What Should We Do About Natural Law? | James Kalb | CWR
Our governing institutions and the public at large have staked their authority and actions on the rejection of natural law in favor of preference satisfaction. So what can be done?
Catholics talk about natural law, but what’s it all about?
Basically, it’s a system of principles that guides human life in accordance with our nature and our good, insofar as those can be known by natural reason. It thereby promotes life the way it evidently ought to be, based on what we are and how the world is, from the standpoint of an intelligent, thoughtful, and well-intentioned person.
It’s much the same, at least in basic concept, as what classical Western thinkers called life in accordance with nature and reason, and the classical Chinese called the Tao (that is, the "Way"). We might think of it as a system that aims at moral and social health and well-being—which, like physical health, can at least in principle be largely understood apart from revelation.
For that reason, natural law has seemed to many Catholic thinkers the obvious basis for a society that would be pluralistic but nonetheless just, humane, and open to the specific contributions of Christianity.
There’s something to that view. Grace completes rather than replaces nature, so natural law includes basic principles of Christian morality. Also, political life depends on discussion and willing cooperation based on common beliefs. It would be best if those beliefs reflected the whole truth about man and the world—and politics were therefore Catholic—but people who run things today don’t accept that and don’t seem likely to do so any time soon. Even so, it might be possible for a governing consensus to form around the principles or at least concept of natural law. The idea of government in accordance with man’s nature and natural good could then give discussion a reference point and some degree of coherence even though disagreements over important issues would remain.
A problem with the proposal is the practical importance of the questions on which people routinely disagree in the absence of a settled public orthodoxy. In antiquity Stoics and Confucians thought man social and the world morally ordered, so they emphasized social duties. Epicureans and Taoists saw man as less social, and rejected cosmic purpose, so they emphasized private well-being rather than obligations to others. And the Chinese Legalists and sophists like Thrasymachus made force the ultimate reality in human affairs, so they favored outright tyranny.
In modern times views on man and his place in the world have differed no less dramatically, as demonstrated by culture wars in the United States, current events in the Middle East, and the history of the last century in general. So it seems difficult to make something as abstract as the general concept of natural law the basis of a political order. People need a more definite focus for their thoughts and actions.