Posts tagged with: natural law

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Wired magazine had a lengthy feature in 2004 on a new brand of transit design, specifically the kind that eschews signage and barriers, preferring instead more subtle signals.

In “Roads Gone Wild,” Tom McNichol profiles Hans Monderman (now deceased), “a traffic engineer who hates traffic signs.”

Monderman’s point of departure is that human interaction (e.g. gestures, eye contact) are preferable to explicit signage or signals that indirectly excuse us from conscious concern about our fellow travelers. “The trouble with traffic engineers is that when there’s a problem with a road, they always try to add something,” Monderman says. “To my mind, it’s much better to remove things.”

Monderman's Drachten Intersection

Drachten's busiest intersection after Hans Monderman.


Monderman’s design philosophy is to embrace chaos, and it’s effective because it allows for a kind of spontaneous ordering to occur. As McNichol writes, “The approach is radically counterintuitive: Build roads that seem dangerous, and they’ll be safer.” It is counterintuitive, but it is in accord with what we know about human nature.

Human beings, when faced with danger, instinctively and naturally slow down and assess the threats with heightened sense and attention. Indeed, self-preservation is a constitutive element in the natural law.

There is still an element of planning in Monderman’s designs, but what is remarkable about them is that they embrace what we know about human beings in toto and not for the purposes of some engineered abstraction (such as homo automobilus or some such).

The kind of planning that allows for free and spontaneous interaction and creates space in which this can happen within the larger framework of the rule of law, in markets as well as traffic intersections, end up being the best because they account for the complexities of human nature. The kind of planning that relies on rigid rules and regulatory edifices, whether on Wall Street or surface streets, tend to incentivize the objectification of human interaction, in which we treat each other as simple means, obstacles, impediments, or resources to be plundered.

Recognition of the other as having dignity, as well as the corresponding power to do us good or ill and their own responsibility to act accordingly, is constitutive of a superior design approach.

This kind of approach works, as I’ve said, because we instinctively recognize the worth of other human beings. The same reason that a bus filled with people must wait for a single person to cross an intersection is the same reason that the rule of law must limit majority rule, or absolute democracy. The rights of the individual must be respected, even when the majority must otherwise wait or acquiesce. A bus full of people on their way to a destination must often first wait for a single individual to go on their way.

In political economy, as Lord Acton writes, “The true natural check on absolute democracy is the federal system, which limits the central government by the powers reserved, and the state governments by the powers they have ceded.” And in traffic economy, the true natural check on absolute democracy might well be the spontaneous order arising out of a seemingly chaotic intersection.

On the Economix blog at the New York Times, Uwe E. Reinhardt wrote a post titled “How Businesses Create Wealth.” That elicited attention from a commenter who wondered where he was “trying to go with this essay.” Reinhardt, an economics professor at Princeton, answers with “Companies: What Are They Good For?” He also cites an article from Acton’s Journal of Markets & Morality: “A Communitarian Model of Business: A Natural-Law Perspective.” Reinhardt:

Actually, I was not trying to go anywhere with my analysis, other than to point out that businesses create value and wealth beyond the usually narrow slice that accrues strictly to the owners.

In most firms, the largest fraction of the gross value that businesses create with the goods and services they produce is channeled to employees. That allocation helps create household wealth, which may be held in the form of a home or other real estate, pensions or investments in mutual funds, or highly productive human capital — that is, highly educated offspring.

With their chronic suspicion of for-profit business, commentators on the left of the ideological spectrum insufficiently acknowledge that major contribution that business makes to social welfare.

Living In God's Creation: Orthodox Perspectives on Ecology (St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 2009)

Living In God's Creation: Orthodox Perspectives on Ecology (St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 2009)

Like many, my first encounter with Orthodox theology was intoxicating. Here, finally, in the works of thinkers such as Vladimir Lossky, John Meyendorf and Alexander Schmemann and others I found an intellectually rigorous approach to theology that was biblical and patristic in its sources, mystical in its orientation and beautiful in its language.

But over the years I have found a curious lacunae in Orthodox theology.

