Catholic Culture Overview
Catholic Culture Overview

The Natural Law

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Jun 23, 2011 | In Reviews

In discussing human dignity, I’ve had occasion to refer to “what we can’t not know.” The discussion has brought us to the doorstep of the supernatural, most of which we really cannot know unless God chooses to reveal it to us. But before we pass through that door, it makes sense to consider a little more thoroughly the wide range of things which, naturally speaking, we can and do know and, in fact, cannot really fail to know without guilt.

It takes either unbridled passion (call it selfish interest, if you like) or a powerful ideology to overcome each person’s normal and habitual understanding of these realities. The burden of my last installment was that we are all so constituted as to perceive and seek meaning. We naturally see things whole (as specialized empirical investigations do not) and so we perceive a good deal of meaning in ourselves and in nature generally. Though the phrase is hard on modern ears, the moral meaning of our design is traditionally referred to as “natural law”.

One of the clarifying points in a brilliant new book on natural law from Ignatius Press is that we do not come to know the natural law by being taught it by others. The book is J. Budziszewski’s What We Can’t Not Know; it is a revised and expanded edition in 2011 of a work first published in 2003. The author rightly insists that the natural law is not impressed on us by others, or by this or that interest group. Rather, it is something we recognize instinctively, like the concept of “fairness”. Moreover, it is something which people always refer to even when they are trying to deny it, as when they try to justify their deviation from one part of the natural law by appealing to something else in the natural law that their contemporaries more easily recognize.

Indeed, recognition is the key. While we all respond to the most basic principles of natural law as first principles that do not need to be proved, we don’t always formally recognize that we know these principles, nor can we always elaborate their subsidiary principles accurately. In this sense, good teachers—and especially those who mine the hard-won and enduring insights of previous generations as carried forward by tradition—can draw out of us a fuller recognition of the natural law, even though they are not properly speaking teaching it to us in the form of an argument or even a bald assertion.

J. Budziszewski, a recent convert to Catholicism from an Evangelical background, a professor of government and philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin, and a frequent contributor to First Things, has a particularly keen ability to help us recognize the natural law, and to elucidate both how we know it and how we may gain additional moral knowledge by reasoning from its deepest principles. In casting about for the simplest and most familiar summary of the natural law, he finds that the Ten Commandments given by God to the Jews cover all the basic points, though they have also been summarized in other traditions. To take an example:

Honor your father and your mother…. [P]arents are God’s delegated representatives to their children. To dishonor their authority dishonors the One who appoints them. In the Biblical injunction they are appointed expressly, by words. According to the natural law tradition, they are also appointed tacitly, by the inclination to procreation and care of family which the Creator has imparted to us. Scholars of the family have slowly, against great ideological pressure, been rediscovering this feature of our design.

Here is another:

Neither shall you steal. As the Fourth Commandment presupposes the institution of the family and the Sixth Commandment presupposes the institution of marriage, so the Seventh Commandment presupposes the institution of personal property. The point of the Commandment is that no one shall take from another what belongs to him against his reasonable will. Natural law tradition has claimed that this precept too is universally known…. [A]ll recognize such a thing as personal property, all recognize that theft is wrong—and socialists do not like having their pockets picked any better than capitalists do.

Budziszewski explains that there are four natural sources of moral knowledge, which he calls the “witnesses” to the natural law. The first is deep conscience or synderesis. As opposed to surface conscience (conscientia), which can make many mistakes and vary from person to person, “deep conscience cannot be erased, cannot be mistaken, and is the same in every human being. The only way to tamper with it is self-deception—telling myself that I don’t know what I really do.” Thus the knowledge of basic goods and basic moral rules is found in deep conscience.

The second is the witness of design generally. Deep conscience presupposes (rightly) that we know things about the moral order because the natural order is designed that way and we are able to perceive its structure and meaning. Thus, for example, we know that it is wrong to “bear false witness”—that is, to lie in order to obtain an injustice—because of the very design of the natural order. We don’t argue it from prior principles. For this very reason, St. Paul condemns the pagans for deliberately rejecting the knowledge of God and right living that came to them through the natural world itself, something which they can’t not know.

The third is the witness of our own design. We all recognize several key principles in our own design: Complementarity with respect to male and female; Spontaneous Order (we are designed so well that we can organize ourselves in various communitarian ways without outside intervention); and Subsidiarity, or the rightness of protecting and enhancing the fullest possible participation in our own affairs. Ideologies may conflict with these recognitions, but when any one of us is personally stymied with regard to these aspects of our own design, we know it is wrong.

The fourth witness is natural consequences. The point here is that when we deviate from the natural law, in the long run bad things happen. Our perception of these consequences is common, though not guaranteed. Budziszewski explains this witness quite well, with excellent examples.

The book includes a delightful section answering objections, and devotes several chapters to explaining how our present culture has come to drift so far from natural law principles, as well as what approaches are most likely to work in reversing this trend. For my purposes here, however, the great value of the work is in providing something which goes far beyond the scope of these essays—an incomparably articulate and even entertaining account of the broad range of moral truths we can’t not know. Our dignity as human persons, insofar as we can understand it without a special revelation, consists in recognizing, wrestling with, and ultimately living by these truths.

Previous in series: Meaning is the Key
Next in Series: Looking for Revelation

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: gshanley8181 - Jun. 25, 2011 1:14 PM ET USA

    I think that the issue of authoritative teaching and obedience must necessarily be the primary means of disclosing the Natural Law to the person.Deep conscience needs intellectual formation so that we can first know and thereby choose rightly. I believe the great error of Vatican II was the profound muddling of this issue. The unassisted intellect may stumble upon the truth in the dark, but how much better for the Roman Catholic Church to present it with full certainty and clarity.