The notion of Natural Law or more specifically, the Natural Moral Law gets much traction and attention in certain Christian and Jewish circles, especially among Catholics.
Despite its widespread mention and use, those who appeal to the Natural Moral Law often use the term incorrectly or make unwarranted assumptions. I’d like to call attention to some of these after I offer a basic overview of the Natural Law Tradition.
What is the Natural Law Moral Tradition?
Every ethical system proposed has been an attempt to provide a reasonable framework for analyzing what leads to and constitutes human thriving-flourishing. Typically, within a natural law framework, discussion revolves around three key components:
a) Human nature – the effort to lay a foundation in philosophical anthropology offering definitional understanding of what constitutes a human person and what flourishing entails.
b) Goods for humans – understanding those things and states of affairs that enhance or contribute to human betterment and flourishing.
c) Considerations of practical reason – praxiological analysis of human action in relation to goods and their role in human flourishing. Human action can be spoken of as having an inner rationale in terms of its ethical impact and ability to contribute to thriving.
The Natural Law tradition rests on the notion that human nature is more or less a fixed reality, and although circumstances and cultures will change, the essential features of what constitutes a human person – their nature – will not change. It is generally accepted that human persons are a unified, embodied, individual subjectivity with rational, emotional, and volitional capacities – a relational, self-aware, self-governing being, inherently social as demonstrated through the capacity for language, sexuality, and love.
In the Natural Law tradition, all efforts are made to define flourishing as holistically as possible, not limiting the notion to fleeting emotional states of happiness or brief periods of sensual delight or satisfaction. The notion of flourishing implies a lasting and essential improvement of the human person as person and thus relates to constitutive aspects of human nature.
Despite our imperfect nature, the human person can, by their intelligence, reasonably determine right from wrong through reflection on their own nature and the goods and situations that lead to its flourishing and betterment. Individual conclusions are gradually socialized, debated, and refined through sustained argument and discussion.
The emergent principles and norms have been spoken of in terms of laws (in a general sense), thus the notions of the laws of nature, in the case of morality, the laws of human nature – implying a sense that the moral law or moral order, is engrained and derived from human nature itself.
The Natural Law constitutes the basic principles of practical rationality for human beings – practical reason judging whether an action, or type of action, is right by its logical and practical connection to whether that action brings about or realizes some good – some situation, context, or tangible reality that affirms human dignity, refines the person, and thus aids their thriving and flourishing.
From the perspective of Natural Law reasoning, our moral responsibilities arise from our nature and our relationship to others. Moral truth is entwined with human nature; good and bad are relative to human flourishing.
Now that I’ve offered something of a basic introduction and foundation, let me call out some common mistakes and myths about the Natural Law.
The Natural Law is a Methodology or Way of Reasoning – Not a List of Rights and Wrongs
Natural law ethics provides a formal framework within which to conduct moral reasoning – it is a method of thinking about right and wrong. Natural law ethics does not provide a list of goods or actions that lead to human flourishing. Intelligent people of good will can engage in proper natural law reasoning and reach different, conflicting conclusions. In such cases, appeals can be made to empirical evidence, psychological evaluation, and sociological and cultural studies conducted over time, to help determine claims of flourishing and betterment. Granted, most conclusions of natural law reasoning are not disputed, and there exists both a popular and academic consensus concerning what is right and what is wrong.
Often I engage with folks that tell that the Natural Law says this or that – “the Natural Law says that contraception is wrong.” Well, not really, your employment of natural law reasoning – your application of its methodology, yields that conclusion. Others, using the same methodology and manner of reasoning may reach different conclusions. One can’t appeal to the Natural Law to resolve the dispute – one must continue to make arguments that eventually convince the other.Assertions Made from Natural Law Reasoning Must be Demonstrated
It’s not enough to simply say, “The Natural Law says x, thus x is true.” Unfortunately, I too often encounter people who argue this way. The Natural Law is asserted as something of an authority or trump card – even a shortcut.
This assertion usually relies on two errors. First, that the individual’s understanding of the Natural Moral Law is correct, and second, that it’s enough to merely state the assertion without further argument or elucidation.
For example, many Catholics commit this error when arguing against same sex marriage. To assert that sex constitutes a one flesh union is a rather bold claim. Such a claim requires careful definition and demonstration. Many Catholics fail to offer just that – merely asserting the one flesh union as a given point of fact, an element of nature.
Considering the term is extremely recent, and considering that its limited to a small group of particular Catholic thinkers, the idea requires careful elaboration and demonstration. I’m not saying that such can’t be done – I’m merely saying that many assert things willy nilly and without fully understanding what they offer.
The Natural Law is Given/Taught by the Roman Catholic Church
This error is closely related to the above mistake. The Roman Catholic Church has always been the central proponent of Natural Law reasoning. For that reason, many make the mistake that the Roman Catholic Church gives the Natural Law to humanity or the world. Again, the Natural Law is not a set of teachings or a list of dos and don’ts – there’s really nothing to give.
Yes, the methodology and way of reasoning promoted by the Natural Law is widely disseminated by the Church, but they don’t have a monopoly on it nor does the notion originate with the Church.
Related to this notion is that the Roman Catholic Church is the arbiter of the Natural Moral Law. Many Roman Catholics agree with this assertion as it appears that the Church herself teaches this. However, it remains simply that – an assertion, and one that cannot be proved or definitely demonstrated. It’s an assertion of faith, not reason. As such, it can’t be proven in the strict sense. I can assert that Reform Judaism is the arbiter of the Natural Moral Law and I’d be on equal standing with those who assert the proper arbiter of such is Roman Catholicism.
It’s been my experience that some Catholics live in a bit of a bubble – assuming that everyone views the world as does the Roman Catholic Church. Often, these well-intentioned folks make unjustified assertions based on Natural Law Reasoning and claim Church authority as their evidence and proof. In the end, such arguments are simply that – arguments from authority – weak outside the context of Catholicism, and logically invalid.
The Bible Contains the Natural Moral Law
This claim is slightly tricky. There is much in Scripture that aligns with how many understand morality from a Natural Law perspective. The prohibitions concerning stealing, killing the innocent, injustice, cruelty, and the like clearly align with most people’s analysis from a Natural Law Perspective.
But some Biblical accounts and suggestions clearly violate the Natural Law – the Hebrew Scriptures contain many accounts of God ordering humans to violate what seem to be standard and acceptable conclusions of Natural Law reasoning – killing seemingly innocent women and children, going to war without moral justification, excessive force and retribution, and so on.
Additionally, it can be argued that the Bible – both the Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian Scriptures – contain commandments that seem to go beyond what might be called for in Natural Law reasoning. In both Testaments, there is the commandment to turn the other cheek and offer the other cheek when attacked or struck. One senses something of a noble and refined form of morality not strictly resulting from Natural Law reasoning.
The above are just some common mistakes made by those who engage in Natural Law moral reasoning. As always, I’m anxious to hear your thoughts, disagreements, and ideas. Use the comment function or send me an email.