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Natural Flaw?

July 21, 2010

I have been noticing an uptick in Protestants employing Natural Law as a basis for arguing for one set of moral/political/social imperatives or another. For the most part I have associated Roman Catholicism with Christian natural law, nonetheless, it’s gaining wider currency. What concerns me about this is that, outside narrow legal or academic discourses, the term “natural law” is incredibly open to abuse. This is somewhat analogous to how the word “theory” is deployed in science versus and in the popular imagination.

What is natural? This is a difficult question for Christians since Christianity suggests that the world is broken. What is the evidence that something is natural? That is occurs in nature? All kinds of animals engage in behaviours that would seem unequivocally gay, but then Al Mohler suggests that this is because our world is fallen. So an appeal to natural law folds back into an appeal to divine command in this scenario, and indeed it would seem the same way in most Christian applications of natural law. The Christian can argue for a particular moral behaviour on the basis of natural law, but if that precept is challenged then it’s back to the Bible. So long as what is “natural” is congruous with the Bible, then it’s all about natural law, where it deviates then this is just about the fall. It’s akin to me saying that every day will have pleasant weather but on the days that there is foul weather I’m still correct because our fallen world sometimes has bad weather. Whether or not this is true, you still wouldn’t hire me to tell you about the weather.

So does the category of natural law mean anything at all in Christian apologetics or Christian ethics? Or is it all just a front for divine command-type arguments? (Not that there’s anything wrong with arguing from divine command – especially for the believer – it’s just disingenuous to start by saying “this is grounded in nature” and then shifting gears if one is shown wrong.) A lot of what we might think of as natural law may be more likened to tradition or custom and it’s not at all clear to me why these arguments along with the aforementioned divine command business insufficient for natural law fans.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. July 22, 2010 1:59 pm

    I’ve brought this up before with folks at this site (this post — http://poserorprophet.wordpress.com/2008/06/19/a-supranatural-sexuality-further-problems-for-those-who-argue-from-nature/ ). Still waiting for somebody to refute the point I made there…

    Arguments based upon “nature” or the “natural order” are a complete waste of time. Any conception of “nature” or “the natural” is simply ideology working in its purest form (as Zizek has shown).

  2. Andrew permalink*
    July 22, 2010 5:13 pm

    Dan,

    You may have missed it since I responded in our previous discussion on this blog and not at yours, but I did respond to your post some time ago:

    https://civitatedei.wordpress.com/2009/02/17/just-asking/#comment-2029

  3. Andrew permalink*
    July 22, 2010 7:15 pm

    I’d like to add a couple things to that response:

    1) I don’t in fact believe 1 Cor 11 applies straightforwardly anymore, but that’s because of contextual indications in the text. Firstly, 1 Cor 11:14 says that it is a disgrace for a man to wear long hear, but the OT commands exactly that for the Nazirites (who, far from being profane, were actually holy, and not just clean, in their long-haired state). Further, Paul takes a Nazirite vow in Acts, so clearly knows about this OT restriction and regards it as perfectly “graceful” for a man to be in this state. Thus I think we should assume Paul would qualify his statement in some sense. Secondly, the fact that no other passage in scripture makes this kind of statement about the creation/natural order, suggests to me that this statement in Paul must be qualified in some way.

    And I think that there is a good positive explanation for Paul’s logic here: Paul recognizes that in the Corinthian context, long-haired men and short-haired women are practicing transvestitism, which is condemned in the OT as a violation of the created order. It is is tranvestitism in general, and this particular application of it in Paul’s context, which Paul is saying nature teaches the Corinthians is wrong.

    2) I can’t imagine how Zizek could prove what you say he proves. He certainly couldn’t do it by an inductive survey of what natural law has been used for, since inductive arguments can’t establish metaphysical (and certainly not historical) necessities. And I can’t imagine how a deductive argument could prove this. Further, as someone who regards Paul as the plenipotentiary of Christ, I consider his teaching that there is an evident creation order in Romans 1 to be a good enough reason to believe that there is.

    Hope my previous comment and this one at least goes some way towards a good response.

  4. Andrew permalink*
    July 22, 2010 7:31 pm

    Dan G,

    You raise some important points. A few thoughts that might be helpful for the discussion:

    1) Paul himself, in Rom. 1, affirms there is a natural law known by all people.

