Ran across this little nugget doing legal research on a case.  If only it were completely true:

The argument also assumes, quite wrongly, that lawyers make all the difference in outcomes, as if the merits of a case or the interests of justice didn’t count for much. (In reality it should be the other way around to the degree that it is true at all.) All judges regularly see cases where the better lawyer rightfully lost because he or she should have lost, regardless of skill. (And that is by whatever criteria you choose to measure relative legal skill, e.g., perceptivity, knowledge, organization, or ever plain diligence.) In any sane system of justice, the merits, rather than the skill of lawyers, should control the ultimate disposition.

Chen v. County of Orange, 96 Cal. App. 4th 926, 948 (2002).

It is absolutely true that the merits should control the ultimate disposition, but in my career I’ve seen a lot of improper results due to lawyers’ skills (or lack thereof).

Love, Sight, and Corporations

December 16, 2013

If someone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for the one who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen.”  -1 John 4:20

It is interesting that love is connected with sight in this Biblical passage.  Elsewhere in the New Testament, the Bible teaches that a human is much more than a physical, visible entity (2 Corinthians 5:4 refers to the body as a “tent”, and 1 Corinthians 6:19 refers to the body of a Christian as a “temple of the holy spirit.”).  Scripture also states that God created man in His “image,” specifically in Genesis 1:26-27: “God said, ‘Let Us make man in Our image’. . . [and] God created man in His own image.”  However, it is highly debatable (if not entirely unlikely) that the reference to “God’s image” has much to do with the physical appearance of human beings.

The thesis of this post is that the removal of the “sight” of a second party may actually hinder one’s propensity to love someone, and that that has consequences in our political and social lives.  This may seem obvious, but I am going to take it a step further than the obvious.

We know intuitively that a blind person must be able to love a person, so physical sight is not necessary to love someone.  But it is surely easier to avoid loving another person if one does not have to see that person.  If your community keeps homeless people relegated to a rough corner of town that you never visit, it is easier not to think of them or help them.  But if you have to face homeless people every day, your conscience is more likely to be bothered and perhaps spur you to do something to love the homeless, even if only donating to a local charity or giving a few bucks to a homeless person who appears to be in need.  On the other hand, one might choose to become callous toward the homeless, particularly with the aid of stereotypes and rationalizations such as “homeless people are lazy.”  Accordingly, it is said that if you cannot even love those who you see (and sight should make it easier to love someone), you cannot love God, whom you cannot see (because it is presumably harder to love God, who you cannot see).

But what if you owned a small private business in a neighborhood with homeless people?  I would imagine it would be even more difficult to resist a sense of sympathy to (and even responsibility for) the needs of those in the community.

Enter corporations.

Setting aside private companies, the “owners” of a publicly-traded corporation could be shareholders from all across the world.  If the corporation runs nation-wide chain retail stores or restaurants, the shareholder is far removed from the faces on the ground.  A corporation cannot truly love a person.  The corporation exists to provide profit to its shareholders.  Sure, a corporation can give money to a charitable cause, but it generally does so because it helps the corporation’s bottom line in the long run by building good will with consumers.  The private small business owner is in a much better position to help those with needs in the community because the private small business owner can actually “see” the faces of the need in a real way.

Furthermore, the private small business owner sees his or her employees and is more likely to treat them in a loving manner.  Grace and mercy cost a business owner no more than he or she is willing to voluntarily contribute.  The shareholders of a private corporation cannot see the employees and thus will not care about them.  The corporate hierarchy will provide little grace or mercy at the sacrifice of the company’s (and the shareholders’) bottom line.  Employees within a corporation can still exercise some grace and mercy, but with a much greater risk.  If an employee in a corporation shows mercy to a subordinate and it does not work out, the managerial employee loses his job, which is more than the comparatively negligible amount of profit lost by the corporation.

Now enter politicians.

