Is There Really a Natural Law?

A common argument against same-sex marriage is that it is ‘unnatural’. But without qualification, such an argument is pointless. What do people mean when they call something ‘unnatural’? Do they mean ‘unusual’, ‘abnormal’, or ‘ugh! I don’t like it!’? Do they mean ‘it doesn’t happen in the animal kingdom!’ or ‘it can’t happen without human interference!’? Perhaps they mean ‘it contains synthetic products!’ or ‘it was built in a factory!’?

As an ethicist, I draw on a system of ethics known as ‘Natural Law theory’. The theory dates back to Aristotle, was developed by Thomas Aquinas, and has, in recent decades undergone a resurgence and reinterpretation. So I have an interest in the use of the words ‘natural’ and ‘nature’ with regard to ethical issues. Unfortunately the confusion over these words is such that many people find the whole concept of Natural Law theory preposterous. (I know I did.) How can there be ‘laws of nature’ with regard to ethics? Isn’t the whole point that the freedom of the human will defies any laws of nature? If there were laws of nature regarding ethics, then surely we wouldn’t have any choice but to obey them?

Naturally, I want to set the record straight. Now please hold still while I correct you:

How vast is God, the ruler of men below! How arrayed in terrors is God, with many things irregular in his ordinations! Heaven gave birth to the multitudes of the people, but the nature it confers is not to be depended on. All are [good] at first, but few prove themselves to be so at the last.

Can you guess the origins of this quotation? I’ll give you a hint: it’s not biblical, it’s not Jewish; it’s not from the Middle East, but from the Far one. The text comes from the ancient Chinese Book of Odes, a collection of 311 poems dating from 1000 BC to 476 BC. This passage conveys an impression of God (上帝 Shang Di: the supreme Emperor) which might seem familiar to a Western audience. But the use of the word ‘nature’ is probably less familiar. The German Sinologist Richard Wilhelm explained this Chinese perspective well:

‘Man has received from heaven a nature innately good, to guide him in all his movements. By devotion to this divine spirit within himself, he attains an unsullied innocence that leads him to do right with instinctive sureness and without any ulterior thought of reward and personal advantage. This instinctive certainty brings about supreme success and “furthers through perseverance”. However, not everything instinctive is nature in this higher sense of the word, but only that which is right and in accord with the will of heaven. Without this quality of rightness, an unreflecting, instinctive way of acting brings only misfortune. Confucius says about this: “He who departs from innocence, what does he come to? Heaven’s will and blessing do not go with his deeds. “’

This concept of nature is by no means peculiar to Chinese thought. As the etymology shows: ‘nature’ comes from ‘natus’ meaning ‘born’, as in ‘the characteristics a person or thing is born with’. In the era of medieval philosophy the word took on its more abstract and refined connotations such as “essential qualities, innate disposition”.

When we hear people claim that something is ‘unnatural’ they are (or ought to be) speaking in terms of the qualities or disposition that we are born with. But use of such terms as ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’ in the present culture is often confused with a different philosophical notion of ‘nature’ as ‘the great outdoors’, ‘mother nature’, or ‘stuff animals do.’ This basic interpretation of nature simply defines it as everything that is not produced by human effort or ingenuity. A natural lake stands in contradistinction to a man-made lake. Natural light is distinguished from artificial light – the product of human artifice. This alternate meaning of ‘nature’ can also be embellished and romanticised such that the term ‘natural’ can even bestow a quasi-mystical form of approval; while describing something as ‘unnatural’ is to condemn it as somehow misbegotten, malformed, dangerous, or toxic.

So we have three closely related concepts, presented here in suspected order of development:

1. Nature as the essential qualities of a thing
2. Nature as distinct from human activity
3. Nature as a quasi-mystical force or principle

First, things have their own nature or essential qualities. Secondly, we observe that human beings have the ability to choose how they will act; our actions can either accord with, or conflict with our own essential qualities or nature. Humans have, for example, discovered that inhaling smoke into our lungs on a regular basis is not conducive to our health, even though it might feel good.

Not only can we act against our own nature, we can also subvert or alter other things against their own nature: thus we domesticate animals, make furniture from the wood of trees, cook food to make it more palatable, and so on. It is not, strictly speaking, in the nature of animals to behave domestically, nor of trees to act as tables, nor for various foods to be altered by the heat of cooking. Hence, we distinguish between ‘natural’ as the way things are without human interference, and ‘man-made’ or ‘artificial’ for those things whose properties are dependent upon human intervention.

Thirdly, this distinction between the world without human interference and the world with human interference has taken on a moral or quasi-mystical aspect. We have grown weary of our own artifice, and suspicious of the value of our interventions. A recent history of man-made disasters, the creation of toxic, radioactive, and otherwise dangerous substances, and even the aesthetic misery of many urban human environments have all contributed to the impression that the natural world is superior to that produced through human intervention. Natural wonders are achieving greater significance than man-made wonders. Natural processes from environmental management to childbirth are attributed an almost spiritual quality found lacking in more artificial processes. Rightly or wrongly, natural ingredients and products seem inherently favourable over synthetic or man-made ones. We feel nature can be trusted; human beings, not so much.

So what about human nature, the ‘essential qualities’ of a human being?

