Recently this extremely poor piece came out by Jason Lee Steorts, the managing editor of National Review.
In passing: A little googling has not turned up much about Steorts's previous history, so perhaps my readers will know. Is this turn to the left on the issue of marriage any sort of surprise, or has Steorts always been a shallow social liberal, at least on this issue? All that I was able to find in a brief search was the fact that he has freaked out a couple of times at his own writers (once at Mark Steyn and once at Kathryn Jean Lopez) for their "rhetoric" in the vicinity of the issue of homosexuality. I suppose that was warning sign enough, but I still wonder if this is considered some kind of earthquake in conservative circles. It is, in any event, a sickening comment on how low National Review has fallen. So much for standing athwart the course of history crying, "Stop!"
The article as a whole is so jejeune that I am going to resist a temptation to fisk it. The temptation isn't that great, anyway. It just doesn't deserve the time that a fisking would take. A central aspect of Steorts's "argument" is the dismissal, with a flick of the wrist, of the entire natural law tradition by the magical invocation of the is-ought distinction and the name of David Hume. Really. See for yourself. Gosh, it's just that simple.
As I was musing on Steorts's cavalier treatment of natural law and wondering what sort of response might be effective with someone this dismissive, I remembered this post of mine from a few months back. Rather surprisingly, it didn't get any comments, so here I will try to make the connections to current issues explicitly yet again.
Steorts's dismissal of natural law arguments against homosexuality purports to be based on the difficulty or impossibility of deriving an "ought" from an "is." But no one is saying that one can take any random "is" statement and derive an "ought" from it. For example, no one is saying that, from the fact that male lions tend to kill the cubs of other male lions, it is good for male lions to kill the cubs of other male lions.
What Steorts and others who dismiss the natural law tradition en toto really need is the much stronger statement that no teleological understanding of the human body has any normative force whatsoever. What the shrugging rejection of natural law arguments implies is total skepticism about the proper goods of the human body.
I submit that such a premise completely destroys the medical profession.
If we have no way of looking at the human body and telling how it ought to be functioning based on teleology, then on what basis do we say that it is good for eyes to see, ears to hear, and legs to walk? Why should a doctor commit himself to healing an infection rather than encouraging the infection? Why should physical therapists help people to regain muscle tone in a weakened limb?
We could of course back everything up to the mere fact of human desire. People want to be able to see, to use their limbs, or not to have a fever, so physicians should help them attain these personal goals. But that would completely trivialize the profession. It would remove entirely the distinction between cosmetic or even harmful surgery and the healing arts. On such a view it would be no more a good medical act to re-attach a detached retina (if that is what the patient wants) than to gouge out a working eye (if that is what the patient wants). That view of medicine is ethically insane. And there is no reason in any event why doctors should use their skill to be mere robotic technicians actualizing arbitrary patient desires.
The practice of medicine requires the assumption that there is such a thing as healing and physical proper function.
To be sure, there are cases in which debate is possible. For example, suppose that a patient's leg is healthy in some ways (it is not infected or misshapen) but unhealthy in another way (it is paralyzed due to failure of nerve conduction). Is it medically legitimate to cut off the non-working leg and replace it with a prosthesis so that the person can walk? What are the proper uses and limits of ventilator use and intubation? When is plastic surgery appropriate? It is not as though medical ethics is all decided by a simple formula once we admit teleology into our understanding. The point, however, is that without teleology, understood as a guide to "ought," we have no sane, normative way whatsoever to understand the medical profession and its ends.
Once one admits that looking at the human body does tell us something about "ought" and "should," however, one cannot simply shrug off the natural law argument against homosexual acts. If there is some way that our bodies should work and a way that they shouldn't work, if there are things that it is legitimate to do to and with the body and things that should not be done, then perhaps homosexual acts are wrong because they are an abuse of the nature of the human body.
Of course, advocates of the homosexual agenda will likely respond to this proposal with ridicule, much as Steorts ridicules (without substantive argument) the notion that, once we admit as normative the claims of a "sexual orientation" to homosexuality, we similarly ought to respect the claims of a "sexual orientation" to polyamory. But ridicule is not argument, and at a minimum, the medical point should give pause to anyone who thinks he can use the is-ought distinction as an everlasting check to all natural law claims about human sexuality.
As I pointed out in the earlier post, an acceptance of teleology is important to the pro-life position as well. I have no idea whether Steorts considers himself pro-life or not, though he attempts in this pro-homosexual "marriage" piece to talk like he cares about the good of children. But consider: If it is a hard and fast rule that we have no way of telling an "ought" from looking at the human body, then why should we consider it important that unborn children are of the same species as ourselves? That is a mere "is" statement. Perhaps the only "ought" statement is that we ought not deliberately kill innocent people who can talk, or reason, or do differential equations. If there is no natural law, no claim upon us from our embodied nature as human beings and from what we are meant to be, then the fact that the unborn child is the type of being that will normally develop the ability to talk (if not, in every case, the ability to do differential equations) is either unimportant or meaningless. What do we mean by "normally"? What if this particular unborn child has deformities or disabilities that mean that we do not expect him, in particular, ever to talk? If we don't believe in a human nature and in the "ought" of teleology, then it is extremely difficult to say why the fact that he is a member of the species homo sapiens should have any claim upon us.
The same is true of born humans as well. To be sure, if this newborn baby is cared for he will (probably) grow up and become more like those of us who are capable of carrying on this debate, but so what? That is just an "is" statement. Some parents love and cherish their children; other parents want to get rid of their children. Who is to say which "is" statement yields an "ought"? Should the wishes of the parent who wants to kill his child be given any less consideration than the wishes of the parent who wishes to care for and raise his child?
The complete abandonment of human teleology yields ethical chaos.
I admit that the acceptance of human teleology does lead, reasonably, to the conclusion that Someone made us and is the ultimate origin of the "oughts" that are built into our embodied nature. But one can begin with the intuition that we ought not to kill baby humans, ought not to hack off humans' healthy limbs, and, yes, ought not to engage in homosexual acts without assuming as a premise that Someone made us and put a Law into our nature. The natural law can be perceived and used as a premise to conclude that there is a Creator and a Lawgiver.
Those who wish to say that natural law arguments are stealth religious arguments, religious arguments that deny their religious nature (Steorts does this, inter alia), and that they can therefore be airily dismissed by those who don't accept their religious underpinnings, do not realize the ethical consequences of abandoning the natural law. One would like to think that, were this pointed out to them, they would think again. I am not sanguine in Steorts's particular case, but I give you the argument from medicine in case you should find it useful.