Friday, June 14, 2019

The Search for Liberty; Chapter Three: An Overview of Natural Law

Understanding Aquinas will take me several chapters.  Placing him in a framework that incorporates Plato’s Form of the Good and Aristotle’s Four Causes will take more – although I will likely touch on these in each chapter. 

Before beginning this journey into the unknown, I want to survey the landscape.  For this, I will begin with a review of a short video: Natural Law Theory: Crash Course Philosophy.  Frankly, you might do better to watch the video than read this post – or at least watch the video first.

Aquinas identified that morality was important for everyone, but not everyone was exposed to the Bible.  How could everyone follow God’s moral rules without even knowing about God?  Aquinas theorized that God pre-loaded us with the knowing of what is good.

It seems to me a pretty good theory.  One can see this in the Golden Rule, where some version of this has been known in almost all cultures and all religions for almost as long as we have recorded history:

The idea dates at least to the early Confucian times (551–479 BC) according to Rushworth Kidder, who identifies that this concept appears prominently in Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism, Taoism, Zoroastrianism, and "the rest of the world's major religions". The concept of the Rule is codified in the Code of Hammurabi stele and tablets, 1754-1790 BC.

There are almost forty centuries of history in the Golden Rule, to be found outside of Christianity and even before Christ.

143 leaders encompassing the world's major faiths endorsed the Golden Rule as part of the 1993 "Declaration Toward a Global Ethic", including the Baha'i Faith, Brahmanism, Brahma Kumaris, Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Indigenous, Interfaith, Islam, Jainism, Judaism, Native American, Neo-Pagan, Sikhism, Taoism, Theosophist, Unitarian Universalist and Zoroastrian.

This diversified and global acceptance of the Golden Rule demonstrates that this idea is pre-loaded in man whether or not they know God.

According to Greg M. Epstein, " 'do unto others' ... is a concept that essentially no religion misses entirely", but belief in God is not necessary to endorse it.

One can also see this in Plato’s Form of the Good.  If Plato’s is a valid construct, one would expect that humans would approximate this form – regardless of when or where they live or which religion they follow.  This is not to suggest that all humans everywhere embrace and follow the good; merely to suggest that it is planted into their hearts – as Aristotle offered.  We are imperfect approximations of the form, after all; that perfect form being Jesus.

To my knowledge, Jesus holds a unique place among those identified with founding a religion.  I don’t believe any other meaningful religion has a founder who claims to be the Son of God and who is morally perfect.  Whether you believe this to be true or not, in the west during the time of Aquinas He was viewed this way – and still is by many today.

My point?  No other religious leader – no other person who walked the earth – can offer us an example of Plato’s Form of the Good.  Absent Jesus, we are left guessing.  All the while, even those who do not embrace Jesus are after this same Form of the Good – but with no manifest example.

What does this Form of the Good have to do with humans? 

Genesis 1: 26 Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”  27 So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.

Was God speaking in the royal “us” and “our”?  Maybe.  Of course, we must recognize, from John 1:

1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was with God in the beginning. 3 Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. 4 In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind.

The word – Jesus, who later walked in the flesh – was with God in the beginning, and was God.  The life in Him was the light of all mankind.

Jesus is the Form of the Good.  Before Jesus, man only had Plato’s abstract, incomprehensible Form of God; after Jesus, we had Aristotle’s Form in man – a Form we could see, touch, witness; a Form that gave us the example of properly bearing God’s image.  In Jesus, we witnessed Aristotle’s Final Cause: the end, goal, or purpose of a human.

Returning to the video: we all want stuff and that’s OK – God made us to want things, good things.  Of course, when it comes to humans, Aquinas is not speaking of good material things – Lamborghinis and the like.  It would take the Renaissance and ultimately the Enlightenment to convince man that all good things are material.

Sunlight is good for plants, meat is good for cats, plants are good for bunnies – these are “good” things.  God instilled all of His creatures with the basic desire to seek these things that are good.  God instilled in humans “The Basic Goods”:

1)      Life, with an instinct to survive
2)      Reproduction, supported by a pleasurable sex drive
3)      To educate one’s offspring
4)      To seek God, whether we are exposed to him or not
5)      To live in Society, also offered by Aristotle
6)      To avoid offense, allowing us to live in a society and avoid turning the group against us
7)      To shun ignorance, thus promoting survival

These are the “goods” for humans.  Each Basic Good offers both a prohibition and a positive injunction, for example:

1)      Life
a.       Do not kill
b.       Do promote life
2)      Reproduction
a.       Do not prevent reproduction
b.       Do procreate

If one were to summarize these basic goods – along with the prohibitions and injunctions that can be derived from these – the word that comes to mind is love, therefore returning us to the Golden Rule and also sending us on a quest for the Form of the Good that most perfectly exemplified love.  And that would, once again, be Jesus.

Matthew 22: 36 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”  37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

John 15: 12 My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. 13 Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.

