Is there such a thing as human nature? It seems an abstract question, one that philosophers and theologians might want to pursue, but not the rest of us. Yet the answer to that question is surprisingly important to the ordering of everyday life and society.
If you look up the word “nature” in a dictionary, you will find definitions similar to these from the Oxford Dictionary: (1) The physical force regarded as causing and regulating the phenomena of the world. (2) The basic or inherent features, character, or qualities of something. (2.1) The innate or essential qualities or character of a person or animal.
Nature, then, is the way things are. The laws of nature are the way things work (which can be and, to a high degree have been, identified). The laws of nature undergird the natures of people, animals and things.
If that is true, then the laws of nature are a basis for, and give rise to, natural law, which the Oxford Dictionary defines as “A body of unchanging moral principles regarded as a basis for all human conduct.” Natural law is a way of framing how human nature functions at its best.
On the basis of natural law (that body of unchanging moral principles for human conduct), societies craft legislation to provide order and maintain justice. The idea is that both individuals and societies achieve fulfillment when they function according to their nature.
This idea has been afforded a central place in American thought. The Declaration of Independence speaks of the station to which “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle” Americans. The idea lies behind the Declaration’s most memorable line: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights…”
Supreme Court Justice James Iredell paid tribute to natural law when he wrote, “The victory for freedom of thought recorded in our Bill of Rights recognizes that in the domain of conscience there is a moral power higher than the State.” The idea of natural law is writ large over the history of American jurisprudence. As Judge Charles Desmond put it, “from the Republic’s founding days till now, the decisions of our highest courts have repeated over and over that there is a higher or natural law…”
But natural law is meaningless if people do not have a nature – an idea put forward by John Dewey and other philosophers in the early twentieth century. If men have a nature, then natural law provides the basis for a society’s laws, as thinkers from Cicero to Aquinas to John Marshall have maintained. But if there is no such thing as “human nature,” then anything goes – and justice will be one of the first things out the door.
In the Supreme Court’s recent rulings, it’s become increasingly evident that the idea of human nature (and with it the influence of natural law) has lost standing. Lacking the validation of natural law, the Court has increasingly turned to public sentiment to justify its rulings.
This was the case in the majority opinion written by Justice Kennedy regarding Texas sodomy laws. It’s clear the majority did not look to natural or constitutional law but to public opinion for direction. This was also true in more recent rulings, as the court overturned DOMA, affirmative action legislation, and state laws banning same-sex marriage. For the first time in the Court’s history, public opinion polling has become part of its decision making metric.
But is public sentiment, informed and influenced by richly-funded media campaigns, a trustworthy guide? History, with its slavery, lynchings, segregation, and anti-Semitism (all popular in their day), raises serious doubts. It should give us pause that Hitler was taken to be the embodiment of, as the Nazis liked to put it, “the healthy sentiments of the people.”
First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 10/03/2015
I’m confused by this column. The following points were made: i) Belief in natural law has in the past been central to American thought. ii) Recently belief in natural law has lost standing – replaced by increased reliance on (untrustworthy) public sentiment. iii) Public sentiment is not a good standard to use – witness such things are slavery, lynchings, segregation, and anti-Semitism which have all occurred in the past in the U.S.
My confusion: All of those negative things happened in the past when belief in natural law was central to American thought. So if those things are to be avoided in the future, why should we return to the system of thought that allowed or led to them?
Tim, you make a good point, though I was not emphasizing U.S. belief in natural law. The idea of natural law is much older than that – going back at least to Aquinas, and probably before that. Natural law has been used (misused) as a basis for evil behaviors that God hates, but so has biblical revelation, civil laws and personal freedoms. I think it is a mistake to turn from natural law because injustice has been (falsely) defended in its name. Natural law must always be reviewed and carefully understood in the further light of special revelation.
I appreciate your desire to avoid the injustices of the past! – Shayne
Andy Doerksen’s commented as follows in “The Holland Sentinel”:
“This sentence is problematic: “Lacking the validation of natural law, the Court has increasingly turned to public sentiment to justify its rulings.”
My understanding of natural law is that it’s “the work of [God’s] Law written in their hearts” (Romans 2:15). A very practical question: How is society supposed to perceive natural law if not by “public sentiment”? In other words, isn’t public sentiment likewise “written in their hearts”?”
My response is as follows:
Andy Doerksen’s comment merits a response. It seems he and I might be using our terms differently, Augustine thought that natural law could be equated with human morals prior to the Fall of Adam, but I do not believe he would have equated natural law with public sentiment in a post-fall environment. This is especially true when public sentiment is purposefully manipulated by powerful interest groups through costly and often non-stop media campaigns.
Mr. Doerksen’s practical question is, how can society perceive natural law, apart from public sentiment? It is a very good question, and worthy of a more thoughtful answer than this space (or my understanding) will permit. I would say, though, that society can only perceive natural law imperfectly because society is no longer “natural” (which I believe is a logical deduction based on the theological doctrine of the fall). Nevertheless, there are some issues of right and wrong that transcend particular cultures across history. (C. S. Lewis used the term “the Tao” to describe this body of universally accepted morals in “The Abolition of Man”.)
Since we can only perceived natural law imperfectly because of our imperfections, the Scriptures themselves provide a solid foundation for understanding of right and wrong, while constitutional law (as opposed to the current use of case law) and the history of jurisprudence are helpful pointers along the way.
Thanks, Mr. Doerksen, for reading and taking the time to comment (and doing so thoughtfully).