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Why Aren’t Natural Law Arguments More Persuasive?

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persuasion-postAs an evangelical who is extremely sympathetic to natural law theorizing, I’ve struggled with a question that I’ve never found anyone address: Why aren’t natural law arguments more persuasive?

We evangelicals are nothing if not pragmatic. If we were able to recognize the utility and effectiveness of such arguments, we’d likely to be much more open to natural law theory. But conclusions based on natural law don’t seem to be all that useful in compelling those who are unconvinced. Indeed, not only do they not seem to change the minds of non-believers, they often fail to sway believers. For instance, nominal Catholics, a group that should (at least theoretically) give them a fair hearing, don’t seem to take such arguments all that seriously. Why is that?

We evangelicals, of course, have our own explanation for such arguments are inefficacious. As Al Mohler said after an interview with Robert George:

At the end of the day Professor Robert P. George really does believe that the natural law can in itself form the basis of a compelling moral argument for such an issue such as sexual restraint. I have to come at this from a position that is more informed by Romans chapter one. When I believe that what we are told there is that humanity is dead set to suppress the truth in unrighteousness and that there is no law written within the heart nor within the role of nature that will keep them from doing what they are determined to do except by the regenerating power of God, the gospel of Jesus Christ. There is a restraining grace and for that I am very thankful and I do not deny the reality of the natural law. I do not deny the fact that that is a part of the restraining grace, but at the end of the day, I am not very hopeful that a society hell bent on moral revolution is going to be held in check by our arguments by the moral law, the natural law. I’m thankful, however, that Robert P. George is making those arguments. I’m thankful that he’s making them better than just about anyone else is making them. And as an evangelical, we have every reason to use natural law arguments, we just don’t believe that in the end they’re going to be enough. That’s where we have to come back with the final issue always being the gospel. And the challenges we’re talking about today are the challenges that point to the absolute necessity of the gospel of Jesus Christ. That’s where we begin and that’s where we end.

As much as I’d like to agree with Dr. George, I have to side with Dr. Mohler: Evangelicals have every reason to use natural law arguments, we just don’t believe that in the end they’re going to be enough.

Of course, that is not to deny their importance or to say that they should be used. I believe that natural law arguments can be valuable even when they are never fully persuasive.

Nevertheless, many natural lawyers do intend for such argument to persuade both believers and non-believers. How do they account for the relative ineffectualness of such arguments? Why don’t more people find them to be persuasive?

I’m sure this questions has been considered by natural law advocates, so I’d love to have them weigh in on this question.

Joe Carter Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).


  • Gherald

    Today’s”natural law” arguments only make sense from within a narrow, patently bigoted world view that already wishes them to be true. Post-enlightenment they are so empirically flawed that one hardly knows where to begin.

    • Well, begin anyway. Can you give an example of the empirical flaws of natural law?

      • Michael

        “Why aren’t natural law arguments more persuasive?” The answer is quite simple–because natural law DEMANDS that all empirical evidence be dismissed. All conclusions reached by observation (of actual nature, perhaps) are completely inadmissible. Only conclusions drawn from the stacked deck of pre-existing assumptions are allowed.

        It isn’t the Enlightenment that killed Natural Law. It was the shocked monks, turned out of their monasteries by the Reformation, who simply couldn’t believe what ACTUALLY lay outside the cloister, as opposed to what they IMAGINED was there.

        • Are these the same monks who did things like work on genetics, mathematics, physics and geography? Those monks who literally invented the scientific method? These monks are the ones who then stumbled blindly into the world, gasping, “Gosh! We had no idea…”?

  • Mark

    I think the problem is that people do not understand the first thing about natural law theory, and assume once the word is used it is referring to a fantastical religious concept that cannot possibly be proven through reason. Aristotelian-Thomist natural law theory does not require any belief in God, though it certainly leads to belief in God.

  • John Macias

    Mr. Carter,
    I actually am currently working on a paper looking at the work of the Thomist Alasdair MacIntyre on this very issue. He notes many of the same things that you have said, namely that if anyone is to hold a coherent and defensible version of natural law, the apparent rejection of that natural law must be explained. MacIntyre argues that a Thomistic natural law theory actually can account for the rejection, such that given the contemporary political and philosophical order, we actually should expect natural law to be rejected. MacIntyre shares your concern about the rejection of natural law, and argues that such rejection is perfectly intelligible according to Thomistic natural law theory.

