Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Natural Law Isn’t About Law…

…it’s about morality.

He begins by examining what Thomas would write regarding the purpose of natural law.

For St. Thomas Aquinas, the question of what it means to be moral is, in fact, a central question – the central question.  The central part of the Summa Theologica is all about morality. 

His work was about morality.  But was it not also about laws to back up this morality?

For St. Thomas Aquinas, morality – and people often balk at this, but it’s true – does not involve primarily duty or obligation or obedience to the law.  It was only later, beginning in the fifteenth or sixteenth century where Catholic moralists started focusing on law excessively and using Aquinas to excuse themselves – mostly the Jesuits (then, clears his throat).

Hey, he said it, not me.  I will stay out of the Catholic infighting, and leave Fr. Petri’s words to speak for themselves.

So, in that whole central section about morality, only a small section of it is about the law – only a small part.  For St. Thomas, morality is about two questions: first, what is happiness; secondly, how do I get it.  That’s basically what morality is for St. Thomas.

Please keep all of this in mind as we continue.  Forgive the length, but there is much to be covered.

Edward Feser delivered the Hayek Memorial Lecture at the Mises Institute in 2005.  He commented on the fact that many people associated with the Institute also are sympathetic to the idea of Natural Law, and he is complimentary about this.  However, furthering this is not his purpose with this lecture.  In his words, he intends to “accentuate the negative”:

In particular, I would argue that the work of Austrian thinkers, including Hayek and Rothbard, has been deficient where it has strayed from economics per se and forayed into the realm of moral theory.

He holds that from a Catholic point of view, positions held by Hayek and Rothbard have weaknesses.  What are these weaknesses, and what do these have to do with the cited passages from Fr. Petri, above? 

I will skip his criticisms of Hayek.  These are secondary to Feser’s main focus, and secondary to me.  What of his criticisms of Rothbard?

Rothbard’s views, by contrast, are often radically at odds with a Catholic conception of natural law.

Feser notes that natural law theorists will differ profoundly on the content and metaphysic of natural law.  Feser will come at it from the views associated with Thomas and the Scholastics – and opposes this to the views coming from Locke, as Locke rejects the traditional grounding of natural law in the natural ends of man.  Without going into the details of Feser’s criticisms, to summarize:

For if Lockean natural law is a watering down of the traditional Scholastic conception of natural law, Rothbardian natural law theory seems itself little more than a watering down of Locke. 

Which now brings me to the point.  Feser offers a section entitled “Morality and the law.”  Feser touches on the issue of suicide – yet I cannot determine why this is even relevant when speaking of “law.”  Yes, suicide is a violation of Thomistic natural law, but what does man’s law have to do with this?  The perpetrator is dead, for goodness sakes.  What punishment can be further inflicted?  I am reminded of this scene from the Cadaver Synod (scroll down for the picture). 

He then moves to Rothbard’s views on abortion and on the issue of the parent’s obligation to feed their children.  Here, I agree that Rothbard’s views are in disagreement with natural law.  Contrary to Murray Rothbard, Walter Block and other libertarian thinkers, I have argued that abortion is also in violation of the non-aggression principle (my most thorough examination is here). 

Regarding obligations to children, I also disagree with Rothbard – but here, again, I have made my argument from a libertarian perspective.  (For a complete listing of my thoughts on abortion and children, including addressing challenges, etc., see here).

If Feser left it here, I would have no disagreement with him – nor would I have any reason to include the above passages from Fr. Petri, or to even write this post.  But Feser doesn’t leave it here:

Rothbard advocated the decriminalization of illicit drugs, prostitution, and other so-called victimless crimes, not because he necessarily denied that these things are immoral, but because he thought to criminalize them would violate persons’ self-ownership rights to use, or even misuse, their bodies as they saw fit.

Feser notes that one has no natural right to that which is intrinsically immoral – meaning, that which goes against Thomistic natural law.  Fair enough.  But what to do about it?  He recognizes that virtue “requires a certain amount of freedom from outside interference, since virtue must be freely chosen if it is truly to count as virtue.”  It would be good if Feser left it even at this.

