Zombies, Zelda, and the Natural Law

zelda

Rescuing the princess. Punishing unjust oppressors. Liberating a people from slavery. International gamers across the world live out these fantasies on a daily basis. These fantasies don’t make themselves, however. Grown men and women have to sit down at computers and think them up.

Most video games these days have some kind of pre-packaged narrative experience, a plot (even if extremely thin) to help engage the player. What’s striking about this global phenomenon, however, is how this modern genre of entertainment so uniformly reiterates basic and even ancient human concepts of good and bad, right and wrong. This general uniformity persists despite the vast cultural and national differences between the players and, perhaps more surprisingly, despite the international diversity of the developers. Video games—secular amusements that spans the globe in terms of consumption and production—apparently prove natural law. Natural law, of course, is the concept that humans possess an inherent, inborn system that enables them to understand right and wrong. Its universality is described by the Catholic Catechism in the following:

Application of the natural law varies greatly; it can demand reflection that takes account of various conditions of life according to places, times, and circumstances. Nevertheless, in the diversity of cultures, the natural law remains as a rule that binds men among themselves and imposes on them, beyond the inevitable differences, common principles.

When Nintendo, Sony, Blizzard, Bioware, and others try to design games to a wide, international market, they tell stories that will appeal to a broadly held value system. Thus, without even realizing it, companies turn to natural law as the least common denominator of international marketing.

Of course, games can also appeal to other, seemingly less noble value systems as well. Most games project fantasies of violence—often gruesome and cruel. Gamers obviously like to imagine killing things. However, as I intend to prove below, most gamers only like to imagine killing things in certain contexts. Ultra-violent games that revel in providing death and dismemberment in stunning HD typically provide either moral justification or critique of their own violence. Below, I offer some brief examples of particularly questionable games and show how they still conform to basic human concepts of right and wrong.

Perhaps the most perverse video game I have seen of late is Tea Party Zombies Must Die, the independently produced “first person shooter” where the player storms into the offices of Fox News and kills conservative celebrities and voters. Typical objections to this game question whether or not it will inspire an already unhinged maniac to perform real life atrocities. Surely it may. Yet, even this highly objectionable, tasteless, and irresponsible game ultimately conforms to an inescapable natural law. To make his metaphorical point, the developer was forced to transform all of the targets into zombies. As hateful as the game was, it still demanded the complete dehumanization of its victims first. The developer intuits that killing people because of their beliefs would not be morally justified, so he had to create a morally justifiable excuse…the metaphor of self-defense during a zombie apocalypse. I’m not writing this to defend the game or suggest that you should feel comfortable with people playing it in the cubicle next to yours. My point is only that, within the context of the game’s fiction and satire, the game scripts its violence into morally excusable self-defense.

In a more typical example, a super-violent and popular franchise like Sony’s God of War depicts its protagonist, Kratos, as liberating humans from oppressive and tyrannical Olympian gods. And while Kratos does sometimes receive health bonuses if he kills innocent civilians, the game goes out of its way to brand Kratos as an anti-hero. He was himself a tyrant who made a horrible mistake in his past. Although the player can recognize how Kratos brings vigilante justice to the pagan pantheon, the player also recognizes that Kratos really only seeks revenge for himself, and that his revenge is self-destructive.

Even games that are less interested in justifying their violence still convey a sense of the wrongness of the actions portrayed. Rockstar, the company that makes Grand Theft Auto and similar ultra-violent, culturally edgy games like Bully and Manhunt, sells its games on the very criminality of the simulated actions contained within. The enticement is that the actions you can perform in the game are so very, very wrong. Characters in these games might find immediate material gratification, but they are almost never happy people. Rockstar never claims to model felicity in its games.

Some games even let you play evil itself. Mario’s doppleganger, the selfish, evil Wario has his own series, but Wario is depicted as an ugly caricature of greed, a kind of Scrooge McDuck without the avuncular charm. The recent series of Overlord games invites players to take on the role of a demonic warrior who follows his every base desire to pillage kingdoms and seduce beautiful women. It might have well been called Freud’s Id: The Videogame or Male Teenage Wish-Fulfillment. But, like Grand Theft Auto, this game advertises itself on the premise that it tempts the player to make evil choices. It makes no bones about its protagonist’s own immorality.

