Two stories about the natural law.
This post consists of two stories about the natural law. The first is about an experience of mine, the second is a thought experiment. What connects them is my belief that most of us assume the natural law exists; we just don’t know we know it. A previous post on Thomas Aquinas, deals with the foundations of the natural law. This post is more about practice than theory.
The county school board ethics committee, or “keep your body parts to yourself”
A number of years ago, I was invited to serve on the ethics curriculum advisory panel of a local county school board. The goal was to develop an ethics curriculum for the lower grades. Our advisory panel had representatives of all the good people in the community: ministers, rabbis, a couple of concerned parents, a couple of concerned teachers, and me, a university professor of ancient Greek ethics. What should an ideal ethics curriculum teach?
We never got anywhere. We got stuck at the very beginning. Should we teach students that they shouldn’t hit each other?
“How can we teach that?” said one committee member, echoing several more. “Some cultures value the physical expression of difference, and who are we to say otherwise?”
That’s where we got stuck, at the very beginning. The odd thing about this committee was that nobody thought that students should hit each other, and nobody knew of any culture anywhere that valued students hitting each other. It was just the very possibility that some culture somewhere valued “the physical expression of difference” that caused the committee members to lose confidence in their own beliefs. Continue reading Two stories about the natural law
Does natural law exist? What is it?
Natural law isn’t something talked about very much these days, except in Catholic theology, which has kept the teaching alive. In this post I write about Saint Thomas Aquinas, the founder of modern natural law theory. By the way, Aquinas is often just called Thomas, so when I refer to Thomas I’m not being overly familiar.
Not only is natural law not talked about these days, but it runs against the cultural current of the age: that you can’t judge other people’s values. You can’t judge because, for many people, no culture is intrinsically better than another. The same goes for values. I taught natural law to undergraduates for several years, and I’m sure this affects my view of the cultural current. The post that reflects on my teaching experience is on this site.
Natural law doesn’t accept this relativity. Some things are good for all people, and other things are bad for all people. Not just good or bad just for others, but for yourself.
Continue reading Does natural law exist? What is it?
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.
Continue reading The difficulty of teaching natural law to undergraduates