Like most people with Facebook accounts, over the last few months I have come to know the name Brock Turner. He is the former Stanford student convicted on three felony counts of sexual assault and sentenced to a mere six months in jail. Although the whole internet was outraged at the verdict, this was especially evident on social media, where grievance and righteous indignation are a kind of game.
With the subsequent nightclub attack in Orlando and police shootings in Dallas and Baton Rouge, the internet moved on. But the Turner case is worth a pause to reflect on the outrage so many people feel and the deeper tension it reveals within our public discourse. This tension is caused by the gap between surface opinions and the deeper philosophical currents flowing underneath, and it marks out an important space for political philosophy in our culture.
Among its many virtues, John Lawrence Hill’s new book, After the Natural Law, is helpful for thinking through the puzzle of what various reactions to Turner’s crimes say about one’s view of human personhood. Hill’s book demonstrates why our deepest moral commitments cannot be defended on modern philosophical premises and need a classical re-founding in order to make sense.
What We Can’t Not Know
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Horror at the details of the Turner case crossed all the ordinary social boundary lines: ideological, partisan, racial, regional, and religious. No matter their beliefs, people felt deep sympathy with the unnamed victim.
This is as it should be. Yet the intensity of our response reveals something important—a fundamental tenet about the nature of human personhood, a deep-seated axiom of moral thought. Simply put, sexual assault and rape are horrific violations because human beings are neither spirits making use of bodies nor merely bodies without spirits. We are essentially combinations of body and spirit. Many leading modern philosophers, from Descartes to Hobbes to Rawls, have for centuries denied this truth. Some argue that we’re spirits using bodies like people use machines. Others argue that there’s no spirit at all, that we’re only bodies in motion, that consciousness is a tacked-on accident of evolution. Taken together, they have had a profound influence on our own time. One need only watch cable news or read a major newspaper to encounter the implications of disjoining body and spirit: the belief that I own my body and should be allowed to use it any way I want, for instance, or the idea that criminals can’t help it when they commit their crimes. But then we are confronted by the most horrific violations of personhood, and the truth that my body is really me (but not all there is to me) erupts. It is a truth we can’t not know.
Because the mind hates a contradiction, the antinomy between our culture’s common moral intuitions (horror at sexual assault) and its commonplace philosophy (various strains of modernism and postmodernism denying that humans are body-soul composites) requires a reckoning. I don’t want to challenge the intuition that the crime is horrific; I want to explore, with some help from Hill, what sort of claims about the human person would ground and justify that intuition.
Dualism and Materialism Can’t Explain the Reality of Sexual Assault
Sexual assault is a violation of the whole person, body and spirit. In addition to its physical trauma, sexual violence has long-lasting psychological and emotional effects. This trauma is difficult to account for from the perspective of a body-self dualist. The body-self dualist holds that I am a mind or spirit inhabiting and using a body as property. My body is not me, but something I own. Perhaps it’s the most intimate and important thing I own, but it’s still a possession distinct from who or what I really am. We can see this view undergirding cultural phenomena such as transgenderism, where someone reports a mismatch between the sex of his real inner self and his merely physical body, as well as in more mundane phenomena such as promiscuity, where people think they can have sex with an indefinitely large number of partners without its affecting their capacity for deep and meaningful sexual relationships.
On this view of the body and the self, sexual assault is the use of another’s property without consent, and it should be punished as the most heinous form of trespassing. This understanding, shallow as it may be, is the strongest condemnation of sexual assault that body-self dualism can give us. In fact, it’s hard to see how a theory of personhood that renders the body mere property can make sense of sexual assault or rape from any practical or experiential standpoint. It seems totally inadequate not only to the victim, who suffers so much more than a trespass, but also to the justice system, which regards rape as such a profound offense against the social order that it (usually) locks rapists up for many years. If it’s only trespassing, why should a perpetrator’s life be ruined?
The other common modern view of the human person, popular among the New Atheists, many scientists, and academic philosophers (though, arguably, on the wane), is materialism and its concomitant determinism. The “materialist” part of the view holds that matter is all there is in the universe, and thus that the human person is only a body. There is no immaterial soul and thus nothing able to make free choices. There are only physical events caused and explained by physical forces and processes. The determinist part of the view holds that because there is no “mind” but only a brain, no “spirit” but only a body, consciousness is a matter of synapses and neurons. Freedom is entirely illusory. Applying this view to our example, the rapist does what he does because of a combination of genetics, chance, and time. He has no choice, no free will to do other than he does. And neither does the victim have any real freedom to say yes or no. There cannot be morally significant consent without free will. On materialist-determinist terms, the criterion of consent in sexual relations doesn’t make sense: there’s no such thing as real consent.