To say that video games prove natural law does not mean every video game is good or inspires moral behavior. Far from it. Games can inspire very bad behavior, and not just in terms of violence.

Personally, I think parents should be much more concerned about the depictions of sexuality in games. From the days of the risque Atari 2600 games, to the silhouettes in the window of Golgo 13 on the 8-bit NES, to last year’s release of Catherine, some developers have pursued push-button eroticism. Even in these cases, however, natural law usually wins out. When one considers Sierra Entertainment’s old Leisure Suit Larry franchise, perhaps the first popular series to feature sexuality as a game dynamic, the titular Larry was not someone the players would want to emulate in real life. He hearkens back to the Restoration rake, the fop, the would-be lothario. Renaissance playwrights have often their use of such characters as amusing if not didactic negative examples. Laugh at them, imagine yourself in their shoes, but never be one of them. The same principle of the negative example generally holds true for video games as well.

Likewise, Catherine problematizes its sexuality by depicting the anxiety of a faithless boyfriend, and attempting to convey that experience of anxiety to the player via the Japanese anime puzzle genre. Although the game advertises itself on sensuality, the game is about a tangled, tortured web of infidelity. (Or so I’ve read. Such games are not in my library.) On the gamer blog Kotaku, columnist Patricia Hernandez reveals how her attitudes towards the protagonist of Catherine made her come to grips with her own ethical failings:

Vincent isn’t a likable character–I’m sure this is a universal sentiment. He comes across as a spineless, milquetoast sap. As you play, you’re practically screaming at the TV over the choices he makes.

I didn’t just dislike Vincent, though. I absolutely hated him. I hated how he stalled. I hated how he ran away from his problems. I hated how he strung both Catherine and Katherine along. I hated how he acted as if the problem would fix itself.

Or was it that I hated watching Vincent commit exact same mistakes as I did, for being exactly the same as me? I can’t say.

It is telling that Hernandez describes her reaction to Vincent as “a universal sentiment;” and her description of universality reminds me of C.S. Lewis’s description of natural law in The Case for Christianity. Lewis likewise emphasizes a universal sentiment of good or bad with regard to certain kinds of behaviors:

I know that some people say the idea of a Law of Nature or decent behaviour known to all men is unsound, because different civilisations and different ages have had quite different moralities. But they haven’t. They have only had slightly different moralities…Men have differed as regards what people you ought to be unselfish to—whether it was only your own family, or your fellow countrymen, or every one. But they have always agreed that you oughtn’t to put yourself first. Selfishness has never been admired.

Hernandez’s assertion that anyone playing Catherine must not like the character Vincent assumes that everyone must have the same thoughts about his actions. No one, she believes, would play this game and think his lying and cowardice is worthy of emulation—even people who have behaved in the same manner in real life, as she confesses she has done.

Coincidentally, Lewis’s description above precisely echoes Hernandez’s point in its next lines: “Men have differed as to whether you should have one wife or four. But they have always agreed that you mustn’t simply have any woman you liked” (5). This is precisely the argument that Hernandez implies is behind the story of Catherine.

I don’t know whether Hernandez and I agree on most moral particulars, but a 21st Century female video game blogger, a bunch of Japanese computer geeks, a deceased 20th Century British philologist, and myself all have the same core reaction to infidelity, reminding us that

The natural law is immutable and permanent throughout the variations of history; it subsists under the flux of ideas and customs and supports their progress. The rules that express it remain substantially valid. Even when it is rejected in its very principles, it cannot be destroyed or removed from the heart of man.

So far, however, I have only shown how narrative structure relates to natural law. There are, frankly, only so many stories to tell, and one could play a similar game (pardon the expression) with other media such as movies and fiction. Is there a way in which video games uniquely broadcast natural law? To answer requires a more academic definition of video games.

