Natural Law – written in our hearts

Every fortnight I have the stimulating pleasure of leading a group on
philosophy, under the auspices of the University of the Third Age. Our range
is wide but, over the years, we have returned time and again to questions of
morality. Given the diversity of backgrounds –­ Catholic, Jewish, Muslim and
agnostic –­­ you might think that we had so little in common that serious and
probing debate would be pointless. On the contrary. Although we often agree
to disagree on particular questions we share fundamental principles in
common, and we are always ready to give reasons for the conclusions we

This is what is known as the natural law in action.

The protagonist of natural law in the western tradition is Thomas Aquinas.
Even the secular philosophers who write about the concept, and maintain
their variations, have Aquinas on their shoulder. And behind him stands

The first principle is that practical reason obliges us to follow the good
and avoid the evil. We may be wholly mistaken about what constitutes the
good in a given instance, but that is what reason obliges us to follow.
However, we achieve our basic understanding of the good through our
understanding of nature, because acting in accordance with nature ensures
that we are directed at the right target: that is, we flourish.

A simple example is provided by the dog. The nature of the dog, among other
things, is to be active, to give and receive affection, and to relate
closely to human beings. (We might note here that some key characteristics
of this nature have come about through evolving from the wild, ancestral,
species.) If we treat a dog in accord with its nature, it flourishes. If
not, not.

In a recent column, I looked at how we could discover the role of
fatherhood through looking at the needs of human nature. Human nature is
qualitatively more complex because it is a fusion of animal nature and
spiritual nature. That is, it involves elements such as intelligence, free
will and moral responsibility. We often speak of two natures –­ the lower
nature and the higher nature ­– but this is just a convenience for discussion
because the two interpenetrate in ways we cannot completely understand.

Aquinas speaks of a hierarchy in our grasp of what human nature requires to
flourish. There are major constituents such as justice, responsibility to
neighbour, right to life and conscience and so forth. These are recognisable
by all. But as we move down the hierarchy towards more detailed application
of these major principles so there is greater and greater room for
disagreement. This can come about because our understanding of human nature
and circumstance inevitably varies at the more detailed level, and so we
arrive at different conclusions. Nevertheless, the UN was able to proclaim
an agreed code of human rights, and call it “universal”. Such declarations
implicitly stem from natural law.

More importantly, grasp of natural law can vary because of ill-will and bad
habits. We know that it can also be distorted through culture. Decent,
commonsense people (such as many in my group) broadly accept our current
abortion laws; we live in an abortion culture, and those out of line are
considered indoctrinated or eccentric. So, for such reasons, deliberate or
indeliberate, we may be blinded to what natural law demands.

Can natural law change? Certainly our knowledge of it can. For instance, a
mistaken understanding of embryological development, which science corrected
in the 19th century, led to a change in the status of abortion. And
perception can change. The deeper understanding of conscience which led
Vatican II to accept the fundamental human right to free choice of religion
was an unacknowledged reversal of a long-standing Church teaching.

Circumstances can change, too. The general proposition that cannibalism is
always wrong might be questioned should a group find themselves abandoned in
a remote area and without food after, say, an air crash in which one of the
party had been killed. In America in the 1880s the average woman gave birth
to about seven children. And this was necessary to maintain the population
because child mortality meant that only two or three children would survive
to procreate. Today such an average birthrate would lead over a few
generations to an astronomical increase in population. Do the maths. Such
examples remind us that we cannot invariably generalise about what is needed
for humans to flourish.

So far my description has been couched in terms of unaided human reason.
Consequently we can debate the application of morals in the public forum.
And it does not follow that atheists can have no moral sense. In fact their
attacks on religion are often made in moral terms. They may have difficulty
in explaining the source of moral obligation, but that is not the same as
lacking it. Christianity, through St Paul, describes it as a law written by
God in men’s hearts. And indeed we hold that the imperatives of the natural
law fundamentally arise from the fact that God created our nature.

The Church goes further, declaring that she has a special competence to
interpret the natural law with an understanding illuminated and enriched by
Revelation. Undoubtedly the concept of what it means to flourish is
marvellously extended when human nature is understood as elevated by
redemption, and created for an eternal destiny. But there remains a need to
demonstrate the link between natural law as open to reason and its deeper
application. For example, while natural law can make a very strong case for
monogamous marriage, it has a higher imperative derived from Christ’s
declaration that monogamous marriage was intended for the human race from
the beginning. For the believer, but not the sceptic, the case is closed.