For all that it is firmly grounded in the historical sources of the Christian tradition, Orthodox theology often lacks what Elizabeth Theokritoff in her book Living in God’s Creation: Orthodox Perspectives on Ecology calls “the practical application” that is central to patristic thought. “There is a temptation [for Orthodox Christians] to say, ‘Look, it’s all in the Fathers’” as if somehow this solves all of life’s problems (p. 253). However fidelity to patristic theology requires more than simply reading the Fathers. As the Fathers did in their own time, I must wrestle with the intellectual and practical concerns of the contemporary world with an eye to redeeming the time (see Ephesians 5:16).

Theokritoff wrestles with the cosmological and anthropological implications of Orthodox theology as they apply to contemporary concerns about the environment. In so doing she sketches out what I would call a theory of natural law grounded in the Scriptures, the Fathers and the liturgical tradition of the Orthodox Church. For many outside the Orthodox Church, and for not a few within, the notion that there even is an Orthodox understanding of natural law might come as a surprise. But such tradition exists and while Theokritoff does not use the term, her work is very much a work concerned with natural law.

Following St. Maximus the Confessor, Theokritoff argues that as a “‘bond of unity’ in creation,” humanity’s vocation “is progressively to unite the disparate aspects of the created order, and ultimately to unite the whole with God” (p. 31). For this reason, “It is necessary to accept that human beings are the cause of the world’s plight.” Unlike many in the environmental movement however, the author does not  take this to mean that humanity is a blight or a cancer on the enviroment. Rather she argues “that we are also God’s chosen instruments through which all things are to be brought to fulfillment in Christ” (p. 32).

That said, it is not all together clear to me what, if anything, are the author’s specific environmental goals. What, in other words, does she hope us to accomplish as we work to bring all things to fulfillment in Christ? And how, in a practical way, are we to accomplish this?

These are not trivial questions. And to assert, as she does, that it is “not the task of theology to come up with such solutions” is less than satisfying. This is doubly the case given that she thinks policies such as fair trade, population control, and reduced consumption and production in the West are appropriate Christian means of caring for the environment (p. 30).

On the last page of the book there is a trivial illustration of the author’s uncritical identification of the tradition of the Orthodox Church with her own preferred environmental policies. Rightly, as the author reminds us, “there is no path to the Kingdom except through a thousand ordinary, humdrum decisions.” But is it also true to say, as she suggests, that “recycling a sheet of paper . . . is a practical assent to [God's] plan of salvation. . . . [and] signals our willingness to be co-workers with the Almighty in bring his creation to the fulfillment for which it was made” (p. 265)? Maybe, but not necessarily.

While I disagree with author’s progressive politics and policies, it is important to note that Theokritoff offers her suggestions in a spirit of humility. As she writes, “there will sometimes be genuine differences among Christians about the practicalities of remedying various ills” (p. 30). True enough, but I do wish that the author had left her own politics completely out of the book or, having included them, she engaged those who disagree with her.

While we certainly ought not to minimize the seriousness of Theokritoff’s policy suggestions, — especially what I would argue are her misguided and very dangerous flirtation with population control — the real strength of the book is in her articulation of an Orthodox approach to natural law grounded in Scripture and the Church Fathers and embodied in Christian worship and the lives and witnesses of the saints. Living in God’s Creation offers us a rich cosmological and anthropological vision that has implications not only for the environment but also economics and politics and it raises themes worthy of further exploration and study.

Ryan T. Anderson, editor of the Witherspoon Institute’s Public Discourse, takes note of an in-depth NYT profile of Prof. Robby George (HT: MoJ). In the NYT profile, George is presented as the central figure in the formation of the ecumenical coalition behind the Manhattan Declaration, and adds a number of important contexts for George’s academic, intellectual, and political endeavors.

Anderson characterizes the profile as “pretty evenhanded,” saying it “provides a nice overview of the academic and political work that George is doing.” But Anderson levels a serious charge against the piece by David D. Kirkpatrick:

But the Times profile did misunderstand one pretty important aspect of George’s work.

Throughout the article, George is depicted as having manufactured an entirely new moral and political philosophy, which he now “sells” to the leading Evangelicals and Roman Catholic bishops of America to advance social-conservative causes.

Without a doubt, George and the other so-called “new natural lawyers” are innovative, but their innovations are in the service of reviving and refining what Isaiah Berlin called the central tradition of Western philosophy, the tradition that runs through Aristotle and Aquinas. Rather than manufacturing novel philosophical theories, George and his colleagues see themselves as appropriating and building on the wisdom of the ages to tease out the purposes and meanings of various social practices. In other words, this is philosophically critical conservative thought at its best.

