Friday, August 21, 2009

Natural Law

natural law, christian, ten commandments, liberal, obama,
It took me a minute, but I think "natural law" as discussed by Fred Hutchison, RenewAmerica "analyst" is the Ten Commandments, the idea being that every person everywhere automatically knows the Ten Commandments whether they know itor not. The article is a criticism of liberalism (we're blown about by the winds of popular fads) and Obama (he's the weathervane), but I thought I'd deal with one particular bit of silliness: the idea that everywhere and everywhen in the universe "thou shalt not steal" is held to be true.

In the early 20th century, the jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes was the most famous proponent of positive law. G. K. Chesterton and C. S. Lewis were very popular proponents of natural law.

Chesterton's fictional detective, Father Brown, was a like a Christian Sherlock Homes. He was on the trail of Flambeau, a criminal mastermind. Before Father Brown solved a case against Flambeau, he debated Flambeau about natural law versus positive law. Flambeau speculated that there are many worlds in the starry heavens and that each one has a different moral law. Father Brown replied that every one of those worlds has a mortar board, "Thou shalt not steal." In this way, Father Brown emphasized the universality of natural law and rejected cultural relativism. His terse comments rebuked Flambeau for being a thief. His comments also rebuked him for temporizing the immorality of his thefts by using the relativistic philosophy of positive law.

How would Father Brown know that? Has he been to every world in "the starry heavens" and asked? Or is he, like Chesterton, simply unable to imagine people who are not just like him?

It was hardly uncommon, several hundred years ago, to run into peoples in both the Americas and in Africa that did not have any notion of land being owned by any particular individual. Land was just land, if you wanted to use it, fine, but you couldn't own it. This led to trouble for the natives when the (Christian) Europeans moved in with their concepts of land ownership. Native leaders thought they were granting the Europeans limited use of the land, when in fact they were effectively destroying themselves.

It's not too hard to imagine a culture in which there is no notion of ownership at all, land or otherwise. I am wearing this sweater because I'm cold and it fits me and it looks nice with my outfit, but when I am done with it, someone else can wear it. I live in this house because it suits me, but I could live in another house, or someone else could live in this one. Father Brown knows, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that this culture has never existed on earth or anywhere else in the entire universe? Really? How?

The idea of natural law is that the creator hardwires some things directly into our brains, we all know them whether we are ever taught them or not. If you've spent any time with small children, you know this isn't true. If a baby wants something, they grab it. They don't consider ownership, they have no concept of theft. It is the reaction of adults to their grabbing that teaches them that particular commandment.

Think about the implications of natural law. Why bother to raise your children? If natural law exists, you could lock your kids in a closet or drop them off in the woods for wolves to raise and they'd still grow up to be adults who don't steal, lie, have sex outside of marriage, worship false idols or take the name of the lord in vain.

Nobody actually thinks that, do they?


  1. I think what Chesterton et al do is extrapolate from some things which are innate in social evolved creatures - like empathy, cooperation, and conflict avoidance - and say they point to an Intelligent Moraliser.

  2. Natural law is way more complex than that. Take a look at the wikipedia entry on it.

    I'm highly skeptical of natural law theory, and especially natural rights, but it's a serious theory and doesn't have to be explicitly theistic.

  3. Btw, if you want to really piss off a hardcore libertarian, tell him/her that you don't believe in natural rights, and that rights are created by political systems.

  4. If you really want to piss off a Christian, tell them you think cussing with God's name is moral.

  5. Hey, Chesterton and Lewis were great novelists. I think this yahoo is just name-dropping them to steal for himself some undeserved credibility. I never read Chesterton's detective stories, but the "Princess and the Goblin" books were good and he does a mad fine essay. And C.S. Lewis's "The Great Divorce" is just about the only description of hell by a Christian that makes sense and doesn't give me theodicy cooties.

    As for natural law silliness, you have to reeeally stretch the ten commandments to make them truly universal. Something like:

    1. Local invisible friend is best and to be obeyed; accept no cheap substitutes
    2. Do not disrespect local invisible friend or libelously defame him/her/it
    3. Obey invisible friend's statutes regarding holy days
    4. Respect and heed your caregivers
    5. Do not kill any person whom you are not permitted and/or instructed to kill according to local government and/or invisible friend's decrees
    6. Do not have sex with any person whom you are not permitted and/or instructed to have sex with according to local government and/or invisible friend's decrees
    7. Do not take or use anything, the use of which you are expressly denied without specific authorization, when you have not received said authorization
    8. Do not lie about the conduct of your allies/social group members in a way that would be harmful to their reputation or well-being
    9. Do not obsess about wanting to have sex with a person with whom you are expressly forbidden to have sex
    10. Do not obsess about getting to have any specific item which you are expressly forbidden to possess

    I'm pretty sure there are, or have historically been, social groups where some of those would not apply in many or any cases. I suppose if the cultural contexts existed, any social group with an agreed-upon invisible friend would probably have some version even of the first three. Again, though, I've probably done some violence to the spirit of the text by stripping it down to its logical skeleton.

    :p Whatever. I'm in love with seahorses. You don't like lighthouse, you suck.

  6. I generally like your blog. Today I'm sorely dissappointed.

    Natural Law does not, of necessity, have anything to do with a moral code "hardwire[d...] into our brain" by "the creator," though that is in fact the opinion a of good number of natural law theorists. Natural Law merely studies rights and duties in a state of nature. Clearly there are speculative and reductionist elements at work here which are less troublesome to religious types - are humans inherently selfish and violent or altruistic and pacific? Is there an essence of behavior/morality shared by all beings in a state of nature or would different humans behave in nearly opposite ways? Nonetheless, there are secular natural law theorists and they do excellent work. Also, it's worth nothing that there is a tremendous body of anthropological evidence that certain limited individual moral intuitions and social prohibitions (against theft, deceit, and murder [though this last is tautological])are remarkably stable across cultures, including hunter-gatherer and pastoralist societies that have profoundly different notions of property and ownership than we.

  7. We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.

    With your mindset FIH, this would have been dismissed as so much bullshit and blather.

  8. Just because Nature does or doesn't not do something doesn't mean it's an appropriate standard for all to follow.

    Yes, I think it's a good thing to consider what seems to be a general pattern or example, but ultimately, morals come from our *culture* and what we as a society agree upon as acceptable behavior and what will not be tolerated.

    Law has zero to do with making pronouncements about right and wrong. For example: Murder is not against the law because we've decided murder is immoral/wrong. Murder is against the law because society cannot function at it's highest capacity if we as a society tolerate it. So we don't and punish those who break the law.

  9. I've seen that a lot moralizers who trot out the "Thou shalt not steal" mantra generally have a different scope to it, it is a question of whom thaou shalt not steal FROM. Not someone who can hurt you if he catches you seems to be the true meaning.

  10. I don't get it Sarge. Would you mind fleshing that out a bit?


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