Politicians, surviving largely on the backs of private corporations (this goes for Democrats as well as Republicans), answer these bottom-line focused entities rather than the rank and file individuals.  Moreover, federal government politicians are far removed from their constituents (often by thousands of miles).  If politicians need not look many of their constituents in the face for most of the year, it will be easier to forget to love them or serve their interests, just as people forget about the homeless in the bad areas of town that they never visit.

Is the link between “sight” and “love” a good reason to be suspicious of corporations and support local businesses?  Is it a good reason to prefer local to state or national government?

Diogenes of Synope

Diogenes of Synope was a funny Greek philosopher who used to wander the streets with a lantern in the daylight “in search of an honest man.”  He was something of a hippie, as he spurned riches, reputation, and even hygiene.  He also questioned patriotism and preferred to call himself a citizen of the world.

As I grow older, I find myself thinking more and more like Diogenes, at least insofar as I believe I could carry on a similar search for an honest man and never find one.  Honesty is more than telling the truth.  Honesty is the willingness to call a spade a spade, even when the full truth makes one look weak.

Lawyers might have a problem with this because they are paid to put the client’s “best case” before the court.  They are paid to keep some bad information secret through the attorney-client privilege, to ignore inconvenient facts, and to make the other side’s “best case” look preposterous, even if it is the more likely truth.  No doubt Diogenes would have a field day with lawyers.

Of course, lawyers do not necessarily handle the truth in such ways when clients, judges, and juries are not around.  We lawyers have also usually been exposed at one point or another to the limitations of our knowledge.  As young lawyers researching a legal question, we learn that even though we might discover a law on the books that apparently resolves our legal question, there might be another law out there stating that the just-discovered statute does not apply in certain situations.  Since it is practically impossible to read every law out there to prove a negative (especially on the client’s dime), the lawyer must act with some degree of faith in his/her mentors, practice guide books, and even gut instinct.  That degree of uncertainty should keep the lawyer’s attitude in check.

When dealing with coworkers and clients, however, lawyers must appear confident in spite of the fact that they might be wrong (even embarrassingly so).  I can’t help but wonder if this bravado comes from society or if lawyers helped to contribute this approach to society, but it seems that virtually everyone in public life wants to focus on his or her argument, ignore or suppress all information counter to that argument, discredit all those who might question that argument, and reframe any opponent’s argument in a weaker way so that it is easier to overcome.  This is probably not the best way for a curious listener to arrive at the truth—listening to multiple myopic, self-serving viewpoints and trying to sort between them.

The thesis/antithesis model of reasoning, where one honestly and readily admits the most powerful arguments opposing one’s argument during discourse, is far superior for everyone’s sake if one is to hope that the truth triumphs even to one’s own detriment.  Sadly, we are usually not honest enough to hope that the truth prevails even though it crushes us.  We could join Diogenes’ search, knowing full well that no one is brave enough or righteous enough to always admit the truth and expose his own frailty.

What Do You Care?

August 30, 2013

So, why do you care about the behavior of others?  Where you are not concerned, why care about others having abortions, gay marriage, prayers in public school (or at high school football games in Texas), therapy for minors with unwanted same sex attraction, racial discrimination that does not harm you, laws in other states or countries, or anything else that would not affect your life specifically and personally?

Should any of us care about the plight of another so much that we would interfere with that person’s life (or the lives of those around them) through legal compulsion?  The answer seems to be “yes,” if we love justice, but who is this “we”?  Should “we” interfere with the behavior of others through our town’s local law, our state law, or our federal law, or leave law out of it and resort to other methods?  (One could “interfere” with the behavior of others without using law, via boycott or shunning.)  It seems more intuitively acceptable for us to interfere with or regulate the behavior in our own community based on our moral inclinations about the good of our community.  One’s interest in the behavior of the people in far away places seems more attenuated.

