What is Natural Law: A Brief Explanation and Defense

When seeking to discern between good and bad, I can look to myself or look to others or look to both myself and others.

Initially, it may seem justified to adjudicate between good and bad by looking to myself. After all, I am a sensible, reasonable person. I am not a sociopath or cognitively incapacitated. Moreover, I am ultimately the one making the moral decisions, and so they will most likely impact me, so I should have a say in what I think to be good and bad.

However, upon further consideration I realize that I have made mistakes in the past. That is to say, I have made errors in judgment including moral judgment. So, I recognize that I have blind spots or biases that may be unknown to me. Often, I have been unaware of my mistakes until someone else shed the light of reason to illuminate the proper way. I conclude from this self-reflection one non-negotiable truth: I am fallible.

So, it seems that the final option makes the most sense to look both to myself and others because I am both a rational person with agency and I will be affected but I am also a fallible person prone to error. Any proper way of thinking about ethics should account both for my own moral intuitions and the wisdom of others.

But what sorts of people should I turn to? In matters of medicine, I would turn to doctors; doctors who have both studied medicine and anatomy and mastered the practice of health care. In matters of culinary arts, I would turn to chefs; chefs who have studied spices and cooking methods and mastered the practice of cuisine.

In matters of good and bad, it would reasonably follow, that I would turn to those people who have thought carefully and deeply about such matters, and not only that, but those who have also mastered the art of living well; that is to say become themselves good people.

There are such people universally recognized in the history of the world whose writings are still available: Moses, Solomon, Socrates, Cicero, Jesus, Paul, Buddha, Confucius, Thomas Aquinas, Elizabeth Anscombe, to name a few.

Upon reading and examining these figures they are different in that they are distanced by chronology and geography; they lived across centuries in different parts of the world, grew up in different cultures and spoke different languages. However, upon examining these figures they all have something in common they believe: that there is a moral order. They believe there is a universal, moral order, that it could be known, and they believed their job was to inquire into that order, study it, and conform themselves to it in order to flourish.

Indeed, all of them offer a vision of what it means to live a flourishing life, what it means to live well, and central to that vision is an acquiescence to the moral order. In order to live well, we must live our lives in accord with the structure or blueprint within the universe. In doing so, we develop moral and intellectual virtues which are necessary and essential for a properly flourishing human life.

When humans fail to do that, things go awry. In other words, when we push against the walls of reality, they push back. If we violate the order of creation, by attempting to fly out of a window for example, the walls of reality push back, and we break our legs. They remind us that they are there and what our place and purpose is within them.

How does one go about seeing and seeking this moral order in the universe? According to the Judeo- Christian tradition, it is revealed to us in nature: in creation (the physical created order) and in human nature. The moral order is woven into the fabric of creation. To go against it, is to go against the grain of nature. As St. Paul says, these things are written on the heart and revealed to all in the physical creation.

Of course, creation implies a Creator, but what seems apparent is that even apart from immediate or specific, detailed understanding of the Creator, one can know good from bad.

This is consonant with the fact that moral law codes of non-Jewish peoples that predate the Ten Commandments by hundreds of years are quite similar to the law codes of Moses. That is to say, it is not because Moses or his predecessors were inventing moral laws previously unknown to humankind, but that somehow, they discovered them, or as the Christian tradition would claim, they received them.

Indeed, this seems to be true even today. For most of us as human beings, there are some goods that flatten out at rock bottom and are apparently obvious goods that they require no further argumentation, the good of life, for example.

If you were to find yourself arguing against the evil of genocide on the basis of the good of human life, and someone responded with confusion, “But why is human life good?” you might reasonably think you were talking with someone whose reason is seriously impaired and whose moral sense is broken much like a physical sense.

Hence, I am able to come back to where I initially began: my inner self. My own conscience dictates that some moral realities are apparent to me and within me, accessible through reason. It is obvious to rational human persons that life is good. I am compelled to see and value certain goods. Consequently, we as human communities make moral precepts such as life should be preserved and protected. One need only recognize one’s nature and the nature of the world around him to affirm this. In the words of Martin Luther King Jr., the way one knows if a civil law is a bad law or good law is if it violates the natural law.

So, we can say this moral order is written on our hearts. But how else can we know this moral order?

Again, we must return to nature. In order to know whether something is good or bad, we need to know its nature. To inquire into a thing’s nature is to ask about the essence of the thing. And in order to know its nature, we need to know what its purpose is, what is it made for. For example, I can discern a good clock from a bad clock because I know what a clock is made for or its purpose. A clock tells time. A clock that does not tell time is a bad clock. A clock that does not tell time is rightfully said to be broken. Similarly, a plant strives to grow and reproduce. A plant that grows and reproduces properly flourishes. In fact, flourishing is an apt term as it relates to us human beings because since we share something in common with plants, namely we are organisms. This notion that objects have purposes, things for which they aim or are made for is called teleology.

Similarly, human beings are made for something, they have a purpose, a telos, an end. Anthropology then lies at the heart of the ethical question. In order to ask the question how then should I live? We must first answer the prior question, what does it mean to be human? What are human beings and what are human beings made for?

Since the 18th century and accelerated in 20th century, the answer to anthropological question is boldly, “nothing.” Indeed, the answer given repeatedly in the 20th century (with some important exceptions such as Chesterton, Anscombe, and Lewis) is to reject human nature altogether. There is no such thing as human nature some (notably Nietzsche and Sartre) say. Human beings are not made for anything. In fact, what makes us humans is the fact that we can create or impose, by the sheer act our own will, what our purpose, our telos is. The individual decides, chooses, and creates itself, and none can tell him otherwise.