I can certainly understand Anderson’s concerns that George be properly presented as heir to a long-standing intellectual tradition. But I disagree that the profile does injustice to this aspect of George’s work.

For instance, the dominant paradigm that is presented throughout is that George is drawing deeply on the Thomistic tradition. Kirkpatrick writes early on in the piece, for example, that George “has parlayed a 13th-century Catholic philosophy into real political influence.” Kirkpatrick also notes that George’s “admirers” say that “he is revitalizing a strain of Catholic natural-law thinking that goes back to St. Thomas Aquinas.” Of course at other points, including in the section below, specific natural-law arguments that George makes are referred to as “new,” so in this sense Anderson’s clarifications are valuable.

It seems to me that the most serious potential misunderstanding in the article is at least superficially based on George’s own declaration that in organizing the broad Christian support for the Manhattan Declaration from a variety of Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Orthodox traditions, “I sold my view about reason!” This is of course a reference to the specifically (neo)Thomistic view of reason’s relation to natural law that serves as the intellectual framework for the entire article, and indeed, for George’s own intellectual career.

Somehow I doubt that the signers of the Manhattan Declaration understood themselves to be endorsing a specifically Thomistic view of natural law when they pledged their support for the document’s agenda.

Here are the concluding paragraphs the profile in full:

I asked George several times if he was really hoping to ground a mass movement in abstract principles of reason so at odds with the prevailing culture. It was a bet, he said, on his conviction about the innate human gift for reason. Still, he said, if there was one critique of his work that worried him, it was the charge that he puts too much faith in the power of reason, overlooking what Christians describe as original sin and what secular pessimists call history.

It is a debate at least as old as the Reformation, when Martin Luther broke with the Catholic Church and insisted that reason was so corrupted that faith in the divine was humanity’s only hope of salvation. (Until relatively recently, contemporary evangelicals routinely leveled the same charge at modern Catholics.) “This is a serious issue, and if I am wrong, this is where I am wrong,” George acknowledges.

Over lunch last month at the Princeton faculty club, George noted that many evangelicals had signed the Manhattan Declaration despite the traditional Protestant skepticism about the corruption of human reason. “I sold my view about reason!” he declared. He was especially pleased that, by signing onto the text, so many Catholic bishops had endorsed his new natural-law argument about marriage. “It really is the top leadership of the American church,” he said.

“Obviously, I am gratified that view appears to have attracted a very strong following among the bishops,” he went on. “I just hope I am right. If they are going to buy my arguments, I don’t want to mislead the whole church.”

On the one hand the canard about the Reformation’s wholesale rejection of natural law is repeated here full stop. But at the same time it is true that in the time since the sixteenth century there have been varieties of natural-law thinking, both within and without Roman Catholicism, that more or less diverge from the standard neo-Thomistic line.

Acton’s own Stephen J. Grabill has definitively shown that Protestants who draw their inspiration from the magisterial Reformation don’t need to be “sold” a view of natural law; they have their own explicit natural-law traditions on which to draw.

As Grabill has summarized elsewhere, “the Reformers felt no tension in affirming a strong doctrine of original sin, on the one hand, and natural law, on the other. While every aspect of reality was affected in the fall, including the rational and social nature of human beings, the Reformers did not believe the divine image was totally annihilated. Instead, only aspects of the image were destroyed while other aspects were permanently disoriented. That disorientation put people in a wrong relationship with God, their neighbors, and the world. However, the implanted knowledge of right and wrong, which survived the fall as a relic of the original image, was now weakened and obscured.”

This week’s Acton Commentary:

Healthcare reform – it’s one of those causes almost everyone favors, but which almost automatically produces sharp arguments when we ask what it means and how it might be realized. You would have had to be living in a cave for the past eight months to be unaware that Americans are deeply divided on this matter, and that the division runs clean through the middle of many communities. That includes Catholic America.

Of course, there are a small number of non-negotiables for Catholics, whatever their politics, when it comes to healthcare reform. These principally concern any provisions that facilitate or encourage the intentional termination of innocent human life, or which diminish existing conscience exemptions.

Without question, these are the primary issues for Catholics who take their Church’s teaching seriously when it comes to healthcare legislation. They dwarf everything else.

