After I gave a talk about natural law and marriage recently, a young man in the audience remarked “That doesn’t sound like natural law.” I asked, “Why not?” He answered, "It seems so existential."
Three things emerged from our conversation:
1. He was complimenting, not criticizing.
2. He wasn’t referring to existentialism.
3. What he meant by seeming “existential” was that it made sense of experience.
I was glad of all that, but still a bit taken aback. Certainly natural law makes sense of experience. What else would it be called natural law? I think he must have viewed it as a theoretical abstraction divorced from experience.
Of course there is a theory of natural law, but natural law is not a theory. It is the very warp and woof of life for creatures of our kind. It is the fabric of what we naturally are, including our inbuilt meanings and purposes, with all that this implies about what our creaturely happiness requires.
To be sure, the writing of people like St. Thomas Aquinas is difficult and abstract, but St. Thomas agreed with me. Alasdair MacIntyre puts the point nicely in a article on “The Privatization of Good”:
“For it is Aquinas's view that rational persons, who are able to develop their practical rationality in undistorted ways, become natural Thomists without having had to read Aquinas. But in our culture -- indeed in any culture -- how relatively few of such persons there are!”