In the previous post I began to unfold an argument which contends that those who see miscegenation as morally permissible will eventually permit sodomy (or, conversely, that anti-sodomy entails anti-miscegenation). This is because the moral foundation of sexual ethics is God’s design of man and the consequent relationship between mankind’s flourishing and sexual ethics. When one views sodomy’s immorality as grounded in this teleological framework, he is naturally led to also see miscegenation’s immorality. The same holds in reverse: when one affirms the morality of miscegenation, he thereby denies the relation which in fact exists between sexual ethics and human nature, thus denying the grounds on which to coherently oppose sodomy. But this whole argument is merely an outline, a formal structure. I wish to further clarify the argument by explicating two illuminating distinctions that are helpful to Christian ethics as a whole and to understanding the remainder of this series of articles. (In particular, the second distinction will be more relevant to future articles in the series, not so much the current one.) After I expound on these distinctions, my argument that pro-miscegenation entails pro-sodomy will be made clearer, though not complete.
Ratio Cognoscendi and Ratio Essendi
The first important distinction involves a pair of fancy Latin phrases, ratio cognoscendi and ratio essendi. The ratio cognoscendi is the grounds upon which we believe something to be the case, literally the reason (ratio) that we cognize (cognoscendi) some idea. Think of it as the premises upon which we hold a conclusion; those premises serve as grounds for our belief in the conclusion. The ratio cognoscendi is thus a distinctly epistemological concept. But while the ratio cognoscendi is epistemological, the ratio essendi is metaphysical or ontological. It involves not the grounds upon which an agent believes some proposition, but instead the grounds upon which some state of affairs actually obtains. The ratio essendi deals with the reason (ratio) for something’s being the case (essendi), making it a metaphysical or ontological concept.
As an example, consider the classical philosophical syllogism:
1. Socrates is a man.
2. All men are mortal.
3. Therefore, Socrates is mortal.
If an agent believes the third proposition (conclusion) on the basis of the first two (premises), then those first two propositions serve as the ratio cognoscendi for his belief in Socrates’s mortality. The grounds upon which he holds his belief in Socrates’s mortality are his other beliefs in propositions 1 and 2. He could have some other grounds for such a belief, of course: whoever witnessed Socrates’s death could also use such sensory information as grounds for believing in his mortality, and today, we can take the historical record’s account of his death as evidential grounds for believing in his mortality. This is because a ratio cognoscendi involves the grounds upon which a particular agent holds a certain belief; the ratio cognoscendi is relative to the agent in question.
Consider now the ratio essendi for Socrates’s mortality—not the reason we believe him to be mortal, but the reason why he is, in fact, mortal. This answer is more difficult to articulate. One could locate an answer in the frailty of fallen humanity brought by Adam’s sin (Rom. 5:12), or someone could posit a more distant answer, saying that Socrates is mortal because God made him that way. Whatever the precise answer (or set of answers1) is, it has to do with what makes Socrates mortal, what state of affairs grounds his having the property of mortality, rather than with the evidences upon which we believe him to be mortal. And, contrary to the ratio cognoscendi, the answer for the ratio essendi will be objective. Two agents can share a belief but have different grounds upon which they hold it; they can therefore have a different ratio cognoscendi for their agreed-upon belief. The ratio cognoscendi is relative to the subject (the agent) and is therefore subjective. But the ratio essendi concerns the metaphysical grounds for a particular state of affairs and is consequently objective.
I will give another example to make this distinction clear. Imagine an ordinary scenario between a father and a son, where the father tells his son to do something and the kid, whether motivated by curiosity or rebellion, asks why. A common and automatic retort of the father is: “Because I said so!” Such a response is curious, since it seems to communicate that there is no reason for his giving of the command, beyond the mere fact that it was commanded. That is, the reason for the command seems nonexistent and the command arbitrary. Yet we understand in a different way that this makes perfect sense: the child should need no other reason to follow the command than the simple fact that his father commanded it. Such a situation, while paradoxical at first, is perfectly illuminated by the distinction just offered: the question the son asks inquires into the command’s ratio essendi (the reason the command exists in the first place, the intentions which brought it about, the end it serves), while the father’s moderately clever response provides an answer pertaining to the ratio cognoscendi (the reason why the child ought to obey). The ratio essendi for the command is something the father does not tell his son, though he asks for it; and the ratio cognoscendi for the son’s obedience is nothing other than because his father said so. The ratio essendi concerns the metaphysical basis for the command, whereas the ratio cognoscendi concerns the epistemological grounds why the child should accept it.
