I’ve always viewed much of “natural law” philosophy as ill-advised overthinking, like missing the innate importance of forests by getting lost in the microscopic minutiae of their trees.
I was reminded of this recently while reading an article about “natural law” by the Catholic news website Aleteia. (A clear, objective explanation of the concept can be found in the YouTube video above.)
You may recall the term from its use by immediate past U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr, who frequently indicated he longed, as I wrote in March, to establish a “Judeo-Christian” theocracy in America based on “natural law.”
In conservative Catholicism’s “natural law” bias, anything that appears unnatural or uncommon, or that contradicts the Bible — e.g., homosexuality, abortion, evolution, etc. — is inherently wrong.
What Barr meant by the term is a society based on divinely ordained morality and ethics derived from what he calls the “Judeo-Christian tradition,” which actually isn’t a thing in the United States; giving some credit to Jews, long unjustly reviled in American culture, is a political sop. In fact, “natural law” is simply what’s proclaimed in the Bible, the first part of which — the Old Testament — is largely Christian interpretations of Judaism, yet most Americans view the Old Testament as Christian, not Judaic.
In its recent piece, Aleteia asserts that “natural law” is simply a philosophy encapsulating the way things “naturally” are.
What this means, among many other similarly dubious assumptions in this misguided philosophy, is that homosexuality, for example, in the context of “natural law” is, in the words of Catholic Cardinal Raymond Burke, “disordered,” “wrong” and “evil.” A virulent homophobe and coronavirus vaccines skeptic, Burke was demoted in 2014 by Pope Francis I for his insubordinate un-Christian political views and, later, was laid so low himself by Covid-19 he had to be intubated. Before his firing, Burke was the second most powerful prelate in the Church, as prefect of the Vatican’s highest court.
So, in the Catholic sense, “natural law” is not what’s immutable in existence — what is true no matter what (like gravity and same-sex attractions) — but what appears obvious and normal to conservative Christians who order their lives according to scripture and traditions of the faith, not the real world. In the real world, men and women routinely and in similar proportion in every society are sexually attracted to and love members of their own gender.
In other words, sexual anatomy, for Christian “natural law” aficionados, indicates that the only natural coupling is between a man and a woman. Since humans are obviously spiritual beings (read: aware of and accepting of the existence of God), they must also naturally heed the Word of God (i.e., the Christian Bible). Let’s not forget that in America’s pre-Civil War South, “natural law” also used to hold that slavery was morally OK, until it clearly wasn’t, because, of course, it’s natural that superior human beings (i.e., white Christians of European descent) should dominate and subjugate their inferiors if they are able. And it wasn’t castigated in the Bible.
Except it’s unclear what “spiritual” means and if human beings are, in fact, that, plus the existence of something supernatural to be spiritual toward is as yet unconfirmed. Also, there’s no proof that the Bible is the “Word of God” and thus divine, so there’s really no compelling need to heed anything it prescribes.
Aletiea explains the concept of “natural law” thusly:
“The Church has always taught that natural law exists as something imprinted on human nature.
“Augustine and Aquinas both clearly indicated that this moral law was impressed into our nature. The Synod of Arles in 473 reaffirmed Augustine and said natural law was ‘the first grace of God before the coming of Christ.’
“In modern times, the Church has reaffirmed this reality multiple times. In Gaudium et Spes (16) of Vatican II, we read: “For man has in his heart a law written by God; to obey it is the very dignity of man; according to it he will be judged.” In Veritatis Splendor (36), John Paul II noted, “The natural moral law has God as its author, and that man, by the use of reason, participates in the eternal law, which it is not for him to establish.”
Encyclopaedia Britannica explains that the continuing debate over the true meaning of “natural law” is at least as old as Socrates, Plato and Aristotle:
“[Aristotle] drew his examples of natural law primarily from his observation of the Greeks in their city-states, who subordinated women to men, slaves to citizens, and “barbarians” to Hellenes. In contrast, the Stoics conceived of an entirely egalitarian law of nature in conformity with the logos (reason) inherent in the human mind.”
So even the sage Greeks themselves held opposite interpretations.
It has always been a pet peeve of mine that Christianity (as well as other religions) blithely stipulate that the root of every positive trait in humankind is God (and everything else is the Devil’s fault), when there’s zero evidence that some supernatural beings imprinted us, goodly or badly, and exhaustive evidence that the soulless machinations of evolution did.
God is always trotted out as a kind of trump card that instantaneously renders every other consideration irrelevant, where “natural law” is code for “Christian law.”
Bunk. Evoking God is a religious tic, not a proof.
But devout Christians are nothing if not set in their dogma, however wildly improbable.
For example, in defending the doctrine of “natural law,” the Aleteia article posits without evidence that due to mankind’s supposed spiritual/rational nature (although the two traits are actually mutually exclusive), people tend toward social balance “in order for us to reach our ends properly.” Which, the article explains, is what makes “natural law” the basis of morality for people and not other animals. Except that many “dumb” animals also tend toward harmony and peace, possibly even stronger than we do.
“Plus humans are social in a way no other animal is,” Aleteia contends, “and this implies certain goods like keeping to your spouse for sexual activity to avoid social conflict.”
In fact, “keeping to your spouse” (being sexually faithful, if you didn’t catch that)) is more about an unhealthy fear of God’s wrath for a very common sin (for which God’s design, ironically, embedded an often uncontrollable impulse in many of us) and about Christianity’s legacy of loathing and subjugating women than about God-given human DNA longing for serenity. After all, you remember what Eve did with her free will in Eden, tempting poor ol’ Adam with a demon apple. Can’t have that.
I agree that many positive (and negative) tendencies in mankind are embedded in us from birth. But I don’t believe there’s anything supernatural about it.
Species, including Homo sapiens, must flourish to survive and bequeath their genes to future generations. And species that are constantly fighting among themselves would struggle to flourish. So a capacity for being chill and getting along is essential to survival now and in the future.
Without divine intervention (except in people’s imaginations), evolution has achieved this neat trick very handily in successful species.
Peace-inducing altruism and instinctive cooperation comes from this very natural biological process over eons, not by fiat from the gods, except maybe figuratively speaking. Such positiveness is found deep in our genes, not far beyond the stars.