In Summa Theologica II-I Q96 A2 corp. Aquinas says “a measure should be homogeneous with that which it measures”. While I could gather roughly what he was saying from the context, I must admit that this phrase confused me a bit. But what he’s saying isn’t really that confusing or complicated when we consider common examples of measures.
For instance, a ruler can’t measure length unless it too has length, and a clock can’t measure duration unless it persists through some duration. So that’s the first sense in which a measure is homogeneous with that which it measures: it must share the relevant characteristics of that which it measures.
We can take this further. A 30-centimeter ruler is not well-suited to measuring kilometers or nanometers, but it is well-suited to measuring many everyday household objects and regular sized drawings. Similarly, a clock that measures in seconds is not well-suited to measuring nanoseconds or hours. This raises a second sense in which a measure is homogeneous with that which it measures: it must be of a well-suited “scale”.
It seems to me that in the article, Aquinas is primarily concerned with the second sense mentioned here. “Law”, he says, “is framed as a rule or measure of human acts.” That is, the law of a community encodes what behaviour is good, and so it is by the requirements of that law that we judge to what extent actions are good or bad. Now, just as the length of a ruler should be scaled to the lengths we seek to measure, so “laws imposed on men should also be in keeping with their condition.” It is on account of this that even though an ideal law might forbid all vices, practically this isn’t a good idea:
Now human law is framed for a number of human beings, the majority of whom are not perfect in virtue. Wherefore human laws do not forbid all vices, from which the virtuous abstain, but only the more grievous vices, from which it is possible for the majority to abstain; and chiefly those that are to the hurt of others, without the prohibition of which human society could not be maintained: thus human law prohibits murder, theft and such like.
While I was having a discussion in the comments here it dawned on me that I might’ve stumbled upon a novel Divine Command Theory (DCT). Before I get there I should probably give a brief description of what a DCT is. DCT is a meta-ethical theory that seeks to ground our moral duties in the commands of God. To ground our duties involves giving a basis for them. So when asked, “why ought I be loving to my neighbour” the divine command theorist will answer, “because God has commanded that you ought be loving to your neighbour”.
This isn’t just a silly case of “because God said so”, for it properly applies how we see duties arise elsewhere to our moral duties: duties arise from commands from qualified authorities. To ground this intuition for you take an example of legal duties. If you’re driving your car down the road and a random person tells you to pull over to the side, you have no obligation to do so. In this case, you have a command, but no authority. Now if a policeman tells you to pull your car over, then you have a legal obligation to do so. This is because the policeman is a legal authority, so in this case you have a command and an authority.
Euthyphro and Essentialism
Now the divine command theorist will say that God is a qualified moral authority (reasons for are discussed later) and so his commands issue moral duties binding on us. Almost certainly, when one starts talking about DCT someone in the discussion is going to bring up the Euthyphro Dilemma. This dilemma arises from one of the Socratic Dialogues written by Plato (it’s called “Euthyphro”, if you were interested), in which Socrates asks Euthyphro, “Is something right because God commands it, or does God command it because it is right?”
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I had a thought the other day. We have legal duties to our government who are established as qualified legal authorities by us voting them in. When it comes to piracy it seems many people apply the following premise to make themselves feel better:
- If I can’t see why a certain law exists or don’t agree with a certain law, then it is fine for me to ignore the duties established by that law.
Now it clearly seems that we would disagree with this in cases like murder or rape, so why the restricted application?
One possible answer is that legal duties like murder and rape have moral duty counterparts, and so we have additional reason to obey those duties. But if one doesn’t think that there are any objective moral duties, such a move isn’t available.
We could, however, look to some objective fact for a differentiator, such as those duties that lead to the flourishing of human life or the survival of the fittest. But in the absence of objective moral duties why choose that fact over any other? What’s to stop one from picking the duties that lead to the most pain for others?
Is there an alternative to (1) that I’m unaware of, or a better reason for the restricted application of it?