I’ll save you the suspense. No.

Linker, known primarily for betraying Richard John Neuhaus by serving as editor of First Things and then publishing a book accusing Neuhaus of scurrilous theocratic aims, now writes at the New Republic. In a recent post there, he brilliantly claims to have demonstrated the idea of natural law is obvious poppycock. Why? Because he disagrees with two officials of the Catholic Church holding that a nine year old who was raped and with her life endangered by the pregnancy should still have the children rather than an abortion. Linker reasons that if the Catholic Church is wrong about that, then their idea of natural law is wrong.

Where to start?

Given that Mr. Linker worked at First Things, I’d figure he had his Aquinas down pat. Thomas Aquinas (AKA, the DOCTOR OF NATURAL LAW) held that we should agree on the first principles of natural law (like that the lives of innocent children should be protected), but that we may well disagree with the application of that natural law on a case by case basis. Well, guess what? Here we have just such a case. Does it mean the idea of natural law is vacuous? No. And Aquinas didn’t think so, either.

Mr. Linker thinks the church (or more specifically two church officials) is wrong about this case. And maybe they are. I’m unfamiliar with it. But does his disagreement with their reasoning about this case mean that the larger principle (the lives of innocent children should be protected) no longer holds? No, that position is obviously incorrect. The broad propositions of the natural law continue to hold.


  • Fred

    As a first time visitor to this site, I was quite taken by the venom exhibited in the article. I do not know the particulars of he case of the pregnant cild but in the statements regarding the upholding of natural law and protecting children, what child are you protecting here ? The pregnant 9 year old or the unborn ?
    is this an anti abortion statement and if it is, isn’t this a rather callous attitude a 9 year old ?
    It is rulings by the Catholic Church that contributes to the increase in the number of people who profess to have no religion as reported today by the American Religious Identification Survey.

  • http://hunterbaker.wordpress.com/ Hunter Baker

    The venom is directed toward the idea that by identifying this one case of moral disagreement, Linker has invalidated the entire natural law theory.

  • http://pleion.blogspot.com Bjørn Østman

    But does his disagreement with their reasoning about this case mean that the larger principle (the lives of innocent children should be protected) no longer holds? No, that position is obviously incorrect. The broad propositions of the natural law continue to hold.

    I agree that this case proves nothing. But I emphatically disagree that there is a natural law that you can claim says that we should protect the lives of innocent children. What a load of hogwash. That we all agree that we should protect innocent children does not imply in any way that there is a natural law to that effect.

    I’d be interested in an argument that natural law exists without any axiomatic divinity.

  • http://blog.acton.org/ Jordan J. Ballor

    I’d be interested in an argument that natural law exists without any axiomatic divinity.

    The short answer is that there are different kinds of natural law, and they are infamously difficult to define. One kind is the law of the nations (ius gentium), which is part an appeal to the common practice, opinion, and mores of various peoples.

    So in one sense this common opinion “that we should protect innocent children” is a kind of natural law, notwithstanding the practice or views of groups that practice infant sacrifice (e.g. the cult of Molech). This kind of natural-law argument doesn’t entail “axiomatic divinity,” assuming by that you mean that it assumes a view of origin in a divine being. But that’s exactly why Christian theologians have always appealed to the ius gentium as a supplement or secondary form of natural law, and perhaps even natural law only “improperly” speaking.

  • http://pleion.blogspot.com Bjørn Østman

    ius gentium is just a consensus, and while I agree that that works, it is hardly natural law: Natural law or the law of nature (Latin: lex naturalis) is a theory that posits the existence of a law whose content is set by nature and that therefore has validity everywhere.
    (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Natural_law)

  • http://hunterbaker.wordpress.com/ Hunter Baker

    Let’s leave out the question of axiomatic divinity. Is there something in you that says the question of whether a man should be able to torture his own child is different in kind, rather than degree, from the question of whether chocolate ice cream is better than vanilla?

    If you think that the question of the ice cream is mere preference while the question of the man torturing his child is a matter for community intervention and moral judgement, then you believe in the natural law. Or, it would seem so to me.

  • http://pleion.blogspot.com Bjørn Østman

    I most definitely do not believe in natural law, however you choose to slice your examples.

    And why, pray tell, should we leave out a discussion about whether natural can exist within the divine or not? That’s the bottom line. Where would a natural law come from if not from there? What assures that we arrive at the same consensus otherwise?

