Natural Law and it’s importance in understanding modern political thought.
Theologically Natural Law is based on Romans 2:14
“For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves.”
It is integral to almost all Western thought and moral development before around 200 years ago and is in stark contrast to postmodernism.
Natural Law is the idea is that there is something in each of us that knows, as Thomas Aquinas said, “that good is to be done and evil avoided.” The idea being that certain first principles of what is good and evil are ascertainable by everyone through the use of reason even if there might be a second level or category of things that require a more rigorous level of rational thought to determine the principle of good and bad and thus someone might not understand those more subtle issues without moral responsibility.
For Kant, who said “act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law” Natural Law is integral. This maxim by Kant is a formulation for the understanding of Natural Law principles. First, formulate a maxim that enshrines your reason for acting as you propose. Second, recast that maxim as a universal law of nature governing all rational agents, and so as holding that all must, by natural law, act as you yourself propose to act in these circumstances. Third, consider whether your maxim is even conceivable in a world governed by this law of nature. If it is, then, fourth, ask yourself whether you would, or could, rationally will to act on your maxim in such a world. If you could, then your action is morally permissible.
It is central to the logic of the US founding document. When the US Declaration of Independence refers to the “Laws of Nature and Nature’s God” it is not referring to the laws of physics but to Natural Law. It is an appeal to a universal understanding of the inherent nature of what is “good” and “evil” that all men including Kings are subject to, that universal law that gives the Americans the right to dissolve the political bonds they have with England. Without Natural Law the Declaration makes no sense.
Moral philosophy up until modern times has been Platonist in that we approached moral philosophy the way most mathematicians approach doing proofs, as if they were discovering something already out there rather than creating it. This became the basis of all discourse about morality and ethics. In fact without this assumption there can be no true discourse about morality and ethics. We have to assume we are all talking about something that actually exists on the same plane otherwise there is nothing to talk about. There is a reason that much modern political discourse seems to have people talking past each other. One group believes in Natural Law, that there is this plane of moral reality that we operate within, deny at our peril and are all responsible for while there is another group that believes that the plane does not exist. C. S. Lewis is referring to this in Mere Christianity when he states that such a plane exists otherwise our culture could not judge itself superior to Nazi culture with the right to destroy Nazi culture. Much of the angst of Western thought embodied in the literature of the “Lost Generation” writers is a result of grave doubts about the value of Western Culture in light of the failure of its ideals and the use of its scientific superiority to wage war on a mechanistic scale in WWI.
The Platonist position was held by the ancients as something believed without much argument but in the Christian era it rested upon a solid theological structure. Only if there is a God, an objective outside observer, could there really be said to be truly something “out there” in terms of morality or ethics. Even the Greeks appealed to “God” when discussing metaphysics and ethics. They just meant Zeus. What modern and post-modern (last 200 years) philosophy has realized is that without God all this falls apart.
The spectrum of things covered under this postmodern approach are everything from Grammar to sex. For instance grammar rules, known and used by the educated and unknown and unused by the uneducated, became a social construct that needed to be deconstructed. What is the purpose of Grammar? Well obviously it is to oppress those who don’t know it and to elevate and create privilege for those who do. So serious people in academia taught a kind of moral equivalency in divergent grammars present in different populations and studied those alternate grammars quite seriously. When Moral equivalency is made between what would be morally unequal concepts in Natural Law it is a tell tale sign of postmodern philosophical foundations guiding those expressing these views.
Those who hold to post modernism will do what is necessary to achieve their will to power because they have no moral limitations. Moral limitations they see as artificial constructs created not by the God who created the Universe but created by society as a means of oppressing others and keeping them from acting.
There are several modern issues that focus on this and few could be better to illustrate this than Abortion. It is why in many ways this issue which is surrounded by so much silliness is actually like the canary in the coal mine showing us a fundamental change in the culture and why pro-abortionists are so dangerous in positions of power. Killing an innocent life has been viewed universally as an evil in the Christian understanding of Natural Law.
