Arguments are powerful things in the world of rhetoric. When considering any given topic, familiarity with the cognitive and evidentiary frameworks that pertain to that topic can be of great use both in understanding and defending a position. Some arguments (albeit few) are powerful enough to justify a position all by themselves; most positions require a variety of arguments to be fully persuasive. Conversely, there are some arguments that are so weak that it is reasonable to completely ignore anyone who would try and press them into service.
I have so far dealt with four such arguments: “common sense”, “I’ve done my own research”, any sentence that starts with “I believe that…” and back-filling explanations to satisfy an a priori conclusion. “Common sense” is a poorly-named concept, because it presumes that people perceive and process information in a uniform way. Doing your own research rarely meets the standard of “research” required to be authoritative or replicable. A person’s individual belief in a thing does not grant it legitimacy, regardless of the sincerity of that belief. Finally, reliable information cannot be gained by assuming the truth of the conclusion, then looking for confirmatory evidence.
These are all specious and worthless arguments, and carry with them no persuasive force when the audience is able to think about them critically. To this list, I would like to add any argument that is contingent on the concept of “natural law”. There are a surprising number of thinkers and theorists that use this concept, and a separate definition for each. The particular understanding of the concept that I find to be most vacuous is perhaps best articulated by the Catholic Church:
The natural law expresses the original moral sense which enables man to discern by reason the good and the evil, the truth and the lie: The natural law is written and engraved in the soul of each and every man, because it is human reason ordaining him to do good and forbidding him to sin… But this command of human reason would not have the force of law if it were not the voice and interpreter of a higher reason to which our spirit and our freedom must be submitted.5
The general thrust of this definition is that humans have an innate sense of right and wrong, and that this sense is both reliable and derived through human reason. The weaknesses of the Catholic position (the conjuring of the existence of their specific god and a human soul) aside, the very concept is still meritless, or at least not borne out by evidence. Given the diversity of ways in which people react to similar moral quandaries is evidence that there is not a uniform moral sense. The existence of quandaries – situations in which a reasonable case can be made for or against a given action – is evidence enough that there is nothing “written and engraved in the soul” of anybody.
There are a variety of reasonable ways of arriving at a moral decision – the entire field of ethics attests to this fact. A variety of ethical constructs and theoretical scaffolds have been invented to codify a method of consistently arriving at conclusions that maximize the good and to minimize the negative. However, when a given action may cause both good and evil (e.g., giving a life-saving blood transfusion to a Jehova’s Witness against her/his will), our supposed innate moral sense fails us. One person may choose to ignore her innate moral sense to preserve life in favour of obeying the patient’s wishes, while another may reject the patient’s irrational belief in favour of giving him life-saving treatment. Both of these choices are justifiable (although, for the record, medical ethics fall firmly on the side of patient autonomy). Neither can be said to either violate human reason or some kind of ‘natural law’.
While this argument would be merely annoying if invoked in abstract, it is sometimes assumed to be valid, and then used to justify all manner of harm:
…tradition has always declared that “homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered.” They are contrary to the natural law. They close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances can they be approved.
Divorce is a grave offense against the natural law. It claims to break the contract, to which the spouses freely consented, to live with each other till death. Divorce does injury to the covenant of salvation, of which sacramental marriage is the sign. Contracting a new union, even if it is recognized by civil law, adds to the gravity of the rupture: the remarried spouse is then in a situation of public and permanent adultery:
Basing regulations on the non-existent natural law is dangerous and detrimental to those caught outside the realm of what the authority deems acceptable. Two women that are in love, or a man that wants to leave his abusive wife, are shit out of luck because those things are ‘against natural law’, as though loving who you choose and self-preservation are some kind of irrational goal.
What we see in both the conception and application of ‘natural law’ is simply a collision of ‘common sense’ and back-filling. “I don’t like these things for whatever reason, and so I will look for a justification for my dislike that makes them seem rational.” As an argument, it is the equivalent of throwing up your hands and saying “because I said so, that’s why!” It takes courage and honesty to recognize that things you don’t like may be honestly justifiable to some, based on valid precepts (and no, I don’t count cultural norms or appeals to tradition among the list of valid precepts). Homosexuality seems weird to me, and I may not like it (for the record, I don’t really have strong feelings one way or the other, although I am immensely proud of our society whenever I see a gay couple together openly). I don’t agree with polygamy. I think that religious rules about diet or medical treatment are stupid. My personal discomfiture with a practice is, however, not evidence that said practice is ‘against natural law’. It just means I don’t like it.