Evangelicals and Natural Law, Part I

Last year, the eminent theologian David Bentley Hart kicked off what amounts to a bit of a firestorm in the theo-political corner of the blogosphere with a couple of short essays published in First Things.  He suggested, roughly, that the natural law tradition, which has stood at the center of much Christian thinking about politics for, well, most of Christianity’s history, wasn’t really viable.  (Brad Littlejohn has a nice summary of the pieces and many of the reactions it engendered here).  As Littlejohn notes, Hart’s point was not that natural law’s metaphysical premises are wrong, but that given the ways we moderns tend to think about nature (including human nature) it just doesn’t make sense to talk in terms of natural law in our public political deliberations: no one else buys it, it doesn’t persuade, it’s hard to make sense of it, etc.   I’m not interested in re-litigating Hart’s argument—in blog-time, that was a year ago, which is something like a century in regular time—but I am interested in some of the questions he raises.  Indeed, I’ve got something of a dog in the fight, since I (along with my co-authors on this blog) published an edited volume in which the contributors deliberated on the ways in which evangelicals might appropriate the natural law tradition in their political reflections.  More to the point, we are in the early stages of co-authoring a book in which we hope to do precisely what Hart says you can’t really do, make natural law arguments intelligible and useful for Christians within the context of modern pluralist democracies.  (We haven’t gotten to the point of pitching this to publishers, but if you’re a publisher and would be interested, get in touch!)


So how to do that?  For all the fulminations and critiques leveled at Hart (many of which I found true), a basic point remains: what typically passes for natural law arguments are generally no more persuasive in public deliberations than citing scriptural authority.  As Alan Jacobs once remarked to me, it might just be easier to get people to convert to Christianity and then persuade them regarding the natural law.  So the question we are interested in runs something like this: supposing that Christians should endorse the idea of the natural law (something Hart agrees with, by the way), how can we (if we can) bring those ideas into play in the context of our modern pluralist democratic order?  In this post, and probably any number of others following it, I will try to work out some reasonable answer to that, though fair warning: I am trying to work out some answers, meaning I will inevitably make all sorts of wrong turns, false claims, etc.  But that’s what blogs are for, right?


First, a bit of throat-clearing to set things up.  It’s important to recognize that when we talk about natural law, what we mean is the idea that human beings have a distinctive nature and that this means we have a distinctive set of ends and a distinctive way in which we can flourish (or live well).  On Aquinas’s understanding, for example, this cashes out in a claim that we should act according to reason since (following Aristotle) what distinguishes our nature is that we are distinctively rational creatures.  Since human beings have a distinctive and, in some sense, singular nature, it follows that we also share a common sense of flourishing and that this is available to all (aside from those whose contexts prevent that).  It does not follow—and no natural law theorist of whom I’m aware thinks this—that this idea of flourishing is then immediately obvious to all.  The idea of natural law is an ontological claim about who human beings are and what our true ends are, not an epistemological claim about how we know who we are and what those ends are.  That latter claim is part of what theories of the natural law are about.  So when we talk about the natural law, we are talking about what makes for human flourishing (for human beings as such).


Second, how should we understand our modern democratic context?  Hart’s skepticism regarding the efficacy of natural law arguments are of a piece with a much wider skepticism whose near ubiquity must be a part of our considerations.  To simplify things a bit, I think there are two main ways in which our context offers challenges to employing natural law claims, one political and the other philosophical-cultural.  The first suggests, broadly, that employing natural law claims are unfair and/or unjust and thus incompatible with the best understanding of constitutional democracies.  (Note here that this is not necessarily a problem for natural law.  It could be the case, after all, that natural law is true, that it is indeed incompatible with the best understanding of what makes a constitutional democracy work, and thus that constitutional democracy is a bad form of government.  I don’t think that is true – hence the book).  The second is more diffuse, but more challenging for all that: it suggests that natural law is a problem because it isn’t compatible with any reasonable modern understanding of nature and, correspondingly, of human flourishing.


And that’s really the rub here, namely that any recognizable theory of natural law will have at its heart a vision of human flourishing that then cashes out in a set of practices and institutions meant to support that vision—and preclude alternative ones.  Since we live in an age where most would deny that there is a defensibly distinctive view of flourishing or whether we can even talk comprehensively in those terms at all, making evocations about the natural law is, rhetorically, not likely to be “successful,” to say the least.  This gets me to my third bit of throat-clearing, namely that the reason to be interested in how or whether Christians should think about the natural law and engage politically in the light of its understanding.  Many American Christians are consumed by a sort of pragmatism and seem drawn to natural law arguments because, they hope, they might work (especially with regard to issues surrounding same-sex marriage).  As things have progressed in the US over the last several months, that particular hope seems less plausible than it might have.  In any case, though, I think the reason think about the natural law is really not so much whether it “works” or not, but whether it’s true.  I’m happy to be pragmatic in how we talk about this with our fellow citizens – and I have some ideas rattling around in my head for how to do this – but I’m only interested in those questions provided that the prior set of questions—is this true or even plausible—makes much sense.

So much for the throat-clearing.  Up next, thinking a bit more about the cultural and political challenges to natural law arguments.



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2 responses to “Evangelicals and Natural Law, Part I

  1. Dan Treier

    The issue that seems unclear from this definition is what counts as promulgation, what makes the ontological realities into LAW, which does have epistemological dimensions … ? Otherwise almost anybody who believes in some kind of creation “order” from wisdom lit should have to agree with you. But maybe you want it that way …

    • Well, right, you can’t neatly divide the ontological and epistemological, at least insofar as you think those ontological realities impose obligations on us. I think I have an answer for this, maybe even one that would satisfy O’Donovan. But, yes, I do also think that, aside from the occasional nihilist (who lives more in imagination than reality), most everyone has a sense of what should count as human flourishing (even though some definitions are obviously thinner than others).

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