    If you think that the question of the ice cream is mere preference while the question of the man torturing his child is a matter for community intervention and moral judgement, then you believe in the natural law.

    It is my preference that society should intervene if a man tortures his child. That does not make it an absolute. How can there be any, if not from a god?

  • http://pleion.blogspot.com Bjørn Østman

    Typo: exist within the divine or not?
    Make that ‘without’.

  • http://hunterbaker.wordpress.com/ Hunter Baker

    Bjorn, I agree with you that this morality must come from a God, but I was simply trying to appeal to the mind of the skeptic. In a sense, the question is if you see a difference between my two examples, then where does that difference come from?

  • http://pleion.blogspot.com Bjørn Østman

    The difference between your two examples are the consequences. The consequence of my preference for chocolate over vanilla is unimportant (to me) (e.g. could be that vanilla farmers go out of business in the long term), but the consequences of a man torturing a child are much greater. And if I don’t believe in God, then that is the only difference for me. For society, the difference is that there is a consensus in one example, but not in the other – and that ultimately stems from the different consequences.

    I would not normally say that the difference between the two examples is one of degree, but in this particular discussion I would. Moral judgment is completely subjective.

  • rasqual

    Is the judgment that moral judgment is completely subjective, completely subjective?

  • http://pleion.blogspot.com Bjørn Østman

    Is the judgment that moral judgment is completely subjective, completely subjective?

    No.

  • Neal Lang

    “That we all agree that we should protect innocent children does not imply in any way that there is a natural law to that effect.”

    The fact that “we all agree” in this matter of morality, without resort to religious doctrine or teaching, seems to make the case for the existence of “Natural Law” quite well. Ask yourself, why do “we all agree that we should protect innocent children”?

    If not to “Natural Law”, then to what did the Founding Fathers appeal in the Declaration of Independence when they declared “We find these TRUTHS to be self-evident”?

  • Neal Lang

    “What assures that we arrive at the same consensus otherwise?

    “NATURAL LAW: A philosophy that understands morality (see Morality) to be universal, objective, and derivative from human nature. Reasoned reflection upon human nature yields rules or laws of conduct for moral behavior. Natural law undergirds man-made positive law because it is rooted in the nature of humankind. The natural law tradition is a theistic system. It precludes any contradiction between revelation and reason because God, who authored the Ten Commandments, also designed human nature. Formative influences were Aristotle*, Cicero*, St. Thomas Aquinas*, Franciscus Suarez*, Hugo Grotius*, Henry Veatch, and John Finnis.

    “MORALITY: Morality is any intellectual system which tries to explain right and wrong. Strictly speaking, morality deals only with the realm of human actions and intentions. The key to understanding any moral system is to identify what determines or acts as the standard of right and wrong. For Christians, it is the Scripture and natural law (see Natural Law). For relativists, it is either societal trends or individual preferences.

    “Religious liberals, such as Lord Acton, Alexis de Tocqueville, and Frederic Bastiat, consider a virtuous citizenry to be an essential component of a free society. Typically, however, secular liberals regard morality (and religion) as an exclusively private and personal matter. It is up to each individual to decide upon his own moral code. According to secular modern liberals, the government may only insist that individuals refrain from violence and theft, and honor all freely entered contracts. From the classical liberal perspective, the objective, rational, and cross-cultural moral norms of Christianity provide the basic understanding of virtue.” From: Dictionary of Terms for Free and Virtuous Society
    * = RIP

    How does a World without moral absolutes judge an Adolf Hitler? Why does man choose to form societies? To what purpose does government exist?

    No less than the “natural laws” of science, the “Natural Laws” of absolute “right and wrong” exist. Man with “free will”, untethered by “Natural Law” is no different than the crocodile who will eat its young. With all other species “Might makes Right”! Had the human being not been endowed with “Natural Law”, a “Moral Compass” denoting absolute right and absolute wrong, we would have in all likihood gone the way of the cave bear and saber-toothed tiger.

  • Neal Lang

    “It is my preference that society should intervene if a man tortures his child. That does not make it an absolute.”

    Why is your “preference” superior to that of the child molster? On what foundation does a society build its moral case for its “positive law” prohibiting child torture?

    From whence came the authority for the Allies to hold the Nuremberg Trials?

