Natural Law Ethic (Part 1)

(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, February 19, 2015.)

Natural Law Ethics

“To disparage the dictate of reason is equivalent to condemning the command of God.”
~  St. Thomas Aquinas

  1. The Divine Command Theory

Let us now consider the view that morality rests upon religion. Assuming that a relationship between some God and morality exists, how do we characterize it? A classic formulation of this relationship is the divine command theory which states that “morally right” means commanded by God, and “morally wrong” means forbidden by God.

But there are multiple problems with this theory. Its defense necessitates philosophical arguments to prove a god exists, or is at least rational plausibility. Next, one needs to determine the gods commands. This would be especially difficult, since people have imagined the gods to command antithetical things like: celibacy and polygamy, the right of kings and social revolt, war and peace, humanitarian aid and witchburning. But even if we knew the gods commands, we would still have to interpret them.

This last point presents grave difficulties. Take a simple command, “thou shalt not kill!” When does it apply? In self defense? In war? Always? To whom does it apply? To animals? Intelligent aliens? Serial killers? All living things? The unborn? The braindead? Religious commands such as “do not kill,” “honor thy parents,” or “do not commit adultery” are ambiguous. For instance, where do the Christian Scriptures speak unequivocally about abortion?  For the sake of argument, let us grant that we can demonstrate some the gods existence, know that the gods commands,  know that those commands are good, and interpret the commands correctly. (This is saying a lot.) May we then suppose the divine command theory adequately accounts for morality?

The great Greek philosopher Plato suggested that it did not. In the dialogue the Euthyphro Socrates posed one of the most famous questions in the history of philosophy: Is something right because the gods command it, or do the gods command it because it is right?  It seems the relationship between the gods and morality must be characterized in one of these two ways.

If we characterized the relationship the first way, then right and wrong depend on the the gods will. Something is right because the gods say so! Two basic problems attach to this view. First, it makes the the gods will arbitrary. The gods could have commanded lying, killing, cheating, and stealing to be right! You might be tempted to say that the gods wouldn’t command us to do these things. But why not? Remember the the gods will determines right and wrong, on this view, so that if the god said, “thou shalt kill,” that would be right. The second problem is that the theory renders the notion of the the gods goodness superfluous. We ordinarily attach meaning to the notion that “The the gods commands are good.” We believe we are attributing a property goodness to the the gods commands. But on this second account good simply means “commanded by the gods” so that “The gods commands are good” just means “the gods commands are commanded by the gods,” a useless tautology.

If we characterize the relationship the second way, then we must accept some standard of morality independent of the gods will. What the religious want to say is that in the gods’ infinite wisdom, they know that truthfulness, for example, is better than untruthfulness. On this view, the gods commands things because they are right. But this is much different from making something right. On this second view, the gods recognize the moral truth, but can’t change it. The gods can’t make killing, lying, cheating, and stealing right anymore than we can. Thus, the moral law limits the gods, since they can’t change it. And if we accept this second option, we have given up the divine command theory.

Two options present themselves if the standard of morality is independent of the gods. First, the standard for morality may lie beyond our comprehension, forcing us to rely on authority, revelation, or tradition to explain morality. Going this route ends philosophical ethics. The other alternative uses human reason to understand the gods law. Let’s pursue this second alternative.

  1. The History of Natural Law Ethics

The genesis of natural law ethics is in the writings of Aristotle, who first identified the natural with the good. All things “aim at some good,” he says at the beginning of his treatise on ethics, “and for this reason the good has rightly been declared that at which all things aim.” For individuals, ethics is a study of  the goal, end or purpose of human life. Politics, on the other hand, is a study of the good, goal, end, or purpose of society.

But what is good? Aristotle distinguished between real and apparent goods. Real goods satisfy natural needs, and they are good for us independent of our desires. Food, clothing, and shelter are examples of real goods. Apparent goods satisfy acquired wants, and are called good because we desire them. Shrimp, designer clothes, and mansions are apparent goods. A good life consists in the acquisition, over the course a lifetime, of all the real (natural) goods. These include external and bodily goods such as food, clothing, shelter, health, vitality, and vigor, and, “goods of the soul” like love, friendship, knowledge, courage, justice, honor, and skill. To obtain these real goods requires that we must act with good habits or virtues.  The person of good character exhibits moral virtues such as temperance, courage, and justice, and intellectual virtues like wisdom and prudence. A life full of  virtue is a good, happy, and fulfilling life. It is a life in accordance with our nature.

The idea that each thing has a goal or purpose in accordance with its nature, Aristotle called teleology. (From the Greek telos; meaning goal, end, or purpose.) We can understand this if we consider an artifact like a pen. A pen that writes well is a good pen; it fulfills its purpose. Aristotle also believed that teleology was also a component of the natural world. Acorns develop into oak trees, caterpillars into butterflies, and little children into mature adults; the eyes are meant to see, the hands to grasp, and the kidneys to purify. Whatever satisfies its teleology is fulfilled; whatever fails to do so is defective. To be fulfilled means to actualize the potential inherent in the thing, whereas to be defective refers to the failure to do so. Thus, actualization of natural potential is the essence of teleology and supplies the moral imperative for human beings.

The Stoics further developed the doctrine and first used the term natural law. Stoicism flourished in Athens in the third century B.C.E. and later in the Roman Empire in such great figures as Seneca, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, and Cicero. Unlike Aristotle, the Stoics believed that human happiness was possible without external and bodily goods. They also emphasized rationality and the control of emotions. The Stoics insisted that we have a duty to follow nature, particularly our rational nature, rather than convention. The source of natural law was Logos, the universal power or energy personified in nature’s laws.

That natural laws should prevail over cultural conventions led the Stoics to the idea of the cosmopolitan citizen. Roman jurisprudence, which needed to formulate rules to deal with various cultures, adopted the idea of a natural law for all the world’s citizens. Its basic premise was the natural law’s independence from cultural mores.

This idea had tremendous repercussions throughout human history and would inform the interaction of western Europe and much of the new world. In the sixteenth century, for instance, the Spaniards vehemently debated its applicability for the civilizations they discovered in the New World, and in the eighteenth century the idea influenced the founders of the American government. But the next great development in the idea after Stoicism occurred in the thirteenth century. 

Tomorrow’s post will cover the second half of our discussion.

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