    • Howard

      MacIntyre actually helps diagnose the problem: George’s notion of universally available, inductive, self-evident moral truths is flawed and not actually Thomistic. George is far more Kantian than Thomistic and, in this way, part of the failed “Enlightenment Project” of trying to establish a rational, universal basis for all morality, outside of any tradition or revelation.

      In my mind this is the answer to Mr. Carter’s question: Natural Law arguments (particularly from George and his neocon clan) tend to be not arguments but emphatic declarations of one’s own moral beliefs as self-evident and irrefutable. Any dissent can then be framed as an epistemic failure to see what is “natural.” Throw in total ignorance of anthropological diversity, moral psychology, or historical contingency of what are presented as “eternal moral truths” and you end up with a very worthless approach to morality. George’s employment with the Romney campaign (and from what I can tell, endorsement of the entire GOP platform as “natural” law) further delegitimizes his work.

      I’m quite happy evangelicals have looked elsewhere for approaches to morality and ethics.

  • vigil

    One of the insights I take from Plato (Gorgias, for example) is that reason, and therefore argument, is impotent in the face of those who do not want there to be any boss of them. One can learn more of the law written in one’s heart if the desire to know it is strong enough. But no one has to believe it, and it’s usually a still, small voice easily ignored. Hardening one’s heart is a common phenomenon.

    We are free. And the best story wins.

  • Well, starting from my narrow and bigoted worldview…

    One can’t expect much from “nominal Catholics” or non-believers who simply know nothing about Christianity (or the worst of the worst, non-believers who THINK they know and actually know nothing). So one can say that there is a catechetical problem: poor instruction leaves many Catholics non-receptive to natural law arguments while a lack of religious education in general does the same for everyone else.

    There is a rhetorical problem too. Divine law is a very explicit phrase, isn’t it? God has explicitly commanded something. We may debate the meaning of the text of a command, but if we reach a common understanding we agree that it is a divine command. Natural law is often implicit. It is what the human mind, through the use of reason and the observation of the natural world, can discover and know to be true. But we now live in a “post-Enlightenment” time as the previous commentator stated. Modern Americans strongly feel that they can strongly feel their way to truth. Natural law arguments that stress the use of reason to discover objective moral truths sound restrictive and oppressive, and for many people, inaccessible.

    I reject the idea that natural law arguments are inherently anti-empirical, though. I think the old functional-structuralist school of sociology has the tools to validate natural law with empirical data. I think Herbert Spencer and William Graham Sumner were on to it as well. Unfortunately the sociological discipline was overrun by Marxists in the mid-20th century and it has barely begun to recover. Charles Murray is a sociologist in the Spencerian tradition that I think is worth reading on this score. I don’t know if anyone can be convinced that there is an objective morality waiting in nature to be discovered anymore, but I do believe that social science will ultimately support the preferences of natural law theorists from Aristotle through Aquinas, Locke and Spencer.

  • Dylan Pahman

    My two cents:

    Certain natural law advocates seemed to have missed that there is more to rhetoric than logos. They might have all the logic right, but that doesn’t mean anyone will (or even should) listen.

    Mohler raises an important concern regarding sin and redemption, but he also seems to miss this point. The fact that the logic is inadequate to persuade does not mean it is unnecessary or that persuasion regarding basic morality apart from supernatural conversion is impossible. Logic is necessary, just not sufficient.

    Furthermore, Mohler seems to overstate his side when he says that “there is no law written within the heart.” Perhaps he should try reading the next chapter of Romans.

  • Robert Landbeck

    “Why aren’t natural law arguments more persuasive?” The reason is simple. They are a failure as a basis for ethical development, offer no path for human progress and expose the intellectual conceit of an unsustainable species. The presumption that ‘natural law’ contains within it a divinely ordained moral order or that humanity exists in the image and likeness of a creator God are no more than theological bias and religious prejudice, maintained by tradition to avoid confronting the fact that human nature itself remains in a state of profound ignorance of the reality of God.

  • Why aren’t natural law arguments more persuasive?

