The Declaration of Independence and natural law

Legal scholar Randy Barnett offer a fascinating section by section reading of the Declaration of Independence, which he says succinctly states the political theory of the American founding.  He summarizes it this way:

  • The rights of individuals do not originate with any government, but pre-exist its formation.
  • The protection of these rights is both the purpose and first duty of government.
  • Even after government is formed, these rights provide a standard by which its performance is measured and, in extreme cases, its systemic failure to protect rights—or its systematic violation of rights—can justify its alteration or abolition.
  • At least some of these rights are so fundamental that they are “inalienable,” meaning they are so intimately connected to one’s nature as a human being that they cannot be transferred to another even if one consents to do so.

But I’d like to draw your attention to his exposition of the first paragraph and his explanation of “The Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.”  In quoting a clergyman of the time, he gives a helpful explanation of what we mean by that much-misunderstood concept of “natural law,” as well as showing how that was a fundamental assumption of the American founders. [Read more...]

If you embrace nature, embrace natural law

The Pope’s encyclical “Laudato Si” is winning fulsome praise from the left for its embrace of environmentalism.  But, as the editors of The Stream point out, those folks aren’t saying anything about 11 other teachings in that document that don’t accord so well with the spirit of the times.  These include the condemnation of abortion, a rejection of sexual immorality, and a tempering of feminism.  (See the 11 after the jump.)

The Pope is indeed advocating environmentalism, but he is doing so in the context of a larger theological perspective on matter, the physical universe, and objective reality.  Let me sum it up this way:  Embrace nature, but that means also embracing the natural purpose of sex (conceiving children), the natural body (so no transgenderism), the natural difference between men and women (so feminism will have its limits), and natural law in general (the connection of moral truth to objective reality).

We can still quarrel with the Pope’s environmentalism and his theology, but he is working from a worldview that flies in the face of most postmodernists who, in believing that there is no objective reality they are subject to, reject the very concept of nature.  That number includes, ironically, many environmentalists. [Read more...]

A Christian case against Natural Law

As we posted earlier, many Christians are approaching moral issues in terms of natural law philosophy in an attempt to make a case before the secular world.  But Orthodoxy theologian David Bentley Hart argues that this is futile, that divine revelation is necessary for any kind of moral clarity.  Read the pro- and the con- argument (after the jump).  Which one do you think makes the better case? [Read more...]

Natural Law reconsidered

Natural law as a grounding for morality  is basic to Roman Catholic ethics, though it is variously embraced or rejected by Protestants.   As contemporary society tries to normalize sexual behavior long considered not just immoral but unnatural, natural law ethics have come back into vogue among those who insist that sexual morality is not just a narrow religious conviction but something applicable to everyone.

Protestant philosopher R. J. Snell has written a new book that attempts a new formulation of natural law, one grounded in love.  After the jump, an excerpt from the book that first explains what we mean by natural law.  (And note how the concept that nature has a “design”–c.f. the intelligent design movement–is integral to the idea.)

Later, I intend to post something on the Christian case against natural law theory, and we can weigh the issues. [Read more...]

Natural law vs. nominalism

Fr. Patrick Henry Reardon, an Orthodox priest, gives a lucid explanation of the difference between “natural law” and “nominalism” when it comes to moral philosophy.  He does so in a way that makes it nearly impossible to believe that Luther was a nominalist, as he is often accused of being.  Fr. Reardon also goes on to criticize his fellow Orthodox who believe that since church weddings are sacramental, the world outside may conduct marriage any way it pleases. [Read more...]

The nature of marriage

Philosopher Stephen J. Heaney discusses the nature of marriage in the context of the same-sex marriage debate:

Marriage is often characterized today as follows: 1) two people 2) who love each other 3) want to perform sexual acts together, so 4) they consent to combine their lives sexually, materially, economically 5) with the endorsement of the community. Since same-sex couples can meet the first four criteria, how can society refuse the fifth?It is easy to see why this would be a cause of aggravation, not only for same-sex couples who wish community endorsement of their relationships, but for millions of others. If the criteria stated above actually define marriage—and in contemporary Western society, many have come to view marriage as no more than this—then refusal to acknowledge and endorse same-sex relationships is a rank injustice, nothing but an exercise in bigotry or stupidity.

Typically, marriage does in fact have these characteristics. But why does marriage have these characteristics? Remembering why will help us to remember how they show themselves in a relationship that has the essence of marriage—and how that is often different in other relationships.

First, human beings have a powerful hankering to engage in sexual intercourse.

Second, sexual intercourse between a man and a woman naturally and frequently leads to children. Male and female alone each have part of a complete reproductive system. Without both parts, reproduction cannot happen. Without the result of children, it would be a real puzzler why we have these organ systems at all, and why we have such a deep urge to engage in sexual acts.

Third, the rearing of children is a lifetime responsibility. As deeply social beings, we remain connected to each other across generations. Even adults with children of their own need the wisdom and guidance of their fathers and mothers. It is easier for those who enter this project that they have affection for each other, and that they form a self-giving friendship. To perform these actions lovingly is the properly human way.

Fourth, because it leads to children, sexual intercourse has extraordinary public consequences. It is not, as we might like to think, a purely private act. It matters a lot to the community who is doing it, and under what circumstances. So the community endorses certain sexual arrangements; others, which fail to abide by the fullness of truth of human sexuality, the community rejects as unfitting for human beings. To support those that are fitting, it offers the institution of marriage. In marriage, the couple promises before the community to fulfill this project through vows of fidelity and permanence, joining their bodies and their lives to make the project work. The community promises to give the couple the privacy to perform their sexual acts, and care for each other; it further supports the family by means of appropriate protections and benefits. It may be that others could receive similar benefits for different reasons, but this is why benefits accrue to marriage: to help the marriage project flourish.

If sexuality did not naturally bring us offspring, it is hard to explain why it exists, whether you believe in a purely material evolution or a loving designer of the universe, for it would serve no purpose. If sexual acts did not naturally lead to offspring, it is just as hard to explain how marriage would have appeared in human history, for it would serve no purpose.

Religions may bless marriage, but they did not invent it. Because it involves such profoundly important human realities, it is no surprise that sex and marriage have religious significance. But sex and marriage have existed as long as there have been human communities.

If we accept the misdefinition of marriage using non-essential characteristics as the complete story, it would be impossible to reject same-sex marriage. Given the whole truth, however, it is impossible to accept it. No matter how superficially similar they are to real marriages, same-sex relationships cannot function as marriages.

This is a good example of the “natural law” approach to moral reasoning. Does it make sense?  Is there anything exclusively Roman Catholic about it?

HT:  Larry Hughes


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