The Welcome Erosion of Natural Law

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?

Natural-law philosophers from Aristotle to defenders of slavery in the American South viewed slavery as the natural state of some people.

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.

Could it be that whatever good ideas have come of natural-law philosophy could equally well have been derived by other means, such as the Golden Rule or humanist principles?

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?

One response to “The Welcome Erosion of Natural Law

  1. Dennis ODonnell

    If we take Nature “as is”, with no God behind it — a completely “Naturalistic” approach, certain aspects of what we call “Natural Law” must either be accepted as valid, or if not, then any and all vestiges of what one might wish to call “morality” are exposed as nothing but a sham.

    Let’s just say that there is no God, no Supernatural, nothing of that sort. We have only the Universe, Nature itself. And – here we are. Along with strings and quarks and bosons and atoms and molecules and energy and gravity and everything else that comprises The Whole of Everything.

    Does *any* of that stuff have the “right” to be here? If Nature is “all there is”, and if that stuff is stuff that comprises Nature, then it can only be said that “of course that stuff has a ‘right’ to be here. If it wasn’t here, then Nature herself wouldn’t exist”.

    One can object and say “well, who grants it that right?”, as if it were necessary to have the right “granted”. But, I would argue that, while the word “right” may not be an ideal word to use (and, I don’t know what would be the ideal word), nonetheless, the “right” (as it were) of strings, quarks, bosons, et al, to exist in Nature is Self-Evident: Without them existing, Nature herself would not exist.

    And – thus – we, being part of Nature – equally have a “right” to exist. Just as a rock or an ocean or a gaseous nebula has a “right” to exist, in it’s form, so we have a right to exist in our form.

    This is the very basis of the idea of what the Dec of Independence was talking about – “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

    One does not need to preclude that “their Creator” is the Abrahamic God, nor the god of diesm, nor anything but Nature herself. Any way you cut that cake, the idea is that it’s “self-evident” that “all men are created equal”. Even if there is no God, how can this self-evident truth be anything other than it is? Either every bit of energy and matter – and us – have a “right” to be here, equally, with all other things – or – this very Nature in which we exist wouldn’t itself exist.

    SO – what I’m getting at is this: Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.

    This is something that I’ve noticed atheists are too quickly willing to do. You find (in this case) certain things that people have *called* “natural law”, and that particular thing may somehow be *objectionable*, so instead of just throwing out that one notion, you want to throw out the whole concept of Natural Law itself…

    My suggestion: Dig a lot deeper into what might actually comprise Natural Law before deciding we need to toss the whole notion….

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