Natural Law

By Reno, R. R. | First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life, June/July 2013 | Go to article overview

Natural Law


Reno, R. R., First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life


Can we persuade our fellow citizens with natural law reasoning? David Bentley Hart thinks not. Three issues ago, and then again in the last issue, he's devoted "The Back Page" to persuading us that most modern men and women, even the faithful among us, find it hard to think of nature as morally purposeful, and therefore won't be persuaded by arguments that draw upon a robust notion of what things are for. On the contrary, dominant accounts emphasize an evolutionary story of random genetic mutation that feeds into an endless struggle for survival. This intellectual formation works against the metaphysical foundations of natural law reasoning, and therefore most people find the arguments remote and unconvincing-"academic" in the bad sense of being about something other than the real world we live in.

Hart is surely right. Many people, perhaps most today, can't even see natural law arguments as arguments. Consider marriage. We see it as an institution that serves and promotes the procreative and unitive purposes of male-female sexual complementarity, and we make arguments to that effect. They have little purchase. When Judge Vaughn Walker voided Proposition 8, which restricted marriage in California to a man and a woman, he said in so many words that such a view was based on an irrational prejudice against homosexuals that could find support only in sectarian religious ideologies.

Sad, but not all that surprising. In the preface to his On the Ten Commandments, Thomas Aquinas observes that, in Scripture, God often restates the conclusions of natural law reasoning. He does so because our perceptions of reality are disordered by sin and therefore we often can't know with any confidence what we are able, in theory, to deduce by way of rational analysis. John Henry Newman thought that our powers of formal argument-"strict reason," as he called it-have a limited range. Reliable reasoning, especially about moral truths, requires the right prejudices as well as sound syllogisms. Thus Hart's basic insight: Today we're habituated into a set of metaphysical assumptions that prejudice us against natural law reasoning.

All that said, we shouldn't give up on natural law. It can make a number of important contributions to our moral, civic, and religious lives.

In the first place, natural law reasoning often functions like a sharp slap. The core argument of Humanae Vitae, Paul VI's encyclical on contraception, involves an appeal to the procreative purpose of the sexual act. Many are shocked by this argument when they first read the encyclical. I certainly was when I read it thirty years ago. The moral meaning of sex is found in its biological consequences? It didn't change my mind then, but it stopped me in my tracks and disabused me of the idea that my then conventionally modern views couldn't possibly be false. …

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