It is precisely these “so-called victimless crimes” where the quotes from Fr. Petri come into play – Aquinas was not advocating laws; he was writing of moral behavior.  Does Feser propose confession, counseling, excommunication, or other means of non-coercive methods of setting such “violators” on the straight and narrow path?  No, not really:

…this would seem to entail that to some significant degree, determining the specific amount of freedom we ought to have from outside interference with our moral choices must be a matter of prudential judgment and contingent circumstances

I can live with this, depending on by who and how such “moral choices” are to be dealt with.  Feser, like too many Christians, takes the easy way out:

…this is bound to entail that it is at least in principle legitimate for government to outlaw actions that are, from the point of view of natural law, intrinsically immoral, such as prostitution, the sale of illicit drugs and pornography, and so forth.

This is the lazy way, a way – sadly – that too many Christians take in order to avoid taking personal and institutional action.  By making such a statement, Feser implies, rather clearly, that the Church (and Christians more broadly) is impotent when it comes to teaching and training proper moral behavior.  It needs the threat of prison in order to perform this function.

Feser tries to soften his stance, offering:

I want to emphasize that none of this is meant by itself to prove that there ought at the end of the day to be laws against every behavior considered vicious from a natural law point of view.  …it is hard to see how anyone whose political philosophy is based on a Catholic conception of natural law could consistently fail to endorse some such laws.

I agree, depending on where one draws the line: is it drawn at abortion, or is it to include personal marijuana use?  Feser again returns to the case of abortion and to Rothbard’s views on children.  And, again, if he left it here, I would have no significant disagreement.  But he did not, again introducing…

…sexual license of every kind, with pornography, drunkenness, drug abuse, and every other kind of vice…

So now, Feser turns to “The state” and Rothbard’s objection to it.  Feser cites the “Tribute” episode (render to Caesar what is Caesar’s) and the well-known Romans 13 passage as evidence of the requirement to obey state authority.

…it is sometimes claimed that Christ and St. Paul didn’t really mean what everyone has always understood them to mean in these passages.

“Everyone” hasn’t always understood these passages to mean such things.  These passages have been greatly debated, and not only by libertarians.  One might consider that Jesus – who answered in a riddle in any case – had bigger fish to fry than to start another Jewish revolt against the Romans; one might also consider that Paul wrote in such a veiled manner to avoid Romain ire – given that this was a letter to Romans!

Gerard Casey offers an examination of this in his book, Freedom's Progress?: A History of Political Thought, and I offer an overview of this here.  He offers, regarding this passage from Romans:

Whereas some English translations use the word “governing” in verse 1, the Greek text does not.  It reads “Let every soul be subject to the superior powers.”

There are too many passages in the Bible that run directly contrary to Feser’s interpretation of Romans and the Tribute passage to list here.  One really should consider the Bible as a whole, and not pick and choose….

Returning to Feser:

Rothbard seems to regard the entire apparatus of state power as nothing more than a set of personal holdings, however ill-gotten, of whatever officials happen to control it at any moment.

They certainly treat it as such.

On the traditional natural law view, the state, being a natural institution…

The state, as we know it, most certainly was not a “natural institution.”  At the time of Aquinas, there was no state.  There was a king and there was a church.  Neither had monopoly power, neither could exercise force unilaterally, without any check on its authority.  The concept of a “state” as we know the term came into being with the Renaissance and Reformation, and took full flower with the Enlightenment.  It was not the form of governance provided during medieval Europe and the time of Aquinas.

To the extent later scholastics wrote favorably of a state, it should be considered that this was during horrendous political (not religious) wars that followed the Reformation, and this context is important.

Even if one were to grant some form of minarchist state to Feser, we are so far removed from this that one should ask: who is closer to right – right here, right now, today, in the real world that we live in – based on Christian natural law morality: Rothbard or Feser?

We are obligated to pay tribute for wars of horrendous aggression, abortion, torture, societal destroying education, culturally destructive behavior, subsidies for the failed businesses of multi-billionaires.  Half the people in prison harmed no one but themselves.  Central banks might be the most dishonest and corrupt institution ever created, yet we are obligated to live under their system.

You want me to pay taxes for police?  They are arresting people for going to the beach.  The courts?  Virtually everyone charged with a federal crime is found guilty – is this even possible in a fair system?

What’s left?  Streets?  Ok, I give.  Limit my taxes to streets, and I can meet Feser halfway.  Everything else? 

The Catholic natural law tradition denies that anyone has such absolute property rights in external resources in the first place; and if we don’t have such rights, they can’t be violated.