No matter how good the rest of the legislation might be in, for example, widening access to affordable healthcare, it is a stable principle of Catholic faith – and natural law – that you cannot do evil in order that good may come from it. St Paul insisted upon this almost 2000 years ago (Romans 3:8), and it is constantly affirmed by Scripture, Tradition, and centuries of magisterial teaching. Try as they may, no amount of rationalization by the usual suspects can get around this point.

For this reason, much of the Catholic contribution to the healthcare debate, especially that of Catholic bishops, has focused on these issues. We’ve yet to see what impact this might have on whatever eventually arrives on the floor of Congress.

But let’s hypothesize. Imagine the healthcare legislation submitted to Congress involved a massive expansion of government involvement in healthcare. Let’s also suppose that the same legislation was stripped of any provisions that violated non-negotiables for Catholics. Would Catholics be obliged to support passage of such legislation? (more…)

Upon Sonia Sotomayor’s nomination to the Supreme Court, a number of voices on the Christian and religious blogosphere wondered about the absence of press attention to the religious makeup of the court. The new court’s makeup, whether or not Sotomayor is ultimately confirmed, is historic. As Terry Mattingly wrote at GetReligion, tongue planted firmly in cheek, “prepare for more headlines about Catholics taking over our nation’s legal discourse.”

A few days later World’s Mickey McLean took note of the issue, and about that same time (after the “early” reports gave way to a bit more in-depth coverage), the mainstream press began to ask of Sotomayor, “Is She Catholic? Does It Matter?”

Martin E. Marty of the University of Chicago Divinity School, wrote the following (HT):

My trained and focused eye — trained to do “sightings” of public religion in the various media, including the internet, and focused on the chosen subject of the week — has been seeking evidence of anti-Catholicism among mainline Protestant and Evangelical leaders, in the form of expressions of worry and prejudice. Unless between Saturday (when I write) and Monday (when readers read) some surprise occurs, public controversies over her appointment will not yet have attracted the voice of any non-Catholic bishops, moderators, denominational presidents, church-body newspapers, or representative columnists.

I hope my piece appearing today on the First Things website doesn’t qualify as “evidence of anti-Catholicism,” so much as a critique of the state of contemporary Protestant moral, legal, and political thinking. Sotomayor’s appointment and the resulting Roman Catholic supermajority on the court ought to be met with some ambivalence among Evangelical Protestants. On the one hand, the bulk of Roman Catholic judges on the court are those most likely to be aligned with traditional Christian moral, legal, and political perspectives, historically shared by Catholics and Protestants alike.

On the other hand, the fact that half of all the Roman Catholics who have ever served will be serving simultaneously, and the fact that there will be only one Protestant on the court, does say something about the declining influence and vigor of Protestantism in the public square. That ought to be cause for concern and worry among Protestants. And that’s the point of departure for my First Things “On the Square” essay, “Sotomayor, Roman Catholic Supremacy, and Protestant Approaches to Law.”

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.

In the latest volume of the Mars Hill Audio Journal, host Ken Myers talks with J. Daryl Charles, author of Retrieving the Natural Law: A Return to Moral First Things (Eerdmans, 2008). Charles is associate professor of Christian Studies at Union University, and spent the 2007-2008 year as William E. Simon Visiting Fellow in Religion and Public Life in the James Madison Program at Princeton University.

I had the pleasure of meeting Ken Myers at this year’s GodblogCon and am quite impressed with the work that Mars Hill Audio does. The conversation with Charles is a good one, in part because it directly addresses the current revival of natural law within certain circles of Protestantism in North America. Within the past few years a number of books have come out that consider the positive role of the doctrine of natural law within the Protestant theological tradition, particularly that of the magisterial Reformation.

Early on in the discussion, Charles credits Acton research scholar Stephen Grabill with opening up this new scholarly interest in natural law. Charles calls Grabill’s book, Rediscovering the Natural Law in Reformed Theological Ethics (Eerdmans, 2006) “a very important…pathbreaking work.”

In a review of Grabill’s book published in First Things, Charles writes,

Grabill’s examination of theological ethics in the Protestant Reformed mainstream is utterly compelling, and it represents a shot across the bow of theological ethics, as it were. Protestants for the past 250 years have found practical as well as theological justification for ignoring or vehemently rejecting natural-law theory. And despite its bewildering diversity, there exists across Protestantism a broad consensus that rejects the natural law as a metaphysical notion rooted in divine revelation. This consensus is mirrored in the fact that one is hard-pressed to identify a single major contemporary figure in Protestant theological ethics who has developed and defended a theory of natural law.

