About the Ethics of Natural Law
Tibor R. Machan
My task here isn?t to defend certain moral principles, ideals, or virtues
but to explore why the natural law approach to ethics makes sense. The
idea has been receiving a bad press and for reasons that should not go
unchallenged. (One criticism comes from famous Harvard Law Professor Alan
Dershowitz, in his recent book, Rights from Wrongs [Harvard University
The idea of ?natural law? calls to mind for many people principles that
the various sciences identify within?and engineers use to control?nature.
And since most principles like that hold invariably, without fail?if it?s
a law of nature, it must always be operating, there is no escaping it?the
suggestion that ethics is part of natural law seems implausible. After
all, a crucial aspect of ethics is that one can choose either to follow or
to disobey it. So if natural laws are invariable, hold all the time,
ethics couldn?t be about natural law, given how it involves choice. Or so
the critics argue.
But there is a misunderstanding afoot here. Sciences do not prescribe how
laws of nature must operate?they must discover, not dictate that. If per
chance there is something in the world that involves free choice, so be
it. Science cannot rule that out, anymore than it can rule out black swans
or flying fish. These may be odd but not impossible and, indeed, science
has discovered them to be real.
Now human beings seem clearly to have free will, to be able to make
choices. As I write I have a choice about whether to continue or to get up
and have a sandwich or watch some TV instead. We all can make such
choices, nearly always except when we have chosen to go to sleep for a
while and but ourselves on hold, as it were, or when something puts us out
of commission. The very idea that someone is wrong about something?for
example, that I am wrong about free will?assumes that I can choose.
Critics assume that I might?and should?have chosen to be right!
Given at least the strong possibility that human beings are free to
choose how they will conduct themselves, at least within certain limits,
how would natural law apply to them? How would it apply to aspects of
their lives over which they have control, where they can choose?
The answer is that given the kind of beings we are, some things are more
likely to help us in living our lives, including among other human beings,
and some things will hinder this. Such ideas can be understood as natural
laws, as these pertain to human living. But we are not compelled to follow
them?that is something we have to choose. Not that the choices we make
will not have highly likely consequences. If we violate the laws of our
nature, we are most likely to fail at living well, properly; if we follow
them, it?s likely that we will succeed at living well, as is fit for a
human being. And exactly what that will be is a difficult thing to
tell?that?s is what ethics or morality tries to figure out. What courses
of conduct are the laws of our being? we might put it. Natural law ethics
takes these as laws because they regularly hold for us and if we violate
them, we will experience adversities, whereas if we obey them this will
help us get ahead in our human lives. (This is all akin to the laws of
medicine or nutrition.)
The content of natural law is, of course, controversial?does our nature
require us to be honest, prudent, generous, courageous, decent or what
have you? Or something else? Or doesn?t it matter one way or the
other?does our nature make it possible for us to behave whichever way
strikes our fancy? These are tough issues and here I am not addressing
What is important to recognize is that when one speaks of natural laws
with respect of how we ought to act, it is not about how we will
necessarily act?as that would be with the natural laws governing the
behavior of rocks or fish?but about how we ought to choose to act. Still,
they are natural laws because whether we choose to obey them, whatever
they may be, will have serious and predictable consequences.
This, by the way, is also why in the field of jurisprudence or legal
theory, the natural law tradition champions certain principles to be
included in sound constitutional law. That?s because only if those
principles of basic law are indeed expressions of natural law will they
guide those in human communities to conduct themselves properly.