John Haas is the John Cardinal Krol Professor of Moral Theology at St. Charles Borremeo Seminary in Philadelphia. His article on Natural Law first appeared in "The Intercollegiate Review", Fall 1992.
Natural Law: The Outside Standard
Despite its abandonment, the natural law tradition continues to be the most useful methodology in a technological and pluralistic society since it simply looks to the nature of the human person for the formulation of moral propositions and is entirely open to any developments and insights within the natural sciences. The natural law tradition believes in an objective moral order and, consequently, holds that there are certain moral absolutes that ought never to be violated if one hopes to obtain personal wholeness or societal health. As Aristotle wrote: "There are some actions and emotions whose very names connote baseness, e.g., spite, shamelessness, envy; and among actions, adultery, theft, and murder. These and similar emotions and actions imply by their very names that they are bad... It is, therefore, impossible ever to do right in performing them: to perform them is always wrong. In cases of this sort, let us say adultery, rightness and wrongness do not depend on committing it with the right woman at the right time and in the right manner, but the mere fact of committing such action at all is to do wrong."
The same insight is evident in Abraham Lincoln's response to Stephen Douglas in their famous debate on slavery: "When Judge Douglas says that whoever, or whatever community, wants slaves, they have a right to have them, he is perfectly logical if there is nothing wrong in the institution; but if you admit that it is wrong, he cannot logically say that anybody has a right to do a wrong." Within the natural law tradition, certain acts are wrong not because they are forbidden, but because they are wrong - that is, because they do not conform or serve the good of the human person. In his debate with Douglas, Lincoln had to appeal to the precedence of morality over law, since the law at that time did not universally support his position against slavery. But where do these moral absolutes come from? From the nature of the human person and his world.
The natural law tradition holds that the driving motivation of human actions is not a Kantian sense of duty, but rather the pursuit of happiness, a sense of well-being that results from one's becoming more fully human by living in accord with one's own nature. It finds this motivation impelling every human act.
That which is most characteristic of human nature is rationality, the ability to see the purposefulness within one's own nature and to choose actions that enable one to achieve the ends or goals for which one is created. It might be argued that an ethic based on the pursuit of happiness quickly degenerates into some form of hedonism. However, the natural law tradition insists that although certain actions may appear to bring happiness they will ineluctably bring misery if they do not assist one in attaining those ends for which he was created. It is the belief in a created, intelligible order that prevents the natural law tradition from degenerating into subjectivism.
Consequently, it is never enough simply to appeal to human nature as such in the formulation of moral propositions within the natural law tradition. There must always be an appeal to human nature as created, a nature created for happiness in this world and ultimately in the world to come. If human nature is not created, it has no purposefulness, no intelligible ends that may be reasonably sought in human behavior and fostered through social legislation.
A thing has its nature bestowed upon it by its Creator. A pen has a nature because it was created as such, and its nature can be understood in terms of the purpose for which it was created. If there is to be a revitalization of the natural law tradition to assist contemporary society in dealing with ever new moral challenges, it must be one that is faithful to the tradition in its fullness. This means acknowledging, as a minimum, that there is a Creator who has bestowed both worth and meaning on human creatures.
Since Communism was based on atheistic premises, it denied that there was such a thing as human nature. If Communism's premise was correct, then so was its conclusion - there was no human nature. Consequently, Communist countries themselves attempted to create man, the "Socialist man," and were prepared to use any means at their disposal, since nothing violated a non-existent human nature! Without a human nature, there could be no such thing as human rights. The logic is inexorable. The consequences are grotesque. In the same way, a secularized technological society that ignores the natural law can be just as dangerous to human flourishing as was any Communist regime.
The Sacredness of Life
At the center of the natural law tradition is the inviolability of the individual person - created in the image and likeness of God, from whom he receives his true worth. It cannot be stated in strong enough terms, that a respect for the inviolability of the person is the necessary starting-point for formulating moral propositions to deal with current developments in medicine and technology. One cannot formulate in advance what moral positions ought to be constructed to deal with specific cases presented by technological developments. But the very nature of the individual person provides the source of moral reflection. The right of the individual to personal integrity will lead to the moral norms governing issues of privacy and confidentiality in an age of electronic data gathering and storage. The inherent nature of man and woman who each produce gametes of 23 chromosomes, the joining of which will give rise to a new human life of 46 chromosomes, provides what is necessary for formulating principles to order human relationships, to govern the social institution of marriage, to regulate the births of children, to overcome the problem of infertility, and to deal with a host of other contemporary moral conundrums. The inviolability of the innocent person will provide guidance for the formulation of policies dealing with "life issues" ranging from feeding comatose patients to waging war and inflicting capital punishment.
The moral dilemmas arising from the mind-boggling advances in medicine and technology do not admit of easy, simplistic solutions. But they are not insoluble. We as a people have the cultural and moral resources to address these questions in a humane and reasonable manner because we draw on a tradition, a tradition of natural law that has served human goods in vastly different cultural contexts successfully, precisely because it respects humanity as a divine creation. As Americans, we are especially fortunate to have it within our own national tradition. In our own founding documents, we acknowledge the "laws of nature and nature's God" and hold "these truths to be self evident: that all men are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, and among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." This tradition stands ready to serve us as a people if only we will draw upon it.