Tag Archives: moral law

The Logic of Social Suicide

Cultural observers are saying that we live in a time of increased division and social strife. Political discourse has degenerated into name calling, distorted quotes, misrepresentation, deep fakes, down right lies, betrayal, opportunism, insincere and impossible promises, and catchy sound bites. Some people blame the current president and others the former one. Still others blame the Electoral College, the corrupt media, the schools and universities, the coastal elites or the common folk of fly-over country, the churches, or social media. However I’d like to propose a different diagnosis: modern society is built a foundation of sand. Within its genetic makeup there is a principle of dissolution that will enviably work its own destruction.

The Killer Gene

In the Middle Ages, Thomas Aquinas argued that, in order to be just, human laws must be based on the moral law, which in turn is based on the eternal law of God’s being and will. Moral law is vastly more expansive and radical than human law. But human law should conform to the moral law in so far as it is possible to enforce without doing more harm than good. And some aspects of the moral law are not humanly enforceable. Hence there will never be a human society that is governed wholly by the moral or eternal law.

Modern political thinkers in the 1600s shifted the legitimating basis of human law from moral and eternal law to a human agreement or contract made for mutual benefit. The fundamental principle in this theory is individual liberty, which can be limited only by the liberty of others. In 1860, John Stuart Mill put it this way: laws should allow maximum liberty and exclude only behaviors that cause harm to others. Or in the language of popular culture, “You should be able to do whatever you want as long as you don’t hurt anyone else.” Hence modern society recognizes no moral principle above human desire. An individual’s desires can be legitimately limited in law only by the desires of other individuals. Laws function to harmonize the conflict of desires.

Contemporary society accepts and builds on the modern understanding of the function of law, but it moves two steps further. (1) It transforms the legal principle of maximum liberty in pursuing desire into a moral principle. Originally, the principle of maximizing liberty was proposed as a rule for making laws. It was not proposed as a moral principle to bind and guide the conscience; for it had no advice about what is good and right. It was not concerned with virtue and vice but with harmful behaviors. But contemporary society views pursuing one’s desires and approving of others’ pursuit their desires as a moral duty or even a sacred duty. It is good and right to pursue whatever one desires as long as you celebrate as good and right whatever other people want to pursue. And if you disapprove of others’ choices you are violating your moral duty and have become a bad person deserving of condemnation. Unlike legislated law, which is limited to legal judgments about enforceable rules, morality is all-encompassing. Negative judgments can be made about the character and the otherwise legal behavior of others. One can show one’s moral disapproval in words and behaviors that are not illegal and do not have the force of law: protest, shunning, boycotts, and various forms of verbal “calling out.”

(2) The second step contemporary society takes beyond the original maximum liberty principle is this: after expanding the maximum liberty principle from the legal to moral sphere, contemporary society begins the process of reverse transferal. It is so outraged by the legal but “immoral” behavior of those who do not conform to its new morality that it demands that its morality be legislated into law. The quest for individual liberty circled around to become suppression of individual liberty. The very ones who protested so loudly against imposing morality on others now demand that their morality be imposed on everyone. What began as an effort to reduce the sphere covered by laws and increase private liberty has become the cry for more laws and less liberty. The protest against moralist and judgmental attitudes has become moralistic and judgmental. The limited legal sphere became the unlimited moral sphere, which returned as the unlimited legal sphere!

Conclusion

When a society founds itself on individual desire as its sacred principle and basic moral good, it has already set its trajectory toward failure. Human desire is unprincipled, omni-directional, and chaotic. Human beings in their curiosity can desire anything! Human desires conflict with each other and with the desires of others.  It should not be surprising, then, that contemporary people cannot engage in civil discussion about important topics, because, according to contemporary theory, all speech arises from and aims at fulfillment of individual desires.  Where there is no truth and reason is not honored, alliances are possible but agreements are not.

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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…