This answer is novel in the history of humanity broadly and in the history of ethical thinkers, and we are in a 100-year experiment witnessing its effects. If there is no moral order, then as C.S. Lewis predicted all we are left with are value judgments reduced to mere statements of individual, emotional expression with no substance or content that can be reasonably evaluated. Conversations simply devolve into emotional ping pong, where each individual shares his or her feelings about an issue. Each one is free to construct his or her own moral reality and creatively explore their individuality and autonomy. Individual choice reigns supreme.

But why think such a conception is true and not disastrous? As Christina Hoff Sommers notes, leaving humans, especially young humans, alone to compose their own values is a little like putting them in a chemistry lab and saying, “invent your own compounds.” This is because the moral law like physicals laws is not invented but discovered.

To be sure, contemporary culture has broadly rejected teleology, and its consequent has been the normalization of everything. On the other hand, if eyes are in fact for seeing and ears for hearing, then we are teleological creatures; we live in a teleological reality. If one pushes against the walls of reality, inevitably they will push back.

The Christian natural law thinker readily concedes that though there is much good in nature and those goods are evident to us, nature is also fallen. Things are not the way they are supposed to be. Creatures like us are different from plants in that we have been given a great deal of agency as to how we respond to God’s desires and purposes for creation, and our desires and disposition is often to push away. The fall does not deprive us of our nature, but, in the words of J. Budziszewski, our nature is not in its intended condition. We often aim and desire that which is destructive to us. We have habitual vices, biases, are willfully ignorant, and seek to often serve our own self-interests at whatever cost. Nevertheless, all of us still recognize that things can and should be better. According to the Christian story, God takes on human nature, becomes flesh, to restore and redeem human nature and with it all of creation.

So, this leads finally to how we see and seek this moral order. Because humans are finite, fallen, and fallible this moral order is best sought in a community of Truth seekers; truth seekers who themselves possess moral and intellectual virtues. Indeed, one thing common to the great moral thinkers of the world is that they were in the pursuit of moral truth in community. In the Christian tradition, this community is meant to be the church filled with the Spirit of God.

This conception of a moral order woven into the fabric of creation, universally apparent to all human beings via reason is called natural law.

While natural law is not exclusively unique to the Christian tradition, the Christian tradition offers the best account for this moral order. The Creator God who created our individual minds is the same God who created the external world around us, and who left His imprint both on us and broadly on his creation. One mark on his creation is order that reflects the eternal divine intelligence or divine wisdom.

However, natural law has been forgotten for some in the Christian tradition, particularly among evangelical Protestants. In an attempt to retrieve the authority of Scripture, what has been plainly revealed in creation has been neglected or ignored. The result has often been rules without reasons. Prudence and wisdom along with other moral and intellectual virtues have little to no value when one has a divinely inspired command in Scripture. This approach to Scripture can be called biblicism. The reason murder is wrong is because the Bible says it’s wrong. Practices of hygiene and cleanliness can be justified by appealing to the Psalmist’s words to create in him a clean heart.

Furthermore, as Gregory Morris notes, “roles, duties, and moral facts which generations of Christians before us would have seen as self-evident now puzzle evangelicals, who take the view that whatever the Bible doesn’t forbid is allowed. The idea that nature tells us things about morality, about the intended function of our bodies, about the roles of the sexes, or about the purposes of our institutions is alien to the evangelical mind. If the Bible doesn’t explicitly require something, it is optional.” Subtle forms of functional Gnosticism have crept in to suggest it makes no difference what our physical bodies do. Regarding such matters, freedom and individual conscience reign supreme. So, such an evangelical finds himself a strange bedfellow with those 20th century thinkers who deny human nature altogether and say, “to each his own.”

The natural law thinker says otherwise. The reason murder is wrong is not because the Bible says so. Rather the Bible reiterates and clarifies what is revealed to us in nature as God’s will. The Scriptures may mandate the avoidance of drunkenness, and the toxicologist can explain why. The scriptures may mandate marital fidelity and the marriage counselor or medical doctor can explain why. The scriptures may mandate care for vegetation and plants, and the climatologist can explain why. There are certain things we need as humans to thrive and flourish that include oxygen and food. But there are other things like ordering our desires, practices and habits. Thus, we see the beautiful harmony between the sciences and theology. We are not left rules without reasons. Virtues such as self-control, patience, and charity are developed in how we think about alcohol, gardening, marriage, and so forth.

Consequently, the Christian concerned with developing her virtues and ordering her desires does not perpetually ask, “Is this lawful or unlawful?” Rather, she asks, “will this lead to life or lead to death?” Will this promote flourishing or destruction? Is this fitting for my nature or devastating to my nature? Given much of evangelicalism’s allergy to works righteousness, it is tempting to quickly label certain attitudes and practices as legalistic.

However, if there are virtues beyond simple obedience, we must cultivate them. If we have a nature made for a purpose, we must seek to live in concord with it, not fight against it. This is no easy thing. As James Hunter notes, “We say we want a renewal of character in our day but we don’t really know what we ask for. To have a renewal of character is to have a renewal of creedal order that constraints, limits, binds, obligates, and compels. We want strong morality but without the emotional burden of guilt or shame; we want virtue but without particular moral justifications that invariably offend; we want good without having to name evil; we want moral community without any limitations to personal freedom. In short, we want what we cannot possibly have on the terms that we want it.” Therefore, the vision of thinkers like Nietzsche and Sartre and evangelical biblicists must be shed. Recovery of the natural law, a fully orbed commitment to God’s creation is the way forward.

For Further Reading:

Aristotle Nicomachean Ethics

Cicero On Duties

Paul Romans 1-2

Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae Treatise on Law

C.S. Lewis Abolition of Man

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