Natural Law and the Moral Underpinnings of the Culture War

As the general tendency of state growth throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries seems to be reaching its apex in the twenty-first, we have witnessed the growing interest on a grassroots level of the study of natural law.  The study stems from both a growing revival of right wing philosophies and a general reaction to leftist nihilism that has saturated the mainstream popular culture.  And it’s good, because it means that more people are waking up from the coma induced by the 60s revolutions and the tranquilizers that the Left has administrated ever since.

As the blatant, barbaric forms of socialism from the twentieth century collapsed—and what few haven’t remain limply propped up by crony free market policies keeping their economy from utter destitution—the face of the hard Left has turned from savagely advocating outright political insurrection to a more civilized, elitist approach: brainwashing the civilians who churn through academic and political institutions by the truckload every generation.  And we’re now two or three generations deep in Leftist jargon, with our peers, uncles, and even fathers now having been taught that we are supposed to be the cultural heirs of genocidal maniacs, slaveholding tyrants, and oppressive religious lunatics; that the cornerstones of philosophy, literature, music, and art should be dismissed out of hand because they’re racist or sexist or classist; and that the advances in human achievement, wealth, and political freedom were due not to the social and religious apparatuses that were built and refined over centuries, but rather because of the game of evolutionary roulette that happened to dump White Europeans in a position where they could most easily oppress other peoples.

And people are getting sick of it, so they’re looking now to the source of this demagoguery: Leftism—and more specifically, the lawlessness that Leftism advocates.  Cultures wherein tradition is scorned and faith is debased, the state grows to accommodate; where tradition would teach morality and ethics, the state would issue out ethical standards via dictatorial fiat, and where faith would provide an underpinning to moral decisions, the state would rule by threat of force.  Order, and the rule of law, go from things to be taken for granted in a functioning society to the whim of the regime.

Where then is there left to go?  Marxism is discredited and with it, presumably, lay the bones of the civilization is has deconstructed and dismantled.  But reality cannot be discredited, only ignored or forgotten.  Today, the belief in God, the soul, and an intrinsic order to the universe are things that sit very uncomfortably with the general culture, despite being embraced by a relative majority of people in rural and even suburban areas.  Some newcomers to conservatism attempt to reconcile the traditionalism they value with the atheism they’ve grown up with or grown accustomed to, but find it difficult to rest any sort of moral theory that both guards human value and promotes human development on a steady foundation.  A secular morality only ever attempts to do one, often at the expense of the other—and usually fails at doing both in the process.

It is my effort here to briefly examine the only viable alternative—the only alternative, in fact, that has been before our eyes all along: the natural law.  I seek to point out how we know it exists, why it is important, and how the culture of nihilism we lay immersed in presently actually presupposed the reality of the very order it sought to tear apart.

How Can We Know That Natural Law Exists?

Everyone knows that when a child steals a crayon from his peer, that action is wrong.  If the child says, “I wanted it, so I took it,” then perhaps the child has not yet comprehended the concept of theft; maybe he isn’t old enough to have lived with his parents and interacted with his peers long enough to learn the concept of private ownership—at least, not when that concept is applied to other people.  Take something from that child, however, and he’ll learn pretty quickly what theft means, and hopefully, not to do it again.

This is a rudimentary example, but you get the idea.  Theft is wrong.  How do we know it’s wrong?  Because we’re told it’s wrong?  No, because it disrespects our right to keep private property.  How do we know we have a right to private property?  Ah, here’s the rub.

Rights to things like life, private property, and the sanctity of things like family, property, and freedom all stem from the concept of an objective, knowable order to things.  This order is called the natural law.  Natural, in this case, does not refer to nature in the sense of the rule of the jungle or the survival of the fittest, but rather nature as it is synonymous with essence; the natural law of the world is the essential law of the world.  It is law that exists necessarily as the world does.

We can deduce its existence from a variety of means, chief of which is the commonality of moral systems across the complex societies that exist today.  This is not to say that every society is built fundamentally upon the moral framework of natural law, although most (if not all) have in some way appealed to it.  But the societies that exist today—China, India, Japan, to say nothing of the West and the societies of the Middle East—all feature engrained moral systems inextricable from their culture, and each feature basic commonalities: murder is banned, marriage is important, children should be looked after by their parents, and theft and lying are wrong.

