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Love and Natural Law

The Perspective of Love: Natural Law in a New Mode. R. J. Snell. Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2014.


To borrow a line, R. J. Snell’s The Perspective of Love is not the book the natural law tradition deserves, but it is a book the natural law tradition needs. What the tradition deserves is another tome on Aquinas, or another debate over the nature of intention, or more arguments between the new natural lawyers and everyone else. What is has been given is a svelte, promising work that draws on the work of Bernard Lonergan to place the natural law in conversation, rather than confrontation, with the philosophical developments of modernity and postmodernity, thereby opening a new area of discussion within the natural law tradition.

Unlike some works on the natural law, whose verbosity protects them against being read, The Perspective of Love does not seek to be the last word. Snell takes on three tasks in this book. First, he attempts to classify the various natural law approaches based on the modes of meaning they operate in; he identifies the primary modes as common sense, theory, and interiority, with subdivisions for each. He then addresses the “Protestant Prejudice” against natural law by arguing that its objections apply to natural law in the theoretical mode, not the modes of interiority and love. Finally, relying heavily on Bernard Lonergan’s theory of consciousness, he attempts to articulate love as a new mode of meaning for natural law thinking. For Snell, love as a mode of natural law develops from the mode of interiority, but becomes distinct as it takes account of the role of love in human moral knowledge.

The various modes of natural law are distinguished, Snell explains, not only by “variations of content or articulation…but more fundamentally by the realms of meaning in which differences operate and are formed” (11). In Snell’s scheme, natural law in the mode of common sense is the simplest and least differentiated mode. It is the natural law of tradition, proverbs and “how things are.” It is particular and relative, though likely embedded within a cosmology. When it becomes reflective or is put into crisis, it may be forced into the second mode of natural law, which is natural law as theory, which, Snell argues, has dominated the natural law tradition, and is often considered to be the mode of natural law thinking. The theoretical mode is the natural law as science, discovering and articulating universal natures and principles. It is the natural law of metaphysics and ontology.

It is against natural law in the mode of theory against which Christian critics of the natural law (reformed Protestants in particular) have usually directed their attacks. These accusations claim that the natural law “downplays the fall, overlooks the noetic effects of sin, ignores salvation history, makes the Gospel non-essential to the moral life, confines grace to a heavenly or spiritual domain, and thinks that the human can know or act well without first knowing and acting like Christ and being formed by his Church” (x).

Snell concedes the power of these arguments, even if he does not find them entirely persuasive, and admits that the theoretical mode of natural law is ill-equipped to express the problems of the Fall and of human sin nature. Even a thinker as great as Aquinas was handicapped by the “Rube Goldbergian apparatus of concepts” resulting from the adoption of Aristotelian terminology (137). Consequently, Snell argues that although Aquinas certainly did not overlook sin, it is not sufficient to reiterate his arguments; rather, a recovery of the proper place of sin within natural law theory “requires transposing meaning from the theoretical to the interior” (139). Natural law articulated in the modes of interiority and love captures sin’s effects on the dynamic, acting person in a way that the reified language of classical Thomism does not.

The mode of interiority, Snell argues, is able to take fuller account of the effects of sin. Consequently, he sets aside many of the charges leveled at the natural law because they tend to “assume natural law within the theoretical mode of meaning” (50). However telling they may be against that mode, they need not apply to the modes of interiority and love, the latter mode being Snell’s unique development of natural law theory. He explains that from the perspective of interiority, “Sin is the failure and disordering of the will which works itself out in the lovelessness and privation of total loving of the concrete subject. In some ways, human nature, understood as interiority, just is love as love is structurally integrated in consciousness—we are not first and foremost thinking things and substances but lovers” (147). This understanding of human nature allows the natural law modes of interiority and especially of love to better account for the damage sin does to nature.

In exploring natural law in the mode of interiority, Snell identifies a variety of thinkers operating within it, ranging from Pope John Paul II to Martin Rhonheimer to new natural lawyers such as Germain Grisez and John Finnis. Despite their differences, these contemporary natural law theories approach the natural law from a first-person perspective, unlike “the classical versions rooted in theoretical anthropology and its concomitant metaphysics of the person” (11). Snell explains that “natural law in the mode of interiority begins with subjects who are not strangers to themselves… Interiority provides the basic anthropological component by attending to what we do, not what we are, and claims to understand rather than derive the law” (75). The natural law is accessible and known to us primarily from our perspective as acting persons, not as metaphysicians.

It is also within the interior mode of natural law that Snell begins to articulate his own approach to the natural law, which relies significantly on the Jesuit thinker Bernard Lonergan. While acknowledging that “Lonergan is rarely considered a natural law thinker,” Snell argues that this is largely because of the domination of the natural law tradition by the theoretical mode. He presents Lonergan as “a significant, even seminal thinker of natural law in the mode of interiority,” and makes Lonergan’s theory of consciousness the basis for his own project (112). Although he leaves many possible criticisms unanswered, Snell defends the turn to interiority against charges of subjectivism (which is assumed to lead to relativism) by contending that “turning to subjectivity does not lose itself in subjectivism, but instead reveals a universal and normative structure of human nature” (122). This universal structure is revealed in the dynamic operations of consciousness, driven by the desire to know and the search for truth that Lonergan described.