    1. There isn’t agreement as to what natural law teaches. For example, people will point to nature and the beneficial effect to a species which homosexual behavior plays in reducing aggression or they will point to the number of species in which there is homosexual behavior

    2. There isn’t agreement on the role natural law is play and how much of a basis it should serve for the law of the land. For example, must we criminalize homosexual behavior because we claim that natural law says it isn’t right when our version of natural law says that denying God is wrong too?

    Considering the current moral direction of our society, especially when it comes to the current state of global economics and increased authoritarianism by politicians, I welcome a moral revolution. And perhaps, if I listen to others regarding their vision of what a moral revolution should include, they will listen to me.

    • There is far more agreement than disagreement, and the disagreement tends to be on minor details. As for what part of natural law should be legal, that was not a natural law issue but an abandonment of natural law by Christians. Christians decided that they couldn’t wait for God to establish is kingdom on earth; they were going to do it for him by passing the right laws to force people to behave properly.

      Christians betrayed traditional Christianity, which taught that only God can change human nature. Instead, they wen whoring after the atheist nonsense that humans are born innocent and only go bad due to oppression. If the state removes the oppression through legislation then mankind will revert to its natural state of innocence.

      • Roger,
        Actually, my view is that if the Church defends the equality of gays in society, they will not only remove unnecessary stumbling blocks to the preaching of the Gospel, they will have done what they can to establish a positive relationship with gays and that perhaps can help in our preaching of the Gospel. I don’t believe that if the state removes the oppression through legislation, then mankind will become innocent.

        • When has the Church ever NOT preached “equality” of gays? “For through
          faith you are all children of God in Christ Jesus. For all of you who
          were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is
          neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is
          not male and female; for you are all in in Christ Jesus.” Of course,
          that means we bear the responsibility of living according to Christ.

          • Whenever it has pushed for legislation that bans homosexuality or same-sex marriages. Or when it pushed for legislation that banned sexual practices practiced by gays. Or when it tried to have gays stigmatized in society.

            When people talk about the Church not preaching equality for gays, they are talking about how the Church tries to control how society responds to gays. And the Church has done much and still tries to keep gays from being treated as equals in society.

            Yes, homosexuality is dealt with very seriously in the Bible. But we have to both hold to that seriousness without giving into the temptation to pile on that seriousness in ways that cause us to ask for the persecution of gays in society. We have to find ways to say homosexuality is sin while speaking to gays as equals and enthusiastically defending their equality and rights.

          • NDaniels

            A sexual desire or inclination is not a person; regardless of desire or consent, a man remains a man, and a woman remains a woman. If a couple were to present themselves to be married knowing they are not able to exist in relationship as husband and wife, they would then be guilty of committing fraud.

          • NDaniels

            This means that if we are Christian, we abide in The Word of God, which does not depend on our ancestry, or whether we are male or female. Identifying oneself or others as an object of sexual desire is a violation of God’s Commandment regarding lust and the sin of adultery. We have not been ordered to live our lives in relationship as objects of sexual desire; we are, and have always sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, husbands wives, fathers, mothers…

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  • “Why aren’t natural law arguments more persuasive?” is the same as asking “Why isn’t Christianity more persuasive?” or “Why aren’t all people Christians?” Jesus answered those questions in John: men love darkness rather than light. Paul answers all of those questions in Romans 1: people hate the truth and suppress it.

    If people want the truth, as Solomon advised, they will find it. If they don’t want the truth, nothing, not even the Son of God becoming human can persuade them. After all, the way is narrow and few people find it.

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  • NDaniels

    In the natural order, before Plato and Aristotle were brought into being, Christ Revealed, “Iam The Way, The Truth, and The Light (Life)… No one comes to The Father except through Me.”

    The Laws of Nature are best explained by The Word of God, through Whom all things were created.
    A philosophy that does not reflect The Word of God, is a false philosophy.
    Who better than The Word of God, The Truth of Love, knows what will make us happy?

  • NDaniels

    It is true, as Professor Deneen has stated, that liberalism’s contradictions are unsustainable, but it is not enough to see man and nature anew; we must see man through The Eyes of God- we must recognize who we are from The Beginning, and who God desires us to be.

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  • kjell

    nature Law will not fail us, the adult will teach the younger. thats nature. morality is nature, all living Things have some sort of morality, we don’t need to bee controled