In criticism, a lot of attention is drawn to the differences in these moral systems than is drawn to the abundance of similarities.  The old traditional Japanese view of proper family values sometimes includes a wife taking her own life after her husband commits ritual suicide—hardly a value you’d find in the West.  Likewise, Islam allows a man to enter into multiple marriages with different women, while again, Christianity says that’s probably not a great idea.  And there is the issue with Islam about indiscriminate murder and conquest that would seem to violate the notion that murder is wrong, but Muslim scholars have argued about that one for centuries, so perhaps the jury is still out.  The important issues here are that these basic values—appeals to the concepts that innocent lives should not be taken, marriage and families should be respected, etc.—have more in common than they lack: for instance, the concepts of marriage and innocence.

The secular approach to explaining this boils down to a mixture of evolutionism and Marxism—in places were life is nasty, brutish, and short, it’s clear that the moral system probably arose through a ‘naturally selected’ (how that applies to societies comprised of free agents is beyond me) means of survival of the fittest, and in places like the West, where the moral system was a bit more stringent than it is in most other parts of the world, it was merely the manifestation of competing powers working against one another to assert dominance.  In other words, in areas like the more orthodox regions of the Middle East, where women aren’t allowed outside without the accompaniment of a man and can be stoned for relatively innocuous affronts, secularism points out that the region has a brutal environment and, despite the perceived injustices from a Western scholar, the moral system evolved that way naturally and should be respected.  This view assumes some magical force at work through the actions of men and women, as if history had a will behind it that fueled it from its beginning—oh wait, I’m talking about secularism here.  Whoops.

Anyway, the additives here are the pseudo-Marxist and Rousseauian elements: men and women are better off when they live without moral systems, but when you put a group of people together, the leaders of that group inevitable impose one simply to keep themselves in control.  Admittedly, it’s certainly an appealing view.  It asserts the perfection of Man on one hand, and then appeals to our adolescent and egoistic drives to fight the system on the other—if only these pesky religions and priests got out of our way, we’d finally be the perfect individuals free of social bonds and contracts that only work against our own interests!  That explains perfectly why regions where Western civilization has withdrawn still live in barbarism, slavery, and cruelty.  Er—wait…

The difficulty of secularists to see what seems like an obvious truth to reality is due largely to their theological blind spot.  Should one remain skeptical of God’s existence—much less His love—the only real defenses against utter barbarity come in the form of the non-aggression principle, but that simply offers us a way of getting along with each other, not a way of getting along with ourselves.  Sure, arguments could be made with regards to prosperity or leaving life having provided for a better future for your children than you had, but there’s no meter against which to say that doing so is any better than dying in the gutter childless and doped up on amphetamines, or killing any children you have simply so they don’t have to deal with the suffering they’re sure to experience in life.  Remove a purpose from life, and Man, try as he might to fill that vacuum, will only suffer and die in delusion and vanity, weakly substituting whatever he can but never successfully.

Anyway, I’m getting ahead of myself.  The pitfalls of modernity are covered later in this essay.  For now, we can assert the existence of natural law through the notion that there exists only so many ways in which human beings can get along with one another, and that by acknowledging our general tendency to be self-interested creatures, something must keep in check our selfishness such that the formation and maintenance of civilizations is made possible.  The evolutionist’s position that these things evolved naturally begs the question; for one thing, Man’s imprint upon the world is unprecedented in the geological and fossil record.  Similarly, the Marxist’s view that it’s all a dramatic power play does not fully explain the religious tenants of Buddhism’s or Hinduism’s take on natural law, with the emphasis on aestheticism and detailed explorations of the metaphysics behind the self and the universe, to say nothing of the entire Christian worldview made possible by centuries of argumentation, research, and writings both before and after the crucifixion.  It seems enough to note that, while not identical, any complex society must follow the same general set of congruent moral dictums, which then presupposes that Man is only so dissimilar across environments, regions, and genepools.  That some sort of natural law exists, then, is a reasonable conclusion.

