What is Natural Law?

Atheist blogger Bob Seidensticker claims that there is no such thing as an objective morality. He’s picking a fight with C.S.Lewis who argued in Mere Christianity that  the idea of  natural law is the cornerstone argument for the existence of God. “If there’s a law there’s a lawgiver”. Lewis said that there are some basic rights and wrongs that everybody everywhere accepts. “If you step on my toe on purpose. That’s wrong.” Everybody agrees.

Except Bob. He writes:

To the person who insists that objective morality exists, I say: show me. Take a vexing moral issue—abortion, euthanasia, stem cell research, capital punishment, sex before marriage, torture, and so on—and show us the objectively true moral position. If you want to say that objective morality exists but it’s not reliably accessible, then what good is it? This kind of objective morality that looks nonexistent might as well be.

The problem here is that Bob has read C.S.Lewis, but I don’t think he’s gone further, and to be fair, as I remember Lewis’ argument, he also didn’t take the argument back far enough. We must remember that Mere Christianity was Lewis’ attempt to translate the Christian argument for a wide and basically educated audience.

Also–Lewis wasn’t a Catholic. His argument only goes so far. I would grant Bob’s point that morality is very complex and there is very little agreement on what might be ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ in issues like abortion and euthanasia, capital punishment, sex before marriage etc.

Bob’s argument seems to be, “See, everybody disagrees about these particular issues, therefore there is no agreed morality, therefore there is no such thing as natural law, therefore there is no great objective morality.” I’m afraid this is rather sophomoric.

Natural Law is not simply some sort of arbitrary morality that is imposed by the great lawgiver who sits on a cloud and give Moses the Ten Commandments in order to prove his existence. Instead, natural law is derived from the nature and person of God himself. Aquinas teaches that God is simple. This means his Being and Essence are one. This Being and Essence are the foundation of all existence. To put it simply–all that is relies on the One who IS. The concept of Natural Law is therefore based in the sheer fact of existence. We begin, therefore, with the premise that the fact that something exists is better than that something does not exist. That something does not exist is nothing. It is a void. It is an emptiness. Against this all should be able to agree that existence is something. It is a positive, not a negative. It is a reality, not a void.

It is this “Existence versus non-existence” from which we derive the concept of Natural Law. We deem a thing to be ‘good’ if it exists. It is interesting, therefore in the Hebrew creation myth that God creates the world ex nihilo “out of nothing”. This is an important and profound philosophical statement. Furthermore, after he creates something in the creation myth we are told that God declares, “That’s Good.”

The concept of “Good” therefore is primary and derived naturally from the fact of existence. Then what is evil? Evil is nothing positive. The devil cannot create anything. All he can do is twist and distort or destroy that which is good. Therefore truly Christian moral theology is not dualistic. Good and Evil are not equal forces. Instead, evil is derivative. Evil is anything which distorts, corrupts or destroys that which is good, and if “Good” is that which exists or lives or is being brought into existence as something positive, then evil is that which destroys, distorts or corrupts that which is positive and which exists–or which is Good.

If readers will excuse the abstruse explanation, this is the foundation of natural law, that we all understand that at the root of it all there is such a thing as “Good” and such a thing as “Evil” and that “Good” is what exists, and is positive and natural and full of life. “Evil” is anything which destroys, distorts or corrupts the good. On this all people should be able to agree, and this is the foundation of all the rest of what we call “Natural Law.”

Of course, when we get into the particulars things get complicated. Nobody’s arguing that.

However, I believe the argument still stands that there is such a thing as Natural Law, and this is based in the mere fact of anything existing at all, and if it exists, then it is more positive than if it did not exist, and this we define as “Good.” Whether the sheer fact that anything exists demands a divinity is the subject for a different debate on something called the Ontological Argument.


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  • abb3w

    I find an understanding of Posets counters both. However, the reasoning is abstract enough that most people find it unpersuasive.

  • http://industrialblog.powerblogs.com IB Bill

    I never argue against objective morality that way. I just mention that in my morality, I can take his stuff, by force if necessary. Then I push him down and take his lunch money.

    I mean you may make a case that what’s yours is yours, and I’m real happy for you if that works for you, but show me the evidence that it’s wrong for me to take your stuff. I think the natural order of things is for the stronger to take from the weaker, and it works for me. If necessary, we strong can make cooperate with other strong people, but we’re still just going to take what we want. You may fight back, and that’s all right — because with subjective morality, what’s right boils down to power. Who has it, who’s losing it, who can keep it. Principles are just pretenses to cover the use of power. We understand if you fight back. We’re ready for it. We understand the struggle. But it’s all about power.

    Look at what happened to Jesus. He managed to run afoul of all the powers that be — an empire’s political posturing, local religious intrigue, the local king, and the mob all at the same time. He taught bold words about the Kingdom of God, but a little bribe here and a friend turns him in, a show of force scatters his friends, a fixed trial to restore order, at least after the locals, religious leaders and empire got themselves aligned. Even the mob screamed for his blood. In subjective morality, those people all win. That’s exactly how life is. I mean, what is truth, anyway? It’s power.

    Unless, you know, on the third day Jesus rose again from the dead, appeared to his demoralized disciples and breathed the Holy Spirit into them … then we live in a different world altogether.

  • Jeffery D. Kooistra

    Many of these counter arguments simply argue from the wrong end. Everyone agrees there is gravity, but if you start with say, the three body problem, and find it doesn’t yield simple solutions, that doesn’t invalidate the fact that you will fall if you jump off a cliff.

  • Lynda

    Children reared in a normal family environment can generally recognise what is bad/evil; they generally have to be “persuaded” by constant harassment that what is naturally or objectively evil is to be treated as “good” in a particular, degraded society. Likewise, they can generally recognise good and will acknowledge it until such time as they may be bullied into denying certain goods – e.g. chastity, marriage, family, religion, and respect for the life of all persons.

