Section 377 of India’s Constitution was in the news this week. It states, “Whoever voluntarily has carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal shall be punished with imprisonment for life, or with imprisonment of either description for [a] term which may extend to ten years, and shall also be liable to fine.” Although Section 377 does not spell out what is “against the order of nature,” conservatives have interpreted it to bar homosexual activity, among other things.
So it was big news this week when India’s Supreme Court ruled that “In a democratic Constitution founded on the rule of law, rights (of minorities) are as sacred as those conferred on other citizens to protect their freedoms and liberties. Sexual orientation is an essential attribute of privacy.”
The notion of homosexuality being against “natural law” is embedded in Western culture, too. The Apostle Paul wrote, in reference to lesbians and gays, “God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. In the same way, the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another.”
I’m glad that the highest courts in both India and the United States have decided that the right to privacy trumps this alleged aspect of natural law, but I wonder how natural law has managed to enjoy such revered status for so many years.
After all, hasn’t natural law proven less than a reliable guide to morals?
In many cultures, people have viewed the privileges of class to be natural and just, not because the wealthy had more money, but because they were somehow different. India’s caste system is just one example.
In these cases and more, an outlook that seemed very “natural” is later shown to be morally repugnant, and arguments from natural law are shown to be nothing more than dressed-up prejudices.
Often, societies are made better precisely by working against natural law. Stephen Pinker argues in Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined that one reason first-world societies have succeeded is that individuals have agreed to cede their right to revenge and other forms of violence to the State. As anyone who has ever wanted to take revenge knows, this is not natural!
One could also argue (and some have argued) that polygamy is natural. It was even practiced by most of the biblical patriarchs. Yet we have come to realize that society works better when partners are more evenly distributed.
I, for one, welcome the erosion of natural law as a moral authority. I think we can do better, and have done better. What do you think?