These summarize the Basic Goods.  From this and also Aquinas’s further detail, we can thereafter derive the Natural Law.  One need not object at the moment that much of this version of natural law is not consistent with the non-aggression principle – while many libertarians base their libertarianism on natural law, few mean this kind of natural law; I know this. 

I just don’t believe that liberty will be found via a neutered version of natural law.  I am not after purifying the non-aggression principle: I am after finding liberty.

One also need not object that such positive injunctions are not consistent with or inherent in the non-aggression principle.  I know this as well and I also have not said that these are consistent with or inherent in the non-aggression principle.  For now, we are merely working through the first baby steps of understanding the Natural Law of Aquinas.  The treatment of these in a society dedicated to liberty is a subject for a later chapter.

Returning to the video:

We don’t need the Bible, or religion class, or church in order to understand the natural law.  Instead, our instinct shows us the basic goods, and reason allows is to derive the natural law from them.

Right acts are acts that are in accordance with the natural law.  These have been placed on our heart, and are known to all men.  One might ask, “if these are already placed in our hearts, why do we need organized religion?”  Nothing survives without institutions that survive us. 

If God creates us to seek the good and we have the ability to recognize it, then why do we violate this all the time?

Sometimes, we seek what we think is good, but we’re wrong, because we are just ignorant.  [At other times, and following Aristotle,] we see what we should do, but emotion overpowers our reason, and we fail to do the things we know we should.


As mentioned, I will take a few chapters to understand Aquinas; there will likely be plenty of repetition, but hopefully each attempt will provide more depth. 

Aquinas offers that God placed moral rules in man’s heart – knowledge of the Bible is not necessary for this; we have some evidence of this in the Golden Rule, versions of which are offered in all major religions and have been known for thousands of years.  We also have Plato’s Form of the Good – the perfect form for which man to conform.  His Form of the Good is God, and our example is Jesus.

Aquinas identifies the Basic Goods – the good stuff that God wants man to have; one can consider these consistent with Aristotle’s ends, or purpose, of man.  These goods come with both a prohibition and a positive obligation – call these positive and negative obligations.  From this, one can deduce Aristotelian-Thomistic Natural Law; one can summarize this Natural Law in one word: love.  And again here we find Jesus.

Natural law tells us that morality is grounded in God – He gave us the moral order.  More specifically, God ground natural law in humans – it is in the form.  It also gives us a reason to be moral – as following the natural law makes our lives and our lives with each other work better.  What does this have to do with liberty?  We are still a few chapters from this, I am afraid, but for now I return to Alexandr Solzhenitsyn:

A society which is based on the letter of the law and never reaches any higher is taking very scarce advantage of the high level of human possibilities.

And, after all, can you offer a better definition of liberty than reaching our “highest levels of human possibilities”?  No, I am not adding anything to the non-aggression principle or libertarianism; I am searching for liberty.


A criticism comes from Hume and the “is-ought” problem: “it’s fallacious to assume that just because something is a certain way, that it means that it ought to be that way.”

The speaker in the video offers a couple of examples to illustrate Hume’s point: For example, the survival instinct: it seems it both is and ought to be this way – I certainly do and should want to survive.  But is this always valid?  What if my survival is to come at another’s expense?  Or reproduction – what of those who can’t reproduce or don’t want to reproduce or choose lifestyles that get in the way of reproduction?

These seem to me two different objections: as to the first, there is potentially a direct conflict with the prohibition of “do not kill.”  To reproduction – of course, if one is physically unable to reproduce, there can be no objection – nor does this invalidate natural law theory.  Humans are imperfect images of the Form of the Good. 

As to those who choose not to reproduce, well anyone is free to choose to violate any of the natural laws – but why would this invalidate the natural law?  And although I am a few chapters from developing the integration of the non-aggression principle into this study, I will offer now – as I know the objections are forming: no, I do not find in this a violation deserving of physical punishment.


  1. Very Good! (double meaning and all) :)

  2. Really enjoyed this article. At the same time I remembered where I disagree with Aquinas. I only offer a passage below to compare to what you described as Aquinas' beliefs about humanity. It also explains why humans don't conform to the Good.

    Romans 3:9-18
    "9 What then? [g]Are we better than they? Not at all; for we have already charged that both Jews and Greeks are all under sin; 10 as it is written,

    “There is none righteous, not even one;
    11 There is none who understands,
    There is none who seeks for God;
    12 All have turned aside, together they have become useless;
    There is none who does good,
    There is not even one.”
    13 “Their throat is an open grave,
    With their tongues they keep deceiving,”
    “The poison of asps is under their lips”;
    14 “Whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness”;
    15 “Their feet are swift to shed blood,
    16 Destruction and misery are in their paths,
    17 And the path of peace they have not known.”
    18 “There is no fear of God before their eyes.”

    1. I wonder if anyone has made a scattergram with "faith" on one axis, and "works" on the other, and then plotted a dot that would correspond with each denomination's / sects belief on the matter!

      I realize it would have to be 3-D, or even 4-D, because the relationship is not so cut and dry, but still...

