Two stories about the natural law

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.    

The county in which this school board is located is relatively liberal.  Not every school board in the country would have ended up stuck at the beginning, good liberals afraid to assert something they all believed in.  Cultural relativism made cowards of them all.   Whether this is a problem with liberalism itself, or just with ordinary everyday liberals not too thoughtful about their own beliefs, is an important question that can’t be addressed here.*

Well, I quit the committee at that point, but they went on and did some work, and several years later I ran into one of the members in the local supermarket.  I asked what they finally came up with, and the statement they finally agreed on was “Keep your body parts to yourself.”  It wasn’t about sexual abuse.  It was the cowardly, bureaucratic way of saying “don’t hit each other.”

            What I think happened 

People pretty much agree on the precepts of natural law, that is, the principles that should guide our relationships with each other.  A simple example is that it’s not right for kids to hit each other in school.  Trouble is, most people don’t believe they have any basis for their beliefs, certainly not in natural law.  Or if they do, they feel their beliefs are private, religious, personal, and so they have no basis to criticize, or judge others.  This is a loss not of the content of natural law, but a sense of its moral force, especially regarding others.  Many people hold to the content of natural law, but to relativism as a theory of knowledge.

The tragedy of modern man is that he cannot trust in what he already knows, and the more he looks for grounds among intellectuals, the more insecure he is going to become. Indeed, academics are often a hindrance, seeing universals as instruments of repression, teaching students to be critical of everything, but putting nothing in its place. 

Or as Joseph Biden once put it against the possibility that Clarence Thomas believed in natural law.  “Natural law dictates morality to us, instead of leaving matters to individual choice.”  But do we really want to leave morality to individual choice?  About who to have sex with and when?  Maybe.  About whether to kill?  Or rob?  Or rape?  I think not. 

What if someone rejects the Universal Declaration of Human Rights?

We were talking about the foundations of morality in one of my classes, and several students mentioned the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  I figured I had better go take a serious look at it. 

The Declaration was adopted in 1948, shortly after the Second World War, shortly after the Holocaust.  It says what one might expect:

Article 1: 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.

Article 3:  Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.

Article 18: Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.

And it goes on, a total of 30 articles, all about like these.

I found myself in almost complete agreement with the UN Declaration, but then I started wondering.  What if someone simply said

No, some humans are superior to others, some people deserve to be tortured, and freedom of thought and expression are too dangerous to be left to anyone but an elite few?

What would I, what would anyone say to this person?  The UN Declaration offers absolutely no help here.  It asserts these rights, but it offers not a single argument for them, unlike the United States Declaration of Independence, which refers to “the laws of Nature and Nature’s God,” which maintain that “all men are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.”  

Still, even about the U.S. Declaration one wonders what one might say to someone who replies “No they’re not; there’s no Creator and no rights, just power.” 

            The historical context of the UN Universal Declaration

The UN Declaration was not written in a vacuum.  It was written in response to a problem faced by the Allies at the end of WWII.  Almost everything the Germans did was totally legal, according to German law.  The Germans were scrupulous about the law, passing laws to strip Jews of their citizenship, laws to deport them to the death camps, and so forth. 

When it came time for the Allies to put the architects of the Holocaust on trial in 1945 in the city of Nuremberg, there was a problem.  The German defendants said that they were just following German law.  How could they be found guilty for following the law?   

In response, the allies held a series of trials, the prosecution claiming that the allies had the right to find the architects of the Holocaust guilty because even though they were following German law, they should have known better.  Every human being with reason knows that it’s wrong to deliberately murder innocents.

Hermann Goering, one of the chief organizers of the Holocaust, told the court that the trial had been nothing more than an exercise of power by the victors of a war: justice, he said, had nothing to do with it.  

The trial court claimed differently: that about such things as the murder of innocents, there exists a higher law which every normal human being must know.   We may disagree about the details, but every normal human being must know that laws that proclaim the murder of innocents violate the conscience of humankind. 

Though the allies never used the term “natural law,” this was the idea behind the trial: it wasn’t just the victors punishing the vanquished.  The trial recognized that every human being knows, or should know, that certain terrible acts, whether or not they are in accord with human law, are wrong, and not to be committed.


Political Liberalism by John Rawls (Columbia University Press, 2005), is probably the single most important academic work on this question.  For Rawls, the problem isn’t liberalism; it’s that we expect too much from it. 


Jacques Maritain, “On Knowledge through Connaturality,” in The Review of Metaphysics, Vol. 4, No. 4 (Jun., 1951), pp. 473-481.


6 thoughts on “Two stories about the natural law”

  1. That argument that they were following German law is so ludicrous and also evil that I can hardly believe they put it forward
    A dictator could get laws passed to fit his/her desires.Only a higher law could be a justification
    I notice nowadays it is common to change the name of something like torture into a name that doesn’t sound so bad then they can say “torture is illegal in my country” when they know it is a lie. It’s come out recently how much torture was used in Northern Ireland by the British with IRA prisoners.Also as torture does not reveal the truth according to studies I have read, then I could conclude that some people enjoy torturing others ,perhaps saying it is a deterrent.Yet many Britons believe we are superior to the rest of the world.
    All of the Troubles could have been avoided by giving the vote to everyone, not just to people who owned houses.So most Catholics were disenfranchised.The British Civil War had not ended.
    I am glad you wrote about this as I’ve not thought about it for years.

  2. I have looked at some of your references and other books about Natural Law.I feel it is important to know what has been written about it.
    However, to be of any use to ordinary people should there not be a way in which it is obvious without having to study books which are hard even for the educated? Does it depend on our society or is it personal? We must have some idea of it.I heard someone say, well the Germans didn’t know anything about the fate of the Jews.I expect we have defences
    But can there be laws which are obvious like it is evil to murder people or steal their possessions ? Now Christiany is disappearing here there must be other ways we could know about ethics

  3. People don’t need to study the natural law to know it. Academics try to explain it, even theological ones. But I know several ordinary people who live lives of great morality, giving to the poor, volunteering in soup kitchens, and otherwise helping the community. They follow the natural law, even if they’ve never read a book about it. Think about the best and most decent people you know. Do you think they got that way by studying natural law?

  4. No, but that was what I was trying to say.I suppose the name natural implies that.But would it be of no use to read a simple book about it ?I doubt if there are any
    The best people I’ve met tend to be poorer people.They work for low wagesMy grandfather was a coal miner for 50 years.He was an admirable man; he brought up 6 children alone.He never complained as long as he had his pipe and his dog and his family.And his TV when they arrived.He was very quiet.A day trip to Blackpool was his holiday.He seemed contented.

  5. If “keep your body parts to yourself” is the best message that a committee of educated liberals can come up with, it’s not surprising that we have failed to halt the white supremacist state in which we now live. That phrase is no defense against such clever messaging like renaming neo-Nazis “Alt Right.” Until educated liberals stand up for what we know we will be outsmarted by highly disciplined people who believe that they have the right to ignore natural law. Your blog entry seems very relevant to the crisis we face in this country today.

  6. Yes, I think it is relevant, and I’m surprised that I didn’t think about its political relevance when I wrote it. Readers make the writer. Fred

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