Friday, October 23, 2009

Natural Law Theory: George and Arendt

The St. Thomas law school recently hosted Robert P. George, fellow at Princeton and natural law theorist, to receive the Humanae Dignitatis award and speak on “Natural Law, God, and Human Dignity.” His theory of natural law is that it is only known to us humans when we experience it. Knowledge of natural law is not innate, but rather experienced – something that we do rather than that is done to us. Through experience, we come to understand basic moral norms of natural law. The one he cited was a variation of Kant’s Categorical Imperative: Act so that your action furthers the fundamental reason for man’s existence. Virtue he defined as the habit of acting in accordance with these moral norms.

Yet he did not seem to answer what sort of experience we must make. While it might be assumed that man will always act reasonably, and therefore always act in pursuit of his good, George also noted that whole societies have been misled as to the nature of the good and yet have continued to act entirely reasonably. In fact, as Hannah Arendt describes in her study The Banality of Evil: Eichmann in Jerusalem, the entire German society in World War II seemed to have turned conscience on its head, and accepted that state of affairs. She writes: “[C]onscience as such had apparently got lost in Germany, and this to a point where people hardly remembered it and had ceased to realize that the surprising ‘new set of German values’ was not shared by the outside world.”

Supporting her theory was the fact that Adolf Eichmann, the architect of the “Final Solution,” was an ordinary man with an ordinary sense of morality, who had initially experienced great aversion to the idea of “liquidating” the Jews. Until that order was given, he had simply assumed the “Solution” was to make Germany judenrein by expelling, exporting, and otherwise physically removing Jews from the country.

He felt these twinges of conscience for approximately 10 weeks, Arendt reports. At the end of that time, he attended the conference at Wannsee, devoted to the particulars of the Final Solution. Everyone, without exception, states Arendt, spoke as though the immorality of the plan was not even in question: it was a nonissue. Since his superiors had adopted this position, and, indeed, everyone Eichmann knew, he gave it no further thought. (Eichmann stated that no one, not even the local religious leaders, ever pointed out to him the evil he was engaging in. Instead, they worked within the “law,” obtaining “exceptions,” but never directly challenging the law.) Eichmann had corrupted Kant’s principle (“act so the principle of your action can become the principle for general laws”) to mean “Act so that the Fuehrer, if he knew what you were doing, would approve.” Hitler’s will was substituted for Eichmann’s and was regarded throughout Germany as having the force of law.

The horrors of the Holocaust are well-known. Following the end of World War II, at the Nuremberg Trials, international law began to adopt a minimum moral standard that would apply regardless of what the law of the individual country had been at the time the crime had been committed. The source of this moral standard was to be what all nations regarded as moral. But, again, there remained the question, which is coming back in the recent debates about medical conscience clauses, whether the conscience can be relied upon to define an objective morality, or whether, particularly if knowledge of morality is predicated on experience and habits of acting, conscience is simply relative and dependent on individual experience, cultural norms, and other subjective and changeable criteria. If the latter, there is no guaranty that something like the Holocaust will not happen again.
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