In the Chinese context, human nature puts us in a precarious position. Our own nature or ‘essential qualities’ are conferred by Heaven; even in modern Chinese the phrase for ‘nature’ with regard to innate human characteristics is 天性 where the first character stands for ‘heaven’ and the second stands more generically for ‘nature’, ‘character’ or ‘gender’. In fact the second character is itself composed of the character 心 for ‘heart’, and the character 生 for ‘birth’ or ‘to be born’, which, as we saw, correlates nicely with the Latin root of ‘nature’ being ‘natus’ meaning ‘born’. Human nature can be described as that which is in one’s heart 心 from birth 生 bestowed by heaven 天。

Nevertheless we read in the Book of Odes that “the nature it confers is not to be depended on [since] all are [good] at first, but few prove themselves to be so at the last.” In other words, despite the fact that our nature is good and is conferred by heaven, people still turn out bad in the end. This is because human beings have the freedom to choose: we can follow our nature for the good, or we can turn against it for ill.

As our German Sinologist elaborated: “not everything instinctive is nature in this higher sense of the word, but only that which is right and in accord with the will of heaven.” We find ourselves troubled by seemingly ‘natural’ desires that are in conflict with one another. Likewise we find ourselves desiring things that we know simply cannot be part of our nature. Hence the objective qualifier that we must act in accordance with the will of heaven, that which conferred our nature in the first place.

The theologically savvy may have noticed that these concepts rather neatly parallel the Judeo-Christian perspective in which human beings were created good by God, but have gone awry from the created order through disobedience to God’s will. But this particular interpretation of the human predicament is heavily laden with centuries of religious and cultural baggage. The apparent religious drama of clashing human and divine wills and personalities unfortunately lends itself to an indignant adolescent interpretation in which God is perceived to be a domineering father figure whom we loathe and fear; someone more powerful than us who implicitly demands our servility and stands in opposition to our individual desires. In the interests of avoiding such emotional trigger-words as ‘commandments’ ‘disobedience’ and ‘punishment’, let us instead examine the following analogy.

Imagine you are a skilled robotic engineer, who has created a fully functional humanoid robot. Since you are also a fictional engineer, you have found it easily within your power to grant your robot the ability to pick and choose its own courses of action.

You install a list of guidelines for all the important things: remember to recharge regularly, do not immerse in water, do not drop, do not use if seal is broken, and so on. Of course, you could have ‘hardwired’ these instructions, but that would obviate the sheer coolness of a robot that has to decide not to drop itself repeatedly on its head, rather than being directly programmed not to. So although the robot has the ability to choose its own course of action, it is theoretically constrained by the nuances of its own nature.

Despite these instructions, the robot is still entirely capable of choosing to stand outside in the rain, drop itself from a height, or fail to recharge itself. If it ignores the instructions, it will be damaged. No need to talk about commands, punishments, or obedience.

This analogy illustrates the common points of the Chinese and Judeo-Christian view of human nature regarding our freedom to choose our own course of action. We have free will; we can use it however we like. But we are constrained by the logical limits of our own essential qualities. Tall people like me are constrained by stupidly low kitchen benches. Short people are constrained by wall cabinets placed at a reasonable height. One person cannot be both short and tall at the same time in the same way. We should therefore choose things that are suited to our nature.

In ethics, choosing things in accordance with our nature is known as ‘natural law’. Unfortunately, whenever an ethicist uses the term ‘natural law’ a certain proportion of his audience pictures an apple falling on Sir Isaac Newton’s head. We are used to hearing of ‘natural laws’ or ‘laws of nature’ in regard to physics rather than ethics. Yet it should come as no surprise to hear that human beings are subject to both physical laws as well as ethical ones. It is in the nature of human beings that our bodies are subject to the force of gravity; and we call this a physical law of nature. It is likewise in the nature of human beings that to choose to subject oneself to the force of gravity from a great height is not good for one’s continued survival, let alone one’s further flourishing. We call this an ethical law of human nature.

At this point, some are liable to object: how can it be an ethical law of nature, if we are free to break it? We aren’t free to break the law of gravity, after all.

But this objection misunderstands what the law is about. The ethical law does not say “You cannot throw yourself off a building”, rather it says “suicide is incompatible with human flourishing” and leaves you to work out for yourself the implications with regard to falling from a great height.

This is why human beings come undone. We are free to choose our course of action, yet we ought to heed the constraints of our own nature, our essential qualities. Instead, we desire things that cut against the grain of our nature. We find ourselves adapting to habits, beliefs, cravings, yearnings, a whole way of life with no foundation in human nature or the way of heaven. This is the predicament identified by the Chinese philosophers.

Another ancient Chinese text, the Book of Rites, depicts the tragedy of human existence under the power of unregulated desire:

‘Now there is no end of the things by which man is affected; and when his likings and dislikings are not subject to regulation (from within), he is changed into the nature of things as they come before him; that is, he stifles the voice of Heavenly principle within, and gives the utmost indulgence to the desires by which men may be possessed. On this we have the rebellious and deceitful heart, with licentious and violent disorder. The strong press upon the weak; the many are cruel to the few; the knowing impose upon the dull; the bold make it bitter for the timid; the diseased are not nursed; the old and young, orphans and solitaries are neglected – such is the great disorder that ensues.’

The remedy, laid out in the very beginning of the Book of Rites, is a simple yet profound prescription:

‘Pride should not be allowed to grow; the desires should not be indulged; the will should not be gratified to the full; pleasure should not be carried to excess.’

Our culture has known this prescription for thousands of years; yet at certain times including our contemporary culture, its guidance has been ignored. Our modern culture conflates this guidance with the negative image of our religious history as a repressive, domineering force. We are now quietly encouraged to let our pride grow, to indulge our desires, to gratify our will to the full and carry pleasure to excess; all under the auspices of rebellion against false religious servility.

Zac Alstin works at the Southern Cross Bioethics Institute in Adelaide, South Australia.

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