The Naked Emperor – Natural Law?


May 19, 2013 by lucieromarin

I read this post yesterday, and lay awake thinking about the question at the end: “Do you think the Catholic Church can make progress with…a return to natural law? Why or why not?” Now, before anyone panics, I’ll assure you that I’m not about to deny the existence of natural law; my conclusion was, however, that if we don’t make progress with it (and I assume that by ‘progress’ we mean ‘getting other people to agree with us’) it will be because, as with most things, a) we don’t know how we sound when we talk about it, and b) as a consequence, we don’t actually understand other people’s underlying objections to it, and so we never meet those objections.

Now, it’s true that some people will object in pretty violent terms to the idea of the existence of a natural law, and this is because they see as well as we do that if they accept this idea, they might have to stop stealing from their workplaces and start visiting their elderly, housebound mothers. No one, however, is going to say, “If I agree with you I’ll have to change my life, and I’m too much of a skank to do that,” so they’ll cloak their fear of self-knowledge with a nice ‘philosophy’ of their own.

However, much and all as we’d like to believe that this is the only reason anyone disagrees with us, it isn’t. There are other reasons why people don’t capitulate immediately to the idea of natural law when Catholics mention it, and we owe it both to them and to ourselves to consider those reasons.

The first is this: when sharing any idea with anyone, the important thing is not only what you say, but what you sound like you’re saying, and what it often sounds like we’re saying is, “Well, even if you don’t believe in our moral code, you still have to, because it was implanted in your soul so that you wouldn’t have to be a Christian in order follow it.”

We have recourse to this as a way of trying to avoid the fact that our opponents don’t believe what we believe about God, but if you cannot answer the question, “How did it get there?” without reference to God, and if you cannot answer the question, “How come we can’t all see it?” without reference to Original Sin, then you can’t expect anyone to believe that it is really independent of Christianity. It doesn’t look like philosophy. It looks like a trick. It looks like the Emperor’s ‘clothing’, visible only to the ‘right’ people, and, quite honestly, if I was not a Christian and this idea was put to me, I’d be inclined to respond, “You know what? I’ll take your natural law and raise you a leprechaun, buddy.”

I’m not saying it can’t be done; I’m not saying that we can’t posit the idea of a universal code of human behaviour and make that code intelligible to persons of different backgrounds. I’m just saying that a lot of people aren’t stupid, and they’ll notice it if the proposed natural law conforms exactly to all the most controversial points of Catholic moral teaching, and we need to understand why that might look suspicious to an outsider.

When I was at school, the usual means of trying to prove the existence of a natural law was by pointing to some kind of behaviour universally condemned; that, or by pointing to a pagan culture and observing its moral similarities to Christian culture (eg. This Greek Man Said This was Bad. So do We. Aha!). The trouble with this approach is that, these days, the history books are a lot less sanitised, and for every culture that condemns one thing, you’ll find another that accepts it; that, or you’ll find that apparent similarities with our laws were only class-deep. (You really can’t say that a culture respected women or abhorred rape if the penalties for assault upon an orphan or servant were lighter than the penalties for assault upon a rich woman. And really, anyone who wants to use the ancient Greeks to further a cause needs to take a closer look at the ages of those boys on the vases and ask themselves if what they’re doing, which was considered so normal that it got painted onto household pottery, is in accordance with the natural law.)

The second reason why we run into trouble with natural law arguments is that people know we’re talking about natural moral law. We’re not talking about the natural law of gravity, but about natural boundaries around human behaviour. Can these boundaries exist if we are an accident? If they must exist (and, realistically, most people aren’t anarchists) must they really be as fixed as the laws of gravity and motion? Other laws alter over time – why not the moral law? Gravity is a law; morality is arbitrary, right?

The third reason is that, for some reason, even those people who are able to believe that the laws of science came about by accident (I wish most accidents were that good!), still tend to recognise that moral law requires a lawgiver, so you can see why that’s a problem if someone doesn’t want to believe in God! We have to accept that many people feel that they’re being asked to believe in God by being asked to believe in a natural law, so either we deny that this is so, or we accept it openly, and then have another debate about proving the existence of God from reason.

So…what to do about all this? If I ever find myself in the unfortunate position of having to demonstrate the existence of a natural law to someone, it will be along these lines: “What we call scientific laws are observable, unchanging sequences of cause and effect. Drop something – it fall to the earth. Fill it with helium – it rises. Carbon dioxide turns limewater milky. And so on. The same can be observed of human behaviour. Cruel words produce tears. Threats produce fear.  Acts of greed lead to sweatshop labour and pollution. We can’t put our choices under a microscope, but we can still observe patterns of cause and effect. If moral choices were completely and utterly arbirtary, I could not say, ‘Cruel words produce tears’ with the confidence that I’d be understood. I know that there’s variation across ages and cultures, but part of that variation is not due to an inherent shiftiness in the pattern of cause-and-effect (i.e the law) but to an inherent shiftiness in human beings, who, like giant toddlers, will invest much time and effort in getting round the law if they can.”

“Well,” my interlocutor might say at this point, “it’s not much of a law if people can go round ignoring it. A law is something like the law of gravity.”

“No,” says I. “A law isn’t a pattern that can’t be broken, but a pattern that will always produce the same miserable result when it is broken. Doesn’t matter what clothes you wear, cruel words will always hurt.”

Interlocutor: “Oh. Right.”

At least, I sure hope it will end that easily!

2 thoughts on “The Naked Emperor – Natural Law?

  1. Team Alto says:


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