To push this point even further, should “we” as a society (small or large scale) interfere with other societies?  Can the people of Los Angeles decide they’ve had enough of the ridiculous laws in San Francisco and try to do something about it?  Yes, the people of Los Angeles lack jurisdiction to do anything about what happens in San Francisco, but the United States has no more jurisdiction over anything in the Middle East, yet there “we” are, interfering…

It strikes me that this is absolutely not a conservative or liberal question.  Conservatives will interfere with your ability to smoke pot.  Liberals will interfere with your ability to smoke a cigarette in a public restaurant.  Each will claim the high ground of “freedom” on one issue while claiming the high ground of “morality” on the other.  “Freedom” is just another buzz word like “equality” and “democracy” that people only invoke for convenience and sound bites, not because they are actually committed to those ideals.  It is the same with foreign policy.  Conservatives and liberals will walk the line between “respecting the sovereignty of other nations” and “taking a stand for the cause of justice” depending on the values or interests at stake in a policy decision.

So, do you care about the behavior of other people so much that you want to interfere societally?  Do you want to interfere with other societies (and do you want your own government to interfere in other societies for you)?  No doubt, there are numerous moral tragedies happening around the world right now and we are doing nothing about them.  Yet when discussing instances of interference in the past (like fighting the Nazis in WWII), people point to how evil the situation/government was to justify the U.S.’s behavior.  Wouldn’t that be like the people of Los Angeles pointing to how bad the laws of San Francisco are as justification for interference?  That doesn’t hold water unless we are going to distinguish between types of “bad” laws (whether a difference in kind or degree).  Certainly some silly laws that drive away small businesses in San Francisco would not justify usurping the authority of the San Francisco local government through force.

What kind of laws (if any) should invite the scrutiny and interference from other governments that have no jurisdiction?  What kind of behavior from other people in your community or neighboring communities invites your own scrutiny and legal interference?  Is there a difference between attempting to interfere (through force of law in matters in which you have no direct interest) with the behavior of your neighbor, or someone in a neighboring town, or someone in another state, or someone in another country?

If government A can usurp government B’s authority through force based on the bad laws of government B, can government B do the same to government A?  If government A is too strong for that, doesn’t that make government A a self-appointed “benevolent tyrant”?  What happens when government A turns bad and ignores its own unjust laws?  Would the citizens of the country of government A look kindly on the interference from the weaker government B?

America (and particularly the federal government in America) is government A.

Subsection (a): “Murder is the unlawful killing of a human being, or a fetus, with malice aforethought.”

Subsection (b) provides an exception for abortion consented to by the mother.

Some observations:

1.  Murder only applies to killing a human, not an animal or non-human.

2.  If a man walks up to a woman and, say, cuts off her arm (or any other bodily “tissue”) but it does not result in her death, it is not murder.

3.  A man who walks up to an unsuspecting pregnant woman and punches her in the stomach, intentionally killing her unborn child but not killing the mother, has committed murder under the statute, even if she had planned on getting an abortion.  It is not merely a tort or the crime of assault and battery; it is murder.

4.  If the man punches a woman who is not pregnant in the stomach, it is not murder, and if he punches a pregnant woman in the stomach but it does not kill the fetus, it is not murder.

5.  If the pregnant woman punches herself in the stomach and kills her fetus, or if she asks a man to punch her in the stomach to intentionally cause the death of the fetus, it is not murder.

So, killing an animal or cutting off a human appendage is not murder, and killing a human being is murder.  Killing a fetus is also murder, except when a pregnant woman decides for whatever reason that her fetus belongs with the categories of “animal” or “human appendage” rather than “human being”.

As written, subsection (b) of section 187 is logically consistent with subsection (a) because subsection (a) expressly does not apply if subsection (b) applies.  However, can the exception philosophically be reconciled with the rule?  On what basis may a fetus be deemed the equivalent of a human being based on the intent of another person?  Can a person truly decide and declare, based on any reason or no reason at all (i.e. randomly), whether another person is in fact a person or the equivalent of a person worthy of legal protection?  Does it make sense that it’s murder to kill someone else’s fetus, even if that person planned on getting an abortion anyway?  When would that fetus transfer from “human being” back to discardable tissue?  When mom makes up or changes her mind (unless someone else decides for her without her consent)?

