Does the cosmos have an inherent moral order? Are humans part of a natural law that governs everything from stars to plants to people? The answer given throughout much of Western history dating back to the Greeks is “yes.” This “yes” has provided the bedrock for guiding human moral life across centuries and, to this day, reaches into every corner of our lives from politics, religion, and jurisprudence, to marriage, family, sexual relations, and personal identity.
Two sources of moral authority typically have been identified: natural laws and positive laws. Natural laws are inherent in the natural order of the cosmos and, thus, also integral to human nature. Natural laws cannot be refuted, are not subject to legislative amendment, and carry intrinsic moral obligations for humans to “do right.” The Golden Rule is an example of a natural law. This contrasts with positive laws, which societies enact to maintain civil order. These laws are legislated or decreed, applicable locally, and make no inherent moral claim on individuals. Traffic laws are examples of positive laws.
The outlines of these distinctions between natural and positive laws have remained relatively constant throughout history. What has changed, and changed dramatically, is what is considered a natural law. This is pivotal. If there is little agreement on what they are, then the belief in a moral North Star to guide human affairs is upended. A brief review of the history of natural laws illuminates the wild fluctuations in this moral compass. And these wild fluctuations have mortal consequences: When groups disagree about natural laws, the Golden Rule is often the first casualty.
Greco-Roman Natural Order
Natural law begins with Greek and Stoic philosophers who held a pantheistic view of the cosmos, which they believed is animated by a primal Fire, a life-force organized by a universal rational order, Logos. This animating Fire-Logos is not a supernatural being, but an immanent force that pervades all things. Nature is God. All humans share this Fire or spark of life, possess an equal right to life, and are endowed with reason. The Logos that orders the cosmos is integral to human nature, and through learned or right reasoning, humans can grasp the natural laws that are the basis for our innate intuition of right and wrong.
Natural law was assumed to govern human life as well as the cosmos. What was considered natural in human affairs was closely tied to the presumed order of the existing culture. Hierarchy was the natural order in Ancient Greek and Roman cultures: Men were considered more capable of reasoning than women; barbarians (i.e., men), those who did not speak the language or possess citizenship, were inferior but could acquire the status of citizenship and be capable of right reasoning; and slaves were beneath all. Sexual relations was based on class and power. Sexual relations between men and other men and boys was condoned, as was promiscuous sex by men with their mistresses, slaves, and prostitutes, as long as the “natural” power relationships were preserved. The strictures on women were tied to their positions defined by their place within the patriarchal power structure. While all humans possess an equal right to life, the natural relations among humans were hierarchical.
Christian Moral Compass
As the West became Christianized, natural law became understood within a Christian theological framework. Aquinas has had the greatest influence on Christian theology, as his work in the 13th century is the foundation of contemporary Catholic theological doctrine that has profoundly shaped formulations of natural law for many centuries. Aquinas incorporated Greek assumptions into Christianity, arguing that the cosmos is ordered by a God-conferred rationality.1 Humans, innately endowed by God with the capacity for reason, can uncover the natural laws governing the cosmos, which also apply to human life and society. Reason, however, can sometimes be clouded in understanding the natural law. The Bible, which is the source of Divine Law, offers the path to clarity where reason falters.
Aquinas’ natural law was understood within his cultural context. Patriarchy is the natural order, decreed in Biblical text and practiced at every level of both the Church and secular culture. Sex is for procreation, so “unnatural”, sinful acts include masturbation, contraception, homosexuality, and “not observing the right manner of copulation.”2 Beliefs also are subjected to the sting of natural law, as harsh punishments are meted out to heretics.
Social hierarchy was the natural order; husbands rule over wives, fathers over children, master over slave: “For good order would have been wanting in the human family if some were not governed by others wiser than themselves.”3 Aquinas distinguishes two forms of slavery: economic and servile. Economic slavery, whereby the master economically benefits from the slave, was deemed unnatural and a sin. In contrast, servile, whereby slaves are governed for their own benefit, was considered part of the natural order.
These two views of slavery are present in our own history; abolitionists roiled against the sin of slavery, while slave owners claimed their slaves to be better off under their subjugation. This justification, disturbingly, is still used. Florida teaching standards, defended by Governor DeSantis, states ” slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.”
