Moral Theory: Natural Law

Posts in the Moral Theory series

  1. Moral Theory: Introduction
  2. Moral Theory: Divine Command Ethics
  3. Moral Theory: Natural Law


If you’re a fan of historical jurisprudence political processes (and, let’s be honest, who isn’t?), the 1991 confirmation of Clarence Thomas probably stands out in your mind. It was bitterly contentious, both in populist rhetoric, and within the narrow world of legal academia, for two very different reasons.

REASON 1 – The pubic hair.

REASON 2 – Clarence Thomas believed in an arcane ethical principle leftover from the dark ages, when beasts roamed the earth devouring maidens. Thomas actually believed in something called Natural Law. The horror! (nevermind for just a minute that almost every thinker who was important to the framing of our constitutional democracy also believed in this arcane theory). In spite of the public furor over the sexual harassment charge, it was this second objection from the legal academia that almost cost Thomas the nomination.

What It Is

Natural Law (I’ll abbreviate it as NL, in order to save myself a lot of typing during this post. I hate extraneous typing, so reducing those 10 letters down to just 2 makes my job a whole lot easier), or NL (which stands for Natural Law), holds that moral value is an intrinsic part of the universe, like the laws of gravity or energy. Moral value isn’t because of anything, moral value just is.

There have been many variations on the theme of NL, from the Plato to Aquinas, but there are some common threads running through them all. Most of the time, NL isn’t discussed in terms of ethics (right and wrong behavior), but in terms of moral value (what are the appropriate ends that we’re acting toward). For example, NL might not say anything about torture being right or wrong, but it would say that human dignity has a high moral value. From that value we can reasonably figure out what behaviors we have an ethical obligation to do.

If you think about it, this is similar to how natural laws, like gravity and energy, work. A few simple principles extrapolate out into very complex actions, based on the surrounding circumstances. Likewise, if moral value is a brute set of simple principles, ethical behavior can still extrapolate out into complex patterns based on the surrounding circumstances. You could (I won’t, but still) make the case that all ethical behavior can be governed by three simple principles: dignity of life, justice, and charity. Even if that’s the case, the interaction between these three simple principles leads to some very complex ethical decision making.

So … What Is It?

As soon as you start to talk about NL, you immediately run into a problem: what is it? What’s actually in the Natural Law? If this code of moral value is woven into the very fabric of the world, then it seems like 1) we should all know it, and 2) every culture across history should have the same ethical rules. If that’s the case, why do we have any disagreement over what’s ethical and what’s not? The variation in how cultures view morality seems like a strong argument against NL.

The !Kung people living in the Kalahari Desert have an ethical code that requires abandoning elders who can no longer provide for themselves. The Hmong people in Southeast Asia have an ethical code that requires honoring and caring for elders within the clan. If there is a universal natural law, how can there be that kind of wide disparity between what different cultures consider to be ethical behavior?

There are 3 arguments that someone might give here in defense of Natural Law:

  1. Even though different cultures have different sets of moral codes, the principle of morality is universal. There is no culture, today or in history, without some basic sense of ought. This argues for a universal law that crosses those boundaries.
  2. Saying that there is a universal moral law isn’t the same thing as saying that all people, everywhere, have perfectly understood that moral law. If we treat it like other natural laws (say gravity), then we can see that each culture created a convention (an agreed upon set of rules or interactions) for talking about the results of gravity, a theory that was refined and progressed as time passed. The law was universal, but the way people understood it wasn’t. If this is true, then we can compare the progression of moral understanding with the progression of theories about physical laws. Think about how long it took us to develop the idea of universal human rights; compare this with how even our basic theory of gravity is still in progress. Something can be universal without being universally known or understood.
  3. There is remarkable consistency in the underlying moral values of different cultures over time. The differences are sexy. The differences get a lot of play. Underneath, though, a relatively small set of moral values seems to be almost perfectly consistent. In the earlier example, the !Kung ethical obligation to abandon elders and the Hmong ethical obligation to care for elders seem to be polar opposites. It’s not too hard, though, to see how both might be derivatives of the same underlying moral value – the dignity of human life – set against very different environmental circumstances. One honors life individually, in it’s longevity, the other preserves the dignity of life in the whole community, by increasing the chance for group survival. The existence of simple consistent underlying principles, no matter how they gets extrapolated out into actions, argues for a universal and intrinsic kind of moral law.

Omnipotence / Omniscience

So, where does God hang out in all of this? In Divine Command Ethics, he’s the originator of morality. Now, in the Natural Law view, the moral value is separate from God, and prior to His creation of the world. When we say that “God is good”, we’re comparing his actions to a universal standard. How do we get around our earlier argument for DCE, that’s says if God has to obey some other standard of goodness, he is no longer omnipotent?

A philosopher who believed in both God and Natural Law might argue that moral law is the same kind of thing as the laws of logic. We accept that there are some things God cannot do (like microwave a burrito so hot that God himself cannot eat it), not because he lacks the power, but because the thing itself by definition cannot exist. This doesn’t mean God is any less omnipotent. God still has unlimited power to create any of the things that can actually exist.

NL defenders say that moral laws are the same kind of fundamental definitions. If that’s the case, then God’s adherence to those laws doesn’t limit God’s omnipotence. I don’t particularly like this argument, but this post is already long enough, so I’ll skip why.

So, if we buy into Natural Law, and God isn’t the origin of right and wrong, then what’s his role? He is omniscient, the only person who perfectly knows the content of the Natural Law, and how it ought to be applied to every circumstance. Therefore, when he says something is right or wrong, he is always perfectly correct. For us, then, as puny humans rolling around in the dust of this earth, we can take God’s commands as a true statement of moral obligation, because of His perfect knowledge.

This isn’t the last time we’ll see a moral theory move from omnipotence to omniscience for dealing with God’s relationship to morality – oh no, my friend! not nearly the last time! Muaaahahahahahahaha!

Concluding Thoughts

So, in conclusion, the pubic hair joke wasn’t that funny, sexual harassment is no laughing matter, but Natural Law theory is a pretty compelling way of understanding moral obligation. I think the most attractive part of it is the way that it accounts for simplicity and complexity in moral value vs. ethical behavior, and how it allows for progress in how we actually work out our ethical obligations. That, to me, lines up pretty well with how ethics and morality actually function.

Also, C.S. Lewis was a pretty strong supporter of Natural Law Theory. But, he’s British, so we don’t really count him.

Previous in series: Moral Theory: Divine Command Ethics

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