Natural Law And Secular Enlightenment Morality

Why do natural law arguments fail these days? Is there such a thing as the natural law? How should we view it/talk about it?

Over at The American Conservative, ever the best right-wing journal today, that’s the discussion that smart people have been having. While Rod Dreher and TAS Alum Alan Jacobs wonder about the failure of such arguments, TAS Alum Noah Millman, ever the sharp intellect, dissects the idea of the natural law. It’s a post very, very much worth reading, and a quote won’t give the flavor of the thing.

Noah’s analysis really gets at why it’s hard to talk about the natural law and why it’s a concept that doesn’t work.

But I want to jump off and point out something different, which is that these days the natural law is always discussed within the context of religion, but while it is a concept that is very much born of religion—one of the Catholic Church’s many great contributions to human thought and advancement—it is not a religious concept, and what’s more, it’s much more useful as a secular concept.

To violently compress about a thousand years’ worth of history of ideas, the Church invented the concept of the natural law as a way to “secularize” its theological edicts. To use a terribly modern metaphor, the natural law is an “interface” between metaphysics and morality and law. Why should you not kill your brother? Not just because the Bible tells me so, but also because it is contrary to our human nature which we can understand through the exercise of reason, etc. As Noah points out, there is always a bit of a two-step involved here: at the end of the day, how do we know that something is part of our nature and that this is important? Well, because God made things that way.

“God made our nature thus, therefore the natural law says X, therefore secular law should say X to conform to natural law” can be reduced to “God made us thus, therefore secular law should say X to conform to God’s design” without loss of meaning, like an equation with “+ 5” on both sides of the = sign. That’s not a problem with arguments from metaphysics—which will always happen because we’ll always have metaphysical beliefs—that’s a bug with the natural law.

So far so good.

But here’s the problem: secular Enlightenment morality is also based on the natural law.

The idea of universal human rights was the greatest moral revolution in history since the Sermon on the Mount, and it has given us phenomenal, unimaginable moral progress, from reductions in cruelty to modern governance to unimaginable prosperity. Universal human rights are pretty important.

But of course, as any freshman philosophy student can tell, the problem comes when you try to ground those universal human rights. Where do they come from? Who confers them? Why should they be respected?

There’s basically only two ways to do so, one theistic and one non-theistic. Universal human rights are perfectly grounded if they come from God, as the Declaration of Independence asserts and as I believe in my heart of hearts. But not everybody likes that, and it sort of defeats the purpose of creating this secular moral system to begin with.

The only other way that I’m aware of to ground the idea of universal human rights is in, wait for it, the natural law. Without appealing to God, the only way to ground the idea of universal human rights is if there is such a thing as human nature, which is shared by human beings, because they are human beings, and which includes the endowment of rights. This is the classic formulation of secular Enlightenment morality. Because human beings are beings “of a rational nature”, they have rights, the Enlightenment tells us—the key word here being nature. The insane still have human rights, the Enlightenment tells us, because even though they may not individually be rational, they share human nature, which itself is rational, and thereby endowed of rights.

This seems absolutely crucial to me. No human nature, no natural law, no human rights, no secular Enlightenment morality (as we have thus far been able to understand these things).

We’ve been talking about how if society decides to reject the natural law, it poses a problem for religious people, because it closes off an avenue of argument. But if society decides to reject the natural law, it poses a much, much more serious problem for the secular Enlightenment project, because the whole thing collapses.

At the risk of sounding tautological, the doctrine of universal human rights only works if human rights are universal. And human rights are only universal (and human) if you don’t have to earn them somehow, but instead are granted them simply for being a human. And if simply being a human confers rights, it must be because there is something about being a human that confers rights (yes, again, a tautology), which is to say, there is such a thing as a human nature that all humans share.

And to continue stating the obvious, universal human rights matter so much, because if you slice off one part of humanity as possessing no rights, not only is that intrinsically immoral, but pretty soon no one at all has rights. Universal human rights is the best (only?) bulwark we have against all of the worst horrors that humanity conjures, and they only work because they’re universal.

So, to circle back to the beginning of this post, if the natural law is rejected, it’s a problem for religious argument, but it’s an eminently surmountable problem. I don’t need the natural law to know, or express, how God feels about theft. For secular morality, however, it’s a fatal problem.

As a Catholic, the decline of the natural law leaves me almost indifferent. As a fan of and believer in secular Enlightenment morality, it leaves me very, very, very concerned.