Thursday, December 18, 2008

On Natural Law theory

In another discussion, JJ asked what the natural law is

And that’s a fair question.

Natural law is that body of moral laws that can be known through reason alone.

But of course, it’s more than that.

Our culture has rejected many of the foundational principles ideas of a natural law. And so the notion of a natural law seems very alien, even though it was part and parcel of the Western culture right up to the twentieth century.

Natural Law is contingent on some of these notions:

* God exists and created the universe. He created human beings to happy in union with him.

* The universe, and existence in general, is ordered and meaningful. By “ordered” I mean there’s a logic and structure to things. They are not random products. They are not causeless. They are predictable. They are coherent. They have purpose. They just did not spring from chance or from blind force of nature.

This is true for the natural world, and human beings. And that’s an important distinction to make, because much of our “elite” cultural heritage has stressed that human beings are not beings endowed with meaning, i.e. a purpose and an internal logic. As a result, you cannot make generalizations about their lives, and ultimately what is “moral” for them.

* Human beings are capable of reason. And reason can discern the nature of reality, whether seen or unseen, through abstract thought and deduction.

Again, in last 200 years or so, the trend in the West has been to distance itself from “Pure Reason” as Kant would put it (although I am not that knowledgeable about him). Suffice it to say that we are capable of knowing the truth about reality, even truths about things that cannot be empirically tested, such as the existence of God and the immortality of the soul.

* The ultimate goal of humankind is happiness.

* The natural law is nothing more than those body of precepts that lead people to happiness.

In sum, by observing the world, deriving principles and drawing conclusions through abstract reasoning, we can know which rules of behaviour are necessary for happiness.

Natural law counters contemporary ideas in many ways, without people being conscious of it.

To me the most obvious piece of conventional wisdom that Natural law contradicts is the idea that human reason is so fallible and biased, and the world is in such a state of flux that morality is ultimately subjective. There are no universal rules of behaviour.

Although people say that, people don’t generally act that way.

In fact, atheists will often say they can be moral without God. And in some sense, they are right, because in order to get along in the world, they have to observe the way people behave (i.e. make generalizations) and derive rules accordingly.

That is a kind of personal ‘natural law’.

The response to that is that the atheist in question doesn’t “impose” his law nor does he believe them to be absolutes.

That may be true. But when a person acts, he has to be reasonably sure of the soundness of his actions. Human beings can’t live on uncertainty. Otherwise, it creates a feeling of angst. A conscience is in-built in human beings, and they have to know that their actions are, at the very least, not gravely evil.

And that same conscience has to be exercised in a collective fashion.

So rules of behaviour have to be discerned, based on predictable human actions and tested principles.

And although many societies have had many evil laws and customs, no society has ever been so grossly in the dark about natural morality that every one of its moral precepts is immoral.

Consider that there are universal taboos against murder and incest. I can’t vouch for it, but I can say that the vast majority of societies probably forbid theft, assault, and lying-- to one degree or another.

This goes to show that while human beings are fallible and sometimes prone to error, their collective effort can discern the truth about behaviour and human nature.

The pursuit of knowledge—including moral knowledge—is not a solitary task.

Of course, natural law is somewhat more complex than those simple universal taboos precepts that I referred to.

But I don’t want to write a book about it.

I only wanted to show that human subjectivity is no barrier to knowing the truth about human behaviour, i.e. morality. Our subjectivity is partial, not absolute, and its effects can be countered by our cumulative efforts.

We can discover those behaviours that are conducive to our happiness, and those that aren’t.