The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

March 29, 2017

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Reflections on the Natural Law
James V. Schall, S.J. - 05/08/08

In the Pope’s United Nations Address (18 April), he mentioned the word “rights” some twenty times. “Human rights,” Benedict said, “are increasingly being presented as the common language and the ethical substratum, of international relations.” The term “natural law,” which Benedict uses in other contexts, is not mentioned at all in the U. N. Address, though it did come up in his response to U. S. Bishops at the National Shrine (April 16). There he said: “What is needed … is a greater sense of the intrinsic relationship between the Gospel and the natural law, on the one hand, and, on the other, the pursuit of authentic human good as embodied in civil law and in personal moral decisions.”

Almost every mention of “natural rights” unfortunately requires careful and subtle qualification or caution to protect this very slippery notion from being taken to mean just the opposite of what it appears to affirm. The Church’s recent fulsome praise of “natural rights” almost invariably gets it into the dilemma of having to deny that, say, abortion or homosexuality is a “right.” But if these are embraced as “rights” by civil law all over the world, why not? The explanation of this “why not?” in effect ends up with two opposite notions of “natural rights” which, while using the same words, are contradictory to each other.

The fact remains that the terms “rights” and “values” are modern terms originating in and solidly grounded in modern political philosophy. They do not mean what the old Latin word justum or jus (words sometimes translated as “right”) meant. These words indicated the proper object of the virtue of justice, the what it is that is “due.” For Hobbes, which is where the modern word comes from, a “right” meant whatever was enforced by the Leviathan, no limits except power. For Max Weber, a “value” was explicitly not any objective truth or principle, but an object of desire or will and could have no grounding in reason. The effort of many Christian thinkers to make these words mean something other than what they were designed to imply, that is, to keep the language but change the meaning, is more than an uphill battle. Words carry their own baggage, whether we like it or not.

The older and more accurate terminology was “natural law,” itself no easy concept to understand, but it at least had its proper grounding in metaphysics and reason. C. S. Lewis always insisted that the natural law of things was easily recognized in the way people talked to one another. In a famous passage in Mere Christianity, Lewis asked us to listen carefully when we hear people arguing with one another. When someone is accused of doing something wrong, he always comes up with a reason why what he did was correct. Both sides appeal to some standard outside of themselves to justify their position. Once they make this appeal, the cards are on the table. It is possible to sort out the issues involved in terms of reason. The natural law, Aquinas said, is simply what is reasonable. Angry phrases like “I was here first,” or “But he hit me,” or “I did not say that,” when analyzed, show that we all almost instinctively appeal to a standard of right and wrong. We seem to recognize what is appropriate and inappropriate. We only argue about what principle ought to be applied to a particular case.

Recently, I came across some further examples of how the natural law almost spontaneously is present in our daily discourse. Evidently, the baseball player, Roger Clemens, has been in the news recently as having been accused of having an affair with some country-western singer. Every Monday morning, the Washington Post carries sports humorist Norman Chad’s “Ask the Slouch” series. Chad is often humorously asked about his own several divorces in these questions. For every question that he answers, Chad pays the asker the remarkable sum of $1.25.

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