The Audacity of Natural Law

A PDF version of this essay:  TheAudacityOfNaturalLaw

The audacity of natural law
Desires and goods
What my body means, what I mean
The body’s promise, the mind’s amen

The audacity of natural law

Consider the following statements:

  • It is intrinsically immoral to have sexual intercourse with someone who is not one’s spouse.
  • Parents have a duty to raise their children, and children have a duty to obey and revere their parents.  Unless extreme circumstances make it impossible, children should be raised by their biological parents.
  • It is intrinsically immoral to deliberately cause a sexual act to be infertile.
  • It is immoral to drink live blood.
  • Suicide is intrinsically immoral.
  • It is always wrong to kill an innocent person, even if he has low quality of life and wants to die.

Setting aside for the moment the all-important question of whether or not these statements are true, what they have in common is that they all belong to the natural law system of ethics.  They all take a set of biological facts–coitus, filiation, death–and purport to read moral meanings out of them.  The natural law presumes that the human body is charged with meaning, so that biological acts and relations have their significance built into them.  The “natural meaning” of the act exists prior to and independent of what the actor understands or intends by that act, and yet he is morally bound by the natural meaning none the less.

I saw a nice example of natural law reasoning in the movie Vanilla Sky.  (It’s not very good; don’t watch it.)  I don’t remember the characters’ names, but in actors’ names here is the setup:  Tom Cruise has been sleeping with coworker Cameron Diaz in an informal relationship, and then he decides to leave her for Penelope Cruz.  (When you’re Tom Cruise, you can do those sorts of things.)  Diaz’s character becomes distraught and pleads with Cruise that he can’t just leave her like that after they have coupled.  ”Your body makes a promise even if you don’t.”  This is a natural law way of thinking.  We say that fornication is wrong because when you have sex with someone, you make her a promise–whether that’s what you and her want to communicate or not–and that promise is the same one a person makes at a wedding ceremony.

This way of seeing things is very different from the modern mentality (although, as we’ve seen, the old mentality pops up in unexpected places).  Modern man is, whether he admits it or not, strongly shaped by Cartesian dualism to see the body as “brute matter”, as res extensa distinct from the res cogitans (the soul).  Meaning, it is believed, is a distinctly mental phenomenon.  Its origin, and indeed its whole being, is in the mind.  What an act means is what the actor intended it to mean and what he knew his observers would take it to mean–no more, no less.

Modern ethics is usually consequentialist or deontological.  Sin is identified either as harming someone else or instrumentalizing him (treating him as a “mere means”).  Harm and instrumentalization are defined solely in terms of the person’s preferences and choices.  Natural law agrees that harm and instrumentalization are wrong, but it defines them differently, in terms of man’s natural telos and natural meanings.

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