The daddy issues of modernity
June 2, 2017 § 32 Comments
The natural law gives rise to absolute and categorical negatives: to absolute prohibitions which morally bind always and everywhere to prohibit certain kinds of behavior, independent of intentions and circumstances. Murder, contracting for usury, torture, and adultery are always and without exception morally wrong kinds of behavior. Once a contemplated action is recognized as intrinsically immoral in species it is always morally wrong to choose that behavior.
It is also always morally wrong to intend the intrinsically immoral behavior of others, either as a means or an end. We call this formal cooperation with evil.
The authority of particular men arises from and builds upon the natural law. A father has authority over his children by nature; his imposition of a particular bedtime morally binds his children to obedience in virtue of his natural authority qua father. We call the particular commands of a person in authority positive law. For brevity I will refer to “the person in authority” as “the sovereign“.
Positive law can take two different forms.
In one form of positive law the sovereign directly asserts a particular command in a particular concrete situation: go to bed right now.
In another form of positive law, the sovereign promulgates a normative rule: in thus and such a circumstance, this is to be done. Bedtime is eight o’clock.
Commands from authority are not the only kind of positive law. For example we all have a positive natural law moral obligation to give alms: to materially support the poor and downtrodden, our brothers and sisters in Christ.
But it is fundamentally impossible for positive law to morally bind us to particular actions under all conceivable circumstances. Positive law is always by its very nature regulated by prudence. Going to bed at eight o’clock when the house is on fire would be a kind of mechanical rule-following which makes no sense under the particular circumstances. The positive rule is normative, but cannot by its nature be categorical.
I can’t explain this more plainly than the Church itself explains it:
Furthermore, what must be done in any given situation depends on the circumstances, not all of which can be foreseen; on the other hand there are kinds of behaviour which can never, in any situation, be a proper response — a response which is in conformity with the dignity of the person. Finally, it is always possible that man, as the result of coercion or other circumstances, can be hindered from doing certain good actions; but he can never be hindered from not doing certain actions, especially if he is prepared to die rather than to do evil.
Rules, procedures, and written law are not capable of becoming transubstantiated incarnations of authority itself. The crafting of positive rules, the writing of text onto paper, is not a sacrament. Bureaucracy cannot become a substitute for fathers, daycares cannot become a substitute for mothers, and formal decision procedures cannot become a substitute for kings.
This is distressing to the modern mind, which desperately wants to believe that a politics with minimized authority is not merely coherent, not merely possible, but is the only moral state of affairs.
Ultimately though reality doesn’t really care about the daddy issues of modernity. Pervasive commitment to an incoherent conception of authority doesn’t make authority go away as a feature of reality: it merely makes authority sociopathic.