Natural Law: An Introduction, Part 2

By Nicholas K. Meriwether

JAN 30

Universal law is the law of Nature. For there really is, as everyone to some extent divines, a natural justice and injustice that is binding on all men, even on those who have no association or covenant with each other.

Aristotle, Rhetoric, Bk. I, 13

In part 1, we said that a theory of a given human activity can be distinguished at three levels: Level 1 is practical, Level 2 is in relation to society, culture, and history, and Level 3 is in relation to ultimate reality, which is the realm so to speak of philosophy and religion. We also looked at what is needed for an ethical theory. An ethical theory should provide:

(1) Level 1 (practical) principles as to what we should do, including precepts, rules, duties and obligations, but very importantly, what we are forbidden to do.

(2) How we become capable of performing our duties, and also capable of avoiding bad, wrong, or evil actions.

(3) What the purpose or goal of moral actions is in terms of human flourishing and our own individual flourishing, but also in relation to God’s nature and purposes.

(4) On what basis we know right from wrong, and good from evil. This is both in relation to Level 3 questions of what the nature of morality is, but also how we know in a given situation what we should do, which occurs at Level 1.

One reason we start with the theoretical nature of ethics is the perennial danger that Level 1 and 2 considerations, the levels that look at things from a practical standpoint and the standpoint of history, society, and culture, will dominate our attitude toward and beliefs about ethics. There is of course nothing wrong with asking how history and culture affect our views of morality, but asking these questions while ignoring Level 3 will tend to undermine our confidence that ethics has to do with something that is real and true. Let’s look at an influential current example.

Probably most of you have heard the phrase “social construct.” No doubt, you’ve heard the claim that gender (whether a person is male or female), our attitudes about the family, male and female roles, or class is a “social construct.” So what is a social construct? Here’s a concise definition:

A social construct is a concept that exists not in objective reality, but as a result of human interaction. It exists because humans agree that it exists.

A good example of a social construct is etiquette. It’s considered extremely rude in Western culture to burp out loud during a meal. But in certain cultures, it’s considered a compliment because it indicates that the food is satisfying. Thus, whether burping is good or bad manners doesn’t seem to reflect objective reality, but one’s culture, that is, whether the people of the culture “agree” that it’s rude. We can say similar things about other rules of etiquette, such as how tableware is placed, or the style of clothing that a person should wear on various occasions, say, weddings vs. funerals. These seem to have been established by social agreement rather than the ultimate nature of reality.

Frequently added to the view that an ethical norm is a social construct is that it’s socially constructed to give some people power over others, such as, for example, that it’s morally appropriate to give nobles rights that serfs don’t have. But notice it’s very tempting to slip from the belief that some behavioral rules are social constructs to the idea that all behavioral rules are social constructs, although this doesn’t follow logically at all.

Against social constructivism, some philosophers seek to defend objectivity in ethics, that there really are enduring ethical norms not based merely on human agreement, and that they are knowable. A term for this view is ethical realism. To counter social constructivism, they use various arguments designed to show that constructivist views, if taken at face value, issue in absurdity or have very harmful consequences. For instance, if someone claims that a given moral belief is just a social construct designed to give some people power, why can’t we say that his view of ethics is just a social construct designed to give him power? If the person responds that he is showing that the exercise of power for its own sake is wrong, we can respond by asking why this view isn’t a social construct, too? A steady diet of social constructivism will undermine all moral beliefs, not just the ones that the constructivist wants us to abandon, but even his view that the exercise of power for its own sake is wrong.

Now, there’s nothing at all wrong with pointing out logical inconsistencies. But notice: Just pointing out that someone’s wrong isn’t yet a theory of ethics. Much more needs to be said. This is where natural law comes in, especially, because it provides an account of what moral truth is, and how we know it.

Defining Natural Law

So what exactly is natural law? The shortest, quickest, and easiest explanation is as follows:

I. The content of the Ten Commandments. This includes both the “first table,” Commands 1-4, that we should worship and obey God, and the “second table,” Commands 5-10, that we should love our neighbor as ourselves. More specifically, loving one’s neighbor includes that we should honor those in authority (Fifth Commandment), and also not murder (Sixth), nor commit adultery (Seventh), steal (Eighth), lie (Ninth), or covet (Tenth). (We’ll explicate these later.) On natural law theory, these don’t have exceptions, though there may be some disagreement in application, which is what keeps theologians and philosophers busy.

II. The purpose and design of nature as we observe it. This means that for any observed aspect of human nature, if we are designed to do (x), we should do it, and not do the opposite, with certain exceptions. (As before, the exceptions are what keep theologians and philosophers busy.) The simplest and most straightforward reason for this is that God designed nature for our benefit. So acting in accordance with our fundamental design is good and proper, and violating it is bad and improper.

An example of the design and purpose of human nature is that we have minds. In fact, we have extremely powerful minds, minds that can abstract, analyze, synthesize, infer, and consider Levels 1-3 thoroughly and carefully in respect to just about anything. So we should cultivate and train our minds, not abuse them through drugs or habitual forms of entertainment that deaden them. Now, under special circumstances, a person may have to neglect the cultivation of his mind for a higher purpose, such as rearing very small children—also part of the design and purpose of human nature. But otherwise, “a mind is a terrible thing to waste,” as the old UNCF ads used to say.

Natural Law, Scripture, or Both?

But if Scripture gives us the Ten Commandments, why do we need the natural order? And by the same token, If we have the natural order, why do we need the Ten Commandments?

Perhaps the most famous expositor of natural law, at least in Christian theology, is Thomas Aquinas. The term he uses for Scripture, especially the ethical commands of Scripture, is “divine law.” He wrestles specifically with this question as to why we would need both divine law and natural law. Part of his answer is that it’s easy for people to become uncertain of natural law without God’s affirmation through Scripture. And of course, we see this all around us today. Our culture slipped away some time ago from the dictates of natural law, even though they’re fairly obvious, and have replaced them with radical individual autonomy and so-called “authenticity,” which often means simply freedom from any kind of moral, social, or natural restraint. Once we divorced Scripture’s imprimatur from natural law, it became first debatable, then questionable, then irrelevant, and now more recently and perhaps predictably, offensive. What many failed to see is that the first four commandments—that we should worship God alone, not create idols, revere his name, and set aside time each week for formal worship and fellowship—are critical to the acquisition of wisdom, which is the ability to know “every good path,” that is, to act with righteousness and justice, and to avoid evil. This connection is summarized beautifully in Proverbs 2:1-15.

But if we have Scripture, why do we need to observe and learn from the natural order? In fact, Scripture assumes we already know natural law. Classic examples can be found in Prov. 6:6, in which we’re encouraged to observe the ant in order to learn to be industrious, or the many passages in which nations without Scripture are judged for violating God’s design, such as Lev. 20:23 or Amos 1. In the New Testament, Paul explicitly states that the moral law is written on the human conscience (Rom. 2:15). Moreover, Scripture assumes we can’t interpret it without knowing natural law. An example is the definition of male and female, which has become incredibly controversial of late. While we know from Scripture that God created us “male and female” (Gen. 1:27), nowhere does it say how to define these. Do we define these in relation to whether we are naturally designed to menstruate or bear children? Or the presence or absence of the Y chromosome? Scripture doesn’t say, rather it just assumes we can tell the difference. The fact that the definition is even controversial says more about us than about the clarity of Scripture on this question, fulfilling the warning of Rom. 1:28.

So the short answer to the question, What is the relationship of natural law to Scripture? is that they’re mutually supportive. Both are necessary to moral understanding, and together they are the foundation for it.

— 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