I have in other posts pointed out some of my difficulties with the Natural Law tradition. I find these to be well summarized in the Westminster Dictionary of Christian Ethics article on the subject. I will detail my concerns here, briefly, based in part on an earlier comment to another post.
The problem begins as a matter of definition. There are at least three elements to “natural law” which are often rather carelessly confused or confounded in argument. For example, people sometimes use “natural” or “law of nature” to describe “what is” — reality. But it should surprise no one to find that I agree with those who say that “reality” as described by scientific knowledge can tell us what is, but not what should be. Science does not teach us morals. It is not, except in the most skeptical or cynical of moral systems, an instructor in morals at all. In fact, I believe science teaches us that nature is built on a principle that is in some respects the inverse of the guiding moral principle by which I abide: “Love your neighbor as yourself” — for the “natural world” is based on survival through the exploitation and use of other entities to one’s own benefit. As Whitehead observed, “Life is perpetual theft.”
So I do not look to nature for my ethics. Science can not tell us right from wrong: but it can tell us when we have advanced a premise that is discordant or incoherent with reality. For example, “Same-sexuality is wrong because it is ‘unnatural’” is false, if by “unnatural” one means, “contrary to the natural world” — for in the natural world it is quite common. That doesn’t, I hasten to add, make same-sexuality good. I’ve never made that claim; rather I hold it to be morally neutral, just like mixed-sexuality. But it does falsify the premise that it is “unnatural” in terms of not being part of the natural world.
Now, of course, my interlocutor will then advance to the second form of natural law and say, “By ‘unnatural’ I mean ‘not in concert with the ends for which sex is intended.’” This natural law position falls prey to the fallacy of begging the question, in that it rests on two prior premises, neither of which is self-evidently true: “Moral value is to be found in the use of things in advancement of the end for which they are intended” and further, “Sex is intended for procreation.” I have already demonstrated the falsehood of the latter premise, in that while sex may often result in procreation, there is ample evidence that it serves other purposes or ends having nothing to do with procreation. This is, in fact, the position of The Episcopal Church, as enunciated in the preface to the matrimonial rite, where procreation ranks third among the ends of marriage, “when it is God’s will.” It is also the reason marriage, and sexual activity within marriage, are not forbidden to infertile couples, and birth control is permitted.
The first premise, which gives moral value to the employment of organs towards specific ends, rests upon the presumed capability clearly to decide the “end” towards which any given human organ or activity is ordered, a task rendered difficult in face of the biological multitasking most organs serve; and the even greater leap which assigns moral value to such employment of the body. Is it, for example, immoral to eat low-calorie food? If so, how serious is this moral failing?
Finally, my opponent might deploy another form of natural law — “But all people inherently know it to be wrong.” This is, of course, the fallacy of argumentum ad populum, which supposes that ideas commonly held must be true. This is obviously a weak argument since it wouldn’t need to be made if it were true. This obvious weakness has not prevented this premise serving as a basis in a number of different forms of natural law arguments.
The fallback response, of course, is that those who don’t inherently know something to be wrong are morally defective — also a logical fallacy since it again assumes the premise and moreover besmirches those who disagree with it. While there are many social constructs and prejudices common in many people and many cultures, even perhaps in some cases universally (though same-sexuality fails to be indicted in this particular court) this does not make them self-evidently true.
Let me take an example. I think murder is morally wrong. I do not do so on the basis that the Bible says it is wrong, or the Church says it is wrong, or that it is “unnatural” (obviously it occurs in nature), or that all peoples and cultures know it to be wrong (many cultures exclude the willful killing of persons from the category of murder by definitional means). Rather, I think murder is wrong because it violates the premises upon which I base my ethics: Love your neighbor as yourself, and Do to others as you would be done by. In short, I do not need to appeal to any of the apparatus of natural law to tell me I should not murder anyone, as it violates the law of loving reciprocity, a law which I accept not merely on the authority of the One who gave it, but because it appears to be rationally coherent. I know of no serious arguments against it as a governing principle for an ethical system. (If there are any, I’d be happy to engage them; but again, I would want to see the premises upon which they are based laid out first.)
Compare this example of murder with the arguments adduced in the debates over sexuality, and I hope one can see the difference. The natural law approach assumes certain premises to be true, but the premises are the very things that are in question. It may not be naked circular argument, but it is certainly very scantily clad. We are spinning our wheels, and getting nowhere if the same un-agreed-upon assumptions are merely reasserted as conclusions. Perhaps we will not get anywhere except by the slow process of the death of such ideas, whose hegemony is coming slowly to an end. It took over a century for the church finally to abandon the distinction between Jew and Greek; and another millennium and a half to free itself from its unhappy acceptance of society’s division into slave and free; we now find ourselves beginning to grasp, two millennia on, that the difference between male and female is also irrelevant in Christ.
Tobias Haller BSG