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A few years ago I discussed why the debate between intellectualist and voluntarist conceptions of God (is God an intellect or a will?) was so important in the medieval Western world. (The West here includes medieval Muslims, who not only started the debate, but were often further west than the Christians – in what is now Spain and Morocco rather than France and Italy.) I followed up by speaking of the modern practical implications of this debate: how it shows up in modern conceptions of law, and democracy. I think there are also some interesting things to say about the ethical implications of the debate in its own context.

Above all, if God is taken as a supremely good being, then our conception of him is inextricable from our conceptions of goodness and morality as such – and for that matter, of how we can tell what is good. This was the context for the debates that raged in early Muslim ethics, perhaps best chronicled by George Hourani. Muslims of the time agreed that the good life should be thought of in terms of law (shari’a): the prohibitions and obligations set out by God. But how do we know what God’s law is, exactly? It depends on what God is.

Non-Catholic English-speakers are likely most familiar with the voluntarist, positive-law answer. Since God is a will, his law is whatever he happens to say it is, and we should see nothing wrong if he were somehow to change it arbitrarily. Therefore, God’s law is to be inferred from scripture: those texts we agree to be his word. (For most Muslims this includes not only the Qur’an but the hadith, the recorded sayings of God’s prophet Muhammad.) Contemporary ethicists now refer to this as a divine-command theory of morality; in political conversations it is often called fundamentalism. Those who do not subscribe to such a theory are often scared of it – for good reason, since what it advocates can wind up being quite alien to those of us who do not feel bound by that particular scripture. The Spanish Muslim thinker ibn Hazm took voluntarist scripturalism to an extreme that prohibited even analogy from scripture: whatever is not forbidden is permitted. The Qur’an and hadith prohibit drinking wine but they say nothing about beer, so drinking beer is fine. That might sound great to us at first – until we see that ibn Hazm also notes that the Qur’an and hadith don’t prohibit slavery, so according to him slavery is fine too.

But theists can also have quite a different answer, one championed first by the early Mu’tazila theologians and later by the Aristotelian Muslim philosophers. For them, God is not merely a will but an intellect, a reason – and because they are rational beings, humans share some aspect of that divine reason, in however flawed and imperfect a way. And therefore humans can discover God’s intent by rationally observing the world, which is built according to his plan.

This view of God’s intellect as observable reached perhaps its most perfect literary expression in ibn Ṭufayl‘s twelfth-century novel Hayy ibn Yaqzan, a major influence on Robinson Crusoe and on John Locke‘s empiricism. Hayy, the title character, is a highly intelligent feral child raised by a gazelle on a desert island. When the gazelle dies, he wants to find out why this death happened, and so dissects her – and therefore begins a scientific quest to understand the world, one that leads him to the idea of God as a designer. When he finally meets a Muslim traveller who teaches him languages, he finds that he already agrees with everything the traveller teaches about God and creation. He has no disagreement with scripture, but he does not need it; he has learned scripture’s most important teachings on his own, without scripture’s help, simply by observing nature. The contrast with the voluntarist scripturalists could not be sharper.

Such a view was particularly appealing when God’s design was the best available scientific hypothesis to explain the world. One can observe the nature of plants and animals, including humans, and find a divine natural law, in two senses of that term: a description of the “laws of nature” by which natural processes can in fact be observed to operate, and even a prescription for how they are supposed to operate.

The latter point needs a bit of unpacking for a modern audience. We tend to think that natural sciences should follow the example of physics, where ideas of purpose and purposiveness, of “supposed to”, are alien. But it is difficult to make even basic explanations of most biological phenomena without saying something about what those phenomena is for. The Aristotelian term for this “for-ness” is teleology: the phenomenon’s end, goal, purpose. Why do humans have hands? For picking things up. Why do we have eyes? For seeing. This teleology is why, for centuries, the simplest, most logical available explanation of life on Earth was a creator God – and why it was so earth-shattering when Charles Darwin and others proposed that all of these apparent purposes could instead be viewed as directed toward survival of each species in a long-term but ultimately random process of natural selection. Even after Darwin, and not even including the discredited views of contemporary “intelligent design”, there is still widespread debate in biology about the proper role of teleology in explanation.

Now Darwin’s alternative explanation was not at issue for medieval Muslims, Jews and Christians. To them, quite reasonably, it seemed obvious that biological phenomena were the way they were for a reason. And the intellectualist theologians took this as evidence for divine natural law: the purposes in nature show us the proper function of things, the way they are supposed to be. As MacIntyre has noted, concepts of function and teleology connect “is” and “ought”. From the concept of a watch, as an object worn on the wrist that tells time, we can infer the concept of a good watch, as one that performs that function well – that tells time accurately, is durable, easily readable and so on. Ethics comes out to be the applying of the same reasoning to human beings: observation reveals how we human beings are supposed to function. Since our natural functioning is in political societies, we do badly as human beings if we do things (like killing and stealing) that interfere in the functioning of those societies; since our natural functioning as humans has to do with the work of reason, we need to develop our reason by learning.

And – this is where natural-law thinking reaches its greatest conflict with our age – the observable natural purpose of our sexual organs is for procreation. So, say Aquinas and others, masturbation and sodomy are deeply wrong because they distort the functioning of the observable purpose of sexuality.

I’m not a natural-law thinker and I think Aquinas is wrong on this idea, but I do want to call attention to two key features of it. First, note how very different the reasoning is from a divine-command theory: the criticism of gay sex is inferred from biological observation, not from a sacred text. Second, it is notable to me that contemporary defenders of gay rights often implicitly rely themselves on a kind of reasoning that is not so far from natural law. Quite against the gay movement’s traditional theoretical inspirations like Foucault and Butler, who treat sexuality as a social construct, many today have invested a great deal of political importance in evidence for a genetic basis of homosexuality. In pop culture, one might note how Lady Gaga, always emphatic about her gay activism, moved from early works depicting a highly fluid sexuality to a title song insisting “I was born this way.” This becomes a kind of argument that Aquinas would have recognized and acknowledged, even though he would not have accepted its conclusion: gay and lesbian relationships are natural, part of the proper functioning of those who are “born this way”.