Natural Law reconsidered

Natural Law reconsidered June 26, 2014

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.

An excerpt from R. J. Snell,  The Perspective of Love: Natural Law in a New Mode:via The Meaning(s) of Natural Law | Intercollegiate Review:

In a very helpful essay, J. Budziszewski explains those elements common to all natural law theories. All “share a conviction that the most basic truths of right and wrong . . . are not only right for everyone, but at some level known to everyone by the ordinary exercise of reason. They are an heirloom of the family of man.” Every natural lawyer would agree, he suggests, that basic truths are natural because somehow “embedded into the structure of creation, especially human nature, which includes the structure of the human mind,” and all would agree that this structure obligates or binds. True, known to be true, and right.

Particularly, he differentiates four aspects commonly affirmed by classical accounts, while new natural law demonstrates less commitment to the second and third: (1) a normative structure to practical reason; (2) an evident design to human nature; (3) the particular aspects of this design and the innate purposes and meanings of the designs; (4) natural consequences or discord to violating the good proper to our nature. As Budziszewski indicates, much of the dispute in the natural law literature between classical and contemporary theories pivots around the status of teleology in nature: does nature reveal design, can design be known absent theological commitments, does design entail normativity and obligation, is the Aristotelian paradigm of final causality still meaningful, is metaphysical biology sensible, and does natural law begin with and ground its conclusions upon nature? In short, what is the status of teleology?

As Leo Strauss articulated in his classic Natural Right and History, commitment to natural right seems reminiscent of a world existing no longer, part of a teleological universe “destroyed by modern natural science” and rejected by the social sciences in the name of “History and in the name of the distinction between Facts and Values.”Given the ateleological universe, historicism, and the fact/value distinction, it might appear quite unreasonable to maintain belief in natural law or natural right, for the intellectual substructure is, as Alasdair MacIntyre put it, echoed by David Bentley Hart, “unacceptable by the dominant standards of modernity.” Yet the cultural and scientific developments noted by Strauss have not resulted in the withering away of either natural right or natural law but instead contributed to a renewed vitality as some thinkers deepen the commonplaces of the tradition while others develop or stretch the tradition in new directions.

[Keep reading. . . .]

I wonder why Roman Catholic theologians, whose whole approach to ethical issues is grounded on natural law (thus, birth control is wrong because the purpose of sex is to conceive children, so any attempt to thwart that process violates nature) are so hostile to intelligent design (that is, purpose, teleology)  as a scientific account of nature.


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