Chapter 37. Precision Instruments

The above remarks in the previous chapter 36. Flash! The Decisive Moment concerning the way photography unconceals the natural law merit elaboration in order to detail the degree of fit between the phenomenology of casual photography and New Natural Law.

The empirical, phenomenological data gathered from the practice of casual photography coheres with, and thereby corroborates to a great extent the specifics under Finnis’ New Natural Law Theory and its explanatory discussion of the different modes of thinking, and the kinds of logic each mode displays, and the kinds of principles that are proper to each kind of logic. What seems to me to be the case is that casual photography appears strongly to be a way to enter into a peculiar mode of thinking Finnis calls ‘practical thinking’, which is different from ‘theoretical thinking’ (see Finnis 1980; 1983: 1-25). Let me first unpack for us what these forms of thinking under new natural law theory are.

A heightened interest in questions of value and of what matters, may well mark a  corresponding entry into the the so-called “practical” mode of thinking. Taking from Aristotle and Aquinas, and guided in part by Germain Grisez, Finnis distinguishes these modes of thinking and their distinct interests. Both Aristotle and Aquinas, for example, talk of reasoning that is ‘theoretical’ compared to reasoning that is ‘practical’. Under Finnis’ interpretation, when reasoning theoretically, one’s interest is in the truth of things. One aspires, in reasoning theoretically, to offer a factually accurate description of a reality. Here the driving question is, “what is the case? What is the fact of the matter?” However, when one begins to inquire what one should do in the light of such a truth, one begins to think in the practical mode, and so reasons practically.  Here the driving questions are about what one ought to do, and what is important, choiceworthy, about what matters.

The need to enter into a mode of thinking that is practical rather than merely theoretical in order to grasp the common basic goods and their contrary has not always been well understood. Some have attempted to derive a theory of good and bad through the study of certain facts about the human being, or facts about the natural world. However, such attempts turn out, on closer inspection, to be logically indefensible. The attempt to derive an account of what “ought to be” from an account of what “is the case” commits the “naturalistic fallacy”. Rather than to deduce theoretically an account of good and bad, good and bad can be known when we think practically. Our knowledge of good and bad is therefore not deduced from any prior ideas. Rather they are “self-evident”, underived. John Finnis’ Natural Law and Natural Rights (1980) and Fundamentals of Ethics (1983) are representative texts in this regard. Later, Finnis (1998) alludes to their epistemological display as a kind of Peircean abductive insight (ibid: 57, n. 20), which is very different from the logically conservative deductive inference.

But ‘practical’ thinking is not ‘practical’ just simply because we are strategising, or planning the means to be adopted for a given end, nor is it merely the categorical application of some theory.  Rather ‘practical thinking’ is ‘practical’ when first principles peculiar to such thinking prescribe and guide. Meaning: when thinking in the theoretical mode, some logics peculiar to this mode of thinking guide one’s reasoning: ‘something cannot be and not be at the same time and in the same respect’, for instance, and hence, one judges contradictions to be unreasonable. Correspondingly, when thinking in the practical mode, some logics peculiar to this mode of thinking begins to guide one’s reasoning: “that which is good ought to be done and whatever is bad ought to be avoided; such-and-such is good, and its contrary is bad…”  The logic that guides thinking when we think in the practical mode also identifies to us what is “good”, and what is “bad”. By “good” and “bad” here, I do not mean what we like or dislike, or what we find useful for something else we value or damaging to something else we value; rather I mean that which is desirable in-itself, or undesirable in-itself, viz., the seven basic common goods. In order that practical thinking about what ought to be done be practical and not be a merely instrumental or mathematical form of optimization logic, all theoretical, the questions about what ends or goals matter and ought to be sought and done must be sufficiently open ended, and not asked in relation to a given goal or preference.

This being the case, the phenomenological data given in casual photography, done leisurely makes good sense: because such picture-taking is undetermined by a thematic goal with which to pick out related items, therefore we would expect for casual photography to facilitate our grasp of and the display of those very fundamental ideas about what is intrinsically good and bad just as it facilitates access to thinking in the practical mode.  And so it has turned out that way, and not only that, but as we have observed, these “goods” and “bads” are in the neighbourhood of the seven basic common goods identified in Natural Law and Natural Rights (Finnis, 1980).  Hence the point there is that these self-evident, abductive insights into these first principles of practical reason or natural law identifying choiceworthy basic common goods appear to have been given in the evaluative moments in casual photography, precisely because of the need in such photo-taking to inquire after what matters, and therefore to think in a more-than-theoretical mode—and this is very consistent with the specifics of the showing of the natural law as articulated in New Natural Law, especially in relation to its insistence on the “practicality” of ethics.

To be clear then, there are corroborations of two aspects of the specifics of New Natural Law theory. Firstly, casual photography since evaluative facilitates the grasping of ethical insights and this is consistent with the insistence in New Natural Law that ethics is “practical”; and secondly, that these ethical insights (when displayed by casual photography) prescribe the intrinsic choice-worthiness of such as those seven common, basic goods which corroborates the identification of specifically the list of basic goods in Natural Law and Natural Rights, even if Finnis himself admits that the list of goods is not exhaustive (ibid.).   Both corroborations are worthy of attention.

The corroboration of the list of basic goods is of course interesting, but more exciting is the corroboration of the insistence on the “practicality” of ethics in New Natural Law – this thesis regarding a particular mode of thinking which is entered when one inquires after questions of worth is a very unique one in the literature, and this corroboration is akin to a kind of fine match, not easily reproducible or forged, between two precision instruments, say a highly secure set of lock and key.