Moral Law and Positive Law
A second important distinction is between moral law and positive law. Moral law involves the most fundamental classification of right and wrong; we have moral obligations to perform acts which are intrinsically good, or righteous, or holy, and we have moral obligations to refrain from acts which are intrinsically bad, or sinful, or wicked. Acts can be right or wrong intrinsically, right or wrong by their very nature; and it is in relation to this intrinsic moral quality, inherent in certain acts, that we have moral obligations.2 The moral law therefore concerns the most basic and fundamental distinction between good and evil.
Positive law, on the other hand, concerns those obligations which arise from the commands of a lawful authority. Sometimes we are obligated to do certain acts not because the acts in themselves are inherently righteous, but because a lawful authority—whether that authority be God Himself or a delegated authority, such as a father, civil ruler, church elder, or someone else—has commanded us to do them. And likewise, sometimes we are obligated to refrain from certain acts not because the acts in themselves are inherently wicked, but because a lawful authority has commanded us not to do them. We can therefore identify positive commands by asking whether we would have been obligated to perform an action (or refrain from an action) if we were not commanded to perform it (or refrain from it). If we would not have been obligated without the authority’s command, then such a command would be an instance of positive law. Positive law obtains when our obligation exists only because a command is posited (positive).
As some examples, acts like murder and fornication obviously belong in the classification of moral law, since they are intrinsically sinful. Immorality is inherent in the nature of those actions. But as an example of positive law, consider God’s command to Adam in Eden. Adam would have been permitted to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil had God not prohibited it. But by the sheer fact of being commanded not to eat of it, Adam was thus obligated to refrain from it. His obligation consisted only in the fact that an authority—the Authority—forbade it. The Southern Presbyterian theologian R.L. Dabney also articulates this distinction. In speaking of “the eternity of moral distinctions,” he notes that moral precepts “are not instituted solely by the positive will of God, but are enjoined by that will because His infinite mind saw them to be intrinsic and eternal.”3 And Charles Hodge, in defining positive law, mentions how the Old Covenant ceremonial law serves as an example:
The fourth class of laws are those called positive, which derive all their authority from the explicit command of God. Such are external rites and ceremonies, as circumcision, sacrifices, and the distinction between clean and unclean meats, and between months, days, and years. The criterion of such laws is that they would not be binding unless positively enacted; and that they bind only those to whom they are given, and only so long as they continue in force by the appointment of God. Such laws may have answered important ends, and valid reasons doubtless existed why they were imposed; still they are specifically different from those commands which are in their own nature morally obligatory. The obligation to obey such laws does not arise from their fitness for the end for which they have been given, but solely from the divine command.4
Though Hodge asserts that positive law results from the command of God, it would not be improper to also classify various man-made commandments as positive law. For example, if a father commands his son to mow the lawn, or to make his bed, or to visit the grocery store, that would be an example of positive law. (It might sound strange to speak of fatherly requests or imperatives as “law,” but the broader conceptual point still stands.) The son would have an obligation that comes into existence when his father issues a command; the obligation would not exist by the nature of the act, but merely by the command of the authority.5
In explaining these distinctions, however, one might see certain ways in which they are interconnected. For example, when we consider the obligations we have that arise from positive law, they are still moral obligations. That is why it was a sin—a moral grievance and offense—for Adam to disobey God’s positive injunction not to eat from the forbidden tree. The core of positive law is that we have moral obligations stemming from the commands of authorities, and this very framework which permits moral obligations to emanate out of such commands is itself grounded in a broader and more general moral obligation. That is, we are morally obligated—obligated by God’s moral law—to obey the commands of lawful authorities. The first commandment, which is part of the moral law, implicitly teaches that we ought to obey whatever God commands, and the fifth commandment implicitly teaches that we ought to obey whatever lawful human authorities command. Thus there is a framework by which we are “born under authority,” to use R.L. Dabney’s phrasing.6 We are born into a moral network where moral authorities already exist over us: not only God, but also men in family, church, and state. These moral authorities exist over us without necessarily (or ordinarily) receiving their authority from our consent.
In addition to the sense in which positive-law obligations are embedded in our moral obligations to obey lawful authorities, there is another sense in which moral law and positive law are interconnected. This is because certain obligations of ours can have partly moral and partly positive grounds. Consider, for example, how God commands us not to commit certain sins like theft and fornication. Even if He did not make such a commandment, we would still be obligated not to commit them, since they would be forbidden by their very nature. But His express forbiddance of them increases our responsibility to keep them. By apprehending His prohibition, we have much graver obligations to obey His law; it is much more treacherous for a human to disobey some moral law when God has positively and explicitly expressed the duty to him. Thus, what would normally be a moral obligation has positive grounds appended to it, giving us both moral grounds and positive grounds to obey the law and flee from sin. And likewise, just as God can append positive grounds to any moral injunction, so also parents and other human authorities can do the same. A daughter who commits fornication when her father has clearly expressed its sinfulness to her has committed a greater sin than if he were silent.