Christians put an end to part of the Roman law of Pater-familias which allowed a father to decide the life or death of a newborn. But listen closely to the rhetoric of Abortion. The sanctify of the life of the unborn child is challenged by saying that those who oppose abortion are doing what? They are waging a war on women, oppressing women. This is not accidental. This is classic post-modern analysis. Laws against abortion were not civil law consistent with Natural Law saying do good and avoid evil. They were social constructs designed to oppress women. Thus the entire framework of the public debate is in post-modern terms and not in Natural Law terms. The constant march of postmodernism is a march of “liberation” from the social constructs masquerading as this thing called Natural Law.
Under post-modern philosophy which dominates the West and in particular academia, and Marxist ideology, the idea that Natural Law has no basis without God has come to it’s logical end. Politics is “the will to power” and all our mutual understandings about the nature of “good” and “bad” are social constructs, artificial human creations without any inherent existence outside of our mutual agreement. So under this philosophy all societal rules are to be understood purely as a means of one group to oppress another group. The key to liberation is to “deconstruct” these ideas of good and bad and expose who is the oppressor and who is the oppressed.
The conservative in the traditional understanding of that word rather intuitively gravitates to the position of Natural Law because he intuitively wishes to preserve the status quo. In postmodern thinking this is the preservation of existing social constructs. Thus the conservative in postmodern thinking is a participant in oppression. The liberal is drawn to postmodern thinking because he views himself as a liberator and “free thinker” who is as an individual free of the limitations of moral constructs.
How does this work in practice? The problem is that people generally are still under the reality of Romans chapter two. Attacks on social constructs are also attacks on Natural Law understandings and so almost always starts with appeals to some other principle of Natural Law or of reason. Thus in Roe the argument is the need for the Court to balance conflicting rights.
The public appeal in the case of Abortion was not initially to conflicting rights but to reason and was utilitarian and was particularly dark. Utilitarianism is a particularly useful structure for developing arguments that overturn Natural Law concepts. It has no moral dimension and yet holds appeal because it appeals to what benefits me. In the 70’s when the Abortion debate began the pro-abortion discussion was largely utilitarian and racist. What is the practical impact of lots of babies being born to inner city black teenagers? This was sold on a blatantly racist utilitarian basis to white middle America, and largely white middle America bought it on that basis.
But as the sexual revolution revved up and became mainstream there was a shift to a pure postmodern argument of Abortion being about the liberation of women and the postmodern approach of Roe really found expression in the political discourse. In crude language it is that I can kill my baby because it liberates me and my choices in life and laws that prevent this are not about good and evil but about oppressing women, as a class.
Gay rights are another such contemporary expression of postmodernism, but here things get really complicated because of the public vs the academic face of gay liberation. The Natural Law would look at the physical characteristics of men and women, the way men’s bodies are simply not designed for the kinds of things that gay men do to each other, the disconnection between sexuality and procreation, the inability of gay couples to procreate and conclude that gay relationships are not consistent with natural law. The Natural Law as understood not just by Christianity but every culture in the world for all time is that marriage is between a man and some number of women, one or several depending on the time and place.
The issue is being sold in terms of equal rights, a Natural Law appeal, but that appeal is not logical. The actual argument is postmodern, that laws that define marriage are not based in Natural Law since Natural Law doesn’t exist but are social constructs. The equal protection argument simply fails when it comes to gay marriage. A gay man has an equal right to enter into a marriage because he is free to marry a woman. But what a gay man wants is not a marriage. He wants to engage in a relationship with another man and for that relationship to be recognized by the state as a marriage. That has nothing to do with equal rights. It is a change in the definition of marriage. If we are going to change the definition of marriage then what is the civil liberties (natural law) argument is there for doing this for gay couples and not for the thruple, or the quadruple or the polygamous marriage or the bestiality marriage. There isn’t one. What is actually happening therefore is a classic postmodern approach. It actually is merely a will to power by a group wishing to redefine marriage. Little that you hear in the public debate discloses what is really happening. The conservative who attempts to prevent this change is typically appealing to the ick factor, to social prejudice about gay relationships, hardly the stuff of the plane of common known understandings of what is good and what is evil in Natural Law debates. Often there are reasons for these ick factor intuitions that are based in Natural Law but with gay liberation in charge of media and thus the terms of the debate it is very difficult to maintain clarity since clarity is not in the interest of those advancing the gay agenda.
