The Meaning of “Natural Law”
August 24, 2009
With a blog called “The Natural Lawyer,” I suppose it’s about time I explain what I mean by the concept of “Natural Law.”
Professor J. Budziszewski at Texas University is one of the prominent scholars on the subject. I will briefly borrow from an interview he did for the Acton Institute; it’s useful here because it’s in Q&A format:
What is the natural law?
Budziszewski: Our subject is called natural law because it has the qualities of all law. Law has rightly been defined as an ordinance of reason, for the common good, made by the one who has care of the community, and promulgated. Consider the natural law against murder. It is not an arbitrary whim, but a rule that the mind can grasp as right. It serves not some special interest, but the universal good. Its author has care of the universe, for he (God) created it. And it is not a secret rule, for God has so arranged his creation that every rational being knows about it.
Our subject is called natural law because it is built into the design of human nature and woven into the fabric of the normal human mind. Another reason for calling it natural is that we rightly take it to be about what really is—a rule like the prohibition of murder reflects not a mere illusion or projection, but genuine knowledge. It expresses the actual moral character of a certain kind of act.
R&L: Why is the natural law something that “we can’t not know?”
Budziszewski: Mainly because we have been endowed by God with conscience. I am referring to “deep conscience,” which used to be called synderesis—the interior witness to the foundational principles of morality. We must distinguish it from “surface conscience,” which used to be called conscientia—what we derive from the foundational principles, whether correctly or incorrectly, whether by means honest or dishonest. Deep conscience can be suppressed and denied, but it can never be erased. Surface conscience, unfortunately, can be erased and distorted in numerous ways—one of several reasons why moral education and discipline remain necessary.
In fact there are at least four ways in which we know the natural law. Deep conscience, the First Witness, is the one primarily responsible for “what we can’t not know.” The others concern “what we can’t help learning.” The Second Witness is our recognition of the designedness of things in general, which not only draws our attention to the Designer, but also assures us that the other witnesses are not meaning ful. The Third Witness is the particulars of our own design—for example, the interdependence and complementarity of the sexes. The Fourth Witness is the natural consequences of our behavior. All four work together.
There is obviously a lot more to Natural Law Theory; this summary just provides the starting points. Professor Budziszewski has also written a fascinating article on the consequences of denying conscience, both societally and individually.
I also wrote another entry describing the basics of Natural Law Theory here.