It’s one thing to attempt to justify legal abortions on the ground that an unborn child is not a legal person or the equivalent thereof.  But wouldn’t that mean section 187 is incoherent?  Would one prefer, in the name of consistency, to rewrite section 187 to honor the argument that unborn persons are not in fact persons, thereby recasting and/or reducing the criminal sanction against a man who walks up to a random pregnant woman and punches her in the stomach, causing an abortion?  Is a “wanted child” more worthy of personhood and legal protection against killing than an “unwanted child”?  Why?

I was in the car with my niece yesterday and noticed two children wearing helmets ride by on their bikes.  I mentioned to my niece that when I was a boy, I rode my bike around town without a helmet because they were not required.  That prompted her very insightful question: “Why do they call America ‘free’ when there are a thousand laws?”

A “thousand” laws is a very modest estimate.  Ask any CPA about the complicated tax code.  Add to that the problems of the thousands of vague or unenforced laws, as noted by James Madison among the many threats to liberty:

“It will be of little avail to the people that the laws are made by men of their own choice, if the laws be so voluminous that they cannot be read, or so incoherent that they cannot be understood; if they be repealed or revised before they are promulgated, or undergo such incessant changes that no man who knows what the law is today can guess what it will be tomorrow.  Law is defined to be a rule of action; but how can that be a rule, which is little known, and less fixed?”
— James Madison, Federalist no. 62, February 27, 1788

The helmet law is probably clearly written, but it is one of so many ever-changing laws that I couldn’t tell you for sure.  My niece’s question stands.  Can we continue to call our nation “free” when we live under a nanny state with an ever-increasing library of statutory requirements and interpretations?

I’ve recently spent a fair about of time arguing that the intentional killing of an innocent human life [before or after birth] should always be illegal.  This morning, I stumbled across something very interesting and relevant to the point.

It seems that controversial Princeton bioethics professor Peter Singer has addressed a relevant part of the issue.  Singer is a utilitarian and he takes the common step of arguing that not all human beings are “persons,” and it is only wrong to kill “persons” (where the interest of the person killing outweighs the interest of the non-person).  However, he is extremely honest about the implications of his position:

I use the term “person” to refer to a being who is capable of anticipating the future, of having wants and desires for the future.  As I have said in answer to the previous question, I think that it is generally a greater wrong to kill such a being than it is to kill a being that has no sense of existing over time. Newborn human babies have no sense of their own existence over time. So killing a newborn baby is never equivalent to killing a person, that is, a being who wants to go on living.  That doesn’t mean that it is not almost always a terrible thing to do.  It is, but that is because most infants are loved and cherished by their parents, and to kill an infant is usually to do a great wrong to its parents.
Sometimes, perhaps because the baby has a serious disability, parents think it better that their newborn infant should die. Many doctors will accept their wishes, to the extent of not giving the baby life-supporting medical treatment.  That will often ensure that the baby dies.  My view is different from this, only to the extent that if a decision is taken, by the parents and doctors, that it is better that a baby should die, I believe it should be possible to carry out that decision, not only by withholding or withdrawing life-support – which can lead to the baby dying slowly from dehydration or from an infection – but also by taking active steps to end the baby’s life swiftly and humanely.

[Emphasis added.]

Moreover, Singer addresses the common argument that an unborn baby is neither “alive” nor “human” for the justification of abortion:

[The argument that a fetus is not alive] is a resort to a convenient fiction that turns an evidently living being into one that legally is not alive. Instead of accepting such fictions, we should recognise that the fact that a being is human, and alive, does not in itself tell us whether it is wrong to take that being’s life.

That is the rational result of splitting “personhood” from mere human life.  One can engage in the “fiction” that an unborn child is neither human nor living—a fiction that an apparently infanticidal Princeton professor claims is unsupportable despite having every reason for accepting it if he could—or one can accept occasional infanticide in a utilitarian package deal.  That is a serious commitment to abortion.

