The Natural Law Revisited in Light of Culture’s ‘New Realities’

COMMENTARY: The natural law is not only a basis for personal freedom and fulfillment, but also for social cohesion. It should not be displaced.

The growing tendency in the modern world — as both the contraception and abortion examples show — is the belief that we have absolute autonomy over our being.
The growing tendency in the modern world — as both the contraception and abortion examples show — is the belief that we have absolute autonomy over our being. (photo: Unsplash)

Harvard University Press has published a book co-authored by William Schulz and Sushma Raman entitled The Coming Good Society: Why New Realities Demand New Rights (2020). The aim of the book is lofty but, in dismissing the value of the natural law, the authors fail to provide any solid basis for the “new rights” they observe in this changing world. 

Instead, they use the will of the liberal consensus to justify them. Schulz and Raman witness what is going on in society from abortion to same-sex “marriages” to changing sexes and approve them since they are simply the “new realities.” Furthermore, they argue, “These are rights, because the international community has recognized them to be integral to the common good, to a good society.” Rights are apparently not based in nature anymore, but are conferred from the outside. But this approach (which has been tried and tried again, each time without success, at least since the French Revolution in 1789) is as likely to provide a common ground for all people as any brand of extreme left wing politics will offer “healing” for the nation and return society to “civility.”

The natural law is basic, understandable, evident, historically respected, needed, and — elusive. Let us begin with the simple observation that birds fly, spiders build webs, bees make honey and fish swim. Each animal has what we can call a “normalcy of functioning.” That functioning is an expression of its nature. What is the normalcy of functioning in the human being? Man is, according to the classic definition, a “rational animal,” indicating that his normalcy of functioning is to be rational or to act in a reasonable way. If a beaver were rational instead of instinctual, rather than simply doing what it always does, it would first reflect on what it was doing. So that, after assessing its specific nature and aptitudes, it would say to itself, “I’d better start building a dam.” 

The immediate problem here lies in the fact that human beings do not always act rationally. At the same time, when people do act irrationally, they or their psychiatrists have a rational explanation for their behavior. A person steals, even when he knows it is wrong, because he needs the money. He is reasonable about his defense, but not about his conduct. 

Man is doggedly persistent in giving reasons, good or bad, to explain what he does. He cannot escape from the bonds of rationality, try as he may. But the criterion for reasonable behavior is not what a person does but what he ought to do. We observe the various structures that make up a modern city and see abundant evidence of man’s rationality. The engineers, architects, laborers, insurance agents, and others have all put their rationality on display. Externally, the modern city is a monument to rationality, though internally — as the presence of prisons and mental institutions in our modern city can testify — its citizenry may be acting in ways that are less than rational. 

Nonetheless, “rational being” describes the nature of the human being. This is what he is and therefore he has a right to be what he is. But man is not a bundle of rights. Correlative with his rights are his duties. 

A declaration of rights should be complemented by a declaration of duties. Rights alone do not make a person safe. His rights must be honored by others as part of their duties. If no one exercises his duty to protect my rights, those rights are imperilled. 

My freedom and the freedom of others is dependent on our mutual respect through the expression of duty for each other’s rights. To take a modern example, which Catholics know too well — if it is a “right” for an employee to expect contraception coverage from an employer and there is no correlative duty to protect the employer’s conscience, then the “right to contraception” simply becomes a noble title to a tyrannical law — leaving no redress to conscience on the part of the employer. This is how the natural law — which both affirms and respects the individual’s conscience — can serve as a basis for social unity.

On the other hand, in the modern world we often think of a right as permission to do what we want. The “right” to have an abortion is another prime example of this mentality. In this case, too, rights are severed from duties. The will alone, however, cannot be the basis for morality. The will is not primary; it must bow to the law — that is to civil law informed by natural law. What is right (human life must be nourished, not destroyed) must precede what is willed (the desire to be unimpeded by an unwanted or inconvenient pregnancy). In fact, we have a duty to will what is right. And this duty is as universal as are rights.

But how did we come to such a pass regarding the supremacy of “rights” over duties? The growing tendency in the modern world — as both the contraception and abortion examples show — is the belief that we have absolute autonomy over our being. Thus, too, the widespread belief that people can change their sexual identity. However, it is in adhering to the natural law that a person is most truly himself. For, only when man fulfills his rational nature does he find his true freedom. We cannot escape from the bonds of our own nature. We secure our rights and our liberty by living in accordance with our nature and the fundamental inclinations that arise from the natural law.

The natural law provides us with the basis for our normalcy of functioning. This normalcy of functioning relates both to our actions and to our end. It is a blueprint, so to speak, for who we are and how we should live. Jacques Maritain, in his book, The Rights of Man and the Natural Law, provides a kind of explanatory snap shot of the natural law. “There is, by very virtue of human nature, an order or a disposition which human reason can discover and according to which the human will must act in order to attune itself to the necessary ends of the human being. The unwritten law, or the natural law, is nothing more than that” (author’s emphasis).

The human being is not a “new reality” that calls for “new rights.” We read the works of Plato, Shakespeare, Dante, Cervantes, Hugo, Dostoevsky, Ibsen and others and find that neither time nor place has altered the nature of the human being. These authors from various time periods and writing in different languages are all writing about the same subject — man. 

The basis for morality is consistently in the natural law, which specifies man’s normalcy of functioning and his opportunity to gain his freedom by choosing to be himself. The natural law is not only a basis for personal freedom and fulfillment, but also for social cohesion. It should not be displaced by a left-wing hegemony. Natural law alone can provide the stabile, common ground for sensible laws to address even the “new realities” of the day.