Video games are different than other media, as Roger Ebert tried to explain to a very angry and vocal gamer community

As Ebert pointed out when arguing that video games cannot be art, the nature of a game as a narrative medium is intrinsically different than a movie or book. The most important difference, according to Ebert, is that you can win a game. You can win a game because games have rules. Although Ebert eventually backpedalled on his own argument, I’d like to take this idea a step further and in a direction altogether different from what Ebert intended.

Certainly there are “rules” to crafting other media, but there aren’t really rules to consuming it. You can read a book in any order you want. You could read all the words backwards, jump around, or skip pages. You do actually have to turn pages and scan them with your eyes, but you usually have significant control over the pacing. With movies, you passively watch the action take place. You might be actively engaged with the movie, but nothing you do can change the pace at which it plays. You could perhaps fast-forward or rewind depending on the technology you are using, but the main difference between a movie and a book is that a movie will continue to play whether or not you are in the room. A book can’t read itself.

Games, however, are a synthesis of these two media. Like a book, the player must take action to advance the plot (no matter how simple that plot is). But, like a movie, the programmer still controls the pace at which the plot can unfold. The pacing can be controlled through cinematic means, by making very long or short stories…but the pacing is also controlled by the game’s difficulty. The difficulty of the game is a result not of the complexity of the plot but of the rules of the game. If you have a hard time in a book, you can skip ahead. If you don’t understand a scene in a film, it simply ushers you along to the next scene. If you don’t understand Hamlet’s motivation, it’s not like all of the actors stop acting until you get it. However, unless you are using cheat codes, you can’t advance in a game until you have mastered its rules.

Sometimes it takes me hours to learn how to make one little blob of pixels jump over another little blob of pixels. I’m not allowed to go anywhere else until I’ve learned my lesson. It can be a bit purgatorial. (MIT professor Henry Jenkins refers to this aspect of games as “environmental storytelling.)

Rules in video games dictate where you can go and how you can get there. There are places that are off limits, even to Super Mario. These rules dictate what constitutes virtual life and death. They dictate what earns points and what takes points away. The rules define the conditions of the player’s reward and punishment. Even The Sims  and other “sandbox” genre games that let players develop their own narratives, still have rule sets. Actions must be selected from pre-defined menus, and a Sim needs simoleons if they want to buy things. They also have to eat, sleep, and excrete or else the player is punished. So rules, really, define games as a media.

Yet even with all of these rules, people consume this media for fun. Even people who in reality complain about the oppressiveness of religion will pay hard-earned cash to spend hours in a virtual world that shackles them with countless restrictions. If online players encounter a hacker who violates the rules of the game for personal advantage or merely to spoil the experience for other players’ (a behavior known as “griefing”), then rule-abiding players become irate, complain to server moderators, and sometimes “rage-quit” out of the game. One can read countless forum conversations where outraged players decry hackers as not merely Internet trolls, but as unethical human beings. Victims of hackers cry out for justice with all of the passion of someone who has been violated in real life—and yet all the hacker has done is break arbitrary rules.

Video games entertain us precisely because of these rules, and so our desire to play them speaks to an inherent desire across the human species for order and justice. While complex, epic role-playing games might lend themselves to complicated moral dilemmas, simple games like Angry Birds, Tetris, or Pac-man still suggest that adherence to rules and governing principles are rewarding in themselves.

To conclude, I’d like to consider the gamer scene in St. Thomas More’s Utopia. The fictional traveler Hythloday describes games that the Utopians play:

They do play two games not unlike our own chess. One is a battle of numbers, in which one number captures another. The other is a game in which the vices fight a battle against the virtues. The game is set up to show how the vices oppose one another, yet readily combine against the virtues; then, what vices oppose what virtues, how they try to assault them openly or undermine them insidiously; how the virtues can break the strength of the vices or turn their purposes to good; and finally, by what means one side or the other gains the victory.

