Saving Natural Law from Itself

Naïve proponents and skeptics of the natural law often point to the world “out there” as the source of objective truth (or lack thereof), but the truths of the natural law are to be found through the actions of our intellect.

Given the claim that the natural law is self-evident and impossible to coherently deny, it might seem odd that so many contemporaries reject the theory. I suspect, however, that we proponents are often to blame for the resistance to our account; certain articulations of the natural law are so untenable that rejecting them is quite the rational thing to do, and we can hardly blame those who reject the unreasonable. In other words, less-than-coherent theories of the natural law have fostered resistance while inadvertently lending support to opposing theories, a kind of haphazard treason.

It is surprisingly difficult to overcome the belief that truth is out there, out in the world somewhere, and the corresponding account of objectivity which views any mediation of intellect, language, culture, or history as somehow standing “in between” the world and us, thereby distorting our access. Some, call them naïve realists, believe we have such objectivity–the world is there and we just know it–while others, call them naïve antirealists, deny such objectivity. Note, however, how the naive antirealist is defined by the position of the realist–accepting that objectivity is something like reading off what is out there to be read, but denying either the “out there” or the capacity to read without distortion, or both.

Something similar is found with respect to the natural law, with a good many of its theorists advocating a position whereby one theoretically “looks at” the nature of things, either human nature or the nature of actions and their meanings, and subsequently deduces what is in keeping with that nature. Of course, such an account runs into the problem that one cannot deduce what ought to be the case from a description of what is the case. Additionally, such accounts often fall victim to circularity, for they define how we ought to be from what we are, but, admitting that what we are now often is not particularly praiseworthy, appeal to what we would be if we were as we ought to be. That is, our perfection is defined by our nature, and our nature is defined by reference to our perfection–a vicious circle. Even worse, some versions come awfully close to denying human freedom constituted by reason, describing the natural law as if it were tantamount to a physical law of nature, something more akin to animal instinct or the causal forces in nature than the reasonable precepts guiding free human choice and act.

Given those failings, it should not surprise us to find natural law accounts viewed with some scorn. Arguing against contraception, for example, because it alters the course of biological processes will earn the utter derision of our “best and brightest,” as we’ve seen so often in these last weeks and months. And rightly so, for there is no reason whatsoever to think that biological processes must be respected per se.

Ironically, rejections of naïve accounts of natural law tend to mirror its root assumptions. Many versions of skepticism or relativism, including prominent articulations of liberalism, tend to suppose that cultural or historical “placement” posits lenses through which we cannot see the world pure and simple, as if the objective truth were so distant or obscure that it cannot admit concrete human subjects, in their particular circumstances, to discover it. But this is just the flip side of the same coin, defining objectivity as an accurate reading off of the truth out in the world, although denying the possibility of such objectivity. Slightly less skeptically, versions of utility look to pre-moral goods “in” nature as the basis for moral reasoning, thus following naïve versions of natural law toward nature but away from the constitutive and governing role of human reason and agency.

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R.J. Snell


R.J. Snell is associate professor of philosophy at Eastern University and a research director of the Agora Institute for Civic Virtue and the Common Good.

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  • Matt

    I think the problem is that almost no one “out there” has given any thought to where morals and ethics come from. The reason we appeal to natural law is because the culture has rejected God as a moral authority. The culture substituted human beings, namely themselves, as that authority, and each human being gets to be his or her own authority. By using natural law, we step back from that brink a bit, to try to bring our culture back at least to where the pagans were, hopefully on a path to eventually accepting God.

  • Jeffrey Arrowood

    Natural law has a proper role to play in Catholic theology, as Saint Thomas Aquinas clearly shows in his writing. While I had a bit of difficulty following Dr. Snell’s arguments here – my “academia” is a little rusty, I would agree that two popular understandings of Natural Law are indeed naive and harmful. One is the simple definition of “the Law written in our hearts,” by which most people mean some sort of synderesis (instinctive knowledge). The other is natural law as an almost biological mandate (is this what Dr. Snell referred to as physicalism?) that we tend to see in explanations of Natural Family Planning. But to understand natural law as the part of the moral law that helps us to live a fully human life seems to me a solid understanding of natural law. This understanding is not divorced from God, since it is a cooperation in God’s wisdom that he placed into human nature.

    I do wish that Dr. Snell had presented an understandable definition of natural law in this article instead of focusing only on what it is not. Would he accept Saint Thomas Aquinas’ teachings on it? Is he opposed to J. Budziszewski’s understanding of natural law? I am all for a clarifying discussion on natural law, and this article offers much to chew on.