Sunday, February 19, 2023
Some time back, Andrew Walker, PhD, of Southern Theological Seminary in Louisville posed to me some questions on natural law. I'm here posting those questions and my answers. (More recently, Dr. Walker has published a collection of essays by distinguished Protestant scholars engaging my work: Social Conservatism for the Common Good: Protestants Engage Robert P. George.)
Andrew Walker: First, what is your definition of natural law and natural law theory?
Robert George: Natural law is the body of reasons (including moral reasons) for action and restraint accessible in principle to human reason even apart from special revelation. The first principles of practical reason and basic precepts of natural law direct our choosing and acting towards ends that are intelligibly choiceworthy not merely as means to other ends but as ends-in-themselves. Natural law theorists call these ends “basic human goods.” They are the constitutive aspects of human well-being and fulfillment. Moral norms, from the most general to the most specific, are identified by reflection on the integral directiveness of the first principles of practical reason.
AW: To what extent is natural law learned versus innate and intuitive?
RG: Reasons for action (like reasons for belief) are neither innate nor intuitive. They are grasped in intellective acts. They are the fruit of insights which, like all insights, are insights into data supplied by experience. It is, for example, in the experience of true friendship--where friends genuinely will the good of the other for the sake of the other--that we grasp the intelligible point of friendship making possible the sound judgment that the activity of friendship is inherently fulfilling of ourselves as human persons--that friendship is indeed intrinsically and not merely instrumentally valuable.
AW: If there is a natural law, why do even natural lawyers disagree on its content?
RG: For the same reasons people disagree about matters in other fields of philosophy or, more generally, in other domains of inquiry. There is nothing special in this respect about moral philosophy, as opposed to logic, aesthetics, philosophy of mind, etc.; or about natural law theory, as opposed to utilitarianism, Kantian (or “deontological”) ethics, virtue ethics, or even moral skepticism; or about philosophy generally, as opposed to history, sociology, literary studies, and even the natural sciences.
AW: What’s the distinction between that which comes naturally versus natural law? Are you saying we should follow and obey what comes naturally to us?
RG: The word “natural” has various meanings, and the term is used differently for different purposes or in different contexts. There is no magic in the term, and it certainly has proven to be misleading on some occasions. The natural law is natural, as opposed to being conventional. It “exists” or “obtains” as a body of reasons that are in no way artefactual. These reasons are accessible to unaided--and in that sense “natural”--human reason, but they are not human creations. By contrast positive law, which may be morally good or bad, just or unjust, is a cultural artifact. It is man-made. When it is just--when it is properly fashioned--it will be in line with and even in a sense (actually, in one of two distinct senses) be derived from natural law; but it is nevertheless conventional. As natural law thinkers from Cicero to Aquinas to Martin Luther King have all pointed out, the positive law of any community stands under the judgment of the natural--the moral--law. That is what makes it possible for us to speak of, and identify and condemn, unjust laws.
AW: Do you see any future in which Western civilization self-corrects from its move away from natural law and returns to sanity? Or, are we destined for civilizational collapse?
RG: This one is above my pay grade. Ask God. Whatever the future holds, it is our job to do what’s right--what the natural law and divine law require. As the late and very great Richard John Neuhaus never ceased reminding us, our job is not to produce the final victory--that’s up to God and will come in his time and on his terms. Our job is to be faithful. Ever faithful.
AW: A consistent criticism from Protestants when it comes to natural law is that natural law is not persuasive on its own terms — that it needs revelation for its authority. What’s your response to this criticism?
RG: It’s sure persuasive to me. I doubt that people who don’t “find it persuasive” will find the proposition that God exists, has authority over us, and has revealed his will or law to be very persuasive.
AW: Do natural theorist like you see your project as one opposed to revelation?
RG: No. Nor do I know of any other natural law theorist, past or present, who sees the project as one opposed to revelation. As Pope John Paul II taught, “faith and reason are the two wings on which the human spirit ascends to the contemplation of truth.” That teaching holds true, in my opinion, whether the truths we are contemplating or seek to understand are in the domain of ethics or in other domains of inquiry in which Christian faith offers guidance.
AW: Can you give a succinct explanation of the difference between New Natural Law theory and Classical Natural Law theory? Are the schools of thought in competition or complementary to one another?
RG: Actually, there’s not much “new” about the “new natural law theory.” It’s a misnomer, though we seem to be stuck with it. In any case, it is distinguishable on some points from neo-scholastic theories of natural law. People in both camps claim the mantle of Aquinas, though all should treat the question of what Aquinas held or didn’t hold as a secondary matter. What is primary is the question what is true. The most important point of debate, I believe, is how the intellect gets hold of the first and most basic principles of practical reason. Are they understood in non-inferential acts of understanding in which one grasps the point of, say, pursuing intellectual knowledge (of say, pure mathematics, or Shakespeare, or the history of agriculture), or friendship, or aesthetic appreciation, or other intrinsically worthwhile activities for their own sake? (That’s what the so-called “new natural law” theorists hold.) Or are they provided by methodologically antecedent theoretical inquiry (as opposed to practical reflection) into, say nature or human nature? (That’s what neo-scholastic natural law theorists hold.) If the former, then the first principles of practical reason and most basic precepts of natural law are, truly, first principles--like the principle of non-contradiction. They are underived and stand in no need of formal derivation. They are, as Aquinas said, per se nota and indemonstrabilia. If the latter, they are derived. From what? Methodologically antecedent theoretical knowledge.
AW: What emerging concerns do you see in culture and public policy that further implicate natural law?
RG: The natural law is the moral law insofar as it can, in principle, be known by unaided (“natural”) human reason. Thus, it pertains to all moral questions, even when it is supplemented, clarified, etc. by divine revelation. These, of course, include questions of justice, human rights, and the common good.
AW: A Protestant objection to Catholic moral theory is what we perceive as a reticence to cite Scripture in moral argument. Is that a fair criticism?
RG: I admire and wholeheartedly endorse the Protestant love of the Bible and the use Protestants, far more than Catholics, make of scripture in their devotions and in their spiritual lives. This is a gift that Protestant Christianity gives to the universal Christian church. Over the course of the last half-century--since the Second Vatican Council--Catholics have become more Bible-oriented, and that is to the good. But we Catholics can and should make even more progress on this front--deepening our love (and understanding) of God’s word. Protestants, especially Protestant intellectuals, have made similar progress in appropriating more fully the great tradition of philosophy--from Plato and Aristotle to the present--and making use of its insights and tools to illuminate the landscape and even better understand the Christian faith. This should not be regarded as a “Catholic thing.” Here’s an area where growth can and should be sought among Protestants. I personally know that there is a strong desire for it out there. My own philosophical writings are read and appreciated and wrestled with as much by Protestants (especially Evangelicals--black and white) as by Catholics.