What is this sleight of hand by Feser?  I agree that the Catholic tradition does not afford us absolute rights in property.  This does not mean that I have no rights in property.  Yet we live in a society where I have close to no rights in my property.

I am taxed at least 40% on income, probably another 20% in property and sales taxes as well as taxes paid by those from whom I buy goods and services.  The pittance I am left with is subject to more limitations than I care to list. 

Are these the characteristics of the governing authorities to which Paul (supposedly) admonishes us to submit, that Jesus (supposedly) requires from us taxes?  Don’t make me laugh.  God warned the Israelites of taking a king that would demand ten percent – ten percent!  Let’s not ignore this chapter.  God demands honest weights and measures – so what of central banking?  Let’s not ignore this either.

Finally, from the highest earthly authority we have on this matter of supposedly requiring law to do the moral work of the Church (or Christianity, more broadly).  In John 8, we read of the woman caught in adultery, a crime deserving of stoning.  The priests ask Jesus what should be done with this woman.  He replied: “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”  Jesus offered advice and counsel to this woman: “Go now and leave your life of sin.”  No stoning.

There is some dispute as to this portion of John – was it in the earliest manuscripts or wasn’t it?  Well, the Church fathers have left it in; this means something.  More importantly, does it sound contrary to Jesus’s overall teaching on the purpose of the law?  How many times do we read of Jesus saying, “You have heard it said…but I say…” and words to this effect? 

Physical punishment for non-violent actions is immoral.  To the extent Christians are unable to teach proper moral behavior, they need only look in the mirror for blame.  It is the lazy way out to use force in such situations.


So now, go back to Fr. Petri, and forgive the repetition:

For St. Thomas Aquinas, morality – and people often balk at this, but it’s true – does not involve primarily duty or obligation or obedience to the law.  It was only later, beginning in the fifteenth or sixteenth century where Catholic moralists started focusing on law excessively and using Aquinas to excuse themselves – mostly the Jesuits.

For St. Thomas, morality is about two questions: first, what is happiness; secondly, how do I get it.  That’s basically what morality is for St. Thomas.

Morality isn’t about punishment or law.  I will take it from the foundational philosopher of natural law, Thomas Aquinas, and skip any advice from Feser.  Aquinas was writing of morality, not law and punishment. 

This is where the proper function of the non-aggression principle comes into play, in conjunction with a natural law morality.  For this, I turn to Walter Block:

A more sophisticated understanding of libertarianism does not say, with the NAP: “Thou shalt not murder, initiate violence against innocent persons or their legitimate possessions.” Rather, it states, that if you do, you will be punished in accordance with libertarian punishment theory.

The NAP works well as a theory of proper punishment.  It does not work well – and was never meant to work well – as a complete moral framework, one suitable for liberty.  For this, Feser might consider looking to…oh, what’s his name again? 

Oh, yeah…Murray Rothbard.


  1. "Privatized gains and socialized losses" is a standard operating procedure in modern economic life. It easily could also be the mantra spouted as gospel in so many churches today.

    Salvation is seen as intensely personal, but the working out of that as pertains to "loving one's neighbor", especially the downtrodden, usually means to becoming socially active and agitating for one or another government program--all paid for with someone else's tax dollars. With respect to this, it could be said that the SOP of Christianity has become "privatized benefit (salvation), socialized work (gospel)".

    If this is the case, then is it any wonder that we are in the condition we are?

    I have mentioned before that it is a lot easier (and less costly, personally) to point a poor, single mother to Food Stamps and subsidized housing than it is to take her (and her progeny) into one's own comfortable home, bearing both the inconvenience and the cost. What will we do when "compassionate welfare" no longer exists?

    The first chapter of Haggai points directly at this sort of behavior.

    "Is it time for you yourselves to dwell in your paneled houses and this temple to lie in ruins?" (v4)

    In today's terms, this is not a call to drop more money into the offering basket nor to volunteer for a work party one Saturday every year.

    "You have sown much and bring in little;
    You eat, but do not have enough;
    You drink, but you are not filled with drink;
    You clothe yourselves, but no one is warm;
    And he who earns wages, earns wages to put into a bag with holes." (v6)

    Consider that wages are taxed and put into a rotten sack which is leaking out faster than it can be filled.

