Natural law and sexual ethics by Janet Smith
I am honored to be among the lecturers in this series on natural law. Many of the speakers are among my heroes and friends. One of my heroes, Alasdair MacIntyre, used one of his favorite terms in his talk: he spoke of "plain persons" and their grasp of morality and natural law in contradistinction to the experts and professional philosophers and their grasp of these matters. A few years ago in Dallas he gave a talk entitled "Do plain persons need to be moral philosophers?" When I was asked to give the response to his talk, I was most honored because I considered Prof. MacIntyre one of the foremost moral philosophers in the world and it was a thrill to comment on his work. I felt dreadfully underqualified — I felt like some high school kid going up against Larry Bird — until I realized that I need not respond as an expert, as a moral philosopher of his caliber, but that I could respond as the quintessential plain person — for that is what I am. After all, I am Janet Smith, daughter of John and Anne Smith; I grew up at 5 Hill Street and went to Home Street School — I could go on but it is all very plain.The point I am making here is not merely a flip one — designed to ease us into more serious matters through an attempt at humor. There is a serious point here — natural law, is the "plain person's" morality — in a sense it is simply plain old common sense. There are profound and sophisticated ways at explaining natural law, but the practiceof reasoning in accord with natural law principals, according to the theory itself, is natural to plain persons — that is, natural to all mankind for natural law holds that many of the most fundamental principles of moral reasoning are obvious, that is easily known by all. Yet, in spite of the plain commonsensicalness of natural law, it can seem shocking and provocative in many ways, for like natural law, plain old common sense does not command a lot of followers these days and can be shocking when juxtaposed to the values of our times.My talk is going to be very basic in several respects. It will review some of the basic principles that other speakers have covered, some in depth, some more in passing. It will also be very basic in being the one talk that attempts to make an application of natural law to concrete moral issues; issues in the realm of sexual ethics. My job is not to justify natural law ethics but to explain it and apply it. As did many of the earlier speakers I will largely be following the thought of Thomas Aquinas on these matters and of Aristotle from whom Aquinas learned many of the principles that informed his teaching on natural law. I shall also incorporate into my arguments the thought of another stellar natural law theorist, still alive and well: I shall make use of the work of Karol Wojtyla, now known as Pope John Paul II. I will refer to him as Wojtyla simply because I do not want to be thought to be invoking his authority as Holy Father; I cite him simply as a philosopher who has made great advances of our understanding of natural law, particularly in regard to sexual ethics.So let me begin with a review of the principles of natural law. As several other speakers have noted, Aquinas maintains that the first principle of natural law is "do good, avoid evil". As he notes, that is a self-evident principle and obvious to all; if we want to be moral we should do good and avoid evil. No controversy here. The question is, of course, what is good and what is evil and how to we come to know which is which? Some think we can't know what is good and evil so the best we can do is live by the conventions of our times. Others think it best to let our passions be our guide to whatever we want to do. Others think only revealed religion can give us absolutes. These three positions capture the predominant views of our times.Aquinas holds none of these positions. He argues that reason should be our guide to morality. Not only does...
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