The Debate of Natural Law

by Brooks Robinson

Is there truly such a thing as right and wrong? It is not an easy query to answer, mainly because there is a requisite knowledge needed to differentiate between something that can be described as morally “right”, and something entirely different that is “wrong”. To make the matter more succinct, I might simply ask, Does a natural law exist? For the time being, let us vaguely use the term “natural law” to mean some code of ethics ingrained in the moral fiber of humanity.

There are many who doubt the reality of natural law. Consider, for example, the recent increase in relativists, who assert that truth and morality are constructed differently according to whichever culture or historical time period is predominant. Relativism has grown quite popular among the younger members of contemporary society.1 Such a perspective may seem attractive; after all, there is ample evidence that today’s customs and beliefs differ significantly from those of a hundred years ago. However, I contend that relativism, appealing as it may be, is inherently self-contradictory by its nature, and that natural law is as material and real as the physical matter with which one interacts every day. This argument hinges upon the biconditional relationship between Christianity and morality; that is, Christianity guarantees the existence of morality, and morality guarantees the veracity of Christianity. 

The first order of business lies in determining a more precise meaning of “natural law.” C.S. Lewis, the famed twentieth century writer and theologian, had much to say on this topic. According to Lewis, natural law is “some kind of standard of behavior which [every man] expects the other man to know about.”2 Natural law could therefore be thought of as the “sixth sense.” Just as it is expected that one understands a difference in taste between salty and sweet, so it is expected that right and wrong are innate to all.

 But is natural law really inherently recognized by all members of humanity? It must be, as surely as the person who declares cold-blooded murder to be perfectly moral will soon find himself in quite the bind. For if someone is to then attempt for no reason at all to murder this same person, he will immediately cry foul and be quite indignant with this would-be murderer. Thus, it is fair to say that unjustified murder transgresses natural law. The point is that those who espouse relativism only do so when they are not directly affected – as soon as they find themselves in the proverbial ‘line of fire’, moral law suddenly makes a grand return. Everyone, whether they admit it or not, subscribes to a similar set of overarching ideas of justice and fairness, for “whenever you find a man who says he does not believe in a real Right and Wrong, you will find the same man going back on this a moment later.”2 More formally, natural law is a system of intractable precepts intrinsic to all humans, regardless of conscious recognition

To further illustrate the omnipresence of a general morality, consider the sentiments of Martin Luther King, Jr., the beloved civil rights activist who made it his life’s work to strive for equality and liberty. In his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, King appeals to the distinction between just and unjust laws, writing that “one has not a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.”3 Surely, a relativist would be forced to disagree with King on this matter, for relativists recognize no such moral responsibility, no such just or unjust laws. Yet, one would be hard-pressed to find a decent person today who disagrees with the notion that the racist laws of the Jim Crow era were unjust. Do I mean to say that contemporary relativists are indecent people? Hardly – just that their relativist disposition appears to contain irreconcilable inconsistencies. 

It is also worth considering how natural law differs from many other “laws” recognized by man. Such “laws” include rigorously proven theories of mathematics, empirical observations of nature, and concrete postulates of physics. One might be inclined to ask how exactly natural law can be separated from these “laws”, and why this division is even important. As a response, consider Lewis’ famous example surrounding the law of gravitation.2 Gravity, he says, invariably demands total compliance, for when a stone is dropped from above, it is said that “falling stones always obey the law of gravitation, [but] is not this much the same as saying that the law only means ‘what stones always do?’”2 It is semantically inaccurate to describe gravitation as a law at all, for there is no stipulation in the law of gravitation as to what ought to happen, only for what does happen. Once the rock is dropped, it lacks the freedom to choose whether or not to obey gravity. Natural law, however, allows for more subtlety, postulating what one should do instead of what one will absolutely do. Morality is interwoven with freedom of choice. This is a significant point, for one of the critiques of natural law rests upon the false belief that since mankind tends to disobey the rules of morality (and this is quite clearly true, as history shows time and time again), then natural law is not much of a law at all, and should thus be discarded and treated as an anachronism. However, this argument is predicated upon the false equivalence between natural law and an empirically observed “law” like gravitation – the two are not the same. 

There is still an important aspect of natural law that has not yet been discussed: God. Intricately intertwined with natural law is theology; where else might morality stem, if not God? Let’s play Devil’s advocate for a moment. Could natural law simply be the “next step” in the biological sequence, a cognitive construct designed to serve the benefit of the individual? The Darwinist Theory of Evolution implies that humans are primarily motivated by self-preservation. What, then, are we to make of instances in which our sense of morality contradicts the Darwinian impulse? I think it safe to say that simple biology cannot account for natural law. Perhaps we simply derived natural law as a necessary means of communal living, a way of satisfying the utilitarian majority? This would seem to suggest that humans feel an impulse to follow some sort of natural law for the common good of humanity. But utilitarianism requires that one know what is “good” and what is “bad” for society in the first place. It all has a rather circular logic to it.2

Well, if natural law is neither derived from the individual nor the group, the logical conclusion is that there must be something more, a source external to humans. I am describing an intervening third-party, peripheral to even the universe perhaps, that relies upon shared impulses and urges in order to communicate Its messages and desires to mankind. This Being, though elementary and largely stripped of Its recognizably Christian traits thus far, is God. God is the link that connects all humans through morality. The inverse of the biconditional relationship is somewhat easier to prove: if there exists a God, whose Word has been sedulously recorded for thousands of years in the Bible, and this Bible’s messages correspond exactly to the inherent impulses of justice and equality felt by each person, then it follows that these impulses are the natural law of God. 