Aquinas’ Greek-influenced theology had far-reaching consequences. The Church-sanctioned belief that the cosmos is rationally ordered gave impetus to use reason to divine God’s natural laws. Science was born in the bosom of Aquinas’ natural laws. Almost all early scientists in the 16th and 17th century were deeply religious, seeking to fathom God’s rational order through investigations of the physical world.4
Opposition to Aquinas was swift, vociferous, and long-lasting. Outraged clerics argued that the Bible, the word of God, is the first, last, and only foundation of natural law. Reason has no place in discerning God’s cosmic order. Indeed, it is a dangerous threat to Christian belief. These warnings proved prophetic, as the natural laws of science became decoupled from religion and did, indeed, undermine the authority of Biblical text. Natural laws became Laws of Nature.5
Triumph of Death —Jan Brueghel the Elder
“Reason is the Devil’s whore.” This is Martin Luther’s response to Aquinas-inspired Church doctrines on natural laws. The Reformation was about many things, but at the center were disagreements about Biblical text and Church practices. Tens of millions died in centuries of warfare over Biblical disputes (i.e., transubstantiation—“Does the sacramental bread and wine actually transform into the body and blood of Christ, or is it a symbolic transformation?”). Murderous pogroms against heretics, massacres of those who held differing interpretations of Biblical texts, blood saturated grounds where entire populations were exterminated—all this and much more blunts the argument that the Bible is the basis for natural law. Whose Bible? What laws? The Golden Rule—for who? It also reveals that more than reason and the Golden Rule lurk in the dark recesses of Human Nature.
The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution carry this history into our present lives. The Founders, close readers of Greek and Stoic philosophy, declared that all men are created equal. The life-Fire of equality proclaimed by the Greco-Romans is echoed in this assertion. The Constitution does not mention God. The Declaration of Independence cites “Nature’s God”, “Creator”, and “Divine Provence.” Nature’s God? Yes. Biblical God? No. Not explicitly.
Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Madison, and Monroe were deists, and having witnessed the calamitous effects of religious wars among Christian sects, wanted to ensure that their new, revolutionary nation avoided these savage, internecine religious conflicts. Hence, the first Constitutional amendment in the Bill of Rights guarantees freedom of religion. James Madison, the principal author of the Constitution, understood that government sanction of a religion is a threat to religion when he stated: “Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other Religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other Sects?”6 Rights—life, liberty, pursuit of happiness, religious freedom, free speech, and the others contained in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution—are asserted to be unalienable, self-evident, natural laws.
Patriarchy, slavery, and the relegation of indigenous peoples to savages is also embedded in these documents, either explicitly or implied.7 But so is ambiguity. The framers of the Constitution included slave owners and abolitionists, and the compromises between them are lodged in the Constitution. Indeed, the arguments for and against slavery that precipitated the Civil War drew from both Biblical text and the Constitution. Each side fashioned arguments from these documents to claim that their moral principles were supported by natural law. “Liberty and Slavery—opposite as heaven and hell—are both in the Constitution”, remarked Frederick Douglass.8
The enduring struggle at the heart of our democracy is how should the Constitution be understood? What interpretation captures the “real” meaning? Slavery exposed the profound consequences of differing interpretations. Disputes about the proper way to plumb the meaning of the Constitution have moved away from trying to divine the natural law embodied in the document, to textualism (i.e., “What does the text mean?”), originalism (i.e., “What was the intent of those who drafted it?”), and pragmatism (i.e., “What is the optimal balance of political and economic outcomes?”) among others.
Until recently. Some current Supreme Court members have intimated that natural law, specifically natural law as understood within a Biblical context, should guide Constitutional interpretation. Abortion. Contraception. “Unnatural acts.” LGBTQ rights. Gay marriage. Racial justice. These issues have moved into the cross-hairs of judicial Christianized natural law.9
Cosmic Perspective of Cosmic Moral Order
The efforts for over two millennium to anchor jurisprudence in natural law is animated by our desperate need for certainty, to be assured that there are moral guideposts to help us as we grope our way in the darkness. The disputes over whether someone has the “natural right” to enslave another highlights just how windblown these guideposts are. We are but evanescent creatures, scurrying about on a cosmic dust mote amidst a vast, unfathomable universe, chanting local certainties arising from febrile visions, which we use to persecute each other. Cosmic moral order, indeed. . .