Peter Singer is right, unborn human beings are both human and alive, and his argument is further evidence, at least to me, that splitting “human life” from the (wholly invented) concept of “personhood” is a grave wrong (and yet another work of fiction) that leads to such pleasantries as infanticide, not to mention slavery, eugenics, and genocide, where utilitarian ideals would permit that such measures be taken.  Those ugly-sounding practices aren’t so far off if one is able to take “personhood” from a living human being, for whatever reason.

Also note, Peter Singer is no slouch professor throwing out some controversial ideas.  He was integral to the establishment of the International Association for Bioethics and served as its first president.  One can hardly dismiss his argument as the rantings of a hack professor.  The man knows what he is talking about.  He is wrong to adopt utilitarianism, but he is right in taking the concept to its conclusion.  Those who believe in the transcendent principle that the intentional taking of innocent human life is always wrong and should always be illegal can avoid such illusions altogether.

I have some experience with employment law in California, particularly with wage and hour law (overtime requirements, minimum wage, work schedules, etc.).  In California, the system could not be more askew against employers than it is right now. 

In the first place, employers are subject to a myriad of draconian laws that unjustly punish innocent mistakes.  For example, if a retail store or fast food restaurant is especially busy and short-handed and cannot provide a paid ten-minute rest break to a part-time employee (above and beyond bathroom breaks), or provides a five-minute rather than ten-minute break, the employer owes the employee an entire extra hour of wages for the day.  If the employer fails to pay the extra hour of wages, whether because of ignorance of the rule or otherwise, penalties rack up swiftly.  Upon the employee’s departure, if the employer does not pay every dime that is due to the employee (including that extra hour of pay), the employer must pay an entire day’s wages (8 hours worth) for each day until full payment is made, up to 30 days.  So that means the five or ten minute mistake could turn into big money for the employee.  An employee earning minimum wage ($8 per hour in California) on a part-time job could nevertheless gain $1,928 (including $8 for the extra hour of pay) for the five or ten minute error.  Assuming the hypothetical part-time employee worked 20 hours per week, the employee would get the same amount that he earned in the previous 12 weeks combined for one five-minute mistake. 

Something similar recently happened to a friend of mine who owns a small business.  He intended to pay all wages upon an employee’s departure, but made an honest and innocent calculating error.  Rather than advise the business of the error, the former employee went and filed a complaint with the Labor Commissioner some time after his departure.  Upon learning of the error, my friend immediately paid all wages that were due to the employee.  The law with the forementioned 30-day penalty (Labor Code Section 203) states that “willful” failure to pay will be penalized (though ignorance of the law will be no excuse).  It seems to me that an unintentional miscalculation is not “willful,” especially when the employer immediately pays the employee as soon as the error is brought to its attention.  My friend explained everything that had happened to the Deputy Labor Commissioner.  Nevertheless, the Deputy Labor Commissioner held my friend’s feet to the fire, stating that if the employee wanted to pursue the penalties, the employer will have to defend a lawsuit, so it’s best if the employer goes ahead and pays the employee something to go away. 

Note, it wasn’t the small business’ attorney or the employee’s attorney that told him this, it was the California Labor Commissioner, i.e. the government.  The government of California advised a business to pay off an employee even though the employee had a very suspect claim.  Remarkable. 

According to the Labor Commissioner’s website, “The mission of the Division of Labor Standards Enforcement (DLSE) is to vigorously enforce minimum labor standards in order to ensure employees are not required or permitted to work under substandard unlawful conditions, and to protect employers who comply with the law from those who attempt to gain competitive advantage at the expense of their workers by failing to comply with minimum labor standards.”

Notice that there is nothing in there about protecting employers from unscrupulous employees with false claims; only indirectly “protecting” employers from other employers that supposedly cheat their own employees.  It would be putting it kindly to call this “protection” mere lip service.  The Labor Commission really has one mission: to stick it to employers “vigorously.”