Besides the interconnection between moral and positive law, we can also see a connection between the pairs of the distinctions. Namely, we can formulate the latter distinction in terms of the former. For any particular commandment of the moral law, the ratio essendi—that which makes a command to be part of the moral law—is the act’s very nature as intrinsically right or wrong. The ratio essendi of my having a moral obligation not to commit idolatry, for instance, is that such an act is intrinsically wrong; the act’s inherent wrongness is the metaphysical basis upon which my moral obligation is founded. By contrast, the ratio essendi for a positive-law obligation is simply that a lawful authority has issued a command. By the issuing of the command, the obligation comes into existence; therefore, the ratio essendi for any positive obligation must be that issuing of the command. (Furthermore, since the ratio essendi for any positive obligation involves a lawful moral authority, it follows that the ratio essendi for any positive obligation includes the antecedent moral obligation of a subject to obey the commands of all authorities placed over him. But this is just a rearticulation of the point made two paragraphs above.)
Yet, while the ratio essendi for moral law and positive law is significantly different, the ratio cognoscendi for both need not be. A mainstay of Christian theology is that God reveals His will in Scripture, including both His moral law and any positive injunctions He wishes to give. A means of our knowing the moral law would simply be our reading of Scripture, just as a means of our knowing certain positive laws (e.g., New Covenant sacraments) would be. Scripture is therefore a ratio cognoscendi for our knowledge of both moral law and positive law. And although Scripture is our surest grounds for believing any moral law or positive law, we can apprehend moral law and positive law apart from Scripture. For example, we have many properly basic beliefs—that is, beliefs which we justifiably hold apart from evidence—about certain moral obligations, which we know simply intuitively. Image-bearers know that certain acts, like murder and theft, are wrong even if they have never read the Bible.7 And as I mentioned above, positive laws issued from human authorities are obviously known apart from Scripture. Additionally, we could know either moral law or positive law if God were to immediately reveal Himself to us today; that could be a ratio cognoscendi as well.
The two distinctions outlined above help us to better state how the anti-miscegenation argument works. But first, remember the overarching context: strong kinists believe miscegenation is intrinsically wrong, weak kinists believe it is wrong merely consequentially, and anti-kinists have no moral objection to it. I am offering an argument against both the weak kinist and the anti-kinist positions, stating that interracial marriage is intrinsically wrong, and I am using the example of sodomy to construct my argument, namely, that anti-sodomy leads to anti-miscegenation. Those who believe in sodomy’s immorality are naturally led to view miscegenation as a separate sin against God and His created order.
The reason for the two distinctions is to provide clarification, and to restructure my argument’s claims in terms of those distinctions (as well as providing clarity for later articles in the series). Specifically, I am arguing that if one holds sodomy to be wrong as a matter of moral law, then the ratio essendi grounding its intrinsic wrongness will also show itself to morally outlaw miscegenation. The ratio essendi for sodomy’s immorality, as I mentioned in the previous article, is God’s design of us—which includes the distinctions between the sexes, as well as a number of social facts regarding our flourishing in families, communities, and nations—and it is this same consideration of our design (specifically, our social design) which will help us to understand the intrinsic wrongness of miscegenation. This will be made clearer in the next installment of this series.
- I say “set of answers” because the ratio essendi for Socrates’s mortality can have differing levels of causality at which it is answered. We could go back to the ultimate cause, saying that Socrates is mortal because God created him in such a way, or we could appeal to more proximate causes. ↩
- Besides stating this fact, it is difficult to further analyze or describe the concept of morality, since moral qualities seem to be frankly irreducible. However, in saying that, I could just be articulating the extent of my reasoning on the subject. ↩
- R.L. Dabney, Systematic Theology, p. 352. He goes on to make irrefragable arguments for the distinction as well. ↩
- Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, Vol. 3, p. 269. He also gives a good example of the distinction between moral and positive law in his discussion on the Sabbath (p. 323f.): we have a moral obligation to rest and set aside time for the worship of God, but our setting aside a particular day of the week, Sunday in the New Covenant, is based on a positive enactment. The fourth commandment thus has both moral and positive elements. ↩
- It is important to stress that positive law emanates only from lawful authorities issuing lawful commands. There will be some who claim to be lawful authorities but are really not—tyrants—and there will be some lawful authorities who step outside their bounds and command something which does not actually create an obligation for the subject. The most obvious example of this is that we are not obligated to obey a lawful authority who commands us to commit some sin (Acts 5:29). ↩
- See R.L. Dabney, “Women’s Rights Women,” <http://www.amprpress.com/women%27s_rights_women.htm>. ↩
- I elaborate more on this idea in my second article on the folly of biblicism, particularly in footnote 11. ↩