Tuesday, September 13, 2016

The Overlap Of Natural And Societal Law (Trump And Clinton Through The Lenses Of Ethical Theory)

In the service of bringing clarity to our thoughts about this years' candidates, I am posting a number of articles that look at the candidates through the lenses of various ethical theories. So far, we have covered virtue ethics, deontological ethicsconsequentialist ethics and Kantian ethics.  This fifth post will look at Natural Law ethics.

I am convinced that no one ethical theory does justice to the complexity of our world; nonetheless, I hope the process of viewing life through several different ethical lenses will bring increasing clarity. I should also note that my summaries offer a a broad overview that will not do justice to the complexities of these theories. I encourage you to read more deeply on your own.

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Though Natural Law theory is typically associated with Christian ethics - Aquinas is a Natural Law rock star - one does not need to be religious to believe there is a form of Natural Law that is powerful (Wikipedia's article on Natural Law gives a helpful introductory overview).

In Natural Law Theory, standards of morality arise from telos, the end or purpose of people and things that is embedded in the design of the world. Because we are rational (Kant smiles and nods approvingly), we can discover this telos  through the laws of nature and the work of philosophy. It is both knowable and authoritative. Natural Law proponents focus less on virtue than they do on their duty to honor design and purpose. (1) Good people embrace the duty to promote this; bad people do not. 

On this foundation, we build a good society that is far more trustworthy than 'positive' laws (mere human legislation that reflects a fluid social contract) and more accessible than divine laws (which require special rather than simply general revelation from God).

According to Aquinas, the best human law enforces or promotes the Natural Law. He described it as “an ordinance of reason for the common good, made by him who has care of the community, and has promulgated it.” (Summa Theologica). This is called the Overlap Thesis, a principle we see reflected in the founding documents of the United States ("the Laws of Nature and Nature's God"). Not everyone agrees - how often does that happen, really? - but it's a logical conclusion to the theory.

The bottom line is this: in Natural Law ethical theory, a reasoned assessment of the common good as found through the observation of design and purpose is morally authoritative for society as well as individuals. 

One clear advantage of the Natural Law approach is that it universalizes aspects of human nature that can be seen across time and cultures.  In The Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis wrote of the Tao, a way of showing that “men of every culture and age agree on the moral principles, even if they disagree on how those principles are to be applied.” He highlighted the following:

  • The Law of General Beneficence
  • The Law of Special Beneficence
  • Duties to Parents, Elders and Ancestors
  • Duties to Children and Posterity
  • The Law of Justice: sexual justice (faithfulness); property justice (honesty); justice in court (fairness)
  • The Law of Good Faith and Veracity
  • The Law of Mercy
  • The Law of Magnanimity

Natural Law is also compelling because it values purpose and design that will lead to human flourishing. We are designed to grasp knowledge, so natural law values education and truth. We are designed to be social, so friendship, love, compassion, and justice are all necessary. In the Christian tradition, this purpose comes from God, an objective, authoritative Law Giver who transcends individual perspectives and social contracts and who can rightly command our duties. In the non-religious version, one typically relies upon the rights contained in some sort of social contract that reflects the common experience and rational consensus of the people.

So what are the complications of Natural Law theory?

First, the more complex the nature of a thing, the more complex it is to understand. Unlike the Joker, I know what to do with a writing utensil. It's design and purpose are clear. But what is the purpose of a horse? Of a human being? The answer to those questions are probably more connected with one's prior worldview than with a scientifically measured standard.  Aquinas would turn to God for the answers; Hobbes would not. How will we as a society adjudicate between competing views?

Second, if we are to infer moral principles simply by observing design in nature, don't we run into the danger that morality become descriptive rather than normative? Some animals eat their children; others care for them.  Many people seem to be naturally aggressive or selfish; the alpha male in nature is a predatory bully. Should we conclude acting in that fashion is morally acceptable? Once again, one's opinion here will probably come from a prior worldview.  Stephen Pope has noted,

"When the ancients understood the good life to be 'according to nature', they meant according to what is best, most noble, or most excellent in human nature. Moderns, on the other hand, understand 'nature' according to the meth­odology of the natural sciences as what occurs with some frequency under natural conditions." 

In spite of the distance between worldviews, there is a shared commitment to finding the telos of the world and building a moral society from that foundation.

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So what sort of Natural Law questions can we ask of this year's presidential hopefuls?

  • Do the candidates believe there are morally demanding Natural Laws at work in the world?  If so, do they believe it comes from Nature's God (objective, authoritative Law Giver) or from a social contract (common experience and rational consensus of the people)? What difference would this make in how they would lead?
  • Which candidate is most likely to promote legislation in which the Natural Law referenced in our founding documents overlaps with our ongoing implementation of human law? 
  • Does the candidate view 'the good life' like the ancient world (it brings out the best, most noble, or most excellent in human nature) or the modern world (what the natural sciences show will occur with some frequency under natural conditions)? What are the implications of a disagreement in this area?

To summarize where we are so far: Are you voting for a virtuous candidate (virtue ethics) who is committed to using just means (deontological ethics) to accomplish the greatest good for the greatest number (consequentialist/utilitarian ethics), who values the intrinsic worth of people, who will enact laws and regulations that are universalizable, and who seeks to enact legislation that overlaps with the telos of the world?


(1)There is consequentialist component to Natural Law theory as well. The Principle Of Double Effect factors in consequences in moral dilemmas where there is an inescapable clash in the carrying out of one's duty. It is morally permissible to perform an action that breaks a known duty if and only if the following criteria are met:
  • the act itself must be good
  • the bad effect is unavoidable in order for the good to occur
  • the bad effect is an unintended consequence, not merely an instrumental means to an end
  • the ‘double effects’ of good and bad are at least proportional

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