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Traditional conservatives and others committed to the principles of limited government have nothing to fear from natural law-based accounts of the political common good. In fact, natural law accounts offer the strongest principled basis for defending liberty and limited government by showing how such values are themselves core aspects of the common good.
About a decade and a half ago, a groundbreaking study reinvigorated Protestant moral thought. It is time for an appreciation and renewed application of these eternal truths.
A functioning constitutionalism that protects the people’s rights and fosters good governance requires a sound political theory behind it. Times have changed since the American Founding, but Thomas is right that the natural law teaching in the Founders’ political theory remains as sound and useful as ever.
John Rawls cannot get to the most fundamental issues of political philosophy because that would entail a comprehensive theory, which is too divisive, in his own view, to serve as the basis for a public philosophy.
One way of understanding the social Darwinists’ enterprise is to view it as an attempt to reintegrate science and philosophy, which had been torn asunder by modernity. While they seek this reintegration, they do so on uniquely modern terms: Philosophy is reduced to empirical, naturalistic science, that is, to the process, without the ends, or essences, or highest things. Their notion is that we can reduce human sciences, including politics, to relatively simple principles. This is contrary to the Aristotelian or ancient view, which held that politics is much harder than physics precisely because one must take into account unpredictable behavior, as well as choice-worthy purposive behavior toward complex ends—rather than more predictable motions and processes toward simple ends.
It was on the foundation of St. Augustine’s natural law theory, then, that Martin Luther King, Jr. discovered the grounds of civil disobedience: “A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of Harmony with the moral law.” Nor did he stop there. He invoked Aquinas, Martin Buber, Socrates, Tillich, and Niebuhr (among other authorities) to establish that the claim he defended was not a parochial claim merely derived from majority rule. To defend civil rights for black people meant to prove that “segregation is not only politically, economically and sociologically unsound, it is morally wrong and sinful.”
In order to understand the role of natural law in the American founding, it is helpful to examine the early state constitutions that preceded the US Constitution. Not only did many of them explicitly recognize natural rights as pre-political rights to which all individuals are entitled, they also proclaimed all political power to be inherent in the people, governments to be legitimate only insofar as they secure these rights and are grounded in popular authority, and, therefore, that the people have an inalienable right to reform or abolish such governments that fail or cease to serve these ends.
To those who wrote and signed the Declaration of Independence, political liberty and natural law went together: Nature summons man, individually and collectively, to self-government and guides him in the exercise of his power of choice.
Natural law thinking profoundly shaped the way American and British leaders approached issues involving rights, sovereignty, and constitutional government. However, the imperial authorities and their colonial opponents often appealed to different, and even conflicting, strains of the natural law tradition.
However deeply entrenched the natural law’s neglect or opposition is among today’s Protestants, it cannot be attributed to the magisterial Reformers of the sixteenth century. Although it is decidedly true that they championed a particular understanding of grace and faith that took issue with their Roman Catholic counterparts, this was not to the exclusion of other vehicles of divine agency. Rather, they assumed the natural law as a part of the fabric of the created order and therein maintained continuity with those across the Reformation divide.
Law, of its various sorts, has a role to play in humans’ full realization of their nature by free acts. What role? To ask this question is to seek to grasp Thomas’s natural law teaching in the context of his overall metaphysical cosmology.
All this week Public Discourse will be republishing select essays from "Natural Law, Natural Rights, and American Constitutionalism," a project of the Witherspoon Institute that was made possible by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities as part of its "We the People" initiative. At a time when we have called our traditions and history into question, we provide a primer into the history of our people and our ways of properly understanding freedom and the liberal order.
Hobbes’ thin conception of natural law cannot sustain all the activities of a fully flourishing community, but it does appeal to those who live in fear of losing their basic security. Many people are possessed by that fear today, as many were in Hobbes’ time. But we have much to lose if the Hobbesian view of law prevails.
Even according to Protestant traditions with the gravest views of sin, fallen human beings do not get everything wrong when thinking about morality. Since Scripture itself affirms that the created order reveals God’s moral law, Christians should not turn their backs on natural law for the sake of promoting biblical teaching.
“Old natural law theory” begins with the natural end of our sexual faculties and derives ethical principles from there. But this approach has to rely implicitly on prior value judgments in order to distinguish between biological facts that are axiologically or morally relevant and those that are not. The second in a two-part series.
“New” natural law theorists and “old” natural law theorists both see human flourishing as the proper end of all ethics, including sexual ethics. Yet they disagree about how human nature informs practical reasoning. This first in a two-part series.
Only natural law stands “between gods and men.” It employs human reason and observation, yet it admits of a divine creator behind nature—and therefore something inherently normative about naturally given ends. Without this intermediary, neither conflicts between divine law and human law nor conflicts between different religions can end in anything other than continuous conflict.
David Novak is the only prominent Jewish natural law thinker in the world today. His work will be essential for that part of the Orthodox Jewish community that wishes to engage with our changing culture. In particular, for a defense of Orthodox Judaism in the modern world, it matters immensely that we understand the Jewish view of sex and sexuality to be a matter of mishpat, in the rational realm, the realm of natural law.
When the champions of human rights promote rights that are not grounded in natural law, they undermine their credibility to speak for all human beings. Those who understand the truth about human rights—as every rational person has the capacity to do—will cease to trust the human rights community.
Abraham Kuyper’s teachings help us to rightly value the created order. They also help us understand the ways in which the “common grace” of God preserves the social order through the state, the family, and the dignity of individual work.
We might call Neil Gorsuch a natural law originalist: a jurist who believes that the content, motivation, form, and impact of the Constitution that he’s called upon to uphold and of the laws he must fairly interpret are—for the most part—sound expressions of the account of human good and human dignity to which he subscribes.
Reason operating without error judges that no human being should ever intend the death of another human being for any reason whatsoever. No achievable good can justify such a choice. And that is the foundation for the case against the death penalty.
Aquinas taught the principle that a punishment ought to be proportionate to the offense, where death is a proportionate punishment for the gravest crimes.
Let us hope that, in his answers and in his future jurisprudence, Neil Gorsuch looks to the example of the Great Chief Justice and sees the Constitution as ruler, the natural law as guide.