One cheap but useful definition of natural law is that it’s the belief that there is a universal human nature which is knowable by reason (and here we fight about what we mean by “reason,” but ignore that for now), and so our desires can be rightly ordered based on what would express and support this nature, even though we have never seen this nature instantiated anywhere in our lives or history, ever. You can see why this is both a tempting place to ground your ethics, and a tough sell to people who don’t agree!
I was thinking about this because of reading something about the dispute between (to oversimplify) choice feminism and equality feminism. Choice feminism focuses on empowering women to make the choices they in fact want to make. I disagree with choice as a grounding for ethics in the first place, I find choice feminism’s analysis often superficial, and it turns out to be just as judgmental as every other political ideology (how dare you criticize my choices!) in a sort of meta-pharisaical way. But it does take women as we are: complicit, diverse, argumentative, filled with sometimes incoherent longings. It’s not a totalizing narrative, you know?
Equality feminism then points out that when you focus on empowering women to make the choices they want to make right now, lots/most of them make choices which reinforce a) the dominant economic structure and b) their own inequality. Let’s ignore a) for now (because lots of equality feminists do!) and focus on b). Why is it a bad thing when women choose sexism?
The thing I was reading explained it this way: “if we had equality, or at least in my head, if we had equality, people would be making the various choices at similar rates” rather than women choosing differently from men in ways which reinforce gender stereotypes and/or sex inequality. This is a vision of how the world should be–how men and women would be “if we had equality”–which we have never, ever actually seen. There are AFAIK literally no societies in which men and women make interchangeable choices around questions of sex, work, and family; there are societies with more than two genders but not less. It’s not a statement about how great the Peopleihaventheardof are, and how we should emulate them. It’s a statement about how men and women inherently are, according to their universal, precultural nature.
And so the obvious question which always arises in contemporary natural-law arguments comes up here: Where on earth (or wherever!) are you getting this vision of human nature? Why do you think this is the vision of the Good, the true north for our ethical compasses?
One obvious answer is that equality feminists are projecting their own desires onto all women/people. (“Equality” is not even really the right word here; you can believe that men and women are equal, as I do!, and not believe they’re interchangeable or should make roughly the same choices at all times.) “If everyone were just like me, the world would be a better place!”
You could also answer, “I started out wanting to make choices which reinforce patriarchy, but as I began to make choices which reinforce sex equality, I became happier or perceived more meaning in my life. Lots of other people seem to feel the same way. Therefore, I suspect that most women/people will be happier or perceive their lives to be more meaningful if they make these choices.” AKA false consciousness is a real thing, although “false” isn’t the right word here–“unhappy consciousness”? “Misdirected”? Feminism as cognitive behavioral therapy, a way of attaining greater happiness or hope without fussing too much about the underlying theories or conflicting visions of the Good.
And finally, of course you can answer if you have a belief that there is a universal human nature because we were made that way. The equality/interchangeability-feminist version of this I know best comes from Christianity; I don’t agree with it, I think Chris Roberts’s criticism that it allows the New Covenant to overcome the Creation rather than reconciling them is right, but it is the classic way to arrive at natural law.
I mostly decided to write up these perhaps underwhelming thoughts because I’m interested in how compelling or inescapable the natural-law framework really is. Everybody wants to use it! I also think interchangeability feminism plays into this legal change, to the extent that I’m right about it. And because I do believe that women are inherently, by our natures, equal to men (though not interchangeable!), and that our inequality and mistreatment are sinful, I want to clear away some of the arguments which might obscure that claim.
[lightly edited for clarity]