Obviously, the Utopians are not playing this on their XBOX or Playstation, but I cite this passage because More observes how games convey meaning through both story and through rules, or perhaps more appropriately in this case, how rules can convey narrative meaning. In this English translation, the most important words are ones like “how” and “by what means.” These words can only refer to rules. Thus, the game teaches morality by showing how virtues and vices interact with one another within the game’s rule set. Is More ahead of the curve with a kind of moral “game theory?” Do games activate the same intellectual system that enable us to understand morality? Or rather, can we only play games because we are hard-wired to understand what a game is because we are hard-wired to understand rules?

While the precise rules of particular video games might be arbitrarily designed by programmers, the fact that most human beings on the planet are receptive to them suggests that we are born with hearts that understand how rules work. Video games reveal our inherent proclivity to understand rules, to recognize a system of right and wrong—the very basis of natural law. Because video games, unlike games in general, have a greater capacity to convey stories, they provide a kind of one-two punch to expose natural law; and their pervasiveness in modern, globalized, first world culture proves natural law’s universality.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I just received word that Zelda has gone missing again.

By

Peter Freeman is an assistant professor of Renaissance English Literature at a liberal arts college in the United States.

  • The Hammer

    Fascinating article. I think as a culture we’re in an in between time and these periods are times of crisis. We can tip to the good…or bad…very easily without some grounding moral. Technology is advancing so fast, it is far outpacing our ability to integrate it into our lives in healthy ways. That you detect the natural law in even the most questionable games is worthy of note. I wonder however if this “moral” is there because without it the businesses making them would come under relentless condemnation: there’s nothing redeeming about it at all, it’s evil, “we’re not selling it” etc.

  • Bob

    Turn off the TV, video game, etc. and head outside and help your neighbor……

    • Ike

      Bob, like it or not, quite a large number of our neighbors in today’s world (especially in America) are gamers – many of whom probably never give a seconds thought to this type of thing.    One step at a time, my friend.  Kudos to Mr. Freeman’s interesting article and perhaps it will lead someone to have a discussion with a neighbor that will get them thinking…

    • QDefenestration

      And close your books, get out of your museums, stop consuming culture….

  • Richard A Imgrund

    CS Lewis remarked that the purpose of poetry (and, by extension, all art)  is to remind us that grass is green and water is wet, that is, that is gets us to see more truly what is really there. Whatever “there” may be. I think that is what the ancients were getting at when they suggested that art imitates nature. A beautiful work of art helps us see some truth more clearly, or understand it better. Can a video game be “beautiful”?

    I have heard certain mathematical proofs described as “elegant,” back in my undergrad days when Math (my course of study) filled my life and I “got it” in ways that have fallen out of use in the succeeding decades. The World Chess Federation occasionally awards a brilliancy prize for a particularly well- (beautifully?) – played game, such as when the 15-year-old Bobby Fischer defeated Sammy Reschevsky for the US Chess Championship. Mathematical proofs and chess games, in themselves, may not be capable of beauty, but some examplars of them are. It isn’t the thing itself that is beautiful, but they way it was done. Could such a thing be true, or even knowable, about a particular way of playing a video game?

    • Peter Freeman

       Two quick thoughts on this post:
      1) Whether or not chess as such is beautiful, there are such things as beautiful chess sets that are themselves works of art. I’d say, in this sense, there are many video games that are executed with great aesthetic beauty.
      2) Shooting from the hip, I’d say that some of the more open-environment, competitive multiplayer games (aka “shooters”) can be played in a “beautiful” way. Professional gamers (and there are such things) employ chess-like strategies to force opponents to make moves that render them vulnerable. Such gamers also exhibit athletic-quality coordination, reflexes, and precision. But even basic games such as Super Mario Bros or Pac-man can be played with a flawless execution that takes away the breath of those who can recognize the skill required. I recently watched a Youtube video in which a player completed levels of Mega Man II while a rock band performed a live rendition of the game’s soundtrack. This required just as much skill and practice as playing any of the instruments on stage (Mega Man games are notoriously hard).
      However, as you note, it often requires an audience educated in the field to appreciate what is beautiful about it and why it isn’t just mindless button-mashing.

