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Natural law still applies

Charles Rice | Tuesday, April 24, 2007

How do we decide whether we are doing right or wrong? Jack Bauer and the “24” counterterrorism unit might say the test is utility, a point that might be disputed by their torturees. Others might ask whether the act makes you feel good.

There is a better way. Through the natural law, we can know the right and wrong of our own actions and we can set moral limits to the power of the state.

Everything has a law of its nature, built into it by its maker. A rock will sink. And your Chevy will run if you put gasoline, but not sand, in the tank. When we talk about the natural law, we mean the law inscribed in the nature of human beings by their Maker. The natural law is not a Christian invention. Aristotle and Cicero, the Roman statesman, affirmed it. Saint Thomas Aquinas, however, provided the most comprehensive exposition of it.

The natural law is a rule of reason by which man (of both sexes) can know how he should act in order to achieve his final end of eternal happiness with God. The “first and general principle” of that law, as Pope Benedict XVI recently put it, is “to do good and to avoid evil.” The good is that which is in accord with the nature of the thing we are talking about. It is good to feed your Chevy gasoline.

As for man, Aquinas said, “all those things to which man has a natural inclination are naturally apprehended by reason as being good.” From those inclinations we reason to conclusions. From the inclination to preserve oneself, we reason that it is good to eat a balanced diet and not to gorge on Big Macs. We know that theft is wrong because it is inconsistent with the inclination to live in community. From the inclination to unite sexually and raise our offspring, we conclude that sex should be reserved for marriage and marriage should be permanent. And so on. We make these judgments through our conscience, a faculty of our intellect. “Moral truth is objective,” said Pope John Paul II, “and a properly formed conscience can perceive it.” However, to declare that theft, etc., is objectively wrong is not to judge the subjective culpability of the person who does it. To be morally culpable, one must know it is wrong and yet choose to do it. We generally have neither the right nor the capacity to judge the subjective culpability of anyone.

But whose natural law are you going to apply? Supreme Court Justice James Iredell, in 1798, rejected natural law because “the ideas of natural justice are regulated by no fixed standard: the ablest and the purest men have differed upon the subject.”

People may sincerely disagree, as they have on slavery, abortion, etc. But they can’t both be right. “If … we consider one action in the moral order,” said Aquinas, “it is impossible for it to be both good and evil.”

Our intellects are weakened by original sin. But the Lawgiver of the natural law came to the rescue of wounded human nature by giving us the Commandments, which are specifications of that law, so we would have sure guidance. And Christ, who is God and the Lawgiver, founded one Church, headed by his Vicar who is the authoritative interpreter of the natural law and the Commandments. The Magisterium, or teaching authority, of the Church is possessed by the Pope and the bishops in union with him. “Christians,” said John Paul II, “have a great help for the formation of conscience in the Church and her Magisterium. … The Church puts herself … at the service of conscience… helping it not to swerve from the truth about the good of man.”

Everyone has a pope, a visible authority on moral questions. If it is not the real Pope, it will be a pope of the individual’s own choosing – whether Bill Clinton, Sean Hannity or the individual himself. It makes sense that we have one Pope rather than seven billion, which would involve the natural law and its Lawgiver in a chaos of contradictions.

The natural law is a standard for human law as well as for personal conduct. Martin Luther King echoed Aquinas when he said that “an unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law.” As Aquinas put it, if a human law “deflects from the law of nature,” it is unjust and “is no longer a law but a perversion of law.” Rosa Parks affirmed the natural law when she refused to give up her seat on the bus in Montgomery in 1955. A law mandating racial segregation is unjust and void. Aquinas said that we may be obliged to obey an unjust law “to avoid scandal or disturbance,” but that a law that is unjust because it would compel one to violate the divine law must never be obeyed.

The alternative to natural law is some form of legal positivism, which is based on the idea, as Hans Kelsen put it, that “justice is an irrational ideal.” If we cannot affirm any knowable, objective norms of justice, we cannot define any moral limits to what the state can do. “[I]f there is no ultimate truth to guide and direct political activity,” said John Paul, “then ideas and convictions can easily be manipulated for reasons of power.” We all know that by experience.

The natural law has not been repealed. Think about it. Even Jack Bauer might find it of interest.

Prof. Emeritus Rice is on the Law School faculty. He can be reached at (574) 633-4415 or at rice.1@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.