I have been enjoying a series of videos by Dr. J. Budziszewski on the natural law. He teaches on this subject at the University of Texas, Austin. How he gets away with this I have no idea. The following comments are based on his presentation at the Franciscan University of Steubenville, Natural Law and the American Founding: Were the Founders Confused? However, any of his talks on the subject shed valuable insight.
First, something which many seem to be confused about: Natural law is not the same as the laws of nature:
“That’s like Mowgli.” The law of the jungle, or the survival of the fittest, or maybe something like gravity.
I was listening to a podcast where it was said that Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount had nothing to do with natural law, and doesn’t sound like natural law at all. I almost fell over. As the speaker went on, it was clear that he was mixing up the laws of nature (as commonly understood) with natural law.
It is a terrible confusion. That sermon might be the best exposition of the purpose of man, man’s telos – an understanding of which is foundational to developing natural law ethics.
Returning to Budziszewski (look, it’s either repeating his last name or referring to him as Dr. J – which really would be rather confusing), there is a further confusion by the more sophisticated:
At most, and if they have taken some political philosophy, they might think it has something to do with the social contract.
Which is what we are often told. We live under a social contract. The American founders were dealing with a thinned idea of the natural law – thinned by thinkers in the Enlightenment. Sure, they said they believed in the idea of natural law, but they discarded or denied some of the most important ideas behind it. Budziszewski will expand on this later in this talk.
Understanding this thinning is important for at least a couple of reasons: fully understanding and realizing natural law requires Christ and God; second, there was a confusion in the founders between natural law and natural rights.
They would talk about natural law, but they said much more about natural rights. This focus on “rights-talk” disconnected from natural law ultimately resulted in a world where one’s subjective will determining one’s rights. Why is that? Budziszewski doesn’t expand on this, but it seems clear that absent something outside and above man describing and determining man’s purpose, man is free to create his own. When thus freed, well, you get today’s societal mess (see Carl Trueman).
Returning to Budziszewski:
What is the natural law? The foundational principles of right and wrong that are built into how we are made that are both right for everyone and, at some level, known to everyone.
How is it know to everyone, at least at some level? I have previously offered the possibility that it was when Adam and Eve ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil when man was made aware of the natural law.
Genesis 3: 5 For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
They took the fruit before they were ready, so God sent them out.
What’s in the natural law? Its content is well summarized by the Decalogue.
God later gave the Ten Commandments, because man had forgotten the natural law. This describes man’s proper relationship to God and man’s proper relationship to his fellow man. It describes man’s expected ethical behavior. And it is an ethic, not law as we understand that term today.