Sunday, March 12, 2006

The Natural Law...and Moral Absolutes

Mark Brumley:
...If pressed, most of us would probably admit to operating by certain moral "givens," by a sense of right and wrong which is difficult, though not impossible, to ignore. Not that this moral sense is infallible (or that we always follow it). We make "moral" errors the way we might also make mathematical errors and - what is not the same thing - we also sin, by choosing to do what we know is wrong or failing to do what we know is right. In both cases, we retain an awareness of some cosmic standard of rightness and wrongness against which our actions can be measured or judged.

This standard of right and wrong is what St. Paul writes about in Romans 2:14-15, when he refers to the Gentiles who lacked the Mosaic law but who nevertheless followed certain of its precepts: "When the Gentiles who have not the law do by nature what the law requires, they are a law to themselves even though they have not the law. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts."

Christian thinkers and others have called this universal standard of right and wrong the Natural Law.

The Natural Law is not to be confused with "the laws of nature," in the scientific sense of that expression. The scientific "laws of nature" describe how physical entities do in fact act. Atoms have no choice in the matter of how they are to behave. The Natural Law, on the other hand, is concerned with how rational beings - beings with minds and wills - ought to act, and here choice is involved.

The key word in that last sentence is "ought." Natural Law concerns what is called prescriptive truth; truth about what should or should not be done by human beings. Of course, there are people who deny the category of prescriptive truth altogether. In doing so, they deny any real difference between good and evil. Most people, however, believe in the Natural Law in one form or another, even if they do not call it that or realize it.

St. Thomas Aquinas described the Natural Law as "the rational creature's participation of the Eternal Law" of God. As a computer designer makes a computer to operate in a certain way, so God has designed human beings, as rational creatures, to operate in a certain way, according to his plan. This "certain way" is the Natural Law, which we rational creatures can know and ought to obey. The Natural Law provides the legitimate basis for our human laws and for our judgments about right and wrong.

The Demands of Justice

On the other hand, to deny the Natural Law is not only as foolish as trying to deny gravity; it also undercuts any grounds for claiming a real "right" to freedom. To deny the Natural Law is really to deny justice itself and to deny justice is tantamount to denying the basis for any claim to a right of freedom.

Since a right is something due in justice, if there is really no such thing as justice - because there is no cosmic law or ultimate principle against which we can measure human actions, only changeable human laws - then we are not due anything in justice, including freedom. Freedom becomes a gift of the government, to be granted or taken away at the government's whim. And government, under such an arrangement, invariably is government by force, where "might makes right."

Of course, someone might argue that he will grant "rights" to others, provided he be accorded "rights" by them. He might, in other words, base human rights upon a social contract among people. His defense of such rights, then, would be a carefully concealed defense, not of universal justice and rights in general and certainly not of others' rights in particular, but of himself and his own interests. True, he might not violate the law, lest by doing so he encourage others to break the law to his own disadvantage. And he may well defend the rights of others so that he can expect them to defend his rights. But would you really feel safe living nextdoor to such a man? Would you really trust him?

Consider: what if this man decides he can harm others and get away with it? Then his self-interest will no longer safeguard your rights or mine. We will be compelled to take matters into our own hands, to defend ourselves by force, if necessary. In other words, the rule of law will break down and we will be back to "might makes right."

Our society is not yet at this point, but we are rapidly approaching it. In the name of radical moral pluralism and multiculturalism, many people deny universal standards of right and wrong. Increasingly, in the interests of self-indulgence and personal license, some people refuse to acknowledge what they cannot reasonably deny - right and wrong apply to everyone, themselves included.
As C.S. Lewis says in Mere Christianity:
"The Moral Law tells us the tune we have to play: our instincts are merely the keys..."

Right and Wrong...a case for moral absolutes
We are in a decade marked by "culture wars." Having lost a dominant moral consensus, we are struggling in our courts, voting booths, and even in our churches to resolve the difficult moral issues that are separating us.

Many have decided that the answer is tolerance, open-mindedness, and mutual respect. While others are convinced that there is a time "to be our brother's keeper." They are certain that we cannot afford to merely abandon the moral values of the past and act as if it doesn't matter what we believe about God, sexual choices, or the life of an unborn child.

Believing that the Bible gives profound insight into this difficult issue, and with the invaluable help of RBC senior research editor Herb Vander Lugt, we offer the following pages as a case for moral absolutes.

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