Natural Law: An Introduction

By Nicholas K. Meriwether



“Well, the rules of the road have been lodged, it’s only people’s games you got to dodge.”

—Bob Dylan, “It’s Alright Ma”

The ethical teachings of the Christian faith are the basis for morality in the West. Of this there can be little doubt. In which other civilization was there a war to end slavery, rather than the far more typical wars to enslave another people? Where else have women been emancipated in any way close to the status of women in the West? Where else is racism seen as a great evil, and not common sense? I would submit that these achievements would have been impossible without the ethical influence of the Christian religion.

So when Christians are asked, “Do you have a moral theory? If so, what is it?” they are likely to be confused. After all, we have the Bible, God’s Word, we have an incredibly rich tradition of ethical reflection going back centuries, as well as many contemporary theologians who regularly opine on ethical topics. We can also draw from thinkers outside the Christian tradition whose moral convictions seem to align closely with Christian morality, such as the commentator Ben Shapiro or the Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson. Why do we need to understand ethics “theoretically” if these resources enable us to answer basic ethical questions?

Perhaps we should start with the question, What is a theory, and secondly, what is a moral theory? A theory is simply an account of the nature of a thing or practice, although this question can be asked at different levels. Richard Weaver describes three levels of abstraction. The first level is practical: How can I find out what time it is? Or perhaps, How do I fix this broken clock? The second level is more of the nature of time in relation to society and culture: Does our understanding of time change over centuries, or across cultures? The third level—the highest (or perhaps deepest) level of abstraction is the level of philosophical and religious reflection: What exactly is time? Is it real? Or is it just a subjective way of understanding our experience? And how does time relate to the nature of God—Is he beyond it, or somehow within it?

So a theory of morality asks the practical question: What should I (or we) do or not do? An easy and quick, and mostly accurate definition of morality is that it has to do with what we are obligated to do or not do, not merely what we want or don’t want to do. The second level explains whether or how morality seems to change over time and across cultures, and perhaps how views of morality play out in, say, public policy or in electoral politics. Historians and social scientists are often extremely good at describing the second level. And the third level asks what morality is, and if you are a Christian, how morality relates to the nature of God.

So a moral theory provides an account at all three levels. The practical, what we should and shouldn’t do, the Do’s and Don’ts—which is what most people think of when they think of ethics. The second level is to understand why it is that morality seems to change. For example, I began above with the observation that if it weren’t for the Christian religion, slavery would likely be seen as a natural feature of social life, as Plato and Aristotle did. This is very much a second level kind of observation: The morality of the West was deeply impacted by the influence of the teachings of Christ and the Apostles. The third level is, of course, how morality relates to the nature and being of God, and to human nature, what we might think of as the metaphysics of morality.

One thing should become readily apparent, however: The three levels can’t ultimately be separated. They interact with and affect one another constantly. For example, a freshman takes a class in cultural anthropology. Strictly speaking, the student should only be learning about level 2: How morality is viewed across time and culture. However, his professor can’t help making comments such as, “So as we can see, morality really isn’t fixed or ‘absolute.’” Well, this is a level 3 observation. The professor is making a false inference from the fact of diversity at level 2 to the very nature of morality itself, one he presumably wouldn’t make if he were talking about, say, the theory of evolution, which many peoples and cultures reject. But because the student wasn’t prepared for level 2 diversity, he thinks that the absolutes he was raised with really aren’t absolutes at all. His level 3 view of morality is affected by a level 2 observation.

Another example, and one very much a part of the theme of this series, is the following: After years of living the life of a lesbian queer studies professor, a woman encounters Christ and the Gospel. She slowly begins to realize that her level 1 belief that sexual relations with a person of the same sex is perfectly moral and good is in fact wrong, both because the Bible explicitly teaches that it’s wrong, and because she realizes that the purpose of sex is not merely personal fulfillment, but to honor and glorify God. So here, her level 3 belief in God has affected her level 1 beliefs about whom she may have sexual relations with. Obviously, this can go the other way: A man raised in the church has always believed the Bible to be the authoritative Word of God, yet has a sexual encounter, perhaps with another male. After struggling with intense guilt, he gradually comes to believes what we call “Christianity” and “biblical ethics” are simply tools of the Oppressors to control the thoughts and beliefs of the Oppressed. Or, perhaps, he begins to believe that God accepts his behavior, or that God’s own moral commands are evolving. In all these cases, his moral experience at level 1 begins to determine his moral beliefs at level 3.

One of the things that initially interested me about ethics is precisely what happened to the Queer Studies professor and the man raised in the church. Why is it that a person who has lived and believed something for years will change her or his moral beliefs so drastically depending on whether they believe in God, or the nature of the god they believe in? By the same token, how is it that a person’s experience can change his beliefs about morality? A moral theory should be able to explain these puzzles.

To summarize: a theory is an account of a thing that explains what it is. This account can be on 3 distinct levels, two of which abstract from everyday life: the practical (level 1), the first level of abstraction (level 2), which has to do with history, society, and culture, and the second level of abstraction (level 3), which has to do with philosophy and religion. So a moral theory explains what we should do, why people believe what they do, and why we should be moral.

Before we end, another important point must be made about what a moral theory should do. C. S. Lewis says morality is like a fleet of ships. In order for the ships to sail successfully, they must do three things: Avoid collisions, be seaworthy, and arrive at their destination. So as a first approximation, a moral theory provides an account of what we should and shouldn’t do in order to avoid harming one another (the practical level), and also explains how people become capable of acting morally (never a given, of course), and what the end goal or state of being moral should be (both of which are level 3). Perhaps we can call this end goal the “flourishing” of the individual and society, which is related closely to level 2, but we could also think in terms of level 3: the end goal of morality is to glorify God.

But Lewis is missing a fourth thing a moral theory should do: It should explain how we know what morality is. Is it intuited, like our sense of beauty and humor? Do we infer moral norms from our moral feelings of pity or indignation? Do we infer right and wrong based upon our experience of pleasure and pain? Or do we know it based upon its effectiveness in bringing about human flourishing in the past? This is an extremely critical part of a moral theory, because it can affect both practical application and ultimately our level 3 beliefs about God and human nature.

Finally, one thing I’ve observed after years of teaching ethics is the power of the word “natural.” The mere thought that something we’re doing is “natural” makes it seem much more desirable. By the same token, to think what we’re doing is “unnatural” seems to provide a powerful incentive to think it’s wrong. So a full-orbed moral theory should address how morality fits with what human beings “naturally” are.

In part two of this series, we’ll look at natural law, the dominant Western moral theory prior to modernity, and show how natural law and the ethics of the Bible, though not identical, are mutually supportive.

— Nicholas K. Meriwether is Professor of Philosophy at Shawnee State University in Portsmouth, OH. He has taught the Ethics requirement at SSU for 26 years. He received an MA in Christian Thought from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and a PhD in Philosophy from Purdue University. He has published in the areas of moral psychology, Critical Theory, Islamic militancy, and the role of ethics instruction in higher education. He and his wife, Janet, have three grown children. They are members of the Presbyterian Church in America.

Image by David Mark from Pixabay