  • Robert Lynch

    Interesting article, and I appreciate the thoughtful commentary. I will be straightforward in saying that I am a 22 year old male, that I’ve been playing games since I was a kid, that I am a fervent Catholic, and that I have some pretty strong ideas on a lot of this. There are countless things I talk about in regards to games, morality and natural law being one of them. I haven’t played any of the games mentioned in this article save Zelda, and I haven’t heard of many of them despite the fact that I’m subscribed to Kotaku on Google Reader. I understand the significance of bad games in Mr. Freeman’s thesis, but I’m saddened that he had to resort to the laundry list of bad games that people tend to label me with when I say I play games. (Although really, I’m getting married in June so I don’t play much at all these days.) Why not talk more about Zelda?

    More importantly, why not talk more about Shadow of the Colossus? To Richard’s point, Shadow of the Colossus is a beautiful game, even if at this point it is pretty dated. The game opens and you carry the dead body of a woman in your arms, and lay her on an altar, while a foreign voice from above tells you that you can bring her back to life if you slay the 16 colossi that wander the land. Sounds like your typical save the princess storyline until you kill your first one, and feel awful for doing it. The beauty and complexity of the landscapes keep you playing, the majesty of the Colossii is staggering, and yet it is simply heart breaking to have to kill them. Ultimately you are Machiavelli’s Prince, you become evil for the sake of the woman you save. It is truly a tragedy. Feeling guild for what you have done is a universal sentiment, it is the purpose of the game, and it is a profound statement against the notion of the ends justifying the means. It is a deep and powerful game.

    Despite being a fan of games, I went to school and got my bachelor’s in literature. Games are different than books, but they can be equally compelling and intellectual. Bob, I appreciate your desire for helping your neighbor, but I doubt you’d say that if you we were talking about the profound wisdom of fantasy and science fiction stories like The Chronicles of Narnia or C.S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy. It is important to have time to relax, to study, to exercise one’s intellect, and while it may be shocking to those who didn’t grow up with them, games can do this too.

    • Peter Freeman

      Hi, Robert. Shadow of the Colossus is indeed a beautiful and moving gaming experience, as was its predecessor Ico.
      I chose the “laundry list” of questionable games, however, to make the point that even games considered morally dubious still maintain natural law and thereby show how the difficulty in escaping it.
      To speak analogously, natural law is life what Source is to Half-life 2.

      • Robert Lynch

        I signed up to receive e-mails for additional comments on this article, but I guess my spam blocker got them. I happened to remember this article and though I would check in – thanks very much for your response, Mr. Freeman, I greatly appreciated it. To be honest, I got the impression you didn’t actually play many games, I’m thrilled to hear your appreciation for Shadow of the Colossus and Ico, they are two of my favorites. Thanks again for the response!

        • Peter Freeman

          I can see why you might get that impression from the article, since it mostly tackled the more “mature” titles that don’t find their way into my library. At the moment, my Steam library has over 180 items and that doesn’t include the countless indie bundle downloads I’ve picked up.
          On a side note, it pains me that I do not have a PS3 and therefore will have scant opportunity to play “The Last Guardian” (the third game in the Ico trilogy). That series is more effective at drawing out deep emotional responses than almost any other game out there.

          • Robert Lynch

            I bought a PS3 a few months after launch knowing that some day Team ICO would hit me with something good, and I’m still waiting. That said, I’m sorry to hear that you’re going to miss out on Journey – but you may want to read some of Jenova Chen’s comments on the game and game design. The article opens with a quote from St. Augustine so I thought you might appreciate it, see below.

            http://www.eurogamer.net/articles/2012-04-02-jenova-chen-journeyman 

            • Peter Freeman

               Neat article! It really gets to some of the complexity in the gamer subculture as well as the depth of thought that goes into game design (even if the language comes off as sometimes too “locker room” for some Crisis readers).

  • DeInanibus

    >The recent series of Overlord games invites players to take on the role of a demonic warrior who follows his every base desire to pillage kingdoms and seduce beautiful women.

