At Ethika Politika today, I examine the recent critique by David Bentley Hart in the most recent issue of First Things of the use of natural law in public discourse in my article, “Natural Law, Public Policy, and the Uncanny Voice of Conscience.” Ultimately, I offer a measured critique—somewhat agreeing with, but mostly critical of Hart’s position—pointing out Hart’s oversight of the vital role of conscience in classic natural law theory.
What I find so bizarre, and have for some time now, is the relative ambivalence, at best, of many contemporary Orthodox writers when it comes to natural law. Hart, for example, hints that he might approve of natural law reasoning so long as all parties involved hold to a metaphysic that acknowledges “a harmony between cosmic and moral order, sustained by the divine goodness in which both participate.” However, even then he is not clear. Indeed, he begins his article by writing,
There is a long, rich, varied, and subtle tradition of natural law theory, almost none of which I find especially convincing, but most of which I acknowledge to be—according to the presuppositions of the intellectual world in which it was gestated—perfectly coherent. (emphasis mine)
Hart is not alone among Orthodox writers in this regard. With the notable exceptions of Stanley Harakas, Tristram Engelhardt, and Patriarch Kirill of Moscow (if there are others I apologize for my ignorance), contemporary Orthodox writers scarcely have employed natural law in their social ethics, if they even endorse it at all. Often it gets thrown under the bus in ill-advised false dichotomizing between all that is Eastern and therefore wonderful and all that is Western and therefore overly rationalistic.
The reason I find this all bizarre is that even looking only to the Greek fathers one can very easily find widespread endorsement of some form of natural law reasoning. The most prominent, perhaps, would be St. John Chrysostom, who I quote from his Homilies on the Statues 12.9 in my Ethika Politika piece. One can find him speaking of the law of nature in his Homilies on Romans quite extensively as well. Furthermore, St. John of Damascus writes that “evil is not any essence nor a property of essence, but an accident, that is, a voluntary deviation from what is natural into what is unnatural, which is sin” (An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith 4.20). And a text attributed to St. Maximos the Confessor in the Philokalia states that the function “of the natural law is to grant equal rights to all men in accordance with natural justice” (Various Texts 2.41). I could, in fact, go on and on ad nausium, but I will stop at this point.
While it may be that there are important differences between a Thomist understanding of natural law and an Orthodox understanding of natural law, the historic difference is most assuredly not that Thomists accept it while the Orthodox do not. Furthermore, there often seems to be little care in differentiating between Enlightenment versions of the natural law, which may in fact be overly rationalistic, and other Western versions, such as the Thomist articulation, rooted in Christian convictions and augmented by faith.
All this, I suspect, has led to the relative cacophony among Orthodox writers with regards to social thought more generally. For example, without natural law, what basis do we have for the rule of law in political matters? Or, without natural law, what basis do we have for declaiming fraud, exploitation, and other forms of theft in economic matters? If, according to Hart, what the fathers assumed to be basic dictates of conscience actually require “an apocalyptic interruption” for anyone to grasp, public engagement in our pluralistic society without the natural law would, itself, be “a hopeless cause” … but perhaps that explains the current cacophony, at least in part.