People who think about natural law consider it in various ways.
Moral philosophers are interested in what it is -- political philosophers, in what light it might shed on law and government -- casuists, in how it might help them clear up difficult moral problems -- epistemologists, in how we know it -- historians, in how belief in it has moved individuals and nations -- moral apologists, in how the universal dim awareness of it can be cleansed, enlarged, and deepened -- psychologists, in how the attempt to deny it distorts personality -- metaphysicians, in what the structure of reality must be like for there to be such a thing in the first place -- theologians, in how its reality points to the reality of God.
If we suppose that each of these groups pays close attention to what the others are doing, we will be disappointed. To a surprising degree, each group minds its own business, blithely assuming that its business and the others’ businesses are independent. “To understand this, we don’t need to understand that too.” Unfortunately, this assumption is wrong.
A historian, for instance, may think that he doesn’t need to know much about the thing believed in order to understand how believing in it has influenced people. To understand how belief in natural law has moved nations, he may not even need to know whether it is real. But this is not so.
Why not? Consider how believing that natural law is real is different than believing, say, that the planet Jupiter is composed mostly of hydrogen. We have no inside knowledge, no inner awareness, of the composition of Jupiter. But through conscience, we do have a certain inside knowledge of natural law; the rational mind “participates” in its reality. So to affirm or deny that Jupiter is mostly hydrogen is to affirm or deny something outside myself, but to affirm or deny conscience is to affirm or deny myself. Wouldn’t a good historian see that this must make a difference to how people think and behave?
“To understand this, we don’t need to understand that too.” Some moral thinkers make the same assumption, and I am more and more convinced that for them it is an even greater folly. Despite his greatness, C.S. Lewis makes this mistake in his great work The Abolition of Man. Just as an earlier book was about “mere” Christianity, so one might say this superb essay is about “mere” natural law, and it is much the same sort of splendid failure. I do not bandy these adjectives lightly. Though hardly noticed by most specialists, The Abolition of Man is one of the twentieth century’s most luminous brief works about natural law. Now that the spirit of Nimrod has reawakened, and the voice of the transhumanist is heard in the land, it has more to teach than ever. Yet just as in the former book, so in this one, the mere just doesn’t work.
Lewis was so intent to avoid the baggage of Western metaphysics that he would not even use the traditional term “natural law”; instead, seeking a term without associations, he called it the “Tao.” Yet this merely entangled him in the unintended associations of Eastern metaphysics. So determined was he not to discuss the great question of whether natural law presupposes God, he ended up giving the unintended impression that it doesn’t.
If the book succeeds in other ways – if it accurately diagnoses subjectivism about values, if it successfully show how every attempt to deny the natural law depends on such shreds of natural law as it retains, if it correctly forecasts what refashioning human nature would really mean -- it does so despite its failed minimalism, not because of it.
For a more recent example of failed minimalism in natural law, consider the so-called New Natural Law theory, or NNL.
According to the classical Western natural law tradition, human nature is richly endowed with inclinations which point toward God. Even without knowing Him as He knows Himself, even without the unaided natural power to attain Him, even without understanding what it actually is that we long for, in fact we long for Him. We long for Him not only as something good, but as our supreme good, more than we love our very selves. This longing for God is not only supernatural but natural, and it is linked with other Godward leanings. We are naturally inclined to worship, naturallyinclined even to offer sacrifice. The thwarting or misdirection of such inclinations, under the influence of sin, has grave consequences, far greater than what Freud thought happens when libido is repressed. Understanding them, then, is a matter of the first importance.
But the NNL rejects all of this. Rather than supposing that we are naturally and spontaneously drawn to God, it views us as drawn to “religion.” Rather than supposing that religion lies in the loving service of God, it views it as lying in a relationship with some source of meaning which we conceive as greater than ourselves. And rather than supposing that this relationship is our supreme good, it views it as merely one “basic” good among others -- no more important than, say, the good of play.
One is reminded of a remark by a certain member of Alcoholics Anonymous, when asked by an interviewer what he took the second of the famous Twelve Steps to mean. The second step declares. “We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.”
“For me,” he said, “it’s electricity.”