    2. Not sure my comment is related to the faith vs works issue. It is about what does the Bible say about humanity.

      I need to balance my statement out though. Romans 3 is absolutely truth but so is Romans 2:14-15:

      "14 For when Gentiles who do not have the Law do instinctively the things of the Law, these, not having the Law, are a law to themselves, 15 in that they show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness and their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them, "

      Every human has a moral conscience. We all have a sense of right and wrong that we abide by. But looking at Romans 3 and Genesis 2-3 we can see that human conscience and morality is broken or misaligned with the truth. That is why we need to be born again into Jesus.

      Genesis 2:17 "but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you will surely die.”

      The tree that is forbidden is the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. When Adam and Eve ate their eyes were opened. To what? This knowledge. But what can we say about that knowledge from the context of Genesis 3 and Romans 5? That the knowledge was in rebellion to God. It was not in line with the Form of the Good. It was a counterfeit morality.

      We can think and reason and understand some things, but without rebirth into Jesus that reason will be towards error.

      So Aquinas is right that humans can think and reason and do so about morality. But we can't arrive at ultimate truth without Jesus. We can understand some things about the world but we will be confounding about morality because that involves God's design and our relationship to Him was fractured when Adam and Eve ate of that fruit.

  3. BM: "How could everyone follow God’s moral rules without even knowing about God?  Aquinas theorized that God pre-loaded us with the knowing of what is good."

    I'm reminded of Haidt's The Righteous Mind. A developmental psychologist, his approach is generally empirical; his conclusions about morality (along with those of Piaget, et al) seems to bolster AT natural law remarkably.

    Per Piaget, almost all children intuit very, very early in life that he or she should avoid actions that cause real harm--not necessarily physical--to others. Key word: intuit. These children are not yet capable of being verbally 'taught'. They develop the 'do not cause harm' intuition simply by playing with others. Beyond any doubt, the silver rule is hard-wired into 99% of humans. It follows that the golden rule is pre-loaded by God (I think).

  4. I work with preschoolers at church. They absolutely do not avoid actions that cause harm. They don't want someone to harm them but not concerned with harming others if they get what they want.

    1. You are correct. I have twin boys who just turned three. Nearly everyday one will blatantly steal something from the other and run around the house laughing while the other chases screaming and crying. To say very young children 'avoid' causing harm to others at a very young age is inaccurate. I summarized poorly.

      The point is that even toddler's intuitively recognize the difference between actions that cause harm and those that don't. The studies cited by Haidt are conclusive on this front IIRC. That does not mean young children behave according to that intuition when their self-interest is involved.

  5. From the very beginning (the breath of Life in Adam, the moment of conception for the rest of us) every human being has the capacity for love & selfishness, good & evil, right & wrong, godliness & sinfulness embedded deep into our souls. We have the ability to make decisions that will harm others or to help them, to be selfish or to love.

    Selfishness is the dominant trait in very young children. A new-born baby cares nothing about his mother's inconvenience when he is hungry nor is an embryo concerned with anything except instinctual survival. In fact, I posit that the younger a child is, born or unborn, the more selfish he is.

    Overcoming this is learned behavior. We are taught from birth that some actions toward others are not good and should be avoided, while others are more beneficial. Over time, we learn that it is better to 'give than to receive' and that love is better than selfishness. At the same time, we learn that 'God is love' and self-sacrifice for the good of others is better than harming them for our own benefit. Toward the end of our lives, we should have learned enough so that selfless love is dominant, while selfishness has to diminish. Like a back seat driver, it is always there, ready to comment, criticize, or order, but never able to grasp control of the wheel.

    Near the end of Pearl Buck's beautiful story, "The Good Earth", Wang Lung is trying to marry off one of his young consorts, but she doesn't want to leave him. When questioned, she offers the defense that old men are more gentle than young men. If you've never read the story, you should. (For a sampling of quotes, see

    Wang Lung most definitely was not Christian, but he learned to overcome evil with good. So must all of us.

  6. Was Jesus violating natural law by not having children?

    1. Is there a natural law which says you must have children?

    2. The first sentence of the last paragraph implies as such.

    3. "As to those who choose not to reproduce, well anyone is free to choose to violate any of the natural laws – but why would this invalidate the natural law?" --Bionic Mosquito

      I have no children. I have never had any desire to have children. Does that mean that I am guilty of some "natural" law? Perhaps, but who really cares? I don't. Who is there to judge my actions (inactions)?

      For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. There are consequences, good or bad, for everything and the payoff for my "lack of production" is that there will be no one to take care of me when/if I become unable to take care of myself. Except the State, of course, which has assumed not only the role of father and mother, but also devoted child and nursemaid, keeping aged parents alive well past the time when they might have been set aside in a less "civilized" time.

      Was that a foolish move? Viewed in this way, could it not be seen as selfish if I had bred children with the expectation that they would care for their old father in his dotage until he died in his sleep?

      Everyone has a natural sex drive, but it does not follow that anyone has a moral obligation to produce children. Some might have sex with the intention of becoming pregnant, while others wear condoms. Neither is wrong.