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.
How is the natural law…law? It has the qualities of all authentic law: every genuine law is an ordinance of reason for the common good made by competent authority and promulgated or made known.
This describes why it is labeled “law.” It is law, but the punishments for many of the non-violent violations need not be enacted by a court and result in prison. As Aquinas has offered, the only areas where such civil action should be taken is against aggression of life and property:
Now human law is framed for a number of human beings, the majority of whom are not perfect in virtue. Wherefore human laws do not forbid all vices, from which the virtuous abstain, but only the more grievous vices, from which it is possible for the majority to abstain; and chiefly those that are to the hurt of others, without the prohibition of which human society could not be maintained: thus human law prohibits murder, theft and such like. (Emphasis added)
But has it been promulgated, or made known? Yes, per Adam and Eve and the tree. Also, the apostle Paul notes:
Romans 2: 15 They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them
Returning to Budziszewski:
How is the natural law…natural? The testimonies to this fundamental right and wrong are woven into how we are made. There are four natural pointers to what is right and wrong:
· Deep conscience. There are certain basic moral truths that we can’t not know.
· Our shared designed-ness. We experience ourselves as a meaningful living order. The recognition points us to a designer, that we have duties to Him just as we have to each other as well.
· The details of our design. The features of our design. Everything in us is for something, means something.
· Actions have natural consequences. The witness of last resort, the one that kicks in when all the others have been ignored.
As to the natural consequences, not all are immediate, some not even in one lifetime. But the consequences are evident. We are living in a time of these evident consequences.
The hallmark of the classical natural law and the classical authors is that all four of these are woven together. But the early modern theories (including those leaned on by the American founders) didn’t do this – they were thinned, flattened. Some were ignored, some were changed.
For example, we are told that we cannot understand the purpose of things. God designed this; you would have to read God’s mind to know the true purpose. One could not deduce the purpose from the thing. But this just isn’t so. We see in Scripture our purpose (one reason that without Christ and God, those in search of natural law will fall short). We see in our biology, physiology, and anatomy our purpose. We see in our reason our purpose.
Thomas Hobbes threw out three of the four witnesses, only keeping the witness of natural consequences – and this, only the consequence of violent death. John Locke, whom Jefferson and others of the time leaned on, was thicker than Hobbes but thinner than the classical tradition.
The American founders mixed and didn’t differentiate the classical thinkers from the early modern thin ones – thereby demonstrating that they didn’t fully understand natural law.
Locke attempted to connect natural rights to natural duties, but he made the connection in such a weak way that most people don’t even notice this. For the classical thinkers, rights are what make it possible for us to fulfill our duties. Think about that sentence. We have rights in order to do our duty. Today, we see rights as the means by which we can neglect our duties.
Leaving us in a time and place where everything is permitted – at least everything that is a violation of natural law:
Any king who tells you “Everything is permitted,” will then follow with, “but I get to tell you what ‘everything’ includes.”
This reminds me of a talk given by Tim Cook to the ADL, where he was clear that everything is included, but if you disagree you will be the one excluded.
In other words, as wide a liberty as the king allows, which is what makes this liberty thin. And this is exactly the space in which we live today. Our liberty is very wide but not at all deep. It is a surface liberty, not conducive to a life of meaning, not conducive toward liberty.
Violating natural law leads us here – living meaningless lives while bathing in a shallow liberty. Restoring the natural law ethic offers the solution to both the meaning crisis and our loss of liberty.
In a different talk, Budziszewski is asked why so many Protestants cringe at the words ‘natural law.’ He replies that one reason is that they claim that they don’t see it in Scripture. I have heard such a charge before, and have written a post outlining natural law solely using Scripture in the arguments and deduction: Natural Law, Sola Scriptura.