Snell also notes a refinement over the course of Lonergan’s career, with his earlier work placing too much emphasis on the intellectual aspect of our consciousness, a deficiency that was eventually corrected, with Lonergan’s later work providing a superior account of human responsibility and the role of love. Snell describes Lonergan’s resulting view of consciousness as “a four level structure, with the level of responsibility completing the previous empirical, intelligent, and rational levels . . . ‘Be reasonable’ does not capture adequately the drama and agency required for a subject to ‘Be responsible’” (123). This shift to responsibility emphasizes concepts of value, authenticity, and love. Snell observes that the emergence of love augments “the disinterested desire to know . . . [I]ncluding love and redemption in the account begins to enrich interiority with transcendence,” which brings the natural law into a fourth mode of meaning and perfects and completes “the trajectory of interiority” (149). Snell argues that the source for natural law is love and the fulfillment of our nature as lovers. Following the natural law is not primarily a matter of following universal moral formulations, but of being authentic and true to our nature as lovers of what is good, true and beautiful.

This is an unusual way of describing the natural law, though it might be less radical than it first appears. While natural law in the theoretical mode does not usually speak in terms of authenticity, it could be expressed in such terms (i.e., to follow the principles of the natural law as revealed through the study of metaphysics and human ontology is to fulfill oneself as a human being authentically). However, Snell’s use of the term is less in this vein and more in the existential tradition upon which Lonergan drew. Authenticity for him is tied together with responsibility and care, value and love. No one is so depraved as to value nothing that is good, and thus the spark of the natural law is always present, urging a fuller realization of that good and its harmony with other goods.

Thus, the moral knowledge that value and authenticity provide is not primarily known through ontological and metaphysical accounts of what it is to be human, but immediately and concretely, through one’s responsibility and love. We are engaged with the world, and our moral knowledge is not simply a matter of reasoning correctly from the proper premises. As Snell observes, “If we were pure intellects, responsibility would be folded into reasonability. We would deliberate, understand the good, and choose and perform the action. But this is not our reality, even if a good many theorists present the moral life in such a way” (152). Love, more than reason, illuminates the moral world for us. And this moral world cannot be adequately expressed in set propositions. Consequently, Snell does not attempt to establish a foundational set of self-evident principles that are either universal moral norms or the basis from which universal moral norms may be derived. Moral persuasion involves much more than logical proof; rather, it requires conversion. For Snell, to be responsible in love is to be authentic, and to be authentic is to transcend oneself in a conversion, which “is not merely bringing to light the inadequacy of a theory but also the inauthenticity of a person” (179). No one can be argued into virtue. The fundamental problem of the human condition is not insufficient reason but a corrupt will and a lack of love.

This perspective helps resolve the difficulties that other natural law modes have had in reconciling grace and nature. Prioritizing love over reason in the apprehension of the natural law and its fulfillment of our natures eliminates the awkwardness that the natural law tradition has so often faced regarding the respective roles of reason and revelation in moral knowledge. As Snell concludes, the natural law “begins and ends in love. Not in first propositions, not in anthropology, not in biology, but in love…natural law is love’s capacity to seek for that love which God is, for humans to become fundamentally what they are, lovers” (188). Grace allows us to authentically become the lovers we were meant to be, but which under the effects of sin, were incapable of being.

Overall, Snell presents his own approach clearly, though with only occasional verve. Due to the brevity of the book he does not engage other approaches to the natural law as thoroughly as their proponents would presumably desire. For instance, he does not thoroughly address the epistemological concerns of natural law theorists either in the theoretical or interior modes. However, such omissions are necessary to keep this volume slim and readable. The book opens the conversation, rather than ending it.

More troublesome is that although Snell repudiates the attempts of other natural law accounts to establish sets of self-evident moral propositions (or principles from which they can be derived) that will persuade all rational persons of goodwill, he nonetheless attempts a similar proof of his account of the natural law. He argues that opposing theories are self-refuting, insofar as they themselves will rely on the operations of consciousness that he appropriates from Lonergan. His argument will be unpersuasive to readers who do not wholeheartedly accept Lonergan’s theory of consciousness.

While Snell acknowledges the historicity and contingency of human knowing, and the consequent limitedness of all human formulations, he nonetheless insists upon the universality of the structures of consciousness he describes. There have been many other ways of describing the operations of human consciousness and Snell makes no additional attempt to demonstrate the superiority of Lonergan’s account over that of potential rivals. He is content to say only that any alternative description must invariably utilize the operations of consciousness Lonergan describes, and therefore Lonergan’s account must be superior. That the same strategy could be used by any number of alternative descriptions of consciousness does not seem to occur to him.

Grounding the natural law in the universal operations of human consciousness produces another problem, which is that Snell persistently overemphasizes the role of the self (and self-knowledge) in the natural law and pays insufficient attention to the communal and dialogic nature of moral inquiry. When the natural law is discovered by looking inward (i.e. “I am the natural law”) instead of looking outward in dialogue and inquiry with others, there is additional temptation to self-indulgence, and fewer checks upon it (147-148).

These are the significant difficulties with some of the specifics of Snell’s approach, though some are perhaps problems of emphasis and formulation rather than philosophical aporias. This is a short book that leaves many issues unaddressed and many questions unanswered; other accounts and their responses will make their own contributions and corrections. However, what Snell certainly has gotten right is the need for the natural law tradition to engage with the challenges of modern and postmodern philosophical developments. This attempt at a “metaethics” is an excellent contribution to addressing that need.

Nathanael Blake

Nathanael Blake is a graduate student at Catholic University of America.

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