Chapter 38. Scholars and Photographers: Parallel Practices

The New Natural Law Theory of the display of the natural law and the seven basic common goods (elaborated in the previous Chapter 37. Precision Instruments) is itself corroborated further by triangulating reflection on parallel practices – parallel, that is, to casual photography. Consider the following. The ongoing choosing, namely, those evaluative and differentiating discriminations when deciding what to put within the frame-lines of the viewfinder and what to leave out – that very process methodologically mirrors the evaluating choices made regarding what to select to include as that which is constitutive of a focal meaning, and what else to leave out, and Finnis’ own account of that method implicitly admits, as much, even though my sense is that the point I am about to make is not one that he grasped fully.  So he says, when discussing the development of the focal meaning of concepts in social theory, such as “law”:

“Descriptive social theory does not share this concern about what ought to be done.  But it cannot in its description do without concepts found appropriate by men of practical reasonableness to describe to themselves what they think worth doing and achieving in the face of all contingencies, misunderstandings, and myths confronting them in their practice.” (Finnis 1980: 16)

Yet if a theorist “cannot do without” concepts appropriate to such a practical viewpoint, it suggests that part of the exercise includes trying to locate these concepts, and that includes asking the appropriate questions locating these, such as: “now, what matters or is significant, so that my focal concept should address these?”  This then opens the way to a practical mode of thinking, albeit useful and instrumentally relevant for the theoretical descriptive enterprise.

Now I would like to be very careful here. What Finnis is saying, unlike my point here, is that the theorist, when making his evaluative choices on behalf of the focal meaning, inevitably imports his ethical viewpoint, preferably a practically sound one.  And just a few lines up, Finnis warns of theorists who have a poor grasp of human goods and of the aspects of human flourishing. So these choices that go towards our construction of the central case can indeed be poorly informed by practically unreasonable judgments. But if any such practically reasonable viewpoint is helpfully visible when we are thinking practically, as one would be in cases when one is performing open-ended evaluations, asking and thinking through practically about what matters or is choice-worthy (to include or not), then the “importation” of the practically reasonable ethical viewpoint is not a mere relocation of a viewpoint from a distant theoretical past into the present exercise, but could well also include the concurrently occurring exposure of that viewpoint in that very exercise of choosing whilst developing the focal meaning, assuming here, a climate of intellectual freedom without the pressure to pacify any ideological commitments.   This latter assumption is needed in order to ensure that the theorist does not merely import a ideological ethical position, but also gives the evaluative practice of crafting a focal meaning a chance to display practical reasoning’s deliverances.  Compare, for instance, Herbert Simon’s The Sciences of the Artificial (1996 [1969]), which also works out a focal concept of the “professional”, but which merely imports his then (since 1940’s) firm commitment to logical positivism’s assertion (under Simon’s reading) that there are only feelings when referring to  “ends” and that there are no final ends prescribed by rationality.   (Later, however, when freed from his ideological adherence to positivism, and having renounced it, Simon spoke of “incommensurable preferences” (Simon, 1997: 297) which seems to me an odd and oxymoronic way to refer to desires so different they cannot be sensibly weighed whilst all equally desires (if it does), and suggests instead on a more charitable reading that “preferences” here may be a broad term like “good” for whatever one recognizes one should aim for, without them all being desires, thus approaching more closely the position defended by new natural law theory.)

Meaning we need not always merely use a practically reasonable viewpoint previously discerned.  Instead we may also “show” such a practically reasonable viewpoint (and insights into what the basic common goods are) as and when we develop the focal meaning.  It is in this other sense that I would argue we should take what Finnis says when he says that “there is no escaping the theoretical requirement that a judgment of significance and importance must be made if theory is more than a vast rubbish heap of miscellaneous facts…” (Finnis 1980: 17).  Yet this way of taking that claim, which I underscore is not intended by Finnis, is nevertheless unwittingly realized and thus performatively admitted in Finnis’ own case, precisely in his writing of Natural Law and Natural Rights, in which he was compelled to think practically, which he did, in order to grasp the normative ethical criteria framed by the common basic goods, with which he then proceeds to use to develop the focal meaning of “law”.