It is important to note, however, that merely acknowledging the existence of the natural law is not enough to form a functioning, proper moral system.  While the commonalities among cultures imply the existence of it, the discrepancies between these cultures of how it is interpreted and applied reveals the importance of its rigorous study and reflection.

Why Do We Need Natural Law?

Left to our own devices, our relations with each other tend to be violent and self-servicing.  Groups of men respect brutality, might, wit, and audaciousness among their leaders, and generally these traits serve well when used as means to prosperity—whether through business or conquest.  The sort of ambition that drives this behavior is not found often outside of mankind, although the general assertiveness of ‘alpha’ males in the animal kingdom is often used as the comparative example.  This reduces the dignity of Man undersells his potential in a way only the secular atheist could, but it’s hard not to see the parallels.

As men come together in societies and these societies grow into civilizations, it’s clear that there are only so many ways to get along well enough to prosper.  Compromises, vesting power in leaders, and the formation of the State are all means of accomplishing this; disputes, after all, will inevitably arise no matter what the scenario.  The question then isn’t why do we need the natural law, but rather, why should we bother to recognize it if we can function without it?  This sort of question is, again, begging itself.  The mere fact that civilizations have comparable moral systems implies that, when left to their own devices, the natural order will be fulfilled to some reasonable degree within the scope of generations.  Perhaps not fulfilled optimally, but that’s where the study comes in.

Additionally, Man has within him a capacity for comprehension and reflection so far unheard of and unseen outside of his species.  The creative fields of the arts and humanities, the epic tales from millennia ago, the grandeur of medieval architecture, the beauty of renaissance painting, and the exquisiteness of baroque music all reveal Man’s artistic yearning.  This implies that Man is made for more than eating, sleeping, and procreating; any system of living—any underlying order to his life—must take into account these faculties and not merely dismiss them as slights of hand or as accidents.

This is what I touched on above with regard to the non-aggression principle.  Secularist moral systems can certainly create a system of order imposed from above in which it is illogical to aggress upon another individual.  But there is no reason for anyone to be held to any moral standard beyond the “don’ts” of this system.  In such a case, while two people may survive without aggressing one another with relative ease, what reason is there for one to succeed or bother to engage in competition with the other?  Material payoff?  All it takes is a moribund poet to lay waste to those fantasies.  Our mere ability to entertain the fantastical destroys any hope of a fulfilling investment of faith in material pleasures.

And here’s another example: suppose a man was born into a lower-class family and worked hard all of his life to amass a fortune.  At the end of his life, looking back upon his exploits and gazing at his children, burgeoning into adulthood themselves and never having known the sort of hunger and hardship he grew up with, what reason has he, possessing a secular framework, to value passing on his fortune to his children instead of squandering it all on the excesses of lust and gluttony before he dies?  Blowing your kid’s inheritance on one final Caribbean cruise or a lavish retirement in the Azores are both appealing ventures by today’s standards.  But the passage of wealth from one generation to the next, and the knowledge that your line has maintained or gained its security through the wealth you have contributed to it, requires contextualizing your life within the broader framework of your family and your culture.  This is something that secular logic has no room to account for.  There’s no incentive for it.  At best, choosing to do so is permissible, but there is no particular reason to invest in the future of your family after your death, especially when it means you won’t be able to invest in your own gratification just moments before you die.  Given the cost/benefit ratio there, it actually makes less sense to leave any money for your kids; once you’re dead, they aren’t your problem anymore.

So while a non-aggression principle functions fine as a rationalist method to prevent people from savagely raping, plundering, and murdering each other, it provides no nourishment to fulfill the soul’s intrinsic upward yearning; as such, when left without an alternative, the soul with rot with jealousy turned both inward and outward toward others, largely in the ennui of the postmodern intellectual and artistic scenes so popular in our ‘post-capitalist’ society of the West today.  Eventually, as we have witnessed in the past two or three decades, this has the potential to collapse eventually into the same sort of savage barbarism of the nihilistic Soviet-style totalitarianism.