    Has Prof. Freeman has ever actually played Overlord?  To the best of my recollection, the player there, though indeed a defeated evil Overlord fighting to reclaim his territory, is fighting against former heroes/paragons that have themselves grown corrupt and evil over time.  The player is presented with a series of moral choices between ruthless but pragmatic (e.g. protecting your newly conquered subjects because it increases your power base) and wanton evil maliciousness and this is reflected in the visual style of the game as the player progresses.

    • Peter Freeman

      Overlord is indeed in my Steam library.

      • Adam Wright

        Doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve played it…It is in my library but I haven’t yet played it =)

  • Harry_piper

     Hurray! Someone’s finally written an article on the pastime that most people born after 1988 have an interest in!

    But seriously, can we have some more articles on the subject? I really feel that there’s a gap between the older and younger generations on the subject of video games; the older people simply don’t understand how big of an influence games have, or even what they are. The media itself is one I think we should take advantage of – can you imagine the possibilities of a good Catholic Videogame? Evangelisation through immersing the player in a thoroughly Catholic framework- it’d be awesome. 

     I though it interesting how the Elder Scrolls games, for example, take a lot from Christian beliefs. In Morrowind, the player acts as a kind of Messiah to an outcast tribe, defeating an evil demon. The same thing happens in Skyrim, where another Anointed One steps forward to rid the land of a looming evil.  Games like that have basic themes of Good vs Evil, divine aid and so on. Why can’t we create the same thing?

    • Evan Leister

      I don’t think I’d want to play a video game that was developed with expicitly Christian themes because I wouldn’t want to play the role of Christ or a Christ-like character. I also am irked by the notion of Christians making “the Same Thing, but Christian.” It seems like we’re looking for a “safe” product to give to our kids rather than enjoying the world of creativity that exists in the modern gaming community. I’ve had thoroughly challenging moments when playing through games like the Mass Effect series that have fostered many conversations with my friends about the nature of the world and the nature of God and I don’t see why we need an explicitly Christian product to have a similar experience. 

      • ChrisPineo

         I think a Christian game would set up a great narrative. The medieval age received its identity from the spread of Christianity. Also, you either played a Christian knight in some of the Castlevania games, or you missed out.

      • Robert Lynch

        Evan – I have a wide range of thoughts on this matter, but I like how you’ve put it, you can learn a lot about your faith and start a lot of dialogues from things that aren’t explicitly Christian. I think there can be unhealthy games for sure, but to be valuable and worthwhile I don’t think it needs to be explicitly Christian. It bothers me when people evaluate a main characters decisions, and therefore a whole story, based on whether or not the character was acting according ot Catholic doctrine. Compelling stories often involve difficult moral situations, and people tend to relate more to non-perfect characters. Additionally, seeing why characters make certain decisions can be incredibly valuable in understanding another point of view, even if it is an incorrect point of view.

        What truly bothers me, though, is when there are implicit, subtle things slipped in that try to normalize unhealthy behavior. I want something that rasises issues, not something that brain washes – and that goes both ways. I don’t want mindless, brainwashing Christian material either. It has to be substantive.

        What I think people say by wanting Christian games though doesn’t mean play Christ or anything like that. I think what they really want is something like The Lord of the Rings – a great fantasy story with striking characters and some deep ideas at play, all in a creatively realized vision that, while not explicitly Christian, does well in upholding Christian values, such as right vs. wrong.

        Additionally, I think games would do well by addressing religion a little more directly at times, and I do think there are some explicitly Christian scenarios that could be explored quite well in a game – especially as far as medieval times are concerned. Why not base a game in the Crusades? It would be a great setting for a game, and give you a near endless amount of issues to present and develop in what could be an intriguing and complex plot.

      • Adam Wright

        I think Evan is more on the right track.  You’d want to create a game which encourages gamers to consider questions of religion and spirituality, allowing them to find their own way to Christianity or Atheism or whatnot.  You wouldn’t want to build it in to the rules of the gameworld.

  • QDefenestration

    This article was wonderful, but it read mostly as an introduction to the subject (which I suppose is necessary as your readership is probably not widely versed in video games). I would love to see follow ups that treated the subject in greater depth; an in-depth analysis of individual games and how they convey not just the reality of a Natural Law, but may align with a catholic understanding of various natural law topics would be very lovely. 