The need to demonstrate this link is particularly great when a moral
teaching which allows of no exceptions is declared. Sadly there have been
occasions where accepted doctrines have needed to be modified or abrogated.
Moving beyond the limits of human reason, where Revelation gives no certain
mandate, can be a hostage to fortune.

About Quentin

Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
This entry was posted in Catholic Herald columns, Church and Society, Moral judgment, Philosophy. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Natural Law – written in our hearts

  1. kouin says:

    Jesus was no philosopher or moralist. He seemed merely to reflect what the questioner wanted to hear.

  2. Juliana says:

    I disagree with kouin about Jesus’ teachings reflecting what the questioner wanted to hear.e.g.
    The rich man didn’t want to sell all he had; the average Jew would have been scandalised that a Samaritan could be his neighbour whom he is bound to love etc.
    But to get on to the Natural Law written about by Quentin de la B….I think that in today’s society the Natural Law beloved of Aquinas cannot keep its hold in the shifting sands of our moral “norms”.
    How can God’s laws be written in society’s hearts if those hearts are becoming warped by thinking abortion is acceptable or that sadistic films by another Quentin (Tarantino) are hailed as excellent.Or if it is seen as almost normal to countenance euthanasia.
    Once society has lost its connection with Christ or Buddha or the teachings of people pursuing what is seen to be good in itself, then anything goes. And sadly today, bad ideas (mostly grouped around a culture of death:abortion, euthanasia, violence in cinema and on T.V.) are seen as acceptable, or even good, by the majority. This is the death of the Natural Law once the bad becomes the norm.

  3. It is not hard to see why Juliana feels so strongly on the question of natural law, and the situation is certainly depressing. But then it always was. Cicero is often quoted for his firm account of natural law – although he didn’t use the actual term. But he was writing at a time when vice and violence were all around him. Indeed he was destined to be a victim of it.

    Well meaning people who endorse abortion are parallelled by well meaning people (including Catholics at high levels) who, two centuries ago, approved of slave owning and slave trading as a regrettable necessity. They did so by demoting slaves from full membership of the human race. (Does that sound familiar?).
    So we are talking about human nature blighted and blinded by Original Sin. If Juliana is the last person left alive to proclaim that there is another more fundamental element to human nature: the aspiration to the good and loving, then she must be that person. I hope that I have the grace to stand with her.

    As she says, in her reply to kouln, Jesus was continually saying just what people did not want to hear. I need hardly document this, for only a glancing reference to the gospels shows this to be so. She, and we, must join him as a sign of contradiction

  4. RM Blaber says:

    I am happy to agree with you wholeheartedly, Quentin, and with a great deal of what Juliana says. However, as CS Lewis pointed out, the natural law predates St Thomas Aquinas, and was identified by Lao-Tze as the Tao (or Dao). Hindus and Buddhists call it the dharma.
    It is universal, both in space and time, and, as his researches showed, and contrary to the belief of the cultural relativists, it does apply in all cultures – although aspects of it are ‘covered up’ in different situations because of original sin.
    Our Western, secular liberal culture seems to have abandoned it altogether, in favour of a DIY morality, that says, for example, ‘murder is wrong, but abortion and euthanasia are OK’ – utterly unable to see the contradictions involved.
    Does that invalidate it? No, certainly not, for on the contrary, we can see all too clearly where the West is heading, if it continues on this path. It won’t just be ‘Anarchy in the UK’, it’ll be ‘Anarchy in Europe’, and perhaps even in North America as well (although Christianity, being more entrenched there, may be in a better position to fight back). The Muslim fundamentalists would do everything in their power to benefit from such chaos. God help us all, then!

  5. kouin says:

    Natural Law
    Belief is merely following with sureness an empirical thought.
    Authority being merely a food-fed response to empirical belief.
    Empiricism produces Authority and Belief.
    Unnatural Law
    Miracles are empirical evidence.
    Belief is faith in accounts of empirical evidence.
    Faith with evangelical relation is proffessional.

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