Let’s shift now and address the undeniable fact that Christianity’s natural law has garnered many misgivings and vituperations, especially in today’s culture. The most common criticism is that a diversity of views on moral matters has been held across various cultures, times, and individuals, which thus disproves the concept of natural law.2 One example commonly cited is the social issue of American chattel slavery, and it is into this case study that I will delve. 

There has quite evidently been a drastic evolution in public opinion towards slavery within the last 400 years. In the early 17th century, the first slave ship arrived in the English colony of Virginia, beginning a disturbing cycle of inhumane abuse that lasted for far too long. Yet in the years that followed, a Civil War was fought over slavery, the American Constitution was amended to ban the evil practice of slavery and racial discrimination, and racism became a universally despised practice. These are extremely positive developments, following the general paradigm in which human conditions tend to improve as the passage of time increases. Now, many relativists point to instances of the Christian church (particularly the Southern Baptist denomination) and its past ties with slavery, and hastily declare Christianity obsolete and natural law nonsense. How, these critics ask, can Christianity reconcile its former tolerance of that “peculiar institution,” especially when the Bible is fraught with instances of slavery? 

The answer is quite straightforward: chattel slavery has always, and will always, violate natural law. As to why there are instances of that slavery displayed throughout the Bible, it should be noted that the Bible, in order to expose transgressions, first must exemplify those transgressions to make a theological point. Why else are we told the story of Cain and Abel, of Reuben and Joseph, of David and Bathsheba? The mere fact that slavery is mentioned in the Word of God is by no means an endorsement, and any attempt to say so is a severe distortion of Christianity. Historically, God facilitated the Israelites’ escape from their enslavement to the Egyptians (and later, from the Babylonians), as he declares: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.”4 Furthermore, slavery in the Bible was largely inconsistent with American, race-based slavery.5 Accounts of slavery, particularly in Exodus, are more evocative of indentured servitude than of subjection to life-long bondage and captivity contingent upon skin color.5 Slavery was seen as voluntary in many respects, a way to pay off debts.5 

Lewis’ interpretation of natural law helps us make sense of the temporal shift in widespread opinion over slavery. Just because the majority of people at one given time or another do not seem to follow a natural law, does not therefore indicate that there is no natural law. For as long as slavery existed in America, there was always an abolitionist tendency to combat the institution stride-for-stride. The irony of the matter is that it was Christian thought that led the world to where it is today in terms of the eradication of slavery. After all, notions of “equality” have no meaning without a God that tells us “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.”4 Even when slavery was widely accepted, natural law had to exist such that there were still those that recognized the immorality of race-based enslavement. And based upon the current state of today’s affairs, it appears the impulses of natural law prevailed. 

The arguments refuting a relativist view are applicable far beyond the example discussed here of slavery, and can be extrapolated to most other instances. The existence of a common morality is the backbone and musculature that supports the emergence of just outcomes in the face of prejudice and sin. In this way, God’s Word may be seen as the neural system interconnecting this body, providing a unified integrity of goodness. Though God’s natural law is consistent, each body’s understanding, interpretation and resulting actions often are not. This reality should not be misconstrued as a condemnation of natural law, but instead as a beautiful expression of God on Earth through diversity and individual free-will. And there is solace to be had in a world that appears to increasingly reject natural law: most individuals, notwithstanding a distaste for religion, still wish to perform more “right” acts than “wrong” ones. In this way, the natural law is unwittingly channeled even by those that do not believe – yet another instance of God prevailing in the most improbable of places.


Brooks Robinson is a member of the class of 2024.

References

1. David, Brooks. “If It Feels Right…” The New York Times, September 13, 2011. https://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/13/opinion/if-it-feels-right.html

2. Lewis, C. S. Mere Christianity. London: William Collins, 2017. 

3. King, Martin Luther, Jr. 2018. Letter from Birmingham Jail. Penguin Modern. London, England: Penguin Classics.

4. Barker, Kenneth L. Niv Study Bible. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Pub. House, 2011.

5. Becker, Doug. “Does the Bible Condone Slavery?” Emergence Church – New Jersey, January 4, 2019. https://emergencenj.org/blog/2019/01/04/does-the-bible-condone-slavery.

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