Art of Living
“Live according to nature”: should we follow natural law?
What is (moral) natural law? The idea has a long history, and may be the only way to establish ethics on naturalistic foundations.
The concept of natural law, and the related one of natural justice, have a long history, are highly controversial, and yet may be the only way to set ethics in a naturalistic framework — that is, the only way to avoid the Scylla of supernaturalism and the Charybdis of moral relativism. Indeed, natural law has been invoked by pretty much all the Hellenistic schools of philosophy (most famously by Stoicism), as well as by Christian theologians throughout the Middle Ages, by the thinkers of the Enlightenment, and by the drafters of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the 20th century. But what, exactly, is natural law? And does it make sense to think of ethics that way? Let’s find out.
Natural law is based on the idea that morality is a function of human nature, and that therefore we can arrive at moral precepts by a combination of observation and reason. In turn, human nature is the result either of special creation by one or another god, or of a natural process of evolution. Which means that natural law can be understood both religiously and secularly.
Positive law, that is, the kind of laws that human beings invent and enact in their societies, then becomes the more or less adequate application of natural law. For instance, observation tells us that no human society condones murder, presumably because no society can thrive if people are constantly in fear of being killed by fellow human beings. Reason therefore dictates that positive laws should be agreed upon that prohibit murder and regulate societal responses to it.
Of the three major ethical frameworks — virtue ethics, deontology, and utilitarianism — the first two are clearly compatible with with natural law, while the third is more friendly to the notion that law is always and only “positive,” meaning an arbitrary construct of human beings, with no basis in nature.
For a deontologist, that is someone who thinks morality is about rules, natural law is either the result of God’s will (Ten Commandments)…