Natural Law and Other Things Natural

Bryan Wandel

Joe Carter is asking today, Why isn’t the Natural Law more persuasive? Why don’t more people submit to the argumentations about morality made by advocates of Natural Law, if it really is a Natural Law? Carter is engaging in a debate begun recently by Matthew Lee Anderson, and continued at First Things, about Evangelicals responding to Natural Law theories of morality. That is, can morality ultimately be derived from reason, or is revelation the sole, sound source of moral information and obligation?

Now, the Natural Law argument is not a description of how humans do act, but an obligation on how they should act. So to what extent should a person be compelled by their rational considerations? The Thomist argument requests that, when one recognizes moral categories, one would oblige them.

There are many objections to this view, and many replies to the objections. One objection is given by Peter Leithart: “‘Sodomy is against nature’ is persuasive only to those who believe there is such a thing as nature, and that it has normative force.” And one reply has to do with flourishing, or something of that sort.

But all sides, including Leithart, Carter, and Joe Knippenberg in their objections (or considerations) – all of them accept that the Natural Law arguments are helpful in making explanations, especially explaining things to unbelievers. The disagreement tends to be about whether where there is any Oomph! behind it. Does it persuade? Is there anything in the argument that compels moral duty?

On these questions, the bite is too big, and I’ll try to resist. At some point, you will run into questions of how linear reasoning works, or whether perhaps it should be conceived more like a “web of truth.” Anderson begins to answer that question in the original article of this debate. It is insufficient merely to ask how Natural Law has confronted evangelicals uncomfortable with it, he says. Rather,

[the] influence goes both ways, and evangelicals may have something to offer the natural law thinkers as well. Specifically, the evangelical emphasis on the brokenness of our rational faculties because of sin may serve as a reminder that truthful accounts of the goods of traditional marriage are not enough for moral or social transformation—those interested in preserving traditional marriage need beauty as well, beauty that comes in the form of lives and marriages that reflect the beauty of the cross. 

That is a good start. Let’s go further. The brokenness of rational faculties is only the “problem” if, indeed, pure rational faculties were available in any state, at which our cogitations alone could provide data upon which our wills act and bodies enjoy. But the distinctiveness of the faculties (which is, admittedly, not just a modern distinction) itself might be called into question here. The philosopher James K.A. Smith has worked to emphasize this issue. Reasoning happens when we articulate – but when we articulate what? Presumably, when we articulate the things we perceive or engage with. And perception happens in a variety of ways: desiring, familiarizing, experiencing, gaining confidence in how we use our knowledge. The walls, here, begin to break down between the ascent of truth (the path) and the actual obtaining of truth-data. The path is not an end in itself, but it is impossible to purely cogitate the entire way to some truth. Other “faculties” are involved, and reasoning is not unitary. (Reasoning, the process, is not unitary – the truth is.)

Does Natural Law have an Oomph? Well, no argument-in-itself ever does. Unless, as Anderson indicates, “argument” is conceived more generally to include things like beauty, and analogy to experience. And, as I indicate, “reasoning” is conceived more generally to include things like faithfulness, curiosity, trauma, and the experience of responding to these things.

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