Indeed, is it not the case that, when one is doing casual, leisurely photography, the question that one implicitly poses for oneself is, “what is a “photograph”?  or better: “What is a “photograph” in its focal sense”?;  “What makes a “picture” in its central case?”  And the decision to put these rather than those within the viewfinder frame-lines is actually a choice which says that these rather than those belong to a “picture” in its focal meaning.   In other words, casual, leisurely photography done the way I have been speaking about that here, is an exercise in the development of the focal meaning of a “photograph”, except that it is done in a different mode, in a different media, using images, cameras and film, rather than with paper, pen and words.

In other words the New Natural Law thesis that there is such a mode of reasoning called “practical” that operates to yield the natural law when inquiries into the worth of things is made, is impressively corroborated across several parallel practices.  I would qualify this claim, however, this way. A scholar writing a work on the focal meaning of a concept may have much to think about that would  mitigate his intellectual freedom, ironically: what are those journals to publish in and how well do I align with their ethical theories, how will I be perceived by my intellectual peers or those I hope to impress, what this may mean for my promotion and my tenure reviewers, how does what I am putting down here cohere with what I have elsewhere already developed (say a theory of ethics but in-felicitously worked out theoretically  without adverting to “practical” thinking) …etc. – considerations which subtly prescribe ethical prejudgments that he is pressured to import into the exercise and so detract from the opportunities for truly open-ended clear thinking and practical deliberation, and could well displace the showings of practical thinking’s first principles as they appear.  Such a scholar is not like a leisurely photographer but a professional one, already with an agenda. But leisurely photography, done for oneself, by oneself, without the need to show anyone what one wishes to take, without need to appear to others in a certain way, seems to me to have a more stable chance of comporting the photographer/theorist favorably in the direction of entering the mode of practical thinking.   He is free to start afresh each time, and freer to attend to what the experience gives, without a need to tailor or censor it to cohere with another set of ethical commitments.

Even with these limiting complications, the results above seem to me sufficiently significant for New Natural Law Theory insofar as the defense of the precepts of the natural law is concerned.  It means that the practices seeking focal meanings, whether this is the doing of casual photography, or the development of focal meanings in a climate of intellectual freedom, provides some form of triangulating empirical support for New Natural Law Theory’s thesis that there are  first practical principles prescribing basic common goods, which first principles we call the “natural law”.  Because the precepts of natural law are self-evident (not inferred) and so cannot be demonstrated, there have only been so far two strategies for defending its reality, apart from exegetical studies on Aquinas’ exposition of the theory in the Summa Theologica.  The first has been to appeal to our memory of our own behavioral logics: by asking ourselves to think about why we do whatever we do, it is suggested that we will recall certain terminal goals which we sought for their own sakes and for no other purpose (see Finnis 1983: 33).  The other has been to provide a dialectical defense of these goods, which shows performative self-contradictions that occur when some of these goods are denied their goodness by skeptics.  Thus for instance whoever denies seriously that knowledge is a good himself instantiates the belief that such knowledge “that knowledge is not a good” is itself good, and thus is engaged in performative self-contradiction (Finnis 1980: 75).

Supplementing these, our discussion above suggests that, the phenomenology of certain practices, such as, more stably, the practice of casual photography, supplies empirical evidence corroborating the claims of New Natural Law theory, viz., as the theory maintains, that: by way of an inquiring interest into what ought to be done, which gives access to the “practical mode”, one enters a viewpoint that displays the seven or so common basic goods, which are a conceptual basis for further inferences of objective moral judgments.   Even if my reader is not yet fully persuaded, at least it must be admitted that New Natural Law Theory now finds greater empirical warrant, and further research along these lines on behalf of New Natural Law is not self-evidently futile, and skepticism of the natural law even more suspect.