When Talking About Morality, Start With Natural Law

Our society is very confused about what we ought to do and why we ought to do it.

(photo: Pixabay/CC0)

As I discuss philosophical questions with my high school students, I find that they tend to gravitate toward ethical dilemmas and “What-would-you-do-in-this-situation” type conversations. It is generally easier for them to relate to practical questions than to more abstract, metaphysical questions about the nature of existence. However, what I try to impress on my students is the fact that there has to be a basis for making ethical decisions in the first place, and that basis has its own foundation in the nature of reality. It seems to come as something of a surprise to them that there is a rational way of thinking about morality, and it is not just a question of what we think or feel is right, let alone the fact that there might be real moral standards. Evidence of this fact is that they often start off sentences about morality by saying, “I feel like…” However, when they really get into a discussion, they will begin to disagree and argue with one another, which implies that there is a rational way of talking about these issues whether they realize it or not.

I do not think it is too drastic to say that there is a lot of moral confusion today, both about what is right and wrong and what is the nature of right and wrong. In other words, we tend to be very confused as a society about what we ought to do and why we ought to do it. Worst of all, though, is that we do not know we are confused. As Plato said, “The most damaging thing about stupidity is its self-satisfaction.” The first step in learning is realizing that you don’t know. Peter Kreeft has said, “There are two kind of people in the world: the fools who think they are wise and the wise who know they are fools.”

Any discussion about morality must start with a common basis. It does me no good to shout, “God commands it!” to people who don’t believe that God exists. That is as good of a starting place as someone saying to me, “The flying spaghetti monster has dictated thus…” I don’t believe in the flying spaghetti monster, so I don’t care what it did or didn’t dictate.

The little bit of education in moral bases that my students have received comes from English class, where they have learned about two moral philosophies: utilitarianism and moral law. Utilitarianism, also known as consequentialism, is the theory that what is right is determined by the total amount of happiness that will result. For the Avenger’s fans out there, this is the philosophy of Thanos: to reduce misery, kill half the population. The ends justify the means. The other theory is one of simple rules and duty. These rules demand what is right, and you must follow them.

The main problem with both of these philosophies is that there is no good way to connect them to reality. They both assert a basic principle, but that principle has no good grounding in reality.

What alarms me is that there is no consciousness of the moral theory that has a good foundation in reality and, therefore, was the dominant moral philosophy for the Ancient and Medieval philosophers: natural law. This is the theory that right action is always in accord with the nature of the human person. Just as the nature of a violin dictates what you should and should not do to it if you want it to function well, so the nature of a human person reveals how we ought to conduct ourselves so that we can thrive. Even many Christians are not familiar with such a robust theory of ethics that can be discovered by sound reasoning. Faith in God is not required to understand this theory of ethics, and yet it agrees perfectly with the moral teaching of the Church. Our faith only adds to this morality; it takes nothing away.

So natural law ethics is the perfect starting point for a discussion of morality, even with people who are not religious. It is the case that even ancient pagan atheist philosophers like Democritus held to it. But reasoning with people will get nowhere until that common foundation is unearthed, a process that usually involves a lot of question asking and even more patience.

The other thing that is necessary for reasoning well about natural law is a firm grasp of the nature of the human being, another woefully absent concept in our society. Indeed, most people would deny that humans have a nature at all. But without this foundation, it is very difficult if not impossible to reason well about what is the good for a human without an understanding of the nature of a human.

So, whenever we engage in discussions about moral questions, we must, in all charity, establish the foundations of the conversation and bring it back to the system of ethics and its basis: natural law founded on the nature of the human person. Without that, we may as well be shouting at each other in different languages. Ethical discussions may seem simpler and easier to relate to, but they require just as much nuance, sophistication, and patience as a conversation about metaphysics.