Friday, May 18, 2012

George Weigel's commencement address on natural law

Catholic theologian George Weigel delivered the commencement address to Benedictine College in Kansas. It is a beautiful reflection on religious liberty and natural law.

Weigel first quotes Father John Courtney Murray, a Jesuit theologican and great student of religious freedom in America:
[Fr. Murry] “Catholic participation in the American consensus has been full and free, unreserved and unembarrassed, because the contents of this consensus — the ethical and political principles drawn from the tradition of natural law — approve themselves to the Catholic intelligence and conscience. Where this kind of language is talked, the Catholic joins the conversation with complete ease. It is his language. The ideas expressed are native to his universe of discourse. Even the accent, being American, suits his tongue.”

Weigel observes:

[Weigel] In this second decade of the third millennium, there are many grave questions be debated in America: the question of the legal protection of innocent human life from conception until natural death; the question of long-term strategy and morally worthy tactics in the war against Islamist jihadism; the question of how we attend to the sick and how we manage immigration; the question of fitting public policy ends to fiscal means; the question of building an appropriate regulatory structure around the biotech revolution so that the new genetic knowledge leads to genuine human flourishing rather than to a stunted and manufactured humanity; the question of the health of American civil society and of the American national character; the list goes on and on. The very question of what should be on “the public policy agenda,” and what ought to be left to the private and independent sectors, is being as vigorously contested in our country today as at any time since the Great Depression and the New Deal. Yet amidst all this churning, the gravest question for our public culture is whether what Father Murray called the “American consensus” — that ensemble of “ethical and political principles drawn from the tradition of natural law” — still holds. 
There are reasons to be concerned. 
In October 2009, the nation’s political newspaper of record, the Washington Post, ran an editorial condemning what it termed the “extremist views” of a candidate for attorney general of Virginia who had suggested that the natural moral law was still a useful guide to public policy. The Post, determined to nail down the claim that homosexual orientation is the equivalent of race for purposes of U.S. civil rights law, deplored this as “a retrofit [of] the old language of racism, bias, and intolerance in a new context.” Yet the Post’s own claim was, to adopt its language, “extremist.” For it suggested that the label “bigot” ought to be applied to notable historical personalities who had appealed to the natural moral law in causes thePost would presumably regard as admirable: figures such as Thomas Jefferson, staking America’s claim to independent nationhood on “self-evident” moral truths derived from “the laws of nature”; or Martin Luther King, Jr., arguing in his Letter from Birmingham Jail that “an unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law”; or Pope John Paul II, who, at the United Nations in 1995, suggested that the truths of the natural moral law — “the moral logic which is built into human life,” as he put it — could serve as a universal “grammar” enabling cross-cultural dialogue...

A very serious danger in the relentless attacks on real marriage and on the sanctity of life and on a host of basic moral principles is that they are attacks on the concept of natural law itself. Of course, the attackers, who are generally ignorant of the philosophical implications of their denial of objective moral law, invoke natural law to deny natural law. They accuse defenders of life and marriage as oppressors and bigots, not pausing to note that the very concept of human rights and human equality presupposes the existence of natural law. What is it, after all, that one is transgressing by bigotry and oppression, if not fundamental human rights held by all? The argument that policy based on natural law is oppressive is itself an argument for a policy based on natural law.

The real debate is then not whether natural law exists objectively and can be invoked to guide public policy. The debate is about who is right about what natural law prescribes.

And, of course, the more fundamental debate is about the Source of the natural law that everyone-- everyone-- invokes.

To deny the existence of God is to take oneself out of any rational discussion of human rights. The denial of God is a denial of objective right and wrong, of any sort. 


  1. Michael,

    You should be charged with larceny for taking two perfectly good words such as 'natural' and 'objective', and giving them a new meaning; 'God-given'.

    If you mean 'God-given'', then you should use that word. Then at least your thread would make some sense. I'd agree with you that if you deny the existence of God, then you've removed yourself from debate about 'God-given moral law'.

    But there's no God, so there's no God-given moral law. Moral law is devised by humans to fit human needs. Pretending that a deity has ordained human moral laws to give it weight it doesn't deserve is just nonsense.

    Moral laws have varied over time and cultures. In the !San people (hunter-gatherers) it was considered entirely moral for new mothers to kill the second of twins or any malformed newborn babies because in nomadic societies it was necessary for the woman to carry her child from place to place for at least the first 4 years.

    'Natural' sounds wholesome and to be desired, doesn't it? Arsenic, too, is natural, but I wouldn't recommend it. Anyway, it should be 'supernatural moral law'

    1. "Objective" in this context means having existence independent of human opinions.

      "Natural" means existence in the natural world.

      Atheists inherently deny the existence of objective natural law.

      Based on your comment, it seems they deny logic too.

    2. Michael,

      Your definitions are nonsense. You can't use the word you're defining as part of its definition. And atheists don't deny objective natural law. They just don't use your peculiar definitions of 'objective' and 'natural'. If you mean 'God-given' to convey the idea that human laws, somehow somewhere somewhen for unknown reasons and by unknown mechanisms, arose independently of human thought and actions, then you need to use the appropriate words. Expropriating words with perfectly understood meanings and giving them novel meanings 'in this context' is just Orwellian.

  2. The hypothesis of objective moral law is undermined by the fact that what is considered moral is constantly evolving. Every time a Christian draws a picture or takes a photograph they are breaking the Second Commandment, and I’m happy this commandment is so easily and universally ignored. We have outgrown the silly rules of the Bible. As a matter of fact, commandments 6, 8, and 9 are the only commandments that can be found in the laws of any Western democracy, the rest of them have been abandoned for the notion of liberty.

    With the general population ~10% atheist, and the prison population ~0.2% atheist, it’s impossible to say that belief in natural law or God given law has any positive effect on morality.

    A much better explanation for our morality is Darwinian selection. Our moral landscape looks exactly like what you would expect it to if it evolved naturally. We see rudimentary morality everywhere in the animal kingdom, from piranhas not eating each other too chimps comforting an upset relative. In many cases these behaviors can be shown to have a direct effect on the fitness of individuals and populations. Of course our morality is also shaped by the hugely complicating influences of language, culture, and technology; even so we see ranges of behavior in humans not at all unlike the ranges of behavior in other animals.

    Unfortunately reality isn’t formed around what you would like to be true, it’s determined by the explanatory models that mathematically best fit the observed data.