Given the historical link between the magisterial Reformation and natural law and the contemporary dissolution of that link, it should be obvious that judging the doctrines of previous centuries by the twentieth-century aversion to natural law (as is done by the reference to Francis Schaeffer in this post) is a serious methodological error. One thing we learn from the work of scholars like Grabill and Charles is that there are varieties of natural-law traditions, and it is as important to identify how these differ and can be distinguished as how they share common features.

In addition to the books by Charles and Grabill, I should also mention two other recent works. The first is David VanDrunen’s short and accessible A Biblical Case for Natural Law. And the second is Craig A. Boyd’s A Shared Morality: A Narrative Defense of Natural-Law Ethics (Brazos, 2007), which VanDrunen reviews in the upcoming issue of the Journal of Markets & Morality (Fall 2008).

Blog author: hunter.baker
posted by on Friday, November 21, 2008

The latest issue of Religion & Liberty contains an essay I wrote for Acton about whether the relationship between social conservatives and libertarians can be saved. A student at my university (Houston Baptist University) read the essay and formulated a number of thoughts on his own. I was so affected by what this undergraduate sent me, I had to pass it along:

I have strong beliefs about limited government, states rights, individual liberty, free-markets, etc. But these beliefs come under fire when I see how one person’s pornography addiction leads to rape after years of unsatisfiable self-gratification, or when innocent children are born fatherless to promiscuous mothers.

There are 2 things I’ve come to realize. First, that every law is a removal of liberty. Second, that every system of law is either based upon the will of man, or based on that which we perceive to be Natural Law. Given this reality, the latter necessitates a belief in higher power, while the former holds no basis for the concept of “inalienable rights” whatsoever.

Without a giver of freedom the only “freedom” is that which is given by he who is stronger to he who is weaker.

Libertarian belief in liberty is founded in the idea that we have a God-given right to such liberty, and in that sense they share commonality with social conservatives.

But Liberty without order is chaos. There’s no doubt, law in our land is based on Natural Law. So the question is not whether we should legislate morality, but to what extent it should be done.

This is a question I still struggle to answer.

The young man’s name is Wesley Gant. I suspect this is the kind of thinking that regularly emerges from students who attend Acton events and/or read Acton publications.


The Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome held a conference last month dedicated to Elizabeth Anscombe’s work Intention and essay “Modern Moral Philosophy”, a groundbreaking paper for the field of ethics. Anscombe (1919-2001), an Irish convert to Catholicism, was a fellow of philosophy at Cambridge and Oxford Universities, wife to philosopher Peter Geach, and mother of seven. She wrote a number of different papers and articles following ethical questions of her day, for example just war theory in WWII, the advent of birth control, and more.

The questions raised by Anscombe are still trying to be resolved in philosophy, in particular, the relevance of the word “ought” to the modern position on morality. She argues that the western concept of moral “ought” is based in the Judeo-Christian tradition of divine legislation. In other words, the concept of justice in western society is fundamentally linked to Christian morals. When modern secularism attempts to retain the idea of morality without the idea of God, the power of the word “ought” is merely psychological.

The idea of a moral “ought” is also linked to the concept of justice, and what we are owed. Without an objective moral framework, such as is found in natural law theory, justice becomes a subjective interpretation. An obvious consequence of this error is found in political lobbyists who make excessive demands of the concept of human rights.

Here is an excerpt from a paper I gave on human rights talk at the conference, “Fundamental human rights are being supplemented with entitlements, and sometimes the distinction between the two is lacking entirely. This moral equivalence fails to demonstrate what is unique and defining about human persons that man is an end in himself, and has the responsibility of making free moral choices ordered toward that end.”

It is wrong to make the means to an end, an end in itself. It is wrong to put material benefits, which provide for human flourishing, in the same category as human freedoms. For example, there is a difference in saying that “I have a right to freedom from oppression by my government” and saying “I have a right to be provided with a job by my government”. It is one thing for the government to guarantee it’s citizen’s liberty; it is another to guarantee their financial success.

The framework of the Christian moral tradition and natural law theory are able to qualify the concept of justice much better than a secular guilt trip. Something to think about the next time you hear someone demanding his or her rights.