Justice should be the pursuit of government.  The government should discourage false claims, not reward them.  What message do we send to businesses and departed employees when this sort of thing happens?  We teach employees that they can make a fast buck off their former employer with dubious claims, and we teach businesses that doing business in California is more risky than anywhere else, at least from an employment law perspective.  I have actually seen a business close its California operations because California law was more difficult than anywhere else in the country.  I presume that company is making a profit elsewhere.

In the comments to another post, the question arose whether the pro-life position is inconsistent with a failure to prevent as many naturally-occurring deaths in the womb as possible.  I found the discussion worth a separate post, and I hope that the gentleman with whom I was conversing will take no offense at the separate post written in response to his comments: Read the rest of this entry »

The Natural Law Explained

September 17, 2009

To follow up on an earlier brief post, I want to give a more detailed accounting of the meaning of Natural Law from Thomas Aquinas.  I’ll pick a couple of his comments in his Treatise on Law (a subpart of his Summa Theologica).

1.  On the substance of the Natural Law itself, Aquinas states:

[T]he first principle of practical reason is one founded on the notion of good, viz. that “good is that which all things seek after.” Hence this is the first precept of law, that “good is to be done and pursued, and evil is to be avoided.” All other precepts of the natural law are based upon this: so that whatever the practical reason naturally apprehends as man’s good (or evil) belongs to the precepts of the natural law as something to be done or avoided.

Since, however, good has the nature of an end, and evil, the nature of a contrary, hence it is that all those things to which man has a natural inclination, are naturally apprehended by reason as being good, and consequently as objects of pursuit, and their contraries as evil, and objects of avoidance. Wherefore according to the order of natural inclinations, is the order of the precepts of the natural law. Because in man there is first of all an inclination to good in accordance with the nature which he has in common with all substances: inasmuch as every substance seeks the preservation of its own being, according to its nature: and by reason of this inclination, whatever is a means of preserving human life, and of warding off its obstacles, belongs to the natural law. Secondly, there is in man an inclination to things that pertain to him more specially, according to that nature which he has in common with other animals: and in virtue of this inclination, those things are said to belong to the natural law, “which nature has taught to all animals” [*Pandect. Just. I, tit. i], such as sexual intercourse, education of offspring and so forth. Thirdly, there is in man an inclination to good, according to the nature of his reason, which nature is proper to him: thus man has a natural inclination to know the truth about God, and to live in society: and in this respect, whatever pertains to this inclination belongs to the natural law; for instance, to shun ignorance, to avoid offending those among whom one has to live, and other such things regarding the above inclination.

2.  On the extent to which Natural Law is present in all people, true for all people, and known by all people, Aquinas states:

As stated above (Articles [2],3), to the natural law belongs those things to which a man is inclined naturally: and among these it is proper to man to be inclined to act according to reason. Now the process of reason is from the common to the proper, as stated in Phys. i. The speculative reason, however, is differently situated in this matter, from the practical reason. For, since the speculative reason is busied chiefly with the necessary things, which cannot be otherwise than they are, its proper conclusions, like the universal principles, contain the truth without fail. The practical reason, on the other hand, is busied with contingent matters, about which human actions are concerned: and consequently, although there is necessity in the general principles, the more we descend to matters of detail, the more frequently we encounter defects. Accordingly then in speculative matters truth is the same in all men, both as to principles and as to conclusions: although the truth is not known to all as regards the conclusions, but only as regards the principles which are called common notions. But in matters of action, truth or practical rectitude is not the same for all, as to matters of detail, but only as to the general principles: and where there is the same rectitude in matters of detail, it is not equally known to all.

It is therefore evident that, as regards the general principles whether of speculative or of practical reason, truth or rectitude is the same for all, and is equally known by all. As to the proper conclusions of the speculative reason, the truth is the same for all, but is not equally known to all: thus it is true for all that the three angles of a triangle are together equal to two right angles, although it is not known to all. But as to the proper conclusions of the practical reason, neither is the truth or rectitude the same for all, nor, where it is the same, is it equally known by all. Thus it is right and true for all to act according to reason: and from this principle it follows as a proper conclusion, that goods entrusted to another should be restored to their owner. Now this is true for the majority of cases: but it may happen in a particular case that it would be injurious, and therefore unreasonable, to restore goods held in trust; for instance, if they are claimed for the purpose of fighting against one’s country. And this principle will be found to fail the more, according as we descend further into detail, e.g. if one were to say that goods held in trust should be restored with such and such a guarantee, or in such and such a way; because the greater the number of conditions added, the greater the number of ways in which the principle may fail, so that it be not right to restore or not to restore.

