. You must not consider the morality of your action from within your own, first-person perspective.

Fesser and Bessette take it as fundamental that our moral knowledge depends on taking a third-person view of our actions:

From the traditional natural law theorist’s point of view, knowing what is truly good for us requires taking an external, objective, third-person view of ourselves rather than a subjective, first-person view; it is a matter of determining what fulfills our nature, not our contingent desires. (Page 25)

  1. We learn the moral law by studying human nature.

Why is this important?  Because we only come to know what is morally good or bad by studying the natures of things and the teleology built into those natures:

Hence just as, in chemistry, botany, and physiology, knowledge can be acquired merely by studying the natures of chemical, botanical, and physiological phenomena, so too can moral knowledge be acquired just by studying human nature. (Page 31)

Let’s compare these two principles with a couple of principles from the natural law approach of Aquinas and JPII:

  1. You can only understand the morality of an act from within the perspective of the person acting.

Possibly the most famous statement in John Paul II’s encyclical The Splendor of Truth comes in paragraph 78 (italics in original):

The morality of the human act depends primarily and fundamentally on the “object” rationally chosen by the deliberate will, as is borne out by the insightful analysis, still valid today, made by St. Thomas. In order to be able to grasp the object of an act which specifies that act morally, it is therefore necessary to place oneself in the perspective of the acting person.  The object of the act of willing is in fact a freely chosen kind of behavior.

A few months ago I set aside time to re-read Aquinas’s treatise on the moral act carefully.  My conclusion:  This statement from John Paul II perfectly captures what Aquinas was saying.

  1. The natural law is self-evident to human beings.

The idea that morality must be judged from within the perspective of the acting person—from the first-person point of view—is bound up with a particular idea about what natural law is.  In the view of Aquinas and JPII, natural law is not something “out there” in natures for us to study, but rather something “in here,” built into the very way we see things with our reason.  As JPII says (VS paragraph 42):

It also becomes clear why this law is called the natural law: it receives this name not because it refers to the nature of irrational beings but because the reason which promulgates it is proper to human nature.

Aquinas says the same thing:

Wherefore [the rational creature] has a share of the Eternal Reason, whereby it has a natural inclination to its proper act and end: and this participation of the eternal law in the rational creature is called the natural law.

This is why Aquinas says that “the precepts of the natural law” are “general and indemonstrable principles” that are not acquired by “the effort of reason” (ST I-II.91.3).  Or as John Paul II says, quoting Leo XIII, the natural law is “written and engraved on the heart of each and every man” (VS 44).

One could say a lot about the contrasts between Feser and Bessette on the one hand and Aquinas and JPII on the other, and about the implications of those contrasts.  But for this series of posts, I’ll stick to how the principles play out in the case F&B make for the death penalty.

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Author: Dr. Holmes

Dr. Jeremy Holmes teaches Theology at Wyoming Catholic College. He lives in Wyoming with his wife, Jacinta, and their eight children.

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