  • aearon43

    Very interesting. It’s also worth noting that many games feature medieval motifs in which religion plays a large role in society. Apparently this is a kind of world many people enjoy escaping into…

    • Cyrilicfire

      But perhaps not one where people would actually want to live indefinitely.

    • Adam Wright

      Religion often gives rise to conflict, which can make for a fertile game setting (Dragon Age 2 is a topical example)

  • Evan Leister

    Peter, your article got linked on the Penny Arcade Report last Friday. There’s another comment section over there on it as well that you might find interesting. 

    http://penny-arcade.com/report/the-cut-article/peter-freeman-of-crisis-magazine-tackles-morality-in-video-games-from-a-cat 

    • Peter Freeman

      Thanks, Evan! I feel like I’ve arrived! And it also serves as a great example of how an article written for one audience can be received (or even misperceived) by  overhearers. I’ll keep an eye on it!

  • http://nyanit.com/www.thespectrum.net/#disqus_thread PC

    I went in with a raised eyebrow thinking this would be another religious gamebashing session. Glad I was wrong.

  • hombre111

    Interesting and thought provoking.  Go, Peter.  But I do have to quibble about one statement:  Natural Law is immutible.  Remember, St. Thomas said that by natural law, women were inferior to men.  And even when I was in the seminary, they made a natural law argument for some forms of slavery. 

    I guess my main problem with natural law as I have seen it discussed is this:  It strikes me as a surrender to Enlightenment rationalism, reducing profound realities to some kind of “objective” caricature which, in my opinion, fails to capture reality.   Charles Taylor seems to say this in his massive discussion of the rise of the secular mind, where he puts much of the blame for secularism right on the doorstep of the Church itself. 

    • hombre111

      Taylor’s book is out of reach, so I will try to paraphrase his thought on this subject:   During the Enlightenment, the emphasis was on truth, which could be probed and discovered by the mind.   The idea was to live rationally.  Philosophers claimed the existence of a purely rational moral order.   In one way or other, most of these men were believers, but inevitably came the question:  If I can live a moral order using only my mind, why do I need God?    Natural Law claims to access the mind of God by the use of reason alone, based by deductive conclusions from certain inarguable primary laws, like “do the good.”   But again, if I can probe the mind of God and discover his purposes, why should I bother with God at all?    The “natural law” has some kind of elegant form by itself.  

      But of course, all of this fell by the wayside when the emphasis shifted from the mind to the will.  Now came the idea that somehow, an individual can “create” reality by the choices he makes, which cannot be challenged.   The emphasis on the will started in philosophical circles but it finally reached the popular mind during the Sixties.  

      So, now a double problem.   On the one hand, we don’t need God to discover a reasonable moral order worth living.   On the other hand, we are trying to counter a morality based solely on the will with rational arguments that make no sense within that perspective.  I would like to see someone deal with that.   

  • Krajlsamrels

    This is an extraordinarily well written article and I, an atheist biologist that generally opposes natural law was able to enjoy and think about immensely. May all future analysis with a (or without, for that matter) religious aspect be this even handed and thoughtful! (I must also be an optimist :) 

    • Peter Freeman

      Thanks for the reply, K. Although I’ll confess that biology is not my field of expertise, it strikes me that natural law might not be so far fetched for an evolutionary biologist. I can see why a biologist wouldn’t operate on the premise that a supernatural being inscribed a sense of morality in our “hearts,” but surely it’s plausible that, at the bear minimum, a receptiveness to rules might be encoded in our genes…if only because that code proved beneficial to the proliferation of the species as a whole. And surely one can apply an evolutionary approach to the kind of  morality in video games. Games that appeal to a market “reproduce” as it were (sometimes literally in terms of reprintings) and “spawn” similar games. The games that have proliferated the most have also tended to reinforce  (if only by negative example) those same values that otherwise different cultures have found (or believe to be) most advantageous to survival, no?

    • NYTreader

      ditto

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