Consequently we must say that the natural law, as to general principles, is the same for all, both as to rectitude and as to knowledge. But as to certain matters of detail, which are conclusions, as it were, of those general principles, it is the same for all in the majority of cases, both as to rectitude and as to knowledge; and yet in some few cases it may fail, both as to rectitude, by reason of certain obstacles (just as natures subject to generation and corruption fail in some few cases on account of some obstacle), and as to knowledge, since in some the reason is perverted by passion, or evil habit, or an evil disposition of nature; thus formerly, theft, although it is expressly contrary to the natural law, was not considered wrong among the Germans, as Julius Caesar relates (De Bello Gall. vi).

(Emphasis added.)

3.  Aquinas further explains how people who know the Natural Law can deny the Natural Law and end up affirming things that are obviously wrong:

As stated above (Articles [4],5), there belong to the natural law, first, certain most general precepts, that are known to all; and secondly, certain secondary and more detailed precepts, which are, as it were, conclusions following closely from first principles. As to those general principles, the natural law, in the abstract, can nowise be blotted out from men’s hearts. But it is blotted out in the case of a particular action, in so far as reason is hindered from applying the general principle to a particular point of practice, on account of concupiscence or some other passion, as stated above (Question [77], Article [2]). But as to the other, i.e. the secondary precepts, the natural law can be blotted out from the human heart, either by evil persuasions, just as in speculative matters errors occur in respect of necessary conclusions; or by vicious customs and corrupt habits, as among some men, theft, and even unnatural vices, as the Apostle states (Rm. i), were not esteemed sinful.

4.  With respect to human laws, Aquinas states that all human laws must conform to the Natural Law:

As Augustine says (De Lib. Arb. i, 5) “that which is not just seems to be no law at all”: wherefore the force of a law depends on the extent of its justice. Now in human affairs a thing is said to be just, from being right, according to the rule of reason. But the first rule of reason is the law of nature, as is clear from what has been stated above (Question [91], Article [2], ad 2). Consequently every human law has just so much of the nature of law, as it is derived from the law of nature. But if in any point it deflects from the law of nature, it is no longer a law but a perversion of law.

But it must be noted that something may be derived from the natural law in two ways: first, as a conclusion from premises, secondly, by way of determination of certain generalities. The first way is like to that by which, in sciences, demonstrated conclusions are drawn from the principles: while the second mode is likened to that whereby, in the arts, general forms are particularized as to details: thus the craftsman needs to determine the general form of a house to some particular shape. Some things are therefore derived from the general principles of the natural law, by way of conclusions; e.g. that “one must not kill” may be derived as a conclusion from the principle that “one should do harm to no man”: while some are derived therefrom by way of determination; e.g. the law of nature has it that the evil-doer should be punished; but that he be punished in this or that way, is a determination of the law of nature.

Accordingly both modes of derivation are found in the human law. But those things which are derived in the first way, are contained in human law not as emanating therefrom exclusively, but have some force from the natural law also. But those things which are derived in the second way, have no other force than that of human law.

All of this is fairly easy to summarize:  There is an objective code of moral laws (the “natural law”) that actually exists.  The first rules are “do good, avoid evil,” and other obvious rules immediately flow out of or coincide with that (do not harm people, etc.).  These laws are not a matter of opinion and we humans did not decide to make them up, these laws are what they are and always have been.  Everyone knows these obvious laws, but honest men can disagree about the applications of these laws in certain complicated circumstances.  People who violate these laws can become self-deluded and then think they do not know the laws that they know.  Laws that humans make up through government should conform to these laws.