    "You looked for much, but indeed it came to little; and when you brought it home, I blew it away. Why?" says the LORD of hosts. "Because of My house that is in ruins, while every one of you runs to his own house." (v9)

    Sounds like a spot-on commentary of modern life in general, doesn't it? Then comes the kick in the groin.

    "Therefore, the heavens above you withhold the dew and the earth withholds its fruit." (v10)

    Oh, dear! It appears that some of us will go hungry. Considering that we have put our 'trust' in subsidized agribusiness, some of us might mean a huge number.

    We've got a lot to learn and it seems that the lesson has just started again.

    1. Bionic,

      While I stand by the comment above, I will say that it was not relevant nor appropriate to the discussion you started. Off point, off track, wrong direction.

      My apologies.

    2. Roger, I understand. It is, in any case, a good comment.

  2. Roger, we have to be careful using OT to apply to NT believers. First, the issue at hand in Haggai was not feeding the poor. It was that people had dedicated materials to rebuild the temple. But they started using those dedicated (holy) materials to build their own houses. One of the problems there was that Israel had promised to use the materials for one thing and then didn't. But it was to build a temple for ritual worship, not to house or feed the poor.

    Second, the punishments are a part of the Mosaic covenant. It was a conditional covenant where God promised blessing or cursing depending on whether Israel obeyed or disobeyed Him. The New Covenant initiated by Jesus' death and resurrection is an unconditional covenant. You enter in by faith, but there is no prescription of punishments. There is Godly discipline to make us mature, but not the same thing. Israel was promised material wealth if they obeyed and poverty and death if they didn't. We aren't promised those things in Christ. Thank God for that.

    1. RMB, while the issue nor the system may not be the same, the principle is. Obey God, build the temple (Church), prosper. Don't do those things, suffer.

      Let's shift our focus to mesh with Bionic's current discussion of the differences between churches. We can address the poor later.

      Individual churches within Christendom are constantly attempting to build themselves up, to build their own "ceiled houses", so to speak, where the clergy and members can be at ease and comfortable. While this is not necessarily bad, one negative aspect of it is that they are "stealing" from the Church, replacing unity of the faith with denominational, liturgical, scriptural, and myriad other disputes--all to promote their own house. The Church pays the price and lies in ruins. The fact that state governors can now shutter church doors via 'executive order' shows that in clarity.

      Idol worship of the State and the unwillingness to be socially serviceable and relevant are bad enough, but when individual churches war with each other, claiming that they alone are the true believers, and absolutely refuse to cooperate against the evil in the land, then who am I (or who is anyone) to say that Jesus is NOT going to unload on them. For all I know, the situation we are in might just be the first salvo.

      If stealing physical building materials from the temple construction effort to benefit oneself brought drought and famine in Haggai's day, what will happen today because we steal spiritual building materials from the Church construction effort for the same purpose? If anything, because we know better, the punishment will be greater.

      "Thou shalt not steal" is just as applicable today as it was when it was originally given. Call it Godly discipline if you wish, but my impression is that the religious institution known as the church, especially in America, is going to take a whipping.

      "For the Lord disciplines the one He loves, and He chastises everyone He receives as a son.” -- Hebrews 12:6 (Berean Study Bible)

      "You should know in your heart that as a man chastens his son, to the Lord your God chastens you." -- Deut. 8:5 (NKJV)

      The good news is that Jesus said, "I will build my Church..." This is a promise we can trust, even if it hurts at times.

  3. The chief injunction in Christianity is to seek the Kingdom Of Heaven, aka, the Kingdom of God. As for the Kingdom of Heaven, Jesus said:

    "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God."

    Looked at from a spiritual perspective, there is spiritual richness in worldly poverty, and spiritual poverty in worldly richness.

    Interestingly, "prosperity theology" has flipped that on its head, arguing that exactly the opposite is true, i.e., that prosperity is a sign of God's grace.

    Perhaps, but only if someone has at least tasted some poverty before riches. For some, that confers an immunity from the effect of riches.

    1. "To really feel the joy in life
      You must suffer through the pain"

      Dream Theater

      We find the most meaning in life through suffering. We live in a world - and this corona nonsense is the ultimate example of it - where mankind should be alleviated form all suffering.

      Hence alleviating meaning.

  4. When I start explaining my views and the person starts getting it but not fully commit, my way to end the conversation but keep my friendship is this as well: "What’s left? Streets? Ok, I give. Limit my taxes to streets, and I can meet [you] halfway."