    Why is slavery wrong?

  • Neal Lang

    “Because he disagrees with two officials of the Catholic Church holding that a nine year old who was raped and with her life endangered by the pregnancy should still have the children rather than an abortion.”

    All human life is precious including the young girl and the unborn child growing inside. If the carriage of this unborn child term would indeed theaten the life of this young girl, I believe Catholic understanding is that she has “Natural Law” to protect her own life, even if means taking the life of another. The question rises and falls on whether or not the young girls life is truly threatened (which in all likihood it is).

  • http://pleion.blogspot.com Bjørn Østman

    Neal,

    Post #1:
    The fact that “we all agree” in this matter of morality, without resort to religious doctrine or teaching, seems to make the case for the existence of “Natural Law” quite well. Ask yourself, why do “we all agree that we should protect innocent children”?

    It may seem so to you, but logically there is no such inference possible.
    It is an instinct of ours to feel empathy. That we agree stems from that, not because there is a natural law.
    You limited understanding of human nature is leading you into a God-of-the-gaps type of argument.

    If not to “Natural Law”, then to what did the Founding Fathers appeal in the Declaration of Independence when they declared “We find these TRUTHS to be self-evident”?

    I don’t know (though I could guess) what these people were thinking, and I don’t see why it matters. Or rather, emphatically, it doesn’t matter.

    Post #2:
    Sorry, but, again, you clearly don’t understand human nature. Our nature is not just to care for ourselves, and eat our children, etc. It is to care for others, and from that instinct comes empathy and an agreement that we should take care of all our children (and note that this is not a universal truth, as natural law would have it, but one that is modified based on circumstances, just as evolutionary theory would predict).

    Post #3:
    Same answer as above. And, without an absolute, it doesn’t even make sense to ask why one morality of “superior” to another. All I’m saying is that most people agree that what child molesters do is wrong, because it hurts the child. And note that by “agreeing” is not meant merely choosing, or rolling a die to decide which way to go, but that we have evolved with the consequences of such acts, and natural selection has had a say about what that preference is. Human groups where child molestation was not punished did not survive long. Those people who evolved a feeling of disgust for it survived.

  • Neal Lang

    “It is an instinct of ours to feel empathy. That we agree stems from that, not because there is a natural law.”

    “Instincts” promote the survival of the fitness. Conscience is a limiting factor on our “instincts” and a result of Natural Law. Without “Natural Law”, man is not created equal, and is not endowed with unalienable rights of Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.

    “Our nature is not just to care for ourselves, and eat our children, etc. It is to care for others, and from that instinct comes empathy and an agreement that we should take care of all our children (and note that this is not a universal truth, as natural law would have it, but one that is modified based on circumstances, just as evolutionary theory would predict).”

    A now universal human “instinct” is an oxymoron. BTW, what is this evolutionary source of this “empathy”? It would that such “empathy” would be “counter-evolutionary” as same is defined by Darwin.

    “And note that by ‘agreeing’ is not meant merely choosing, or rolling a die to decide which way to go, but that we have evolved with the consequences of such acts, and natural selection has had a say about what that preference is.”

    Hmmm! Sounds a little like the “science” of eugenics to me.
    “All I’m saying is that most people agree that what child molesters do is wrong, because it hurts the child.”

    Actually you stated : “That we all agree that we should protect innocent children ….” What is it? “All” or “most”? If it is merely “most” how can it be an “evolutionary” instinct?

    “And, without an absolute, it doesn’t even make sense to ask why one morality of “superior” to another.”

    Of course, if there are acknowledged absolute “Physical Laws of Nature”, why can there not absolute “Moral Laws of Nature” as well?

  • Neal Lang

    “If not to ‘Natural Law’, then to what did the Founding Fathers appeal in the Declaration of Independence when they declared ‘We find these TRUTHS to be self-evident’?

    “I don’t know (though I could guess) what these people were thinking, and I don’t see why it matters. Or rather, emphatically, it doesn’t matter.”

    Of course it matters! In fact they stated emphatically what they relied on in the Preamble, to wit:

    “When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bonds which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and of nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.”

    The French Revolution based it Rights on the “good graces” of the State – this lasted all of 7 years until Napoleon Bonaparte led a successful coupe to become the 1st dictator of France. The American Revolution was based on Man’s Rights under Natural Law, and has lasted well over 200 years.