Certain questions tend to come up whenever I teach about natural law. They don’t always come up in words, much less in these words, but they often lurk beneath and between the lines. What if our nature had been different? What if we changed our nature? Why shouldn’t we transcend our nature?
From a classical perspective these questions seem strange ones. Though the classical natural law thinkers were quick to respond to objections and often anticipated some of ours, they never quite anticipated these. Why is that? Because it was a little more obvious to them what a nature is, a purpose implanted into something by the Divine Art that it be moved to a determinate end.
Consider human beings. Ours is a rational and personal nature which supervenes on an animal nature. As rational animals we have ends like raising families and turning the wheel of the generations. As rational animals our yet higher end is to know and share the truth of things, especially to know and share God; without being destroyed, even our animal ends come to share in this higher quest. And because we are personal rational animals, the knowledge of God is personal knowledge, less like how I know a theorem -- not that we should disparage theorems -- than like how I know my wife. Except that God is the Bridegroom, not the Bride.
If you no longer believe in the Divine art, and no longer believe that purposes are implanted into things, then you may still use the expression “nature,” but you will use it in a different sense. What is there? You will answer: Just stuff. The nature of a thing is just the pattern of its stuff. But the pattern is also just stuff.
You might even go on using the expression “natural law,” but that expression will take on a different sense for you too. You will be thinking of genes and so-called instincts and so-called drives, of things that jerk and yank us and pull our strings without considering how we feel about the matter, all just machinery of a meaningless and purposeless process that does not have us in mind, “laws” only in the sense that the edicts of a tyrant are laws.
Ironically, that objection is half-right. Things that jerk and yank us and pull our strings are not what the classical tradition means by natural laws. Laws are ordinances of reason. Everything in our animal nature is preserved, but it is taken up into our rational nature and transformed. The animal merely ruts; I marry. The animal is merely curious; I wonder. The animal merely eats and flees from danger, following blind impulses which tend to the preservation of its life. I reflect on the goodness of life, and on what kind of life is good.
Some people refuse to recognize the Divine Art but cannot bear the implications of everything being just stuff. Having ejected God, they make everything in the cosmos into a god or a goddess. I once listened to a scholar present a paper rejecting what he called theocentric and anthropocentric ethics and defending what he called ecocentric ethics. He said all life deserved equal concern and respect. He wondered out loud why we don’t consider the rights of bacteria.
During the response period I posed him a problem: "I am driving in my automobile. A little girl darts into the road from the right, and at the same moment two dogs dart into the road from the left. Should I swerve to the left to miss the girl and hit the dogs, or swerve to the right to miss the dogs and hit the girl? After all, they have equal rights, and there are two of them and only one of her."
His reply: "I admit that there are some unresolved problems in ecocentric ethics."
But I digress. The topic is those three questions which keep coming up: What if our nature had been different? What if we changed our nature? Why shouldn’t we transcend our nature? I mean to address them from the classical perspective, which does recognize the Divine Art. Next time we will take up the first one.