    2) However, at the same time, he recognizes that the vast majority of human race (at least at that point in history) suppress this law/revelation. This means that if you did a random poll on the street of 1C Rome, Paul would not expect the results to affirm that everyone knows what he says everyone knows.

    3) There is a further, more complicated issue, of how natural law can be used in debates. From my point of view, natural law is to some degree inescapable if we want to go beyond positivism in human rights. If human rights (true human rights) do not just exist at the whim of the mighty, they must be grounded in something basically equivalent to natural law. I don’t think we want to give up on the very concept of natural law.

    But then the question comes: how do people who disagree about what natural law teaches argue? I’m not sure I know a complete answer to this question. I consider basic natural laws to be “basic knowledge”, something people know directly. If they deny/suppress it (a la Paul’s comments), there is no way to reason them into it. I think the failure of secular ethical theories to be able to provide categorical imperatives for anything is good evidence of this: if at some point someone disputes that, e.g., it is wrong to murder innocent people for no reason, there is probably nothing someone could do to argue that person out of that position. They are gravely morally corrupted, and probably only a supernatural regeneration could reverse that kind of evil.

    However, if natural law is in fact known by everyone, and everyone is not absolutely corrupted, it is possible natural law arguments could awaken people to their basic, natural, knowledge of right and wrong. And so, for that reason, I don’t think one can pronounce absolutely on the usefulness of natural law discussions in a political context. It’s usefulness has to be addressed on case-by-case basis.

    My $0.02

  5. July 25, 2010 8:52 pm

    Andrew,

    Thanks for the response, here are some things that I would ponder:
    1) I think that Paul is correct here in the sense that we all seem to have a moral intuition – some kind of innate sense of that there should be rules for setting up a society correctly. The problem is that how we reckon this is, in fact, based very much on things like tradition or custom which we then try to justify in a post hoc manner.

    2) Again, I’d say this is probably true, I’d include the bulk of the church – including myself – in that category.

    3) I understand that it would be desirable to have some kind of strong philosophical underpinning for human rights, yet I fear that all we might have is a sort of Burkean argument that the language of rights are now a part of our custom and that they should be maintained because the alternatives may very likely produce bad outcomes.

  6. Andrew permalink*
    July 26, 2010 10:17 am

    Dan,

    Thanks for the reply!

    My perspective on the influence of custom on natural law thinking would be that, to the degree that custom causes us to misrepresent the natural law we still at some level know, to that degree we are engaging in the suppression of knowledge Paul talks about. Of course, if a debate between two people over natural law gets to the point where one is accusing the other of ignoring what they know to be true, and there is no other argument, the debate is basically over. I think (following MacIntyre) this fact explains the vitriolic nature of many political debates in the West: there’s not much left to do by way of rational argumentation, because people’s starting points have become so vastly different and incommensurable.

    As for (3), I would ask: by what standard would we be aware that certain consequences were “bad”, if it were not something like natural law? If “bad” is parsed as “morally wrong”, then I think we’re just back to natural law (or, maybe even explicitly religious) reasoning. If it is parsed as “not preferred”, then I fear we are already at the whim of the mighty; we are just lucky they still think they have to do what is in most people’s best interests, rather than their own (or perhaps they don’t think that, and only don’t try to enslave the masses for fear of revolution). Certainly, we’d have no basis for, say, criticizing the human rights offenses of any foreign nation if all we are ultimately saying is “we’d prefer you not do that.” They’d obviously be able to respond “Well, we prefer to do it.”

  7. July 26, 2010 8:19 pm

    Andrew,

    The tricky thing with these sorts of standards is that they have historically shifted. If we agree that theft is wrong, what is theft? At one point if I freed a slave I would be seen as a thief. Conversely, at one time the category of intellectual property didn’t even exist in law but now if I download Inception I am told that this is the moral equivalent of stealing Leonardo DiCaprio’s car. What’s tricky about natural law is that I would readily grant that we all have an innate sense that there ought to be justice but in the thousands of moral choices that each of us encounter in our actual lives, how we seek out justice is very, very culturally defined. If murder is unjust killing, when is it just to kill? If theft is taking that which does not belong to you, what can belong to anyone in the first place?

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