This is the second part of a four-part series which began with “What If? What If? Why Shouldn’t?” on Friday, 03-07-2014.
The title of today's post reflects how the question is usually posed to me. Taken literally, it is nonsense, like the question “If I had been born to Scandinavian parents, would my eyes have the same color?” “I” could not have been born to Scandinavian parents; anyone who had been would not be “me.” In the same way, “we” could not have a different nature; beings with a different nature would not be “us.” But it is perfectly reasonable to ask questions about them. The real meaning of the title question is “Would rational beings endowed with a different nature than ours be subject to a different natural law?”
You see why the question is troubling. Starting with H.G. Wells, our speculative literature has conditioned us to expect that if other rational beings exist, then for all we know they may be “alien” to us in every sense of the word. For example, they might be natural predators, like H.G. Wells’ Martians or Larry Niven’s kzinti. For us, the natural law forbids murder. For Martians or kzinti, might it command murder? If so, then morality would arbitrary – it would be, so to speak, an “accident of nature,” as the wealth of my parents is an accident of birth. A kind of moral relativism – relativism of species nature – would be built into the fabric of creation.
Here are some of the most common responses:
1. That’s right. Morality is arbitrary. Get used to it.
2. No, morality can’t be arbitrary. But as the examples show, it would be arbitrary if it had anything to do with nature. So it doesn’t. The idea of a “natural” moral law is confused. We should drop it.
3. No, morality really is grounded in our created nature. But that doesn’t make it arbitrary, because those sorts of examples won’t arise. A good Creator wouldn’t have made intelligent predators.
I think all of three responses are mistaken, because all three overlook the same thing. We are speculating aboutrational animals -- not merely animal, like lions, and not merely rational, like angels, but beings in whom an underlying animal nature is taken up into and transformed by the rational nature. That makes a difference.
Consider sexuality. One of the things which human nature has in common with mere animals like dogs and cats is the union of male and female. For both us and them, this is how the wheel of the generations is turned. But mere animals have only blind impulses to guide them. Although they have natures, they have not risen to the level of naturallaw, because law presupposes an intelligent being capable of recognizing the goodness of the precept and responding accordingly.
We are that latter kind of being. Because of our rational nature, we experience the impulses we share with the animals differently than they ever could. For us, the impulses aren’t blind. In the first place they have natural meaning for us; recognition of meaning is one of the functions of intelligence. In the second place we can steer them so that they participate more deeply in their meaning. So instead of rutting, we have marriage, which arranges not just for the birth of children, but also for their care and nurture by a mother and father who give themselves to each other mutually, totally, exclusively, and irrevocably. True, we may be tempted by mere rutting. But we cannot be satisfied by it.
Now let’s consider beings in whom rational nature supervenes on a different animal nature. For an analogy, consider non-Euclidean geometries. In planar, Euclidean geometry, the sum of the interior angles of a triangle is 180 degrees, but on the surface of a sphere it is more than 180, and on the surface of a saddle it is less. Yet on all three, two angles equal to a third angle are equal to each other. Though some things are different for each metric surface, others are the same just because they are all metric surfaces.
In the same way, for rational animals different than ourselves, some things will be different because the underlying animal nature is different, but other things will be the same just because the underlying animal nature is equally taken up into rational nature. What sort of thing will be the same? Richard Hooker gave a famous explanation of one of them. As he wrote five centuries ago (and his point is much older than that):
The like natural inducement hath brought men to know that it is no less their duty, to love others than themselves; for seeing those things which are equal, must needs all have one measure; if I cannot but wish to receive good, even as much at every man’s hands, as any man can wish unto his own soul, how should I look to have any part of my desire herein satisfied, unless myself be careful to satisfy the like desire, which is undoubtedly in other men, being of one and the same nature?
In other words, things of the same nature are necessarily governed by the same measure; just insofar as we are rational we are of the same nature; and because we do possess rationality, we can recognize what follows from these premises. That’s how we know that we should love other rational beings as ourselves – not that we usually work it out in this fashion.
So I think we are free to imagine a rational animal who is a predator, but we are not free to imagine one who does not know the Golden Rule. Do unto other natures as “you,” with that nature, would have others do unto you.
Of course it may be rather difficult for each species to grasp how the other species, given its particular animal nature, would have beings to do unto them. The rational predator may be what we call a strong colleague. He may not be good company for humans (any more than we might be for him). Even so, he would not be “a murderer by nature.”
So I don’t think the real moral problem is that each rational species would have a different natural law. The rational continuities would be more important than the animal discontinuities. In principle, both species should recognize all the first principles of practical reason.
The nightmare arises from a different possibility: That his nature – like ours – may be fallen; that like us, he may know the law, but not follow it. Our rational nature has rebelled against its Creator. As a natural consequence, our animal nature is no longer docile and obedient to reason. Presumably, it would be the same with other fallen species.
We can cross that bridge when and if we come to it. There may not be any other rational animals. The universe may be teeming with them, but we may not ever meet them. Other worlds are very far away.
But would rational beings endowed with a different nature than ours be subject to a different natural law? In the ways that make us moral, no.