Moral Law—So Yesterday! Faith and the Contemporary Moral Crisis (#4)

The Right

In the first three installments of this series, we examined the concept of “the good” for its relevance to morality. We discovered that the good is not by itself a moral category. Strictly speaking, the mere fact that something is good for us does not obligate us to seek it. It leaves undecided whether or not we are at fault for refusing it. In my view, a sense of obligation is an essential feature of moral experience. And this requirement leads us to the concept of “the right.”

Hence the concept of “the right” is indispensable for moral reasoning. If something is good because it is “good for” something else, then something is right because it corresponds to a norm, standard or authority. The answer to a math problem will be right when the student understands the symbols and follows the rules for the operations. A history of a Civil War battle is not right unless it corresponds to the facts. In the same way, a human action is morally right only if it measures up to a moral law. And an act is morally wrong if it breaks a moral law.

Human Law

We are familiar with the concept of human law, that is, law legislated by the state. The state claims authority to make and enforce laws to regulate the behavior of its citizens. A law is a statement that forbids or requires a certain act and prescribes the penalties for infractions. It is legislated by a legislative authority, enforced by an executive and adjudicated by judges.

But we know that the state is not the ultimate moral authority and that demands of the state are not right simply because it commands them. Human laws can be right or wrong, just or unjust, good or bad. There is hardly any need to marshal examples of unjust laws. They are all too common in human history. But we can judge a human law to be wrong only when we see that it is out of line with a higher law by which human laws must be judged.

Natural Law

What is this higher law? And how is it legislated and made known? On what authority, and who enforces and adjudicates it? For many thinkers, nature is a prime candidate for this higher law. After all, nature exists independently of human culture and law. So, let’s consider the possibility that there is a natural law that stands above legislated law.

Upon consideration, natural law can mean only in two things. Natural law either describes (1) the basic physical laws according to which nature invariably works or it describes (2) the conditions and actions required for human flourishing.

In neither sense of natural law do we come under an obligation to act or refrain from acting. In the first case (1) we have no obligation to act consistently with basic physical laws, since we have no freedom of choice in this area. Obligation and moral law concern only free actions. In the second case (2), natural law merely describes “the good” or what is good for us, and, as we noted above, the concept of the good does not include the concept of the right.

Natural law can have the force of moral law only if the order of nature reflects the will of a moral authority above nature. If there were no God or anything like God, the order of nature would be a brute fact with no moral authority. Our actions would be limited only by nature’s physical laws. There would be no class of actions that ought to be done or that ought not to be done. The idea of an unjust or wrong human law would make no sense.

Creation

However, for Christian theology the order within nature reflects the will of the Creator. The world is the creation of an infinitely good, just and wise God. Hence the true order of nature, including those actions that enable human beings to flourish and achieve their natural ends, possesses moral authority.

Hence we are obligated to seek to know and follow the law of nature, that is, those conditions and actions that enable human beings to function properly, flourish and achieve their end. In this way, what is good for human beings (“the good”) and our obligation to obey the moral law (“the right’) converge in the will of God. Or to say it another way: if we consistently do the good, we will also be acting rightly. And if we consistently do the right, we will also be achieving the good.

Where Are We?

Where are we in the series? We’ve arrived at a way to conceive of the union of the good and the right: the will of God is reflected in the created order. So far, so good! But there is much more ground to cover. Do human beings have ends beyond nature? Is there a divine law not given in nature? How do we learn what is good and right? If good and right ultimately coincide why do we need both concepts, and which is primary?

To be continued…

 

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