But the postmodern gay agenda is much more complicated. First, postmoderns say marriage itself is the mother of all oppressive social constructs. So marriage redefinition is a temporary goal toward greater liberation when marriage itself is seen as a social construct and not as something created in by God in Eden and deconstructed so that everyone of either sex is free to have sex at anytime with anyone they want of either sex. One of the background things that few pay attention to is queer studies in Academia which say that the very invention of heterosexuality and homosexuality as concepts are only about 150 years old (true) and there has never been a word in any language in any culture before the 1860’s for men who preferred sex with other men. There was a word in almost every language for the person who did penetrative sex and a word for the one who received the penetrative sex. Even today in some cultures such a man may engage in penetrative sex of other males and he will not in any way view himself as gay or bisexual. Gay and straight are in fact social constructs in postmodern terms and as such the categories “homosexual” and “heterosexual” in strict post modern terms are a means of putting people in these categories while at the same time oppressing homosexuals and creating the concept of the superiority of heterodoxy. This led to any sexual activity involving opposite sex partners being given high status whereas any same sex sexual activity was given low status. This heterodoxy replaced the Natural Law position of Christianity that held that sex within marriage was given high status and sex outside marriage was given low status. The gay straight bi paradigm actually facilitated oppression of gays at the same time that it created them. This means gay straight and bi lack substance in both postmodern and in Natural Law understandings of moral and ethical structures of society but abandoning them under postmodern thought and abandoning them under Natural Law understandings result in very different outcomes.
Perhaps the most dangerous shift culturally is in the courts. The shift there preceded the shift in the general population and coincided with the shift in the intelligentsia and in academia but lagged behind the shift in philosophy and the arts. The courts once clearly viewed themselves as instruments of the Natural Law. As an example, The Texas Supreme court when establishing the rules for common law marriage within the text of the decision quoted extensively from the King James Bible. Today courts view themselves in postmodern terms and so deconstruct cultural norms ensconced in law by declaring them unconstitutional restrictions on liberty.
Most of the “culture wars” are not about what they are about. The right appeals to longstanding prejudice rather than Natural Law arguments because the great unwashed are largely ignorant of the importance of Natural Law foundations to the civil discourse. The left appeals essentially to libertarian Natural Law arguments but the left is anything but libertarian and they eventually frame the debate in postmodern terms. Increasingly postmodern arguments are becoming the more immediate frame for these arguments. A good example is the recent Hobby Lobby case where a closely held company, run by five people all members of a deeply religious family agreed to pay for sixteen methods of contraception in their company provided insurance but based on religious grounds refused to pay for birth control methods which work as abortifacients to end a pregnancy drawing a distinction between contraception and birth control. Thus religious freedom was set against a mandate to pay for abortifacient birth control. The debate has been framed from the beginning as a War on Women skipping any kind of Natural Law appeal and relying on the deconstruction of religious liberty as a social construct being used to oppress women. The opposition rather than being able to rely on Natural Law arguments has generally been more effective with public opinion using utilitarian arguments, saying the employer (meaning the consumer of the business and the other employees) shouldn’t have to pay for something that gives them no benefit.
The abandonment of Natural Law has important consequences for the nature of public discourse. It means that increasingly public debates over public policy will be debates past each other’s points of view and therefore more rancorous. It also means that as postmoderns and Natural Law adherents jockey to appeal to a public increasingly ignorant of first principles the debates will become increasingly disingenuous and less and less about what they really are about. Those who have goals of dismantling Western Civilization have become more bold of late but still must hide their ultimate goals as they work a slow dialectical dismantling of what they see as the oppressive moral constructs of Western Culture. Those who understand their goals and sound the alarm appear to be forever being ridiculed in the given debate as fear mongers and yet proven right in each time a few years later by each succeeding wave of change as the moral constraints of Western Civilization built through the common rational foundation of Natural Law are gradually dismantled.