Unnatural behaviour

This is, I take it, the best known passage on Natural Law. It’s only a couple of thousand years old.

“There is indeed a true law—right reason—that is in harmony with Nature and present in all things, unchanging and eternal and that guides us to our duty by its commands and deflects us from wrongdoing by its prohibitions. Its commands and prohibitions never fail to prevail with the good but they have no power to influence the wicked. It is not right to legislate against the requirements of this law and it is not permitted to limit its application. It is impossible for it to be repealed in its entirety and we cannot be exempted from this law even by the Roman people or by the Senate. We do not need to seek out a Sextus Aelius to interpret or expound this law nor will there be one law in Rome, another in Athens, one law at one time and a different one some time later. One eternal and unchanging law will govern all peoples at all times and it will be, as it were, the single ruling and commanding god of the whole human race. That god is the creator of the law, its proclaimer and its enforcer. The man who does not obey this law is denying his own nature and, by rejecting his human nature, he will incur the greatest of punishments, even though he will have evaded the other things that are thought of as penalties.” Cicero, De Republica III xxii

And some would also point to Antigone by Sophocles. Antigone upbraids Creon, the ruler, for forbidding her to bury her brother’s body.
“But all your strength is weakness itself against
The immortal unrecorded laws of God.
They are not merely now: they were, and shall be,
Operative for ever, beyond man utterly. “

I like to compare Natural Law to a washing machine. If we expect our washing machine to do its job well and to last a long time we need to respect its nature. It should be used according to its design and manufacture. We may be able to suss this out through examination, but we will be much helped by the maker’s handbook. The only difference is that we own the washing machine, so we are free to mishandle or even destroy it, whereas we don’t own our human nature, we receive it from God.

We are fortunate in having the maker’s human handbook: we call it Scripture. And we also have an expert, appointed by God, to give us the detail. We call it the Church. But beyond that, as Cicero and Sophocles suggest, we have a capacity to judge whether our actions are consistent with human natural law, or, like Creon, to act against it.

An example of such judgment is the recognition that human beings flourish in society, so it follows that, for example, stealing is against the law of our nature. The other approach is structural: from considering our physicality we can discern which activities are appropriate and which aren’t. Not surprisingly this has a strong relevance to the uses of human sexuality. Nevertheless the instructions as laid down are not the last word. That comes from our own judgment when we have to make decisions about our own choices of action. This also comes from our human nature, central to which is reason and free will.

We may need to remember this when others criticise us for holding on to moral values in a society which, for a variety of reasons, often strays from natural law. We do not disagree because the Church says otherwise: it is us, in the sight of God, who make the final decisions and are responsible for them.

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About Quentin

Science Editor, Catholic Herald. Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
This entry was posted in Moral judgment and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Unnatural behaviour

  1. Paul Milligan says:

    One of the arguments presented against natural law, particularly as it applies to human sexuality, is that it is hard to distinguish between an innate sense of right and wrong and social conditioning.
    Another challenge that Christians face when discussing morality with non Christians is that not only do they not accept the authority of scripture but point out some of its barbarity. It’s hard to defend stoning adulterers (always the woman) and homosexuals.
    Having raised the issue of stoning, I find myself in a glass house and feel compelled by reason to put my stones down.

  2. galerimo says:

    The problem with Natural law always has been that people interpret “nature” differently.

    Not everyone agrees that human life begins at conception, that homosexual acts are against nature or that we should prevent a person ending their life because of unbearable suffering.

    A lot of dirty laundry there for the washing machine!

    And even if the rules were perfectly clear around our expected behaviours what difference would that make? I should ask the Australian Cricket Team, the Big Banks/Insurance companies, All religious institutions, the electorate, and a few others.

    I agree Quentin – it is us, in the sight of God, who make the final decisions and are responsible for them.

    • Quentin says:

      You mention “Not everyone agrees… that homosexual acts are against nature.” So here’s a question to examine; it may help us to understand better. It is clear to us all that the different sexual structures between man and woman are ordered to heterosexuality rather than homosexuality. It would appear to follow that homosexual activity is ipso facto a breach of natural law. But how about the individual whose orientation (for whatever reason) is homosexual? May he or she rightly claim that homosexual relationships accord with their own nature, and are therefore permissible?