  • abb3w

    You say that like falling off a cliff must be considered a “bad” thing by everyone.

  • ScottInOH

    I don’t think I ever saw the answer to your introductory question: “What is Natural Law?”

    You say what it is “not”: “simply some sort of arbitrary morality…” You say what it is “derived from”: “the nature and person of God himself” (two things that are not defined in this post). You say what it is “based on”: “the sheer fact of existence.”

    Did you ever say what it is? Maybe it’s the behavioral code derived from observing what is “positive and natural and full of life,” but I’m not sure.

  • veritas

    Lewis was really on to something in his point about morality.
    If there is no God then there is no reason why any action should be right or wrong. If we have simply evolved from primeval sludge, have no soul and are simply bags of chemicals, then nothing we do is ultimately right or wrong, it’s every man for himself, survival of the fittest.

    Even if the atheist then argues that we could apply logic to any situation to determine right or wrong we are then left with someone being able to say that any “damaged ” human being would be better off dead and society would be better off without them. We quickly move to the Nazis solution to society’s problems – eliminate the “weaker” members so that everyone else is better off, less drain on limited resources.

    Also if we are supposed to solve the question of morality by logic – whose logic? I can give a dozen logical reasons why a particular group of people should be eliminated for the greater good. They can probably give a dozen reasons why I should be eliminated.

    Without God we are well and truly sunk when it comes to any form of system of morals and behaviour.

  • http://www.noctua.org.uk/ Paul Wright

    Couple of objections to that one:

    1. Doesn’t this fall to the same objections as the Ontological Argument? If non-existent X is always worse than an existent X, and X is defined to be the best thing ever, clearly X must exist, right? Something has certainly gone wrong with that sort of argument, as AFAICT Kant put his finger on what it was: existence isn’t a property in the same way that “being yellow” is, say.

    2. Good things are good in virtue of their good properties, and bad things of their bad properties, but we may still call things good or bad if they don’t exist, and we may judge it better if some existing things did not exist. Existence is required for something to be an actual good, but also for something to be an actual bad, so it doesn’t appear to be a good property (even if we allow it to be a property, see 1).

  • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

    One remark and Two problems with your argumentation.

    Remark to your point one: The ontological argument and this variation of the ontological argument are not ‘arguments’ per se, but observations based on the nature of reality and the nature of good and evil. As such they are not ‘arguments for the existence of God’ but observations that show that belief in God is not unreasonable.

    1. Your second point assumes some previous standard of what is ‘good’ and ‘bad’ and therefore only pushes the question back another notch.

    2. See my more detailed discussion of what constitutes ‘bad’. What is ‘bad’ is some good that is destroyed or distorted or absent. ‘Bad’ has no quality of existence in itself therefore there is no such thing as ‘actual bad’ as ‘bad’ is only ever a distortion or destruction of what is good.

  • http://gravitationisnotresponsible.blogspot.com/ Guillermo Santiago

    This “atheist” just proves that real philosophical discussions needs to be left to intelligent adults.

  • Paul Susac

    OK well, I’m going to point out the obvious: Since god made the devil then by your own argument the devil is good.

    But that’s just a gotcha response, I don’t really find it interesting.

    What your argument lacks is not the proper ontology, but the proper metaphysics. Your worldview assumes that god made things, and that things are good. It also assumes that things include social things like morality. This assumption is wrong.

    We do not live in a universe of things, this is an illusion (an illusion dispelled by science btw). We live in a universe of processes.

    Simply put, at every level of reality, (quantum, sub-atomic, atomic, cellular, inter-cellular, organismic, social etc.) there are relationships and processes that occur at each level that give rise to higher-order phenomena, and these higher order phenomena in turn feed back into the lower order phenomena that give rise to them in ways that modulate the lower order phenomena in turn.

    Take for example the hardness of iron. You can’t find the hardness of iron in an iron atom. This hardness is found in the relationship between the iron atoms at a higher order level. Motion at the macro scale results in heat at the atomic scale, which in turn softens the iron affecting its hardness.

    Now look at the human capacity for violence. This capacity creates an economic incentive to create trusting, loving, mutually supportive in-groups. The capacity for antisocial behavior at level of the human animal, incentivizes pro-social behavior at the level of human culture. A strong in-group empowers the group to act with violence upon weaker in-groups. Note that religion is often used as a group identifier, but it RARELY results in less inter-group violence – in fact the reverse is often true. Religious ideology seems to be a tool for allowing us to have MUCH large in-group than mere kinship bonds can provide for us.

    This capacity for moral behavior (and the capacity to rationalize immoral behavior) is a consequence of the fact that all of human existence is constituted out of processes within processes within processes. The reason evolution was such a show stopper for so many theological arguments is precisely because it situates humans into a process-driven universe, one which is explicable, and which allows us to understand ourselves as the result of a bottom-up process, NOT a top down-creation.

    There ARE NO social things. Morality (like money) only exists because we interact in a set of social process which we subjectively experience as “moral.” This is why both Dwight’s and Bob’s arguments fundamentally fail. They both rest on wrong assumptions about the nature of reality.

    For more info on process metaphysics I recommend:


  • Laura Page

    @Paul, Regarding the devil: according to the biblical account (book of Daniel), Lucifer was created as an angel (good), but freely chose evil. Like the rest of us, he is subject to the consequences of those free choices.

    Are you saying that there are NO objective standards? In what culture, in what universe, is raping a 6-year-old morally acceptable? I teach high school philosophy, but in a rural K-12 school where I know every child and most of the parents. Religious or not, my juniors and seniors know right from wrong where the kindergarten is concerned!