By using my cat as an example Wednesday, I explained in a silly way how we cannot derive natural law from lesser beings that do not possess the imago Dei. Today I’m going to explain what natural law is and how its applied in different societies.
Defining Natural Law
In general terms, natural law states that God has inscribed His moral law on the heart of every person. This is shown in Romans 1 & 2. A more direct definition from Francis Turretin states that natural law is a “divine obligation impressed upon the conscience of man, on which the difference between right and wrong is founded and which contains practical principles of immovable truth.”
John Owen defined it as “a law given unto our nature, as a rule and measure unto our moral actions… This law, therefore, is that rule which God hath given unto human nature, in all the individual partakers of it, for all its moral actions, in the state and condition wherein it was by him created and placed, with respect unto his own government of it and judgement concerning it.”
What we see in these definitions is that natural law is itself a part of the imago Dei. We bear the image of God in our soul. It’s what gives us the capacity to reason, create, and know right from wrong. Aquinas can be helpful here in connecting natural law with the imago Dei because for him, the moral law is founded in the nature of God.
Aristotle understood that there are two sets of laws that govern humankind. In Rhetoric, he argues that aside from “particular” laws that each person or government sets up, there is a “higher law” or a “general law” which he defined as “according to nature.” Here, I take Aristotle to mean that this “higher law” is imprinted on human conscience. According to Aristotle, without this “higher law,” there would be no basis for a common ethic to hold societies together. He also makes it clear that natural law exists outside of the contractual agreement between a government and its people.
Variations in Cultures
Each of these three thinkers, among many others, posit that the moral law is implanted in the consciousness of all men. In all societies there are certain moral precepts that are common to all even though the civil laws governing the precepts vary according to society and the times in which they live. For example, the prohibition against murder is clear among all societies, yet there are variations of what is considered murder and what is considered a justified killing, whether it be self-defense, war, civil punishments, etc.
Aristotle suggests that though there are variations across cultures, there are also common fundamental sets of ethics across all societies. “Insofar as law is not ‘by nature’ but is merely human enactment, it is not the same everywhere. It is not even the case with regard to constitutions that they are everywhere the same, though there is only one constitution which is—by nature—everywhere the best.” Aristotle differentiates between laws enacted by humans and natural law by arguing the law that is by nature is best.
Rational people understand the basic principle of a right to life, even though cultures make certain exception to this ethical value. According to Philip A. Pecorino’s Introduction to Philosophy, even though there are variations within cultures, this does not mean there are no fundamental set of ethical principles common to all, which is similar to Aristotle’s point regarding “particular laws” made by humans and “higher laws,” which is by nature. Since all societies agree with the basic principle that killing is wrong, the difference is not in normative ethical relativity, but in how each society makes justifications for violating these principles, like murdering sick or lame infants in some ancient societies.
Suppressing Natural Law
This idea of knowing things to be intrinsically true while suppressing the conscience is not only found in Aristotle’s works on rhetoric and ethics, but in several other philosophers’ and other thinkers’ works as well. John Calvin taught that sin affects human reason and that while we have a natural law imprinted on our conscience, this suppression allows justification for acts deemed to be immoral. According to Augustine of Hippo, humans can choose many different options of sins or vices, but because of the corruption of the will, we are unable to choose the highest good.
Aristotle grounded virtues in human nature and taught that vices “take over” the soul and suppress other aspects of the soul, such as reason, emotions, and will. If a person believing in the intrinsic value of human life and that taking care of one’s health were an extension of that belief, then it would be a moral good to exercise and eat healthy foods. However, vices such as laziness, gluttony, and a taste for greasy cheeseburgers and brownies suppress the innate desire to value one’s health.
While Aristotle noted that the “higher law” is superior to “particular laws,” the need for “particular laws” outlined by societies and governments is valid and necessary to uphold the good and restrain evil that comes from justifications and the suppression of the moral law on our conscience.
Starting next week, I will decrease my blogging to two times a week.