The difficulty of teaching natural law to undergraduates

This post stems from my difficulties in teaching the natural law to undergraduate and graduate students.  One difficulty is the lack of any decent accompanying text (I think mine is an exception, but I’m not writing this to promote my work).  Most texts argue along the following lines:

natural law is not about human nature as it is, but about human nature at its best . . . . . . [60,000 words] . . . . . . And so you see that abortion and homosexuality are against natural law. 

It is as if the point of natural law is to justify the author’s convictions.  An example is Morality and the Human Goods: An Introduction to Natural Law Ethics, by Alfonso Gómez-Lobo, but there are many others. 

I’m not sure how to best approach the natural law, but I’m pretty sure it’s best not to use it to justify an agenda.

Saint Thomas Aquinas

Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) is the founder of natural law.  He said that every human knows that doing good is better than doing evil and that doing good consists of the following:

  • preserve human life and avoid its destruction
  • foster marriage (not necessarily between one man and one woman) and the sound upbringing and education of children
  • preserve and promote community
  • respect private property, but not so much as to impoverish others *

Thomas, as he is known, bases natural law on eternal law, the law of God.  However, the point of natural law, as Thomas recognizes, is that it must be knowable to everyone, even non-believers.  Otherwise, there is no difference between natural law and God’s law.  Natural law is written on the heart, known by humans just by virtue of being human.  Deep down almost every human knows the natural law (psychopaths excepted), even if they don’t know that they know it, even if this knowledge is covered up by ideology and hate.

An application of the natural law is the US Declaration of Independence, which states

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) begins with a similar claim, though without reference to the Creator.  Article 1 states

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

Not only is there no mention of the Creator, but the UN Declaration’s emphasis on brotherhood makes it a little different from the U. S. Declaration of Independence.  Nevertheless, the idea seems to be the same: an assertion of equality and rights without any effort to justify them.  This lack of justification isn’t bad if we believe that the natural law is written on the heart, for then these declarations are just stating what we already know. 

Philosophers and theologians worry about justification  

Michael Perry is a case in point.  The belief that human life is sacred is the only sure foundation for natural law, and sacred makes no sense unless it means based on the Creator.  Or so Perry argues.  Otherwise, there is no way of avoiding Allen Leff’s argument that

There is today no way of “proving” that napalming babies is bad except by asserting it (in a louder and louder voice), or by defining it as so, early in one’s game, and then slipping it through, in a whisper, as a conclusion (quoted in Perry, p. 29)

One way to think about this claim is what do you say to someone who says that napalming children is good if it gets us our way in the world.  The answer isn’t to say that “I believe that human life is sacred,” or even “We believe that human life is sacred.”  The only answer is to say that human life really is sacred, and back it up with statements about the Creator’s intention for human beings.

The trouble with this answer, which is a fine answer, is that someone who thinks napalming babies is ok isn’t likely to be impressed.  Here I think the only answer is not argument but force.   Sometimes civil disobedience will be enough, but often not.

Talking about the natural law: documentaries and books often make the best argument

The best way to talk about natural law, especially to the unconvinced, is to show the suffering of those who are unprotected by natural law, and often by any law at all.  A single documentary about refugees, a single story about the consequences to their families of deporting undocumented workers is likely to be more effective than any formal argument.  A book, a movie, a documentary, even fiction, is often the best argument.  One of the most convincing arguments against slavery was the Uncle Tom’s Cabin, for it revealed the humanity of slaves.  Will Kaufman (2006, p 18) says the 1852 novel “helped lay the groundwork for the Civil War.” 

Today almost any book by Toni Morrison will have the effect of humanizing the most vulnerable and invisible among us.  My favorite is her first, The Bluest Eye, about a poor little African-American girl named Pecola, deprived of everything that people need to thrive, including decent parents.  The miracle of the book, though, is the way it humanizes even the worst among us.  They have stories too.

Why do I call videos, movies and books arguments?  Because that is what they are.  And because there is no argument against the mistreatment of humans that is philosophically compelling. Philosophy doesn’t work like that.  Philosophy doesn’t provide justification.  Philosophy reveals the structure of argument, and the only conclusion is that there is no philosophically self-justifying claim that we should respect that rights and dignity of others. 

The greatest story ever told

I believe that the Bible is a great story by which to convince people to treat others, near and far, with decency, respect, mercy, and love.  The Bible is a story about how we are the created, not the creators.  Humans do not make themselves; we are made by God who cares about the dignity and humanity of every one of us, especially the most vulnerable (Deuteronomy 10:18; Matthew 25:44).  But this argument is not the natural law.  The natural law is intended, from Aquinas on, to appeal to any of us who can think and feel as humans should, and so can read the writing on the heart. 

I believe that most people, the vast majority of people, feel these things, but have trouble applying them beyond their own group.  That is human nature too.  This is why videos, movies, and books about the suffering of people unlike ourselves are often the best argument, for the sentiments they call forth say, in effect, “see, these people are not so different from you.  Don’t they deserve your respect and care too?”  All the academic emphasis on “difference” neglects that about the basics, such as a need for food, clothing, shelter, love, and security we are all the same.

What does natural law say about abortion and homosexuality?

I don’t know what the natural law says about them.  The natural law doesn’t exist to settle arguments about policies, politics, or even ethics.  It doesn’t exist to settle arguments period.  The natural law tells us to care about the suffering, dignity, and humanity of others.  It is up to us to work out the details. 

You might wish that the natural law could do more.  I think we would live in a far better world if the natural law just persuaded more people to act humanely and decently toward others, especially strangers.  That would be enough, and we still have a long way to go. 

* I’ve taken a few liberties with Aquinas’ formulation.


C. Fred Alford, Narrative, Nature, and Natural Law. Palgrave, 2010.

Alfonso Gómez-Lobo, Morality and the Human Goods: An Introduction to Natural Law Ethics.  Georgetown University Press, 2001.    

Will Kaufman, The Civil War in American Culture.  Edinburgh University Press, 2006. 

Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye.  Vintage, 2007. 

Michael Perry, The Idea of Human Rights.  Oxford University Press, 1998. 

Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin.  Wordsworth Edition, 1999. [original 1852]


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