This materialist-determinist view is a harsh one, indeed. The New Atheists are often very blustery about it, congratulating themselves for the courage to face the hard truths certified by the scientific method. But serious thinkers also hold this view, and I don’t mean to make them sound callous or inhumane. They surely find rape vile and tragic, all the more so because neither perpetrator nor victim had any real freedom to do otherwise. But that only highlights the tension between what some people purport to believe and how they actually respond to concrete events.
Making Sense of Our Deepest Moral Commitments
The philosophical challenge of making sense of our deepest moral commitments forms the context of John Lawrence Hill’s After the Natural Law. The core claim of his work is that the features of modern moral life many rightly hold dear—freedom, responsibility (merit and blame), and human dignity—cannot be justified on the basis of modern moral philosophies. Instead, to justify the political achievements linked to these concepts, they must be grounded and rearticulated in terms of precisely that moral philosophy rejected at the dawn of the modern age: the classical natural law tradition.
There are two major parts to the argument. The book begins with the origin story of what Hill calls the Classical Worldview. It’s perhaps no surprise that this worldview originated in ancient Greece, but the emphasis for Hill is that it came as a response from Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle to the early materialism of Lucretius, Democritus, and Epicurus. That early response was then developed by the Stoics—who introduced the concept of natural law—and Christian philosopher-theologians such as Augustine and Aquinas. One of the strongest impressions the early chapters leave is the timelessness of some philosophical fights. The contest between materialism and its chief rival (characterized by teleology and natural law) is perennial. Like the bad penny of philosophical history, materialism just keeps turning up.
The second part of the argument begins with the origin story of the decline of the Classical Worldview, which Hill roots in the thought of four major philosophers: Ockham, Descartes, Hobbes, and Locke. Modern philosophy is characterized chiefly by its rejections: of the body-spirit understanding of human personhood, of free will, of moral truth, and of teleology. Hill traces the consequences of each of these rejections for law, ethics, psychology, and natural science. His signal insights come in these latter chapters, where he carefully follows the implications of various lines of thought from the rejection of the Classical Worldview to the loss of human freedom, responsibility, and dignity.
Hill’s isn’t the first book to comment on modernity’s monumental shifts in ethics and metaphysics. And he isn’t the first to trace the source back to figures such as Ockham and Descartes. There is a familiar anti-modern narrative among thinkers who are skeptical of every development since Aquinas. This is often accompanied by a nostalgic prescription—whether implicit or explicit—that we should try to turn back the clock and return to a golden medieval era. What makes Hill’s book distinctive is that he resists that urge to romanticize the past. Instead, he acknowledges the real developments of human freedom and dignity in the last five hundred years. The widespread practice of representative government, protections for freedom of religion and speech, and the end of chattel slavery are all genuine advances in the service of human dignity.
While many traditionally minded scholars have sought to show that a modern understanding of rights and freedom can be made compatible with a classical philosophical understanding, and thus need not be grounded in the modern philosophies regnant when they emerged, Hill makes a bolder claim: the modern achievements we value cannot be coherently defended with modern theories. They need a classical grounding. Specifically, the ontological core of human personhood—understood as a spirit-body combination—is what makes it true that humans have dignity, can be responsible for their actions, and can be free and rational. Those features, in turn, ground the truths that all men are created equal, with inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
A Starting Point
The Brock Turner case functions as an example of the sort of reductio ad absurdum Hill has in mind for the long history of alternatives to classical natural law. There are times when modern philosophical approaches, whether Cartesian or materialist, are attractive and even persuasive. But when they are pushed to the limits, as in cases of sexual assault and rape, these theories yield absurd and unacceptable results.
We all implicitly know that sexual assault and rape are violations that cut to the deepest part of a human life. This is not mere prejudice, but a deep, implicit moral knowledge. The good news of Hill’s book is that our culture has deep-seated moral instincts and political commitments that provide a workable place from which to begin the recovery of sound moral and political thought. To move from implicit to explicit knowledge requires reflection and explanation, two of the crucial tasks of philosophy. An adequate explanation will draw on and be rooted in a philosophical tradition, using some set of philosophical tools for trying to distinguish good from bad and right from wrong. Those sorts of rigorous philosophical explanations are necessary not only for ethics, but also for politics. What Hill’s book does better than most is to trace the implications from theory to moral practice and back again.
Hill’s book shows carefully and with deep historical detail the reason for the outrage we see in response to gruesome crimes such as sexual assault—namely, that our most treasured shared commitments to the great political and moral achievements of our history can only be fully justified when firmly grounded in the natural law tradition.