This is why the natural law is necessary.  It services both the “dos” and the “don’ts” of moral compromise.  It lays down a singular, unified, cohesive system in which the savage, fallen nature of Man is held in check while simultaneously servicing his inner yearning for something greater.  Man’s imperfectability is made plain, the unfairness of life is accepted and, though mourned, not obsessed over.  Nothing else suffices, and any attempt to expand the secular worldview either leads to irreconcilable contradictions or, amusingly, brings it into line with the natural law anyway.

Natural Law Points Toward the Divine

There is much more to be said on this topic than I have room for here, but natural law, similar to the existence of the soul, points toward the existence of God.  It implies that the universe is ordered and structured, that there is something about it engrained to favor the conditions in which both life and human action can thrive, and that human intellect is capable of perceiving, interpreting, and bringing its agency into accordance with it.  It assumes a creator to the world, it assumes agency among men, and it assumes that the creator wants these men to choose freely to live according to the laws He has made.

These are perhaps the most major motifs of the Old Testament, with proclamations for God issued forth twice to Man—first in the form of the demands made to Noah and his children after the flood, and then secondly and most famously in the form of the Decalogue.  At some point I’ll probably do a post on one or both of these as they relate to a functioning human society, but until then I’ll just have to settle for briefly mentioning their value in the terms of natural law.

The Decalogue specifically addresses the need for Man to monitor and maintain checks on his materialistic behavior—namely, don’t steal, murder people, or sleep with someone else’s wife.  But additionally, it entrenches the value systems necessary to maintain a long-term functioning society: respect your parents (and, in effect, your traditions), prioritize your life around God (instead of things like money or sex), and do your best to avoid coveting things that aren’t yours or lusting after women you aren’t married to.  It is the second of these, the prioritization of affairs, that no secular moral system has an effective and fulfilling alternative to.  There is no power that can be appealed to on earth that Man cannot accidentally corrupt.

It is agreement over Man’s ability to corrupt everything that he touches and creates that is, essentially, the dividing line between the secularist and the Christian; Christian doctrine acknowledges Man’s fallen nature and uses natural law as part of the ladder to which he may ascend toward God, but secularism not only fails to acknowledge the ladder, it fails also to see why ascendancy is even worthwhile.  Man, says the secularist, is fine just the way he is—flaws and all.  But if the secularist actually believed that, then there’d be no reason why secular systems inevitably lean toward brutality, poverty, and oppression, often while proclaiming the values of liberty, equality, and fraternity in the process.  Perhaps it’s because secularism precludes the possibility that other secularists can agree on an objective goal; after all, if one secularist’s goal turns out to be at odds with another’s, and if both seem reasonably logical, then there seems to be little room for them to justly work out their problems.  You can only throw them both on a battlefield and see who turns out the victor.  That’s usually how it works out for them, anyway.

All of this is not to say that only a believer in Christ is capable of being moral.  Quite the contrary; it’s feasible and even quite likely that those with ambivalent views on religion and spirituality can live moral, wholesome lives so long as the culture they live within is saturated with the values promoted by Christianity and underscored by the natural law.  Indeed, that is mostly what the natural law exists for.  The formation of a society based around the Decalogue allows for leeway and even outright straying from the path natural law lays out—within some reason.  In fact, it was only within a Christian civilization that something like Leftism could even come about.  But only so long as most of the institutions remain thoroughly grounded within the Christian disposition and attentive to the prerogative that natural law lays out.  Should it come to pass that nihilism eclipses the dominant Christian ideology, despite taking advantage of its framework, the society will inevitably crumble.

And so we come to the present climate.  I have noted before at length my pessimism for whatever the future holds, but every age has its heresy to contend with.  In today’s age, that heresy is the particularly virulent strain of Leftism that pervades every major media outlet, every major entertainment institution, and every major academic center, to say nothing of the political sphere.  As the popular culture wanes more to the left, the dominant culture—the silent culture—turns outward to express its rage and discontent, even while its moral fabric gets swiped out from under them.

Recommended reading:

  • What We Can’t Not Know: A Guide – J. Budziszewski
  • Written on the Heart: The Case for Natural Law – J. Budziszewski
  • Is God a Moral Monster?: Making Sense of the Old Testament God – Paul Copan
  • The Last Superstition: A Refutation of New Atheism – Edward Feser

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