  3. John Nolan says:

    Natural law is, for Catholics, God’s law. And since cricket is surely of divine origin, the Aussie ball-tamperers are endangering their immortal souls.

    If anyone doubts this, there are liturgical parallels. Test and county cricket constitute the Extraordinary Form whereas one-day and 20/20 cricket are decidedly Novus Ordo, to the extent that it’s a completely different rite (sorry, game).

  4. John Thomas says:

    Presumably, Humanists – who claim to follow rules that require good behaviour – can appeal to this Natural Law, which does not require a god (they would say). (Recently, I’ve been watching those programmes about the walk to Santiago, and listened to the Humanist walker (Irishman, forget his name – I used to bracket Humanists with atheists and materialists, but now I see them as very similar to ultra-“liberal” Christians). But yes, the problem comes at the edges – not should I steal or kill, but who I might do sexual things with and – as above – what constitutes Life.

  5. ignatius says:

    Seems to me our main preoccupation on this blog is who might we do sexual things with…gets rather boring after a while.
    Shame about the Santiago programme too, the choice of characters makes the debate inevitably poor. Still the scenery is nice and I’m just on familiar ground with it now after I walked the last 100km myself a couple of years back…didn’t meet anyone like our celebrity gang though..

  6. Alasdair says:

    To pick up on Quentin’s analogy of a washing machine (and paraphrase somewhat) “If we expect our washing machine to do its job well and to last a long time we need to respect its nature”. Few people would disagree with this statement when applied to a washing machine. It is a statement of a natural (small n) law. And yet a very large number of people do not see this principal as applying Nature (big N). They do not make a distinction between a washing machine and Nature. To quote Q “We own the washing machine, so we are free to mishandle or even destroy it”. To suggest otherwise is enough to make one an object of ire in some company as even Pope Francis has found.

  7. Peter Foster says:

    It is implicit in the concept of natural law that it is universal and timeless. This in contradiction to the new biology in which the evolution of the human organism is both purposeful and open to its environment; that is, it is influenced by its environment rather after the Lamarkism rejected in the Catholic apologetics books of my distant youth!

  8. Alan says:

    Supposing I can decide which of the handbooks for the washing machine actually does come from the manufacturer and I accept that I have been given the appliance but don’t own it, what objection can the maker have should I use it other than the way in which he intends/instructs? If he refers to the damage I will cause it or the harm to human flourishing that may result then I have a reason to use it in a particular way that exists and can be discerned regardless of any creator. I can consider these factors to be defining qualities in what is good/bad, proper/improper use instead. They reflect something about the nature of the machine’s existence, no matter how it comes to exist.

    If he objects without reference to any such thing and appeals instead to his wishes or intent/plan then the right and wrong way to use the washing machine need have nothing to do with flourishing or the wear and tear on the machine itself. Those things need not reflect what is “right” or “wrong” in any way whatsoever. He may just as well intend or prefer that the machine fail sooner rather than later and that would be good/right because it is his intent.

    There is a third option it is said. The manufacturer’s nature is good and that nature is then reflected in the creation. But I find it difficult to understand what this means. “Good” is then something that is not created. It exists uncreated – since the maker has no maker. It makes no demands on the designer’s will or intelligence or purpose. It just is. And if it just “is” what need is there to propose …. ?

    God is good (or good is an aspect of God) seems no more informative to me than good is good.

    I’ve done only a little searching and reading on the subject but I’ve not been able to work out how others are comfortable with any solution to the Euyphthro dilemma (trilemma!).

    • Quentin says:

      Tricky stuff here! One thought: suppose I don’t own the washing machine. You have lent me yours for the time being. Would that alter my responsibility in the way that I use it?
      Second thought. Suppose we change the goodness of God into the concept of love. I can’t rationalise that either but I can see the goodness of love very clearly. Theology would claim love as fundamental to God. Were I not to believe that God existed, I would still be faced with finding the source of love. Goodness is an abstract, but we can see and value the desirability of love in many concrete and identifiable ways.

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