The History, Enemies, and Importance of Natural Law | CWR Staff | Catholic World Report
Philosophy, says Dr. John Lawrence Hill, "played a fundamental role in my conversion to Christianity. I think most non-Christians—at least if they are thoughtful about these matters—really haven’t confronted themselves with the contradictions of their own worldview."
Dr. John Lawrence Hill is a law professor at Indiana University, Robert H. McKinney School of Law in Indianapolis, where he teaches constitutional law, torts, civil procedure and legal philosophy courses. He is the author of several books, including The Political Centrist (Vanderbilt, 2009) and, most recently, After the Natural Law: How the Classical Worldview Supports Our Modern Moral and Political Views (Ignatius Press, 2016). Hill holds a Ph.D. in philosophy and a law degree both from Georgetown University. Formerly an atheist, Hill came into communion with the Catholic Church in 2009. He recently responded to questions from Catholic World Report about what natural law is and is not, common objections to natural law, how natural law developed and how it has been undermined, loss of faith in God in the West and the decline of natural law, and his journey from atheism into the Catholic Church.
CWR: What, in a nutshell, is "natural law" and how has it developed from the classical era to today?
Dr. Hill: Natural law is the idea that the world is ordered in a certain way, morally and physically, and that we can draw practical conclusions about how to live based upon what we learn about this order. Natural law means that there are objective moral truths built right into the fabric of the natural world. It means that things work in a particular way because they have been designed with a specific purpose. It means that there are better and worse ways for human beings, individually and collectively, to live.
The greatest of all natural law thinkers, Thomas Aquinas, argued that the natural law is not only “out there” in the world—a set of binding norms that govern us—but is “in here.” We human beings have the natural law built right into us. We have within us, in an inchoate way, a moral template for the development of our conscience—Aquinas called this “synderesis”—which, under proper social conditions, unfolds our moral sense of right and wrong. And even our natural desires are “ordered to the good.” Aquinas’s natural law theory holds that, when human beings are properly educated, we naturally develop into fully-functioning human beings. So, natural law implies that, by following this order, we achieve fulfillment and happiness.
The natural law tradition developed over the course of some two thousand years. It began with the insights of pre-Christian thinkers including Plato, Aristotle and the Stoics. But it was fashioned into a workable system by Christian thinkers, especially Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century.
In some ways, our moral and political system is still based on the natural law but we have, since about the eighteenth century, become, as a civilization, intellectually estranged from the natural law tradition. Some of the reasons for this are discussed below.
CWR: What are some of the common objections to natural law today?
Dr. Hill: There are at least two objections that have been continually restated throughout history by those skeptical of the natural law. They are, in a sense, contrary objections. The first misunderstands the idea of “law” while the second misconstrues what we mean by “natural.”
The first objection is that natural law cannot be true because, when we look around the world at the moral outlook of different cultures now and throughout history, we find a dizzying variety of practices and opinions on such things as abortion, infanticide, homosexuality, etc. This lack of moral uniformity indicates, according to skeptics, that there cannot be a natural law “written on the hearts” of men. If there were, and if it were obvious, there would be much more uniformity of judgment in moral matters.
What this objection fails to account for is that human beings were made free—free even to depart from the natural law. And it fails to understand that we can, individually and collectively, “lose sight” of the law.
At the heart of this objection is the misconception that what the law requires will be so patently evident that all moral disagreements will disappear. But there are several problems with this. First, as Aristotle noted, ethical judgments (and practices) fall into the realm of phronesis, not sophia, i.e., practical, not theoretical wisdom. Even where two people may agree about general principles, there will frequently be disagreement about how to apply these principles on particular matters. Does the commandment, “Thout shall not kill” preclude capital punishment? It depends on whether the principle applies only to innocent persons or to those convicted of a crime. The point is, the closer we come to tangible, practical ethical reality, the more variability we should expect. One reason for this, by the way, is that the concrete conditions “on the ground” may require different applications for the same general principle. A culture with limited material resources may adopt different patterns of property ownership, for example, than a relatively wealthier society.
Finally, as Aquinas was well-aware, cultures and peoples frequently “get off the track.” Individuals can be poorly educated or improperly influenced by others and cultures can deteriorate morally—especially when cultures ignore or are skeptical of the existence of objective moral imperatives, as we see in western culture today.
In sum, the existence of the natural law does not ensure uniformity of judgment or practice.
The second and converse objection is that natural law means that whatever people do as a matter of course must be “natural.” Since people seem to “naturally” engage in activities traditionally condemned by the natural law—e.g. infanticide, homosexuality, drug taking—these activities must be “natural.” So, the objection goes, natural law ought to permit these acts, rather than condemn them.
The problem here is that the skeptic has a very different idea of “nature” and “natural” than that of followers of classical natural law theory. For the former, the “natural” is simply what we do. It is “doing what comes naturally,” as the saying goes. Natural law thinkers, however, hold that the “natural” is neither a purely static nor a purely descriptive idea. The “natural” is what we are at our best and most developed and fulfilled: it is what we do when we have approached achieving our telos. The natural, in sum, is what we ought to do, not what anyone does do. And this “ought” is at one with the kinds of actions that are best for us—that conduce to our happiness, well-being and spiritual development.
We can see from these two objections that the term “natural law” is almost an oxymoron for modern thinkers. It is a contradiction in terms because (to the contemporary mind) “law” is what we have to do while “natural” is what we want to do. One of the most important assumptions of natural law theory is that this dichotomy between duty and desire, social obligation and self-interest—the “is” and the “ought”—has been greatly exaggerated in modern philosophy and culture.
CWR: Since natural law is so closely associated with Christianity, notably with St. Thomas Aquinas among others, why would or should secular thinkers embrace or support it?