Posts tagged with: moral law


Fourth of July Celebration in Centre Square, Philadelphia (1819)

“Liberty is not the power of doing what we like, but the right to do what we ought.” – Lord Acton

Today, people across the United States will march in parades, set off fireworks, and don red, white, and blue to huge family cookouts, all in celebration of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence. In the years since those first Americans pledged their loyalty to the philosophy of natural rights and the equality of all men, the document has remained a national symbol of pride and freedom.  However, in the years since the founding of the country and the later drafting of the Constitution, the true intentions of the Founders and the spirit of their work has become intermittently lost and misunderstood.

Among the most common and consequential misunderstandings is the idea that the Founders were worshipers of rights for their own sake, radical individualists with the goal only to secure those liberties to which humans believe, through reason or instinct, they are entitled. In truth, even among libertarian heroes like John Locke or Founder Thomas Jefferson, the spirit of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were not in pursuit of license.  In fact, many of those who formed and secured the natural rights tradition of the American Founding outright rejected the idea that rights exist for their own sake, without a higher purpose or end.  Our freedoms were thought to exist and were secured for much more than a pleasure-guided exercise of free will. (more…)

Although popular in his own day, C.S. Lewis has become even more influential since his death on November 22, 1963—52 years ago yesterday. One of the most enduring of Lewis’s works is his book Mere Christianity, which started out as a series of radio lectures that aired on the BBC during World War II.

A YouTube channel called CSLewisDoodle contains a number of videos that illustrate some of Lewis’s selected essays to make them easier to understand. The video below is from the third radio talk (Chapter 4 of Mere Christianity) in which Lewis explains what lies behind the moral law.

A popular citation of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s justly-famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail” is his reference to natural law and Thomas Aquinas:

How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.

The Witherspoon Institute has announced today its project, “Natural Law, Natural Rights, and American Constitutionalism,” which “will serve as an online resource center for students, teachers, and educated citizens to learn about the intellectual traditions of natural law and natural rights, particularly within American political and constitutional history.”

The current list of essays by contributors is expansive and impressive, and includes an essay by Acton’s own director of research Sam Gregg, “Natural Law and the Law of Nations.” Be sure to check out this resource from the Witherspoon Institute. I’m eager to see how the site develops and grows. I’m also interested in seeing who will write the currently missing essay (or set of essays) on the Reformation and natural law (including modern Protestantism and natural law). Sigmund’s essay currently covers the period, but much more needs to be said.

Currently the “Early Modern Liberal Roots of Natural Law” primary source section includes Locke, Hobbes, and Montesquieu. This is of course an important stream of natural-law thinking in the early modern era, but hardly the only one and certainly not the only one with later influence.

Additionally, to be of more scholarly use, I think the primary source collection should point toward digitally-accessible forms. I talk about this in the context of theology and economics in an editorial in the latest issue of the Journal of Markets & Morality, “Printed Source and Digital Resource in Economics and Theology” (PDF), and point especially towards the example of the Post-Reformation Digital Library (see, for instance, the pages on Locke and Hobbes).